The November issue of Clarkesworld offers up a slew of stories that could be described as apocalyptic. At the very least most are concerned with disasters, with destruction on a large scale, though often these huge extinctions are viewed in the most personal of ways. As posts on a cooking blog. As reports from a woman to her father. As the recollections of one person about the last human. As an unlikely banding together of very different people. Plus a slow and subtle translated piece that makes for a layered and rather meta read. It's a deep issue, and one I should just get to reviewing!
|Art by Julie Dillon|
"So Much Cooking" by Naomi Kritzer (8432 words)
This is a neat story told as a series of posts on a cooking blog that chronicle a viral epidemic that kills 32% of those infected. The story takes place in Minneapolis, which is right next door for me, and I loved the regional flourishes, the dishes that evoked the place and the sort of mentality of the upper Midwest. The situation begins as something in the background but quickly builds, quickly gets rather out of hand, grocery stores closing and pharmacies being rushed and yet the main character is resolute. She cooks to relieve stress, and what she manages is impressive. More impressive is how she keeps taking children into her home who have nowhere else to go, how she remains sane despite the collapse of everything around her and how she manages to push through. The story as such is more an artifact from a crisis, one that tells a much different story than would be found in any official report. It tells the story of the disease threatening the city as much as it is about the individual characters. Or, perhaps, the disease becomes a character, this looming presence that never quite arrives. Not surprising that this has a gothic feel to it, given the isolation and desperation that is depicted. Through it, though, it is about how people band together, how even when killing and skinning a rabbit, a sort of sacrifice to some pagan god if there ever was one. It's about hope in times of trouble, about the small pleasures of cooking, of eating, of surviving. There's a great deal to like about this story, the layers of texts, the authentic feel thanks to some fascinating tidbits on cooking, and the ending which is powerful and uplifting. Definitely one to check out.
"Your Right Arm" by Nin Harris (2821 words)
This is a strange story, one that crosses magic and science, myth and destruction, longing and loss. In the story, Rasakhi and Teng are aspara, people not-quite-human but human-like. Of a people who had been taken by humans for companions but who always remained separate, distinct. And Rasakhi had the distinction of being the companion to the last human. The last to live with the emotions, to know first-hand what humanity was, humanity that lives now as parts to a ship, magical fuel, ghosts that linger without believing in ghosts. And the last human even was hardly human, was damaged and rebuilt until only the right arm remained of the original. A right arm that Rasakhi would hold to. The story moves as a discussion between the two aspara, a discussion that brushes against what defines humanity and what defines love and it's a romantic story for all that it's also strange and a bit haunting. The loss of humanity comes with a sense of foreboding, for while humanity was redundant, unnecessary, they were still the memory of love, and without them the universe is poorer. It's a story of strong contradictions and an absence, a ghost where humanity used to be. A chill that never lifts. For all the strangeness of the setting, the mix of magic and high science, the story does a fine job of grounding things in something solid, something…human. A fine read!
"In the Queue for the Worldship Munawwer" by Sara Saab (4085 words)
Here is a story about choice and about loss. About the end of the world, though not the end of humanity, with the looming arrival of an asteroid swarm that will likely obliterate the planet. With the help of worldships, though, one for every allied nation, some of humanity will survive. Not all of it, and for the ship Munawwer, which takes central stage in this story, it's only about twenty to forty percent. 900,000 out of millions. And Suraya, the woman in charge of overseeing the evacuation, is at least partly in charge of who will go and who will stay. It's a job that haunts her at least in part because she's gotten it because of her estranged father, a bigwig in the governing body responsible for the worldships. Suddenly Suraya must face her past, her guilt, her loss, and her burden of being one of the ones picked to survive, picked despite the fact that [SPOILERS] she is sick and doesn't seem well, that she might die shortly after leaving. The story does a good job of showing her conflict, her desire to do her job, to not die, but also her guilt at what's happening, the numbness with which everyone views the coming destruction, as something that can't even be completely comprehended, approached. The character work is strong and the structure is interesting, compelling. The story is built as a series of reports, completely one sided so that there's the lingering question of what the response would be. They are to her estranged father, and it adds a new layer to everything, to the tragedy and the weight that he, after all, forced on her by putting her in charge of this task. Another very good story.
"The Hexagonal Bolero of Honeybees" by Krista Hoeppner Leahy (4816 words)
All the stories of the issue so far are distinguished by both being interesting in their structure, not standard A to B to C, but also for taking on ideas about the endings. Diseases, asteroids, wars, and now climate change. In this story the global climate is so far out of whack that the only place to grow things is in greenhouses, most of which are built using geothermal heat around Yellowstone. And the action of the story focuses on one greenhouse and two options to pollinate the plants within. Either hand-pollinating or using hivers, women who house bee hives within themselves and in some ways control them. The story is about Mishka, the hiver, and about Ciro, a hand pollinator, and about SingSong, a bee, and about the way the world falls apart and the way it might survive. There is a sickness at the heart of the greenhouses, and the characters pay for it, but for though injured they gain a new perspective on life. That survival means hope, that survival means there is the possibility for something new, something different. That competition is not really the way to meet a future of scarcity, that in the end it takes everyone coming together, hiver and hand pollinator and bee, all of them working for a world that works again, all trying to create a system that is sustainable. The story flits from character to character, making use of quotes from poetry, philosophy, and theater in order to circle the idea of the bee, the system, the cooperative and communal nature of bees. The story ends on the one H word that it doesn't really use in its section titles. Humanity. And it makes for a strong message.
"If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" by Xia Jia (2842 words)
This is an interesting story about artistry and about the role of the author in their work, made a bit more complicated by the fact that it appears on the site as a post either to social media or a news site where sharing and commenting is possible. I'm guessing it's a purposeful choice, something to add a meta level to the text which is about a librarian finding a strange book of poetry and through it a group engaged in trying to divorce an author from her work, working as champions to her privacy, to protect her work from being made pedestrian or mundane by having them linked to her life. There isn't a lot really speculative about this story, though perhaps it's because the story deals with technology as it relates to art and artists that it finds its way here. The story is about the obsession with knowing the "real story" behind a piece of art, what it "means" in an authoritative fashion. And about how for some the magic isn't in the story behind the work but in the work, in the holiness of the text. All that, of course, complicated by the format, posted on some sort of internet medium which runs against the message of the story, the choice the librarian makes to join this group. It's an interesting choice and something I'll have to think on. For what it is, the story does a nice job of capturing the soul of the introvert, and it's fun and lightly told, with a subtle touch. A nice way to close out the issue!