REVIEW: “Möbius Continuum” by Gu Shi

Review of Gu Shi, “Möbius Continuum”, Clarkesworld 132: Read online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

This one didn’t work for me, and it may be the case that I was simply the wrong audience. As it stands, I found “Möbius Continuum” to be amongst the weaker pieces published in this issue of Clarkesworld. I believe that readers with a taste for the philosophical may find more to admire – that’s not what floats my boat.

In part, the story functions as a thought experiment, a sort of mental repositioning. It is interesting, but there’s little more I can say without giving major spoilers. And even though I anticipated the ending, I still didn’t quite buy it. The conclusion necessitated a kind of tidiness which I experienced as anti-climactic.

Early in the narrative, the protagonist crashes his car over a cliff. Both he and his passenger survive, but the protagonist is left paralysed from the neck down. His enigmatic companion urges him not to despair, and to see his injuries as an opportunity.

I think my largest problem with “Möbius Continuum” is that I never received a strong enough impression of the protagonist’s character. I found it difficult to care about him, and thus the stakes of failures never raised my heart rate. I can see how this nebulousness served an ultimate thematic purpose, but I experienced it as a structural problem. Why should I be invested in this story, what is there to keep me reading? The answer is probably intellectual curiosity, but I wanted emotion on top of that.

REVIEW: “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab

Review of Jess Barber and Sara Saab, “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics”, Clarkesworld 132: Read online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Two people strive to restore a broken Earth, even as their efforts push them apart. Amir and Mani are devoted to renewing toxic cities and waterless countries, and they are devoted to each other. Circumstances encourage them to choose between their purpose and their feelings, in a world which demands pragmaticism.

This story is gentle and romantic and elegant. The characters are nuanced. They grow together and apart and together again, and their relationship serves as both a source of conflict and of comfort.

This story wasn’t necessarily my favourite of the September selection, purely based on personal preference. There was much that I found poignant, and even more that I found clever, but I never felt fully invested. For me, the plot was too dispersed. My impression was of a series of vignettes.

The reader is offered snippets of a post apocalyptic life. We flit from one small triumph to another and nothing ever goes catastrophically wrong. There are small disappointments, but the trajectory of hope is always upwards.

Maybe this one was simply too melancholy for me, even in its ultimate optimism.



REVIEW: “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer

Review of Suzanne Palmer, “The Secret Life of Bots”, Clarkesworld 132: Read online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Bot 9 has been in storage for a while. It’s a dated model with a reputation for instability, but when the ship runs into a crisis, even temperamental old multibots are called to assist. 9 is to deal with a pest problem –something is chewing through the walls– and while it would prefer a more important job, it dutifully sets about hunting down vermin.

This story is warm and funny and endearing. The narrative is well-constructed, and balances humour and tension throughout. The narrative voice is especially appealing when 9 is the focaliser. The newer bots and the ship are dismissive of 9’s limited functionality, so there’s something thoroughly charming about our hero’s gung-ho attitude. It might not have access to the newfangled ‘botnet’, but it never doubts its ability to get the job done.

The situation onboard the ship escalates. In between fighting off the pest (which is a bit like a bug, and a bit like a rat, or perhaps more like a “Snake-Earwig-Weasel”), 9 decides to fix the humans’ rather more life-threatening problems too.

If you are looking for something amusing, satisfying and easily digestible, “The Secret Life of Bots” won’t disappoint.

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.