Clarkesworld #195, December 2022
“Law of Tongue” by Naim Kabir
“The Resting Place of Trees” by Ben Berman Ghan
“Upstart” by Lu Ban
“To Exorcise Mechanical Ghosts” by Laney Gaughan
“Keiki’s Pitcher Plant” by Bri Castagnozzi
“Murder by Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness” by S.L. Huang
“Left to Die” by Vandana Singh
“The Lightness” by Alex Sobel
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
Two novelettes and half a dozen short stories appear in this issue.
“Law of Tongue” by Naim Kabir is set at a near future time when humans have learned to communicate with orcas. The protagonist journeys from California to Alaska in search of the granddaughter of an orca, so that the grandmother will agree to negotiate with humans. With the help of a former poacher, and opposed by indigenous hunters, she finds the missing animal, only to discover that the situation is much different from what she thought it was.
Cleverly plotted and written in a laconic, realistic style, the story manages to make the orcas into characters just as believable as the humans. The text is full of plausible futuristic technology, adding to the verisimilitude.
“The Resting Place of Trees” by Ben Berman Ghan takes place long after humans have been replaced by artificial intelligences. The AI’s debate whether to break the planet apart for raw materials, now that they can exist outside of physical bodies throughout the solar system, or to preserve it. The main character is an AI who studies human messages from long ago, in an attempt to defend the need to save human culture.
Much of the text describes various insects that inhabit an Earth that lost most other forms of life. There are also computer messages from the past, that offer hints as to how the AI’s replaced humanity. The overall effect is to create more of a prose poem than a plot-driven story, notable mostly for imagery.
“Upstart” by Lu Ban, translated from Chinese by Blake Stone-Banks, is the issue’s longest story. It takes place at a time when people can agree to die a certain number of years in the future in order to control the population. They are also permanently sterilized and face many other restrictions. In return, they receive a large amount of money. The contract is enforced through the injection of a substance that will lead to a long, painful death if the client avoids showing up for euthanasia.
The protagonist accepts this Faustian bargain. When his time comes up, he becomes involved with the young daughter of a man who worked for the euthanasia company, and who has disappeared. Their search leads to a group of people working to reverse the effect of the injection. There is much more going on than he suspects.
The text alternates between flashbacks to the time the main character signed up for the program and his quest to find the young woman’s father. The former sections serve mostly as exposition. (The author carefully considers how such a system might work.) Many of the latter sections read like hard-boiled crime fiction. The plot leads up to an unexpected twist.
Although the theme of population control through euthanasia is not a new one, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s satiric story “Welcome to the Monkey House” and the novel Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, the author treats the premise in a new and very plausible fashion. Fans of both speculative fiction and fast-paced action stories should be satisfied.
In “To Exorcise Mechanical Ghosts” by Laney Gaughan, a man injured in a mining accident receives a transplanted arm taken from a worker who died in a similar event. He also has a device implanted into his ear, apparently part of the way the new arm is controlled. (I have to admit I was not entirely clear on this point.) He hears recorded thoughts of the dead man, raising doubts as to whether the accident was the result of the company’s negligence.
Although the premise is given a rather vague scientific explanation, it seems more like something out of a horror movie about a haunted body part. Readers are likely to be disappointed by the action the protagonist takes at the end of the story. If nothing else, the author creates a believable blue-collar worker of the future.
“Keiki’s Pitcher Plant” by Bri Castagnozzi involves a genetic engineering facility controlled by an artificial intelligence. The humans who worked there have not been around for several years. When the protagonist is called back to the place, she discovers an extraordinary secret project in progress.
Despite the science fiction plot summarized above, much of this story deals with the cultural decolonization of the Philippines, which has been renamed Maharlika. In parallel with this, at the end of the story the main character renames a genetically altered plant formerly christened after a European. This aspect of the work seems to be more important than its speculative content.
As its title implies, the novelette “Murder by Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness” by S.L. Huang resembles a nonfiction article more than a work of fiction. A reporter investigates harassing messages sent to a wealthy man, over several forms of computer communication, that eventually led to his suicide. It is discovered that other prominent persons, all with some kind of terrible secret, were victimized in a similar way. It turns out this was done by an automated messaging system capable of learning. When the reporter finds out that the same system also sent helpful messages to people in trouble, the question of whether the good outweighs the bad comes up.
It should be pointed out that nothing in the premise is beyond today’s computer technology, adding to the impression that this is an essay rather than a story. The text contains several links to real articles about similar situations. The topic is an important one, but there seems to be no good reason to present it as a lightly fictionalized work rather than as nonfiction.
In “Left to Die” by Vandana Singh, a woman is stranded on the moon of a distant planet when her two lovers run off together in a plot to inherit her wealth. Death seems inevitable until she figures out a way to send a message to a rescuer, making use of the tree-like, light-emitting organisms that inhabit the moon.
As I have tried to indicate, the plot combines crime fiction with problem-solving science fiction and a description of exotic alien lifeforms. There is also a bit of character study to the story, as the woman hallucinates her mother offering her advice. Although its outcome may be predictable, readers of the kinds of fiction noted above are likely to enjoy the work.
“The Lightness” by Alex Sobel is the issue’s shortest story. A woman agrees to carry an alien baby in her womb, so that the extraterrestrial parents can earn the right to emigrate to Earth. When the aliens are killed in an accident, the woman must decide what to do about the baby.
Even though the work is rather brief, much of the narrative seems extraneous. There is quite a bit of discussion of the fact that the aliens have a strong interest in the baskets made by a certain corporation. (Hints in the text make it clear that this is supposed to be the Longaberger company of Ohio.) The plot may suggest a discussion of the controversial topic of abortion, but this is hardly treated in a meaningful way. The premise is implausible, and other aspects of the story, such as the fact that travel between Earth and the alien planet is possible in a simple two-person ship, make it difficult to suspend one’s belief.
Victoria Silverwolf forgot to bring a book to work last night.