Classic Sci-Fi in Clarkesworld April 2021

This image simply repeats the title of the article, with an image of this issue of Clarkesworld.

I enjoy reviewing Clarkesworld on an issue-by-issue, because there’s plenty to learn from quality curation of today’s SF&F, and Clarke’s organization of stories and related content into even more thought-provoking wholes more than meets that requirement. Clarkesworld tends to range between hard sci-fi to lyrical sci-fi, with horror and fantasy more often showing up in blended stories — worlds, that is, where the fantastical is an offshoot of some more technical alteration buried in that story’s cosmic backdrop.

A recent uptick in interest for much “harder” sci-fi (possibly thanks in part to Arula Ratnakar’s open celebration of the science in her stories!) seems to have created an opportunity to dive into the more classic side of the sci-fi spectrum, because April 2021 is a rich showcase of both the subgenre’s history, and its ongoing possibilities. I say “history” because four of the stories in this issue are strongly reminiscent of work from the mid-20th century, while two others explore near-future possibilities stemming from current technological research, and one achieves a sort of atemporality in its far-flung existential scenario.

(As an aside, this month’s cover artwork, by JC Jongwon Park, is titled “GUYS! Don’t Lose Hope!”, and has a human and robot atop their travel van, watching a nearby floating city. It’s easily more whimsical than the stories in this issue, but that aspirational feel matches a few of the character arcs in these pieces. Shout-out, as well, to Kate Baker for her audio content, which rolls out over the weeks following each issue’s release.)

As always, I keep these “reviews” to a sort of capsule summation of each tale: to give you a taste, and decide if a specific work intrigues. As a courtesy to fellow writers, I will never flat-out say if a story doesn’t work for me — but you can tell the stories I’m partial to, from a glowing word here and there!

We open with Ray Nayler’s “Sarcophagus”, a survivalist tale on a far-flung ice world, which like every successful horror story knows how to leverage the familiar perils of a given environment for the vast majority of its otherworldly tension. There is another element haunting our protagonist’s progress across this brutal landscape, toward the faint hope of reprieve, but… well, let’s just say that this story involves not only what is stranger to us, but also what is more kindred in that strangeness than we might initially realize.

Endria Isa Richardson’s “The Field Tiger” also dabbles in the familiar: the age-old conflict between workers’ rights and corporate narcissism. Here, that strife is oriented around a body of trauma stories the workers keep telling and corporate interests keep trying to suppress — but with a twist that launches this story into a striking assessment of a chilling near-future possibility. What if our age-old conflict is soon to become little more than a cog in a self-serving design that serves no humans at all?

Dean-Paul Stephens’ “Ouroborous” takes place in a far-flung future, on a vessel of sentient constructs continuing a dead humanity’s mission to find more sapient intelligence. On their vast, eons-long journey in and out of range of a planet with sentient possibilities (a concept that has an echo of Oumuamua in its worldbuilding; not sure if that was intentional or not!), the various sentient A.I.s on this “cylinder” wrestle, Arthur-C.-Clarke-style, with questions of faith, purpose, and the ethics and efficacy of worship.

Richard Webb’s “The Sheen of Her Carapace” is another classic SF conceit — a military operation on a resupply mission to a new alien world — and it involves the classic alien-SF imposition of femininity on a conveniently gentle alien that the protagonist falls in love with. And yet, there’s some subversion here. Our protagonist’s gender is not known (although reviews will surely peg them as male from both the military rhetoric and the way they’ve gendered someone else), and the last person they cared for was a “him”. This story raises interesting questions about how to remediate and move forward tropes of this type.

Chen Qian’s “Catching the K Beast” (translated by Carmen Yiling Yan) is another in the classic mode — something decidedly Heinlein-esque about elements of its world. The story doesn’t question the ethics of its premise: namely, poachers visiting a planet with high-level sentient denizens, to capture some of the other animals on the planet. But then again, the protagonist, hunting a species that can see 12 minutes into the future, also takes a while to realize the full ramifications of this challenge. Overconfidence abounds!

Andrea’s Kriz’s “Communist Computer Rap God”, like Richardson’s story, then explores the near-future consequences of some of our current sentient A.I. research — along with some decidedly close-to-home commentary about how our current infotainment culture would probably respond to a low-popularity online-content provider accidentally creating a sentient A.I. with a distinctly unpopular/”uncool” brand of political and musical interests. It’s easily the most playful piece in the issue.

L Chan’s “A House Is Not A Home” rounds out the issue with another familiar SF conceit (strong parallels to Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”), but from a more personal direction, with an added layer of technological complicity. As with Webb’s story, the automatic female-gendering of the house A.I. might also strike readers as more reminiscent of mid-century writing, but the story itself is open-ended enough that what has happened to the resident could resonate with ongoing racialized trauma in the U.S. just as easily as it could state-wide crackdowns on political dissent in a range of oppressive states.

I’d been looking forward to Andrew Liptak’s essay on the western’s influence on science-fiction, “Wagon Train to the Arctic”, especially after having published a space-western in February’s Clarkesworld (“Mercy and the Mollusc”). Liptak takes us through the genre’s role in inspiring extraterrestrial voyages, and includes a salient remark about Arctic voyages being a better analogy — although the essay stops short of fully interrogating the problems with still carrying a western-settler mentality into further explorations at all.

Arley Sorg’s first interview is then with Harry Turtledove, himself a figure of “classic” SF. In “Freedom Over Tyranny”, the two talk about the fruits of a publishing career now in its sixth decade. There are some wry answers here, as well as some strong views about “politics” versus “entertainment” in the work, but for me the most striking reply was the refusal of pride for work already done. Turtledove is of a school of writers more interested in the next project, and the next, and the next, until their “shift” is done.

Sorg’s next interview is with Bo-Young Kim. “In the Absence of Guidelines or Censorship” explores how this Korean-language SF writer’s work has been influencing a generation of young South Korean writers, and the various tensions that have arisen from her work’s focus as much on history and academic-stress culture as scientific ideas carried into new contexts. My favourite answer involved her frankness with a published essay existing more as a reflection of her editor’s preference, than of her own final remarks on a subject.

(That subject, I should add, has to do with the question of how much rigorous “science” is integral to science fiction, and one of this month’s authors, Ray Nayler, has a recent interview with Julia Nováková that explores similar themes around her story, “The Ship Whisperer”. It’s all coming full circle, baby!)

Neil Clarke then closes off the issue with an update on how personal health issues have slowed some of the publication’s progress toward new projects in the first quarter of this year. There are indeed big things brewing as Clarkesworld comes up on 15 years in operation (woo!), but I think I can safely speak for all readers in saying that even without pandemic, health has to be a top concern for which all else can wait.

Suffice it to say, then, April 2021 illustrates that there is indeed a robust role for classic tropes and narrative journeys in contemporary SF. We may need to nudge some of their storytelling elements into deeper nuance, but so long as we are beings operating in response to coherent environments, there will always be a need for stories exploring the underlying systems of peril, estrangement, and social bonding in our lives.


M L Clark offers capsule-reviews for stories in Clarkesworld April 2021, with thoughts on the issue’s remediation of more classic SF styles and tropes.

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