Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Clarkesworld, Fiyah, and Omenana

OmenanaClarkesworld 11/19
Fiyah Autumn ’19
Omenana 10/19

Welcome to the winter of 2020, in which I’ll spend January and February trying desperately to review all the things that I don’t want to miss from 2019 before finally letting go and allowing myself to embrace 2020 wholeheartedly. Months from now I’ll still be kicking myself for missing so much great stuff, but for now 2019 continues to deliver short fic­tional gems from around the world.

Clarkesworld‘s November issue leads off with a sadly believable near future by Matthew Kressel in “Your Future is Pending“. In a world where many elites (including what we might refer to today as top “influencers”) live their lives in a better-than-real-life virtual reality known as the Mesh, Martha is one of the people who has to service their connections and the robots that take care of their inert bodies. In stark contrast to those she serves, she’s trying to care for a father with dementia, navigating an indifferent bureaucracy to try to get him the help he needs, spending hours on public transport, and trying to rescue a stray dog. Stories of the vast gulf between the working class and the one percenters are nothing new, but this is movingly done. Moving to the farther reaches of our near-future world, Clarkesworld regular D.A. Xiaolin Spires brings us an artist-in-residence in “Antarctica“. There are microbes accelerat­ing the ice loss on our Southernmost continent, and a small research team is looking for ways to shore up the eroding ice sheet. Chenhua is an artist working in many different media, looking to encourage support from all over the world, with installations ranging from high-end abstract museum pieces to webcomics featuring penguins. While the research team deals with perils during the story, I’d say the point about the importance of art in science communication shines through most brightly.

The translated pieces this month come from South Korea and China and both bring us tales of extreme environmental collapse. In “Sentinel” by Chang-Gyu Kim (translated by Charles La Shure), a small community is persisting, barely, at the edge of the entropy death of the universe. Every action has to be closely regulated and monitored to avoid expending too many joules of energy, and the few thousand surviving commu­nity members cannot afford to support any citizen that can’t pull their own weight. Our viewpoint character is a technician who maintains the system that enables their existence; he’s working to train another person in his job, when the community must vote on expelling a citizen to restore the energy balance. This is a very pointed metaphori­cal setup to consider who is judged valuable to society and what it takes to maintain the status quo. The issue concludes with a long story from Mo Xiong (translated by Rebecca Kuang), “Op­eration Spring Dawn“. Here the threat to the world is extreme glaciation that blankets the globe in ice. Enclaves everywhere try to create systems that will survive a coming 100,000-year-long ice age. Our viewpoint character comes from one of these enclaves; he is Key-trained and then put into hibernation. Revived a scant 20,000 years later, some artificial persons take him on a quest to identify any remaining Locks that might open the promise of the titular Operation. They pass through the ruins of many failed societies buried deep under the ice, some run down from entropy and some that succumbed to cataclysmic violence. They finally find a functioning society, but it’s not what any of them expected. It’s up to the Key to decide what form humanity’s future might take. I loved the epic scope of this story and the far-ranging meditation on survival and failure.

The theme for Fiyah‘s 12th issue, “Chains”, is obviously a loaded image and metaphor for a magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. The issue opens with “The Midnight Host” by Gregory Neil Harris in which two black kids visit family near a tobacco plantation. There seems to be some superstition regarding ghosts and brick dust, but when darkness falls and the boys try to cut across the fields, they find out how real the ghosts are and what has kept them bound to the land generation after generation. This is effective as horror and also very empowering at the end – one thing I appreciate about Fiyah is that its stories tend to rise above despair. Another supernatural creature is bound in “Reclaiming Tess” by Brittany Smith, this time to a family matriarch. In this version of our world many smaller gods are in service to families, and Rust bound himself to Tess’s grandmother many years ago. Now the matriarch is dying, having for years set her grand­children up to compete to inherit him. Tess, being a young, fat, queer, black woman, had always known that she was being set up to fail compared to her perfect cousin Lucas – but it turns out that Rust may have a say in where he goes. Definitely a story about the cruelty of families, but again with a hopeful note. My favorite story in the issue goes back to questions of human relationships, to the land, this time during a settlement effort on a new planet. In “Corialis” by T.L. Huchu, a colony of people have undergone complete (and completely unpleasant) sterilization of their own internal biomes in order to adapt to and avoid contaminating the planet they’re settling on. Things are starting to go wrong with the ef­fort in subtle ways, and Thandeka draws on her Ubuntu heritage to pursue a deeper connection with this new land and new world, seeking peace, integration, and understanding. A great piece of African futurism.

Omenana continues with its 14th issue to bring us fantastic work from Africa and the African diaspora (this issue’s editorial makes clear that they need help, both volunteer and financial, so please consider chipping in towards their efforts if you can). The issue leads with “Abeokata52” by Wole Talabi, a story told in the format of an online essay plus the comments section beneath it. The essay describes the events that occur when some kind of alien technology lands in Nigeria, and what happened to the first 52 people who encountered it before protections could be put in place. The author of the essay lost his mother, a researcher. The technology has since gone on to seed a very profitable tech sector in Nigeria, but the man is concerned that those first victims may be forgotten. The comments section broaden the story and hints of a conspiracy emerge. My favorite story of the issue also deals with the fallout from an extra-natural source. “Tiny Bravery” by Ada Nnadi imagines a scenario similar to George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards universe, where some people find themselves suddenly developing superpowers, whether they like it or not. Nnadi’s story is set in a school of sorts for teens who have had this happen. Our narrator is a girl who can make herself invisible and has decided to stay that way as much as pos­sible; there’s a new student whose development of wings was unfortunately caught on a video that went viral. This is a very character-focused story in which both these girls, clearly suffering from trauma, start helping each other to heal.

Caldon Mull‘s “Refugia” is a purely science fictional story where we meet a girl who is the sole survivor of an exoplanetary colony that failed. There is an extensive meditation on the toys that stayed with her and the colony’s status as the last place in the universe where Swahili was spoken; this is a story of tragedy on many levels.

On the more fantastic end of the spectrum “The Return” by Muuka Gwaba features a multigenerational story stretching from the past into our future. A very long-lived family has been touched by a river god, but that river was later dammed by the colonial government. The women of the family have been warning people about the river’s eventual escape, and there are small earthquakes that should signal the risk to the surrounding community. I especially liked the combination of the mythic with an increas­ingly interconnected and media-saturated world.

Recommended Stories

“Corialis”, T.L. Huchu (Fiyah Autumn ’19)
“Operation Spring Dawn” Mo Xiong (Clarkesworld 11/19)
“Tiny Bravery”, Ada Nnadi (Omenana 10/19)

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 January 2020 issue of Locus.

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