Clarkesworld #125, February 2017

ISFDB link
Galactic Central link

Other reviews:
Sam Tomaino, SFRevu
Various, Goodreads
Clancy Weeks, Tangent Online

Fiction:
Assassins ● short story by Jack Skillingstead and Burt Courtier ♥
Prosthetic Daughter ● short story by Nin Harris ♥
How Bees Fly ● novelette by Simone Heller ♥♥♥+
Rain Ship ● novelette by Chi Hu (translated by Andy Dudak) ♥♥♥+
Dragon’s Deep ● reprint novelette by Cecelia Holland ♥♥♥
The Dragonslayer of Merebarton ● reprint novelette by Tom Holt [as by K. J. Parker] ♥♥♥

Non-fiction:
Fallout ● cover by Benedick T. Bana
Frodo Is Dead: Worldbuilding and The Science of Magic ● essay by Christopher Mahon
Organic Tech and Healing Clay: A Conversation with Nnedi Okorafor ● by Chris Urie
Another Word: A Doom of One’s Own ● essay by Genevieve Valentine
Editor’s Desk: The Next Chapter Begins ● editorial by Neil Clarke
Fallout (Cover Art) ● essay

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

Assassins by Jack Skillingstead and Burt Courtier has a particular type of assassin as its main character. Simone operates in the Labyrinthiad, killing off the public’s favourite VR characters:

Mileva Kosich, sitting on a bench across from the Office of Public Affairs, eye-flicked behind her Experiencer glasses. It was her lunch-break and she just had time to meet her virtual friend, Ellis Ng. Belgrade disappeared, and Mileva was gliding in a sunboat over a crystal blue pond. Ellis approached in his own sunboat, its solar net billowing like a gossamer shell.
Of course, Ellis was legion, and millions of Experiencers considered him a friend, but that didn’t undercut Mileva’s joy at the sight of his approach. Everyone enjoyed their own personal Ellis. He stood up and waved with two fingers extended (his customary greeting), making the boat rock. A black-winged personal flying suit swept down out of the empty sky. Mileva caught her breath. Simone! The assassin fired a projectile and Ellis Ng’s sunboat exploded in a plume of flesh and fiberglass. Shocked, Mileva fumbled her glasses off. She sat on the bench, too upset to move. p. 2-3

Simone’s activities subsequently bring her problems in the real world.
This is a short and unconvincing piece: I didn’t buy her motivation or (spoiler) the resulting level of violence in the real world.
Prosthetic Daughter by Nin Harris is set in a Chinese-heritage future where a time-travelling admiral has had her memory nodes robbed by a childhood friend/colleague leaving her a partial amnesiac.
The idea that the narrator is an admiral is completely unconvincing (in fact, given there are almost a dozen mentions of food and/or drink in as many pages, she comes over more like a gastronome), the time travel aspects are notional at best, and there is little or no story, just endless chatter and info-dumps.

After a disappointing start to the fiction in this issue, matters improve. How Bees Fly by Simone Heller sounds like a fantasy for the first few lines but quickly reveals itself as SF:

This is how you defend yourself against the demons of old, should they cross your path: You grind down their bones with a millstone and burn them; the ash you bury under a Blackwillow tree and salt the whole field where you happened to find them. You seal off their artifacts and other possessions behind a grade-3 lock, and you melt the key in the fire of your community’s smithy. Their scriptures, should you really get your hands on them, you throw onto a cart driven by a sacred gearbeast and program it to walk into one of the acid lakes.
This is how it is sung. This is how it is done. This is how it is safe. In my lifetime we only found one demon in our community, and it turned out to be the skeleton of a wild dog. But there were stories, reaching us via grease merchants and traveling codemongers, about outposts that had been poisoned by the dreadful emanations of a sole demon’s finger bone, about how the Society of Illiterate Enlightenment hunted down a single line of equations threatening to undermine the foundations of life. p. 22

The story concerns a female midwife and beekeeper for a rural settlement encountering two demons just as a storm is brewing. She manages to survive her unexpected meeting with them (it soon becomes apparent that the ‘demons,’ contrary to folklore, are harmless) but she returns to her village and raises the alarm nonetheless.
As she has been in contact with the demons she is temporarily expelled from the village and tries to survive the storm that is now in progress by going to the Society’s citadel. She fails to reach it, but is rescued by the male demon and is taken to the outbuilding where he and his pregnant partner are sheltering.
The rest of the story (spoiler) reveals the ‘demons’ to be humans, and the midwife a member of a non-human egg-bearing species (whether alien or far-future Earth is not clarified). This is an interesting and absorbing piece, and hopefully the first of a series. I’d like to know more.
By the by, I couldn’t find any other stories by this writer on ISFDB, and suspected it might be her debut—which was confirmed by editor Neil Clarke’s online comments. The endnotes state that Heller is a literary translator and ‘she lends her voice to writers in the sff field by day.’ According to her own website1 this is English to German translation; let’s hope she translates some short German SF into English, as well as providing us with more of her own work.
Rain Ship by Chi Hu tells the story of Jin, a female Ruderan mercenary who is providing security for an archaeological team investigating an ancient human site on a planet called Hill Four. The Ruderans are a far future rodent species that exist long after humanity has died out.
After a family funeral, Jin returns to her job on Hill Four just before the site is raided by pirates, and raises the alarm when she is in town and realises something is amiss. When the attack begins she makes her way to her comrades at the main site. Shortly after this she goes through a portal and ends up alongside the lead archaeologist in the big find they have made: a human Rainship, a huge vessel with multiple ecological habitats.

The outer shell of the spacecraft was built around this floating space. The ancient humans had built cabins and facilities on the inner surface of this shell, simple yet solid, which remained intact after one hundred million years. A walkway spiraled up the shell, connecting the cabins. Bridges and tunnels extending from this walkway—and various cabins—connecting to the floating, crystalline space.
Which was a great tower of ecological habitats.
For some reason my eye was drawn to one facet of this dazzling jewel: a small path winding through thick grass, only the flagstones of the trailhead visible, ancient stones cracked and pierced by tenacious green growth.
Ecological spaces filled almost the entire spacecraft, divided by panels of polarized light into self-sustaining ecosystems. Thick clouds filled the upper spaces. Mists curled and rose on grasslands, on leaves of grass twice my height. Fine rains descended on gardens, inaudible.
The ship was silent, but I saw raindrops gleaming on leaves.
Big, titanic, colossal, beyond description—I quickly spent my ammo, adjective-wise. I just stood there, looking up in awe. The giants that had built this ship, this great hall, had vanished a hundred million years ago. But rain fell continuously down this great pillar of ecologies.
Now we Ruderans were here, trespassing, feeling small and insignificant, and compelled to silence.
p. 49

The rest of the fight against the Pirates plays out on the Rainship, and is complicated by the arrival of Dar, a notorious member of a ‘Darwinian’ sect of the Ruderan. He is reputed to have killed all the parents in his cult as well as the rest of his litter. His connection with the head archaeologist is slowly revealed, and this also advances Jin’s own backstory which involved her killing a litter of her mother’s in accordance with social custom (one wonders if Ruderan eugenics are a sly dig at China’s one child policy). The story proceeds to a satisfactory conclusion, and adds a transcendent epilogue.
This piece has a number of strengths. Apart from being quite a good adventure tale, the Ruderan breeding customs make it more interesting, as do the descriptions of the remnants of a long vanished humanity. On the other hand, I think it could have done without the draggy first few pages at the funeral. There are also a couple of dozen footnotes at the end which would have been better absorbed into the main story.

There are a couple of reprints, as usual, and this time they are both dragon fantasies.
Dragon’s Deep by Cecelia Holland (The Dragon Book, ed. Jack Dann, Gardner Dozois, 2009) starts off in a fishing village that is visited by the Duke and his men. They take the villagers’ fish for extra taxes, and rape some of the woman.
Perla, a young woman who hides in the woods during the raid, subsequently joins her brother and some of the other men on a perilous fishing voyage to the north. Just as they are hauling in a huge catch a whirlpool appears and out of it comes a huge dragon. After tying herself to the dragon to avoid drowning she ends up being taken underwater to an inland cove, where she is held prisoner.
Over the following months she tells the dragon stories so he won’t eat her. Eventually, she escapes and makes her way back to her village, where she finds that life has become much harsher than before. Then she hears that neighbouring settlements are being destroyed in the night, and realises the dragon is looking for her….
The end was not one which I was expecting but, after reflecting on the realities of the life Perla was living in the village, it is perhaps apt.
This is a vividly told story with a strong first half.
The Dragonslayer of Merebarton by K. J. Parker (Fearsome Journeys, ed. Jonathan Strahan, 2013) is narrated by the knight of a small village who tells of a dragon that has started attacking the outlying areas. We are told about both the preparations to deal with it and the characters involved, and this is achieved in an informal and engaging manner:

But a knight in real terms isn’t a single man, he’s the nucleus of a unit, the heart of a society; the lance in war, the village in peace, he stands for them, in front of them when there’s danger, behind them when times are hard, not so much an individual, more of a collective noun. That’s understood, surely; so that, in all those old tales of gallantry and errantry, when the poet sings of the knight wandering in a dark wood and encountering the evil to be fought, the wrong to be put right, “knight” in that context is just shorthand for a knight and his squire and his armor-bearer and his three men-at-arms and the boy who leads the spare horses. The others aren’t mentioned by name, they’re subsumed in him, he gets the glory or the blame but everyone knows, if they stop to think about it, that the rest of them were there too; or who lugged around the spare lances, to replace the ones that got broken? And who got the poor bugger in and out of his full plate harness every morning and evening? There are some straps and buckles you just can’t reach on your own, unless you happen to have three hands on the ends of unnaturally long arms. Without the people around me, I’d be completely worthless. It’s understood. Well, isn’t it? p. 113

The ending (spoiler), while noteworthy for realistically describing what happens (two of his friends are killed when they engage it, but the second manages to get the dragon to impale itself on a lance before he is crushed to death), felt slightly anti-climactic.

I liked Fallout, the cover by Benedick T. Bana, more than recent efforts (apart from the fact I like robot covers it is a brighter work).
Frodo Is Dead: Worldbuilding and The Science of Magic by Christopher Mahon is a heavyweight essay (Nietzsche is name checked more than a few times) which argues that the more rule-based fantasy worlds are, the more they end up becoming like our world (as you get similar developmental processes, scientific investigation, the Enlightenment, etc.). Or I think that is what it was about: I read it just before going to sleep, and in any event it may be over my head.
Organic Tech and Healing Clay: A Conversation with Nnedi Okorafor by Chris Urie is an interesting interview about a writer I’ve not yet read and knew nothing about.
Another Word: A Doom of One’s Own by Genevieve Valentine is a short essay that mostly discusses a post-apocalypse novel called Only Lovers Left Alive by Dave Wallis, and the Batman films, but is probably about the gloom produced for some people by the US election results.
Editor’s Desk: The Next Chapter Begins by Neil Clarke is about him giving up his day job as an IT professional and becoming a full-time editor.

Not a bad issue: two interesting original pieces and a couple of solid fantasy reprints.

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

  1. Simone Heller’s website.

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