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

Clarkesworld #153, June 2019

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Clarkesworld #153, June 2019

The Painter of Trees” by Suzanne Palmer

Erdenweh” by Bo Balder
The Peppers of Green Scallions” by Myung-Hoon Bae
Set of Angels” by Eric Del Carlo
Bonobo” by Robert Reed
Field Mice” by Andy Dudak
Two Sisters in Exile” by Aliette de Bodard (reprint, not reviewed)

Reviewed by Jeffrey Steven Abrams

The Painter of Trees” by Suzanne Palmer

Set on an alien world, this mesmerizing work interweaves themes about extinction, progress, and culture in sadly compelling ways.

The first visitors from an Earthlike civilization have landed on an alien planet and are living within a metal-walled city they have built for safety. Always “forward thinking,” the group is charged with terraforming the planet.

Few settlers show interest in the indigenous nine-legged lifeforms, the main character being the only one to recognize the incredible memorials these creatures have painted on trees. She sees a civilization rich in culture, but others ignore them, seeing them as things of the past, discardable unless they can provide some benefit moving forward.

There’s an obvious point, about 90% through the story, where the tale could have ended nicely, comfortably. However, Palmer continues, brutally showing how human narcissistic and hedonistic instincts ruin everything we touch.

The true strength of this story lies in the way Palmer interweaves her themes about hubris, cultures after extinction, and the value of memories. Together it all makes for an entertaining as well as thought-provoking tale.

Erdenweh” by Bo Balder

Onway is a social-worker, working for a child-protection agency on space colony Nueva Esperanza. After noting alarming increases in youth suicides, she suspects the culprit is Erdenweh, a disease that infects Earth-living creatures who spend too much time away from their home environment. Within this tale of pure survival is a subplot around alternate methods of child birthing and raising. Half the population is born naturally, while the rest comes from a “decanted” mixture of test-tube babies. The natural babies live pampered lives, while the others live in squalor.

In her quest to link the disease with suicidal youths, Onway grimly recognizes that her problem is trivial; Nueva Esperanza may never be able to support alien life. “Erdenweh” feels very much a metaphor for our current climate problems. As such, its ending should give us hope. Something totally unexpected and just when we most need it.

The Peppers of Green Scallions” by Myung-Hoon Bae

Written in the lilting style so typical of Asian literature, this story follows the lives of two children living on a sparsely populated research planet. Chaeeunshinji and the unnamed main character bicker constantly, but even so are inseparable, at least until the politics of interstellar war separate them into their respective planetary camps.

Adults argue, convene meetings, argue more, but ultimately, and not too surprisingly, it’s the two children who figure out how to end the war. How aging works on worlds of differing year lengths, and the follies of war, are a couple of interesting topics touched upon. Embedded throughout is subtle humor, but it’s the relationship between the two childhood friends that is the strength of this tale.

Set of Angels” by Eric Del Carlo

Centuries in Earth’s future, the galaxy is governed by the Arch Hierophant, a Pope-like figure whose home encompasses an entire moon. He is burdened with a problem that has no easy solution; whether to grant sainthood to Valduk Tyn, an obscure prophet from the past who bears a striking resemblance to Jesus Christ. Tribes from many planets have called for a swift answer, but the Arch Hierophant, being a methodical decision maker, ignores their pressure.

The story’s timeline jumps backward, following the Arch Hierophant’s life as a boy turned street criminal. Despair is all he feels as he grows into a teenager. On the brink of suicide, it’s the church that pulls him out of darkness. Now, surveying his expansive palace, he is struck by the enormity of the job before him.

In another change of pace, the story shifts to follow the Arch Hierophant’s typical day. He meets with hundreds of individuals, paying little attention to their requests as he has bigger issues to consider. He spends considerable time with delegates from five vocal planetary groups to get their opinion on Tyn. Ultimately however, it’s a man from Earth who presents the most compelling argument against sainthood. This section was long, expansive, and for me, pace crippling. Personally, I believe Del Carlo could have shaved a third of the story’s 13,400 words with no loss of substance.

Bonobo” by Robert Reed

Bonobo begins like a television sitcom; a single mother with three wildly different teenage children bantering together about all variety of things. When middle daughter, Tidy, in a dramatic scene, announces that she wants to change species, both family and story plunge into uncharted territory. In Reed’s world, genetic research has advanced to the point that Tidy’s request, rather than being absurd, is merely expensive.

With Tidy and her brother’s railing at one another over the ethics of her decision, the plot shifts to their divorced father and Maureen, his new voluptuous AI partner. Quickly it becomes apparent that the story has jumped back in time, and they are viewing Tidy’s announcement from the safety of their apartment and the internet. In a third and final jump, the plot revisits the scene from the perspective of Wonder, Tidy’s younger brother.

With each reliving, more is learned about the family, the design of AI partners, and the devolution of human society. Even though “Bonobo” leaves with a bleak picture of humanity, Reed’s beautiful prose more than takes the pain away.

Field Mice” by Andy Dudak

In a topsy-turvy version of the United States, Northern province, Sylvania, is the more biblically driven, its residents still believing in Heaven and Hell. The South has adopted a modern view that a life well-lived will be uploaded into “the spheres” at death as reward.

Unpredictably, “Field Mouse” is a story of spies, infiltrators, and politics that unfold in this unusual world. To the squeamish, beware! There are horrendous descriptions of torture. Perhaps the graphic descriptions could have been throttled back, but such a change would have weakened the effectiveness of the images.

About midway through the story, the main character becomes suspicious as she learns more about uploading into The Spheres. The mood continues to darken until she confronts an agent who spells out the reality of the world in coldly blunt terms. Her identity as Field Mouse becomes clear as she realizes she’s just a cog in a much bigger wheel.

Dudak’s personal feelings about consciousness-uploading are carefully omitted from the ending. He presents facts and lets the reader come to their own conclusion. Beware however, some of the facts may have been cast in jello.