Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Clarkesworld, Samovar, and Slate Future Tense

Clarkesworld 9/22
Samovar 7/22
Slate Future Tense 6/22, 7/22, 8/22

In September, Clarkesworld leads off with a sweet story from Fiona Moore, “The Slow Deaths of Automobiles”. The narrator is writing the story to their one-time partner, ad­dressed as “you” throughout. They start off as a couple in high school, but the narrator goes away to college and the partner remains, caring for an old, sentient car named Tanvi. There’s a lot of discussion and debate over the years about what Tanvi does or does not “want,” but things come to a head when the car appears to crash itself. At its core, this is a story about change and the futility of trying to resist it. Speaking of change, two other stories here deal with people becoming artificial versions of themselves to, in various ways, defeat death. In “Sub-son” by Amal Singh, perfect son Vishwa died but was replaced by an artificial sub-Vishwa – and in this future, these sub-creations have gained all the rights of the original person. Brothers Shyam and Sundar still suffer in his shadow, as their mother dotes as completely on the sub as on the original. The family stays locked in a single dynamic, unable to move through grief and evolve into something new. “Live Update” is a novella from Lettie Prell. Sun Ong is an anti-aging researcher, widow, mother, and member of a family that owns a company that’s about to start uploading people. She’s dying of cancer, and her family encourages her to join their initial team of instantiation volunteers. The next thing she knows, she’s moving through an insubstantial landscape trying to find and anchor her teammates in a place where it’s much too easy to lose touch with reality. They realize that they’ll have to try to fix things from the inside while keeping the researchers on the outside in the dark. Even in a very computer-oriented scenario, Sun’s biochem­istry knowledge – and her ability to deal with her family – is crucial.

Shining Bursa and the Listening Post” by Sarah Pauling stood out to me. It’s the bizarre but beautiful story of Bursa, a galaxy-spanning conqueror, and Seafaring, an almost magical creature that stalks him and brings him useful intelligence. Then there’s the Prayer Engine that took Bursa’s heart and gave him the tools to wield ultimate power for millennia. Seafarer has an agenda regarding the Engines, but is also invested in the idea of freeing Bursa’s heart (no matter how often Bursa tries to kill the elusive being). The story is marvelously told, but I felt like the ending left me hanging.

Samovar’s translated fiction for July is “A Cloud­cutter’s Diary” by Chen Chuncheng (translated by Jack Hargreaves). The titular cloudcutter liter­ally has the job of shaping and controlling clouds per the directive of the local government. It’s a hermit job and he loves having the spare time for his own reading and edification, but he hasn’t been able to settle on a single topic to focus on obsessively for years on end. The story hinges on a card game he joins along with a fox and a tortoise, which is not at all the way I thought the story would go. It’s quite lovely and an interest­ing commentary on intellectual (but not always rational) obsession.

The stories in Slate’s Future Tense Fiction series continue to focus on cutting-edge near future concerns. “This, but Again” by David Iserson imagines that it is eventually proven that our world truly is a computer simulation. In this future, Marcus experiences a glitch that has him re-experience his life from day one, conscious of what’s going to happen but unable to effect any change – except at one key pivotal moment. The story nicely explores the consequences of making one small change in an otherwise deterministic matrix. “All that Burns Unseen” by Premee Mohamed brings us Vaughn, who manipulates her government posting to get sent to her parents’ home town, which is surrounded by wildfires. In Western Canada there’s almost no water available for firefighting, so various chemical agents and fire retardants are the prime tools being used. Vaughn ends up with an unexpected partner in a partially disabled firefighting drone, and goes to try to find out what’s happened to her elderly parents. The story does a great job layering the worldbuilding with Vaughn’s personal story. In “The Only Innocent Man” by Julian K. Jarboe, Charlie is middle-aged and teaching when a student trips across erotic fiction that he wrote as a young adult. He’s a Black, gay, trans man who wrote soft-core porn for hire during his transitioning period, and it’s not something he particularly wants people from his current life to find. He learns that it’s being maintained by a university project that’s specifically archiving early Queer writing from the internet, so he goes down in person to try to work out how best to ex­ercise the right to be forgotten. Charlie’s constant self-reflexive self-examination is really well done.

Recommended Stories

“A Cloudcutter’s Diary”, Chen Chuncheng (Samovar 7/22)
“All that Burns Unseen”, Premee Mohamed (Slate 7/22)
“The Slow Deaths of Automobiles”, Fiona Moore (Clarkesworld 9/22)

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 November 2022 issue of Locus.

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