CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE #172 (January 2021) Edited by Neil Clarke

There are some excellent stories in this issue, complex and imaginative, but there are some let-downs compared to the best of what Clarkesworld has offered (for my tastes at least). Unfortunately, there are no translations in this issue, something that this outlet can almost always be relied upon to support. The novella here falls into a category that Clarkesworld novellas often are in (again for me): far too long for e-format and too short for a story I could best get into. And, with one third of the stories written in the second person that you of course will skip, you end up with a mixed bag for January’s issue.

“Intentionalities” by Aimee Ogden — Saddled with crippling debt and few options to dig herself out to secure any kind of stable future, a woman decides to apply for corporate support by offering her womb, carrying and delivering a child that will then be contracted after five years with her to go work for the company’s off-world mines. She comes to regret this decision and begins a campaign to fight a system that allows coercion of this horrible choice and ownership. Well written commentary on existing capitalist conditions that aren’t too far off from this scenario, all but literally.

“Deep Music” by Elly Bangs — Probably my favorite story of the issue for its themes and tones. Quinn takes care of aquids, squid-like water-creatures that have begun to appear on dry land and come into contact with humans. While some consider them as annoying pests that need to be removed or exterminated, Quinn is convinced they have intelligence, so gathers them and cares for them, trying to make sense of their communications. However, the owner of a rival aquid-removal service who treats the aquids with disdain begins to target Quinn (and the aquids) with hateful harassment. Quinn’s actions in response help solidify an understanding with the aquids in her care. Though the bones of the story and its ending will be recognizable to many readers, its lightness and familiarity feels welcome amid the rest of this issue, and the themes work in more modern ways as commentary on ‘troll-like’ relationships of harassment.

“Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma” by R.S.A. Garcia — I’m slowly growing to appreciate the novella-length story more when published on its own. But I still struggle with them in the contexts of short fiction magazines, particularly when having to read it on an e-reader or – even worse – a computer screen. This story is complex, organized in alternating passages between different times in the characters’ history. It serves as a prequel to a previous story by the author in Clarkesworld that featured the couple Dee and Eva. This recounts their meeting, when Dee rescues Eva who has crashed landed on a planet after a conflict that has left her paired AI “Sister” apparently malfunctioning. While dealing with loss of/changes in Sister that she had always been accustomed to, she begins romance with Dee and faces the enemy. I would have much preferred these two stories just as a novel, on their own. Nothing wrong with the writing here, so for readers who do love this novella length, the story will be successful and appreciated.

“The Last Civilian” by R. P. Sand — You did not read this story.

“Aster’s Partialities: Vitri’s Best Store for Sundry Antiques” by Tovah Strong — The most imaginative and magical of the stories here, reading more akin to fantasy than science fiction, it’s also the story that I felt benefitted from rereading. A magician named Syd who works in magical secrets of space and time is executed by the officials of Vitri. From drops of her blood upon the text of speels, her death gives birth to the narrators of the story, a ‘we’ that forms a house, with mirrors within that a form of Syd inhabits. The house consumes a man who dares enter, but then a curious child arrives, carrying with a necklace talisman that belonged to the magician. A fun story to read as I tried to figure out the nature of things as it unfolded. On some level about the persistence of a person’s influence beyond death on a city and its inhabitants, discovery of forbidden things by a new generation, and likely much more. Subsections are titled with a series of four numbers, but I haven’t figured out their relevance. Certainly a story to analyze but also just enjoy.

“Leaving Room for the Moon” by P H Lee — You start this story and all seems fine, only to realize it is yet another story to skip.

The issue also features “Science Fiction and Schmaltz: A Conversation with Connie Willis” and “The Ten-Year Journey: A Conversation with E. Lily Yu”, each by Arley Sorg, a 2020 in Review editorial by Clarke, and cover art by Yuumei.

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Stories
Publisher: Del Rey
496 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

Reading this reminded me how useful it is to read a collection of an author’s short stories every so often. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy short stories in print and online magazines. I begin to recognize author’s names as familiar and for a rare few I see and recall the names sufficiently to know if I tend to like their work enough to search out their novels or collections. But the vast majority of names get lost in the sea of memory. Two of the stories in this collection (“Inside Job” and “All Seated on the Ground”) seemed familiar, the latter which I fully recalled reading and loving. Looking back in my records I found they are the only two Connie Willis works I’ve ever read. Now after reading the other stories in this collection I know I need to keep finding and reading more.

Willis introduces this collection stating that the only unifying theme of the stories is that she wrote them. The genres of sci-fi, the plots, the locations, the voices, the tones: they all vary. The idea struck me while rereading the two stories I was familiar with, and considering those new to me, that there is another link between the stories found here. Each at its heart is concerned with characters facing absurd and inexplicable situations that they then struggle to make sense of. The stories are of people trying to find order in a seemingly chaotic, uncertain, and inexplicable world. This fact, more than any genre conventions make her stories science fiction, for they are all about discovery, of observing something mysterious and working out the truth behind the matter.

The most absurd of her stories include one where attendees of a quantum physics convention in Hollywood try and deal with the counter-intuitive nature of their field and the city’s culture. In another, tourists wander through Egypt uncertain if they are alive or dead. With “Inside Job” a professional debunker is faced with the prospect that the spirit of US history’s greatest skeptic is communicating through a charlatan medium. In another, aliens arrive on Earth only to just stand in silence, absurdly looking dour and displeased, doing nothing to communicate as the humans scramble around attempting to understand what the visitors want.

All the stories thus seem extremely ‘literary’ despite being couched in science fiction settings and straightforward, light language. She writes with a bright humor, poking fun at her characters as they fumble down the road to understanding. Her writing is suffused throughout with a joy for stories: those of literature, theater, and film. At the same time she conveys a deep respect for scientific, rational thought in all walks of life, but a sense of wonder and belief in the capacity of the human soul for love and finding things greater.

Five  Stars out of Five