In “Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika,” by Gord Sellar, the end began when the first mechanika butchered its maker. Within a few generations humanity’s accomplishments became little more than relics in museums.
I loved the story, which I think can be most accurately described as dystopian steampunk. It takes place over several hundred years, which is a difficult thing to do in a short story. The scenes felt like independent vignettes, but there was always a thread that tied them together.
My favorite vignette involved a mechanika that longed to be a pianist. In a departure from what one traditionally finds in a short story, Sellar included snippets of sheet music and midi recordings of music written by the mechanika. I don’t know how effective that was for readers who cannot read music. One can see some musical jokes in the sheet music that are really funny, but only if one plays piano. I would wager the recording sounds just like someone running their elbows up and down the keyboard to most people. It was a fun addition to the story, but I think it may have had limited impact.
In “Frozen Voice,” by An Owomoyela, alien longlegs have conquered the world and forced their nearly unpronounceable language on the humans that remain. Few can explain the longlegs’ desperate fear of books, things they call “frozen voices,” but one family is willing to die to save the books from oblivion.
Owomoyela, a linguist, often brings unique and fresh perspectives to the story based on the way language functions and feels. The alien invaders, called longlegs by humans, were more complex than one would expect, though I don’t want to elaborate for fear of giving away spoilers.
Lost or orphaned children is a perennially favorite plot component for authors of all genres, and the author of the story chose to use it, as well. It never seems to get old, as long as it’s used in new ways, and I think that’s because it’s every parent and child’s worst nightmare. I loved the children’s resourcefulness and strength, and it made for a good read.
In “The Conservation of Shadows,” by Yoon Ha Lee, we are given a glimpse of the underworld, a place poor Inanna has seen many times before.
The story is a guide to the afterlife written in second person perspective, which immediately makes it different from the vast majority of fiction.
The author, Yoon Ha Lee, has a sparse style, and I’ve reviewed her work before. “Ghostweight,” a story she wrote for the January issue of Clarkesworld, was fantastic. “The Conservation of Shadows” fell flat for me.
The author chose an obscure myth as the basis for her tale, if the commenters beneath the story are correct. As a teacher, I know that if I’ve chosen an obscure song or work of art, I need to provide context if my students are to understand. In the realm of speculative fiction, it’s entirely up to the author to give this context. Often, the audience can infer and understand whatever the author has chosen to leave out because the settings feel similar to things they have read in the past.
This is not the case with “The Conservation of Shadows.” Yoon Ha Lee’s spare style, coupled with an obscure myth and setting, made the story very difficult to follow. Several phrases were truly brilliant, but constantly being jarred out of the narrative out of sheer confusion made it frustrating to read.
“The Fish of Lijiang,” by Chen Qiufan, was originally written in Chinese and was translated by Ken Liu. Robotic tour guides, an artificially blue sky, and dog messengers in his hometown rattle a young man’s already fragile state of mind. Apparently, one can’t can’t go home again.
The author, Chen Quifan, gives us a glimpse of his homelan, China, despite the fact it takes place at what I assume is some point in the future. Differences in values and customs from Western ideologies are very apparent, which I liked very much. I often wondered if the author was making a statement about the current waves of change sweeping over China.
It is very easy to empathize with the protagonist. The technological cause of his health problems was very innovative, as was the mind-bending way the technology warped his worldview. It was a great read.
In “Pack,” by Robert Reed, a desperate drought has brought dogs begging to a man’s castle door. The dogs’ survival, and probably the man’s, depends on the choices he makes.
Reed, the first-ever winner of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future award, produced a very unsettling world for the story. One suspects immediately that those called dogs are not truly dogs, which raises the question as to who or what the owner of the castle might be. The characters were engaging, and the twists in the plot leaves readers feeling as though they are groping around in the dark, trying to figure out what in the world is going on, a feeling I like to get from a good story.
I found the severity of the drought plausible, but not the relative plenty the resident of the castle enjoys. The author didn’t specifically say how his technology worked, only that he received his food through his “cultivators.” “Cultivator” implies farming, which implies the use of water, something his world doesn’t have. I don’t find technology that can make food appear from nothing to be very believable because of the laws of physics. Matter can’t be created, only changed.
The ending frustrated me. The author did such a wonderful job building up tension, only to cut it off ambiguously at its climax. The arc of the story felt much more like a novel than a short story. I think I would have loved reading this if it were written as a novella or novel.
In “Signals in the Deep,” by Gred Mellor, a mother chases her son through the stars, spending all she has to find the boy for whom she longs.
I sympathize heartily with the protagonist. I dread the day my little boy will fly away on his own and wonder if he’ll remember to call or write, especially when he doesn’t need to borrow money. I also understand her need for feeling firmly grounded in the past. My students have many fabulous strengths, but looking back isn’t one of them, so I understand her frustrations with her son, Matt.
The technology in the story was interesting, especially the rockbuster Ryan, a human grafted with metal plates. One also had to admire a woman that risked her financial future and her life to find her son. There were times it wasn’t especially clear, and I had to go back and reread it, but it wasn’t so bad as to dramatically reduce my enjoyment.
Overall, I believe the July issue was my favorite. Both stories were original and fresh, and had unusual quirks woven into their texture, which I appreciate. I’ve mentioned it in a prior review of this magazine, but one of the trends I see with the magazine is a fondness for nameless protagonists. That may work out fine and dandy for most readers, but it makes my job a great deal harder as I attempt to write plot summaries for the stories.
The editors also seem to favor a sparse, ambiguous style in their stories, which can effectively create a certain mood, but also risks creating confusion and frustration. I suppose if that’s the writing their regular readers crave, then there is no problem as long as their audience is happy, and happy audiences make for good sales, which I hope Clarkesworld is able to attain.