“Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” by Rebecca Campbell
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
The latest issue of Neil Clarke’s magazine of science fiction and fantasy offers five original stories and one newly translated work from Korea.
“Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” by Rebecca Campbell takes place in a dystopian near future of environmental degradation and authoritarian government. The narrator’s mother is a political prisoner in a secret location. They have bland video conversations, monitored by the authorities, but there is a strong possibility that a computer program is impersonating the mother. Meanwhile, a woman claiming to be the narrator’s aunt arrives, in order to keep an eye on her supposed niece.
The author creates a bleak future in which the narrator must pretend to accept the visitor as her aunt, in order to avoid the wrath of the government. The story alludes to George Orwell’s novel 1984, with its rewriting of history. In this case, the narrator has to accept official changes in her own memories. The ending suggests that the ersatz aunt is as much a victim of the system as the narrator. Many readers will find this hopeless vision overly depressing.
The setting for “Witch of the Weave” by Henry Szabranski is a very strange world of large woven tubes inhabited by beings that might be organisms, machines, or both. Two people escape a vague disaster that destroyed their equally bizarre homeland and enter the tubes. One of them forms a bond with one of the seemingly biological devices. The pair discovers a tribe of people who fear a so-called witch. They seem friendly at first, but have plans for the two visitors. Their encounter with the witch leads to new possibilities for the refugees.
The story creates an intriguing sense of weirdness, but is often difficult to follow. It is impossible to decide if the setting is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, an alien world, or a fantasy realm. The characters’ homeland, the world of the tubes, and the city seen at the end are all frustratingly enigmatic.
The musicians in “Annotated Setlist of the Mikaela Cole Jazz Quintet” by Catherine George live aboard a spaceship on a centuries-long mission to find a livable planet for the descendants of the inhabitants. Although much of the story deals with how the group came together, and their struggles and successes as performers, we eventually learn of a disaster that caused the voyage to be much longer than intended, and how this affected one of the members of the band.
The five main characters come to life as fully realized individuals. The author manages to convey their passion for jazz, as well as their joys and sorrows in other aspects of their lives. The story has a bittersweet mood that is sure to capture the reader’s emotions.
“Eclipse our Sins” by Tlotlo Tsamaase combines science fiction and fantasy, as well as prose and poetry, in a surreal, impressionistic allegory of humanity’s crimes against the planet and each other. Those guilty of acts of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other sins acquire fatal diseases, sent by Mother Earth herself as punishment. So much pollution fills the air that people must wear respirators at all times. The wealthy use the poor in experiments to create artificial humans who can survive in such an environment.
The author’s style is dense and full of metaphors. The mixture of verse and narrative adds to the difficulty of reading the story. The resolution is a mystical one, evocative but opaque. Some readers will find the path to this puzzling destination not worth the effort of the journey.
The narrator of “Appointment in Vienna” by Gabriel Murray is a photographer who is also a spy for the British government. The story takes the form of instructions to the editor of a book of his photographs. Jumping back and forth in time from the Second World War to the Cold War, he reveals himself in unflattering ways. In particular, he betrays a fellow agent, for unexplained reasons. A mysterious encounter in the Antarctic ends his confessional memories, with the implication that he was fated to act as he did.
At first glance, this story seems out of place in a magazine of science fiction and fantasy. Only in retrospect does the reader pick up hints of something out of the ordinary. The title, as well as a short section of the narrative, are allusions to the ancient fable, famously retold by W. Somerset Maugham, of the man who saw Death in Baghdad, so hurried far away to Samarra to escape him. Death is surprised to see the man in Baghdad, because he has an appointment with him in Samarra. Given this hint, and the fact that the narrator is summing up his life, it seems possible that he is dead, or that the man he meets in the Antarctic is the personification of Death.
The author recreates the middle of the Twentieth Century in a convincing way. The story is a subtle and haunting one. The narrator, who seems both revelatory and unreliable, reminds me of similar characters in the works of Gene Wolfe, which is high praise indeed.
“Symbiosis Theory” by Choyeop Kim, translated from Korean by Joungmin Lee Comfort, begins with a young orphan who has memories of another world. She grows up to be a talented artist, depicting the world in works that cause all who see them to experience powerful feelings. After her death, a space probe discovers the planet of her visions just before its sun explodes, destroying it. Meanwhile, researchers studying brain activity and language find out that infants and children below the age of seven have conversations inside their minds that relate to the vanished world. Eventually, scientists figure out the relationship between human beings and the planet.
This story has interesting concepts, but consists almost entirely of exposition. The reader is likely to predict the outcome of the plot long before the end. A tale that should elicit strong emotions reads like a dry essay instead.
Victoria Silverwolf had to think about many of the stories in this issue for a long time, which is a good thing.