Review: Clarkesworld #137

Clarkesworld #137, February 2018

“Deep Down in the Cloud” by Julie Novakova (science fiction short story)
“Obliteration” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
“Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (science fiction novella)

This month, as is usually the case, features a translation and two reprints which I didn’t read. I had previously read Pat Cadigan’s “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi,” which I highly recommend, as it’s one of my favorite stories by one of my favorite short fiction writers.

Turning to the original fiction, there are two short stories which both start strong and fall, well, short, though neither is trivial.

Deep Down in the Cloud” involves a three -member team attacking an underwater data center of the corporation which dominates a dystopian Earth after unprecedented solar storms wreck our technological infrastructure. There are some oddities in word choice and sentence construction but the underwater milieu is evoked effectively. The best thing about this story is its smoothly, clearly framed structure, however the outer frame with the protagonist leads to expectations that are not met as she really has little to do in this story. Further, I have a hard time believing a corporation’s data center could be so easily breached or that it would have much effect even so.

Obliteration” is reminiscent of 50s (or very early 60s) stories which take a technological gimmick and display its funhouse mirror societal effects through the prism of a family or couple (such as Leiber’s “The Creature from the Cleveland Depths”) and this couple is specifically reminiscent of phildickian dysfunction. In this one, people are virtually amnesiac when it comes to their “wet-memories” because they have embedded (and off-site) memory recording devices which record more virtual experiences than physical. When cosmic rays and a neglected patch all seem to conspire to wreck eleven years of the unpleasant protagonist’s memories, he sees his unpleasant wife with fresh eyes. He even attends a sort of Memoryholics Anonymous meeting while contemplating abandoning memory recording altogether. Then an ending is pulled out of a hat and I’m not really sure what the story’s intent with it is. Like “Deep Down in the Cloud” only less so, this was mildly interesting through most of its course, but didn’t ultimately leave me with much.

The story in this issue which does not fall short is a rare web novella. “Umbernight” is falling on the colony world of Dust as a supply shipment from the homeworld is due to complete its generations-long journey. The homeworld was riven by religious faction and a group of rationalists decided to break away but Dust’s “rationalism” has become a sort of dogma of its own, with generational tension between the older and younger colonists. Dust is an inhospitable world because, unknown to the first generation of settlers who were almost wiped out, a second star sometimes bathes the planet in lethal radiation when its obscuring dust cloud temporarily parts. Michiko (“Mick”) is a loner and explorer who returns just in time to be brought into the small expedition going to retrieve the supply shipment. What follows is structured as the classic quest tale which turns into the harrowing fight for survival when the half-dozen people learn that they don’t really know anything about the planet they inhabit.

The protagonist is complex and somewhat likeable, if not lovable. The other characters (including the dog) are varied and well-drawn. While I’m not especially sympathetic to a partially anti-rational message, the viewpoints and issues are illustrated well and the ending (which I was constantly worried would not live up to the story’s bulk) is nicely crafted. But probably the most important things that make this a fantastic read are the clear, straight-ahead plot set in a wildly imaginative and continually surprising and enthralling setting that is anything but a ball of “dust.” Be sure to set aside plenty of time to finish this because, if you’re anything like me, you won’t want to stop reading this gripping and terrifyingly wondrous tale.

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