It’s been a busy month outside of reading, so it’s good that this was a short month for my magazines, with new issues of only two of my three regular reads. While my highlights list isn’t quite as long as usual this month, I still found one story that truly stood out. So let’s get to it with reviews of the August issues of Clarkesworld and GigaNotoSaurus.
Clarkesworld has easily been the most consistently enjoyable magazine I’ve read over the last year, but this issue was a rare exception, with a couple misses and relatively few that I expect to stick with me. But while I didn’t find this issue as consistent as some of the others, my favorite story of the month was a real gem that will come in high on my annual favorites list, and some of the others had intriguing elements, even if they didn’t completely come together. Because even in an off month, there’s always something to remind me why this is my favorite genre magazine.
It opens with an interesting story that in hindsight is probably my second-favorite from this issue. “Every Seed is a Prayer (And Your World is a Seed)” by Stephen Case tells of an AI-run foresting project that aims to create a sustainable swathe of woodland and help the Earth recover from its environmental damage. But it isn’t long before the AI decisions become so mystifying that the two human workers that provide the story’s point-of-view can no longer fathom its logic. It’s an intriguing AI story with some real character struggle as they determine whether to trust the algorithm or try to step in and correct it.
For me, the crown jewel of the August issue and one of my favorite stories of the year was “Window Boy” by Thomas Ha. If you pitched me a dystopia with a little pinch of horror, I certainly wouldn’t expect it to be among my favorites, but the crafting of the story pulled me in easily. So many dystopias are written from the perspective of the have-nots and can feel like a checklist of familiar ways in which the world has gone wrong. But “Window Boy” is told from the perspective of a sheltered rich kid who knows almost nothing about the world other than what is shared in polite company (by his parents, in his schooling, or in the media). His furtive nighttime conversations at his window with a boy from well outside his social circle give the barest glimmer of the world’s true horrors, tantalizing the reader with their own imagination to fill in the gaps, while putting the lead in position to make a decision whose enormity he can hardly grasp. It’s really an excellent story, one I’ll make a note to go back and reread.
The issue’s two novelettes also offer a window into intriguing worlds, but both run a bit long for my tastes. “Light Speed is Not a Speed” by Andy Dudak skips through the years, offering small glimpses into the life of the main character, from childhood in a far-flung tribe to adolescence making up histories and myths about his city to peddle to rich tourists, to adulthood as a political prisoner and a drug addict. It’s engagingly written, but it can be hard to latch onto a central thread to sustain the momentum through a longer work.
The central thread is easier to find in “Who Can Have the Moon” by Congyun “Muming” Gu, translated by Tian Huang, but it’s another novelette that spans the lead’s whole life and didn’t generate the momentum to maintain my attention the whole time. It stars the daughter of a janitor whose passion for art is scorned by her mother as a distraction from pursuits that may have a realistic chance of earning income. But hard work and a little fortune sees her as a rising star in the world of virtual design, and the story traces her path from those early days to the pinnacle of her field. The themes of ownership of art are fascinating, and there is a scene in which she works on a memorial project offers some particular power. But the piece as a whole just ran a bit long for me.
Unfortunately, the next two short stories struck me as a bit on the nose. “Empathetic Ear” by M.J. Pettit sits at the intersection of frustration with the state of higher education and with shiny new tech fads. It’s written engagingly enough, and may feel all too real to anyone who has been through a graduate program in the last couple decades. It just felt a little too pointed for me to maintain full immersion throughout. Worse on that score was Marisca Pichette’s “Gel Pen Notes from Generation Ship Y,” which rests on a shockingly ugly bit of generational rivalry in which millennials are literally rounded up and shot into space on a generation ship that isn’t actually a generation ship—they’ve been treated to prevent aging, but it’s also made them infertile. There’s a bit of meditation on the despair that comes from the societal rejection and a hopeless, dead-end mission, but the star of the show is the never-ending list of 90s cultural artifacts. Even being a millennial myself, I just kept waiting for the more interesting aspects to develop, and I was left with mostly pop culture references.
Finally, “Resistant” by Koji A. Dae tells of the people left behind when tech implants in the brain become necessary for functioning in ordinary society. I’d previously read and enjoyed novel-length treatment of the subject in Sarah Pinsker’s We Are Satellites, but while this did a good job in its short space, I was left wanting a bit more development.
The non-fiction section sees a letter from the editor thanking the whole team behind making a magazine happen and a science article on farming octopuses for food and the ways in which an intelligent species may respond to being farmed. The interviews were with a pair of new-to-me figures, author Emma Mieko Candon and editor Joshua Glenn. Very often, these interviews make me want to go find the work being discussed (I say as my library hold comes in on Life Beyond Us, edited by Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law, and Susan Forest), and even though it didn’t work out that way this time, I was very intrigued by Glenn’s work with reprinting “Radium Age” work from the early 20th century. I don’t know that I always click with the prose styles from that era, but it’s interesting from a genre history perspective if nothing else.
The sole long story in this month’s GigaNotoSaurus is the novelette “The Rainbow Bank” by Uchechukwu Nwaka, a quest story in a future Nigeria in which society has been upended by the sudden emergence of magical phenomena that killed much of the human population and radically reshaped the social order. In this story, the talented underling of a mob boss seeks a score that could allow him to step out from the shadow of his organization. While straightforward quest plots don’t tend to grab me, this story is definitely worth a look for fans of the adventurous side of fantasy.
- “Window Boy” by Thomas Ha (short story, Clarkesworld)