“Soulcatcher,” the opening story in the May 2013 issue of Clarkesworld, is one of James Patrick Kelly’s best stories. His protagonist, Klary, is the owner of an art gallery who has lured xeni-Harvel Asher, the ambassador from the Four Worlds, into her establishment. The xeni is “embodied” as a human male, but he retains the charisma that causes some to liken his species to the human legend of faeries; he is nearly irresistible. But Klary has been on a regimen of emotion, and besides, this xeni ruined her life, we learn in the second paragraph. This tale of revenge embodies the alien beautifully. More than that, though, Kelly imagines new forms of art, most especially a rug known as a soulcatcher, with especial vividness.
Andy Dudak’s “Tachy Psyche” is also about art, in a sense, though it truly is more about the psychics of time – for time slowed to a crawl creates living art all around the individual who is not caught by time. This individual is observing his approaching death, in one form or another, and contemplating his life as his death approaches at so slow a crawl that it is almost unobservable (which seems like a good metaphor for life, doesn’t it?). His experience of time is the result of a virus that affects his thought-rate, allowing him to experience some events rapidly, days passing at the subjective rate of seconds, and others so slowly that weeks seem like years. The back story of the viewpoint character’s experience with the vaccine, and his experience of time, is tied up with Buddhism and the politics of China. Although the story lacks cohesion and a full explanation of the situation the author sets up in the opening paragraphs, the ending line is a fine shocker.
“(R + D) /I = M” wins my personal prize for most awkward title for anyone who isn’t a mathematician, but E. Catherine Tobler’s story far surpasses the confusion the title might generate in your typical non-math major. It is set on Mars, where humans have finally gotten a toehold and begun to grow grapes. Two of the native Martians, generally undetectable as such by humans (who believe Mars has no indigenous life), love the grapes. The humans can’t figure where the damage to their grapes has come from, so the Martians leave them further clues, defying their elders who have forbidden contact with the humans. Things do not go well in this story of first contact. The story is beautifully written, as Tobler pulls off an alien viewpoint with panache.
Liz Williams has the best story in this issue, the ravishing “The Banquet of the Lords of Night.” Severin de Rais lives in a Paris that has been all but unmade by the Unpriests; the City of Light has become a city of darkness, enveloped (as is all the world) by a great shell that isolates Earth from the universe and blocks out the sun and the stars. Indeed, light is forbidden. De Rais bears a package that he will use that evening as an ingredient in a dessert he prepares for the Lords of Night, one of numerous courses that embody darkness. One dish, for instance, is comprised of shards of glassy dark ice from the seas near the southern pole with a sauce composed from “a touch of fragrant Indonesian darkness, gathered close to midnight, redolent of cinnamon and incense and spiced smoke. Placing the darkness in a bowl, he adds a pinch of flavors: twilight from Japan, warm and clouded, with a hint of star anise. Then a touch of evening from the Sinang Delta, water-clear and cool.” One dish after another, he passes tastes of darkness to the Lords. In their “Black Wisdom,” they know that something is up, but de Rais passes inspection and is able to hear “the minute crunch of mandibles upon ice” as the Lords devour his dish. The writing is first cousin to poetry, the plot as delicious as de Rais’s desserts. It’s an amazingly good story. I’m surprised that it was not nominated for any of the big prizes back when it was first published in Asimov’s in 2002.
The narrator of Michael Swanwick’s “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled . . .” is named Rosamund, and she is dead. She’s been dead ever since the meteors hit, surviving only as the voice of an intelligent survival suit worn by her lover, Carlos Quivera. A diplomat of sorts, Quivera must do what is necessary when Babel is destroyed, particularly including working with the alien species who inhabits the planet, helping the lone millipede left to save his species library. They do not trust one another, and they are both hiding important information. The mélange of war, diplomacy, interspecies trust and lack thereof, and the difficulties of language make for a challenging story that gives a true flavor of the alien. Few writers are able to truly describe that which is alien, but Swanwick does so brilliantly.
The nonfiction in this issue includes an essay by Maggie Clark entitled “When the Alien Is Us: Science Fictional Documentaries.” I had not considered Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, for instance, as in any way fictional, much less science fictional, but Clark’s perspective on it and Herzog’s other work provides a new way of watching his work. Jeremy L.C. Jones offers “Assassinating the Reader: A Conversation with Yoon Ha Lee,” which made me want to immediately read Lee’s work. Craig DeLancey’s “Another Word: The Singularity is Dead, Long Live the Singularity!” is an unusual take on one of the tropes of science fiction, the notion that we’ll soon create an artificial intelligence of such technological excellence that it will itself create even greater intelligences. It is DeLancey’s theory that the Singularity has come and gone, having had currency only from 1900 until 1936. You’ll need to read the essay for his explanation, which is set forth lucidly even for the non-mathematician.
It’s another good issue of a magazine that has quickly moved to the forefront of science fiction periodicals.