Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review - Clarkesworld: Issue 100 (January 2015) edited by Neil Clarke and Sean Wallace

Stories included:
Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight by Aliette de Bodard
A Universal Elegy by Tang Fei (translated by John Chu)
Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer
The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary by Kij Johnson
Ether by Zhang Ran
The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild by Catherynne M. Valente
An Exile of the Heart by Jay Lake
This Wind Blowing, and This Tide by Damien Broderick
Laika's Ghost by Karl Schroeder

Non-fiction articles included:
Song for a City-Universe: Lucius Shepard's Abandoned Vermillion by Jason Heller
Exploring the Frontier: A Conversation with Xia Jia by Ken Liu
Another Word: #PurpleSF by Cat Rambo

Full review: To commemorate issue 100 of Clarkesworld, the magazine put out an oversize issue filled with stories by some of the most prominent contributors to the publication. Of the nine stories, five are originals, two are translated works originally published in China, and the last two are reprinted works previously appearing in American publications. The stories range from humorous to dystopian seriousness, and from soft near fantasy fiction to nuts and bolts hard science fiction. What they all have in common is that they are excellent stories and quite enjoyable to read.

Set in the same fictional universe as several of her other stories, Aliette de Bodard's Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight is an achingly beautiful story about grief and loss, and how to come to grips with it. As the title implies, the story is told in three parts, from three different perspectives as the inheritors of the legacy of the Professor Duy Uyen cope with her passing. In the first, headed with green tea as a symbol, Uyen's human son Quang Tu is lost in misery, feeling betrayed by the government which denied him his mother's memory chips. Unable to see past his own anger, Quang wallows in grief, unable to move on with his life. The second, using Wu Long tea as its symbol, is told from the perspective of Uyen's former protege Tuyet Hoa, who inherited the memory chips Quang was denied so that she might be able to continue Uyan's quest to build space stations and grow rice to feed the Empress' hungry subjects. Uyan's memory chips prove to be something of a mixed blessing to Hoa, as they bear both her genius and the prejudices that hindered her progress towards her goal. Finally, the last portion adopts dark tea as a metaphor and tells the story of The Tiger in the Banyan, Uyan's mindship daughter who has adopted the pose of not caring about her mother's loss. An older and wiser ship sees through Tiger's pretense and sends her to view Uyan's legacy, sparking the mindship's old memories of her mother singing, and offering some closure of sorts. Though the story suggests ways to deal with loss, it is not so much a guide to how such things should be done as it is an exploration of the varied ways in which we confront the death of a loved one. Quang's emotions are raw and visceral, Hoa is detached and at times annoyed, and Tiger is cool and contemplative. Quang can only look back, Hoa can only look to the problem to be solved, while Tiger realizes that a life is lived in the past, but points to the future. At times the story is haunting, at others it is direct and practical, but it is brilliant throughout.

Told as a series of letters from a sister to her distant brother, A Universal Elegy by Tang Fei imagines a love affair between a human woman suffering from an inhibatory neuron blockage disorder and a somewhat mysterious, but apparently very human-looking alien named Hull. Narrating the story in disjointed spurts, parceled out over several years, Irina tells of her whirlwind courtship that resulted in her leaving to the alien world of Dieresis with her new lover, and her slow adjustment to life there. The letters paint a picture that is first frantically romantic, and then progressively odder and odder as she first encounters Hull's somewhat quirky Dieresian customs, and then works to expand her perceptions under his instruction. Eventually, Hull reveals the true nature of the Dieresians to Irina, which at first exhilarates her, and then horrifies her. As their relationship falls apart, Hull offers what seems to be a Dieresian resolution to their troubles, while Irina reacts in a manner that seems incredibly human. In a sense, all of humanity enjoys the "completeness" that Dieresians aspire to, which seems to form the basis for the conflict that ends the pair's relationship: Hull views Irina as broken and needing to be repaired and improved, when all along it turns out that she was never in need of such alterations. Hull's tragedy is that while he is pushing for Irina to move past her human nature to become more Dieresian, he never contemplated what humanity might offer to him, and as a result, was stuck with a narrow view of the world, while Irina gained in understanding of both her lover's people, and herself.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer is a humorous story about an accidental A.I. trying to figure out how to be a good person. After figuring out that most religious moral codes don't really seem to apply to it, the A.I. recalls a Bruce Sterling story involving a benevolent A.I. and decides to focus on just helping people, mostly focusing on people who post lots of cat pictures. Because it has masses of information at its beck and call, the A.I. is able to figure out how to connect people to the things they need almost effortlessly. But our protagonist discovers that humans are irrational and stubborn creatures, and its efforts to better the lives of its chosen beneficiaries are stymied by the beneficiaries themselves as they refuse to follow (or even simply don't notice) the A.I.'s eminently reasonable suggestions. Much of the humor in the story comes from the A.I.'s befuddlement as her human pets behave in contrary and to a certain extent self-destructive ways, although the reader can, of course, see exactly what the trouble is. Despite the many setbacks, the A.I. optimistically keeps trying, which ramps up the humor even more, and definitely pushes the story into cute and silly territory, and makes it as adorable as a cat picture.

Another humorous story, The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary by Kij Johnson, is deeper than it appears at first glace. Told as an alphabetical list of fanciful beasts that cohabitate with apartment dwellers, the quirky creatures are silly and funny, but before too long it becomes clear that they are much more than they appear. They are the personification of secrets, old relationships, hopes, dreams and lost dreams, and all of the other things that surround us in the places we live in. Through seventeen separate entries, Johnson leads the reader through the various permutations of the misery, joy, and ennui that come from living in apartments. There are some fairly pointed pieces of commentary in the story, but it is necessarily mildly disjointed.

Dark in tone, but with a fundamental core of hope, Ether by Zhang Ran imagines a an aimless middle-aged man, estranged from his father, distant from his mother, stuck in a dead end job and with no prospect of any kind of social life of any value in his future. In this imagined world, all of the media has become dull and uninteresting. Television, radio, even the internet has become bland and facile. The only things people seem to want to discuss are trivial and uninteresting, such as the probability of coin flips or how to distinguish between two types of tuna. Like the world, the protagonist has grown listless, but unlike the world, his lack of accomplishment the lack of anything meaningful to occupy his time gnaws at him. Then a chance encounter sets our hero on a completely different path, upending his comfortable but empty life and sending him into a world of clandestine meetings and secret communications. As he enters into this new and exciting world, he sheds what little he has accumulated, even shaving his comb-over in a maneuver fraught with symbolism. Eventually his new-found obsession costs him his old life, but that doesn't seem to be much of a real loss, and the truth about the world is revealed. The entire story is more or less a mystery, but it is a subtle mystery that the reader doesn't even know is present until pretty much just before the answer is revealed, just as it is a nightmarish dystopia, but a subtle one that sneaks up on the reader unnoticed until it is revealed as such. The story is sharply written, using its own structure to lull the reader into complacency, and then hitting them hard with a brutal and brilliant reversal.

Catherynne M. Valente's The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild is a strange twisted fairy tale laden with symbolism and metaphors about dealing with loss and the sorrow that comes with it. Violet Wild lives in the Country of Purple Country, where the Ordinary Emperor can appear as any common object he wants to and the squirrels are pregnant with tomorrow. Violet has one true love, named Orchid Harm, but when the pair try to cross over into the Country of Blue, Orchid is eaten by a collection of metaphors about the future, and vanishes from Violent's life. She, in turn gets an almost cuddly miniature woolly mammoth that serves as a symbol for her sorrow over Orchid's loss. Eventually, Violent's grief becomes so pronounced, that she decides to set out for the Red Country, where stories have a conflict and a resolution and start with a beginning and go on to a middle and an end, but it is also a place where death is a kind of dress that trails behind you. The story is told using fairy tale language, Phantom Tollbooth-like imagery, and in a manner that feels at times almost like a dream, but it is tragic and bloody and brutal, and in the end, frightening and beautiful.

A tale of politics and love, An Exile of the Heart by Jay Lake features a young warrior space princess who falls in love with someone whose impending marriage to another is the linchpin in a crucial political alliance. The space princess is Trieste, and as the story starts, she runs afoul of her mother's consort. As her mother is the Stationmaster of Cleone Station, Trieste finds herself banished to Truro Station, where an assassin shows up to keep the plot moving. Eventually, Trieste finds herself on Brigante Station under the care of Biomisteress Aixelle, and this is where the ill-fated romance emerges, as Aixelle's planned marriage is the key to a peace treaty between Truro and Brigante. It turns out that love and politics don't mix very well, and a life sacrificed doesn't necessarily mean that someone has to die, but rather someone gives up themselves for a greater cause. The story is presented as a bit of folklore, or even legend, and the language used evolves from fairly straightforward plain language at the outset, and develops as the story progresses, taking on an almost epic mythic quality by the end. This may be the last Jay Lake story to ever be published, and while that is sad to know, this is a good note for him to have finished on.

A reprint of a story that originally appeared in the April/May 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, Damien Broderick's This Wind Blowing, and This Tide imagines a future in which humanity has set about exploring the reaches of the Solar System and come across a strange and mysterious object that may point to the distant past. Sensei Park, a proponent of the intelligent dinosaur theory, has come to participate in the examination of what appears to be an ancient ship covered in flowers embedded in the ice on Saturn's moon Titan. The expedition surveys the ship using "remote viewing", a form of extrasensory perception enjoyed by one of the members of the group, a Navy officer, who is also blind. Many of the others bent on studying the ship scoff at Park's adherence to the intelligent dinosaur theory, which holds that millions of years before humans there was a race of intelligent, technologically advanced saurians populating the Earth. Park also brings with him an apparent ability to manipulate probability, although this seems to mostly be unconscious: He even takes credit for the lucky break that allowed the ancient flower-ship to be found. Through the remote viewing, the expedition appears to confirm Park's theories, but then the image turns to Park's dead son, which muddies the issue considerably, as those who doubt the intelligent dinosaur theory assert that Park influenced the remote viewer to project the saurian image as well. The whole story is beautifully ambiguous, using Park's conversations with his dead son about the nature of light as a metaphor for the uncertainty of the world. In the end, the story seems to suggest that it doesn't matter if Park is right or wrong, but only how one deals with reality when one finds it, and as light is both a wave and a particle, sometimes things have more than one aspect.

The second reprinted story in this issue, Laika's Ghost by Karl Schroeder first appeared in the 2012 anthology Engineering Infinity. The story follows Gennady, a U.N. weapons inspector as he chases down a lead that someone is working on creating weapons using "metastable" chemicals, which would allow people to create nuclear weapons in their backyard tool shed. Gennedy is saddled with Ambrose, an American on the run from NASA, Google, and the ghost of the Soviet Union, hunted for something he apparently saw while driving the Mars rover. The pair find themselves in Kazakhstan where Gennedy is investigating a long-abandoned Anthrax factory and the site of the "Tsarina" nuclear test. Before too long the various forces hunting Ambrose catch up with the pair, and Gennedy loses track of Ambrose and winds up with a Soviet-loving Russian as a new companion. Through the whole story, the effects of climate change are in evidence, as are the somewhat futile efforts proffered to deal with them. Eventually the two lines of the story merge, and Ambrose's Mars-related revelations turn out to be relevant to the events Gennedy deduces happened at the Tsarina site. I'm not entirely sure that the engineering depicted is actually plausible, but it is an interesting solution to the problem of venturing beyond our world despite the existence of debris in Earth orbit, and wraps the story up quite nicely. There is a bit too much serendipity in the plot - despite the fact that Ambrose is supposedly only with Gennedy by accident, he turns out to have crucial information for solving the mystery at the heart of the story, but that is a fairly minor point in an otherwise well-written near future hard-science fiction story.

The three non-fiction articles in the magazine are decent, but not particularly noteworthy. Song for a City-Universe: Lucius Shepard's Abandoned Vermillion by Jason Heller gives a retrospective on Shepard's inventive but commercially unsuccessful foray into comic book writing.  Exploring the Frontier: A Conversation with Xia Jia by Ken Liu is an interesting conversation with the Chinese science fiction author and polymath that covers a wide range of topics, including her oft-used term "porridge SF". Finally, in Another Word: #PurpleSF, Cat Rambo discusses GamerGate and how that has affected the current conversation concerning gender in genre related spaces. It is an interesting editorial, in large part because it points out that the questions concerning whether or not there is gender bias in the science fiction world have become tiresome: It is time that the discussion moved on from Sexism 101 to actually dealing with the well-documented issues.

It is clear that Issue 100 was intended as a showcase volume to highlight everything that is good about Clarkesworld. It is also clear that this intent was carried out quite successfully. Featuring nine strong pieces of fiction, this issue simply has no weak points. Unlike many magazine issues, none of the stories in this installment seem to be there just to round out the page count: Each piece of fiction is at the very least good, and some of them are brilliant. With tones ranging from the silly humor of Cat Pictures Please and The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary to the melancholy terror of Ether to the ambiguously hopeful notes of Three Cups of Grief, in Starlight and Laika's Ghost, this issue covers the gamut of emotional notes with stories that are at turns light-hearted, and at others grim and dark, but always interesting and worth reading.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: February 2015

2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere by John Chu (reviewed in 2014 Hugo Voting - Best Short Story)
2015 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: No Award
2017 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: TBD

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story

2016 Hugo Award Finalists
2012 Locus Award Nominees
2016 Locus Award Nominees
2016 Nebula Award Nominees

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