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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Clarkesworld #143, August 2018

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Clarkesworld #143, August 2018

The Veilonaut’s Dream” by Henry Szabranski

The Anchorite Wakes” by R.S.A. Garcia
Kingfisher” by Robert Reed
The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson
The Loneliest Ward” by Hao Jingfang
Yukui!” by James Patrick Kelly

Reviewed by Jeffrey Steven Abrams

The Veilonaut’s Dream” by Henry Szabranski

In this literary, mesmerizing, multi-layered story, the reader is dropped into the world of veilnauts, highly paid professionals who explore the universe by travelling through wormhole-like entities known as discontinuities. Like the astronauts from which their name is derived, their work is dangerous, as the discontinuities, which they call gaps, are unpredictable, coming, going, or moving without notice. Many veilnauts have been shredded or worse after being caught in a gap that has shifted positions.

As leader Madeline and her team prepare to enter one of these “veiled” gaps, a chilling and foreshadowing thought passes through her head.

Everyone is lucky crossing the gap.

Everyone.

Until they’re not.”

Following an uneventful passage, the team finds itself in a dark and foreboding section of the universe. Instantly, the gap begins to shift, leaving them stranded. Veteran Mads knows this to be a death sentence, because the odds of identical gaps forming are infinitesimally small.

It’s here that “The Veilnaut’s Dream” diverges from other wormhole stories. While epics like Interstellar, Contact, 2001, and Kristine Rusch’s excellent new novella “Dix” (Asimov’s, Mar-Apr 2018) highlight the traveler’s destination, Szabranski’s focus is inward, concentrating on the mental aspects of dealing with hopeless situations.

While waiting for her oxygen to run out, Mads relives the intimate details of her life; those who shaped and pushed her towards veilnautics. We learn that discontinuities have the quizzical ability to prevent recordings from transferring across gaps. This simple fact calls into question their physical nature, some even believing they are mystical or godlike constructs.

This is one of numerous questions the author brings to the reader through Mads’ eyes. He explores the value of hope, decisive action vs. passivity, the price of love, and ultimately a new vision of the universe.

Szabranski is a master at building tension. Every climactic scene is crafted slowly, methodically, with just enough non-essential information to keep the pages turning.

If there’s a fault to the story, it would be in Mads’ failure to come up with alternate solutions to her predicament. As a survivor of thirty missions, she might have been more proactive. However, such a minor flaw barely detracts from this excellent story.

The Anchorite Wakes” by R.S.A. Garcia

While Sister Nadine is listening to Father Paul’s sermon, a birdlike vision appears before her eyes, turns to brightly colored energy, then flows down the throat of a dark skinned girl with a recently bruised face

With Garcia’s hook set, I gleefully took the bait and was rewarded with one of the most thought-provoking stories I’ve read in years.

On a human populated world that is definitely not Earth, Sister Nadine is an Anchorist, an advisor who gives council to the needy. She attempts to help everyone who visits her cell, but pays additional attention to those she finds “interesting.” Louisa, the little girl with the bruised face, falls squarely into this category.

While praying in church, Sister Nadine encounters Louisa again and notices two more poorly disguised injuries on her body. Rather than reacting in pain, the child launches into a precocious interrogation of her elder. When she tells Nadine, “I can see your chains,” the Sister recognizes Louisa’s ability to know and see things that others cannot.

Later, Nadine is enlisted to help young Dennis, a child who is having dreams so violent that his parents are worried for their own safety. Following her intervention, Dennis goes missing, never heard from again.

I won’t summarize more of the plot. To do so would be criminal; it would ruin the beauty that unfolds. I will say that Nadine and Louisa from the beginning are far different characters in the end.

Through their interactions, lofty topics are touched upon. What is the price of freedom? During war, how much can society look away? What must be sacrificed to obtain utopia?

This is a story that must be read at least twice. The first time, drink in the characters, the way they change, and the slowly evolving plot. The second reading will uncover all the subtle foreshadowing events that were impossible to detect the first time through.

Kingfisher” by Robert Reed

Set on a world of ice, the human Kingfisher searches for his lost love after seventeen centuries of waiting. He abandons his unloved wife, who wishes torment on him for leaving. On this world, humans are immortal, and skimmers, arks, and other transportation devices have minds of their own, and may or may not follow directions.

Kingfisher’s quest takes him across frozen seas filled with trash. I thought this was a segue into an environmental theme, but the topic was never revisited. The trash seems to be there for Kingfisher to scavenge then sell to aliens.

When he reaches the shores of a city, floating in ice, he learns, or remembers, that the world he occupies is actually a ship, powered by hyperfibers. Ice is the natural protectant of the ship. Hundreds of kilometers thick, it’s there to shield the vital engines as well as supply fuel through fusion.

Kingfisher remembers that millions of years ago he was the ship’s hydraulic engineer. As part of his job, he helped cities themselves move across the frozen seas. He also recalls details about the woman he is seeking. At some point, she was his commanding officer and did him an extreme wrong. She was also his mentor and lover.

Later, an interstellar object, perhaps a comet, strikes the world and melts the ice. Eighty-eight years pass before Kingfisher and his skimmer are able to function again. For indeterminate centuries afterwards, he collects and sells junk to finance his continued searches. At this point, the world’s identity, Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, is revealed.

For me, the frozen world was Reed’s main character. Kingfisher’s adventures, always with minimally described characters, seemed merely ways to highlight Ganymede’s cold alien environment.

I found the plot hard to follow, largely because I think it tried to cover too much ground. At 12,000 words, it felt ponderous, and without a strong protagonist, seemed directionless. An ambiguous ending didn’t help.

Finally, the story contained many editing errors, more than I expected from a magazine of CW’s reputation. Some were so glaring they jarred me right out of the story; a bad thing when the plot is hard to follow in the first place.

The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson

In this darkly delightful fantasy, six year old Ada and her wise talking hen, Blanch, embark on an unanticipated adventure. Swarms of raptor like creatures called wastoures have descended on the land, eating every living thing in their wake. When Ada is caught off-guard in the road, Blanch convinces her to climb high into a nearby tree, and their height above the wastoures is the only thing that saves them.

With everyone they’ve ever known eaten, the two must fend for themselves. Through the chicken coup, Blanch has heard about a town called “The Lucky City,” a place where wastoures never attack.

Thus begins an epic journey to find the city, with the hero being a hen.

As the title suggests, this is not a simple fairy tale. At random points throughout the text, Johnson plops herself into the plot and adds backstory, removes characters, or gives lighthearted lessons on the authoring journey. I have to admit, these jarring point-of-view flips annoyed me at first, but after a while, I eagerly anticipated the question-filled interruptions.

The story is at its best before the wastoure attack. The writing style is child friendly, but slowly, methodically, phrases are added or repeated to add a delicious tension. “Was that a sound?” takes on a terrifying significance. At its height, scenes turn positively grizzly. Perhaps not so child appropriate after all.

Leading up to their inevitable confrontation with the wastoures, Ada and Blanch must undergo hardships, encounter friends, and bear witness to horrific slaughtering, but of course they prevail. Thus, through title and story, Johnson teaches a lesson meant for both character and author; you’ve got to pay your dues to earn a happy ending.

The story is a hefty 15,000 words, beautifully written, and full of enough detail to make the reader feel as if they’ve been transported into a Wizard of Oz like setting. It left me happy, and these days, that’s a tough thing to do.

The Loneliest Ward” by Hao Jingfang

This bittersweet story features Qina and Auntie Han, nurses who support what appears to be a hospital’s Alzheimer ward. The world of palliative care has evolved. Neurotransducers, attached to patient’s scalps, are fed a series of non-repeating signals. Patterns that elicit happy thoughts are then back fed to produce unending loops of contentment. While stimulated, every patient is happy.

Qina is young but callous for her age. She views her patients as hopeless creatures, unworthy of her help. She is also driven by all forms of social media.

Auntie Han is Qina’s polar opposite. Empathetic and giving, she shows genuine concern for her patients, even taking the time to learn about their lives.

Qina’s narcissistic tendencies become the story’s focus as she ignores patient care while waiting for her boyfriend’s web status to change. Auntie Han, however, is undaunted by her youthful colleague, never chastising her, always educating.

Once Qina actually witnesses her patient’s reactions to transducers, the ending is a bit predictable. Still, the journey is intriguing and the writing is beautiful.

At its heart, the story is about elderly care, and the fear that the young will have little time or inclination to worry about it. It makes me wonder how fictitious Jingfang’s story really is.

Yukui!” by James Patrick Kelly

Sprite is a DI, a dependent intelligence programmed for and assigned to Jaran, a human who wants nothing to do with her. It’s hard to imagine a beginning more original and enticing than this.

Sprite’s life is complicated by the beautiful Ratchanee Malakul, a lifeguide hired to help Jaran better understand himself. When the guide suggests that Jaran would be better off without a DI, Sprite becomes suspicious. Her fears are confirmed when Jaran invokes her device name, Yukui, followed by the shutdown command.

When she’s rebooted, Sprite is shocked to find her memory still intact. Unfortunately her consciousness has been transferred to an ugly utilitarian body. She’s sitting in a restaurant with Jaran. Malakul, who’s accompanying him, appears to be gloating. Based on the lifeguide’s argument, Jaran has decided to sever the DI connection. The prospect is terrifying to Sprite because everything about her whole being revolves around her “hero her sidekick.”

When Jaran and Malakul perform the ritualistic severing ceremony, Sprite feels her reset circuits activate. As her emotions drain away, she is lost. Or is she? The ending is surprising but right for the story. It’s message about freedom, rights, and revolution ring very true today.

With such a glut of artificial intelligence stories, it’s hard to find one that stands out. This piece is such a story. Sprite was such an engaging protagonist that I couldn’t help but root for her. Ratchanee Malakul played the relationship-breaking bitch to perfection. Even Jaran, as a business consumed junkie felt right.

However, for me, it was Yukui!’s originality that won me over. It was a story that left me shaking my head in awe.