Clarkesworld #158, November 2019

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Clarkesworld #158, November 2019

“Your Future is Pending” by Matthew Kressel

“Antarctica” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires
“Cloud-Born” by Gregory Feeley
“Sentinel” by Chang-Gyu Kim
“Operation Spring Dawn” by Mo Xiong
“Perfect Gun” by Elizabeth Bear (reprint, not reviewed)

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

Whether by design or coincidence, after an initial tale that takes place in a hot climate, all the original stories in this issue feature cold environments.

“Your Future is Pending” by Matthew Kessel takes place at a time when the temperature of the Earth is high and rising. Crops are failing, but the wealthy are able to spend their time in virtual reality worlds, while machines tend to their inactive bodies.

The main character works as a technician for these devices, going into the vast but mostly empty houses of the rich to allow them to continue dreaming without dying. Besides the challenge of her job, the protagonist has to care for her elderly father, suffering from dementia, and face an automated health care system that rejects her requests for help. Much of the story deals with her attempt to adopt a stray dog. Frustrated by her failure to handle her problems, she makes a last, desperate gesture of rebellion.

This is an unrelievedly grim story, with no hope at all for the protagonist from the very beginning. Its account of a technologically advanced but failing society is a powerful one, depicted in a realistic way. Although reading it may be an unpleasant experience for many, its message of the gap between the elite and the commoners is an important one.

The rather generic title of “Antarctica” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires announces its setting. The narrator is an artist-in-residence at a base on the frozen continent. A microorganism of unknown origin, possibly due to humanity’s tinkering with the environment, attacks the Antarctic ice cap, breaking it up and threatening wildlife, particularly penguins. Researchers experiment with various forms of ice to replace the loss with a substitute immune to the microorganisms.

The author creates a compelling portrait of Antarctica, in a clear, vivid style. Some aspects of the plot strain credibility. The scientists are forbidden to search for a way to destroy the invasive microorganism, which seems implausible. Some of the phases of ice used to repair the damage are stable only under high pressure, or at temperatures far lower than those of Antarctica, so could not exist under the conditions shown. (The author is in good company, at least. The phase of ice that freezes the Earth in Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel Cat’s Cradle is equally impossible.)

The eternal coldness of space near the planet Neptune is the setting for “Cloud-Born” by Gregory Feeley. The main character is a girl in her teens, born on a vast spaceship that set out for the distant planet about twenty years ago. As they near their destination, the adults aboard the vessel are busy getting ready to create a permanent home orbiting Neptune. The older children, left on their own, explore parts of the ship formerly forbidden to them.

A boy gives the girl a device, normally used only by those adults who need to prepare themselves psychologically for their new residence. It allows her to live as a centaur, in a particularly vivid form of virtual reality. After this experience, an adult takes her to a special part of the ship, where she sees a real window for the first time in her life, instead of only televised images of the universe outside her world, leading to an epiphany about her destiny.

The author displays skill in writing both science fiction and fantasy. The girl’s dream of being a centaur is a long section of the story, almost a full-length tale of its own. The two genres, although both enjoyable here, do not always blend into a smooth whole. The girl’s obsession with centaurs and other beings from ancient mythology appears to be symbolic, but its meaning is hardly lucid.

“Sentinel” by Chang-Gyu Kim, translated from Korean by Charles La Shure, is an eerie vision of a very strange, dying world. Only a few thousand people are alive, dwelling on a small portion of land. Surrounding their patch of ground is a universe that has lost almost all energy. Only the devices standing between the population and the dying cosmos allow them to survive. The machines drain what little energy is available from the extremely cold environs.

The story involves a man who cuts wood only when it is needed, all human activities kept to a minimum to conserve energy. He has visions of his dead wife, appearing as a ghost in the region beyond the inhabitable area. The people threw her into the deadly cold because she was disabled, and thus unable to provide enough work to justify the energy needed to keep her alive. Now another person, the father of the man’s young apprentice, faces a similar fate.

The story’s surreal setting is more interesting than the plot, which is simple and predictable. Although the way in which the frigid universe produces apparitions of what people are thinking adds to the melancholy mood, it also seems arbitrary and implausible, given the story’s premise.

In “Operation Spring Dawn” by Mo Xiong, translated from Chinese by Rebecca Kuang, a new Ice Age covers the Earth in frost. In an attempt to save humanity from destruction, genetically enhanced individuals, bred to survive extreme cold, go into suspended animation. The plan is to wake these people tens of thousands of years in the future, and have them activate devices that will be able to warm the planet at that time.

The protagonist is such a person, who emerges ahead of schedule, although still in the far future. Welcoming him is a group of humanoid robots. They set out on an odyssey around the world, investigating ancient strongholds, now all empty. They finally come across strange, partly organic beings, and discover what became of humanity.

The premise is intriguing, and the author shows great imagination. The complicated backstory requires long paragraphs of exposition, slowing the plot considerably.

Victoria Silverwolf lives in a part of the world that is rather cold right now.