Clarkesworld is one of my favorite online fantasy and science fiction magazines and always provides an interesting mix of stories. I first became aware of Catherynne M. Valente from its pages. This month’s issue contained six stories stretching from the present day to a future nursery where stars become ships. The two standout stories for me were Autodidact and Water in Springtime and I look forward to reading more of Benjanun Sriduangkaew and Kali Wallace’s work.
Michael Swanwick has written what is essentially a character piece taking place during a particular kind of alien invasion, although calling it an invasion is something of a misnomer. Hank is a county coroner with a history in government service, who is recruited by his ex-wife to perform an autopsy on an alien Worm. As the story enfolds Swanwick gradually shows the true nature of both Hank and the Worms. It is this characterization of both an individual and a collective species that is the story’s greatest strength, even if it occasionally seems to veer into Freudian territory.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s story is difficult to describe. There is an almost dreamlike feeling to this tale of AIs forged from the corpses of stars and the effort to teach her ethics. The main character, Nirapha, is a survivor of the genocide of Mahakesi and is recruited to teach ethics the most dangerous and powerful ship in the universe. This is largely a three-hander consisting of Nirapha, the AI, and the AI’s ‘mother.’ The tug of war between them forms the meat of the story. I enjoyed it immensely.
Kali Wallace’s story of a mother and daughter straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction. There are hints of an ancient war still being fought, but the story focuses on the strained relationship between Alis and her mother. The mother is distant and otherworldly, capable of strange magic, magic that Alis seems to lack. The story traces Alis’ growing understanding of her own powers and subsequently of her mother. The magic in this story follows the water and is unique and well depicted. This is a melancholy story, almost a fairy tale from another world. This is my favorite of the issue.
Sean Williams combines future history, April Fools Day, chaos theory, and memes into a short, thought-provoking piece. One of the shortest stories in the issue, it nevertheless, has the densest concentration of ideas and concepts. The late 21st Century is cleverly drawn and the ideas are fascinating. I’ll admit that the concept of self-aware memes has always fascinated me, but is one that I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around. I also appreciated the almost dry historical tone.
Susan Palwick writes about a broken family and a missing cat in the near future. The speculative aspects are less prevalent, but the family dynamics, the shadow of the father’s suicide, and the question of what actually happened to the cat provide ample drama. Sadly, on reflection, I’d say this was my least favorite story here.
Dominic Green has constructed a future where the Commonwealth of Man is fading and mining combines threaten a small village protected only by a huge armored monstrosity, the Guardian, that requires an operator to function. This is a fairly standard set up, that Green enlivens both by telling through the eyes of a young boy, and through the lively depiction of the village’s personalities.