Friday, 8 June 2012

Clarkesworld Issue 69 - Review

Target Detected, by Mark Davenport

 Clarkesworld is an online, monthly science-fiction and fantasy magazine. Every issue contains at least three short stories, as well as non-fiction articles of interest to science-fiction and fantasy fans. The latest issue (issue 69, for June 2012), includes three stories, ‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard, ‘If the Mountain Comes’ by An Owomoyela, and ‘You Were She Who Abode’ by E. Catherine Tobler; and two articles, ‘Energising Futures: How SF Fuels Itself’ by Stephen Gaskell, and ‘Neither the Billionaire nor the Tramp: Economics in Speculative Fiction’ by Jeremy L.C. Jones, as well as a quick look at the statistics behind Clarkesworld’s readers and authors by the editor-in-chief, Neil Clarke.

All three stories are strongly character-driven and genuinely emotional. Each deals with a distinctly different subject, but there is a beautiful, bittersweet feeling that runs through all three, complementing each other nicely. One non-fiction article, dealing with sources of energy and fuel in science-fiction, is very interesting, but it is the article on economics in speculative fiction that is particularly fascinating, as well as being a subject that's rarely touched on. These articles approach speculative fiction from a more technical and factual perspective, looking at world-building and what powers these new worlds, providing a contrast to the very character orientated approach of the writers in the three fictional pieces. I enjoyed all of it, though for me the highlights were certainly the stories (which is probably how it should be).

The following is a more in-depth review of the stories and articles in the issue.

Immersion, by Aliette de Bodard

Immersion follows two women in a futuristic world. There is only one standard of beauty and one culture that is really accepted here, based on white, Western ideals. Devices called immersers can be worn that will instruct the wearer on what to say, how to act, and how to adhere to local customs. Tourists occasionally wear these to immerse themselves more easily in ‘quaint’ foreign cultures, but it is what these excluded, ‘exotic’ cultures have done with immersers that is truly disturbing.

Aliette de Bodard tells a beautiful, moving story of the effects of this technology, and the prejudice that has made it seem necessary. In recent years science-fiction, and to a certain extent fantasy, has become much better at telling stories about people from different cultures and ethnicities, but it is still nice to read a story that does not focus on the more typical perspective. Having said that, anyone can relate to the emotions behind this tale: the pressure to fit in, to conform to society’s standards of beauty, or to what is culturally acceptable, which is why the story is so powerful. If the above makes it sound like this story is in any way preachy, I assure you that it really isn’t. It is also very well written, paced perfectly, and has an extremely satisfying and touching ending.

Photo by Jon Sullivan

If the Mountain Comes, by An Owomoyela

This story is set in a bleaker futuristic world in which water has become an extremely precious and rare commodity. One man in this small town controls the water supply, and so has become rich and powerful... and hated. This story deals with the consequences when a stranger arrives who claims that he can bring back the river.

This has a slightly more familiar setting and idea to me. It reminded me of worlds like the Fallout games (in which bringing safe water to people is a major theme of the third game), or The Road (or any other dystopian post-apocalyptic setting in which the world has become barren, and water and other resources suddenly become scarce). In these kinds of stories people often have a tendency to behave like characters in a Wild West movie, in a frontier town where everyone is a little rough and disturbingly ready to kill each other. I’m not saying this isn’t realistic (I think it probably is), just that I have seen it done quite a lot before. Because of this, this story did not feel as original or surprising as the other two. However, it is written very well and the characterisation in it is excellent. It also has a particularly good sense of setting, as the world is conjured up so vividly without needing overly-wordy descriptions. In other words, the idea might not be very new, but it is a fabulous example of it, and it is definitely worth a read.

You Were She Who Abode, by E. Catherine Tobler

I can’t really explain what this story is about without spoiling it. Instead I will describe its affect on me. This is an extremely powerful and emotional story, written so vividly that the reader is pulled headfirst into it alongside the narrator. It may seem a little confusing at first, but as the significance of what’s going on begins to dawn, it becomes apparent that this is a very clever piece... and absolutely heartbreaking. This was such an unexpected story; at first it seems to be about war, but it soon becomes clear that it is actually about people, and how traumatic events can affect them, and about love. The story surprised me, in a very good way, and the ending was simply beautiful. This was my favourite story in the issue.

Photo by Matthias17 on Flickr

Energising Futures: How SF Fuels Itself, by Stephen Gaskell

This was an interesting article about fuel and energy in science-fiction, which is a subject that has been largely ignored in science-fiction discussions in favour of the more glamorous ideas like FTL and time travel. FTL and time travel technology do not hold the same fascination for me as they do for others. I’m much less interested in how something happens in science-fiction than in what happens as a result. I don’t want to know how warp or wormholes work; I want to know how these affect us and our world. I also rather like stories in which FTL remains more mysterious or even slightly magical, perhaps because I’ve always been drawn more to the fantastical and the weird in speculative fiction than to the hard science. Fuel and energy, however, are much more important and relatable subjects because they have such an impact on our lives already. It is also a bit strange to explain in detail how FTL is achieved without paying any attention to how the spaceship is actually powered. Not all science-fiction ignores this, but much does, and I can understand the frustration with it.

When the article gets into the science of spaceship fuel and energy, it all gets a bit technical for me. The more ‘hard’ the science in science-fiction, seemingly the more the author’s urge to over-explain, which is frankly worse than magicscience in my eyes. No-one likes an info-dump. Still, energy and fuel in more Earth-based stories does interest me. It’s real, it relates to our lives, and it’s understandable. In space, the problem of energy, as with FTL, is too often just a hurdle to be vaulted before the story can continue. But on Earth, the resources and the fuel are often the story, or at least a major theme within it. In the latter, this focus is now leading to some very new and exciting stories. This article mentions Paolo Bacigalupi's post-oil-age book The Windup Girl, among other examples that I will now definitely be checking out. An interesting article that has left me with plenty to think about.

Photo by Mykl Roventine on Flickr

Neither the Billionaire nor the Tramp: Economics in Speculative Fiction, by Jeremy L. C. Jones

This article intrigued me more than the fuel and energy one, as I am usually more interested in a society and how its people live than in their technology. This is perhaps a product of studying Classical Studies at university; I always wanted to know more about the people, what they did, what they believed, what they bought, what they ate and wore, what they wrote and read, etc, and would become a little frustrated and fidgety when subjected to the more dry archaeology and dating classes. I also think economics is fascinating (while woefully knowing very little about it), so this article really intrigued me on two levels.

The article approached this issue in an interesting way, interviewing six authors of science-fiction and fantasy whose books all do something interesting with the economics in their created worlds. I would perhaps have liked to see a bit more discussion of other stories as well as the authors’ own, including some more well-known examples like Star Trek – just how does money work in Star Trek and how do replicators (basically a form of technology that can produce anything upon request) affect its worth? – but this did not seem to be the article’s main concern. However, the authors interviewed do give some very interesting opinions and observations, making for a fascinating discussion.

First, the article introduces the idea that economics can be an important factor to consider when world-building. I completely agree. Ever read one of those fantasy books where the setting seems a little flat and lifeless somehow, like a shiny veneer covering a whole load of nothing? I think failing to think about economics, amongst other things, is part of the problem (like weather, for instance – it’s often just ‘hot’ or ‘snowy and cold’, or worse, left blank, without much consideration for how varied weather can actually be, or for how societies can build their culture around things like monsoons and floods, or the importance of wind for fishing communities, etc). Thinking about economics when world-building doesn’t just mean money; it means supply and demand, production and distribution, who is in control of these, trade routes, farms and industry, and much more. In other words, it really is the stuff societies are built on.

Economics seemed to be more ignored in fantasy than it is in science fiction. This is a particular problem when magic is involved. Imagine all the ways magic might affect a society if some people can simply conjure up money or products. It is therefore refreshing to see two fantasy writers, N. K. Jemisin and Elizabeth Bear, discussing how economics affects their own worlds and magic. As with the previous article, this one has given me some great-looking new books for my ‘to read’ list (as if my ‘to read’ list isn’t long enough already!)

Of course, economics is something for the writer to think about, but not necessarily something to make the reader think about. As Dani Kollin points out in this article, even a hero discovering a huge pile of gold is going to seriously affect the economy when he suddenly injects all that wealth into it. However, as Kollin also reasons, this is not necessarily a very interesting plot point. If an author over-explains the economics within their story, they become subject to the same info-dump problem as those hard science-fiction types who spend pages explaining how their engines work. Economics should inform the work, so that the author does not forget to include trade and production to make his world seem real, but if it is not the focus of the story, it should remain in the background like a film soundtrack that adds to the overall experience without taking it over. Or as N.K. Jemisin says “'s not the big stuff that reveals the economics, like monuments; what you really want to look at are the hair ornaments... Consider: Every human culture does stuff with its hair. So who makes the brushes? How does an ordinary person buy or make a comb, or a clip, or beads, or hair dye? How do they buy it, and how much does it cost—not just in resources but in time and labor? How can they afford the free time to do elaborate things with their hair, if they do? ...What I'm getting at is, economics are visible in the everyday.”

Editor’s Desk: Clarkesworld by the Numbers, by Neil Clarke

This is basically just a set of data about the readers, submitters and authors of Clarkesworld. I expected to be bored and skim over this, but I actually found it really fascinating – perhaps it spoke to my editor side. Then again, I read right up until the end of the article and was disappointed there wasn’t any more of it, so perhaps I’m just a data junkie. Most interesting was the information on how many men and women submit, vs. how many men and women are actually published in the magazine. It seems that far more men submit than women, but that when it comes to published stories the sexes are roughly equal. Neil Clarke thinks this suggests quality over quantity, that when it comes to talent things even out, and both men and women are equally skilled at writing. Perhaps it also implies that there are simply more men writing speculative fiction than women. I hope not. Still, it is nice to know that when it comes to publication, things even themselves out.

And Neil, if you ever want more data about your readers, I would happily complete a survey. For the record, I’m female, a northerner, 26, right-handed, enjoy cheese, do not like marmite, own 12 pairs of shoes, well over 50 video games, and more books than I can count. Thank you for a really enjoyable issue!


  1. I only read your reviews of the three stories. I'll have to return when I have time to read the rest, but two of the first three sound like winners. I agree the dystopian-no-water scenario has been over-done. "If The Mountain Comes" would have to be very well written to stand out with such a common scenario. I sympathize with your third review. Sometimes I don't know how to talk about a story without ruining it (a skill I'm still working on). I think you did this well. Thanks for the reviews!

  2. Thanks Jennifer! Yes, it can be really difficult to avoid spoilers in reviews sometimes, particularly if its the plot details or an unexpected twist that really made you love it. I've recently finished 'Embassytown' by China Mieville and am trying to write up a review, but struggling a bit to talk about certain aspects without giving too much away. It's another of those stories where you gradually understand things as you read, meaning that different readers will see things at different points. And I always like to err on the side of caution, as unexpected spoilers in reviews can be very annoying!

    Yeah 'If the Mountain Comes' is well written, just doesn't have that 'wow' factor that a really new idea will leave you with. Sometimes I'm not sure what I prefer - great, character-driven writing but a standard and familiar idea, or a truly unique idea that didn't quite work in the telling. Think I'd have to go with the new idea, but it's always nice to have both.

    Hope you enjoy the Clarkesworld stories if you do read them!