REVIEW SUMMARY: Today’s Short Fiction spotlight focuses on the four works of original fiction presented in Issue 91 of Clarkesworld.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: These four short fiction offerings look at the presence of the truly alien on Earth, the child-rearing of an A.I. spaceship, a young woman with no magic of her own who suddenly finds herself possessed of an unusual way to travel her world, and the April Fool’s Day pranks of a future genius involving the then-common way that matter is transferred.
PROS: A refreshing presentation of aliens who are truly alien; elements of “science” woven into the science fiction; plot lines which urge the reader to delve further into the stories.
CONS: All four stories share the trait of ending with questions unanswered (a “pro” for those who enjoy that type of storytelling).
BOTTOM LINE: I often speculate what percentage of one’s enjoyment of, or disappointment with, short genre fiction is based on the frame of mind/desires/expectations going in vs. the skill and story choices of the author. I have noticed within myself a preference for short stories that share a structure with novels–a tight beginning, middle and definitive end–as opposed to those that end with more questions, or simply a new beginning. Then there are times, like with this issue of Clarkesworld, in which the stories end in thought-provoking, questioning ways as opposed to wrapping up the vignette with a nice and tidy bow, and I find myself having an equally enjoyable reading experience. That is a long-winded way to posit the belief that the skill of these writers and the interesting variety of storytelling will be a rewarding experience for most readers who take advantage of what Clarkesworld Issue 91 has to offer.
“Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick
A rather visceral look at an encounter with alien life as seen through the eyes of a county coroner and his ex-wife. When Evelyn arrives at the morgue unexpectedly, with an alien corpse in tow, Hank’s natural curiosity overcomes his hurt and anger and he agrees to perform an autopsy to ascertain how best to try to communicate with the the alien race that has come into contact with Earth. Michael Swanwick presents an alien race who is most decidedly not human, and then he draws the reader in with Hank’s study of the creature, only to put both Hank and the reader in a completely unexpected situation. And at this point in the story, it has only just begun to get weird.
Michael Swanwick is no stranger to the medium of short fiction and his skill is readily apparent throughout. While the ending leaves the reader with new questions, it provides a great opportunity to contemplate how mankind would likely be different from any race of beings advanced enough to make their way to our part of the galaxy.
“Autodidact” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
A female survivor of a mass planetary genocide chooses a lengthy assignment to teach ethics and interpersonal etiquette to a youthful A.I. that is being groomed to be a ship, born out of the dying matter of conquered stars. Nirapha is hoping to be granted a parental license, but as a precursor is encouraged to take a six-to-eight year position raising an artificial child that will one day be a ship that brings destruction to other worlds. Paired with a woman named Mehaan Indari, who is teaching the A.I. combat simulations, Nirapha finds herself questioning both her role and the role of the A.I. in light of the devastation she has witnessed.
Sriduangkaew’s story is engaging. I was not entirely sure where the story was heading, which kept me guessing, and though the end left me examining the full weight of the decisions made by Nirapha, it in no way disappointed me.
“Water in Springtime” by Kali Wallace
Alis and her wizened mother travel to and fro across a land cursed with blight and littered with the skeletal corpses of metal warriors from a long-ago battle. Alis’ mother has a mysterious gift that manifests as blue sparks from her fingertips and she brings healing and help when she can, and moves on quickly when she cannot. As they travel South, Alis becomes aware of a shifting in their relationship and a small fear begins to grow. One night her mother takes her to the side of a stream and leads Alis through a rite of transformation that reveals that Alis was mistaken, she has her own magic after all.
This is my second experience with the storytelling voice of Kali Wallace and both times I have come away with the impression of having read something special. In reading “Water in Springtime” one feels that there are seeds of forgotten myths and folklore planted under the surface and that magic may spring up at any time. Minus the flowery description, let me simply state that Kali Wallace is an author to keep an eye on. Her first novel will be released in 2016 and I am anxious to see what she does with more space to revel in her imagination.
On April 1st in the year 2075, a thousand commuters traveling via d-mat (a matter transfer system) arrive at their destinations to find themselves sporting red clown noses that they did not have when they set out. The Fool has struck. It has begun.
Sean Williams presents an interesting vision of the future told in brief vignettes of April Fool’s Days, sprinkled with a few additional dates, from the year 2075 through 2084. In it he chronicles the escalating pranks of a mysterious person, or persons, dubbed “The Fool” by a Professor who devotes significant time to studying and theorizing about the April 1st prankster.
Williams’ story is presented in taut, slick prose that presents scenarios that are funny and at the same time unsettling. Along the way he presents the science fictional idea of matter transfer in interesting ways. The post-story bio indicates that Williams recently received a PhD on the subject of the matter transmitter, which makes me curious to know more about his inspirations.
“The Cuckoo” is set in a part of the universe of his new novel, Twinmaker.
That is a brief look at the original fiction in this month’s issue of Clarkesworld. But don’t stop there. Issue 91 includes classic reprints from authors Susan Palwick and Dominic Green and several nonfiction articles as well as Neil Clarke’s editorial, which encourages readers to use their voice to show their appreciation of short fiction by writing reviews in all the various venues that allow for such a thing. I will second that encouragement. Short fiction, especially short genre fiction, is well worth supporting.
The cover for Issue 91 is a really fabulous work by artist Peter Mohrbacher. Please take some time to visit his site, he has several stunning pieces for your viewing pleasure.