Clarkesworld #132, September 2017

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Clarkesworld #132, September 2017

“Antarctic Birds” by A. Brym
“Little /^^^\&-“ by Eric Schwitzgebel
“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer
“Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab
“Möbius Continuum” by Gu Shi

Reviewed by Filip Wiltgren

In an exotic local in Antarctica, now a semi-frigid tundra with all the ice sheaths gone, a small community of genetically engineered humans struggles to thrive under the watchful eyes, or perhaps thoughts, of an alien master race. A. Brym‘s “Antarctic Birds” has everything an SF-story should have.

And yet it falls short. To me it reads like an unfinished piece of a larger work, or perhaps a mood piece as written by James Joyce. It’s too complex, too unspoken, too deep and yet too shallow. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch, seeing that there’s a story there, but due to the way it’s presented, it doesn’t reach me. But if you like complex allusions, weird worldbuilding and stories that encourage you to fill in the blanks yourself, then you’ll love “Antarctic Birds.”

What if galactic civilization lived on the planet scale? That’s the central premise in Eric Schwitzgebel‘s “Little /^^^\&-.” The titular heroine, /^^^\&-, is a planet, imprisoned in our solar system for a month. Which is a long time when Earth’s orbit around the Sun is the measure of a second.

“Little /^^^\&-” is an interesting thought experiment, and the imagery of an incomprehensible planetary language is a neat twist. Ultimately, though, it depends heavily on the continuous disclosure of new information and once I figured out where the story was going, reading to reach the ending felt rather unsatisfying—for me, “Little /^^^\&-” would have been perfect at half its length.

In Suzanne Palmer‘s charming “The Secret Life of Bots,” a minuscule robot is given the task of finding a rat aboard a space ship. Add to this that the bot is old and obsolete, the ship a decommissioned warship on a last-ditch suicide mission to save the Earth, and the rat not quite a rat, and you’ve got a story that’s both tiny and huge in scope.

Palmer also managed to add quite a bit of heart to the tale. Her bots have a very Disney-esque vibe to them, and their motto, “I serve,” masks an individuality and multitudes of personalities that make them very interesting indeed. “The Secret Life of Bots” is definitely worth reading if you like vivid, interesting characters, quests, and, possibly, rats.

I’m not much for romance. And yet, “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab made me cry. It’s beautiful beyond words, a biochromatic albatross wing of worldbuilding wrapped around a solid story of post-eco-apocalyptic civic reclamation as seen through the eyes of a pair of not-quite lovers. And there’s a work-life balance thread there, too.

The core of the story centers on Amir, a Beirut bioengineer/philosopher, and his childhood friend Mani, also an engineer/philosopher. Circumstances make them star-crossed lovers, and circumstances tear them apart. But I won’t spoil the story for you, because there is a solid story in “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics,” on all levels, from the personal through to the global. I would be surprised if this one wasn’t nominated for a Hugo or Nebula. I wouldn’t be surprised if it won.

If you like beautiful writing, amazing worldbuilding, mesmerizing, believable characters, and all of it wrapped around a story with a solid plot that tugs at the heart-strings, you’ll love “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics.” The only possible drawback is the sheer amount of information and new-speak Jess Barber and Sara Saab manage to cram into the story. To unpack it all, you might need to read it twice. But then again, you might want to.

What if the world is a Möbius ring? What if our experience of it is? In “Möbius Continuum” by Gu Shi, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu, a young man finds himself a quadriplegic after a car accident. Aided by a wise old master, he survives to acquire an external, robotic body, and more.

“Möbius Continuum” is an idea story, exploring the nature of reality. It is well-written, and well-translated, but in the end it’s a theme I’ve seen multiple times, in many variations, making this one’s world-shattering implications feel stale.