Review: Clarkesworld #147

Clarkesworld #147, December 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Marshmallows” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (science fiction short story)
  • “Bringing Down the Sky” by Alan Bao (science fiction novelette)
  • “When We Find Our Voices” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fictional novelette)
  • “The Names and Motions” by Sheldon J. Pacotti (science fiction short story)

Things do have a way of evening out. Last month’s Clarkesworld was remarkably good with two recommended tales. This month—not so much.

Marshmallows” is a Yuletide edition of “Land of the (Virtual) Lotus Eaters” in which the advertising of the military-industrial complex has run amok. Chunfei walks through virtually-candy-coated filth and almost breaks through into reality when she runs out of credits. People unfamiliar with the motifs will likely find it readable.

In “Motions,” a brain-damaged girl born of a drug-addled mother has part of her brain replaced with tech which initially turns her into a seeker of social (media) validation but, when her mockery of her rural roots backfires and her friend is beaten unto death, she gets some more magic tech so she can fuse with teh intarwebz and become a supermind and then attempts to exact her form of justice which triggers a reaction. This occasionally threatened to break into something interesting but was largely held back by the ironic narrative choice of trying to convey the impression of a supermind by using an odd style when you’d think a supermind would know how to communicate effectively and would use a normal style. Also, if this tech has just been lying around, it’s odd that she would be the one to discover all this. Finally, the ending could be seen as raising the stakes or just as inflating implausibly.

While “Motions” is odd, “Voices” is odder. I can’t help but think this 10,000 word tale of non-binary hybrid radioactive exploding birdpeople having a revolution against their all-male all-human overlords must be some sort of parody but the delivery is completely serious, even morose. Perhaps I should elaborate but I feel like I’d be giving it undeserved attention. It may be enough to say that, other than being three times as long, this is very similar to the same author’s “The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight” (reviewed from the July 2, 2018 Strange Horizons).

Sky” is not especially notable but is the best story in the issue by far. A group of people, including a “Boy,” are trying to fetch “a pail of air” but, unlike the Leiber story, this air is relatively clean mountain air vs. the filthy mess of most of late 21st century China. In multiple first-person narrations, we follow them, a couple of American businessmen, a Chinese medical doctor, and an American spin doctor through their connections of money and self-interest. It’s a deeply cynical and hopeless tale without many characters to like and with little action until the very end but, allowing for a wrong word or two, it captures a variety of narrative voices well and makes some interesting, if all-too familiar, observations.

Edit (2018-12-04): Fixed URLs. Sorry about that.

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Review: Clarkesworld #146

Clarkesworld #146, November 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Octo-Heist in Progress” by Rich Larson (short story)
  • “What the South Wind Whispers” by H. Pueyo (short story)
  • “Ghost Island” by E.E. King (short story)
  • “The Gift of Angels: an introduction” by Nina Allan (novelette)

This issue of Clarkesworld is very good because, despite a weak middle, it has a very strong open and close.

In “Wind,” the Earth is inexplicably subject to an assault of space rocks, so shields are built which inexplicably need to be run by humans even though they’re also staffed by AIs (and those can be inexplicably crazy). Both members of a shield’s human staff are autistic and the transsexual one is ready to turn off the shields and kill innumerable people because one of the other two is untrustworthy and not validating the potential mass murderer. Aside from its obvious problems with plot, character, and science fiction, it also shows many unedited signs of ESL. “Island” is more overtly a science fantasy and artsy piece which also features a devastated planet with pieces covered in protective bubbles but, in this, a soldier is assigned to a haunted island where people tend to lose their minds and few readers will be surprised by what follows.

Angels” is also an artsy story (what with allusions to Proust and a long, detailed, fully spoiling discussion of La Jetee being central to it) and also has virtually nothing science fictional about it but is set later (around 2091) in the same milieu as “The Art of Space Travel” (Tor.com, July 27, 2016). The two stories are very similar in terms of the protagonist being deeply affected by an off-stage Mars expedition and otherwise being entirely mainstream tales set on Earth. Indeed, a problem with this tale is that there are references to tobacconists, meccano (Erector sets), stamps, and current things like You Tube, which do not produce a feeling of SF or 2091. The narrator is a science fiction author whose mother went to Mars but her expedition was never heard from again and he’s made it a point never to talk in public about her. However, with the death of his father and the discovery of some of her journals, he’s gone in search of his lost mother and is in Paris (where his parents met) to see what he can learn and if he can write a book about her. This story is perhaps the introduction to that book. I can easily imagine readers being bored silly by it but I can also imagine readers being fascinated by the insights and beauties of some of the passages and the way the rambling nature of the narrator’s thoughts conceals a reasonably tight structure of the events of life which have no “car chase” drama but just the drama of human reflections and connections.

Octo-Heist” is very different (and makes me laugh just typing the title after talking about “Angels”). In the near future, a younger sister has “borrowed” her older sister’s super-shoes and left them behind at a party in which she mightily embarrassed herself. Rather than face humiliation in front of the party’s host or her sister’s wrath, she’s hired a criminal to help her break into the house and get the shoes back. That criminal does his deeds by remote-operating a specially suited octopus which does the actual breaking and entering. Naturally, the heist caper goes awry and the girl’s instant bonding to the octopus plays a major role in subsequent events. This is obviously a pretty contrived story and an oddly sentimental one. Also, the “kidspeak” may work for or against some readers’ enjoyment of the generally crisp, fast style. Those things aside, this was a very fresh, exciting, entertaining tale with a motley crew of colorful characters (including the octopus) who aren’t simply good or bad but just have some learning to do.

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.