Issue 91 of Clarkesworld opens with “Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick. Swanwick is one of my favorite authors when he’s not writing about talking dogs, and this is not a Darger and Surplus story, so I was already inclined to like it. Hank, the protagonist, is the county coroner in a small rural community. One morning, in the wee small hours, an ambulance brings a Worm to his morgue, and Evelyn, a member of the (unidentified) Agency who also happens to be his ex-wife, instructs him to perform an autopsy. The anatomy of the creature, a member of the only other intelligent species in the universe that humans have yet encountered, is so completely different from that of humans that humans don’t know how to combat them — assuming combat is necessary, and the humans appear to be spoiling for war. It’s a tale of interspecies conflict writ small, but with such imagination that the Worm takes shape before our eyes as Hank dictates his findings. It’s an excellent work of science fiction, and left me hungering for more of Swanwick’s work.
“Autodidact” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew concerns Nirapha, a woman who applies for a parental license only to be charged with parenting an artificial intelligence born of a star that powers a warship. The Agent of the Bureau to which Nirapha must apply for a license tells her that this will be good practice for becoming a mother. She is given little choice in the matter. Her job is to teach the ship ethics and interpersonal etiquette, while her co-parent, Mehaan Indari, a woman “emblazoned rather than eroded by years” (she’s in her mid-life, her 80s), will teach the ship combat simulations. The ship communicates with its parents through a virtual persona that looks like a young soldier. Nirapha and the ship, which has been named Teferizen by Mehaan, spend a lot of time talking about — well, actually, they’re discussing existential philosophy most of the time; it’s a very talky story. The teaching of ethics, after all, requires a fair bit of philosophical underpinning. In fairly short order, the ship essentially reaches adulthood, and makes some important decisions that affect Nirapha dramatically. The story lacks tension; the conflict it describes is overwhelmed by the wordiness of the characters.
Kali Wallace’s “The Water in Springtime” features a narrator whose consciousness is able to flow with water once she has bled into it, a trick taught her by an unloving mother. After some experience, she is able to manipulate the water to affect the structures the water surrounds and engulfs. We do not learn the purpose of the mother’s tutelage until the ending, and even then the purpose is shadowy and uncertain. I would have enjoyed this tale more were I given more information about the world and its magic.
“The Cuckoo” by Sean Williams is a delightful story about April Fools’ Day, beginning with more than a thousand commuters traveling via d-mat (which is not specifically defined, but appears to be the equivalent of a Star Trek transporter) arriving at their destinations wearing red clown noses that they weren’t wearing when they left. The source of the glitch is unknown, and nothing else untoward occurs in the d-mat system until a year later, when every d-mat booth in the world opens and releases a powerful scent of roses. A year later, 869 booths deliver a single page on which are typed 23 different words from William S. Burroughs’s cut up novel The Soft Machine. As might be expected, the activities of “The Fool” have become a subject of intense interest by now. One of these interested individuals is an academic, Eme Marburg, a teacher of complexity theory, who writes a number of articles about the phenomenon as the years go by. Marburg’s theories become increasingly more interesting as the years go by, and her ultimate conclusion brings the story to a chilling but satisfactory end.
The best story in this issue is one of the reprints: Susan Palwick’s “Going After Bobo.” Mike’s cat has run off — or, more accurately, his older brother David has let the cat out against Mike’s wishes. Even though Bobo is chipped, and a GPS should be able to track him, the satellites have been out for a couple of days and Mike doesn’t know where the cat is. When the satellites finally come up again, Mike sees that the cat is on the top of a mountain — and it’s snowing, hard, making it impossible to go after him. The science fiction in this tale is slight, and isn’t the point of the story; it’s really about the relationships between the characters. Palwick has a deft hand and a good ear for the dialogue between her family members, and a sympathy for them that never becomes mawkish. It’s beautifully done, telling a touching story with grace and finesse.
“Shining Armor” by Dominic Green is a cautionary tale about not underestimating your enemies. It’s great fun to see how this tale of villagers versus an evil corporation plays out in a planet far from Earth. I enjoyed every word, even though the outcome was predictable from the very first scene.
The nonfiction pieces in this issue were also strong. “Realms of Dark, Deep and Cold” by Julie Novakova discusses the possibilities for extraterrestrial life in our solar system, as far out as the Kuiper Belt; all it takes is water. Novakova writes, too, of the difficulty of our discovering this life, especially due to the problems posed by radiation, problems affecting both human bodies and human technology. For instance, though Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, probably presents the best hope of life in its vast ocean, radiation from Jupiter’s strong magnetic field may make it impossible for us to ever travel there to find if that life really exists, unless technology takes a giant leap forward. The essay is easily accessible to the non-scientist, written clearly and jargon-free.
“The Blue Collar Craftsman & the Salesmen on Mars: A Conversation with Ben Tanzer” by Jeremy L.C. Jones is an interview with Tanzer, an author with whom I am not familiar. Jones’s introduction gives us a taste of Tanzer’s work, and his questions are sharp, eliciting solid, interesting answers.
Daniel Abraham writes about the conflicts that have roiled the science fiction and fantasy community in recent months and years in “Another Word: Killing Rage.” Abraham turns to Marshall Rosenberg, bell hooks, and Marcus Aurelius for some guidance about how to approach internet flame wars, and especially in how to distinguish between anger and violence. It’s a thoughtful essay that could help us all shed more light than heat on areas of disagreement we have with one another.
The issue concludes with a short piece by the editor, Neil Clarke, pointing out the benefit to authors and publications of reviews on retailers’ sites, where they apparently do the most good. Clarke notes that a one-sentence review is often of benefit — perhaps not as much as an in-depth discussion of a book or magazine, but still of value, even for books published long ago and having received a large number of reviews. When more than 200 SF/F/H books and magazines are published each month, it becomes important to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s a fine ending to a fine issue.