In many ways I feel like this issue of Clarkesworld is about the constructs that we find around us that are little more than fictions we tell to make sense of the world. And sometimes the fictions that we tell, the ways that structure our lives and our realities, don't quite work. We see separation when we could see union. We see estrangement when we could see growth. We see lies when we could see dreams of something better. These are stories that beg us to reconsider the comfort of our held beliefs, to examine how we might be closing ourselves off to the boundless possibilities around us. How we might be missing out on opportunities to grow and heal and know ourselves better. So let's get to the reviews!
|Art by Maciej Rebisz|
"A Tower for the Coming World" by Maggie Clark (5335 words)
This is an interesting story that looks at how people face the unknown of space, how they face the growing ecological disasters that we're visiting onto Earth, and how we sometimes fail to connect—with our parents, our lovers, our planet—and how sometimes that can be overcome. I love the feeling of growth in this story, which situates humanity on the cusp of reaching out into the stars. Out into the solar system. On the Moon and on Mars and looking farther still. And all the while tethered in some ways to the Earth, to the homeland. Bound to it not by simple obligation but by something deeper. It's our roots, as the story takes the structure and motif of a tree growing. And without healthy roots the tree cannot grow. And the story, swirling as it does around the lives of people looking out and looking back, finds a balance between the optimism surrounding space travel and an escape of Earth and a growing understanding that we really can't move on until we set things in order there. It's a moving story that shows people aiming up and out but pulled back because of the unfinished business, because they're seeking merely to escape, and only when they start reveling in the return as much, in creating something to launch from and also to return to, can the real hope and work of space bloom. The characters are all interesting and the action unfolds slowly across time, each person learning to face the past so that they can make a new future. And the links between the characters are the branches of this organic, human plant that sees progress and rising and growth in a fascinating way. It's a nicely layered and constructed piece and a great read!
"Painter of Stars" by Wang Yuan, translated by Andy Dudak (5516 words)
This is another fun story in translation that follows the journey of a robot through a human world. The main character here is a robot designed to clean and little else, but has an awareness that allows for so much more. It's something nebulous until the robot discovers art and their mission in life, which seems to be to paint stars on human flesh. And I like how the story moves, at first stifling and tortured as the narrator struggles with the perception that they are just a cleaning unit, that they can be flicked on and off at will. The story looks at time, too, showing how millennia can pass for the narrator in the tick of one second. And it shows the growing awareness of the narrator in the face of the troubles facing them, the soullessness of their work, the lack of appreciation. And the story shows just what a tool for expression and meaning art can be for people in that situation, for those who are unappreciated. And what progresses from there is a sort of artist's fantasy. To me, at least, it feels like the person working some boring job hoping to sell their novel. And then doing it. And then becoming suddenly very popular. But not just popular. Important. Able to wipe away war itself. And then to come up against something that can't be solved with art. And to come up against the idea that even if their art was perfect, still it would fade, still it wouldn't amount to all that much. The immortality that they seek is something rather impossible to achieve. And there is a part of me that struggles with my reading of that, because [SPOILERS] the ending seems a failure of art to really do much in the face of plague, of time. It's an interesting conceit for a story, because it points to the failure of stories to be able to make a true difference. Except I want to read it not as saying art is small in the face of human suffering, but rather that art isn't a good in itself. What art does, what the purpose of life is, can be to find community. To find happiness. To remember that it's about what you do as much as it is about what you create. And that, in the end, the narrator finds that meaning comes from caring about people and for people, which they wouldn't have been able to realize without art. So it's a very interesting story and definitely worth spending some time with. A fascinating story!
"Checkerboard Planet" by Eleanor Arnason (11,916 words)
This is a light and rather delightful story about cooperation, about unionizing, in the broad sense of people coming together to help people and in the specific sense of an AI and human learning to become a union through their sharing of space. I love how the story treats these different forms of union, the idea in the workforce as embodied by Jo, the rather awesome activist of the piece, but also how it's embodied by the life native to the planet that Lydia, the main character, is sent to investigate. What follows is a great SF mystery where Lydia looks into the shady dealings of a corporation and finds that the situation is much more complicated than she originally thought. I like the world-building here, the story obviously pulled from a larger series of works but very self-contained—I was not lost at any point and thought that it was quite fun, quite original, and quite interesting. The way that the life works on the planet is fascinating and Lydia as a main character makes good use of her curiosity to steer her, something that speaks to the strengths of humanity. Also starring is humanities ability to adapt and to reach out, even as we also see humanity's tendency to harm and exploit. It's a rather complex story that certainly uses the larger space to really revel in the SF elements—the alien life, the corporate corruption, the science, the AI—everything builds together to form this picture of the power of cooperation as being stronger than the power of exploitation, that people working together are mighty indeed. And yeah, it's a fun story with a nice aesthetic and a flowing, quick pace to it that makes things move along quickly and easily. A great story!
"Blue Grey Blue" by Yukimi Ogawa (5218 words)
This is a story that does a great job approaching colors and values, confidence and personality. It features Tsuyu, a man at odds with himself, at odds with his appearance which he is never very happy with. On his island the people come in different colors, their eyes different shades and their skin as well. And Tsuyu is ultramarine, at least when he's feeling good. When he's just okay he's dayflower, and when he's sick or feeling down he has barely any color at all. Which is something he's deeply self-conscious about, something that he's judged for and that he judges himself for. And then he meets Ai, who calls herself a collector of blues, and the two start seeing each other. And something…unexpected happens. And I just love the ay that the story deals with the idea of confidence and value, how people generally value those who are outgoing, who are more what people want to see. Attractive, eager, etc. But the story also looks at how those values don't really meet up with some sort of objective scale. Some people just like a softer shade of blue. And it is a rather heartbreaking piece at times, full of a relationship that's a bit doomed and a world where Tsuyu is never quite sure if people like him for who he is or because of those moments of ultramarine he has. It's a complex and very touching story and perhaps as an introvert and someone who doesn't always like what I see in the mirror (also someone with blue eyes, shallow connection though that might be), the story to me does an amazing job of examining how people internalize these external standards of beauty. And the ending is the perfect touch of poignant and uplifting and gah, just go read it already, it's very good!
"A Future Far Too Bright" by Yosef Lindell (5261 words)
This is a nicely emotional and complex story about science fiction and families and lies and truths. It features an exchange of letters between a boy, Jesse, and his father, who at first claims to be a time traveler. And the power of the story comes from the gradual aging of Jesse, the slow realization that everything isn't exactly as it seems. Children have the ability to believe so much, and hope so much, in the face of what they also know can't be true. In that it's a rather uncomfortable story because it shows how a child can be lied to a fooled and how damaging that can be. In another way, though, I like how the story shows that as a potential. To dream big and better futures. To imagine worlds where we aren't defined by our mistakes or our pasts and have an opportunity to build a future that we want to see. The story deals with that in very interesting and delicate ways, drawing together a story of fathers and sons that are separated by time and distance, by the lies that the father tells the son and the way that the son doesn't know to keep lies of his own yet. There's a great world build, one very much like our own but a bit more advanced and nearly anachronistic because it features encyclopedias and letters during a time when those seem very archaic. At the same time, though, it has an in-story explanation and, more than that, it fits this feel that captures a sense of nostalgia, that idea of a time traveler as pulled from the pulps, this child's idea of a time traveling father. I thought the overall aesthetic of the piece was effective and that it came together quite nicely. A fine read!