Review: Clarkesworld #138

Clarkesworld #138, March 2018

“Tool-Using Mimics” by Kij Johnson (2200 words)
“The Persistence of Blood” by Juliette Wade (mundane secondary world novella)
“Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence” by Izzy Wasserstein (science fantasy short story)
“The No-One Girl and the Flower of the Farther Shore” by E. Lily Yu (fantasy short story)

Number 138 is a very unusual issue of Clarkesworld, reading almost like there was a black hole of science fantasy athwart February and March which shredded BCS from its fantasy moorings and Clarkesworld from its science fictional foundations. There is also a giant mass within this issue itself, as “The Persistence of Blood” is a 26,000 word novella (much larger than last month’s) orbited by a Phobos and Deimos and “X”os of the other three very short stories.

Taking “Blood” first, until “screens” and a skimmer suddenly appear near the very end, it’s only clear that we are not on Earth and the translated 19th Century English milieu feels more like fantasy despite nothing supernatural occurring. There is something wrong with the upper classes and they must breed their women to death to preserve the Race. Selemei has had five children and nearly died from the last one. Another famous lady has died. Selemei puts it into her husband’s head that they should pass a law allowing women who have nearly died to “retire” from breeding. Events transpire which make the passage of such a scandalous bill even more difficult and require her to take a more active hand despite it not being a woman’s place.

There are some good qualities to this piece and many problems. First, this is a novella by length and can’t be expected to have a novel’s worth of subplots and characters but, at least if it’s not going to have an action-oriented plot and elements of speculative excitement, it must have more than a short story’s worth and doesn’t. There are seemingly hundreds of names and dozens of figures but only at most two characters and really only one. There may be innumerable details to the society and some off-stage subplots but there is only a single “through-line” of a single perspective. That and the essentially familiar background (which is simultaneously cluttered with confusing secondary world details) and the dated theme make the initial stages extremely dull and I expect many readers will not persevere. If they do, they may find that there’s a vague taste of Cherryh, that Selemei is a fairly good character and her family is sympathetic, that the society does have some interesting details, that the “events” I mentioned above are effectively emotionally handled, and that the story does effectively convey how taboos and conventions can shackle minds and lives. Even then, I doubt many will be satisfied with a story which rightly decries a lack of sexual freedom but seems bizarrely content with its milieu’s extreme classism and which painstakingly details every step of its way, down to the undressing and examination and redressing of a doctor’s visit, only to have an “it’s the middle of the tale, but we may now envision the end” sort of ending. Some will love this, I don’t doubt but, if it doesn’t sound thrilling to you, you can safely steer clear. (If you want a much shorter and more entertaining version of the “cutting edge” core of this story, I recommend a 1972 Loretta Lynn composition which was released in 1975.)

The rest of the tales were less significant. “Tool-Using Mimics” is neither a story nor speculative but is a pile of “maybe, perhaps” sections of feminist-sea-creature metaphors. “Unplaces” is an SF/F mix which has an Anne Frank-figure hiding from the fascists in Kansas while its “Imaginary Anthropology” sometimes makes imaginary places real though it doesn’t always keep real places from becoming imaginary. “The No-One Girl” is a fantasy which decries the veil of Maya/vanity of Ecclesiastes and takes a larger perspective after a boy steals the flower the title character was going to use to win a prize.


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.

Review: Clarkesworld #136

Clarkesworld #136, January 2018

“A World to Die For” by Tobias S. Buckell (science fiction novelette)
“Say It Low, Then Loud” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (science fiction short story)
“Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts (science fiction short story)
“A Cigarette Burn in Your Memory” by Bo Balder (science fiction short story)

For the second issue in a row, Clarkesworld hits us with an almost solid blast of misery, albeit with a greater variety of kinds of misery than the last issue (but with perhaps more thematic repetition).

The best story in the issue is “Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts. Ghost, Flash, and Whisper (as they call each other) are residents of the Agency for the Care of Unassociated Female Minors when the new girl, Brenda (who becomes “Princess”) arrives. All but Princess have had their memories erased, which aims at reducing their trauma or previous inclination towards bad behavior and making them more acceptable to foster parents, but doesn’t really work. It does, however, lead to a great deal of envy of Princess and a really twisted ending. The story is smoothly constructed and delivered with power and much of it rings true, though it’s extremely bleak and, ironically, given Ghost’s plight, there’s not a lot to love.

For the other original stories, “A Cigarette Burn in Your Memory” is another take on memory/identity and makes me think “Those who do not remember Memento are condemned to rewrite it.” The basis is entirely different (and an unusual take on one of the most common SF themes) but the post-its are about the same. However, this story isn’t plausibly presented and doesn’t actually do anything and I didn’t enjoy it like I did Memento. “Say It Low, Then Loud” deals less with memory but still with identity and seems to be about a guy who feels that war, however horrible, is his only real option until the internal conflict spills over. I don’t know if there’s a problem with English here or if this is intentional style but, either way, it’s very hard to read and there’s no plot or action but just a free-form rant. “A World to Die For” is yet another story partly about identity and is the most frustrating story of the issue. It raises an interesting point about alternate worlds or histories hinging, not on national politics or Great Men, but on more systemic global issues but buries this in a story that opens like a Mad Max movie or a Deathlands book and closes like an outright sermon and is almost ten thousand words of second-person present tense.

Review: Clarkesworld #135

Clarkesworld #135, December 2017

Cover of Clarkesworld #135

“The Rains on Mars” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fiction short story)
“Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell (science fiction short story)
“Falling in Love with Martians and Machines” by Josh Pearce (science fiction novelette)
“Darkness, Our Mother” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fiction short story)
“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw (science fiction short story)

I’d had it in my head that Clarkesworld was one of my favorite zines or at least in the upper half but this has been a weird year. A handful of stories have been superb to me and some of those are among the year’s best but the vast majority have been anything but. Alas, this issue is more of the vast majority, though your mileage may vary. In this particular issue, every single story is very dark (and not in the fun way), most are heavily overwritten, and most are fantasy or mainstream in SF’s clothing.

“The Rains on Mars” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fiction short story)

A miner whose brother was killed due to the miner’s debts has become an insane wreck and gotten another mining job far away to try to escape his past. “Far away” is “Mars,” which is all the SF you’re gonna get out of this. Might as well be mining in Arizona. In that “faux SF” regard, it is similar to “The Nightingales in Platres” by the same author in an earlier issue of the same magazine.

This story is so monotonously mawkish and the protagonist is such a passive puddle of nothing and the story is so simple that there’s really nothing to get out of this.

I’m to be sent back to Earth. On my own dime, too. Only fair. To do what? Ray can’t answer that, and neither can I, because who knows, and who cares.


“Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell (science fiction short story)

This is a border crossing story (equal parts Chicago, Korea, and Styx) where the protagonist makes her way through the “Love Life”rs (who hate those they see as anti-life) to the “Newbody” folks (who seem to be personalities uploaded into robots). She delivers a big revelation at the end.

This is an oddly confusing story considering that the gist is easy to get because it’s so conventional. The twist at the end actually makes the story worse, leading to a kind of emotionally and practically vacuous conclusion. This tale is also a lot like the author’s earlier “The Three Lives of Sonata James” in a different magazine, except not as good.

“Falling in Love with Martians and Machines” by Josh Pearce (science fiction novelette)

The protagonist of this story reminds me of Sondra Locke’s Lynn Halsey-Taylor from Every Which Way but Loose. And instead of good-hearted brawler Philo Beddoe, you get a version of her “pimp”ly guy who is a cyborg racer as the male lead. And instead of any efforts at humor, you get more malaise. But the pointlessness of the plot remains. Basically, there’s a war of some kind on and the world is made up of military cyborgs and racer cyborgs who, for whatever reason, couldn’t cut it as military. So this pseudo-hooker with a heart of stone and her guy du jour are cruising around making money from races so they can go to more races and make more money, with loftier goals someday. And then the Martian ladies arrive and things take a right turn, Clyde.

There’s no one to like here and no plot to get involved in and the milieu and tech are so obliquely revealed and inexplicably motivated as to be meaningless in any literal sense. At least the word-by-word prose is fairly direct (which is true of only this and “Crossing LaSalle” in this issue).

(I can’t find the original Neo Tokyo/“Running Man” anime of a futuristic, nihilistic car race but it would be better to watch it (adapted here into the video to a song) than to read this. To be fair, only a key scene and some of the theme in this story seem almost identical to the animation but the anime is much better done and more interesting. And shorter.)

“Darkness, Our Mother” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fiction short story)

A woman lays a trap for a man in a labyrinth but things don’t go as planned.

I don’t know which is less likely: that Minoans had starflight or that Minoan society was accidentally recreated on an alien world, but those seem to be the options. The landscape (“planet”) of this tale is called “Cemar,” the Labyrinth is called the “Womb” and is a relic of a spaceship, and the casting of magic spells is described as “I have woven a thread of hypercomplex numbers that can copy the prince’s likeness…”) which are the only reasons I can see for this being in Clarkesworld rather than BCS. It’s ultimately a rhapsody on vengeance and is about as appealing as that sounds. No Aeschylean ascension to a concept of the Eumenides here.

“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw (science fiction short story)

This uses some confusingly presented form of proxy bodies and space travel as metaphors for depressing romantic relationships in a painfully overwritten 1600 words which feel like 16,000 but would only require 160 if not for the logorrhea.


The word hangs between us, a dead satellite in the nothing, its belly gravid with stillborn dialogue. I want to ask you what I’d missed, the minutiae of simply existing, each day in sequence, no variegation in their consumption. Already, I’ve forgotten if it’s been a week, a day, a year since we’ve spoken, if this conversation is prior to the last, if it is years after. The cartography of your features remain unchanged. It cannot have been that long.

Rec: “Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel

Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel, Clarkesworld #132 September 2017, SF short story

The title refers to the perhaps central protagonist of this tale. That protagonist has been exiled from her community of galactic sentiences because, being young and headstrong, she disagrees with the plan to turn the galaxy into a black hole. (Arthur Dent had similar, if smaller, problems.) So she’s herded out to the ass end of the galaxy and chained to an insignificant star where she notices some monkeys on the third rocky thing orbiting it and, after amusing herself by pocketing the rock’s moon, there follows a very strange tale, from dizzying heights, of her monkey contact and its galactic and greater-than-galactic consequences.

This is a story where the heresy of paraphrase really applies. Everything about the synopsis is true enough in its way but really does nothing to convey the casual scale and calm frenzy of this tale or the way it dives into part of the core of SF and makes it new. (This includes the idea that the vast universe contains a tiny lump of gray matter which contains that universe, as well as the one expressed by this great line (don’t click it until you’ve read the story).) Granted, the names of the characters may seem off-putting and/or gimmicky but they do at least serve to emphasize the remoteness of the beings. Basically, this story makes your head bigger and your mood lighter and the author entertains like a magician with something of substance up his sleeve.

Rec: “Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace, Clarkesworld July 2017, SF novelette

The cons of this story are that it’s a tired post-apocalyptic tale; that it’s an unsurprisingly unrelievedly bleak story for the bulk of it; and that, while there’s something to be said for concise endings, this was a bit too compressed. The pros are that it’s a near-perfect exercise in narrative voice and the naive narrator, using an apparently “slow” child as the window into this world; that it tackles its triteness with gusto, as though such post-apocalyptic stories weren’t trite; and that, even as a longer story, it reads quickly (allowing for a slight drag in the middle when the bleakness needs some variation).

So, yes, it’s a story in which the girl and her mother are off to visit the king of a nearby place so that mom can torture people for that king. On the way back, they are seized by the scavengers of the wasteland and it gradually becomes clear that this is a post-apocalyptic earth (or post-apocalyptic, anyway) and that the girl has slight mental challenges and is quite a charming person despite being the child of a torturer (who, herself, seems to be a fairly good mother, all things considered). Once put on the chain gang to scavenge for pre-apocalypse treasure/junk in collapsed buildings, we get to the pivot of the story which isn’t entirely surprising but is appealing.

If I read such a synopsis, I wouldn’t be interested, myself, but it’s all in the telling and in the characterization and I recommend it for that.

(I usually save such things for the monthly summations but I’ll go ahead and mention that Robert Reed’s “The Significance of Significance” gets an honorable mention though its ontological relativism (a facet of which has long interested me) makes me queasy and its “we all live in a yellow VR machine” is tired. Further, if Larson didn’t seem to be stuck writing the same SF/horror story over and over, “Travelers” would probably have gotten that, too. Finally, Balder’s “The Bridgegroom” was another familiar post-apocalyptic tale but was readable even so. Overall, this issue of Clarkesworld was pretty good.)

Rec: “Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak

Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak, Clarkesworld June 2017, SF novelette

A woman hunting a war criminal gets stranded on a planet with nothing but her drone swarm, the planet’s strange psychoactive alien lifeform, and her prey. Nothing goes as planned and nothing survives unchanged.

While calling this a “sympathy for the devil” story may be a bit much, it is at least a remarkable “let he who is without sin” story. It is perhaps overly reminiscent of things like Alastair Reynolds’ “Turquoise Days” and even Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” except that it is less adroit than either of those tales. It’s also reminiscent of other works I’ve read by Dudak, himself, but is more adroit than those. It’s extremely interesting on both intellectual and emotional levels and feels like genuine science/speculative fiction. It’s an unsettling, uncomfortable read in a good way and I appreciate its lack of self-righteousness and its blending of the thematic focus with an actual dramatic focus and how it wrests such a large scope out of such a seemingly small structure. In sum, a piece worth a solid recommendation.

(It’s also a relief to find something noteworthy in Clarkesworld again. After a strong start to the year, it’s basically been without interest until this story. I look forward to the rest of the issue. Also, since I’ve already read the stories released by the weeklies, bi-weeklies, and other monthlies so far this month, once I finish it and Compelling I’ll be caught up.)