The Algorithms of Value • short story by Robert Reed ♥
The Abduction of Europa • short story by E. Catherine Tobler ♥♥
Extraction Request • novelette by Rich Larson ♥♥♥+
Everybody Loves Charles • novella by Bao Shu (translated by Ken Liu)
The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale • reprint novelette by Robert Silverberg ♥♥♥
Old Paint • reprint novelette by Megan Lindholm ♥♥♥+
Cover • by Julie Dillon
Our Future is Artificial • science essay by Sofia Siren
Painterly Cyborgs and Distant Horizons: A Conversation with Julie Dillon • artist interview by Chris Urie
Another Word: Let’s Write a Story Together, MacBook • science essay by Ken Liu
Editor’s Desk: The 2015 Reader’s Poll and Contest • by Neil Clarke
Clarkesworld has been going for about a decade now and I’ve been peripherally aware of it for several years, mostly due to its stories appearing regularly in the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies. This is the first issue I’ve read.
Before I get to the fiction, a quick recap for anyone who, like me, has been on a different planet for the last decade. Clarkesworld began as an online magazine in late 2006; since then it has published monthly and not only makes its fiction and non-fiction available on its website for free but also produces ebook and print editions and compiles yearly anthologies of its stories.1 It has also won a handful of Hugos for best semi-prozine.
This issue starts with The Algorithms of Value by Robert Reed. The central character is Parchment, a old woman who is famous in a world where everyone has a room that can provide all their desires. One day, outside in the streets, she meets a boy called Ink. The story details the development of their relationship as well as a backstory about her and her husband, and their development of the Algorithms of Value:
Safety was the first necessity. Surviving the next moment was paramount. For humans, nourishment and clean water were unimpeachable if rather less urgent rights. There also was the universal right to shelter. By law, every person was guaranteed a home and every home possessed at least one dependable room. Walls had to be ready to project any image, real or fictional. Rooms could sing any song and tell any story, calibrating versions according to the resident’s desires. And of course every sentient voice had to be able to speak to everyone else, whenever they wished and without cost. Of course, of course.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t really go anywhere.
The Abduction of Europa by E. Catherine Tobler is a better effort. Two men on Europa, Bolaji and Kotto, are returning from a mission to rescue another team member. However, not only is he lost but so are their two ice-cats, leaving them on foot with some considerable distance to travel to get back to base. On their journey home one of the men starts changing into the native alien life form. This narrative is broken up by passages detailing the transformation that the lost man, Marius, has already undergone.
Extraction Request by Rich Larson is the best story in the issue. This is a pretty grim and visceral account of a combat team who are shot down on an alien planet. Their situation deteriorates further when their sentry cyclops detects an intruder:
“Prentiss, there’s a bogey heading towards you,” he says. “Might be mechanical. Get eyes on it.”
Jan’s reply crackles. “Hard to miss,” he says. “It’s fucking glowing.”
“And what is it?” Elliot says. “You armed?”
Jan’s reply does not come by channel, but his howl punctures the still night air. Elliot is knocked back as Noam barrows past him, unslinging her gnasher and snapping the safety off. Snell’s fast behind, and then the others, and then Elliot finds himself rearguard. He’s still fumbling for his weapon when he rounds the back of the downed [ship].
His eyes slip-slide over the scene, trying to make sense of the nightmarish mass of bioluminescence and spiky bone that’s enveloped Jan almost entirely. His night vision picks out a trailing arm, a hip, a boot exposed. The creature is writhing tight around Jan’s body, spars of bone rasping against each other, and the glowing flesh of it is moving, slithering. The screams from inside are muffled.
This develops into a gripping account of their struggle to survive, which is not improved by the fact that their commander, Elliot, is a heroin addict. Even if you don’t buy the issue it is worth a trip to the website to catch this one.
Next up is a novella by Bao Shu, Everybody Loves Charles (Science Fiction World, September 2014), which has been translated by Ken Liu. I believe that the magazine currently has translated fiction in every issue (although there doesn’t seem to be any in #113). This is an admirable aim as foreign SF, with its different cultural and social viewpoints, can only enrich the field. It is a pity therefore that this offering is of such poor quality.
The story itself is about Charles Mann, who is an aviator, writer and livecasting star: his life is transmitted via a biological implant to the world twenty-four hours a day with one or two small exceptions, as he explains to a reluctant date while they are having dinner:
Charles chuckled. “I always pause the cast when I’m sitting on the toilet. Nobody wants to deal with the smell. Trust me.”
Thanks for sharing.
The story starts with him competing in a Pacific sub-orbital race and subsequently being arrested by the Japanese police. After his lawyer arranges for him to be released without charge, he pressures the female arresting officer into having dinner with him. Their relationship develops and she eventually convinces him to stop livecasting when they are together. Cue another entry by his lawyer and the start of a ludicrous megalomaniac conspiracy plot about (spoiler) the biological livecasting implants giving the evil corporations physical control of the users.
There is also another narrative strand which gives us the point of view of one of the livecasting ‘viewers’. Naoto has an implant that enables him to spend nearly all his time plugged into Charles’s livecast, except when he is sleeping, working or being bothered by his single female neighbour Takumi-kun, who thinks he should get out more. When Charles stops constantly livecasting, Naoto and Takumi-kun start to spend more time together and she asks him about the livecasting technology:
“I asked you how it felt to tune into a livecast.”
“An interesting question.” Naoto pondered his answer. “At first, you go through a period of adjustment—that happens no matter whose livecast you tune into. The beginning is a bit frustrating: the colors and sounds all feel wrong somehow, as though you’re watching some 2-d film from the twentieth century. It’s just odd. Although all human beings share similar biological sensory organs, there are subtle differences in the neural wiring, and so you have to put in an effort to interpret the signals being projected into your brain, and all subtleties are at first lost. For several days you’ll feel as though you’re perceiving everything through a film, and nothing feels immediate or real. But then, one day, you’ll have a breakthrough and everything will feel just like your own senses.”
There are other examples of this dull info-dump material throughout the story. I could go on and talk about the unbelievable characters and dialogue, the clunky prose, the fact it is far too long, etc., etc., but I’ve probably said enough.
The magazine also has a couple of reprints every issue and editor Neil Clarke has subcontracted this job to Gardner Dozois, previously the long-time editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction. The first of his two choices this issue is The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale by Robert Silverberg (Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honour of Jack Vance, edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois, 2009). The story is about a jaded sorceror-poet at the end of time who spends most of his time drinking wine and writing poetry to keep the ennui at bay. The bulk of the narrative is about three ne’er do wells that come to his house to rob him. The story is rather slight but the enjoyment in this one is in the manner of its telling:
He set out a pair of steep transparent goblets rimmed with purple gold, murmured the word to the wine-flask that unsealed its stopper, and held it aloft to pour. As the wine descended into the goblet it passed through a glorious spectrum of transformation, now a wild scarlet, now deep crimson, now carmine, mauve, heliotrope shot through with lines of topaz, and, as it settled to its final hue, a magnificent coppery gold. “Come,” said Puillayne, and led his friend to the viewing-platform overlooking the bay.
The other reprint, Old Paint by Megan Lindholm, first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2012, and was subsequently reprinted in both Dozois’ and David G. Hartwell’s ‘Best of the Year’ collections. I question the wisdom of reprinting it here as it is probably pretty well known, but I suspect the philosophy that pertains here is a millennial ‘if it isn’t on the internet it doesn’t exist’.
The story itself is a pretty good one about a single mother, her son and her daughter. Narrated by the latter, it tells of the mother inheriting a number of things after her grandfather’s death including a semi-autonomous car:
“How smart is this car?” Ben demanded.
“Smart enough,” she said. “He can take himself to a fueling station. Knows when his tires are low on air, and can schedule his own oil change. He used to talk to the dealership; I wonder if it’s even in business still. He’s second generation simulated intelligence. Sure fooled me, most of the time. He has a lot of personality customization in his software. My grandpa put in a bunch of educational stuff, too. He can speak French. He used to drill me on my vocabulary on the way to school. And he knew all my favorite radio stations.” She shook her head. “Back then, people wanted their cars to be their friends. He sure was mine.”
“That’s whack,” Ben said solemnly.
“No, it was great. I loved it. I loved him.”
“Love you too, Suzanne,” the car said. His voice was a rich baritone.
“You should sell this thing, Mom,” Ben advised her wisely.
“Maybe I should,” Mom said, but the way she said it, I knew that we had a car now.
It tells of the family’s subsequent relationship with the car, and climaxes with the events that occur when all fully automated cars on the road are infected with a virus. An affecting story, particularly so for those with a soft spot for cars and partially-sentient AI.
As to the non-fiction, one thing I will say is that the covers for Clarkesworld are of a high standard, and that applies to both the artwork and the design.2 The latter is uncluttered and they have stuck with the same clean layout since the magazine was launched.
As for the columns: Our Future is Artificial by Sofia Siren is an article about three recent AI projects; Another Word: Let’s Write a Story Together, MacBook by Ken Liu is about computer programs writing novels; Editor’s Desk: The 2015 Reader’s Poll and Contest by Neil Clark uses the editor’s space for a list of fiction for the annual readers’ poll, as well as reproducing last year’s covers; finally, there is an interview with the cover artist Julie Dillon.
A very mixed bag, but it is worth catching the Rich Larson and Megan Lindholm stories.
- The contents of each issue are available on its website for free as webpages and podcasts, but you can also get print and eBook editions (epub, mobi and, from May 2016, PDF). The prices for the eBook are variable, so shop around (an Amazon.co.uk subscription is £2.99 per month, whereas a 12 issue subscription through Weightless Books is $35.88, £2.30 per issue based on an exchange rate of £1=$1.30). The print edition on Amazon.co.uk is just under five quid currently.
- Some of the previous covers are just wonderful. My favourite is probably this one by Matt Dixon, one of a few he has done on a robot theme:
You can find all of this magazine’s covers at the Clarkesworld cover gallery.
Matt Dixon’s website is here.