Clarkesworld #162, March 2020

Clarkesworld #162, March 2020

“Time Reveals the Heart” by Derek Künsken

“Coffee Boom: Decoctions, Micronized” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires

“Leave-Taking” by M. L. Clark

“The Amusement Dark” by Mike Buckley

“Grayer Than Lead, Heavier Than Snow” by Yukimi Ogawa

“The Whale Fall at the End of the Universe” by Cameron Van Sant

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

Three novelettes and three short stories appear in the latest issue of Neil Clarke’s monthly publication.

An unusual form of time travel appears in “Time Reveals the Heart” by Derek Künsken. Although computer-controlled technology sends voyagers into the past, they must take doses of a psychoactive drug to control when and where they arrive. To reverse the effects of the substance, which is potentially addictive, requires an antidote.

The protagonist is one such time traveler. He journeys to an ancient settlement in order to retrieve a tiny camera left behind by a careless visitor from the future. During this assignment, he nearly succumbs to the drug. His experience helps him heal his relationship with his alcoholic mother.

Although time travel is a vital element, it remains in the background. The reader only sees brief glimpses of the past. The heart of the story is the main character’s preference for interacting with a computer simulation of his mother, recorded during a better time, than with the real woman. The speculative content of the plot serves to strengthen the powerful themes of resisting temptation, and accepting the faults within oneself and other people.

The protagonist of “Coffee Boom: Decoctions, Micronized” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires is obsessed with producing the world’s best cup of coffee. When an artist manufactures a tiny model of a collider, of the kind used in subatomic physics, she carries out an elaborate plan to steal it. Her motive is to use the device to crush coffee beans into perfect, extremely small particles.

Even for a lighthearted story, the plot strains credibility. The main character works a series of low-paying jobs in coffee houses and diners, yet is able to obtain highly advanced technology to overcome the security system surrounding the collider. It’s also hard to believe that this strange method of grinding the beans would make such a huge difference in quality. Despite these reservations, the story is likely to appeal to lovers of good coffee.

“Leave-Taking” by M. L. Clark takes the form of messages from the narrator to a lover who is in a temporary coma, recovering from an accident in space. The couple have an on-again, off-again relationship, discussed often in the story. Between sections of the narrator’s guilt-ridden self-examination, the reader learns about the tale’s setting and background.

The story takes place on a planet inhabited by many different species of aliens, mostly from other worlds. The narrator discovers another race of beings by accidentally encountering sentient fungus, existing as a group mind. The fungus creates an imitation of the main character, leading to encounters with other aliens. The narrator comes to understand why the imitation exists, and makes a difficult and important decision.

The story’s epistolary structure requires a great deal of exposition, with the narrator telling the lover things that should already be known. The author demonstrates great skill at world building, creating a complex and imaginative universe full of extraordinary lifeforms. The narrator and the romantic relationship are less interesting.

“The Amusement Dark” by Mike Buckley is the magazine’s longest piece. About a century before the story begins, humanity lost a war with artificial intelligences. There is now an uneasy truce, with people living as second-class citizens. The ruling AI’s send the main character and his wife on a mission to contact colonies rendered incommunicado by the war. They have a child while aboard the gigantic spaceship. Tragedy leaves the man alone, except for the disturbing presence of a biological simulation of his dead daughter, created by the AI’s.

While on a seemingly deserted colony world conquered by the AI’s at the end of the war, the man makes a gruesome discovery. Three prisoners of the invading AI’s, long gone from the planet, are still alive, in a particularly shocking way. By rescuing and healing the survivors, the man learns to accept his own painful situation.

Using multiple flashbacks, the author creates a strong sense of suspense, as the reader begins on the mysterious colony planet and only slowly learns why the protagonist is so uncomfortable with his unwanted companion. Although the plot is often grim, with elements of horror fiction, the conclusion offers a welcome touch of hope.

“Grayer Than Lead, Heavier Than Snow” by Yukimi Ogawa is a science fiction story with the feeling of fantasy. In this world, people born with unusual patterns of color on their skin are the elite, while those with plainer skin are the lower class. Holding an unusual position in society are androids, created to resemble the upper class. Although they serve the elite, they are even more disdainful of the lower class than their masters.

The protagonist is an apprentice to an artisan who creates patterns in paper and ink that have healing properties. She accepts an assignment from an android to provide a pattern that will allow a man to survive when his supply of a vital medication runs low. It turns out that she is unwittingly helping a drug addict. Although upset by the way the android deceived her, she agrees to help when the pattern, stolen by androids for their own purpose, leads to a crisis among the artificial humans.

The author provides many colorful descriptions, particularly concerning the luxurious lifestyle of the elite. The manner in which the patterns have their effect is difficult to follow, and seems to be more magical than scientific.

“The Whale Fall at the End of the Universe” by Cameron Van Sant is a brief tale without human characters. All of the beings in this story resemble sea creatures, but they live in empty space. The main character drifts through the vacuum, surviving on energy from starlight, and spending most of the time in hibernation. It encounters a dead whale-like entity, inhabited by many different species of scavengers that are slowly devouring its carcass.

A shark-like predator draws the protagonist to the whale. The two co-exist for a very long time, sharing with many others the gigantic amount of meat the dead creature provides. When the space whale’s flesh is nearly gone, the main character, with the aid of a newly arrived companion, fights for survival.

The fictional ecosystem is interesting, and the reader comes to empathize with a character very different from a human being. The plot is a simple one, with few surprises.

Victoria Silverwolf does not drink coffee.