Review of Clarkesworld, Issue 88

cw_88_700Clarkesworld kicks off the new year with new fiction and a translated story by multi-Hugo Award winner, Ken Liu, as well as new fiction from Yoon Ha Lee. Liu shines bright once again in this issue, showing once again why he is one of the genre’s top short story authors (the best, some might argue). Could this story lead to a three-peat Hugo? The year is young.

The issue also contains two reprints, including a story by Hugo-nominee, Aliette De Bodard, and Hugo winner, Robert Charles Wilson, and a collection of non-fiction articles.

So, without further ado, I kick off my short fiction reviews this year by discussing the three new pieces of fiction in Clarkesworld, Issue 88.

“The Clockwork Soldier” by Ken Liu   Star Starred Review

Alex is a bounty hunter, commissioned by the most powerful man on Pele to find his runaway son, Ryder, and bring him home. She collects the teenager with ease and the two travel aboard her ship through hyperspace to his home planet. While Ryder is roaming the ship, Alex decides to snoop through his computer and comes across a text adventure computer game that the boy has written. She plays the game as a young girl who is accompanied by a clockwork soldier in a palace.
As a bounty hunter, Alex has learned to avoid empathizing with her prisoners. But there is something about this text adventure that draws her into the boy’s world. She believes that the game will reveal the true reason why the boy was running from his father and why the father was so desparate for him to be returned. She is successful in remaining distant from her prisoner, but begins to empathize with the text adventure’s character as she embarks on a quest of self-discovery. The result is a revelation that makes her reconsider not just the boy’s inner struggles, but her own.
This is the first short story I have read in 2014 and if it is any indication of what is to come, we are in for a tremendous year. Ken Liu articulates a clever story with great pace and narrative creativity. While the ending (and the reveal) are readily apparent to the reader, it never loses its appeal. He pays homage to Philip K. Dick, speaking of a PKD threshold that should not be surpassed. This speaks to free will — the ability to be creative. Liu also touches on the theme of faith (believing without seeing), which is integral to the internal change that Alex must undergo.
Ken Liu continues to demonstrate that he is one of the premier short story authors in the genre and this title is guaranteed to satisfy readers of all sorts.
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“Grave of the Fireflies” by Cheng Jingbo (translated by Ken Liu) 

Cheng Jingbo’s mythic tale is about a queen and her daughter, Rosamund, who live on an ark-like planet that was built because the stars that make life habitable were suddenly extinguishing. They travel toward younger stars, pass through an asteroid belt, and arrive at a planet known as the Weightless City. An inhabitant of the planet brings the queen to their leader – a magician who lives inside of a lumbering robot. The queen enters into the ear of the robot, never to return, leaving her princess daughter an orphan. Rosamund seeks to discover the fate of her mother and her path leads her to understand the cause of the dying stars and her mother’s secret past.

The story, ably translated by Ken Liu, reads like a fable. It is both an origin story and a love story, expressing the lengths that a person will go to in order to find love. The result is not always happiness and in this case, it has dark consequences (both literally and figuratively). While the story was well-crafted and rich with surreal imagery, I can’t say it left a marked impression on me. It was a thoughtful story that read more like a fable rather than having a protagonist who must overcome internal and external struggles. This made the narrative interesting, but I failed to connect on any real level with the characters. I have been striving to read more stories by people of different cultures and I definitely found this story worth my while to read. I hope translated works will continue to make their way into magazines like Clarkesworld, broadening our scope to understand the different forms stories can take and level-setting our Western expectations for character and plot.

“Wine” by Yoon Ha Lee

The planet of Nasteng is under attack by an alien culture’s insect drones. The Council of Five, certain the defeat was imminent, solicits the help of two mercenary lords to save them from destruction. Their employment comes at a hefty price, but money is not the greatest cost in saving the planet.

The Falcon Councilor, in exchange for obtaining the beacon that delivered the mercenary lords, suffers from a wound that requires her to remove her face periodically so that it doesn’t scar over with crystals. Her sacrifice appears beneficial as the mercenaries begin to take back portions of the planet. Falcon’s general and lover, Ruharn, discovers a dirty secret that has plagued the planet and threatens to usurp the Council’s plan to win the interplanetary war. Ruharn realizes that the livelihood of Nasteng does not just depend on destroying their enemy – it depends on destroying something that their people covet.

This story started out a little slow for me, but it gained a lot of traction. The Falcon and Ruharn are both inventive characters with unique motives and voices. The prose at times seemed a little overworked, which made the pacing a little slow at times, but the description is vivid and the plot is engaging. This story was thematically consistent with “Grave of the Fireflies,” dealing with a planet’s survival and perpetual youth. Enjoyable read.

Catching up on 2013 Hugo Nominees — Part 1

I just returned from a weekend trip from Las Vegas and on the plane ride home, I had a chance to catch up on a few short stories. Two of these are Hugo nominees:

  • Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld, June 2012)
  • Fade To White” by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld, August 2012)

cw_69_300“Immersion” is one of the three nominees for best short story. Only three stories were nominated, with all others failing to meet the 5% vote total threshold. It tells of a woman named Quy who is recruited to help make a business deal with a Galactic customer. A second viewpoint is of Agnes, the wife of Galen Santos, who Quy assists in making a business deal.

The story is not focused on the deal, but rather on the two women. Avatars are worn like makeup, often thin layers to enhance one’s features. Agnes, however, wears an avatar so thick that she is unrecognizable. She wears it because she feels inadequate for her husband and it helps her to be more cultured — more artificial. Quy recognizes this and urges Agnes to take off her avatar during the meeting.  Her actions threaten the business deal, but she considers the risk worth it if she can reach through to the Agnes.

“Immersion” is a good story and it was interesting to read the viewpoint of Agnes told in the second person. I’m often turned off by so many short stories written in either present tense or being experimental with writing in the second person, but it worked well here. Agnes is a vulnerable woman and the writing adds to the empathy the reader gets for her position of not fitting in with her Galactic husband. Her avatar is a hyperbole for the wall she has built around her and it takes a stranger to empathize with her in order to break down the walls. I am yet to read the other stories in this category, but “Immersion” would definitely be a suitable pick. Having already snagged the Nebula, it is a leading candidate to win the Hugo.

cw_71_300The second story I read was “Fade to White,” which is up for best Novelette. Catherynne Valente has earned a reputation for writing great stories with beautiful prose. “Fade to White” is no exception. It takes place in a futuristic 1950’s American dystopia. Corporations rule the culture and fear of Soviet attacks are bolstered by President McCarthy. The population has been decimated from the war and marriages are arranged based on fertility to restore the country to greatness.

The story’s central characters are Martin, a young boy with a low sperm count who dreams of being a husband, and Sylvie, a young lady who fears that she will not love the man she is betrothed to. “Fade to White” is an artistic telling of the culture and the events that precede the announcement of Martin and Sylvie’s fates.

“Fade to White” was also a Nebula nominee and Valante is successful in revealing her alternate history. I struggled to connect with the characters who lived in a culture that treated people as objects. There was little agency in either of them, just emotions as they awaited their fate. Where the story was successful was in the world-building and narrative voice. The copy editing notes for commercials helped emphasize the superficial culture and showed how people were treated merely as props to achieve a certain goal. From this perspective, I found “Fade to White” to be enlightening.

I plan on trying to make my way through as many Hugo nominees as I can get my hands on. Based on the novel selections, I am noticing that there is a diverse set of nominees. 2312 is a hard sci-fi utopian novel where Redshirts is a commercially attractive comedy. One cannot compare the two — they are written for entirely different audiences. I guess some of these selections will come down to what each individual believes the award should mean.

Short Fiction Review: (R+D) / I = M by Catherine Tobler

cw_80_700Title: (R+D) / I = M

Author: Catherine Tobler

Publisher: Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 80

Date: May 2013

Review:

Humans finally have arrived on Mars. Manless expeditions have proven that life no longer exists on the red planet. Fossils show signs of ancient life, but without water, life is unsustainable. Or so we thought.

Tobler’s story looks at these fleshy bipeds known as humans from the perspective of a Martian. The Martian anatomy remains somewhat nebulous — likened to a grape vine in its slender structure and finding sustenance through sunlight instead of water. One particular Martian couple comes upon the vineyard that the humans have started to grow just outside their biosphere. The fruit, unlike most human food, is edible to the Martians and in eating it, they begin to take an interest in the humans.

The male Martian (at least the one who isn’t pregnant) is able to enter the consciousness of a female human and visits her body and all of its organs with an intimacy that is told with a sense of beauty and curiosity rather than horror. This curiosity leads to capture, which at first seems innocuous until they are deprived of the sunlight they need to live.

(R+D) / I = M is more of a pondering on biological life than it is a story that tries to resolve the conflict between the two species. Great detail is spent in understanding the biological structure of humans — as different and strange they seem — and how the organs allow them to live, breathe, and reproduce. I enjoyed the writing and the premise of the story, diverging from the pitfall that most first contact stories fall into. This is not a story of evil humans and how one human gets the other species and tries to restore their relationship. Not all conflicts have a resolution. We agree to disagree or as Tobler writes, “They trespass. We trespass.”

But I must admit, I am stumped by the title. It seems as abstract as the ghosts of Mars, which I suppose is fitting. I never quite understood if the Martians were literally inside the human female or just mentally transplanted. Maybe these creatures are not meant to be fully understood. After all, it took the Martians carefully arranging grapes on a doorstep to get their attention. I wonder what it would take for me to see and understand them.