March 8, 2024

Review: Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 209

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 209 Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 209 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This issue isn't quite as good as the previous one, but it has a barn-burner of a story called "Why Don't We Just Kill the Kid In the Omelas Hole," by Isabel J. Kim. She has written very good stories in the past, some of them within the pages of this very magazine, but I think this is the best one I've seen from her yet.

It's an answer to Ursula K. Le Guin's famous story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," which is less of a story and more of a thought experiment. The thought, in this case, is a variation on Spock's pronouncement from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan--"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

Because Omelas as a city, culture and civilization, you see, depends entirely on the misery of one small child locked away in a room at its base. Everyone in Omelas knows this and either makes an uneasy peace with it or, as the title refers to, "walks away." There have been many replies to/engagements with this story over the years (including an episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds ), but I don't think I've ever seen one like this. Kim's story pulsates with rage, as she takes Le Guin's original premise and turns it inside out, applying it to today's world and all the things governments, rich people and capitalism enable or overlook to ensure their systems remain running.

The kid was the drop of blood in the bowl of milk whose slight bitterness would make the sweetness of the rest of Omelas richer. Without the kid in the hole, Omelas was just paradise. With the load-bearing, suffering child, Omelas meant something.

And of course, it was true that the whole city literally ran on the load-bearing suffering child in a very real physical way that was not a metaphor. And everyone really liked having running power and no blackouts and good schools and low crime and community-oriented government and safe sidewalks and public transit that worked.

This story hits you like a gut punch. So far, it's the best story I've read this year.

There are two other excellent stories in this issue. "Kardashev's Palimpsest," by David Goodman, is a tragedy/love story that spans literally billions of years in the narrative of Dee and Vee, who were once human and now are "computational matter, wrapped in the hardest, densest materials any species ever created." We follow these two as humans evolve past their biological bodies and are uploaded into a virtual universe, and graduate to self-contained mindships exploring the galaxy. Earth is destroyed and Dee thinks they lose Vee in its destruction; but eons later, the two find each other again, just in time to see the universe winding down...or perhaps being reborn. It's a timeless love story, and proof that for a narrative to succeed, you need characters, not just high-concept ideas.

Finally, we have "Lonely Ghosts," by Meghan Feldman, which tackles the need for companionship and connection, even between machines. Sini is an exploration android apparently abandoned on an alien planet--its last contact with its human minders was thousands of years before. Now, the only being it can reach is CRABB, a megacity construction droid on one of the planet's moons. But Sini has been seeing the ghosts of its previous handlers for centuries and is basically afraid that it is going insane. So it reaches out to CRABB for reassurance, and the construction droid ends up using its last long-range warp packet to bring Sini to its moon, where it has been building a city all by itself for eons. This is a fairly short story, but it has some lovely characters.

On Bluesky, the editor Neil Clarke has this to say about the state of his magazine:

"Round two of the Amazon magazine subscriptions nightmare is shaping up to be far worse than round one. I'll have more to say when I've finished reviewing my math (and maybe looking at Feb. data), but it's not good. Always a good time to subscribe."

Please, think about subscribing to this excellent magazine. I would hate to lose it.

View all my reviews

No comments: