Last month, I started a new series, which I hope to continue all year, in which I read and review sci-fi/fantasy magazines. I’ve settled on three publications to follow this year: my two favorites from 2022 and a third that has been a titan of the genre for decades. But The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a bimonthly publication, so this month it’s just two: Clarkesworld and GigaNotoSaurus.
Clarkesworld has been in the news a bit lately with their struggle to prevent spurious submissions of AI-generated content. I can only hope that this cloud has a silver lining of drawing more people to the magazine, because it is really tremendous. And those who start in February 2023 are in for a particular treat, as this issue doesn’t have a bad story in the bunch. I don’t know if there’s anything that I’m already penciling in to 2024 award ballots, but nearly everything was a pleasure to read and had me wondering only whether it would receive a strong or very strong recommendation. As always, I try to limit my favorites list to the best of the best, but if there’s an issue to read cover-to-cover, it’s this one.
I’ve just claimed there isn’t a bad story in the February 2023 issue of Clarkesworld, but I didn’t feel the opening short, “The Portrait of a Survivor, Observed from the Water” by Yukimi Ogawa, quite reached the level of the others. It sets up a puzzle box with a mix of third and second-person, an in media res opening, and a crashed ship as one of the chief perspective characters, but the obfuscation made it hard to develop real attachment to either main character. I found the quality of the prose enough to draw me in and keep me engaged, but the ultimate backstory reveal wasn’t enough to really force a reevaluation of what had come before and cash in on the puzzle box promise.
The second story—the shortest of this month’s issue—also featured a sentient ship as lead. “Somewhere, It’s About to Be Spring” by Samantha Murray opens with a ship shuffling through her memories, slowly coming to a realization about what in her has changed, what it meant for her past, and what it means for her future. It only skirts over the details, but it’s enough to generate a strong emotional core in a short amount of time.
Those who enjoy plot-light tales will be delighted by the middle of the issue, which features a pair with no real central conflict. Eric Schwitzgebel’s “Larva Pupa Imago” tells the story, from birth to death, of an individual on a human-free world where birds and insects have evolved sentience. I suppose the title “A Bug’s Life” was already taken, but it would be apropos here—it’s a surprisingly heartfelt tale with fascinating musings on identity and memory, but it’s very much the story of an entire life as opposed to any particular conflict.
While “Larva Pupa Imago” may have the feel of a nature documentary, albeit with a stronger central character, Gu Shi’s novelette “Introduction to 2181 Overture, Second Edition,” translated by Emily Jin, is explicitly cast as non-fiction, serving as the introduction to an in-universe text on cryosleep. Very much not plot-driven, it explores both the costs and benefits of the technology, relying in part on a series of vignettes about individuals affected by its use. Anyone who enjoys teasing out implications of hypothetical technology are in for a real treat, and the human stories at the center provide enough pathos to prevent it from feeling too much like an essay on practical ethics (not that I object to science-fictional essays on practical ethics). This may be a story for fans of concept-driven sci-fi, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t close with an immensely satisfying moment of convergence.
While the Schwitzgebel and Shi pieces are very good, readers who need a little more plot in their lives should look instead to the issue’s extended centerpiece: R.P. Sand’s “An Ode to Stardust.” This novelette follows a woman who has overcome a humble upbringing and debilitating chronic pain to rise to the post of Station Commander on a mining moon. It uses her relationship with the enigmatic native species to explore empathy and understanding amidst significant hurdles, with explicit parallels between her current station and her father’s long-time refusal to take her pain seriously. There may be a few wobbles—I wasn’t totally convinced by how many times she flouted protocol without consequence—but the thematic depth and devastating conclusion were enough to make it my favorite piece in a very strong issue.
The last two stories don’t make much effort to hide their ultimate conclusion, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how much emotional resonance I felt with a pair of endings I generally saw coming. James Castles’ “Silo, Sweet Silo” tells the story of an unused smart missile trying to find purpose after the war has ended. It’s clear from the beginning that it falls into the “AI learning humanity” niche, but the execution was good enough that I didn’t mind knowing where it was going. It was still a pleasure getting there. Amal Singh’s “Going Time,” on the other hand, is equally clear in quite the opposite direction. It’s a dystopia, though the lead doesn’t realize it, and the whole story had me waiting for the other shoe to drop. And yet, like the previous story, the anticipation didn’t negate the power of the heart-wrenching finish. Chalk up a second tally for “simple concept, wonderfully executed.”
As always, Clarkesworld finishes with a science piece, two interviews, and a note from the editor. The effectiveness of the first likely depends on the reader’s interest in genes, but I found the interviews with Kelly Barnhill and Ian McDonald interesting despite not having read either author. In particular, Barnhill’s description of the impetus behind The Crane Husband really hit home and piqued my curiosity about her work:
Sometimes it’s not about survival—it’s learning how to live with the choices we’re forced to make in order to ensure that survival.
The letter from the editor was a listing of the Clarkesworld Readers’ Poll finalists, which included five stories that were among my favorites of 2022: “Two Spacesuits” by Leonard Richardson, “We Built This City” by Marie Vibbert, “Murder by Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness” by S.L. Huang, “Termination Stories for the Cyberpunk Dystopia Protagonist” by Isabel J. Kim, and “Calf Cleaving in the Benthic Black” by Isabel J. Kim. These are all excellent, and I expect to have two or three on my Hugo nominating ballot. I plan to post an updated Recommended Reading List next week, so if you’re curious about things I loved in 2022, keep an eye out for more detail there.
As always, GigaNotoSaurus publishes one longish story a month, and this month’s offering was the novelette “Fell Our Selves” by Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga. This one tried to do a whole lot with the space—even with the relatively long space of a novelette over 15,000 words—and seemed to me a bit overstuffed. Shining clearly through the entire piece is the feeling of dislocation stemming from an immigrant experience separated from the land of one’s ancestors by a language barrier and from a new homeland by so much else. But “Fell Our Selves” also delves into political intrigue, with a succession crisis and an interrogation of government-sponsored violence, all folded into a story that feels mostly like an adventure, with shapeshifting antagonists that straddle the border between sci-fi and fantasy. The adventure aspects and depiction of immigrant experience are good enough to make this worth a look for readers particularly intrigued by those elements, but I ultimately didn’t feel that the political subplot had enough breathing room to deliver the requisite power at the finish.