REVIEW: “Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel

Review of Eric Schwitzgebel, “Little /^^^\&-” , Clarkesworld 132: Read online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Works of science fiction and fantasy produce an inordinate amount of unpronounceable names. Say, for example, Kvothe (Cough? Voth? K-Voth-ee?). Or, in the pre-HBO days, Daenerys Targaryen (Day-ne-rice?).

Or /^^^\&-. On reading this story, my first thought went out to whoever was responsible for the podcast. It transpired that Clarkesworld’s Kate Baker opted to use musical tones to represent the names of the entities in this story, which I found to be an elegant solution. More so than, say, ‘slash-up-up-up-slash-ampersand-minus’.

/^^^\&- is by no means little. She is a planet-sized consciousness, or perhaps a planet with a consciousness. For the purposes of this review, she can be seen as a bored computer intelligence powered by ‘chambersful of monkeys’. She’s serving out a jail sentence in our solar system, and the place is a dump.

The monkeys are biological humanoids living within /^^^\&-, a fact which becomes apparent later. She is both their home and their creation; their work powers her thoughts and actions. Without diverging too far into the realm of interpretation, through /^^^\&-, the monkeys are collectively their own god, a point which becomes increasingly thematically resonant.

With little else to do, /^^^\&- decides to teach Earth how to speak. This takes a while, and the narrative strays from /^^^\&-’s perspective while Earth reconfigure itself into ^Rth^. I found this to be a weaker section of the story, and preferred the scenes that were more firmly rooted in character.

/^^^\&- is a funny and likable protagonist. Both she and the narrative tone sober as the story progresses, and she grows increasingly attached to ^Rth^ and her own monkeys. She affirms the value of the small and powerless, particularly after an incident of carelessness renders their fragility apparent.

The story juxtaposes the colossal and the minute in touching ways, and ultimately builds to a conclusion that is tragic and uplifting.

REVIEW: “Bonding with Morry” by Tom Purdom

Review of Tom Purdom, “Bonding with Morry”, Clarkesworld 132: Read Online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Morry Largen is a retired professor with a very pragmatic attitude towards artificial intelligence. He wants robots to look like robots – metal, boxy and functional. As he lives alone and has health concerns, he purchases the ugliest robot possible to assist him around the house. He names it Clank.

This story was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a subtle, thought-provoking and satisfying read, and Morry’s grumpy reluctance to have Clank in his life is endearing. He is clear-eyed in his understanding of what Clank is and isn’t. As time progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that other people lack his insight.

For me, a highlight was his wry discussion with his daughter regarding his reluctance to make Clank prettier.

It’s the emotional bonding I object to. Pretending a machine is a person.”

“I understand that. But do you have to go to extremes?”

“I’m a sentimental creature, daughter. Who knows what I’d do if I had a thing that looked like a cute pet? There were times when I even felt sorry for some of my students.”

“So you’re living with a metal monster just because you’re worried about your own feelings?”

I felt that was incisive. The same gentle humour pervades the story as a whole. Morry’s refusal to pretend a computer program is equivalent to a human mind serves as a kind of tragic affirmation of the worth of humanity – for genuine feelings, for our fragile animal lives.

A lot of the sadness of this story is unspoken, but remains compelling: Morry repeatedly insists that he has friends and has no need for a companion, he plays video games intended for his granddaughter’s entertainment. “Bonding with Morry” never comes across as morose, however. It maintains a kind of charming lightness throughout, and the prose is clean and pleasant.

I also think that the title is excellent.

REVIEW: “Antarctic Birds” by A. Brym

Review of A. Brym, “Antarctic Birds”, Clarkesworld 132: Read online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Genetically modified lovers live within a compound in the Antarctic sunshine, teaching strange children about rainforests and cabbages. This story was a strange one, rooted in a very human relationship.

Nikau and Charlie aren’t at the best point in their romance; Nikau is preoccupied with his secrets and Charlie despairs of ever connecting with her students. The gradual regeneration of their relationship forms the emotional heart of the story, and it’s a sweet, delicate thread running through the narrative.

The worldbuilding in Antarctic Birds is of the work-it-out-yourself variety, which has both its uses and limitations. While the strong character focus allows readers to zone in on what is relevant –Nikau and Charlie’s feelings– I found that the lack of explanation grew distracting. Nikau can fly, Charlie can’t, and this appears to be related to their students’ burgeoning telepathic abilities. Two factions of an alien species compete for power, Masters and Makers. They have some kind of symbiotic relationship with humans and help our species to evolve, but this is perhaps against our will.

While a reader can discern something of the structure of the outside world from hints, I felt my grasp on the situation was too tenuous. As a result, Nikau’s choices in the conclusion lacked the significance they might have otherwise held.

Antarctic Birds reads like a snapshot into an intriguing narrative universe. It’s a brief glimpse of something larger, framed by the lives of two flawed but lovely characters.