Summary Reviews: Clarkesworld, March 2021

This is the cover art for Clarkesworld's March 2021 issue: a fantastical setting in desert-red tones, with dinosaurs rigged up for some sort of construction labour. Alex Ries, "Sunrise"

As part of my ongoing study of others’ editorial practices, I usually share capsule reviews of the stories and articles in Clarkesworld each month on Twitter. Right now, though, I’m off Twitter while addressing legal-status anxiety, so I’m going to run those capsule reviews here instead. The aim is to distill each piece so that it can find its audience. I sometimes tip my hand with respect to loving a work, but I never go out of my way to say that I disliked a work of fiction. (I do sometimes quibble when it comes to non-fiction — but only when familiar with the subject matter!)

Clarkesworld, March 2021

A solid year of brighter, lighter cover art continues with Alex Ries’s “Sunrise”.

This issue of Clarkesworld feels united by style more than by content: each of the stories “tells” to a far larger degree than we usually see foregrounded in literary discourse. This allows the stories, as a group, to illustrate many different ways that stories sustain momentum even in narratives that rely on fact-forward exposition. Some of these stories serve as a sort of conceptual “tableau”, while others overtly ask you to sit with the ideas/science at their heart. All demonstrate that the blanket admonition of “show don’t tell” is writer’s-craft bullpucky. Tell well, and you’re good.

We start off with D.A. Xialin Spires. For me, Spires is an “elemental” writer, inasmuch as her work frequently shapes its thematic metaphors around distinct materialities — such as ice, wood, fire, and in “Mamaborg’s Milk and the Brilliance of Gems”… yep, stone! (And metal.) This piece establishes the issue’s focus on matter-of-fact storytelling, by telling us everything we need when it’s most relevant that we, the readers, know it, as opposed to when it follows the character’s internal arc. This story uses that technique to craft its conceptual tableau of a cyborg mother struggling to draw milk through metal to nurture a child named for a precious stone. The image of this struggle is the point.

Isabel J. Kim’s “Homecoming is Just Another Word for the Sublimation of the Self” continues this matter-of-fact narrative style to present and explain a different juxtaposition of humanity: two “instances” of the “same” person in a world where people can split into multiple selves — and sometimes, with renewed contact, de-instance into a person who is both “whole” again, yet also now in a lifelong state of profound and intangible loss. The diaspora discourse here is powerfully nuanced, and Kim’s strength as a storyteller shines through in her choice of when the telling stops.

Wang Zhenzhen’s “The Orbiting Guan Erye” (translated by Carmen Yiling Yan) follows a striking trend in Chinese SF, by operating in direct, explicit response to Golden Era SF&F. Most Western SF writers might not even be familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s “Feathered Friend”, but this story repudiates the premise of that 1957 tale, and then presents, through science and Chinese history, a more coherent version of its space-faring canary-in-a-coal-mine scenario.

Arula Ratnakar’s “Submergence” is another story that offers matter-of-fact science — and in confident, trust-the-reader-to-learn-along-the-way abundance! This hard-SF mystery uses its wealth of technical descriptions to tackle a wide range of ethical quandaries: from the use of other lifeforms to heal our diseases; to questions of self and consent that inevitably arise with technology capable of interacting with a dead person’s neural pathways; to generational shifts in sociocommunicative strategies, and the integrity of our response to such changes. Subject-position is everything in this novella, which is why Ratnakar’s strong differentiation of character voices is critical to its success.

The Fibonacci sequence then gets double play in this issue, via Isabel Lee’s “55 Plaque”, which literally involves a species called the “Didacts” sending transformative information to humanity over time. (As a secular humanist, I also had a good chuckle at the antagonist in this story being played by “Humanists” who have all the characteristics of QAnon conspiracy theorists: a clear workaround to avoid the worn-out portrayal of spiritual groups as automatically the folks most hostile to new cosmic truths.) This is ironically the least expository story in the issue (though not by much), despite orienting itself around a teacher and a body of frustration with those who won’t face obvious facts.

Wole Talabi then goes full expository mode with “Comments on Your Provisional Patent Application for an Eternal Spirit Core”, a clever, heartfelt experimental piece that uses the “shared document” medium to tell a story through online comments added to the answers on a patent-application form. This story not only works on its own, with its didactic elements allowing Talabi to illustrate the shifting nature of storytelling in our digital era, but also in excellent harmony with the reanimated-consciousness themes in Ratnakar’s novella.

Lastly, Sarah Pauling’s “To Study the Old Masters in the Prado at the End of the World” also relies heavily on fact-forward exposition — this time, through museum-tour descriptions for classic works of art. As in all the stories in this issue, description is the point, and here that rhythm of matter-of-fact art briefs, interspersed with human reaction to first-contact, reaches its pointed, thematic crescendo with the last in its sequence: a new work of art, which crystallizes the story’s overall perspective on what a change in cosmic authority might yield.

Julie Nováková’s “‘We’ll Know It When We See It’: The Trouble with Finding (Alien) Life” then launches the issue’s non-fiction with an exploration of “alien” life through two recent hot topics in astrobiology: the possibility (now significantly diminished) of phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere, and Perseverance’s mission to look for fossilized remains of life in an ancient Martian lake. The essay mentions but doesn’t focus on other sites, like Enceladus (to my mind, with its indications hydrothermal venting, the most probable site of recognizably extraterrestial life in our system), but it does this for a reason: because its aim is to disabuse readers of the notion that our current exploratory parameters are expansive enough to identify (let alone understand) “truly” alien life if ever we chance upon it.

Arley Sorg’s first interview is next. “Falling in Love and the Collective Consciousness” is a conversation with Elly Bangs, a provincial writer (that is, someone who’s always lived in the same area) who has leveraged experiences within and out of that community to dream expansively in SF&F. Asked about inspiration for Unity, a book exploring collective consciousness, Bangs notes: “I’m from Seattle, so it probably goes without saying that I’ve experienced a great deal of absolutely crushing, soul-deadening loneliness. I’m doing better now, but my twenties, when I laid down the bones of this story, were really hard years for connecting with people and feeling like part of the human race.” Oof. As someone who left a similarly estranging environment for Colombia, I resonated deeply with this part.

Sorg’s next is with Becky Chambers, one of my favourite writers. “Important Strangers” precedes the last Wayfarers book, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, and introduces the upcoming Monk & Robot existential-solarpunk series. The interview goes over career highlights, including how Chambers crowdfunded her first book publication, but I especially love that Sorg asked whether this latest robot/AI series exists in conversation with others. After reading James Wood’s review of Kazuo Ishiguro Klara and the Sun, I’d been ready to snap a pencil in theatric frustration, because of the lengths Wood goes to, to avoid situating that book within its natural peer group: a whole freaking subgenre of literature with similarly “tethered” points of view.* Sorg’s choice, to invoke a peer group, is wonderful.

Lastly, Neil Clarke’s editorial reveals the winners of Clarkesworld‘s 2020 readers’ poll. For cover art, Francesca Resta’s “Ancient Stones” (October) was a clear winner, followed by Beeple’s “Home Planet” (April) and Arjun Amky’s “Alien Scout” (November). For stories, a fierce contest saw Sameem Siddiqui’s first pro-mag published story, “AirBody”, come out tops. Hot on its heels were Vajra Chandrasekera’s “The Translator, at Low Tide” in second, and A. C. Wise’s “To Sail the Black” in third. Congratulations to all the winners and nominees!

Again, the major take-away for me was the unity of technique in this issue, and I hope that the wealth of differently didactic stories in this month’s issue serves to reassure SF&F writ large: Yes! There is space in the genre for a wide range of narrative forms! The key, as a writer, is to understand why you’re making such narrative choices — not to deny yourself any given approach to storytelling because a glib writer’s-craft phrase still has far too much social play.

Happy reading, all!

M L Clark summarizes Clarkesworld March 2021, & grumps about a genre-hating book review.

*For those curious, here’s how silly that New Yorker review is:

Wood writes of Ishiguro’s AI-companion novel, “Two kinds of estrangement operate in Ishiguro’s novel. There’s the relatively straightforward defamiliarization of science fiction. Ishiguro only lightly shades in his dystopian world, probably because he isn’t especially committed to the systematic faux realism required by full-blown science fiction. … Subtler than this teasing [sci-fi] nomenclature are the cloudier hermeneutics that have always interested Ishiguro. Klara is a fast learner, but she’s only as competent as her algorithms permit, and the world outside the shop can overwhelm her. Her misreadings are suggestive, and since she narrates the book, the reader is supposed to snag on them, too.”

Did you note the sleight of hand? Apparently science fiction is all about worldbuilding nomenclature, whereas Ishiguro reaches for something deeper by having his protagonist… play out the consequences of this worldbuilding?

Then: “Other writers might labor to make their science fiction more coherent. Ishiguro seems unconcerned that our AF somehow understands godly mercy and ‘sin’ (‘she’s done nothing unkind’) but can’t work out why houses are painted different colors. Another novelist might play up the dystopian ecological implications of a world in which the sun is beset by forces of life-quenching darkness. These implications are certainly present here. But Ishiguro keeps his eye on the human connection. Only Ishiguro, I think, would insist on grounding this speculative narrative so deeply in the ordinary; only he would add, to a description of a battle between sunlight and darkness, Klara’s prosaic and plaintive coda: ‘I became worried and asked Manager if we’d still get all our nourishment.’”

How absurd it is to think of Ishiguro as the only writer on AI who would focus centrally on human connection, “grounding … speculative narrative so deeply in the ordinary”. Only someone with no understanding of how well-travelled the AI-companion story has been in recent years would write a review of one iteration in this way. But that’s the conceit of book reviews such as this; if an “elevated” writer is engaged in “genre writing”, they must be doing so in an elevated way, aligned with a more erudite history of literary estrangement than those who would instead “labor” at narrative coherence while pursuing the genre’s usual acts of more “relatively straightforward defamiliarization”.

Ho hum. Moving on.

(And looking forward to Chambers’s A Psalm for the Wild-Built!)


One response to “Summary Reviews: Clarkesworld, March 2021”

  1. I read this a few weeks ago, but I haven’t been able to reply until now. Thank you for this post! It gave me a lot of hope for SF and the different styles and structures writers are integrating into their work – in particular, formal choices that break free from those popular rules of writing that always feel restrictive. I’m excited to see how these stories use telling so effectively.

    There are times when you just can’t help telling in order to get from A to B in a logical way, and it’s nauseating to see when readers deride any amount of telling just because they’ve heard of the showing vs. telling rule. Yes, it’s a rule one learns in school, but that’s to encourage early writers to build depth into their stories – later, with more experience and confidence, those basic rules hinder more than they help.

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