Clarkesworld #157, October 2019

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Clarkesworld #157, October 2019

“All Electric Ghosts” by Rich Larson

“The Scrapyard” by Tomas Furby
“An Arc of Lightning Across the Eye of God” by P H Lee
“National Center for the Preservation of Human Dignity” by Youha Nam, translated by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe
“Song Xiuyun” by A Que, translated by Emily Jin
“How Alike Are We” by Bo-Young Kim, translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar

Reviewed by Mike Wyant Jr.

“All Electric Ghosts” by Rich Larson is a wild ride. The story follows Benny, a drug addict-turned alien savior, as he works to reunite a bunch of unnamed and otherwise unknown alien species from a similarly unknown group of people looking to do something even more unknown to them.

Until trying to write a brief synopsis for this story, I didn’t realize just how much isn’t explained. We spend so much time deep in Benny’s tortured psyche that, when the action happens, it just seems like the natural steps for him to take. In a lot of ways, I wonder if this was Larson’s goal, to set up a story where the driving energy simulates a drug addict’s thought process in the search for their next hit. If so, it’s done brilliantly and with such beautiful, yet raw imagery it’s hard not to be impressed by the piece.

My only real critique is the ending is rather abrupt, though it does fit the overall motif of the story in that it starts with an addict searching for their next high and ends with that expected payoff. Definitely give this story a read.

“The Scrapyard” by Tomas Furby is the story of what happens to a group of bioengineered super soldiers after the war against an alien invasion is over. Mostly, it follows the narrator as he reflects on dead friends, the war he fought, and the reality that he is probably starting to lose it until, suddenly, we realize he isn’t.

The most appealing part of this story is the earnestness of the narration and the voicing. I’ve read various stories and memoirs written by soldiers who’ve seen battle and Furby does a fantastic job capturing the phrasing and style in this piece. The story itself, from the intro to the final scene, is well crafted.

“An Arc of Lightning Across the Eye of God” by P H Lee is an interesting tale. Generally, it contains two main parts: Zhou Wenshu fretting about reporting first contact with an alien visitor that’d just come through a transit point (which I took to be some sort of FTL lane) and a transcript of a meeting with the alien. It’s in the transcript we find out the alien is a genetically crafted creature made from an Icelandic astronaut and, apparently, an angel or some fragment of God.

The transcript is written really well, with all the frustration you’d find in a conversation with two interpreters between the subject and the interviewer. The story itself is a slow burn, with an ever-increasing tension as more of the interview comes to light. By the end, it’s easy to understand why Zhou was so uncomfortable in the first section of the story.

That said, the story just kind of ends. It’s not poorly concluded, and I can’t put my finger on why it bugs me so much as it’s clear I’m thinking and feeling what the author wants me to, but it left me feeling unfulfilled.

Definitely worth reading as my dissatisfaction with the ending is entirely a subjective response and the rest of the story is worth the time.

“National Center for the Preservation of Human Dignity” by Youha Nam, translated by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe is terrifying. It follows a character we only ever know as the number 704 as she’s sent to a retirement home-esque building for being poor. The catch? She’s there to die in 24 hours.

The main plot revolves around 704 (I hate using that number as a name) as she comes to grips with the fact some prick government presided over by a certain presidential figure that’s far too familiar has outlawed poverty and, as such, will execute her. The ending, though somewhat depressing from an American, fight-to-the-death, point of view is satisfying and fits with the plot. Well worth a read.

“Song Xiuyun” by A Que and translated by Emily Jin is a fantastic story despite some editing and tense issues throughout. “Song Xiuyun” is told through two points of view, one is a futuristic Uber driver, Wu Huang, who controls a smart taxi through an Internet-connected helmet, and the other is the eponymous character, Song Xiuyun. Generally speaking, we follow Ms. Song as she travels to a near future Beijing in search of her son, whom she has found is in failing health. Soon, we find out her son has been using one of these helmets to control a robot designed to look exactly like him in order to fool her about his health. Eventually, from Ms. Song’s perspective, her son comes home for the Chinese New Year and all is well.

The thing that makes this story so interesting is Wu Huang’s perspective. She’s a replacement reader who connects the dots before Song does. During their drive, Wu Huang starts to draw parallels between her life and Song and her son’s, down to the way Wu Huang treats her family and their relationship. It’s an interesting take on modernization and the way it impacts family life and the ending, when it comes, is so simple, yet impactful I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear or two.

Bo-Young Kim‘s “How Alike Are We,” translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar, is a fantastic story about a space-faring vessel’s Artificial Intelligence going into a synthetic human body to try and figure out a problem it’s unable to address in its typical, digital brain.

Roughly, the story is a rescue mission. The AI, NOON, at some point intercepted a distress signal on Titan from a mining facility that’s collapsed in on itself. NOON, after being dropped in a synthetic body, promptly forgets exactly why they forced the crew to do this, resulting in a long series of escalating tensions as the crew attacks NOON and the captain, Lee Jin Seo, protects it. Ultimately, as everything spirals out of control, NOON finally realizes the gap in their knowledge is caused by a bureaucrat’s edits to their core programming, but not before a mutiny breaks out amongst the crew, leaving the survival of the colony hanging in the balance.

“How Alike We Are” starts off slowly, mostly due to the lack of knowledge of the narrator and the limited perspective as NOON tries to get their bearings. The first third of it was a bit challenging as I didn’t understand where we were going or why anything was important, but it turned out that was the point. The farther along in the tale you get, the more cohesive, and readable, the story becomes. By the end, you feel the tension and the emotion NOON has embraced to achieve their goal. When the ending finally hits, it ends with a sentence that flies in the face of every assertion NOON has made throughout the story and the pure joy I felt at that was worth the read.

Oh, and the science is really, really tight in this one, though I guess it has to be since the main character is an artificial intelligence.

Mike Wyant, Jr. is an ex-IT guy, who has finally committed to a writing life out in the Middle of Nowhere, New York.