Review: Clarkesworld #153, June 2019

Clarkesworld #153, June 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “The Painter of Trees” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction short story)
  • “Erdenweh” by Bo Balder (science fiction short story)
  • “Said of Angels” by Eric Del Carlo (science fiction novelette)
  • “Bonobo” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “Field Mice” by Andy Dudak (science fiction short story)

It was the best of issues, it was the worst of issues. It feels like two entirely different magazines collided.

The Painter of Trees” is ideologically impeccable and is hereby stamped with the Party’s approval. An evil imperialist running dog goes out to the word-for-world-is-forest in an effort to understand the art of one of the last natives. This is done from an attitude of towering arrogance and fails. The imperialists believe they are Forward Thinking in their genocide of the pathetic natives and this succeeds. The narrative is bifurcated (with one from first person (semi-second) and another from third) which meets the required element of Narrative Deconstruction and also sets up the Big Surprise Ending. Alas, what this will be is obvious for miles but such technical imperfections are irrelevant when the message is so pure.

The patient of a psychiatrist on a colonial world has suffered from “Erdenweh” and joined a wave of suicides, so the psychiatrist sets out to find out why. This might produce something like a heart-wrenching and/or exciting detective tale but the victim is a non-entity, the protagonist is little more, and the “plot” involves her wandering around asking questions of various experts, databases, and misnamed “AIs.” It’s frustrating because, while not original, it deals with an actual science fictional situation (what issues might be encountered when decanting test-tube babies to populate a new world?) but is fictionally deficient (and not a little off-putting). Does this sound like an adult psychiatrist who is having difficulty sleeping?

Finally, she padded to her closet and dug up her last resort, an old teddy bear from the Creche, vacuum sealed so it wouldn’t lose any of its powerful scent. She zipped the seal open and inhaled the smells rising from Teddy’s filthy fur. Sweat, snot, tears, general dirt, struck matches, maybe a hint of vomit.

In the “Bonobo” episode of Future Family, one of the three kids decides to change her species which is used as the jumping-off point to cover a little back-story and a lot of succeeding events in the lives of the family members with an ironic, almost punk “love comes in spurts” acknowledgement, if not endorsement, that things will keep on keeping on.

Said of Angels” takes us to what is likely the far future, in which a galaxy-wide Cooperation, made up of five Mights and lesser groups, has arisen. The most influential spiritual leader in the galaxy is the Arch Hierophant, Brophtoc Mmurn Dol. The crux of the story is that there is a prophecy about, and signs pointing to, the arrival of Redmarch, an apocalyptic galactic war. The key to this involves the Hierophant’s decision about whether Valduk Tyn, a prophet from a since-defunct backwater planet who preached a familiar and unsophisticated version of a common message, was divine. After meeting an ambassador from a newly contacted Earth, the Hierophant feels he has a way forward.

The color and detail of the backdrop of this tale is reminiscent of good ol’ science fiction such as the Foundation series and others (“others,” especially, with its multiplicity of aliens not found in the Foundation universe). This was delightful to me and will likely blow newer readers’ minds though it was arguably over-emphasized. The ecumenical spirituality was interesting and the character of Dol is well-drawn. The nuance and twists of the plot were also well-done. Alas, the plot and scale (both internally and in wordage) is part of why I can’t fully recommend it. A story like this feels like it ought to be a meditative tale of few words or an action-packed, elaborately-plotted long story. Instead, this is a meditative novelette with little action and, despite an elaborate back-story “plot,” little foreground plot. It’s still definitely an ambitious story with excellent elements and worth noting.

The story I do recommend, despite some reservations, is “Field Mice.” The environment has grown worse and familiar political structures have collapsed. Technology continues apace, however. Metropotamia is a Soviet-like state which believes in Discontinuity and is partly run by uploaded minds which believe that they have always been discontinuous and so, somewhat paradoxically, will be no different after having their minds destructively scanned and uploaded. In a cold war with them are the Sylvanians who have a theocratic form of population control and believe in the continuity of the soul and the irrelevance of the uploaded “copies.” The plot involves a Sylvanian spy, who has become a double agent, dealing with the capture of a true Sylvanian agent who may or may not know his secret. The sort of backwater cop in charge is threatening the agent with an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” sort of computer hell as the tale opens and a philosophically charged, paranoia-laden spy thriller follows.

A lot of this is very familiar but it is so deftly exposed and deeply thought and felt that it seems fresh. The combination of thought and action is perfect for this reader and very, very hard to find in contemporary SF. My only problems with the tale are that yet a third spy is way too talkative in an almost “Bond-villain” sense and that the concluding sequence is perhaps too fragmented but these are basically quibbles about an exciting and engaging story.

–Almost forgot: I again wanted to note Carrie Sessarego’s non-fiction contribution. “Love at Stake” deals with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, improbably, I again dislike the penultimate paragraph and think Buffy is far more than a romance, but thought the article was stimulating. I don’t especially agree that, in later seasons, “the show becomes less obviously metaphorical and more about its own mythology” but absolutely agree that the series “is at its best when her connections to people are strongest and at its worst when she starts to actually believe that maybe she is really alone (see: Season Six).” Ugh. Season six. But, as a maniacal fan of seasons 1-3 (and even 4-5), I commend this article to everyone’s attention.