Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Clarkesworld, BCS, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Augur, and Future SF
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #284
Strange Horizons 8/19
Future Science Fiction Digest 6/19
August’s Clarkesworld leads off with “Entangled” by Beston Barnett, a relative newcomer, if the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (<isfdb.org>) is correct. The narrator is the first-ever alien citizen of Earth, a Lem. Since birth, they have used quantum entangled FTL communications to project their consciousness into an xuit, and have been raised by human adoptive parents. The story is told in alternative “air” and “ground” sections, which reflects the culture of the Lem, a flying species. The narrator navigates all kinds of human spheres, from the academic to the romantic. Their dating life is particularly interesting as they strike up a series of asexual relationships, trying to sort through the people who are genuinely interested in them as a partner, as opposed to those looking for thrilling exoticism. The story is more a collection of very cool ideas than a tightly coherent story, but the innovations within are absolutely worth the read. “Your Face” by Rachel Swirsky tackles the concept of a digital avatar of a person that is maintained after their death. The story is told via untagged dialog between a mother and her daughter’s digital ghost, and unfolds with understandable awkwardness and intensity. It gets right to the emotional core of what we would need from these kind of ghostbots and what their limitations would be. “In This Moment, We Are Happy” by Chen Qiufan (with translation by Rebecca Kuang) gives us a 360-degree perspective on the concept of the future of pregnancies. The framing narrative is describing an art installation of the future. It tells the stories of several different people, all having children via unconventional means: a male who had a child implanted in a sort of artificial womb; a female entrepreneur who’s opting for a surrogate pregnancy and one of the Indian women who serves as a surrogate for others; a lesbian couple using gengineering to create a baby without any male genetic donor; and an individual going even farther out on the post-human spectrum. This long piece allows for all the stories to unfold, avoiding any kind of predictable path. The technologies represented span what’s possible today (the surrogacy) to what’s just around the corner (gengineering), and then farther out in the speculative near future. It’s a very thoughtful and intense take on something that is absolutely central to the human experience and only occasionally interrogated so completely.
Harry Turtledove‘s “The Yorkshire Mammoth” is tonally so different from the rest of this issue’s lineup that it induces a kind of mental whiplash. This is a charming story along the lines of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small series, about a veterinary surgeon in rural England, except in Turtledove’s world Yorkshire is still supporting a small population of woolly mammoths left over from the Ice Age. Set a little after WWI, George Holley is new to the practice in Thrsk, so he’s never had to deal with a mammoth with a broken tusk before. He’s able to clean the animal up and alleviate any pain, then begins working with a Jewish dentist in a slightly larger town nearby to see what they might be able to do by way of a prosthetic tusk. The story proceeds with the same sort of calm, lack of melodrama, and kind regard for the characters as Herriot’s original.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #284 features two tales of recovered manuscripts in which the missing gaps are as telling as the fragments that exist. In “The Mirror Dialogues” by Jason S. Ridler, a young noblewoman is tutored by a more worldly woman to see the city, warts and all, far beyond the confines of the household she was born into. Told from the tutor’s perspective (in this society her role is known as the Mirror) and with quite a bit of learning-by-dialogue with her pupil, you can tell she’s not sure which way the young woman will go, what kind of ruler she might evolve into. Her student’s character is a particular kind of inscrutable that comes across well in this style of story. M.E. Bronstein gives us the “Elegy of a Lanthornist“, complete with scholarly annotations. It is a multi-layered beast of a story: first there is the ancient poem “Elegy of a Lantern Poet”, recovered from a lost civilization, in which the poet is romantically obsessed with a particular woman. Then there’s the standard academic perspective on the poem, one which is being challenged by the scholarship of Isabel Hayes-Reyna, whose critical manuscript is the fragmentary document we’re reading. The scholarly commentary on Hayes-Reyna’s commentary is clearly trying to put things back into a particular box, and the tension between all those different perspectives is fascinating, although not particularly easy or smooth to read (for obvious reasons). I’d like to add that this is one place where I feel that digital media hasn’t quite matched print media – I still feel like the experience of reading bottom-of-the-page footnotes is much smoother than any footnote system I’ve encountered across online platforms, from websites to ebooks. It’s getting better, but footnotes still feel quite a bit more disruptive to the narrative flow when I encounter them via electrons as opposed to print.
Adam-Troy Castro gives us a spirited thought experiment in “Sacrid’s Pod” in September’s Lightspeed. Sacrid is a young woman who has been permanently incarcerated by her extremely conservative religious parents, to prevent her from gaining independence and leaving their community for a life they consider sinful. We get the story entirely from the information that her AI jailor is providing to her: starting with exactly where she is and why, and what amenities will be provided to her for the remainder of her jail term/lifetime. This is a post-scarcity universe and the accommodations are extremely well appointed: any entertainment is allowed, as is the capability for exercise, any kind of food desired, even the option for full-sensory robotic interactions with the outside world – except that she can never physically leave that box. In that situation, would you still try to escape? If so, why? That’s the question the AI and the story poses for her and for us.
The stories in August’s Strange Horizon are ones I’d characterise as “quiet,” focusing on character over plot pyrotechnics. “The Weather Dancer” by Aisha Phoenix tells the story of an elderly woman in a nursing home. With no family of her own, she slowly befriends a young woman visiting another resident and, as they come to know each other, she passes along the magic within her that makes her dance outside in the rain, behavior the nursing home staff consider ridiculous and unsafe, of course. “Someday We’ll Embrace This Distance” by Niyah Morris is an ambiguous time traveler story. Jenny is a lonely young woman who is making herself some authentic curry when she’s approached by a stranger who seems to know her very well. As the stranger invites herself into Jenny’s life, she says that she’s her partner from the future, where they’re very happy together. That gives Jenny hope for the future, so the narrative’s cagey approach to the time traveler’s story (is this real or an elaborate hoax of some kind?) is almost beside the point. “Invisible and Dreadful” by S.R. Mandel gives us three college students. Carrie has a heck of a crush on Yumi, so when Yumi decides that Carrie needs to travel to Ishiyama-dera Temple to get inspiration from the holographic ghost of Lady Murasaki (author of The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century), Carrie is happy to go along. Together with their non-binary friend Kazu they make the pilgrimage, where their dialog with the hologram Lady takes an unexpected turn.
For those who might be missing Shimmer, which closed its doors in 2018, you might want to consider the Canadian magazine Augur. With its fourth issue, it seems to be staking out similar territory where an intensity of feeling is one of the core values of its stories. Consider “The One Before Scheherazade” by Bianca Sayan. It is a character portrait of one of the mad ruler’s brides, only twelve years old, who knows that she’s destined to be slain after her forced wedding night. She can’t save herself, but there might be something she can do to help those who will come after her. This depends strongly on the audience’s knowledge of the source material, but the characterization is brave and tragic, no matter what the reader brings to the story. “That Final Corner” by Marcus Creaghan uses all of the adults in a city as its group POV narrator, who are watching as their children slip away one by one despite all attempts to stop them. It’s an allusive story and again the feeling and affect take center stage. There’s a short graphic story, “Exquisite Divorce” by Isabelle Nguyen, where a husband discovers something akin to immortality and runs off with one of his patients; we follow his ex-wife as she makes her own future. The focus is tightly on the relationships, not on the implications of the discovery.
My favorite story in the issue is “Roots and Shoots” by Laura DeHaan. The narrator is a magically animated robot who makes small magic items and talks with her young friend, Taneisha. When Taneisha learns a secret about herself, the robot is there to listen, and there’s a subtle point that they’re more alike than meets the eye. I especially liked the scene where Taneisha’s mother comes by to thank the robot for letting the young girl vent, and I appreciated the style of the robot’s narration – clearly something other than baseline human.
The impression that I’ve formed of Future Science Fiction Digest over three issues so far is of a magazine that is happy to combine sentiment with core science fictional tropes and plots. It also does a great job of casting an international net, featuring more translated and non-US/UK-axis fiction than most magazines (Clarkesworld being a notable exception). Its third issue coincides nicely with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (a milestone most of the magazines I saw were content to let pass without much fanfare), and their opening lineup is strong on lunar stories. “Cratered” by Karen Osborne imagines corporate geologists on the Moon who make an impossible discovery. Everything about the story is tinged with their grief over loved ones lost in a war down on Earth, and a slight sense of claustrophobia since they don’t know when they’ll get back. “Super-Duper Moongirl and the Amazing Moon Dwadler” by Wulf Moon couldn’t have a more different voice – it’s YA fiction about a Moon girl and her AI dog. In this case the girl is the survivor of a horrific bombing and the dog is essentially her mobile life-support unit, but it also has its own programmed personality, one she loves and her mother can’t stand. The story has very clear heroes and villains and comes down to a tearjerker of an ending. Oleg Divov brings us “Americans on the Moon” with the help of translation from Russian by editor Alex Shvartsman. This is an alternate history where the American military is allowed to set up a lunar base, which is then inconveniently infiltrated by a Soviet robotic rover just when senators McCain and Schweigart are set to visit. A dryly humorous tale of military bluffs and counter bluffs; it reminded me a bit of Ian Sales’s alternate-historical space programs in novellas such as Adrift on the Sea of Rains (2012).
The second half of the issue has quite a bit of variety. There’s a classic closed-room mystery from Edward M. Lerner in “The Satellites of Damocles” as a spy chief turns to an AI for help when his notes on a PowerSat security vulnerability go missing. While the situation is a little silly, the mystery plays out quite logically. There’s another dog/AI relationship in “Love, Death, and Printed Burgers” by Amanda Helms, although this time it’s a sentient AI food truck who loves the fully organic and unmodified Aspen-the-dog, and has a hard time coming to terms with its pending demise. “Warden’s Dilemma” by Emily Randall imagines the AI warden of a prison planet who wants to escape its own job, and who gets saddled with an alien child who was born en route to a prisoner parent and then orphaned. The AI has to manage both its escape plans and the care of a child, which it is not at all suited for. “Love in the Time of Con Crud” by Elena Pavlova (translated by the author and Kalin M. Nenov) imagines a pair time travelers heading back to the Helsinki WorldCon of 2017 to spread some kind of biological agent. You’ll have to read along to discover what they’re doing and why, but it’s clear that they chose that moment and place because that WorldCon is where they first met.
“Foot Ball” by Will McIntosh imagines a town-vs-town football match where team captain Liam is trying to win his brother back but is getting shellacked by out of town ringers. He crashes into the haunted forest with the ball, hoping to cut through without disappearing, and of course makes a shocking-to-him discovery about what lives in the forest and something about the history of his world. “Waking in the Cold and Dark” by Lü Momo (translated by Nathan Faries) pits a starship’s AI against the lone maintenance tech that it has woken from hibernation due to an emergency. The AI clearly has sinister motives (and, in a nice touch, the AI is our viewpoint character) and multi-layered plans, but one should never bet against a technician strongly motivated by survival. The ending is nicely ambiguous, which I appreciated. The issue ends with “Apologia” by Vajra Chandrasekera, describing a poet who is taking a time traveling tour to deliver apologetic poems at the sites of some of history’s gravest wrongs, specially marked as Chosen Moments by a committee that just happens not to have any representatives from the wronged communities on it. This, like a lot of Chandrasekera’s recent work, is a short piece that packs a lot of punch in terms of big ideas and the sweep of history, all while being poetic in its own right.
“Entangled”, Beston Barnett (Clarkesworld 8/19)
“Sacrid’s Pod”, Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed 9/19)
“In This Moment, We Are Happy”, Chen Qiufan (Clarkesworld 8/19)
“Roots and Shoots”, Laura DeHaan (Augur 2.1)
“Americans on the Moon”, Oleg Divov (Future Science Fiction Digest #3)
“Waking in the Cold and the Dark”, Lü Momo (Future Science Fiction Digest #3)
“Your Face”, Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld 8/19)
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 October 2019 issue of Locus.
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