“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.