Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Clarkesworld #209 (February 2024)

Clarkesworld, ed. Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace. Issue 209 (February 2024). Online at clarkesworldmagazine.com.

Reviewed by Storm Blakley

Science fiction has long been a vehicle for exploring sentience; the dizzying variety of it, exploring the most fundamental emotions and needs, placing every aspect of humanity and sentience under a microscope to see what we can learn. Clarkesworld’s February 2024 issue tackles religion and belief, addiction and alien/artificial intelligence, climate change and conflict, immortality and isolation, and everything in between.

In “Scalp,” H. H. Pak tells us a story about addiction, a subject greatly underrepresented in life, as well as fiction. It takes a toll, on the person, on society, and on family; there’s a very real, very human cost to addiction. Pak deftly wove all that together in a sad tale of warehousing and giving up on dreams and living in them, on lives spent in boxes and glimpses outside, of families and what we do, what we sacrifice, for those we love.

Ah, Enceladus; a moon on the lips of everyone who dreams of life elsewhere in our solar system. In “The Enceladus South Pole Base Named after V. I. Lenin,” Zohar Jacobs gives us a fascinating look at an alternate universe, in which the USSR set up a base on Enceladus in the 70s. I found it though-provoking, with beautiful imagery and turns of phrase. There’s an insightful commentary on true believers, in religion and ideology; how belief seems to be intrinsic to humanity, no matter where in the universe we find ourselves, and how we lean on it in times of deep isolation.

The only story in this issue to directly mention climate change is “The Peregrine Falcon Flies West” by Yang Wanqing, translated by Jay Zhang. Taking place over the span of decades, it’s a story of love and loss, of growth and the deeply human desire for freedom and connection. What struck me most was the deeply thoughtful take on different perspectives; the limitations we have in centering our own, and how narrow-minded that can be.

When I started Ryan Marie Ketterer’s “The Beam Eidolon,” I was initially skeptical. The concept of a living planet is a fascinating one, but one that I sometimes feel is overdone. This one surprised me, and that’s wonderful. I found the planet naming the invading bipeds by the sounds they made for each other deeply clever, and I thoroughly enjoyed the twist at the end.

Anyone who loves sci-fi has pondered the questions of how society will react in the event that the machines become sentient. Rajav Prasad describes what I found to be a very accurate portrayal of exactly that in “The Flowers That We Intend to Share.” Those in power would be unnerved and react poorly, sometimes with violence that these previously obedient mechs are attempting to reach beyond their intended funtion. Conversely, the youth would recognize themselves in the push against the invisible but all too real walls enclosing them in their own expected roles. The deep and undeniable parallels between the youths and the mechs were masterfully depicted.

“Kardashev’s Palimpsest” by David Goodman is one of the farthest reaching of the stories in this issue, in terms of sheer time and scale of the universe. It is wonderfully named, given the subject matter, a reflection on realtive immortality, which is a subject I find fascinating. It takes place over billions of years, following the evolution and change of humanity as we chart the knowable universe, but are still bound by the most fundamental of all human emotions; love.

Isabel J. Kim’s “Why Don’t We Just Kill the Kid in the Omelas Hole” was one of the best stories I’ve read in some time. It was deeply, deeply clever, a biting and insightful commentary on how society views and treats suffering; the differences between how those with privilege and those without view it. Kim absolutely nails the dehumanization required to allow and support suffering, the shifting of blame when things go wrong, accelerationism and how societies become desensitized to tragedy, how social media is weaponized or used to decenter victims as the privileged center themselves, the excuses society makes to try to justify heinous action. This genuinely might be a story of the year for me.

Isolation, especially in the vastness of space or faraway worlds and moons, takes an incredible toll on a psyche. In “Lonely Ghosts”, Meghan Feldman explores that concept from the perspective of a robot, left alone on a planet for thousands of years after Last Contact with humanity, its only company a city-building automaton on the moon, and the ghosts it’s not sure exist. This was a story of loneliness and friendship; it is deeply human to grieve those we’ve lost, and just as deeply human to reach out to those who are hurting, to bring them home so they don’t have to be alone.

Humanity has dreamed of the stars as long as we’ve been on our pale blue dot, hurtling through the vastness of space. We’re forever intrigued by the future, where it will lead us, what it will look like, and how we will change and adapt as a result. This February 2024 issue of Clarkesworld continues that long tradition, and doesn’t disappoint.

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