Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Clarkesworld, Anathema, and BCS
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/20/21, 6/3/21
The June Clarkesworld leads off with “Little Animals” by Nancy Kress. Elena is our point-of-view character, a woman who is “borderline depressive.” She’s part of a research team that is using quantum effects to be able to “receive” the mental impressions of people who lived in the past. This is as much an art as a science, and Elena’s abrasive partner Cora has been frustrated in her attempt to tune into the artist Vermeer in the mid-17th century. Instead they’ve found Maria van Leeuwenhoek, daughter of that Antonj van Leeuwenhoek who did some of the earliest work with microscopes. Kress focuses the story on the characters of Elena and Maria. Elena’s father recently died tragically, and her sister is in poor mental health; Maria’s father is domineering and has no care for her religion or the man she loved and lost. Elena has to decide how much to give to research and how much to her family. This is a compassionate story that really brings the characters to life, especially Maria, who is exactly the sort of person often overlooked in the histories of science. Suzanne Palmer brings us a charming novelette, “Bots of the Lost Ark“, follow up to 2017’s Hugo Award winner “The Secret Life of Bots”. As it starts, Ship has woken up Bot 9 – it may have been a rebellious bastard before, but Ship needs its capability to improvise. Ship has a heck of a dilemma: they survived what should have been a suicide mission but took a lot of damage. They weren’t able to jump home and will now have to beg the Ysmi for the use of their gate. However the Ysmi believe no AI can be trusted if it’s not under the immediate control of humans – and all of Ship’s human crew are in stasis. In fact, some of the bots who were to take over the crew’s roles have instead adopted the crew’s identities and have been fighting amongst themselves as to which of them is the “real” crewmember. Bot 9 has to journey through all this chaos to wake the real human engineer, and Ship has to navigate some dicey diplomacy when the Ysmi contact them. The dialog between all the different bots on the ship is great, and the introduction of the human engineer is hilarious.
Jiang Bo offers a very different kind of thriller in “Face Changing” (translated by Andy Dudak). Xu Haifeng is an investigator closing in on financial criminal Huang Huali. Huang keeps evading capture, staying one step ahead of the detective – but finally Xu gets to meet him face to face. Huang seems to have a way to hack the omnipresent surveillance “Heavenly Network System,” but he says he needs Xu’s help to leave the country. The cat-and-mouse game continues to the end. We get a strong closing story with Cristina Jurado‘s “Embracing the Movement” (translated by Sue Burke). It is told entirely from the perspective of an alien consciousness that is addressing a lone human they have found out in space. The alien is a collective made of many individuals, and we learn about its history, plans, and goals while it becomes increasingly frustrated at the human’s failure to communicate. There’s no universal translator to fall back on in this chilling tale, and miscommunications can have dire consequences.
Anathema‘s tagline is “Spec from the Margins” and issue #12 bears that out. “Before Whom Evil Trembles” by Nhamo features a ballerina who rose to the top despite her Arabic ethnicity and her scandalous origin – she was found orphaned next to the body of her mother, a murdered sex worker. Despite all the cruelty that is endemic in ballet (or at least in stories about ballet) and the casual racism that has a bell boy questioning her right to be in her hotel, she is ready for her triumphal performance. But on that night, as she dances, there are more transformations in store for her, and something new will be unleashed on the audience. “Cirque Mécanique” by Kel Coleman features the ringmaster of a robotic circus, one that puts on one show a year to keep themselves in some semblance of practice in case humans ever return to the world. It is elegiac in the same way that the opening of Wall-E is, and like the Pixar movie, the only representative of life here is a lone beetle. Mostly a mood piece, it is quite lovely. Last is “Lady Fortune” by Archita Mittra, where a very different circus has a fortune teller who loves her daughter immensely. Her customer is a rich but very frightened woman who is pregnant but terrified both of the possibility of miscarraige and also of her vicious husband. It becomes clear that the fortune teller has been waiting for this woman specifically, to try to communicate something terribly important to her. The solution to the mystery of why is more satisfactory than the ending itself, but it delivers a valuable message.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies is as wide ranging as always in issues #330 and #331. From frequent contributor R.K. Duncan we have “Hassan the Executioner Walks Out of Jawasar for the Last Time“, a story about the aftermath of the defeat of Lamia, a powerful sorceress, by a trio of unlikely heroes. Hassan was her enforcer and had been her childhood friend as they both grew up in poverty in the original city. He journeys to leave the city she created since it is starting to come unglued, both magically and socially. He muses on their past and what she created after her transformation. There’s a lot more depth to his story than simply being on the side of a terrifying ruler – not everything will be better now that she’s gone. Kurt Hunt‘s story “To Crack the World” also features a soldier and a female mage, but in a very different situation. Daum was a delivery and logistics soldier who got tapped to be a magehandler and lead a team to capture and return one of the mages – he tries very hard not to think of her as a person but more as some sort of dangerous weapon, which is how the Despotate tends to use them. After an ambush, the mage escapes and he has to go after her – presuming it will be better to be killed quickly by her than by his superiors for failure. But when he finds her an honest dialog ensues, opening up new possibilities for both of them.
The stories in issue #331 center their plots on boys in untenable situations. “The Woods Echo Back” by Tania Fordwalker is Shon’s story. He’s largely mute and his mother has just passed away. His father is a trapper with a gigantic chip on his shoulder and no respect for his son. When one of his father’s traps snares a lindwurm, a fantastic mythical creature, the father immediately sets off to sell the creature’s parts and pelt and make and squander his fortune. Shon is left at home with a baby lindwurm the adult had been protecting even in death. Shon trains it pretty much exactly like a large dog and wins its complete loyalty. That changes the balance of power between himself and his abusive father when the man returns. “Worth the Whistling” by Adriana C. Grigore is told from the perspective of Agneta, a bone writer who lives near the very weird woods known simply as the Whistling. Taught by her grandfather, she exhumes old bones and by her writing helps put their souls at rest. She is unsurprised when she hears a woman being murdered and buried by a mob at the edge of the woods, but she is more surprised when Cale arrives at her door. The woman was his mother, who had always protected him even in his trans identity – at the very end she called him her son even as the crowd growled that she had no son. Cale wishes to rescue her bones immediately, although that’s against Agneta’s policy. Before long they make their way together, both to the grave and through the Whistling – where Agneta will have to make a very hard choice about her future.
“Hassan the Executioner Walks Out of Jawasar for the Last Time”, R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/20)
“Embracing the Movement”, Cristina Jurado (Clarkesworld 6/21)
“Before Whom Evil Trembles”, Nhamo (Anathema 5/21)
“Bots of the Lost Ark”, Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld 6/21)
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 August 2021 issue of Locus.
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