Clarkesworld #200, May 2023
“Better Living Through Algorithms” by Naomi Kritzer
“To Sail Beyond the Botnet” by Suzanne Palmer
“Sensation and Sensibility” by Parker Ragland
“Action at a Distance” by An Hao
“Through the Roof of the World” by Harry Turtledove
“LOL, Said the Scorpion” by Rich Larson
“The Giants Among Us” by Megan Chee
“The Fall” by Jordan Chase-Young
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
This issue offers seven short stories and a novella.
In “Better Living Through Algorithms” by Naomi Kritzer, a program accessed through smart phones gives people detailed, specific advice on how to improve their lives. A journalist investigates the source of the program. Meanwhile, it changes society even as its use declines.
This is a very plausible look at the near future, extrapolating the current use of social media and artificial intelligence is a highly believable way. (It should be noted that this is AI as it actually exists today, not the sentient machines imagined by science fiction writers.) It also makes a very important point about the appropriate use and limitations of this technology.
The novella “To Sail Beyond the Botnet” by Suzanne Palmer is a sequel to two Hugo-winning works by the author, all three stories featuring a resourceful robot aboard a starship. In this adventure, the sentient ship has been invaded by hostile aliens that hate artificial intelligences. The robot is jettisoned into space in an attempt to contact a nearby vessel inhabited by another species of alien.
Much more goes on than I have indicated in this very simplified synopsis. The story is leavened with a great deal of humor, without descending into farce. Full enjoyment of it may depend on familiarity with previous tales in the series, as there are frequent references to prior events.
In “Sensation and Sensibility” by Parker Ragland, two robots enter a restaurant and order tea and dessert, although neither one can taste food or drink. One robot can detect scents, the other can feel heat and cold. They discuss their limited senses and the difference between humans and machines.
As can be seen, this is more of an anecdote than a fully developed story. This quiet little character study makes for pleasant, if sedate, reading.
“Action at a Distance” by An Hao, translated from Chinese by Andy Dudak, involves a weird planetoid with a bewildering surface. After two space explorers are lost while approaching it, one dead and one vanished, a third has his ability to perceive three dimensions altered just by looking at an image of the crystalline surface of the little world. He journeys to the planetoid, leading to further mysteries.
The premise is intriguing, if difficult to believe and a little confusing. The author creates an eerie, enigmatic mood, deliberately leaving much unexplained. Some readers may find the lack of a full resolution frustrating, although the impossibility of imagining things beyond human ken seems to be the point of the story.
The characters in “Through the Roof of the World” by veteran author Harry Turtledove are crustacean-like aliens inhabiting a watery world. Several species of intelligent beings live at various depths in the ocean. Those nearest the surface witness a strange object break through what was thought to be an impenetrable barrier above their environment.
The author does an excellent job of writing from the point of view of beings very different from humans, and creates a fascinating ecosystem. In contrast to the previous work, this imaginative tale explains its mysteries fully. In fact, the last section of the story, which suddenly shifts to the point of view of humans, may strike some readers as overly explicit, and something of an anticlimax.
“LOL, Said the Scorpion” by Rich Larson takes place in a future world that has been devastated by multiple pandemics and climate change. Despite these disasters, the affluent still take holidays in less fortunate parts of the world. They wear symbiotic suits that cover their bodies and protect them from danger. One such vacationer has a shocking encounter with a local resident.
The story can be read as an allegory for the way some tourists display a sense of superiority and entitlement. The gruesome climax makes it clear that persons in need are metaphorically invisible to these thoughtless vacationers. Readers from prosperous lands are likely to think twice about their behavior while visiting poorer nations. Although the theme is an important one, with a vital ethical message, some may find its moral lesson insufficiently sugar-coated with fiction.
“The Giants Among Us” by Megan Chee primarily consists of a series of descriptions of a world in which ordinary humans (or something like them) exist along with gigantic, extremely slow-moving beings. The planet is observed by one type of alien from a world inhabited by two warring species, while the other variety studies a different planet. This mutual-but-separate project is intended to reduce hostilities between the rival aliens.
Much of the story is reminiscent of J. G. Ballard’s tale “The Drowned Giant” (itself possibly inspired by an incomplete work by Franz Kafka, generally known in English as “The Giant Mole.”) This sort of calm, matter-of-fact description of an extraordinary phenomenon has the same kind of appeal as much of the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges. Because the present work is science fiction, the premise of huge beings, said to have possibly arrived from another universe, strains credibility more than in a tale of pure fantasy.
“The Fall” by Jordan Chase-Young takes place long after human civilization fell, then recovered sufficiently to visit the Moon again. A woman investigates a forest ecosystem on the satellite, created by the prior civilization, that was designed to support a variety of plants and animals able to survive in the airless environment. She has an unexpected encounter that may or may not be real.
What happens to the woman, assuming that it is not completely imaginary, is as hard to credit as a thriving woodland in a vacuum. (If it is imaginary, the story turns into an example of the “it was all a dream” cliché.) The author creates the quietly disturbing mood of a subtle horror story, but the work is hard to credit as believable science fiction.
Victoria Silverwolf doesn’t understand the title of one of these stories.