Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Lightspeed, Terraform, and Avatars Inc

Strange Horizons 3/2/20, 3/16/20, 3/30/20
Lightspeed 4/20
Terraform 3/6/20
Avatars Inc, Ann VanderMeer, ed. (XPRIZE) January 2020.

Strange  Horizon‘s  first  March  story  ”Rat  and Finch Are  Friends” by  Innocent  Chizaram Ilo is an homage to the classic Frog and Toad children’s  books  by Arnold  Lobel.  Finch  is  a young man in trouble on two fronts: because he is a shapeshifter who can turn into a finch and fly, and because he kissed another shapeshifter boy that he thinks of as Rat at boarding school. This isn’t a happy story, but it is a story of survival. In ”The Touch Pool” by Lisa Nan Joo, a woman is surviving her grief over the disappearance of her adult daughter. She has moved into her Nan’s place  on  the Australian  coast,  which  is  being slowly overwhelmed by the sea. The artefacts of the sea that she finds in the tidal zone, along with a supernatural visitor, help her start to process and move through her grief. One specific item that’s mentioned is the egg case of a Port Jackson shark, and I highly recommend you look up an image of one, they are really fantastic looking.

At the end of March Strange Horizons ran a Climate Crisis special issue featuring three extra stories and poems. All of the stories touch on the future of water in various ways. ”Dirty Wi-fi” by Porpentine Charity Heartscape conflates contaminated water with the ubiquitous need for wi-fi and what might go wrong when the wi-fi is as scarce and contaminated as the water; then it looks at that rather surreal melding through the lens of a relationship between two people who have a relationship mostly through masturbatory internet sex and have no real way of knowing how close their relationship is or isn’t. ”Cairns” by Jason P. Burnham (no relation) imagines a world where the buildup of microplastic in both food and water has led to an outbreak of terminal colon cancer in children. Ana and her wife Pilar have two children and, with their limited income, can only afford uncontaminated food once a week – and then of course have to struggle to get the kids to eat it. Ana’s fear is palpable when her six-year-old son starts experiencing rectal bleeding, and she has to wait for pediatric colonoscopy results at the ER with other terrified parents. The unfair linkage of economic means to higher quality food that has a chance to not make you sick has broad applicability, but this story is a well-done family portrait, not a political screed. Finally, ”Three days with the kid” by Tara Calaby turns toward the post-apocalyptic as an older person in an almost waterless Australia joins up with a newly orphaned girl to travel across the denuded landscape. There are roving bands of parchers to reckon with, and survival is far from assured. These stories are additional entries in the subgenre of science fiction that seek to dramatize with immediacy the risks we face as our world and our climate continue to be shaped by our largely unchecked waste products.

April’s Lightspeed leads off with ”The Least of These” by Veronica Roth, a classic SF story that seems to dramatize a philosophical premise. On a near-future Earth slowly succumbing to multiple crises, an alien race swoops in and chooses two women to parlay with. They theoretically represent both the Best and the Worst that our species has  to  offer,  and  they’re  supposed  to  choose  a fixed number of people to travel with the aliens to far off space, ensuring the continuation of the species. Needless to say, the humans don’t take the aliens’ offer at face value. The fantasy section has  an  original  story  by  Celeste Rita Baker, ”Glass Bottle dancer”. A woman invents a crazy new art form, dancing on glass bottles. Practicing at night, in secret, she’s worried what her family might think, but we also get the perspective of the insects who are watching her efforts. When her husband discovers what she’s doing he becomes her biggest booster, and she ends up performing at a local festival with literally fantastic results. It’s always a joy to read a Baker story with all the rhythms of her native Caribbean, and I also appreciate  a  story  that  foregrounds  a  working mother with an intact family.

Over at Terraform, Tobias S. Buckell has a story titled ”Zombie Capitalism”. It’s a relatively straightforward piece of satire, imagining a world in which the government was forced to privatize the response to a zombie uprising, and the different responses that Sheryl and her husband Dale have to the invasion. I have to say, this story more than most reads very differently in our new coronavirus pandemic world, and it’s on-the-nose in ways that I’m sure the author never hoped for.

Ann VanderMeer continues her work with the XPRIZE foundation with this year’s all-original anthology Avatars Inc. Last year, Current Futures focused some amazing writers on the topic of optimistic near-future SF dealing with Earth’s oceans. Avatars Inc takes writers of the same caliber and focuses on teleoperated robotics: the epilogue describes the $10 million reward being offered to one of 77 teams developing ”an avatar system  that  could  transport  a  human’s  senses, actions,  and  presence  to  a  remote  location  in real time” by 2022. It’s obviously a premise that science fiction has played with for decades and a rich topic for the authors collected here. In an interesting  twist,  the  24  stories  in  the  volume are presented in ”chronological order,” ranging from 2030 to 2079. They start with ”Add Oil” by S.l. Huang, set in 2030, a sweet story where a  roboticist  who  can  no  longer  visit  family  in Hong Kong ships a robot body to his grandmother that he can then inhabit. Things go swimmingly until he discovers that her retirement hobby leans heavily towards political protest, and his avatar gets swept up along the way. By 2079, Madeline Ashby‘s story ”Porcelain Claws in Cinnamon Earth” features a body recovery effort by some of the first people to make it to Mars, preceded by Julie Nováková‘s story set in 2074, ”A Mountain to Climb” where an attack is launched on an under-construction space elevator that might lift humanity out of its problem on many different levels; the descriptions of the sensory-enhanced world that the avatar operator is experiencing are compelling.

Several of the stories here deal with how these kinds of avatars might interact with the dying, and they’re some of the strongest in the volume. One of the best is Pat Cadigan‘s ”The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie” (2058) where an AI is guiding an avatar requested by a hospice patient, but the character shuts out the operator while in some ways ushering the patient into the next life. Many an author would have stopped there, but Cadigan takes us through the inquiry after the event, which opens up even more interesting territory. Tom Sweterlitsch‘s ”Neurodancer” (2055) features a man suffering from severe dementia, which is somewhat mitigated when he uses an avatar; the descriptions of the world he perceives in his own room and when he’s in the avatar are intense and visceral.

Two of my favorites are ”Uma” by Ken Liu (2054), where a utility bot operator in California goes to rescue some children during a wildfire, opening the company up to lawsuits. The story has an almost improbably uplifting ending which I definitely appreciated. ”The Search for [Flight X]” by JY Yang gives us a researcher obsessed with an ”unsolved” missing aircraft flight mystery (the real-world analog is easy to guess) winning access to an undersea avatar to possibly finally find the grail she’s been looking for. It’s a compelling portrait of the kind of obsessive pursuit that some might dismiss as frivolous that defines the lives of others. There are many strong stories here; I hope these handful of mentions give a sense of how much range the authors and editor are able to extract from what seems to be a very narrow remit. With stories from Tade Thompson to Charles Yu, you’re in for quite a ride when you pick up this freely available online anthology.

Recommended Stories

”Cairns”, Jason P. Burnham (Strange Horizons 3/30/20)
”Uma”, Ken Liu (Avatars Inc)
”The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie”, Pat Cadigan (Avatars Inc)
”The Search for [Flight X]”, JY Yang (Avatars Inc)

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 June 2020 issue of Locus.

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