Review: Clarkesworld #153, June 2019

Clarkesworld #153, June 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “The Painter of Trees” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction short story)
  • “Erdenweh” by Bo Balder (science fiction short story)
  • “Said of Angels” by Eric Del Carlo (science fiction novelette)
  • “Bonobo” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “Field Mice” by Andy Dudak (science fiction short story)

It was the best of issues, it was the worst of issues. It feels like two entirely different magazines collided.

The Painter of Trees” is ideologically impeccable and is hereby stamped with the Party’s approval. An evil imperialist running dog goes out to the word-for-world-is-forest in an effort to understand the art of one of the last natives. This is done from an attitude of towering arrogance and fails. The imperialists believe they are Forward Thinking in their genocide of the pathetic natives and this succeeds. The narrative is bifurcated (with one from first person (semi-second) and another from third) which meets the required element of Narrative Deconstruction and also sets up the Big Surprise Ending. Alas, what this will be is obvious for miles but such technical imperfections are irrelevant when the message is so pure.

The patient of a psychiatrist on a colonial world has suffered from “Erdenweh” and joined a wave of suicides, so the psychiatrist sets out to find out why. This might produce something like a heart-wrenching and/or exciting detective tale but the victim is a non-entity, the protagonist is little more, and the “plot” involves her wandering around asking questions of various experts, databases, and misnamed “AIs.” It’s frustrating because, while not original, it deals with an actual science fictional situation (what issues might be encountered when decanting test-tube babies to populate a new world?) but is fictionally deficient (and not a little off-putting). Does this sound like an adult psychiatrist who is having difficulty sleeping?

Finally, she padded to her closet and dug up her last resort, an old teddy bear from the Creche, vacuum sealed so it wouldn’t lose any of its powerful scent. She zipped the seal open and inhaled the smells rising from Teddy’s filthy fur. Sweat, snot, tears, general dirt, struck matches, maybe a hint of vomit.

In the “Bonobo” episode of Future Family, one of the three kids decides to change her species which is used as the jumping-off point to cover a little back-story and a lot of succeeding events in the lives of the family members with an ironic, almost punk “love comes in spurts” acknowledgement, if not endorsement, that things will keep on keeping on.

Said of Angels” takes us to what is likely the far future, in which a galaxy-wide Cooperation, made up of five Mights and lesser groups, has arisen. The most influential spiritual leader in the galaxy is the Arch Hierophant, Brophtoc Mmurn Dol. The crux of the story is that there is a prophecy about, and signs pointing to, the arrival of Redmarch, an apocalyptic galactic war. The key to this involves the Hierophant’s decision about whether Valduk Tyn, a prophet from a since-defunct backwater planet who preached a familiar and unsophisticated version of a common message, was divine. After meeting an ambassador from a newly contacted Earth, the Hierophant feels he has a way forward.

The color and detail of the backdrop of this tale is reminiscent of good ol’ science fiction such as the Foundation series and others (“others,” especially, with its multiplicity of aliens not found in the Foundation universe). This was delightful to me and will likely blow newer readers’ minds though it was arguably over-emphasized. The ecumenical spirituality was interesting and the character of Dol is well-drawn. The nuance and twists of the plot were also well-done. Alas, the plot and scale (both internally and in wordage) is part of why I can’t fully recommend it. A story like this feels like it ought to be a meditative tale of few words or an action-packed, elaborately-plotted long story. Instead, this is a meditative novelette with little action and, despite an elaborate back-story “plot,” little foreground plot. It’s still definitely an ambitious story with excellent elements and worth noting.

The story I do recommend, despite some reservations, is “Field Mice.” The environment has grown worse and familiar political structures have collapsed. Technology continues apace, however. Metropotamia is a Soviet-like state which believes in Discontinuity and is partly run by uploaded minds which believe that they have always been discontinuous and so, somewhat paradoxically, will be no different after having their minds destructively scanned and uploaded. In a cold war with them are the Sylvanians who have a theocratic form of population control and believe in the continuity of the soul and the irrelevance of the uploaded “copies.” The plot involves a Sylvanian spy, who has become a double agent, dealing with the capture of a true Sylvanian agent who may or may not know his secret. The sort of backwater cop in charge is threatening the agent with an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” sort of computer hell as the tale opens and a philosophically charged, paranoia-laden spy thriller follows.

A lot of this is very familiar but it is so deftly exposed and deeply thought and felt that it seems fresh. The combination of thought and action is perfect for this reader and very, very hard to find in contemporary SF. My only problems with the tale are that yet a third spy is way too talkative in an almost “Bond-villain” sense and that the concluding sequence is perhaps too fragmented but these are basically quibbles about an exciting and engaging story.

–Almost forgot: I again wanted to note Carrie Sessarego’s non-fiction contribution. “Love at Stake” deals with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, improbably, I again dislike the penultimate paragraph and think Buffy is far more than a romance, but thought the article was stimulating. I don’t especially agree that, in later seasons, “the show becomes less obviously metaphorical and more about its own mythology” but absolutely agree that the series “is at its best when her connections to people are strongest and at its worst when she starts to actually believe that maybe she is really alone (see: Season Six).” Ugh. Season six. But, as a maniacal fan of seasons 1-3 (and even 4-5), I commend this article to everyone’s attention.


Review: Clarkesworld #152, May 2019

Clarkesworld #152, May 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Move Forward, Disappear, Transcend” by A. T. Greenblatt (science fiction short story)
  • “Empress in Glass” by Cory Skerry (science fiction short story)
  • “Insaan Hain, Farishte Nahin” by Arula Ratnakar (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Sun from Both Sides” by R.S.A. Garcia (science fiction novelette)

I read the first two shorter stories in this issue over a month ago and only jotted down some notes, so the reviews will be brief. While I just read the last two longer stories, I’ll also try to be brief with them for consistency.

Forward” is yet another post-human “left behind/move on” story about one of the first semi-transcended women being left behind by all the fully transcending beings. It reads like a middling/lesser Terraform story. Like “Forward,” “Empress” is another amputee story and yet another “social media star” story and is even specifically like “The Streaming Man” but is a simile-laden tale about a woman who artistically skins herself after her crazy “uncle” passed his insanity on to her, which generally reads something like an Apex story. “Insaan Hain” contains what might have been a good piece of flash fiction about the road not taken in this novelette filled with all the current and past SF cliches of an intermittently second-person narrative with shuffled segments, lesbian couples, religious people opposed to change, current coastal towns being underwater in its future, and its whole “memory shtick” (so to speak). Perhaps the biggest flaw is its constant infodumping, sometimes using the couple’s young son as an excuse. The story is that a woman uploads her consciousness into a sort of starwisp craft but, when things go wrong here, they go even more wrong there. Finally, “Sun” opens with a fairy tale feel which never completely goes away even when it morphs into science fantasy/space opera/romance, is very loosely and handwavingly structured in a way that made me unable to engage with it, and is ultimately a vehicle for a simple social message of heart over vicious, murderous head but the Herbert/Banks/Leckie sort of vibe may appeal to some readers, especially fans of similar recent short works commonly found in Lightspeed.

While I rarely read anything in these zines but the original fiction, the best things in this issue were the interview with Jack McDevitt and the piece on Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights. I certainly don’t agree completely with the last one, but still appreciated it.

Review: Clarkesworld #151, April 2019

Clarkesworld #151, April 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “The Last Eagle” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fictional short story)
  • “Ripen” by Yukimi Ogawa (fantasy novelette)
  • “Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird” by Eric Schwitzgebel (science fiction short story)
  • “Social Darwinism” by Priya Chand (science fiction short story)
  • “Skyscrapers in the Sand” by Y.M. Pang (science fictional short story)

The original stories in this issue of Clarkesworld include something I can’t see as SF, two pieces which provide only indifferent tokens of SF, and two more vigorously science fictional tales.

Ripen” feels like a strange hybrid of science fiction and fantasy involving an island of colorful people interacting with mainland tourists while menial colorless people try to get by. When a tourist and a colorful person with skin problems get involved with some colorless people on the illegal edge of the makeup industry, someone may get hurt. Akin to last issue’s “Smile,” the story is rife with uncorrected solecisms though they generally weren’t as bad as last month’s story, aside from things like someone demanding to see Madam’s crack. The story wasn’t especially interesting but I did appreciate the positively shifting appearance (beyond the skin-deep) of one of the characters.

Skyscrapers” is an unsatisfying elliptical short tale about an ill and/or older woman memorializing an old flame via a time capsule. The speculative element is that she’s doing so in an ecologically ruined Shanghai.

A female becoming a male and someone who may be male are searching for a third who, in turn, has gone looking for “The Last Eagle” and the pair find something. There’s very little story in these 6000 words and less science fiction with only the symbols of a future post-war period in which the third they’re searching for is an “Artificial.”

The protagonist of “Social Darwinism” is woman who has been modified to be an attention-whore. She’s offered advertising minutes if she’ll participate in the agenda of a shadowy group of differently modified people to sway public opinion to do away with her kind. It’s good that this story has integral SF elements (however thematically/symbolically deployed) but they are confusingly presented and the actual core of the story is repellently akin to a daytime TV show.

Finally, “Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird” is about a “complicated toaster” and a “knot of fuzz.” The former takes the latter to an alien world and begins to modify that world, along with its prokaryotic life. Along the way, we learn that the robot has been sent out by a species that has been wiped out long before our tale starts with a stuffed monkey as a sort of ideal of beauty and teleological goal for recreating the dead species. This is one of those stories where words fail me, but it’s certainly one of my favorite stories of the year, joining Auston Habershaw’s “Applied Linguistics” (Jan./Feb. 2019 Analog) and Tom Greene’s “Better” (Mar./Apr. 2019 Analog) in a triptych of recent rare examples of Real Science Fiction™. There is one overt didactic paragraph I wish could have been more dramatically integrated with the main story and one can certainly argue about the odd morphological rather than, say, genetic approach to the task and there is certainly an interesting moral conundrum for the reader to play with which can put a sinister interpretation on the events but the latter two are as much virtues as vices, being among the things which give the reader much to think about. This is a short story which operates on gargantuan scales of time and space, has an intriguing combination of hard-edged objective narration and earned, unashamed sentimentality, and has a protagonist in J11-L that is worthy of joining the pantheon of Asimovian robots. I vigorously recommend this tale.

Review: Clarkesworld #150, March 2019

Clarkesworld #150, March 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “But, Still, I Smile” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (science fiction? novelette)
  • “When Home, No Need to Cry” by Erin K. Wagner (science fiction short story)
  • “Death of an Air Salesman” by Rich Larson (science fiction short story)
  • “Dreams Strung Like Pearls Between War and Peace” by Nin Harris (fantasy short story)
  • “Treasure Diving” by Kai Hudson (science fiction short story)
  • “The Thing with the Helmets” by Emily C. Skaftun (science fantasy short story)

(I would ordinarily have had this review done awhile ago but I’ve been under the weather.)

Smile” would seem to be matching a woman’s personal efforts to produce human life and her professional efforts to find alien life but I quit reading it a quarter of the way through. Since the author and editor are paid to produce English and failed, the review is that it doesn’t meet the minimum standards for a review.*Cry” would seem to take place in the same hospital as the prior story with associates similarly breaking rules for the protagonist. In this, it’s not a woman’s child, but the woman herself who is dying. She’s gone into space and had an Experience, developed cancer, and is now on Earth, waiting to die, but wants to go back to space. Many readers may expect one of a couple of interesting things to happen but will be disappointed. “Death” portrays a woman meeting a great guy and having a great relationship with him. Since this takes place in a dystopia of plague, unbreathable air, and wage slavery broken only by brief rentals of tiny cubicles in which people can watch gore and porn while not sleeping, it’s clear things aren’t as they seem. “Dreams” is not SF but is a steampunk fantasy/revenge fantasy in which a plethora of ethnic-like groups revolt against oppression. “Diving” has a familiar setting and involves a critter nearly getting eaten by a giant mutant anglerfish while diving for radioactive “treasure” and somehow surviving a breach of her pressure suit. The atypically hopeful elements which arise from all this might be welcome but aren’t convincing. “Helmets” is the real outlier of the issue. It doesn’t quite work but is better than the rest, unless “Death.” It’s reminiscent of “A Fine Night for Tea and Bludgeoning” by Beth Cato (Little Green Men–Attack!, 2017) with its bizarre juxtaposition of aliens and roller derby and other incongruities. The latter include eldritch helmets which elevate the roller derby girls to worthy adversaries of the invading aliens – but at a cost. This is the sort of thing that might be just silly enough to work for some readers but I guess I wanted it to be even sillier.

* The first two thousand words contained at least:

It was like those old nursery rhymes where one thing compiled on the next compiled on the next and became a monstrous sentence with qualifiers abound.

It was while thinking this… that the strange anomaly caught my breath.

An anomalous pattern of radio signals. It wasn’t like anything I’ve seen before.

pocketed the stickers fast like they were contraband [no “like” – they were contraband]

The nurse must have watching over me, rooting for me. She didn’t mention to anyone else about the miscarriage… She had simply logged in the necessary checkups…

“If only FTL drives were invented,” I said. “Then we course through to the outskirts of the universe and seek out more lives.”

“Just be lucky we have even enough power to get to Proxima Centauri. So much of our energy put into keeping the seas at bay and the skies barely breathable enough to live. We’re really hanging on a thread…”

While the most extreme example, it was not the only story with special English. For instance, “Dreams” has someone “wrought with fear” (barely possible but more likely “wracked”) and has a “heart beating like a caged bird” in which the figure is so dead no real effort is made to say it properly. (The usual simile is more along the lines of “my heart struggled within my ribs like a caged bird.”) And “Treasure” has “radiation that turned poison over prolonged exposure.”

Review: Clarkesworld #149, February 2019

Clarkesworld #149, February 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “East of the Sun, West of the Stars” by Brit E. B. Hvide (science fiction short story)
  • “Painwise” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “The Final Ascent” by Ian Creasey (science fantasy novelette)
  • “Give the Family My Love” by A. T. Greenblatt (science fiction short story)
  • “The Face of God” by Bo Balder (fantasy short story)

Clarkesworld #149 is a science fantasy issue, with stories which are not, or do not feel like, science fiction.

In “Family,” Hazel is recording messages to her brother, describing her efforts to reach an alien “library” to recover some lost human research to help us with our climatic (and perhaps climactic) apocalypse. It turns out even the largest, most social issues have personal motivations. This is actually something which impairs the story, for me, and the whole library/journey/dilemma seems contrived but the narrative is crisp and the surreal, fantastic, hyper-VR library is a lot of fun.

Ascent” is nearly as much fun, but essentially a fantasy. A dying man on an alien world is given an alien organ to ingest by his semi-estranged ex-lover which turns him into a ghost. Most of the natives are kept in a sort of sociological stasis by their hierarchy of ghostly elders and none of those living or dead approve of humans. They also don’t approve of the few natives who reject the afterlife and live a hedonistic life. This community becomes the wedge for the human ghost to occupy himself with as he attempts to improve their lot. A lot of this struck me as pretty silly but the “bored god” vantage point and many related bits of food for thought were interesting.

In the other stories, “West of the Stars” is a sort of “Amish in space” story in which a woman discovers that her society’s foundations are just creation myths and that she’s been taken advantage of as well. Neither the interleaved fantasy sections nor the obfuscated SF sections worked well for me. “Painwise” borrows a title from James Tiptree, Jr. (1972) to talk about a plague of pain afflicting humanity because, while vaccinations are good, drugs are bayud, m’kay? The narrator is an unappealing broken man and every silver lining in this story, including the big fantasy twist, comes with a honking big black cloud. I couldn’t make “Face” the least bit science fictional no matter how I tried and, while it may be some kind of response or riff, it reads like a clone of Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” (1964). A tiny little person tries to harvest godflesh from a fallen giant and gains a different perspective. It could mean anything or nothing, and may specifically focus on compassion but initially made me think of more cli-fi as well as the Doors song, “When the Music’s Over” (1967).

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered
and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives
in the side of the dawn
and tied her with fences
and dragged her down.

I recommend the Doors song.

Review: Clarkesworld #148, January 2019

Clarkesworld #148, January 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Eater of Worlds” by Jamie Wahls (science fiction short story)
  • “One’s Burden, Again” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fictional short story)
  • “Fire in the Bone” by Ray Nayler (science fiction short story)
  • “The Ghosts of Ganymede” by Derek Kunsken (science fictional novelette)
  • “Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar (science fiction short story)

None of the original stories in this meaty issue of Clarkesworld entirely worked for me but most had merits which some may appreciate. (The reprints are quite good, though. I honorably mentioned Marissa Lingen’s 2018 Analog story “Left to Take the Lead” and recommended Karl Bunker’s 2016 Asimov’s story “They Have All One Breath.” It’s also worth noting that there is no translation this time.)

The depressed and depressing “Burden” of dealing with death would have fit nicely into this month’s Lightspeed as it conflates a “crash landing on an asteroid” story with the myth of Sisyphus rather than, say, cleverly transposing Philoctetes into The Man in the Maze as Robert Silverberg did. Similarly, “Ghosts” may not be a quantum magician story but certainly has ruinous quantum magic along with the inexplicable premise of putting the survivors of a nuclear war between Eritrea and Ethiopia together on Ganymede to mine helium-3 from Jupiter. If readers could swallow both these things and appreciate the message, they might be able to enjoy the story. Similarly, “Eater” is a story about not being able to put the toothpaste back in the tube but possibly being able to brush your teeth. After a far-future interstellar war, a missile/ship blows up the moon on its way to try to eat the Earth, with a mission complicated by its own sentiences and Earth’s now-primitive resistance. The serious SF (even horror) elements are constantly undercut by the facetious tone which serves to give the story some energy and may work for some but hurt the fairly interesting story for me. (It’s also quite the ship which isn’t dented by a relativistic collision with a moon.)

Fire” flips the script on the theme of “Ghosts” and “Eater” but is also one of two stories in this issue to feature robots. If readers aren’t sick beyond words of the “robot as slave” metaphor, have never experienced anything like a Twilight Zone reversal episode, and can accept implausible economics, then they might enjoy this otherwise powerfully written tale. “Bloom” is similar to “Burden” in having a granddaughter dealing with the death of a grandfather (who loved growing flowers in a Venusian cloud city) but it’s also the other robot story. It makes me think of Longfellow’s “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls,” somehow, though in this story it has individuals being backlit by Society rather than Nature.

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.