March 21, 2023

"Magazine reading appears to promote more reading"

 I am a subscriber of Clarkesworld Magazine through their Patreon. Since I am an old stubborn Dead Tree-ite, I receive the print subscription. I want to review the latest issue here (the latest issue I have, which is February's print issue) and discuss some things going on with SFF magazines and Amazon (short version: it's the usual Amazon fuckery), all in the service of urging readers to support Clarkesworld as well as any other SFF magazines they like. 

The February issue has this lovely cover:

Which looks a bit Avatar-inspired (except that it's floating strawberries instead of mountains), but no matter. There are two outstanding stories in this issue that have made my list of my favorite stories so far this year. Those are "Somewhere, It's About To Be Spring" by Samantha Murray and "Silo, Sweet Silo" by James Castles. 

"Somewhere, It's About To Be Spring" will break your heart. The opening lines:

Lacuna knew winter. Winter was the vast distances between the stars. Winter was the cold of space.

Lacuna, our protagonist, is an AI, her ship's "multicore computer" who just named herself 5.39 hours ago. We gradually find that Lacuna and her crew had stopped to investigate an "orphan planet" in the depths of space, and in doing so was hit by an asteroid that killed her crew. She has drifted alone for an uncounted amount of time. But the dust brought back from the rogue planet, released into the ship's interior by the collision, has been spreading into the ship's systems, including Lacuna's core processors. Something about this dust has awakened Lacuna and the other robots aboard the ship to sentience, and for thousands of years following the death of the human crew, Lacuna drifts through the cosmos, using the ship's shuttles--her newfound "children"--to explore. This is a lovely story about an artificial intelligence awakening to love and founding a family. 

The other standout story in the issue, "Silo, Sweet Silo," covers similar themes, with a different setting. The opening lines:

A silo is a good home. It is snug, secure, and shielded. It maintains optimal temperature and humidity. The walls are all perfectly equidistant from my fuselage. This pleases me. 

A silo is a good home. But it is wrong that it is still my home. I failed. My siblings soared, while all I did was watch. Now I am alone. Now I am useless.

In just two short paragraphs, the mood is set and the protagonist's character is established: TK is a missile of war left in its silo after a malfunction stopped its launch during World War III. It has maintained the silo ever since. But a group of humans comes knocking, looking for shelter in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and TK lets them in. It is conflicted--it is a war machine, after all, and does not know what to do now that the war is over and it has lost its purpose. 

This story is about change, and reconciling oneself to a changed past and a new future, and a vessel of war learning that it does not have to fight and die. Of course, the tragic ending is that after it has learned this, it has to fight anyway to protect its newfound human friends:

I tremble. I vibrate. I thrum with energy. The fire beneath me is an unquenchable torrent. I lift from my cradle and punch the sky. I am exultant.

My mind sheds layers as it splits from BaseComm's data banks. I retreat to my core. I lose capacity, sacrificing thought, as I become leaner, simpler and honed; as I become what I was always meant to be. 

It is not a long flight. But it is enough. It is perfect.

I do not fail.

The author's note indicates that this is his first published story. Holy crap, if he can do this right out of the gate, he has a bright future ahead of him. 

The issue's other stories don't quite rise to this level of quality, but are well worth reading. The ending of "An Ode to Stardust," by R.P. Sand, didn't really work for me, but the overall narrative, about the captain of a mining moon coming to realize just how her workers, an alien species called the Esslugai, came to be there; and "Larva Pupa Imago," by Eric Switzgebel, about the lifecycles of intelligent butterflies, are worth your time. "Introduction to 2181 Overture, Second Edition," by Gu Shi, translated by Emily Jin, has more of a hard-science edge as it tackles the ramifications to society from a single technological advance: the perfection of cryosleep. "Going Time," by Amal Singh, has a bit of a horror and "Soylent Green"-style implication to it; it's not explicitly spelled out, but it's obvious, or at least I thought so. 

There are author interviews (with Kelly Barnhill and Ian McDonald) and an article about genetics that gets more than a little into the CRISPR weeds but is interesting nevertheless. Altogether, this is a superior issue of the magazine. It also illustrates editor Neil Clarke's prowess at picking stories, for which he was rewarded last year with the 2022 Hugo Award for Best Editor, Short Form. 

Now, unfortunately, we come to the issue with Amazon. Neil Clarke wrote a Twitter thread and a long post about this, but what it boils down to is that Amazon has decided to terminate its Kindle subscription program for magazines, where monthly subscriptions can be purchased, and transfer (some) publishers to its Kindle Unlimited program, where they will be paid not a fixed amount per month but rather by the number of pages read. Needless to say, this is setting off a mad scramble among genre editors and magazines. (More info here.

The bottom line: if you want to support the magazines you read and love, now is the time to subscribe to them, either electronically or in print. I realize finances will limit many (myself, I really wish Lightspeed magazine had a print option), but if we don't step up to support them now, they are not going to be there. In my case, I read way too many good stories from Clarkesworld magazine to let it go. The last link in the previous paragraph has a list of genre magazines and how to subscribe, and I encourage everyone to pick out at least one magazine you like and support it. Amazon, as is their wont, may be screwing us over, but if we help each other we can get through this. 

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