Magazine Review: Clarkesworld Issue 95, August 2014

Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion

Caroline M. Yoachim has created a moving, melancholy, and ultimately hopeful story set in the aftermath of an alien invasion. Yoachim follows the lives of five interconnected people as they come to terms with sporefall—aliens attempted terraforming of Earth. We are given glimpses of the new world, filtered through the survivors stories. Mention is made of ruined cities and caravans and one of the characters is intimately involved with alien negotiations. The frog-like aliens themselves are intriguing and just outside human comprehension. The ‘invasion’ is only hinted at as the story is more interested in a meditation on grief.

 Bonfires in Anacostia

Joseph Tomaras’ Bonfires in Anacostia is a near-future story of surveillance, repressed desires, cover-ups, and murder. Tomaras uses unusual points of view, such as surveillance cameras and even a futuristic table that listens and records, to emphasize the paranoia and draconian watchfulness of the world. References to current events as history help ground it in the possibilities of the present day. The characters, however, were not particularly engaging, and ultimately the story was an interesting and thought-provoking exercise but it never grabbed me.

 The Saint of Sidewalks

Kat Howard’s story is a meditation of faith, human nature, and the nature of miracles. Joan is a desperate young woman, who in a moment of weakness makes a prayer to the Saint of Sidewalks. She asks only for a miracle, and the result is not at all what she expected. Howard uses Joan’s experiences to examine what makes someone a saint, and why humans need to believe. Off-kilter and strange, the story nevertheless feels true. The highlight of the issue.

 The Rose Witch

James Patrick Kelley’s The Rose Witch is a dark and lyrical fairytale. Julianja was a great witch’s most promising apprentice, the only one allowed to tend the magic garden. The witch’s last charm ties Julianja to the quest of a strange man burdened by the curse of his ancestors. The resulting story is a note perfect character piece, full of depths, magic, and the power of choice.

 Seven Years from Home

Naomi Novik is probably most known for her Temeraire Series, essentially the Napoleonic Wars with dragons. This story, however, is the first piece I’ve actually read by her. It is a sci-fi story of clashing cultures and war crimes. The narrator recounts her history years later heavy with guilt, having paid the penalty for her crimes. The story’s greatest strength is world building, particularly of the alien Melidans with hints of larger galactic politics. It was occasionally rushed, and I was never quite able to connect with the characters, but it was well plotted and enjoyable.

Nevermore

Ian R. Macleod’s Nevermore is a tale of broken dreams, art and faded love in a utopian future of virtual reality. The world has become a sea of virtual realities, of ghosts uploaded and eternal. Virtual reality has become so commonplace that what we call reality is now “foreal” and reality means the virtual. Gustav is an artist, his days of greatness and relevance long behind him, who struggles to find meaning in art and in foreal. This is a meditation on what value art would have in such a world, and on what drives the artist.

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Magazine Review: Clarkesworld Issue 93, June 2014

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wHole

Robert Reed’s wHole is an engrossing little thought piece. Initially it is told from the point of view of a car that is lost in the woods beneath unfamiliar stars, and trying to understand its passengers, and more importantly, how many people there are in the back seat. The story slowly opens up into a tale of engineers space travel and the power of thought. A quiet and engrossing story, that like all good science fiction, makes you think. Indeed, I may need to read it a few more times before I fully connect all the concepts introduced.

Pepe

Tang Fei has crafted a lyrical melancholy story about two “story-telling machine kids” with springs and gears, built to only ever tell stories. It unfolds like a twisted fairy tale with windup children. The relationship between the narrator and Pepe is a twisted knot of hate, shared experience, and unspoken love. Fei slowly gives the reader glimpses into the larger world, but maintains a sense of mystery and implied depth. My favorite of the issue.

Communion

Mary Anne Mohanraj’s Communion is a character piece set against the backdrop of an intergalactic war. Chaurin, an alien, has come to reclaim his brother’s body from a human colony. There are only three characters in the story, four counting the deceased who casts a long shadow, but Mohanraj uses them to explore a variety of topics including burial traditions, body image, genetic engineering, and racial purity in a way that never feels forced and stems directly from the characters and their experiences. A very well crafted, thought provoking story.

Lambing Season

Molly Gloss’ Lambing season is a sci-fi western that focuses on one woman, a sheepherder, alone with the sheep, the dogs, the coyotes, and something else. It is full of lived in detail and comfortable solitude. This is an atmospheric, slow building story–quite, thoughtful, and almost real.

Have Not Have

Geoff Ryman’s Have Not Have is a story of fashion, of the city and the town, of the haves and have-nots. Ryman takes the reader into the world of Mae, the village’s fashion expert, and shows the world through her eyes, her struggles. A charming, bittersweet story with bite.

 

 

 

Magazine Review: Clarkesworld Issue 92, May 2014

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The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye

Matthew Kressel’s story unfolds slowly like an intricate puzzle. There is a beautiful, dreamlike quality to this tale of the far future, where the vast All-Seeing Eye consumes stars and knowledge and finds a problem it can’t quite solve. The dark undertones emerge gradually. A whole universe is unveiled through only three characters. For me this was the highlight of the issue.

A Gift in Time

Maggie Clark tells the story of Mouse, a young appraiser in love with his boss, who can travel through time, and brings back items in an attempt to impress Ezra. This is a different sort of time travel story, more a character piece. The time travel is largely unexplained, and almost incidental to the exploration of the characters, or more specifically, of Mouse. Enjoyable and filled with just the sort of period detail and references that I enjoy.

 

Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds

I collect titles, especially odd or off kilter ones. E. Catherine Tobler’s “Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds” has exactly the sort of title that would peek my interest. The story itself is a dreamlike post-apocalyptic fable following one woman’s trek towards the sea. There is a sense of vast depth and unanswered questions that give it its power.

 

Night of the Cooters

Howard Waldrop’s story of a small town in Pachuco County is essentially a western version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. No names are named, but it seems to take place largely concurrently with the events of the novel. It’s a fun little twist on the old idea. Cowboys and Aliens done right.

Beluthahatchie

Andy Duncan’s story of an African American blues player in hell is filled with folklore and period detail. This version of hell is a plantation and John and his music bring unexpected hope.

 

Magazine Review: Clarkesworld Issue 91, April 2014

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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.

Passage of Earth

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.

Autodidact

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.

Water in Springtime

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.

The Cuckoo

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.

Going After Bobo

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.

Shining Armor

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.