Clarkesworld #133, October 2017

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

Clarkesworld #133, October 2017

The Sum of Her Expectations” by Jack Skillingstead

The Nightingales in Plátres” by Natalia Theodoridou
The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon” by Finbarr O’Reilly
The Psychology Game” by Xia Jia, translated by Emily Jin & Ken Liu
Intro to Prom” by Genevieve Valentine

Reviewed by Robert L Turner III

This issue of Clarkesworld kicks off with “The Sum of Her Expectations” by Jack Skillingstead. The story starts as Amrita’s ship falls to the forbidden planet below her. As she escapes, she is visited by a Kabbnah presentation, the mental projection of a species who has transcended the physical realm. The presentation is the sum of the viewer’s expectations and in this case, that means an idealized version of her missing father. Once on the planet, she discovers that the automated city-builders of the Kabbnah have taken over the planet. Her only option is to accept the presentation’s help. Skinningstead creates a fascinating story that manages to function well on multiple levels simultaneously. The motivations of the various characters all point the reader to a contemplation of loneliness, our desires, and the stories we tell ourselves. The end is both hopeful and melancholy. Strongly recommended.

The Nightingales in Plátres” by Natalia Theodoridou is set in a generation ship that has become stranded in route to Tau Ceti. Filled with Greek Orthodox passengers and the recorded sounds of nightingales, Yánnis, the protagonist, must decide whether to make Abraham’s bargain. The focus of the story is the cultural and literary resonances created by the author rather than character development and plot, so those looking for an action adventure will be disappointed. Don’t let this keep you from reading this story. It is well crafted and filled with cultural details, from the name of the ship, to the constant callbacks to Greek literature and tradition. The plot itself is heartrending and brings up questions of faith, causality, and what sacrifices are actually worth. The ambiguity of the result only deepens the story. While not for everyone, this is a strong work and worth the read.

The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon” by Finbarr O’Reilly is set in a future where humanity has trapped itself on land after releasing artificial squid that were designed to filter plastic out of the ocean water. Unfortunately, the squid take that impulse to the extreme of removing all plastic found in the water, even if they are tiny ingested particles. Even worse, they reproduce and seem to have some level of intelligence. The narrator comes to Ballyvoloon, in southern Ireland, as part of a research mission regarding the squid. There he meets Más, an old-school fisherman, who rails against the fact the seas are now off limits.

The story is focused on atmospherics and world building, which is done skillfully in the background, as the two men form a sort of limited friendship. O’Reilly does an excellent job of balancing the melancholy of a world living with a colossal mistake and the human element represented by Más. The pacing, language and tone all work skillfully together to produce a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

The Psychology Game” by Xia Jia, translated by Emily Jin and Ken Liu is more of a think piece than an actual science fiction story. It sets up the scenario of a TV show where a person receives psychological counseling in front of a TV audience without knowing whether the therapist is a person or an AI. The idea is interesting, especially considering the fact that there are currently apps available for some types of counseling that seem to produce patient benefits. Thus, the ideas of Xia Jia’s story are both engaging and pertinent, but there is little of plot, narration, or actual science fiction. The alternating interview with the patient and background on the progress of AI does little to create any sort of narrative. In the end, the story is worth a read, but don’t expect any sort of plotline.

Intro to Prom” by Genevieve Valentine is a post-apocalyptic story set in an abandoned city where four children/young adults live under the dome that protects them from the rising waters that have covered the island where they lived. As they continue with their various rituals to fill the empty days we are gradually told the back story of how they came to be trapped underwater. While the writing is good, the story suffers from the problem common to this sort of “waiting around for the end of the world” story. There are only so many ways to spell ennui. The result is a story that doesn’t go anywhere because there isn’t anywhere to go, both in the sense of the physical restrictions placed on the story as well as the repetitive nature of the kids’ actions. We’ve seen this story so many times that there isn’t anything to be discovered in it. At this point, we’re just projecting millennial angst onto a different background for the umpteenth time.

Robert Turner is a professor and longtime SF/F fan.