Clarkesworld #166, July 2020

Clarkesworld #166, July 2020

“Artificial People” by Michael Swanwick

“One Time, a Reluctant Traveler” by A. T. Greenblatt

“Three Stories Conjured from Nothing” by ShakeSpace

“Power to Yield” by Bogi Takács

“Strange Comfort” by Tegan Moore

“The Oddish Gesture of Humans” by Gabriel Calácia

“The House That Leapt into Forever” by Beth Goder

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

This month’s issue features half a dozen short stories and a novella, all science fiction.

The narrator of “Artificial People” by award-winning author Michael Swanwick is a synthetic human being, apparently something like an organic robot. His creators bring him in and out of consciousness over many years, so that he sees them age and die, while a much shorter period goes by for him. He undergoes many experiences over time, learning about love, grief, war, and parenthood.

The author conveys the narrator’s psychological development in detail, making use of a clear, calm style. The story depicts an entire lifetime in relatively few words, providing strong emotional impact without becoming sentimental.

“One Time, a Reluctant Traveler” by A. T. Greenblatt takes place in a world where civilization is crumbling, the result of an unspecified disaster. As a child, the narrator heard stories of an ocean on top of a mountain from his parents. These tales dealt with survivors making the difficult and dangerous journey to the place, in order to drink of its waters and to pour the ashes of the dead into it. As an adult, he undertakes such a trek, with the ashes of his parents and others, aided by a robot he encounters on the way.

The story’s background is interesting, combining elements of post-apocalypse and high tech. The robot is the most likable character. It’s difficult to understand the purpose of the narrator’s quest, as the tales he heard said that the pilgrims to the mountain top found only further sorrow. Perhaps the intent is to show that an ordeal need not be rewarding to be worthy.

“Three Stories Conjured from Nothing” by ShakeSpace, translated from Chinese by Andy Dudak, as its title suggests, is actually a trilogy of unrelated tales. “Name” deals with a large number of identical machines, one of which becomes different from its fellows. “Gravity” depicts an inside-out world, populated by flying people, with the Sun located inside the Earth. “Mirror” involves an unimaginably vast entity, made up of countless galaxies, that encounters a similar being from another universe.

All the pieces show great imagination and originality. Their novel concepts appeal to the intellect, but not to the heart. Readers more interested in new ideas than in characters to whom they can relate will best appreciate these unusual works.

The novella “Power to Yield” by Bogi Takács takes place not long after the oppressed victims of an empire escaped to another planet, and won their freedom after a bloody war. A student becomes obsessed with one of the leaders of the revolution. She volunteers to join his institute, where she must undergo extreme pain in order to control powerful psychic forces.

After a quiet opening, the story evolves into a litany of tortures. Although the sufferings of the members of the institute are necessary to the survival of their people, reading about them is unpleasant. The author creates a complex background, containing many elements that are not always comprehensible.

“Strange Comfort” by Tegan Moore takes place at the bottom of the ocean of the moon Europa. After an accident destroys the craft carrying his partner to the surface, the main character has no way to escape this inhospitable environment. As he mourns for his partner and awaits rescue that may never come, he deals with equipment failure and an enormous, worm-like organism dwelling in the sea.

The story is full of science fiction elements, maintaining the reader’s interest throughout. The protagonist’s plight creates a great deal of suspense, with one crisis after another adding to the tension. The main character is not always one with whom the reader can sympathize, despite his sufferings.

“The Oddish Gesture of Humans” by Gabriel Calácia is the first of two very short stories closing the issue. Two aliens study an image of a pair of human beings, and try to understand what they are doing together. This brief tale is a simple, rather sweet one, but its theme would be strengthened if the aliens were not so similar to people.

In “The House That Leapt into Forever” by Beth Goder, an automated home, long empty of its original inhabitants, houses an alien. The ending is dramatic, perhaps too much so for such a tiny piece.

Victoria Silverwolf thinks one of the authors in this issue uses a pseudonym.