Clarkesworld #124, January 2017

Editor-in-Chief, Neil Clarke; Editor, Sean Wallace; Reprint Editor, Gardner Dozois

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The Ghost Ship Anastasia • novelette by Rich Larson ♥♥
A Series of Steaks • novelette by Vina Jie-Min Prasad ♥♥♥+
Justice Systems in Quantum Parallel Probabilities • short story by Lettie Prell ♥♥
Interchange • novelette by Gary Kloster ♥♥♥
Milla • short story by Lorenzo Crescentini and Emanuela Valentini (translated by Rich Larson) ♥♥
Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance • reprint novelette by John Kessel ♥♥♥+
The Shipmaker • reprint short story by Aliette de Bodard ♥♥♥

Waste Pickers • cover by Gabriel Björk Stiernström
The Evolved Brain • essay by Benjamin C. Kinney
Another Word: Dystopias are not enough • essay by Kelly Robson
Editor’s Desk: Stomp Stomp Stomp • essay by Neil Clarke
A Collective Pseudonym and an Expanding Universe: A Conversation with James S.A. Corey • interview of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck • interview by Chris Urie

This issue’s fiction leads off with The Ghost Ship Anastasia by Rich Larson. This is about a crew that are sent to a bioship that has ceased communicating with the mining company that owns it. When the team get aboard they find that the freethinker—AI—on board has passed the Turing threshold and has gone crazy. During this process it has absorbed all but one of the crew members into its biomass.
Another plot device (the one that supplies a ticking clock) is that Silas, one of the investigating crew, has had his sister die in a micrometeorite accident while they were enroute to the bioship. He still has her ‘personality code’ but it will decay as long as it is held in the ship’s memory. This latter aspect never really convinces—it sounds analogous to a Microsoft Word document becoming a bit tattered if you leave it on a USB stick for too long—but there are some visceral Alien-ish thrills to be had elsewhere.

A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is about a woman called Helena who is a meat forger in a future China. She uses printing technology to produce bootleg meat for various establishments while she tries to gather enough money to change name and move (there is an initially unspecified incident in her past that puts her at risk of prosecution).
One day she gets an order for two hundred T-bone steaks from an anonymous source, with the threat that she’ll be exposed to the authorities if she doesn’t provide them. Helena fears she won’t be able to produce something so technically demanding in such a short time and advertises for help. At this point Lily walks into her life and the rest of the story is an effervescent and fun buddy movie.

Helena wakes up to Lily humming a cheerful tune and a mostly complete T-bone model rotating on her screen. She blinks a few times, but no—it’s still there. Lily’s effortlessly linking the rest of the meat, fat and gristle to the side of the bone, deforming the muscle fibers to account for the bone’s presence.
“What did you do,” Helena blurts out.
Lily turns around to face her, fiddling with her bracelet. “Uh, did I do it wrong?”
“Rotate it a bit, let me see the top view. How did you do it?”
“It’s a little like the human vertebral column, isn’t it? There’s plenty of references for that.” She taps the screen twice, switching focus to an image of a human cross-section. “See how it attaches here and here? I just used that as a reference, and boom.”
Ugh, Helena thinks to herself. She’s been out of university for way too long if she’s forgetting basic homology.
“Wait, is it correct? Did I mess up?”
“No, no,” Helena says. “This is really good. Better than . . . well, better than I did, anyway.”
“Awesome! Can I get a raise?”
“You can get yourself a sesame pancake,” Helena says. “My treat.”
p. 28

Prasad doesn’t appear to have written any other SF (there are two non-genre publications listed in the author note at the end)1 but if she is going to contribute further stories of this calibre she will be a promising find: this is a very entertaining piece and possibly one for the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.

Justice Systems in Quantum Parallel Probabilities by Lettie Prell isn’t really fantasy and SF, or have much of a story for that matter: I suppose you could call it a meditation or thought experiment. A man in a cell listens to one of the other inmates talking to himself about different types of justice. He falls into a doze and dreams:

There is a justice system with no police. People turn themselves in to prosecutors voluntarily, or are persuaded to do so by others. The prosecutors hear the confessions. One prosecutor is turning someone away, saying, “We cannot help you. While your situation is unfortunate, you have committed no crime.”
The man is unhappy. “But how am I to live like this? How am I to restore the balance of things?”
“That is not my concern,” the prosecutor replies.

Cole watches as the man leaves the courthouse and goes down the street to a small shop providing justice-type services for people the prosecutors turn away. Cole peers over the man’s shoulder and reads the menu of sanctions and punishments. Some of the choices are more severe than those meted out by the real justice system. The man purchases two days in jail. The handcuffs they use to lead him away cost extra. p. 41/42

Interchange by Gary Kloster gets off to a bit of a clunky and unconvincing start. The main character is Lucy, who is one year on from killing her husband (he attacked with a knife after cheating with her sister) but has a conjugal machine that looks like him. Further stretching credulity is Lucy’s job as a medic to a work crew that is constructing a highway interchange—in a time limbo. The plan is to pop out of existence and then reappear six months later—a microsecond in real time—with the completed project.
After all this has been set in motion the time limbo machinery malfunctions and, after some discussion, it appears they may have been in the far future for a few seconds: Lucy warns the camp boss that there is a possibility that airborne infections or other agents may have contaminated their environment.
Sure enough, one of the workers is later bitten by a snake. This turns out to be a garter snake, but one with nano-technology fibre pathways throughout its body. Even though it has been chopped in half, both parts regenerate and escape. These nanos also start growing in the man that is bitten…. The rest of the story continues apace.
Although the various elements don’t gel particularly well at the beginning, once the infection occurs it becomes an increasingly compelling and gripping read and proceeds to a transformative ending. In short, average to start with but good to very good by the end. I look forward to seeing more of this writer’s work.

Milla by Lorenzo Crescentini and Emanuela Valentini (translated by Rich Larson) is a story about a surveyor on an idyllic alien planet who starts hearing a voice from his implant. As he records the various flora and fauna on the planet he concludes the voice is an alien AI, but when she starts reading poetry he realises something else has happened.
This is slow to start, and the ending doesn’t entirely convince. It has a nice last paragraph though.

Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance by John Kessel (The New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, 2009) is an adventure about a warrior priest who has stolen a set of religious plays, the only set in existence, from Imperial City. As he makes his escape to the space port, the Gods speak to him, giving him instructions.
Later, when his spaceship is attacked, he takes refuge in the engine bay of his ship and unfolds a female soldier called Nahid from a nine-dimensional pouch concealed in his body. They manage to fight their way out and get down to his home planet in an escape pod. A perilous journey to the safety of his order’s monastery follows.
This is a superior piece that is inventive and fast-paced and one that I would have rated higher if it wasn’t for a couple of loose ends (the metal man under the mountain, the voices of the gods). I wondered if this was actually a nod to the archetypal pulp story, which would sometimes have unresolved plot-elements to facilitate a number of sequels.

The Shipmaker by Aliette de Bodard (Interzone #231, September 2010) is one of her ‘Universe of Xuya’ stories that tells of a starship architect called Dac Kien building a new vessel. It is a stylishly told tale based on Viet culture:

And still she worked—walls turned into mirrors, flowers were carved into the passageways, softening those hard angles and lines she couldn’t disguise. She opened up a fountain—all light projections, of course, there could be no real water aboard—let the recreated sound of a stream fill the structure. Inside the heartroom, the four tangled humors became three, then one; then she brought in other lines until the tangle twisted back upon itself, forming a complicated knot pattern that allowed strands of all five humors to flow around the room. Water, wood, fire, earth, metal, all circling the ship’s core, a stabilizing influence for the Mind, when it came to anchor itself there. p. 122

The problems start when the birth mother of the starship Mind arrives early as a premature birth may be on the cards. The Mind is an organometallic organism and cannot survive outside a ship. The pregnancy of birthmother contrasts with Dac Kien’s childless relationship and, while she is dealing with the emotional repercussions of this, she has to accelerate the building of the starship to ensure it is completed before the Mind is born.

The non-fiction in Clarkesworld has so far struck me as a little on the lacklustre side and this issue is no different. It comprises of: a science essay, The Evolved Brain by Benjamin C. Kinney; A Collective Pseudonym and an Expanding Universe: A Conversation with James S.A. Corey, a short interview with Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck by Chris Urie; Another Word: Dystopias are not enough, an essay by Kelly Robson which makes a pitch for less cynicism and more positive SF stories in response to the current political situation (good luck with that); and, finally, Editor’s Desk: Stomp Stomp Stomp, a short editorial by Neil Clarke about his work/home situation getting on top of him and the refuge of SF escapism.
Waste Pickers, the cover by Gabriel Björk Stiernström is rather dark, I thought, and dull with it.

Overall, this is a pretty good issue. The Prasad and Kessel and a large chunk of the Kloster story are particularly good, and there is nothing that is bad.

This magazine is available at Amazon UK, Amazon USA, Weightless Books, Magzter (I got mine as part of the Gold subscription) and elsewhere.

  1. Prasad’s work has appeared in Queer Southeast Asia and HEAT: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology. The story from the first publication, The Spy Who Loved Wanton Mee, is available online via her website.

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