Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com

Lightspeed 4/19
Clarkesworld 3/19
Strange Horizons 3/19
Tor.com 2/19, 3/19

The strongest story in April’s Lightspeed magazine is Caroline M. Yoachim‘s “The Archronology of Love“. In the space of a short novelette, Yoachim does three things and does them very well: introduce a complicated new concept, develop a mystery plot, and portray a woman almost broken by grief over the death of her partner. The new concept is “Archronology,” where researchers can look back in time (and maybe forward?) but it is destructive: just like an archaeologist digs through layers of material, irreversibly altering the landscape as they look for artifacts, this technology destroys the time in the time/space areas where the researchers look, so they can only look once. The mystery is that of a dead colony. Saki’s partner MJ had gone ahead to help establish the colony and research the alien ruins there. They were both archronologists, and Saki was following in suspended animation with their son. When the second ship arrives, the colo­nists are all dead, leaving only their messages and recordings and no organic remains. Many of the research team lost loved ones on the colony, and meetings to decide how best to use the archronol­ogy viewer to determine what happened are tense. We get the story of Saki and MJ’s relationship and what they meant to each other, and how Saki hopes beyond hope to somehow contact MJ again. This is a fascinating, intellectual, and emotionally moving (one might say tear-jerking) story that showcases just how much Yoachim is on top of her game right now.

March’s Clarkesworld leads with “But, Still, I Smile” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires. This is an “unfathomable alien tech” story in the mold of Algis Budry’s Rogue Moon or Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris – which means that the main character is much, much more important than the alien landscape. Dengwen is a woman who cannot con­ceive – every pregnancy has failed, including one that lasted several months. Her grief is pervasive when she finds signs of alien signals through her work on a SETI-like project. A small mission is put together to investigate, hoping to find aliens or tech that might save our dying planet. Instead they find an almost dead planet, but an accident causes something to awake. Dengwen’s psychology and actions are completely central to the story, and there’s a lot of complexity here.

Another brush with the unknown occurs in “Treasure Diving” by Kai Hudson. Ilana is part of a mer-society that has derived immense technological benefits from using radioactive ore, but at the cost of its citizens’ health. After losing her mother young, she and her sister are looking for an ore prospect of their own in order to buy housing farther away from the radioactivity in their complex. Ilana finds what she’s looking for, but then is confronted by an image of her mother. This is a great imagining of how some of our own bizarre ocean life might adapt to life near radioactive sources.

Rich Larson brings us a future of air pollution and post-ownership “sleepstacks” in “Death of an Air Salesman“. Maya makes a living selling canisters of clean air on the street, just enough to pay for some food and time in a sleepstack at night. She dreams of a cleaner place where the company advertises pure air comes from. She sees a man entering the sleepstack as she’s leaving for her shift and fixates on him; their romance devel­ops against a plausibly dystopian background.

Strange Horizons starts March with “The Skin­walker’s Ball” by Hammond Diehl. A beauti­ful and mannered story, it centers on a magical masquerade with skinwalkers who have crafted their skins over centuries from materials found, bought, and borrowed. The narrator watches from a high window, pretending nonchalance, while the main masquerade judge seems strangely un­engaged. That all changes when a creature arrives to compete in a skin stolen through murder. The lavish descriptions of the competing creatures and the maneuvering at the edges of the event are stunning, and the plot comes to a head very nicely. On a completely different note, “Truth+” by Jamie Wahls is a classic end-of-the-world story: a planet-killer asteroid is heading for Earth, and with 10 days to go there is absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. The main character is a PR flak for the Prime Minister tasked with writing a stirring speech to keep people from losing hope (or panicking) in the face of a hopeless situation. Roping in his ex-girlfriend, the scientist who discovered the threat, he figures that there might be something else he can do to help. While she’s always disliked his “Truth Plus” approach to communication (coming up with a better truth than the truth that you don’t want people to hear), in this case it just might be the right thing to do.

The most wrenching story I saw in February was “The Song” by Erinn L. Kemper at Tor.com. Set in the near future on an offshore platform dedicated to whale butchery (supposedly a protein with a “smaller carbon footprint”), the crew is plagued by suicides and ecoterrorists. Dan is an underwater welder in love with the sea and deal­ing with the loss of his wife; Suzanne is a whale researcher who is studying how whale songs have been changing in response to the butchery. The story starts from a bleak premise and gets darker from there, confronting us with the toll on humans when we exploit the other sapient creatures of our world.

The other stories around this time are more upbeat: Mary Robinette Kowal brings us a short from her “Lady Astronaut” series in “Articulated Restraint“. Ruby is an astronaut in this alternate history, scheduled for training at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab but having badly hurt her ankle dancing the night before. When she gets there, it turns out the training has been cancelled due to crisis: they instead need to develop a procedure to rescue a shuttle that has crashed into a space station, and the clock is ticking. Described in thoroughly researched detail, Ruby suits up despite the pain to get to work. She also experiences immense guilt for having done anything that might compromise a mission, being (as many pioneering women are) twice as hard on herself as anyone else could be. Christopher Rowe brings us the immensely storyable world of “Knowledgeable Creatures” where many animals have become sentient. Marsh is a canine detective who gets pulled into a mystery by a professor who panics after being confronted by a colleague. A learned mouse, the most powerful of the knowledgeable creatures, smoothly tries to push Marsh aside, but no hard-boiled detective would get put off the scent that easily. This is a fun mystery in a setting that could support any number of additional stories; Rowe has given us enough worldbuilding for the reader to make sense of but left plenty of space wide open for growth.

Recommended Reading

“The Skinwalker’s Ball”, Hammond Diehl (Strange Horizons 3/4/19)
“But, Still, I Smile”, D.A. Xiaolin Spires (Clarkesworld, 3/19)
“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

Karen Burnham is an electromagnetics engineer by way of vocation, and a book reviewer/critic by way of avocation. She has worked on NASA projects including the Dream Chaser spacecraft and currently works in the automotive industry in Michigan. She has reviewed for venues such as Locus Magazine, NYRSF, Strange Horizons, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone. She has produced podcasts for Locusmag.com and SFSignal.com, especially SF Crossing the Gulf with Karen Lord. Her book on Greg Egan came out from University of Illinois Press in 2014, and she has twice been nominated in the Best Non Fiction category of the British SF Awards.

This review and more like it in the May 2019 issue of Locus.

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