Clarkesworld #126, March 2017

Other reviews:
Bob Blough, Tangent Online
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Sam Tomaino, SFRevu
Various, Goodreads

Editor-in-Chief, Neil Clarke; Editor, Sean Wallace
Reprint Editor, Gardner Dozois; Non-Fiction Editor, Kate Baker

Two Ways of Living • short story by Robert Reed ♥
Real Ghosts • short story by J. B. Park ♥
Waiting Out the End of the World in Patty’s Place Cafe • short story by Naomi Kritzer ♥♥♥+
Crown of Thorns • short story by Octavia Cade ♥♥
Goodnight, Melancholy • novelette by Xia Jia (translated by Ken Liu) ♥♥
The Discovered Country • novelette by Ian R. MacLeod ♥♥♥
At the Cross-Time Jaunter’s Ball • novelette by Alexander Jablokov ♥♥♥

Jungle Deep • cover by Sergei Sarichev
SF Short Fiction Markets in China: An Overview of 2016 • essay by Feng Zhang
Howling at the Lunar Landscape: A Conversation with Ian McDonald • interview by Chris Urie
Another Word: Reading for Pleasure • essay by Cat Rambo
Editor’s Desk: Recognizing 2016 • editorial by Neil Clarke

This issue starts with Two Ways of Living by Robert Reed, which is about a man who periodically hibernates in his flat to extend his lifespan to the point where he can travel the solar system. One day, when heading out for food after hibernating for several months, he trips over his neighbour’s dog. His female neighbour is called Glory and the dog, which has an AI chip or something similar, is called Salvation. The conversation that develops is an uncomfortable about the way he is living his life, as is the next one he has with the pair twenty-six months later. The third time he wakes up (spoiler) she has broken into the apartment. She leaves him with the dog who says, like her, ‘There are two ways of living.’ This wasn’t an ending that worked for me.
Real Ghosts by J. B. Park is about a dying man who us shortly going to be scanned to produce a replica computer persona that his family can access in the future. Meantime, he talks to the scan of his deceased sister. His (still alive) brother appears to visit but this also turns out to be a scan. Not much happens here apart from various sibling issues being aired, and I found it rather dull to be honest.
Waiting Out the End of the World in Patty’s Place Cafe by Naomi Kritzer starts with a young woman trying to get home to her estranged parents before an asteroid hits the Earth. A few hours short of home she runs out of petrol and ends up in a diner in Belle Fourche. Here, she meets a couple called Michael and Robin. In between ordering food and watching scientists talk about the probability of impact on CNN, she discovers a number of things about Robin (her parents were Jehova’s Witness, she is trans, etc.). This makes her reflect on her estrangement from her parents.
If all this seems like rather weighty navel-gazing it isn’t, as it’s an absorbing and affecting piece that has the odd flash of humour, such as when Michael suggests she comes with them to Yellowstone rather than go home:

“Did you pass through Yellowstone on your way east?” Michael asked.
“No,” I said. “Even if I’d taken I-90 I’d have passed north of it.”
“Want to come see Yellowstone with us?” Robin asked. “It has Old Faithful.”
“And a supervolcano that could blow up at any time,” Michael said. “So even if the asteroid misses us completely we could still potentially die in a cataclysmic disaster today!” p. 27-28

Crown of Thorns by Octavia Cade has a married couple mourn their daughter against the backdrop of a plague apocalypse. They are located on a reef that is being destroyed by swarms of starfish and the resident scientists are discussing leaving the station to join survivors elsewhere. This is competently enough done but the dying world, reef and relationships all make it quite a depressing piece. This is not helped by being placed after another apocalypse themed story (online this wouldn’t be a problem as there is a week or whatever between stories, but if you are reading the book edition of the magazine . . .)
Goodnight, Melancholy by Xia Jia (translated by Ken Liu) is a contemplative story that has two threads. The main one is about a depressed young woman who has two robots/AIs, the second of which is a new arrival:

I remember the first time Lindy walked into my home.
She lifted her tiny feet and set them down gingerly on the smooth, polished wooden floor, like a child venturing onto freshly-fallen snow: trembling, hesitating, afraid to dirty the pure white blanket, terrified of sinking into and disappearing beneath the featureless fluff I held her hand. Her soft body was stuffed with cotton and the stitches, my own handiwork, weren’t very neat. I had also made her a scarlet felt cape, like the ones in the fairy tales I had read as a child. Her two ears were of different lengths, and the longer one drooped, as though dejected.
Seeing her, I couldn’t help but remember all the experiences of failure in my life: eggshell puppets that I had ruined during crafts class; drawings that didn’t look like what they were supposed to be; stiff, awkward smiles in photographs; chocolate pudding burned to charcoal; failed exams; bitter fights and breakups; incoherent classroom reports; papers that were revised hundreds of times but ultimately were unpublishable . . .
p. 42

This narrative is, as you can probably gather from the above, rather inward looking and not much happens.
The other thread is more compelling, however, and contains AI related material, including transcripts of conversations purportedly between Alan Turing and a computer program called Christopher.

Alan: Dear Christopher, let’s write a poem.
Christopher: Write a poem?
Alan: I’ve taught you how to do that. Don’t you remember?
Christopher: Yes, Alan.
Alan: Writing a poem is easy. Just pick some words out of the word bank and arrange them according to predetermined rules.
Christopher: Yes, Alan.
Alan: Please, Christopher, write a poem for me.
Christopher: My precious one, you are my ardent mate.
My love is pressed against your wishful heart.
My soul desires caresses, testing art;
Melancholy’s pity, a tender weight.
Alan: That’s beautiful.
Christopher: Thank you, Alan.
Alan: I don’t think I can do better.
Christopher: Thank you, Alan.
Alan: Does your poem have a title?
Christopher: A title?
Alan: Why don’t we come up with a title for it together?
Christopher: All right.
Alan: How about “Loving Turing”?
Christopher: It’s very good.
Alan: Such a beautiful poem. I love you.
Christopher: Thank you, Alan.
Alan: That’s not the right response.
Christopher: Not the right response?
Alan: When I say “I love you,” you should respond with “I love you, too.”
Christopher: I’m sorry, Alan. I’m afraid I don’t understand.

This part might have worked better as the kernel of a different story.
Even though I don’t think this piece is completely successful, I’ll be interested in seeing more of this writer’s work.

The first of the two reprints in this issue is The Discovered Country by Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September 2013), which is a novelette that is set in Farside, a virtual reality that is populated by very rich dead people. Into this world comes Jon Northover, sometime lover and musical collaborator of the dead superstar, Thea Lorentz. As they meet and rekindle their friendship we find out that the suffering of the (dystopian) real world is made worse by the existence of Farside because of, among other things, the money and resources that it consumes. Towards the end of the story we learn (spoiler) that Jon has been sent to destroy Thea with a data bomb, hopefully hastening the demise of Farside.
This is all, as ever, convincingly drawn by MacLeod, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending (Thea trusts him with her life even though Jon turns out to be something other than what he thinks he is).
At the Cross-Time Jaunter’s Ball by Alexander Jablokov (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, August 1987) has an intriguing start:

I had gotten lost again, as I so often did, because it was dark there, in those musty and unswept hallways that run between the universes. I’ve always been impressed by the amount of crap that seems to float in through the doorways and settle there, in some sort of plea for reality. An infinite network of passages linking the worlds of Shadow with that of the real might seem like a good idea, but who was going to keep it clean? The Lords were too haughty to concern themselves with things like that, and we humans were too . . . finite.
I looked in through doorways as I walked, to see such things as a city of hanging tree dwellings or an endless stairway that curved up from mist into blinding sunlight. These were delicate worlds, miniatures. As a professional critic of such Shadows I had to say that these worlds were not the style I usually liked, though one, where a regatta of multicolored dirigibles sailed above a city whose towers stood half in the sea, was excellent.

A rough wind blew past, carrying with it the clamor of a cheering army, and the pounding of swords on shields. The passage tilted upward, and I climbed a set of rough stairs, smelling first lilacs, then, when I took a deeper breath, an open sewer. I choked, and was surrounded by buzzing flies, who had wandered irrevocably from their world and, looking for shit, had found only the meager substitute of a critic. I ran up the stairs, waving the flies away, past the sound of temple bells, the dense choking of dust from a quarry, and a spray of briny water, accompanied by the shrieking of seagulls.
Gathered in a knot in the hallway ahead of me were a group of Lords, with their servant, a huge man wearing a leather helmet. Lord Prokhor, Lord Sere, and Lord Ammene, three balding men with prison pallor and rings below their dark eyes, waited for me to give them advice on acquisition. They sat on little folding stools, and looked uncomfortable.
p. 102-103

There is an attempt to kill the critic when he is on his next assignment, and the plot thickens when he realises his wife may have left him for another man. The second half isn’t as absorbing as the first but it is a pleasant enough read nonetheless.

There is the usual non-fiction. SF Short Fiction Markets in China: An Overview of 2016 by Feng Zhang does what it says on the tin, giving an insight into what seems like a healthy market. Howling at the Lunar Landscape: A Conversation with Ian McDonald by Chris Urie is an interview with the writer about his two ‘Luna’ books. Another Word: Reading for Pleasure by Cat Rambo is about the importance of reading for writers. I liked Jungle Deep, the photorealistic cover by Sergei Sarichev.
Editor’s Desk: Recognizing 2016 by Neil Clarke is a useful editorial which provides a list of award nominated and ‘Best of the Year’ anthology inclusion information for stories that appeared in the magazine last year. One story, Things with Beards by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld #117, June 2016) appears in all four (!) of 2016’s ‘Best Of’ anthologies as well as being a Nebula Award nominee. Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld #115, April 2016) makes it into three.

The more I read of this magazine the more I am beginning to realise that it has a slightly schizophrenic nature: on the one side you have the original fiction, and on the other the reprints—both of which have a markedly different feel. The original fiction, presumably selected by both Clarke and Wallace, reflects the nature of what the magazine will be like when it eventually publishes entirely original fiction. Those stories (from the handful of issues I’ve read) tend towards an emphasis on descriptive writing, a focus on the characters and their thoughts/feelings and identity/relationships. There a number of common themes: AI, VR, aliens, etc. The reprints, on the other hand, make it feel like someone has spliced in a third of an issue of a Gardner Dozois edited Asimov’s Science Fiction. These reprints, whose prose and narratives are more lucid and accessible, also tend to upstage the originals.
As to this specific issue, it is worth catching for the Naomi Kritzer story and the reprints (if you haven’t read them in Asimov’s Science Fiction already).

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