Clarkesworld Magazine: 2012 in review

The Clarkesworld Magazine reader survey closed yesterday and so I spent the weekend reading and making notes on the stories that Clarkesworld has published over the last year. I hadn’t made notes from the first issue of 2012, but presented herein are notes from the others. If you don’t want to read each review in detail, then I’ll tell you my top three picks:

  1. ‘The Womb Factory’ by Peter M. Ferenczi
  2. ‘A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones’ by Genevieve Valentine
  3. ‘Astrophilia’ by Carrie Vaughn

I plan to nominate all three of these in The Hugo Awards (anyone can nominate as long as they’re signed up for LoneStarCon 3 or Loncon 3 by the end of January) — the first two are short stories and the third is a novelette. If you’re curious as to which categories things are eligible for, Neil Clarke has put together a very useful post about that.

On the artwork front, I voted for:

  1. Target Detected by Max Davenport (#69)
  2. Place to Ponder by Steve Goad (#67)
  3. Rockman by Arthur Wang (#64)

Artwork can be viewed in the announcement of the survey. So, without further ado, onto the notes from the stories!

‘And the Hollow Space Inside’ by Mari Ness

Although I found this conceptually interesting — the character around which the plot revolves is a fascinating thought experiment — I found the structure overly fiddly and difficult to follow. I appreciate that that’s probably the author’s desire to try to capture the mental state of the mother, through whose perspective the story is told, but I found it distracting rather than immersive or clever. In the defence of the author, the ebook does a much worse job of differentiating between different sections than the story does online.

‘A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight’ by Xia Jia

I’m not sure what I thought about this one. It’s about a young girl, raised by ghosts, but I found it a bit fleeting. There’s not enough development of the characters to get across the feelings that I think are required to really appreciate the ending; it’s quite clever in some ways, but ultimately didn’t really grab me in the way I wanted it to.

‘All the Young Kirks, and Their Good Intentions’ by Helena Bell

This one made me giggle, mostly due to the (unstated, but brilliant) central premise — all of the Kirks described within the novel live in Iowa, and are named such things as ‘Jamie’, ‘Tiberius’ and in one case, simply ‘Captain’ ([the author’s blog entry on this concept][Bell] is interesting reading). Other than this rather gorgeous conceit, this one didn’t really grab me very hard — there’s a range of stuff going on in the story, but I found it somewhat unfulfilling.

‘Sunlight Society’ by Margaret Ronald

I really liked this story, initially for the cyberpunk aspect of what was going on, and then for the fact that it occurs in a world of superheroes. (This ties in nicely with last week’s superhero story, which I very much enjoyed.) The dialogue was witty and the backstory driving the events of the story are interesting. I particularly liked the ending, and the character’s final remark to the reader, which I found simultaneously apt and disturbing. This story is very relevant to today’s global situation, and I liked it.

‘The Bells of Subsidence’ by Michael John Grist

This story was very poetic, in a way. The scenes I was imagining for the travel between the stars were psychedelic and colourful, contrasting with the melancholy of the protagonist between these times. At its heart this is a touching tale of a girl, separated from her childhood sweetheart, kept sane just by the sound of his name. The only criticism I have is that I was confused as to what ‘Subsidence’ was (in the context of the story), but I think the story gets away without explaining it.

‘From Their Paws, We Shall Inherit’ by Gary Kloster

This one was kinda weird. Two threads go through the story, and it wasn’t immediately obvious to me, upon finishing the story, how they were connected. I think I’ve worked it out, though, and I feel like the story does what it sets out to do well — it gets you thinking, definitely. I must confess I wish that I hadn’t read about it, afterwards, on the author’s website, since I prefer the ambiguity and working it out for myself, versus things being put into black and white. I liked that the two threads are from very, very different perspectives, and any story that bemoans the current state of NASA’s funding is a story with merit!

‘Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes’ by Tom Crosshill

Somewhat heartrending story about a man who operates a business that allows people to be saved into memory. The amount of virtual reality packed into this short story was almost TARDIS-like, and I really liked the way implications were made about virtual reality without being stated outright; I got the distinct impression of VR as a way to make contact more fleeting, and relationships more transient, but that’s just my reading and others will undoubtedly take something away from what is here. Definitely going on the Hugo longlist.

‘Draftyhouse’ by Erik Amundsen

This story was a somewhat confusing tale of ghosts on the Moon. I never really got a firm handle on what was going on, but I think that might have been a deliberate choice on the part of the author, making the reader feel as weirded out as the protagonist does. The concept of the Bridgeways was cool, as was the description of the four things that man can usefully do on the Moon. I also liked the author’s observation that war cannot be recorded in history if there are no survivors on either side. Some cool ideas, but I didn’t really dig the story as a whole.

‘The Womb Factory’ by Peter M. Ferenczi

So, first things first: This one’s on my Hugo longlist, for sure. I really felt the story impacting on me, and I really enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s the effect of the feminist leanings of a couple of the novels I’ve read recently, whiich drew my attention to the feminist angle of the plot? The title gives away the main premise of the story, which is about girls getting pregnant for a company (the reason for this becomes apparent fairly early on).

My interest was piqued by the protagonist’s assertion that she must be ‘working’ for a company that made knockoffs, since the company that made the real deal would never stoop to using humans (instead favouring big shiny buildings with artificial biomedical equipment and the like). However this flies in the face of what’s happening in the real world at the moment, with companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Sony etc using Foxxconn and Chinese labourers to build products instead of shiny manufacturing robots in the developed world. I thought the story would have had more impact had the author said it was the market leader that was engaging in these practices, and not the knockoff merchant.

‘Prayer’ by Robert Reed

This was a story about a girl fighting a war; I found the switching between viewpoints confusing because my Nook didn’t display the little graphics to denote the change correctly. Otherwise, the story was good but a little insubstantial. There’s hints of something deeper happening beneath the events portrayed, but it’s a frustrating and tantalising glimpse that leaves a lot to the imagination.

‘Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop’ by Suzanne Church

Ephemeral or dreamlike in feel, perfectly judged next to the subject matter centred on a nightclub trading in legal, music-based highs snorted and then enjoyed. The idea that clubs will focus on the beat and then sell nanobots to people, implanting a song in their head to go with the beat, was intriguing to me. Glimpses into the protagonist’s past, again, proved somewhat fleeting and left me with more questions than answers.

‘All the Things the Moon is Not’ by Alexander Lumans

The third story in this issue of Clarkesworld also has elements that left me with more questions than answers, making me wonder if the editor did this deliberately with this trio of stories. Story of a quartet of people harvesting mould on the moon, having discovered water there after the Earth experiences a drought. This one also deals with drugs and addiction, tying in with the previous one, but I didn’t enjoy it so much; the Church story is definitely my favourite.

‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard

de Bodard writes about a world in which devices known as immersers are used to help Galactics translate native cultures and languages into a form they can interpret. The story is told through the viewpoints of two women who are nearly polar opposites, and I found it an interesting examination of cultural imperialism as much as it was an interesting SFnal concept.

‘If the Mountain Comes’ by An Owomoyela

A water farmer and his daughter are the richest folks in a village with a dry riverbed, but someone called Enah comes with a plan to make the river flow again. Predictably, this doesn’t sit well with the farmer, and this story is about him and his daughter’s reactions. I love the fact that we’re not told how the village got to this situation; there are hints through the story that it’s not just a poor village, but that the story is actually post-apocalyptic.

‘You Were She Who Abode’ by E. Catherine Tobler

A story about someone whose memory is faulty and augmented by a machine designed to help. This story is deliberately very fragmented, as the tale is presented in the way that the protagonist is remembering events. I found it sad, but also confusing; I feel like another viewpoint could have helped ground the disjointed narrative and made it easier to understand what the memories are actually of. As it is, the confusion of the combat zones the protagonist has seen comes across pretty well, though.

‘Astrophilia’ by Carrie Vaughn

I really loved this story! The households and their ability to support themselves (or otherwise) against a harsh backdrop was interesting, but the two central women and their stargazing made me squee and feel very happy. Perhaps not the most idea-driven SF, but definitely worth a look. Since this story is actually a novelette, it will definitely be one of my Hugo nominations.

‘The Switch’ by Sarah Stanton

Another beautiful story, this time focussing on a government who keeps its capital clean by employing holograms to hide the dirt. Three people renovate houses in secret, slowly recreating the city so that the holograms match reality. Cool concept, good read!

‘Iron Ladies, Iron Tigers’ by Sunny Moraine

Clarkesworld was on a roll this issue, with a brilliant and imaginative story to round out the magazine. A woman in a spaceship finds herself in hot water, and her life basically flashes before her eyes. It’s revealed at the end of the story that she’s actually attempting to engage in time travel, and the reason that she can’t see anything through the visual sensors is that she has travelled forward so far, all the stars have gone out. (An incredibly bleak image, the end of the universe is one of the main reasons I never want to have to think too hard about astrophysics or cosmology.) Her reaction to this made the story, for me.

‘Mantis Wives’ by Kij Johnson

This wasn’t so much a story as a series of connected snapshots, and there isn’t much of a narrative. Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Short but sweet.

‘Honey Bear’ by Sofia Samatar

I liked this story, which screws with your expectations right at the end and remodels parts of mythology to horrific effect.

‘Fade to White’ by Catherynne M. Valente

Last time I read Valente it was her Hugo-nominated story Silently and Very Fast which I didn’t really enjoy at all, but this one really grabbed me. Set in a universe where post-war America looks somewhat different, a boy wants to be a Husband and Father, and a girl waits for her Announcement. I quite like dystopic fiction so this sat well with me. However, I think it’s my least favourite of the three novelettes that Clarkesworld published this year.

‘The Found Girl’ by David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell

Humanity achieves a powerful enough understanding of artificial intelligence and virtual reality that it transcends, leaving behind those members of humanity that either wouldn’t go or who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The protagonist lives on a Street which (who?) looks after her and the other children in the tale. Interesting ideas on religion are subtly included in the story, which was a cool read.

‘Robot’ by Helena Bell

This one reminded me quite a bit of Ken Liu’s ‘The Caretaker’, but is told in a more stylised manner, being a series of accusatory questions fired at the titular machine. I liked it for that, but it felt a bit empty as a result.

‘muo-ka’s Child’ by Indrapramit Das

Human colonisation of other worlds won’t always be easy, and this story focuses on a human who lands on a planet and is cared for by the inhabitant. It reminded me of ‘Jagannath’ by Karin Tidbeck, somewhat, in a weird way. Interesting read, but didn’t do as much for me as the other two stories in the issue.

‘A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones’ by Genevieve Valentine

This one really hit me hard, emotionally. A man working on Europa and conducting various surveys and repair work on the surroundings discovers someone to take away from his loneliness, and the correspondence between the two of them is shown. As someone in a long-distance relationship I think it was especially poignant but I think it’s an incredible story either way.

‘England Under the White Witch’ by Theodora Goss

When I started reading I assumed that the White Witch was a Narnia reference, and so it’s no spoiler to reveal that it is. An Empress sweeps over Britain, rendering it wintry and cold forever. This is seemingly used to make points for the British Empire and imperialism, and I think it works well as one; the Empress continues the Empire, associating the British posessions overseas with a cold sense of futility and desolation. We see things through the eyes of a woman from her teenage years to the end of her career as a loyal servant of the Empress, and it’s a powerful story.

‘The Battle of Candle Arc’ by Yoon Ha Lee

I liked this novelette, perhaps because it was military SF and perhaps because of the awesome-sounding technologies juxtaposed with the superstition of the society involved. The main character was intriguing and his relationship with his subordinate even more so, and the battle was glorious.

‘(To See the Other) Whole Against the Sky’ by E. Catherine Tobler

The inevitable conclusion, after trying many permutations, is that loners are the best crews for spaceships travelling a long distance. Crews and even pairs kill each other in the end, the story explains, and so alone is the best way. This story is about one of those loners, on one of those ships — I enjoyed it.

‘Aquatica’ by Maggie Clark

A symbiotic relationship exists between the Hosts and smaller fish, who latch onto the Hosts to propagate their race, eventually losing themselves in the effort to procreate. Organ is one of those small fish, and he refuses to latch onto a Host, because he wants to find out what else there is. I liked this story, but the ending was a bit spoiled by the introduction of another creature at the last minute; I would’ve preferred it without.

‘Everything Must Go’ by Brooke Wonders

This story was surreal and bizarre, but fun to read. About a house that’s afraid of the dark, and the family that it seeks to protect who live inside it. The tale of the family unravels through a narrative, between snippets taken from the house’s estate agent listing, which I thought worked really well.

‘Your Final Apocalypse’ by Sandra McDonald

Extremely melancholy yet sort of hopeful, all in one. That juxtaposition, which is reinforced to great effect at the ending, meant I liked the story.

‘The Wisdom of Ants’ by Thoraiya Dyer

This was an intriguing story about a tribe of people living on land and getting metals from the ants that live on the land. They trade with the Island People, giving metal in exchange for gut bacteria that replenish the bacteria killed by the pesticides that blight the land (in an attempt to stop the ants). The setup is intriguing and the twist in the tale is cool, too.

‘Sweet Subtleties’ by Lisa L. Hannett

This one is just totally bizarre, about a girl made of sweets and the like, and the people that enjoy eating her. Weird.