February 29, 2024

Review: Clarkesworld Magazine January 2024

 The January issue of Clarkesworld Magazine is excellent, with five outstanding stories. (It also has a cute, warm and fuzzy cover, with the robot holding the little girl's hand. Suitable for Christmas.)

"Nothing of Value" by Aimee Ogden starts us out, a short and creepy little story about a future version of space travel, Skip2, that copies a person's DNA and memories and sends their information to other planets to be reprinted into a fresh new body. This story confronts the fact that such technology murders the traveler each time they step through it:

A version of me would die, I argued. But then a version would live, too, and nothing of value was actually lost. An exact copy with the same feelings and memories, the same bad habits, and the same favorite coffee cup. Everyone was doing it--they wouldn't be, if it wasn't totally fine. The corporations would have shut it down so they wouldn't get sued. The International Supervisory Board review had said that there was nothing unsafe or unreasonable about Skip2 travel.

Our protagonist is attempting to meet up with their old lover on Mars and rekindle their relationship, ten years after they broke apart. They don't get back together, as the core disagreement between them is over the narrator's usage of the Skip2 technology. But the further you get into this story, the more sinister the subtext becomes. I didn't realize this until the second time I read it through, but this story is really about the horrifying implications of its central concept. When an individual's information is sent ahead to print into a new body, the previous one is destroyed:

Your smile retracts. "You mean because of the lockdown? I saw it on the 'scape."

"They caught the shell pretty fast--only twenty minutes or so before they could get it back into the recycler. 'Lockdown' is a strong word for twenty minutes." I snort. "That's barely enough time for a post-print stretch to make sure all my parts came through right."

So the "shell" is the previous person, murdered to make room for the new one. This technological shift contributes to the dehumanization of people in this future, and creates a cultural schism between the people who use Skip2 and those who don't, as reflected in the conflict between the narrator and their lover. 

This story is unsettling as all get-out, and packs a terrifying punch for its short length. You won't soon forget it. 

"Down the Waterfall," by Cecile Cristofari, is a time travel story that doesn't fall into the usual time-travel tropes. The protagonist doesn't want to change the past--she just wants to briefly travel down "the road not taken," and visit a person who died all too soon. 

Her smile wavers. As much as she enjoys these meetings, she finds herself unnerved, at times, when strands of her mind wander in directions she doesn't mean to explore--another life, another rivulet of time, where this friendship of theirs would have taken a different form. She thinks of her husband and takes another sip of her coffee.

This is a quiet, lovely, bittersweet little story.

"Stars Don't Dream," by Chi Hui, translated by John Chu, was published in a Chinese SF magazine in 2022 and translated into English for this issue. The Chinese authors I've read in the past are often pretty thin on characterization, but thankfully that isn't the case with this story. This tells of a future where space exploration has been abandoned, and everyone on Earth spends their time in a virtual reality "dream tower" while their physical bodies are being cared for and carted around in robots. In this future, even babies are conceived in artificial wombs and cared for by robots. One of the characters is the one human who has contact with these babies:

These infants will eventually grow up. They will be sent to live by the side of every parent who ordered them. By then, they will no longer cry and scream. They will have been weaned, raised to be obedient, clever, and to satisfy others. What some parents order for their baby is the whole growth period service. For their entire lives, these babies never live by their parents’ side. They are weaned at the nursery, then are sent to youth camps all across the United States. There, robot instructors keep them company. The instructors have built-in expert knowledge of one hundred fifty kinds of child-rearing actions. This is sufficient to raise the babies to adulthood.

This future is kind of horrifying as well, even if it turns out hopeful at the end. This story's characters mount an expedition to Venus that ends up introducing life into the planet's poisonous atmosphere, which gives rise to intelligent life thousands of years later. (This story's timeline spans three hundred million years.) The entire theme of the story is while the universe and stars are cold and uncaring and don't dream, the life that arises does; and as that intelligent life states:

"Let's toast to possibilities," he says. "A toast to the universe that does not dream."

They all raise their glasses. Starlight ripples through each glass.

"To possibilities!"

This story, like a lot of Chinese fiction I've read, has an old-fashioned retro feel to it, with a great deal of classic "sensawunda." 

"Rail Meat," by Marie Vibbert, is a yacht race with a twist--the yachts are skimming the stratosphere. Our protagonist, Ernestine, a thief, grifter and con artist, signs on to the races as "living ballast." This is another short, action-packed story, where the other main character, Rico, who joins the yacht races to win the heart of a millionaire yacht owner, discovers attaining his heart's desire may not be such a good thing after all. 

Finally, we have "You Dream of the Hive," by C.M. Fields, another story that is not long but packs a helluva punch. This story uses the uncommon and tricky second-person narration in its depiction of a person trapped by an interdimensional hive mind, just rescued--and who wants to go back. For Star Trek fans, it's comparable to a drone wishing to return to the Borg:

Entering the Hive was like slipping into a warm bath, like listening to a church organ the size of a moon, like watching a starburst in a trillion colors, all at once. It was the embrace of ten thousand arms enfolding you into a community knit like the neurons in your brain. You did not understand the language of the Hive at first, but it gave you all you needed.

Like the best of the other stories in this issue, this story also has an edge of horror: more subtle than "Nothing of Value," to be sure, but just as unsettling in its final lines. 

All in all, an outstanding issue of Clarkesworld. Issues like these are why I've been a subscriber for years now.  

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