REVIEW SUMMARY: Clarkesworld Year Six includes all 34 original pieces published in Clarkesworld Magazine during their sixth year. If you’re looking to get caught up on Clarkesworld, you can’t beat their yearly volumes.
PROS: Large variety of voice and style; good mix of famous writers and newer voices; includes many excellent examples of speculative fiction that pushes the boundaries; stories can be read in any order.
CONS: None. One of the strongest collections I’ve read in a long time.
BOTTOM LINE: This collection is jam-packed with Nebula and Locus award winners and Hugo nominated works. Well worth the money for that alone.
Skimming the table of contents of Clarkesworld Year Six, you’re going to recognize a lot of titles. The fiction that Clarkesworld published in their sixth year includes Nebula and Locus winners and nominees, Hugo nominees, and stories included in Gardner Dozois’ Years Best Science Fiction, Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, and Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. So it easily goes without saying that the 34 stories included in Clarkesworld Year Six are some of the best of the best.
The majority of these stories are pushing the boundaries of speculative fiction, and easily defy categorization. Yes, there are plenty of space ships and aliens and singularities and uploaded consciousnesses and robots and post apocalyptic scenes. But there is also the reality of heartbreak, losing your parents, losing your children, running from yourself, and outright fear of aging and of mortality. Many of these stories have the potential to break your heart, and some of them have the potential to break all of you. To grossly oversimplify, most of the stories in Clarkesworld Year Six can be generally and somewhat arbitrarily categorized as multi-generational family stories, those that deal with loneliness, the singularity/uploading our personalities, near future/hacking, straight up fantastical, post apocalyptic, fitting in and peer pressure, and a few that are plain old gorgeously and bizarrely weird.
It’s hard to tackle such a large collection, so to make it easy on myself I am going to tell you some of my favorites that fell into each of those arbitrary categories. And this will barely allow me to scratch the surface.
Peer pressure is never as simple as it sounds, and Helena Bell’s “All the Young Kirks and Their Good Intentions” and Aliette de Bodard’s “Immersion” treat the overwhelming need to fit in with outward grace and an inward facing fear that is near immobilizing. In “All The Young Kirks,” all “those” children are put into the same homeroom class at Riverside Public High School. The class is full of Jimmys, James, Jameys, Jamies, Tiberias, Tiberiuses, and other iterations of the famous captain who compete against one another for coveted spots on a lunar colony. These names have power, that is for sure. But do they empower? or do they imprison? Aliette de Bodard’s Locus and Nebula award-winning “Immersion” deals with peer pressure on a more private, personal level. In de Bodard’s Xuya universe, “Agnes” has used her immerser technology to fit into her husband’s family, to help understand his language, his slang, his friend’s jokes, everything that could help her escape her life and fit into his. She has erased everything she is, pushed it so deep down into herself that removing the immerser could kill her. But did she ever see it as a choice?
Let’s talk about loneliness for a minute, since de Bodard’s “Immersion” flirts so close to that, as how alone must Agnes feel, as her immerser allows/forces her to be someone else for her husband and his family? In Chris Stabbeck’s “In Which Faster Than Light Travel Solves All of Our Problems” we’re introduced to a cantankerous freighter pilot picks up an unlikely yet very chatty hitchhiker, George, who talks endlessly about how when he was growing up he always thought he was an alien. Why did the freighter pilot choose a job where he never has to see anyone, or speak to anyone face to face? Why indeed. He’s got a story he refuses to tell anyone, even George. In Indrapramit Das’s “muo-ka’s Child,” the loneliness wasn’t planned. Ziara was supposed to be the first of many colonists on this planet, she wasn’t supposed to be stranded or “adopted” by one of the giant, disgusting, impossible to understand floating behemoths. Reading “muo-ka’s Child”, it’s easy to feel the desolation, to feel what it’s like to be raised by creatures who don’t understand you, who you can’t communicate with. And let’s not forget about “Robot” by Helena Bell, in which an aging woman takes on a household android to help her with everyday tasks. The old woman at first sounds cruel and uncaring, but she’s more afraid than anything.
The stories that affected me most fell into the “multigenerational family story” category. Probably tells you something about my personal tastes, as no beating around the bush, these are the ones that are going to break your heart quicker than anything. The adept reader will see it happening, from pages away, and still, will offer themselves wholeheartedly, for whatever pain the next page may bring. Among others, we’re talking “Honey Bear” by Sofia Samatar, in which a loving couple raises a little girl they know they can’t keep; “Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes” by Tom Crosshill, in which a son learns family secrets while losing his mother to dementia and at the same time losing his wife to augmentation; “And The Hollow Space Inside” by Mari Ness, a story which absolutely destroyed me, where parents allow their cognitively disabled daughter Amy to be turned into a salvation of an astronaut; and Aliette de Bodard’s “Scattered Among the River of Heaven,” in which Xu Wen travels to Tan Say Prime for Xu Anshi’s funeral, only to learn she’s not the only one who mourns the revolutionary. Obviously, these are all much, much more complicated than the simple label of “family story”.
Authors who dabble in post apocalyptic / uploading your personality / singularity have the special challenge of pushing the envelope further than anyone else, and of keeping everything relatively plausible. For excellent examples of this, try “Astrophilia” by Carrie Vaughn, in which post-disaster villages trade members to bring new skills and genetics into their families and anything that doesn’t fit what they need is rarely tolerated; Rahul Kanakia’s powerful and painful “What Everyone Remembers” where two scientists are raising a thing/daughter/insect that will help other surviving humans and they can’t decide what exactly she is or how she should be socialized; or either of the highly lauded Catherynne M. Valente pieces, the propaganda and means-to-an-end laden “Fade to White” or the multiple award-winning and stunningly poetic “Silently and Very Fast,” both of which I’ve spoke about at length before and can’t recommend highly enough.
And if you’re looking for something that just bizarrely strange and unexpected, try Kij Johnson’s morbidly unsettling yet viscerally addictive “Mantis Wives,” or Erik Amundsen’s terrifying “Pony.” Fantasy more your thing? Try “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what you’ll find in Clarkesworld Year Six, and I hope I’ve succeeded in showing you that no matter what you’re looking for, no matter what flavor is your favorite,you will find it in Clarkesworld. Neil Clarke and Sean Wallace only choose the best, and Year Six is a must have for any lover of high quality short speculative fiction.