Left Behind • short story by Cat Rambo ♥
The Universal Museum of Sagacity • novelette by Robert Reed ♥♥♥
Breathe • short story by Cassandra Khaw ♥♥
Jonas and the Fox • novelette by Rich Larson ♥♥♥
Away from Home • novelette by Luo Longxiang [translated by Nick Stember] ♥♥
Tough Times All Over • reprint novelette by Joe Abercrombie ♥♥♥
A Heap of Broken Images • reprint short story by Sunny Moraine ♥
Ananiel, Angel of Storms • by Peter Mohrbacher
Destination: Venus • essay by Andrw Liptak
Transcendent Transformation: A Conversation with James Gunn • by Chris Urie
Another Word: Strange Stars • essay by Jason Heller
Editor’s Desk: Stress Relief • by Neil Clarke
I picked up this particular issue because there were three names I recognised: Cat Rambo, Robert Reed and Rich Larson.
Left Behind by Cat Rambo is the first of the three. It is about an elderly woman called Cianna Jones—one of the remaining ‘natural’ humans in the world who remain unmodified—being prepared to become the digital ‘brain’ of a spaceship. Her children have elected for this course of action as she has been declared incapable of autonomy.
The narrator, Shi, enters the virtual world that has been created for Jones to inhabit during the voyage. While Shi is in Jones’s virtual world she notices it is impressively detailed but also gets the impression that something is not quite right. The rest of the story charts Shi’s second and third visits during which she starts a dialogue with Jones and discovers that she is reluctant, in fact openly hostile, about the plan that has been suggested by her children
There are other aspects to this story as well. Shi’s generation are into body modification and gender fluidity, and Shi has decided to present as an eleven year old girl. There is also material about Shi’s job insecurity worries.
These different parts don’t gel and I found the story both unconvincing and dull. In particular, the virtual reality and gender fluidity aspects of the story seem very tired, and I found it hard to believe this is written by the same writer that gave us Red in Tooth and Cog in the March/April F&SF.
The Universal Museum of Sagacity by Robert Reed is a novelette that starts in a low-key manner with its narrator telling of a boyhood family mystery concerning an uncle who was briefly married to a woman called Maddy. After the couple had divorced and the uncle had remarried Maddy still turned up every year for Xmas.
The central section describes the narrator’s adult life as an accountant for a huge company called Pinpoint (which has absorbed Google and Apple), and the extended-life and AI-rich world he lives in. (One of the side details is that the company is so rich it has its own private mountain for its employees where, after the gentle slopes at the base, it becomes increasingly difficult the higher up you go.)
Finally, the story becomes a First Contact story that involves a massive amount of video feed from countless alien civilizations—and the company AIs have found Maddy in those video feeds….
One long wall dissolved into a street scene. Except the “street” looked more like black satin carpeting than a roadway, and nothing about the native architecture was human. Structures were more grown than built, full irregular blobs and jumbled angles that made at least one man uneasy. A dwarf red star stood fixed to a sky thick with pink dust and glittering machines, and the carpeted street was jammed with aliens. Not one species or ten species, but countless shapes marching and dancing while producing all manner of purposeful noise. And deep inside that mayhem stood one very familiar figure: A woman presumed dead but now leaning against what resembled an upright badger. I spotted her hair, dark as always but longer. Age had done nothing to the pretty face. And with all of the surprises raining down, I was a little startled to find the lady acting chummy with an animal. Maddy never struck me as the sort to keep pets.
Even though the ending is a little weak—this involves the efforts to find out where Maddy is and/or contact her—it is an interesting story whose narrative has the same exponential trajectory as the slopes of Pinpoint’s private mountain.
Breathe by Cassandra Khaw is about a woman deep in an alien sea observing algae growing with a view to estimating when it will be ready for harvest. Most of the story is a description of her claustrophobic discomfort, and the paragraphs are regularly punctuated with ‘Breathe,’and you do rather wonder why a borderline claustrophobic and unstable personality would be put into a situation like this. Anyway, there is also some back and forth conversation with her lover on a parent ship/submarine (spoiler) before it is attacked by larger creatures. She saves the day by causing a fire with her flare gun, although how this is caused underwater is not explained.
This is a good example of a SF story that concentrates on its descriptive writing, style, characters and their state of mind, relationships, etc., with the story very much taking a back seat.
Jonas and the Fox by Rich Larson is set in on a colony planet that has recently undergone a revolution. The husband and wife who feature in the story have two boys who are the narrators. One of them, Damjan, is the host to his uncle’s personality. Damjan was brain dead after falling from a Godtree; his uncle Fox was involved in the revolution but fell from grace in a power struggle and needed somewhere to hide.
The story alternates between the two boys’ point of view after the older brother, Jonas, shows Damjan/Fox a one-seat spaceship hidden in a disused Granary. Fox sees the ship as a way off the planet.
There is nothing particularly original here but this is an engaging story that is developed competently.
Away from Home by Luo Longxiang tells of the planetship Phaeton, and focusses on two characters in particular, Weihan and Han Dan. Shortly after they meet the Phaeton suffers a meteor shower and they have to take shelter before abandoning it amongst much loss of life.
A sudden explosion shook the bunker, with a roar that seemed to crack the heavens and split the earth. Moments later, urgent knocking could be heard outside the blast doors. Weihan opened the doors, coming face to face with Police Chief Zhao. His two hairy legs sticking out from under his nightshirt, he waved a still holstered pistol in Zheng’s face, shouting, “You have to get to the emergency escape pods! The meteor shower broke the sun!”
Every planetship had its own massive, fusion-powered artificial sun that orbited in a fixed path, providing a never-ending stream of light and heat. Without its sun, a planetship would freeze solid.
Weihan ends up a refugee on another planetship in the fleet, and returns to his parent’s home along with Han Dan. Weihan is reconciled with his father and goes to flight academy. Han Dan is not who she seems to be.
There is a little more story to this but it is really more of a travelogue describing the fleet of planetships that the story is set on and, with one wonder following another, is slightly reminiscent of the Jules Verne story I recently read in the first issue of Amazing Stories. This is all readable enough stuff, albeit very unsophisticated—perhaps readers will get something from the modern Chinese take. With that in mind, the rating is a generous one.
Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie (Rogues, ed. George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois, 2014) is about a courier in a disreputable city of thieves and cutthroats who is in the process of delivering a special package when she is robbed. The thief himself is in turn relieved of the package and so it goes until the end of the story, a daisy chain of similar events. However, (spoiler) as with most daisy chains you end up back where you started….
There is no obvious fantasy content in this bar its setting and, if ultimately pointless, it is an light hearted and entertaining enough tale.
A Heap of Broken Images by Sunny Moraine (We See a Different Frontier: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Djibril al-Ayad & Fábio Fernandes, 2013) tells of an alien guide conducting human visitors around genocide sites. The killings were by Earth colonists on the indigenous alien population. There isn’t any real story or narrative arc here, just endless questions and agonising by the guide. See my final comments about the Khaw story above.
The non-fiction this issue includes a strong cover, Ananiel, Angel of Storms, by Peter Mohrbacher. Destination: Venus by Andrew Liptak is an article about the reality of Venus and how it has (or has not) been correspondingly portrayed in fiction. Transcendent Transformation: A Conversation with James Gunn by Chris Urie is less a conversation than a short plug for Gunn’s latest novel Transcendental, the second in a trilogy. Another Word: Strange Stars by Jason Heller is another short, almost inconsequential, piece about the intersection between SF and rock music. It doesn’t do much more than mention a few examples. Editor’s Desk: Stress Relief by Neil Clarke closes out this issue giving some of the magazine’s recent story nominations and wins in various awards.
In conclusion, another mixed bag. I think I am beginning to notice common characteristics in some of the fiction that Clarkesworld publishes: perhaps more on this next time.