Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction:Clarkesworld, Abyss & Apex and The Sunday Morning Transport

Clarkesworld 1/22
Abyss & Apex Q1 ’22
The Sunday Morning Transport 1/9/22, 1/16/22

Back in my usual haunts, January’s Clarkesworld opens with a story of grief, love, and food in “The Uncurling of Samsara” by Koji A. Dae. The narra­tor is part of a family that has historically provided food engineering for their generation starship, a very important job that keeps the population healthy and uplifts morale. But the ship’s environmental system is necessarily a closed loop, and when their grandmoth­er’s body is respectfully consigned to the recycling system, the narrator is too upset to eat anything. The story has a lot to say about food and how central it is to our selves and our cultures. Food also features in R.S.A. Garcia’s novella “Bishop’s Opening”. This feels like the start of something bigger as we’re intro­duced to the cruel Valencians who base their hierarchy on chess. Our heroes are completely unaffiliated, a poly triad of Sebastian, Olly, and Reece. Olly talks up the food on the station they’re visiting, but things have changed and change even more when Sebastian more-or-less accidentally interrupts an assassination attempt on a Valencian Bishop. Things devolve from there, and we learn where at least one food stand owner has disappeared to, and what his relationship is to Olly, while sparks fly between the irresistible and irrepressible Sebastian and the disciplined Bishop.

There are also two stories focused on media interac­tions. “Learning to Hate Yourself as a Self-Defense Mechanism” by Andrea Kriz is told in the second person, as many video game-based stories are. “You” finally play a game that a friend of yours wrote that’s totally hit it big. Now you see that she wrote you into her experiential game as a pathetic loser of a “Best friend” – we see both how much the friendship meant to “you” and how your clumsy attempt to write her into one of your games comes off as offensively ex­oticizing. This is a dark and multi-layered story. Then “No One at the Wild Dock” by Gu Shi (translated by S. Qiouyi Lu) imagines an AI being trained, very deliberately, by humans – and we experience this from the AI’s point of view. The trainers are close to despairing that they’ll ever get anything useful out of the project when a breakthrough occurs and the AI is finally able to create art – movies and music, etc. – that is totally engaging. The story follows the implications through to a fairly bitter end.

Before I leave Clarkesworld for other venues, let me just add a note of how striking I found the cover art for January – Neil Clarke takes his art selections as seriously as his stories, and I found “Return to Heaven 7” by Zezhou Chen starkly stunning.

I always appreciate checking in on Abyss and Apex, and they had their first issue of the year up on exactly Jan 1. Stephen A. Roddewig makes his debut with historical horror in “Land’s End Light”. The story is told by a gentleman of the Coast Guard who is stationed at a lighthouse in Alaska in the 1930s, where the previous keeper disappeared mysteriously. On an icy, stormy night the terror starts, and the mystery of the fate of his predecessor might be solved. It feels a bit like a William Hope Hodgson story. “The Memory Spider” by Fiona Moore brings us Car­rie, cleaning out the house that her mother Nancy, a famous ballerina, had lived in. We get a vivid picture of their not-particularly-healthy relationship, but she also notices that one of the cleaning bots, one that looks most like a spider, is behaving oddly. Nancy may have left a different legacy for herself in this bitter story that ends sweetly.

A new speculative fiction enterprise is trying the distribution-via-newsletter route, helmed by editor-in-chief Julian Yap and managing editor Fran Wilde. The Sunday Morning Transport is delivered to inboxes on Sunday mornings, with one story a month free to all, and one story each week for paid subscribers. It launched with “To Make Unending” by Max Gladstone and “Legend” by Karen Lord, so they’re going for gold right from the beginning. (While I don’t usually note relationships because SF is such a small field, Karen and I ran a joint podcast for several years and have oft collaborated.) Both these stories are highly mannered, with Gladstone nailing a pastiche of Tolkein-esque high fantasy language. Into this world of High Councils and Pale Kings, Celabrim’s son has been playing a version of D&D set in our world, with skill checks for Email Interpretation and the like. He’s also written a speculative fiction novel under the strange name “William,” which his father struggles to understand. They are looking at very different ways of constructing and living narratives, but generational misunderstanding doesn’t have to mean broken relationships. Lord’s story imagines a High Councilor en route to the funeral of a General with whom she once made common cause – to the extent that those riding with her assume they must have been lovers. But she and he took very different paths once they achieved success, and he ended his life as a tyrant. There are many layers to unpack in this very short story and it amply rewards re-reading.

Recommended Reading

“The Uncurling of Samsara”, Koji A. Dae (Clarkesworld 1/22)
“To Make Unending”, Max Gladstone (The Sunday Morning Transport, 1/9/22)
“Legend”, Karen Lord (The Sunday Morning Transport 1/16/22)
“The Memory Spider”, Fiona Moore (Abyss & Apex 1Q/22)

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 March 2022 issue of Locus.

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