Review: Clarkesworld #143

Clarkesworld #143, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Veilonaut’s Dream” by Henry Szabranski (science fiction short story)
  • “The Anchorite Wakes” by R.S.A. Garcia (science fiction short story)
  • “Kingfisher” by Robert Reed (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson (fantasy novelette)

In “Privilege,” Ada and her talking chicken (and a damned fierce talking chicken it is) are driven from their home by the ravening horde of little monsters that periodically ravage the English countryside in the 12th century. Will they survive? Can anything be done about the nasty critters?

If someone were to intentionally write a story that would appeal to me less, they’d have their work cut out for them. This is a near-novella of a medieval fairy tale fantasy with an intrusive narrator  who constantly addresses the reader to talk about the storyness of the story while the sometimes archaic main narration uses a dozen words when one would do. However, none of this is unintentional and this sort of story does appeal to some so, if the meandering middle and handwaving ending doesn’t interfere, they might enjoy it. (Weird note: the start of the final action scene put me in mind of Aliens with a Chicken Ripley.)

Moving to the other novelette without escaping a fantasy feel, “Kingfisher” is a similar “short story in long story’s wordage,” so to speak. This takes the fun out of everything: a 700-word infodump a third into the story establishes that it’s set on a hyperfiber Beltrami pseudosphere starship which uses the cosmos for fuel (in the widest sense) in a striking way but this great setting is used to wander about with a feeble post-human sub who is slowly chasing after his repugnant “post-er-human” dom after they got separated a few zillion years ago. The whole thing feels like a middle with even less of an end than a beginning and with no characters to care about.

Anchorite” is a pseudo-Catholic science fantasy in which Sister Nadine is doing her hallucinatory religious things when she meets the Magic Child who is suffering domestic abuse before things absurdly transform into cosmic AI war. Though it has a science fictional kernel, the withholding of the nature of what’s going on, coupled with its muddy, unrealistic narrative approach makes it feel like fantasy and it essentially is.

Madeleine is a “Veilonaut,” or one who explores a veil-like rift in space beyond Pluto. Machines effectively fail to enter this veil (presumably because it’s dependent on a possibly naive version of the QM observer effect, which plays into the conclusion) so humans must explore it (fruitlessly so far) at great risk to themselves with people regularly “cut” or “lost” when the veil shifts: if they are partly in and partly out, they are chopped in two and, if all in, never return to the solar system. She’s a lucky one, being a veteran of many trips, but knows her luck may run out, especially when one of her two companions makes inauspicious comments before this story’s trip.

At first, I was thinking this was going to have to be really great to have any merit compared to Rogue Moon or even “Diamond Dogs” or any number of other contrived semi-magical “death machine stories” or Gateway with its similar lottery-like exploratory aspect but, even though it wasn’t great, it did end up seeming at least noteworthy for its clean, realistic narrative approach to its fuzzy subject matter and for effectively conveying the emotions involved in what happens with this trip’s complications.


Review: Clarkesworld #142

Clarkesworld #142, July 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Gubbinal” by Lavie Tidhar (science fiction short story)
  • “A Gaze of Faces” by Mike Buckley (science fiction novelette)
  • “The James Machine” by Kate Osias (science fiction short story)
  • “For What Are Delusions if Not Dreams?” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (science fiction short story)

Perhaps the most accessible short story is the adequate science fictional romance story “The James Machine” which, aside from being four times too long, feels like a Flash Fiction Online story. A dying husband and his wife try to make an AI emulation of the husband and she decides that, if you love someone, you must get them free will. The somewhat less accessible “Gubbinal” is set on Titan and features a woman who is hunting for artifacts left by Boppers (sentient, organic-like machines) when she comes across an injured Ermine (a person modified to live on Titan and other worlds without mechanical aid) and they both set off to explore until pirates have other ideas. This underplotted tale, which seems to be a small piece of a larger story, also seems to want to combine Rudy Rucker and Wallace Stevens in ways not entirely clear to me, but it was interesting. The least accessible, most perplexing short was “For What Are Delusions if Not Dreams?” which deals with a human being treated like an element of a computer or an element of a computer being something like a human. Either way, it would seem to be a metaphor for individual humans caught in the inhuman emergent System of modern society. It’s much softer and quieter than an Ellison story but appropriate that, after his death, it’s reminiscent of such tales as “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

The novelette, “A Gaze of Faces,” is another example of the stories particularly focused on the cognitive estrangement and dark, unpleasant moods that Clarkesworld is especially fond of. It probably slots near “Gubbinal” in disorientation and near “Delusions” in dark mood. This was the strongest tale of the issue in many ways but had some significant weaknesses. The “estrangement” is produced from simple inversion. The story opens with undefined terms: “I was sixteen when the viz came. The spiral went crazy for a while, shooting, soldiers at the corners.” Then “viz” and “spiral” and the other layers of confusion are basically “de-estranged” by unspooling a series of simple infodumps interspersed with good action scenes. On top of that, the infodumps teeter on the edge of two different connotations of “incredible,” almost leading to a sense of wonder as they expand the scope of the story and its depth of time but almost leading to a sense of ridiculousness as well. Ultimately, the background seems to fall to the latter sense. So now that I’ve begun without a synopsis, I’ll infodump it: on an essentially uninhabitable world, a “vault diver” pokes around in the remnant VR system of the colonial starship and “spiral” of a habitat that was built from it, looking for things of value. He’s tasked with training a young girl and, together, they discover something of importance which changes their understanding of their history and worlds. The numinous alien facehuggers they all live with are quite creepy (though also a plausibility problem) and the brutal, violent, decayed civilization they inhabit is powerfully portrayed. Without seeming to do much to achieve it, the main characters are appealing enough. It’s just that the deep background which produces this powerful foreground doesn’t work. It’s an “honorable mention once removed,” so to speak.

Review of Clarkesworld #141 for Tangent

This issue of Clarkesworld includes three novelettes (one approaching novella length) and two short stories (one approaching flash brevity). They feature robots (with or without AI), magic aliens and post-humans, and surrealism. While this issue is not wall-to-wall depression and dystopia, only one of the stories comes close to being light on its feet. Or foot.

Full review at Tangent: Clarkesworld #141, June 2018.

Review: Clarkesworld #140

Clarkesworld #140, May 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “A Vastness” by Bo Balder (science fantasy short story)
  • “Not Now” by Chelsea Muzar (science fantasy short story)
  • “Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan (science fiction novelette)

Yoshi is chasing “A Vastness” of Guardians (like a school of space fish) in a slow spaceship and it will take extreme measures to keep up with them to continue studying them. She initially wanted to implement her crazy plan herself but “she’d realized in order to acquire that Nobel prize, she’d have to be the person publishing the research, not the one dying in the attempt,” so she tries to get others to go before finally having to go herself, after all. So far as I could believe this character (not very) I didn’t like her and I couldn’t believe any of the people around her. I also couldn’t believe any scientific expedition would be so unplanned until developing a crazy one. Finally, the Guardians are basically like Tim Zahn’s Warhorses, only less interesting, and the ending is a movie we’ve all seen.

In “Not Now,” a girl’s room has been destroyed because a robot arm fell on it from space. Reporters are camped outside and people chant against them (and former best friends throw eggs at the girl) because they’re “Pro-Ro” and deserve this. The parents are distant, disturbed, and disturbing. The kid’s going to cover up the hole in her room with a banner but it won’t stick. The surrealism just kind of meanders to a halt. Meanwhile you get things like, “Mom reminds me of the waiting people at the mall … worrying that the person they’re waiting for will never come. Their impatience and fear hardens around them like a thin chocolate coating. It makes them unapproachable.” Are we supposed to find chocolate unapproachable or people who are impatient and afraid delicious?

This is a strange issue because those two stories and the next are not, to partly quote Jules Winnfield, even playing the same sport. Senne is “Fleeing Oslyge” after the invasion of her world of NyHem by the Tysthand. Nobody’s quite sure what the Tysthand (“Peace Hands”) are but they fight dirty, using projections and human traitors against the soldiers and populace. Senne takes up with a handful of soldiers on a harrowing journey to a stronghold, during which she feels nearly as afraid of some of her companions as the enemy. The overarching concept is familiar and the primary plot revelation isn’t all that surprising but the tale is well-constructed and very well written, always keeping things moving and interesting while being very dark and gritty without being overdone. Can’t say I’d ultimately take the same road as the very believable protagonist because I think you need both angles but she has her reasons. Good stuff.

Review: Clarkesworld #139

Clarkesworld #139, April 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Carouseling” by Rich Larson
  • “Without Exile” by Eleanna Castroianni
  • “Violets on the Tongue” by Nin Harris
  • “Logistics” by A.J. Fitzwater

Number 139 is entirely composed of short stories, all nominally SF though perhaps none actually are. It’s also the apocalyptic exile issue. We have a personal disaster followed by a national-scale disaster followed by a global disaster. Where can we go after that? Why, to a global utopian disaster.

To give the flavor (and, indeed, most of the plot) of “Logistics,” here are the opening lines: “Alls I want is a goddamn tampon. Is that so much to ask at the end of the world?¶Yo. Name’s Enfys.” We follow this single-breasted protagonist wandering across Europe and Africa after an antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating bacteria has wiped out half the population of humanity and, except for “nazholes,” people are mostly much nicer. Using drones, we’ve started delivering things (like “tampons… Tampons… TAMPONS”) in a more eco-friendly way than before. There’s really no plot or drama other than a manufactured moment hiding in a refrigerator from some of those “nazholes.”

Violets on the Tongue” is a bit of Gnostic sci phi/science fantasy crossed with Phil Farmer’s “The Lovers” and some magic dark matter. The latter is used to somehow transfer people to another world as the Earth is being destroyed. We follow Eshe, Gyasi, and the alien shapeshifter Lashav as they intermingle and question their ontology and interact with the oversoul and transcend in a surreal story which kept threatening to break through into something appealing but never really did for me. Perhaps it could for you.

You know the “space western”? “Without Exile” is a much lesser known version: the “space Syrian refugee crisis.” This refers to space stations and interstellar empires and even throws in four genders but these things don’t paper over the transparent metaphor or hide the lack of plot. Set basically in a white room, a lawyer who had once been a refugee is trying to help a woman and her child get into the “empire.” The woman does something stupid and there’s an adjustment to that. That’s it. Nothing necessarily science fictional at all.

The best story of the issue, though still highly problematic, is “Carouseling.” Ostap and Alyce are on the cusp of marriage. He’s an artist and she’s a quantum physicist about to do an experiment involving FTL. They literally keep in touch via “linkwear.” The second short section opens with news of an accident in which several, including Alyce, are feared dead. As I immediately suspected, the linkwear and quantum magic come into (inter)play. The emotional beats of this story are superb and some people may be powerfully affected by this tale. But. But it feels like it wants to be a good ol’fashioned problem-solving story and it’s decidedly not, also feeling more like a fantasy despite all its science fictional gizmos. (In other words, this is a lot like “Without Exile” except better at hiding what it really is.) And the story fills me with possibly trivial questions: why an artist? why a tardigrade? why Swahili? why all the innumerable details that may have thematic significance but just seem random? (Yes, and why not? But they seem peculiarly specific yet unrelated.) Basically, the main signal might merit a recommendation and all the seeming noise might merit a negative reaction and I come down with a wishy-washy honorable mention.

Review: Clarkesworld #138

Clarkesworld #138, March 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “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

Original Fiction:

  • “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.