Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Fiyah
Fiyah Winter ’21
February’s Clarkesworld leads with a great cloning story, “The Failed Dianas” by Monique Laban. A young woman returning from a space-based financial internship goes to a high-end restaurant and meets a different version of herself, quite a bit older. It turns out that this is the original Diana who disappointed her parents deeply by refusing to go into finance; by the end of the story we’ve met five versions of the same person, each one cloned and raised at a different age by the same parents. This is a very pointed story about filial relationships, expectations, and autonomy. A very different and unexpected relationship forms in “History in Pieces” by Beth Goder. Here we get the perspective of an alien archivist who captures history in physical artefacts, each one standing as a small vignette suggesting a larger picture, especially when experienced out of order. As the reader assembles the pieces we learn of the first human explorers to visit the archivist’s planet and what fate befalls them. Goder conveys a lot of depth, given the fragmentary and fractured nature of the tale she tells.
There are two stories of life in the ruins, the first of which is “Terra Rasa” by Anastasia Bookreyeva (translated by Ray Nayler). In this time of complete climate collapse, cities are literally burning all over Russia. Our main character is a rescuer on the last train to the seaport of Murmansk. Rescuing a senior government official gave him a pass to one of the last ships trying to make safe harbor as far north as possible. His rescuing efforts continue as he also hides a girl when her grandmother is arrested; but hope is hard to come by in a world so devastated and decimated. “Obelisker Adrift in the Desert” by K.H. Meridian imagines a sentient AI system primed for warfare with any other remaining AIs, but badly damaged by its last encounter. When a panzergrenadier (cyborg soldier) named Kouya walks in out of the desert, they form an odd relationship, even when she leaves for a year to investigate a nearby human settlement. I really liked Obelisker’s narrative voice here.
Another pair of stories deals with men recovering from trauma and their relationships with aliens. In “Mercy and the Mollusc” by M.L. Clark, an unnamed man is taking his last journey with a giant Oomu, an alien mollusc/snail that he’s been riding for about a decade. The Oomu is intelligent, and they can communicate, although that’s not obvious to the young person who tries to steal their stuff and instead gets trapped inside the Oomu’s mucus. This story has enough space to unfold with deliberate pacing as we learn more about the man, the Oomu, the young person, and the terraformed world they live on. A much shorter story is “‘Remember The Washington,’ They Said as They Fed the Ugoxli” by Jeff Reynolds. On this planet humans have lost a war against the aliens, and while most have accepted the peace, there are many who are still resentful. The story opens with a group of men tossing an alien child to the Ugoxli to be eaten; some of them killed the parents, then they grabbed a veteran because they assumed he’d be on their side. It turns out he has a much deeper and different connection to the aliens than they had assumed.
Lightspeed has a very strong issue in February. First off is “The Mathematics of Fairyland” by Phoebe Barton, firmly in the science fiction section, despite the title. Marigold’s partner, Berenice, has disappeared on a ship that suffered a warp drive malfunction. The grieving woman stitches together space folklore of the fae to come up with ideas of how she might possibly win her love back from her space station home. She befriends a gardener from Mars who contributes some gremlin myths, but who also realizes how deeply grief can drag you down. This is a story of the grieving process that stays constant no matter how far removed in time or space. “Me Two” by Keith Brooke & Eric Brown imagines a person whose life is shaped by a unique circumstance – this individual alternates days between being Danny in England and Cristina in Spain. It takes a while for them to realize that not everyone switches bodies every day, but it remains a constant of their life. The crux of the story is the moment when, as relatively successful adults, they try to maneuver Danny and Cristina into meeting; I very much appreciated the way the story handles the climax and also follows them to the end of their life/lives.
On the fantasy side we have another amazing story from A.T. Greenblatt, “The Memory of a Memory Is a Spirit“. Sumé has arrived back on an island that she left 20 years ago. She was its caretaker, and while she left to try to understand why people weren’t visiting anymore (and to try to convince them that it’s not a haunted place), she also found a lover. Now the spirits are resentful and slow to warm to her, but she works methodically to restore the spirit houses to what she remembers. It turns out that the mainland has turned increasingly xenophobic; one of the reasons why she returned and why she’s not sure about her partner, but the ending opens this story up to a much wide scope. Finally, in “Destinations of Beauty” by Alexander Weinstein, he continues his “Eighth Continent” travelogue series with a discourse about beauty, and how the attitudes of both locals and tourists easily trump superficial aesthetics when it comes to how lovely a place may feel.
The first story in Winter’s issue of Fiyah is my favorite. “The Techwork Horse” by M.H. Ayinde is a girl-and-her-horse story, but in this case we get the span of the girl’s entire life, and the horse is an immobile object for the vast majority of the story. It is brought to Bola’s village, one of several magnificent robotic horses, which only the most noble are supposed to control and ride. However this one refuses to respond to anyone, and we get to see how Bola’s life unfolds around the space that the horse occupies for her, lowly though she is. This story packs a lot of sweep into a tale that seems bigger than its wordcount. I also enjoyed “All in a Day’s Work” by Jade Stewart. Walker is a freelance demon hunter in a world where such folk are usually found in organized covens. We see them help a Black couple in the Northwest, then, as they’re contemplating their next move, a once-in-a-lifetime manifestation arises. Throughout the story we get glimpses of their past, as well as the societal structures they’re avoiding. This is a heroic story that’s also rooted in culture and family.
“The Techwork Horse”, M.H. Ayinde (Fiyah #17)
“Mercy and the Mollusc”, M.L. Clark (Clarkesworld 2/21)
“The Memory of a Memory Is a Spirit”, A.T. Greenblatt (Lightspeed 2/21)
“The Failed Dianas”, Monique Laban (Clarkesworld 2/21)
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 April 2021 issue of Locus.
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