Review: Clarkesworld #145

Clarkesworld #145, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Miracle Lambs of Minane” by Finbarr O’Reilly (science fiction short story)
  • “Sparrow” by Yilin Wang (science fiction? short story)
  • “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller (science fiction novelette)
  • “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction novelette)

The 145th issue of Clarkesworld brings us a short short and short novelette of independent tales and a long short and long novelette of what seem to be sequels of sorts.

Sparrow” is another second-person tale and another tale of “replacement by automation” which deals with a Chinese window washer and doesn’t seem to have any particular speculative element. “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” (who’s actually 67% Joe and 33% AI replacement parts) deals with a terrible soldier who has a worse mother and whose parts try to keep him alive despite her and the enemy’s best efforts. In alternating sections, we listen to the AI parts discuss how to save Joe during battles in Ohio and see Joe participate in them and in the kitchen, which last is the one place he’s actually successful thanks to the codes to the cooking machinery his central unit keeps giving him. This is all made funny, amazingly enough, but Joe isn’t much of a character and the story’s way too long for what it is.

Like the “Ultra Twist,” “Minane” makes tomorrow look like yesterday, only more so and not in a fun way. After a famine caused by sea-critters (likely the same as those in “The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon”), Ireland’s population is much reduced and there is a struggle between the imperatives of more food vs. more people. This tale is full of local color and a more general rusticity with much minutiae on farming, animal husbandry, and illicit doctoring, enlivened only towards the end with a moment of action. Even though “Starless” seems to be a sequel to “How Bees Fly,” I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on. Presumably it’s set on Earth and presumably the people with tails and carapaces are modified humans but they could be biomechanical or something else. Perhaps I missed something or perhaps it really is vague exposition but, if the latter, this rendition of the “post-apocalypse” tale combined with the “Promethean misfit aids conservative tribe” tale is a case of two wrongs almost making a right, as the weirdness of the exposition provides a gloss of dissonant freshness to the otherwise familiar tale.


Review: Clarkesworld #144

Clarkesworld #144, September 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “A Study in Oils” by Kelly Robson (science fiction novelette)
  • “Waves of Influence” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (science fiction short story)
  • “Dandelion” by Elly Bangs (science fiction short story)

Dandelion” is the only story of interest in this issue but is crippled by the choice to write it as a second-person address to a deceased grandmother which leads to a lot of “as you know, You” resonance and helps to isolate the reader from the notionally cosmic but effectively private story. The cosmic story is quite good and involves a secret history in which the American government discovered a spacecraft around 1960, originally thought to be an incredible Soviet advance but later determined to be of extra-terrestrial origin. Through an unlikely progression of three generations of women involved in one way or another in the same project, Grandma sets the thesis and Mom, the antithesis, leaving Narrator to provide the synthesis as the battle between the hopes of interstellar empire and the fears of a trapped, pitiful, claustrophobic, pointless extinction of a necessarily technologically “plateaued” civilization plays out. I don’t actually agree with much in the story, but it tackles a serious subject and arrives at a picture which may satisfy some.

Study” presents us with an off-putting foul-tempered vomiting protagonist who turns out to be a creche-born “Lunite” killer hockey player artist whose life is at risk from his milieu’s strange “justice” system while he hides out in China and paints. The story seems like it almost wants to touch on things like Nietzsche’s idea that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon are existence and the world justified” but doesn’t, really. While the plot unfolds with time’s arrow, the plot’s context is intentionally given to the reader in reverse. Perhaps this was to hide its thinness and generate pseudo-suspense but it only serves to preempt any sympathy for or interest in the protagonist and the story’s events. “Waves” is another social media story which conflates the gravitas of a dying sister with the fluff of the other sister becoming a “social influencer” to “help” her which makes both of them seem shallow. Some language wasn’t the best (“I could almost feel the wisps of digital paint being applied on,” “I had to accept them to make myself seem like I was really interested,” etc.), the plot is overcomplicated for what is done with it, and the ending is rushed, inconclusive, drops a couple of threads, etc.

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.