the Little Red Reviewer

Clarkesworld Year Four, part four

Posted on: October 12, 2013

clarkesworld4Curious about the original fiction published by Clarkesworld?  This series of posts, reviewing every story published in Year Four should give you an idea of their flavor of speculative fiction. these stories are strange, unexpected, sometimes humorous, sometimes melancholy. Every single one of them will get some kind of reaction out of you.   Check out the Clarkesworld website to get more. Like what you see? Become a citizen of Clarkesworld, get a subscription, spread the world. Speculative Fiction ‘zines like this are a rare beast.

I’m going through Year Four in no particular order. Click to read the first, second, and third posts in this series.  In the stories in today’s post, we have virtual reality gone wrong (or maybe very, very right), reincarnations who kill their originals with the best intentions, the downside of discovering a new intelligent species, and Cat Valente has fun with creation myths.

ready? let’s go!

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Spacetime by Catherynne M. Valente – I recently had the pleasure of reading this in Valente’s latest collection, The Melancholy of Mechagirl. In that review, I didn’t go into much detail of Thirteen Ways, so I’m thrilled to have received another chance to talk about this wonderfully odd tale.

I was raised in a “the world was created in six days, and on the seventh day, God rested” religion. A fun sunday school conversation always was “do you really think the world, the mountains, the dinosour bones, the comets, the grand canyon, everything could be created in only six days?”, and as the kids try to reconcile that question, the sunday school teacher says “why does a day have to be only 24 hours long?”, and the lightbulbs start going off over the kids heads. This isn’t a religious story, but Valente references a handful of creation myths, everything from a Stross-ian Adam and Eve, to the Aztec creation story of Coatlicue and Quetzalcoatl in which Earth  and the moon are formed out of a planetary disc, to the Japanese creation myth of Izamani and Izanagi who create DNA just in time for an asteroid to hit the Earth, to stories that aren’t so much creation myths, but are still cultural myths that explain the unexplainable.  In this fashion, six days, or however much time is needed, is always enough time.  With no piddly humans to insist on hours and minutes, time isn’t as important.

Each is a story that is trapped forever in it’s own mythology, but at the same time an accurate description of the astrophysics of the big bang and the natural creation of our solar system. Angry gods are really the early bombardment period or solar flares. It all works.  And interspersed between the mythos is a creation mythos of an unnamed science fiction writer, who bears a striking resemblance to Catherynne Valente. She puts herself into a lot of her stories. I mean, plenty of authors do that, but she allows herself to be particularly vulnerable.   I love rereading this story. I love that this story makes me want to study   mythology.

clarkesworld May 2010

A Jar of Goodwill by Tobias Buckell –  This is another story I’ve been able to enjoy elsewhere, in the Sean Wallace edited anthology “robots: the new AI”, and I vividly remember it being one my favorites in that collection.   In this high tech future, we’ve reached the stars, but the Gheda Empire got there first, and we live under their rule. An aggressive race, the Gheda make the most corrupt and violent humans looks like cuddly puppies. You don’t cross the Gheda, and you don’t say no to the Gheda. However, they can be bargained with. They will honor a contract.

Beck and Alex are human-ish. You and I wouldn’t consider them human, not really. Alex has been genetically bred to be able to tell when people are lying, to read facial expressions and body language, to know exactly what someone wants so he can make them feel comfortable. But not like that. Alex makes sure his prospective clients know he’s not a sexbot. In debt up to his eyeballs, Alex takes on a contact to be a professional “Friend”.  No details are given, except that if the mission finds patentable technology on a newly discovered planet, Alex will get a cut of the profits. Who could possibly say no to that?

At first, Alex can’t figure out why he was hired. There’s nothing for him to do. And then the ship picks up Beck, and everything becomes clear. Beck needs a Friend, because Beck has never been by himself. He looks and sounds human, but Beck refers to himself as a drone, because he’s part of a genetically bred Hive mind.  The mission has hired Beck to have access to the near quantum level intelligence of the Hive Mind, and they’ve hired Alex to make sure Beck doesn’t go crazy, and to make sure he doesn’t lie to the scientists.  If the Hive Mind determines that the dominant species on the planet is intelligent, colonization and mining can’t take place.  If colonization and mining can’t take place, the mission doesn’t make any money.

They need Beck to tell them the gourd collecting animals aren’t intelligent. They need Beck to tell them the truth.    They can’t have it both ways.    So, who is Alex going to betray?

Clarkesworld July 2010

The Association of the Dead by Rahul Kanakia – A brilliantly bizarre story, parts of which I have no idea how to explain because I still don’t understand them myself. But the not-understanding is fine, because I’ve never come across anything like this before, and I loved it.

Sumith sings code.  And he’s very good at it, as his reputaton and karma points show. For reasons that are explained later, he flashes himself with an EMP gun, and now there are two Sumiths. The “uppercase” Sumith, who plugs in and sings code as many hours of the day as possible, and the “lowercase” sumith, who is a reincarnation. sumith doesn’t have the rights of a person, so the house computers don’t recognize him. But sumith is a little lonely, and another reincarnated friend, drona, has a plan to make more friends. They just keep flashing Sumith.  Sumith will wake back up in his body again a few days a later, and another sumith will be created. They can’t just call everyone in the house sumith, so eventually there is sumith(?) and sumith(!).  Eventually armies of sumiths and dronas and chaudhuris take over the entire subcontinent. They’re all having a good time EMPing as many original people as they can, because it sounded like a good idea at the time, but things go south pretty quickly.

this story starts out hysterically funny, gets intensely but gorgeously strange, and then ends on an oddly bright note of melancholy.  I’ve read and reread this story a handful of times, and listened to it on the short story podcast.  All of the lowercase sumiths running around, and the experiences of the original Sumith, it’s got this strange rhythm to it.    So much depth jammed into such a short story, this reads like the shortest symphony ever. I’m sure I missed the significance of many of the grace notes and glissandoes, but I sure enjoyed listening to it.

Beach Blanket Spaceship by Sandra McDonald – Frank Merullo is one of the astronauts on the mission out to Triton. A comet hit a moon, what might have been an extra terrestrial message was received, and we went out to investigate. Everyone on the mission was allowed to design their own VR world, a place to escape to when the endless spaceflight got boring. Somehow, Frank ended up in a VR designed by Mark Jenny, one filled with memories of 1960 Beach Blanket movies. There’s plenty of breaking out into song,  bikini contests, surfing contests, romantic misunderstandings that have happy endings, tiki parties with non alcoholic drinks, celebrity cameos, and couples going off into the bushes for some decidedly rated G kissing.  Merullo tries to end the program, but the computer won’t answer. He figures it’s just some malfunction, and the program will end eventually, and he’ll wake up.  But it doesn’t end.

There’s not much to do but enjoy the beach and the scenery, so Merulla tries to make the best of the situation. He explains to the singing teeny boppers about his mission to Triton, he notices what’s not allowed in this old fashioned and oddly scripted beach world. It’s suggested to Frank that maybe he needs to do something before he can wake up.

Frank does get to do what he came to do. But who the beach blanket people really are isn’t ever explained. Is this purgatory? are extra terrestrials who saved him from his faltering ship?  I liked that the reader gets to come to their own conclusion. Frank’s story gets to have a happy ending, so does it really matter how he got there?

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FTC Stuff

some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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