Review: Clarkesworld #135

Clarkesworld #135, December 2017

Cover of Clarkesworld #135

“The Rains on Mars” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fiction short story)
“Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell (science fiction short story)
“Falling in Love with Martians and Machines” by Josh Pearce (science fiction novelette)
“Darkness, Our Mother” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fiction short story)
“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw (science fiction short story)

I’d had it in my head that Clarkesworld was one of my favorite zines or at least in the upper half but this has been a weird year. A handful of stories have been superb to me and some of those are among the year’s best but the vast majority have been anything but. Alas, this issue is more of the vast majority, though your mileage may vary. In this particular issue, every single story is very dark (and not in the fun way), most are heavily overwritten, and most are fantasy or mainstream in SF’s clothing.

“The Rains on Mars” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fiction short story)

A miner whose brother was killed due to the miner’s debts has become an insane wreck and gotten another mining job far away to try to escape his past. “Far away” is “Mars,” which is all the SF you’re gonna get out of this. Might as well be mining in Arizona. In that “faux SF” regard, it is similar to “The Nightingales in Platres” by the same author in an earlier issue of the same magazine.

This story is so monotonously mawkish and the protagonist is such a passive puddle of nothing and the story is so simple that there’s really nothing to get out of this.

I’m to be sent back to Earth. On my own dime, too. Only fair. To do what? Ray can’t answer that, and neither can I, because who knows, and who cares.

Indeed.

“Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell (science fiction short story)

This is a border crossing story (equal parts Chicago, Korea, and Styx) where the protagonist makes her way through the “Love Life”rs (who hate those they see as anti-life) to the “Newbody” folks (who seem to be personalities uploaded into robots). She delivers a big revelation at the end.

This is an oddly confusing story considering that the gist is easy to get because it’s so conventional. The twist at the end actually makes the story worse, leading to a kind of emotionally and practically vacuous conclusion. This tale is also a lot like the author’s earlier “The Three Lives of Sonata James” in a different magazine, except not as good.

“Falling in Love with Martians and Machines” by Josh Pearce (science fiction novelette)

The protagonist of this story reminds me of Sondra Locke’s Lynn Halsey-Taylor from Every Which Way but Loose. And instead of good-hearted brawler Philo Beddoe, you get a version of her “pimp”ly guy who is a cyborg racer as the male lead. And instead of any efforts at humor, you get more malaise. But the pointlessness of the plot remains. Basically, there’s a war of some kind on and the world is made up of military cyborgs and racer cyborgs who, for whatever reason, couldn’t cut it as military. So this pseudo-hooker with a heart of stone and her guy du jour are cruising around making money from races so they can go to more races and make more money, with loftier goals someday. And then the Martian ladies arrive and things take a right turn, Clyde.

There’s no one to like here and no plot to get involved in and the milieu and tech are so obliquely revealed and inexplicably motivated as to be meaningless in any literal sense. At least the word-by-word prose is fairly direct (which is true of only this and “Crossing LaSalle” in this issue).

(I can’t find the original Neo Tokyo/“Running Man” anime of a futuristic, nihilistic car race but it would be better to watch it (adapted here into the video to a song) than to read this. To be fair, only a key scene and some of the theme in this story seem almost identical to the animation but the anime is much better done and more interesting. And shorter.)

“Darkness, Our Mother” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fiction short story)

A woman lays a trap for a man in a labyrinth but things don’t go as planned.

I don’t know which is less likely: that Minoans had starflight or that Minoan society was accidentally recreated on an alien world, but those seem to be the options. The landscape (“planet”) of this tale is called “Cemar,” the Labyrinth is called the “Womb” and is a relic of a spaceship, and the casting of magic spells is described as “I have woven a thread of hypercomplex numbers that can copy the prince’s likeness…”) which are the only reasons I can see for this being in Clarkesworld rather than BCS. It’s ultimately a rhapsody on vengeance and is about as appealing as that sounds. No Aeschylean ascension to a concept of the Eumenides here.

“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw (science fiction short story)

This uses some confusingly presented form of proxy bodies and space travel as metaphors for depressing romantic relationships in a painfully overwritten 1600 words which feel like 16,000 but would only require 160 if not for the logorrhea.

“But—”

The word hangs between us, a dead satellite in the nothing, its belly gravid with stillborn dialogue. I want to ask you what I’d missed, the minutiae of simply existing, each day in sequence, no variegation in their consumption. Already, I’ve forgotten if it’s been a week, a day, a year since we’ve spoken, if this conversation is prior to the last, if it is years after. The cartography of your features remain unchanged. It cannot have been that long.

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Rec: “Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel

Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel, Clarkesworld #132 September 2017, SF short story

The title refers to the perhaps central protagonist of this tale. That protagonist has been exiled from her community of galactic sentiences because, being young and headstrong, she disagrees with the plan to turn the galaxy into a black hole. (Arthur Dent had similar, if smaller, problems.) So she’s herded out to the ass end of the galaxy and chained to an insignificant star where she notices some monkeys on the third rocky thing orbiting it and, after amusing herself by pocketing the rock’s moon, there follows a very strange tale, from dizzying heights, of her monkey contact and its galactic and greater-than-galactic consequences.

This is a story where the heresy of paraphrase really applies. Everything about the synopsis is true enough in its way but really does nothing to convey the casual scale and calm frenzy of this tale or the way it dives into part of the core of SF and makes it new. (This includes the idea that the vast universe contains a tiny lump of gray matter which contains that universe, as well as the one expressed by this great line (don’t click it until you’ve read the story).) Granted, the names of the characters may seem off-putting and/or gimmicky but they do at least serve to emphasize the remoteness of the beings. Basically, this story makes your head bigger and your mood lighter and the author entertains like a magician with something of substance up his sleeve.

Rec: “Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace, Clarkesworld July 2017, SF novelette

The cons of this story are that it’s a tired post-apocalyptic tale; that it’s an unsurprisingly unrelievedly bleak story for the bulk of it; and that, while there’s something to be said for concise endings, this was a bit too compressed. The pros are that it’s a near-perfect exercise in narrative voice and the naive narrator, using an apparently “slow” child as the window into this world; that it tackles its triteness with gusto, as though such post-apocalyptic stories weren’t trite; and that, even as a longer story, it reads quickly (allowing for a slight drag in the middle when the bleakness needs some variation).

So, yes, it’s a story in which the girl and her mother are off to visit the king of a nearby place so that mom can torture people for that king. On the way back, they are seized by the scavengers of the wasteland and it gradually becomes clear that this is a post-apocalyptic earth (or post-apocalyptic, anyway) and that the girl has slight mental challenges and is quite a charming person despite being the child of a torturer (who, herself, seems to be a fairly good mother, all things considered). Once put on the chain gang to scavenge for pre-apocalypse treasure/junk in collapsed buildings, we get to the pivot of the story which isn’t entirely surprising but is appealing.

If I read such a synopsis, I wouldn’t be interested, myself, but it’s all in the telling and in the characterization and I recommend it for that.

(I usually save such things for the monthly summations but I’ll go ahead and mention that Robert Reed’s “The Significance of Significance” gets an honorable mention though its ontological relativism (a facet of which has long interested me) makes me queasy and its “we all live in a yellow VR machine” is tired. Further, if Larson didn’t seem to be stuck writing the same SF/horror story over and over, “Travelers” would probably have gotten that, too. Finally, Balder’s “The Bridgegroom” was another familiar post-apocalyptic tale but was readable even so. Overall, this issue of Clarkesworld was pretty good.)

Rec: “Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak

Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak, Clarkesworld June 2017, SF novelette

A woman hunting a war criminal gets stranded on a planet with nothing but her drone swarm, the planet’s strange psychoactive alien lifeform, and her prey. Nothing goes as planned and nothing survives unchanged.

While calling this a “sympathy for the devil” story may be a bit much, it is at least a remarkable “let he who is without sin” story. It is perhaps overly reminiscent of things like Alastair Reynolds’ “Turquoise Days” and even Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” except that it is less adroit than either of those tales. It’s also reminiscent of other works I’ve read by Dudak, himself, but is more adroit than those. It’s extremely interesting on both intellectual and emotional levels and feels like genuine science/speculative fiction. It’s an unsettling, uncomfortable read in a good way and I appreciate its lack of self-righteousness and its blending of the thematic focus with an actual dramatic focus and how it wrests such a large scope out of such a seemingly small structure. In sum, a piece worth a solid recommendation.

(It’s also a relief to find something noteworthy in Clarkesworld again. After a strong start to the year, it’s basically been without interest until this story. I look forward to the rest of the issue. Also, since I’ve already read the stories released by the weeklies, bi-weeklies, and other monthlies so far this month, once I finish it and Compelling I’ll be caught up.)

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1, I’ve now read the eleven stories that only Clarke or Dozois selected. Part 1 left off with a question about whether multiple quality Dozois selections and a slower start from Clarke would continue.

As far as Clarke’s selections, I didn’t care for Margaret Ronald’s talky alien infonet tale “And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices” and I previously ambivalently reviewed Lettie Prell’s artsy post-human “The Three Lives of Sonata James.” I couldn’t go for a full-tilt recommendation of Karin Lowachee’s “A Good Home” (paraplegic vet adopts PTSD android) or Sarah Pinsker’s post-apocalyptic “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” but they’re certainly reasonable selections to me and you probably wouldn’t go wrong to give them a try.

The only solo Clarke selection that really impressed me was Rich Larson’s “Extraction Request and that in a very specific way. It is undeniably effective but if you don’t wish to read nihilistic military horror SF (The Dirty Dozen economized to an Evil Eight and then dropped in a blender with Aliens and The Blob) then you can safely give this a pass. I wouldn’t have wished in advance to read such a thing but, as I say, it does effectively draw the reader in and is quite creative, especially in certain sadistic details.

I would also recommend Dozois’ selection of Rich Larson’s “Jonas and the Fox more generally but with reservations. Jonas is the older brother of Damjan. They’re living through a revolution when a distant relative, the Fox, who had helped start the revolution prior to being deemed an enemy by it, arrives and hides out with them. Damjan later falls to his brain-death and the Fox has his mind sideloaded into Damjan’s body to hide more effectively. Our story picks up at this point as starry-eyed and contrary (and guilt-plagued) Jonas and his parents and the Fox deal with their situation and try to survive informant teachers and bloodhound soldiers and so on. The reservations come from this being a gripping story throughout yet not especially satisfying in the end. The ending is certainly apt enough and prepped for but somehow the story overall feels like a slight letdown. Also, I’m perfectly happy to swallow the personality/consciousness/soul backups and several other things but, even in that context, the plausibility of aspects of what can and can’t be detected (at least three things) bothers me. Still, quite good and just as gripping as “Extraction Request” with psychological horror but without the visceral horror and nihilism.

Dozois’ other selections were pretty solid. I was least impressed by Maggie Clark’s “A Tower for the Coming World” (interconnected sketches dealing with a variety of people connected to a space elevator) but it wasn’t bad. Eleanor Arnason’s “Checkerboard Planet” wasn’t great, but was a pleasant good ol’ planetary exploration tale starring her recurring Lydia Duluth character. Like Larson’s tale, only more so, Mercurio D. Rivera’s first contact tale, “Those Brighter Stars,” suffered from a somewhat unsatisfying ending (albeit by design) in a tale of abandonment on both small and large scales but was mostly brisk and vivid.

James Patrick Kelly’s “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” – a tale of siblings, jealousy, mortality, religion, and the Fibonacci sequence – is an embarrassment for me since I have to confess I don’t get it. It seems really superb until the end where I think I understand what happened and why but then simply do not understand the lack of response to it in the denouement. I understand why there wouldn’t be much focus on a certain kind of response but an absence? So I don’t know what to say about it. If the whole thing does hang together and is as good as the bulk, it’d certainly be recommended.

Along with the Larson, the other tale I can clearly recommend is Ted Kosmatka’s “The One Who Isn’t which stays confusing and disorienting for almost too long but finally crystallizes into a remarkable story. As such, it’s one I hate to say anything about because even a simple characterization would spoil the journey. The setup “starts with light. Then heat.” It goes on with a woman “in a porcelain mask” testing a child on his perceptions of colors. Given his inability to distinguish blue and green, she informs him he’s “getting worse.” Then she tells him a bedtime story and I encourage you to go find out about it.

For awhile now, I haven’t been thrilled with Dozois’ annuals but, if the parts I’ve read are at all reflective of the whole, this seems like a very good anthology. One of my major complaints has been an excess of depression, death, destruction, and dystopia in the annuals of late. This certainly has some of all that but in more tolerable quantities and with a lighter or more nuanced touch. Of the nineteen stories from the volume I’ve read thus far, I especially liked eight of them and disliked or wasn’t interested in only a handful with the rest at least being okay. That’s a pretty strong batting average.

Next up, the Horton and Strahan solo selections to finish up this little project!

Edit (2017-01-29): And here’s that conclusion.

Rec: “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

In the course of finishing Clarkesworld I found another I especially liked.

“A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, January 2017 Clarkesworld, science fiction novelette

Helena is a nice girl with a dark past who is hiding under an assumed name in a temporary residence in China, working in a “gray area” as a forger of beef using a 3D printer. One day, she’s blackmailed by a mysterious and viciously foul-tempered person who demands a large amount of steaks. Eventually, working under a deadline she feels she can’t meet (almost typed “meat” there) she hires Lily, a boisterous, colorful bundle of energy and things get really interesting as the pair continue to work on the project while also working to get out from under the mysterious man’s thumb.

I’ve read plenty of 3D printing stories for years now but it’s still a strangely underdeveloped theme and I don’t think I’ve read one about steaks before. Beyond that, this story is constructed very well (though it’s a little long), and is extremely vivacious, funny, and entertaining. I don’t know if I’d want to read dozens of stories with the exact same tone which might have the same exhausting effect Lily sometimes has on Helena, but I really enjoyed reading this one. Even the present tense narration didn’t particularly bother me. My one quibble is that, while clever and somewhat satisfying (especially in the details), the conclusion wasn’t quite as earth-shattering as such a big wind up led me to expect. And, of course, if the narrative tone and the two main characters don’t appeal to you, the story is unlikely to, but then you’re immune to some pretty charming stuff.

Rec: “The Ghost Ship Anastasia” by Rich Larson

It’s a new year and the January webzine stuff is coming out and now this blog can officially begin. I’ve read Flash Fiction Online, and a tale each from Apex and Clarkesworld. The latter produces the first (mild) recommendation of the year.

“The Ghost Ship Anastasia” by Rich Larson, January 2017 Clarkesworld, science fiction novelette

Silas, his sister Haley, Io the muscle, and Yorick the suit are sent by their company to examine a bioship that’s gone silent. Haley dies from micrometeorite damage to her cryo chamber in transit with only a deteriorating software backup of her consciousness remaining, which Silas is determined to save. Their troubles have only just begun, though, as they enter the ship to find the “bio” part has run riot and the controlling software, having become sentient due to the flesh/machine hybrid, is even more out of control. The previous crew appears to have been eaten to provide some of that increased biomass and the new arrivals try to avoid being next on the menu.

This is a gothic space opera and, if you like the first Haviland Tuf tale of George R. R. Martin or the Boojum tales of Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear or many Alastair Reynolds or most Neal Asher stories, you may like this. It does have problems: it places too much weight on the Turing test and isn’t very plausible when it comes to computers and AI (from Haley’s inexplicably decaying software to the fact that the AI is supposed to be easily distracted (because if our contemporary computers can’t process millions of instructions per second and can’t multitask how is a futuristic AI supercomputer supposed to?)), and the ending may not surprise everyone, but it’s effectively creepy and full of fast-paced excitement with a believable and interestingly quirky but Ordinary Joe protagonist.