Clarkesworld #165, June 2020

Clarkesworld #165, June 2020

“The Iridescent Lake” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires

“How Long the Shadows Cast” by Kenji Yanagawa

“Nine Words for Loneliness in the Language of the Uma’u” by M. L. Clark

“Optimizing the Path to Enlightenment” by Priya Chand

“Own Goal” by Dennard Dayle

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

This month’s issue of Neil Clarke’s award-winning publication opens with a pair of novelettes, includes a novella, and ends with two short stories, all science fiction.

“The Iridescent Lake” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires takes place on a planet containing ice with unusual properties. The narrator works as a security guard, protecting the valuable ice, while secretly taking small pieces of it to give to scientists. An encounter with someone who looks like the narrator’s dead son leads to the discovery of a dangerous criminal conspiracy.

The story’s exotic setting is interesting, and the fast-moving, action-filled plot will appeal to readers of suspense fiction. Some of the properties of the strange ice strain credibility. In addition, the biotechnology used by the conspirators seems both unlikely and impractical. I also had to wonder why the authorities allowed people to use a frozen lake as a skating rink, if it were so important to protect the ice from thieves.

The narrator of “How Long the Shadows Cast” by Kenji Yanagawa returns to Earth after an interstellar voyage. Due to the time dilation effect of near-light velocity, a quarter of a century passed on the home world while he was gone. Still mourning the accidental death of a lover years ago, he meets a mysterious woman and begins a new romance. Her research into the electromagnetic aspects of human consciousness ends in a startling revelation. The narrator faces a difficult decision that will change his life forever.

Although this is the author’s first published story, the elegant style, fully developed characters, originality of thought, and strong emotional appeal reveal a great deal of sophistication and maturity. The plot of this bittersweet love story avoids sentimentality without sacrificing its romantic aspects.

The main character in “Nine Words for Loneliness in the Language of the Uma’u” by M. L. Clark is a feline alien. His mate and companions died in a terrorist attack on the spaceship carrying them on a diplomatic mission to a vessel full of many different kinds of aliens. As the only survivor, he mourns for the slain while dealing with culture shock among strange beings.

Interspecies politics causes conflict with some of the inhabitants of the vessel, while others are sympathetic but fail to understand him. He yearns for revenge against the terrorists, and deals with those who suspect him of knowing more than he reveals.

Despite the dramatic plot elements, and the presence of a wide variety of extraterrestrials, this is mostly an introspective tale. The protagonist’s memories and emotions provide most of the narrative. Although the author displays a great deal of imagination, the main character’s meditations tend to be repetitious. The story would benefit from some judicious editing.

“Optimizing the Path to Enlightenment” by Priya Chand takes place in a future world recovering from warfare and environmental disaster. The inhabitants live under the watchful eye of an artificial intelligence. The AI controls their lives as a benevolent dictator, making sure they avoid waste, preserve their health, and are free from violence. The main character has mixed feelings about the AI, serving it faithfully as a technician, but also taking advantage of blind spots in its control over her life. The actions of a companion force her to make a final decision about her relationship with the AI.

The story deals with freedom and responsibility in a subtle and multifaceted way. It offers no easy answers, and its ambiguity adds complexity to its theme. This deceptively quiet tale is worth careful reading to appreciate its hidden depths.

“Own Goal” by Dennard Dayle takes the form of the journal of an advertising executive living in a space colony. His latest project is to sell a weapon of mass destruction to either or both of two warring colonies. Meanwhile, he prepares his mother’s funeral, arranging for the launching of her coffin into space.

The story’s satiric look at advertising and the arms race creates an effective mood of dark irony, but only at the expense of plausibility. Even given humanity’s tendency to engage in self-destructive behavior, it’s hard to believe that the protagonist doesn’t anticipate the effects of his marketing campaign.

Victoria Silverwolf is surprised that there is no translated story in this issue.