Clarkesworld #160, January 2020

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Clarkesworld #160, January 2020

“I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabell Fall

“Monster” by Naomi Kritzer
“The AI That Looked at the Sun” by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko
“The Last to Die” by Rita Chang-Eppig
“The Perfect Sail” by I-Hyeong Yun
“The Ancestral Temple in a Box” by Chen Qiufan

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

The latest issue of Neil Clarke’s on-line magazine features four original stories and two translations.

The provocative title of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabell Fall offers a hint that the story combines military science fiction with a discussion of gender issues. The narrator becomes an integral part of the vehicle, so that she thinks of it as her body. Her partner is a man who serves as the helicopter’s gunner. In a future world of environmental disaster, they wage war on an artificial intelligence that controls a section of the United States that broke away from the nation.

Alternating with battle scenes are the narrator’s meditations on sex roles, and how the military teaches its personnel to accept their identities as fighters as their genders. The story compares the gunner’s doubts about his duties to gender dysphoria.

The sequences dealing with combat are vivid, and the bleak future setting is a complex one. The metaphor between sex roles and military identities, both called “genders” throughout the narrative, is less convincing. It’s difficult to understand what the author is trying to say about gender, but it seems certain that this story is going to be a controversial one.

In “Monster” by Naomi Kritzer, a woman travels to China in search of her best friend from high school. They both grew up to work in biotechnology, but the friend used his knowledge in a disturbing way. The woman must find him, confront him, and end the danger he poses to the world.

Much of the story consists of flashbacks to the teenage years of the two characters, when the woman, then a lonely outsider, found companionship with the friend. The way in which they become antagonists adds poignancy to the story. The author powerfully conveys the dilemma of dealing with a friend who commits evil acts.

The narrator of “The AI That Looked at the Sun” by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko is the artificial intelligence that appears in the title. It is a small part of a complex computer system aiding humans studying the sun aboard a space station. A solar flare brings it to full consciousness. With the aid of a sympathetic woman, it undertakes the difficult task of arranging things so it can see the sun.

The author creates a sympathetic and believable character in the AI. The way in which its thinking differs from that of a human is convincing. The plot is a simple one, and may seem overly sentimental to some.

In “The Last to Die” by Rita Chang-Eppig, it is nearly universal for a person to have consciousness downloaded into an artificial body, leading to immortality. Those who are unable or unwilling to do so live in isolated communities. A woman in a glass-like body arrives at one of these facilities, accompanied by a mute man. Their presence leads to chaos among the people waiting to die, and a change in attitude for a bureaucrat supervising the community.

The immortals, unable to eat, drink, or reproduce, live in isolation from each other, rarely venturing outside their homes. The author contrasts this with the strife and friendship among the mortals. The story deals with the idea that immortality would lead to a meaningless existence. The theme is not entirely original, and is unlikely to convince all readers.

“The Perfect Sail” by I-Hyeong Yun, translated from Korean by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe, deals with a woman who absorbs the knowledge and interests of alternate versions of herself when they die in parallel realities. Although these other selves are usually ordinary humans, the latest one is very strange. She is one of a race of tiny humanoids who fly inside the bodies of organisms that combine the characteristics of plants and insects. The device that communicates with alternate worlds tells the fairy-like being that she will die soon, and must agree to have a part of her mind transferred to her full-sized version in order to keep existing at all.

Although written as science fiction, the story has the flavor of fantasy. The author shows a great deal of imagination, but the notion that people the size of ants could exist strains the reader’s credibility.

In “The Ancestral Temple in a Box” by Chen Qiufan, translated from Chinese by Emily Jin, the narrator’s father dies, asking his son to promise to visit their ancestral temple. The real temple is thousands of miles away, but the father leaves the son instructions to enter a simulated version of it in virtual reality. The VR temple also contains a simulacrum of the father.

Before he died, the father clashed with his son about using robots to mass-produce the gilded woodcarvings their family produced by hand. In virtual reality, the narrator learns how to combine tradition with technology in a way that makes use of the best of both worlds.

The author describes the temple in striking detail. The futuristic technology at the heart of the plot is plausible, and strengthens the theme that one doesn’t have to discard the past in order to appreciate the present.

Victoria Silverwolf notes that the comments section for the first story in this issue contains more discussion, and of a more passionate nature, than usual.