Clarkesworld Year Four, part 3
Posted September 29, 2013on:
I’m working my way through Clarkesworld Year Four, a volume of all the original fiction they published in their fourth year. (part one, part two) And Yes, all of these volumes are available as print editions, click here and scroll to the bottom.
When I first decided to talk about every story in this volume, I was a little intimidated. But now that I’ve read more than half of them, I’m suddenly wishing the volume had twice as much fiction in it. Want fatter Clarkesworld books? Help the support the e-zine by subscribing, becoming a “citizen of Clarkesworld”, or by spreading the word by reading the fiction they publish, listening to their podcasts, comments on stories, and talking about them. We may live in the age of the internet, but everything still lives and dies by word of mouth.
Today I’ve got reviews of three stories in the volume. All of these reviews forced me to play “the pronoun game”, because all of these stories feature genderless characters. One person takes a human male form, so I refer to him as “him”, but the others I wasn’t quite sure. Any advice about how to refer to genderless characters is appreciated. Also, each title links to the full story on the Clarkesworld website.
The Messenger by J.M. Sidorova – Wow is this one a doozy, and I mean that in the most complimentary way! Our narrator doesn’t name himself (itself?), and doesn’t identify what he (it?) is. Eventually given the name Gabriel, and often taking the form of a human man, I’m going to use the male pronouns, and refer to the narrator as Gabriel. Early in the story, Gabriel is contacted by a higher intelligence, who names him, seduces him, and inscribes Gabriel with His purpose: to find a vessel so He can bring his message to the people of the Earth.
Gabriel identifies and befriends a kind young girl named Maria. Because Gabriel isn’t human he has no idea how to interact with humans, how to appear, he doesn’t understand the metaphors in the songs Maria sings to himself. These scenes are so tender, and a little bit funny. Maria thinks her odd friend is just “simple”, and teaches Gabriel everything she can about how to be human, and he falls in love with her more than a little bit, he affects her pregnancy more than a little bit. When Maria’s son Joshua is born, the child was just as much fathered by Gabriel as fathered by the higher intelligence who plans to use the boy as His vessel. Joshua grows up, he becomes afraid of his mother’s strange friend, the one who looks funny, doesn’t age, and has trouble speaking. The poor child. Tainted as he is, with Gabriel’s influence, Joshua is a flawed vessel. The higher intelligence has no use for a vessel which got the message garbled because he was forced to hear it through a meddling middleman.
The story is gorgeously written, with moments soft and tender, and moments terrifying and unfathomable. Gabriel’s physical and mental interactions with the higher intelligence are some incredible storytelling crafting right there, and then there’s the rest of the story that’s just to die for as well. How do you communicate the indescribable? Depending on your personal beliefs surrounding the Christ story, this version may make you squirm a little.
The Mermaids Singing Each to Each, by Cat Rambo – One day, Lolo is going to sell this heap of crap boat, the Mary Magdelena. Until there is enough money saved for the Choice, Lolo will keep going out scavenging with Niko the harmless one and Jorge Felipe the dangerous one. Once upon a time, Lolo was a girl. That first surgery, the one that made Lolo genderless, was free. But the surgery to choose a gender, that costs a small fortune, and Lolo has finally decided what gender to become. Might be the Mary Magdelena is worth a small fortune. At night, the ship whispers to Lolo, begging for forgiveness. Lolo dreams of burning the ship down, of capsizing it, of slowly killing it, for what it allowed to happen.
Salvaging in this ocean is dangerous, because of the mermaids. People got into body modification surgery, and thought becoming a mermaid would be cool. But no one thought it through, no one thought about that mermaids lay thousands of eggs, and that the children would not be born with human thoughts. The mermaid children were born savage with sharp teeth and a deep hunger. Niko is pretty sure his father was one of the original mermaids. Is his Dad still out there? Is his Dad capable of remembering Niko anymore?
This is a tough story to review, because two of the characters in the story, Lolo and the Mary Magdelena, do not have a gender. I’m comfortable referring to the ship as an it, but I’m not going to refer to Lolo as an it, because Lolo is a person. Once upon a time Lolo did what needed to be done, and Lolo will continue doing what needs to be done, making Choices.
Brief Candle, by Jason K. Chapman – Such a fun story! Charley Eighty Three is a sanitary robot. Charley Eighty Three cleans the floors on the spaceship and stays out of the way of humans. Dr. Turner has been teaching Charley Eighty Three how to play chess, how to see infinite possibilities in a finite area. Dr. Turner is always saying “Everything is going to change” In the beginning of the story, Charley Eighty Three comes across an obstruction he can’t clean under, but it is too big to move. Requesting assistance from other droids on the ship yields circular logic, because the ‘bots are doing exactly what they are programmed to do, which usually means waiting for a human to tell them what to do. But there are very few humans left on the ship to tell the ‘bots what to do.
It’s great to read a robot story from the viewpoint of a robot. Even more interesting is getting the story from a ‘bot with very simple programming. Charley has to use creative logic to get past other bots who don’t mean to be in the way, they are just following their own programming. It was wonderful to watch Charley go from a dumb-bot to a robot who learns how to transfer chess lessons to other situations. the reader figures out pretty quickly what’s happening, but Charley has no point of reference, he has no idea what’s happening, so it’s double fun being the reader at the moment that Charley realizes what’s happening.
This is another story where I’m having gender pronoun issues. Charley Eighty Three is a machine, a noun, a cleaning ‘bot. But over the course of the story Charley grows, learns, becomes so much more than a robot following a simple “clean the floor” program. I want to refer to Charley as a him or a her, something with more of a soul than “it”.