Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky

This was a real positive surprise. At first I was a bit weary with yet another AI robot human relationship story. 2021 and 2022 has had too many stories with that sort of theme. This story reconfirms my opinion that the best AI robot stories are at least 10 years behind us, even though it is immensely popular now.

We follow Adriana and her relationship with the android Lucien she has bought for companionship. During their together Lucien develops his own personality and they also end up having a child. The plot is minimal, the important stuff is in the development of these three characters and their feelings for each other – especially as Lucien develops more free will. Hence the title of the story with the different types of love.

What I think works exceptionally well here is how it is told with various jumps back and forward in time. We know the outcome, or at least hints of it, but not why or how yet. Even in a relatively short story, the author manages to show us the developments of three personalities at once. The point of view is mostly for Adriana, but the childs and Luciens character development is equally important.


Read in Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
Read online at Tor.com
Rating: 4

Upstart by Lu Ban

Clarkesworld continues to bring great translated stories. This story is translated from Chinese by Blake Stone-Banks and is another story that deals with death and especially what makes a life worth living.

In some unspecified dystopian future a state handles the overpopulation by offering a program that gives people a good deal of money if they accept certain death at a younger age. The story follows a man called K Li who takes such a deal and the story is split between his meeting with an advisor that administers the practicalities when he accepts the deal as a teenager and later in his life when his time is almost up. The deal is enforced with a drug that will slowly and painfully kill when the specified time of death is reached, which can be avoided if they seek out voluntary euthanasia at the states clinic.

Most of the story takes places when K Li is around 40 years old and the drug will soon kill him. He lives in an apartment building with other “upstarts” – the term used for those who have taken this deal. It is clear that even though he got several millions he could use until his death some 20 years later, he hasn’t had a good life. He spends most of his time being passed out drunk in his apartment, not unlike many of the other “upstarts” in his apartment complex. The deal might give people money, but lots of rights are also taken away and the rest of the population seems to resent the “upstarts”.

One day a young woman shows up at his door and convinces him that there might be an antidote for the drug that will soon kill him, and she leads him to what appears to be some sort of resistance group. The story evolves into an exciting thrillerplot with quite a surprising ending.

What I think makes this story work so well and why I would consider it worthy in a “best of the year”-anthology is how it tackles this “deal with Devil”-type scenario with a proper amount of emotional depth without going overboard into melancholy. There is also a pretty exciting thriller plot and both parts are given enough space in the story, so one is not merely a piece to make the other element work. We don’t get a lot of background information on this society or why it handles overpopulation in such a way, but it is not needed to make the story engaging and thought provoking in how to put value on a human life.


Read in Clarkesworld December 2022
Rating: 4

Turning Point by Poul Anderson

This story from 1963 lives up to its title and is an interesting read in the context of also showing a turning point in how science fiction writers wrote about humans and aliens.

A human space exploration team discovers an Earth-like planet with human-like intelligent species. Their level of technology is around the stone age, but they quickly establish communication and the natives to the planet turns out to be very quick learners. Like extremely quick. Over the span of just a couple of days they go from being presented with the invention of the wheel to using it for quite advanced bandwagons. The humans, while impressed, gets somewhat scared. They see these people as a potential rival that might overtake humans in very few years and dominate the galaxy. Drastic measures, such as total genocide, are discussed but dropped again.

What I personally found interesting about this 60 year old story, is that it is built around a human mindset towards aliens that we don’t see much anymore in fiction. I grew up with stuff like Star Trek that generally has a positive and optimistic view of alien species – where the default assumption is that advanced species will be peaceful. Of course this story is not the first to challenge the view of the old pulps where humans are entitled to dominate the galaxy, this anthology also has The Aliens by Murray Leinster from 1959, but it is a good example of the shift in how aliens, and more to the point – how humans viewed other species, was portrayed in science fiction at the time.

I found the ending to be bit rushed but liked the overall more positive tone, so definitely worth a read.


Read in The World Turned Upside Down
Original published in Worlds of If, May 1963
ISFDB Link
Read the story at drabblecast.org
Rating: 4

Hummingbird, Resting on Honeysuckles by Yang Wanqing

Clarkesworld have published a lot of translated Chinese stories in recent years. Many of them have dealt with death in different ways and this does too. Translated by Jay Zhang.

About 50 years in the future a technology exists that allows people to have their whole life recorded by a small flying drone resembling a hummingbird. The story is told by a mother who has lost her daughter to cancer at a young age. She ponders whether she should use the recordings of her daughters life to make a simulated recreation of her.

This a story that isn’t focused on plot and the structure is not straightforward with various diary like entries from the past, the mother that her addresses her deceased daughter in second person about her life, and the process of creating the simulation. None of the science fiction ideas presented here are exactly new, but they don’t need to be, because it is presented in such a way that I found emotionally engaging in a way I rarely get with these kind of “recreating the dead” type of stories. Even though the subject is tragic, it is not a sad story per se and it doesn’t become sentimental. There is a lot of celebration of the life lived by this woman and how her mother have conflicted thoughts about recording technology. In addition, even though it is a very character focused story – we also get a sense of an interesting complex future through various worldbuilding hints.

It is great to see how Clarkesworld continues to bring translated works of science fiction to a wider readership and this is one of the highly recommended ones.


Read in Clarkesworld November 2022
Rating: 4

Forty-Eight Minutes at the Trainview Café by M. Bennardo

I tend to prefer stories with a clear setup where the world is established and there is a mostly straightforward plot. This story is one of the exceptions because the plot is minimal and we don’t get much background information about anything. Yet it has stayed in my mind for a while and clearly made an impression.

A man is living inside computer simulations and no longer has a physical body. But he has grown bored by them. He tries a new rather expensive one that on the surface is very mundane. It is basically just a short train ride. But the level of detail is so much richer than the other simulations. Everything is individually modeled and not just a generic texture. Birds are fully simulated animals and not simply basic repeated patterns. It feels more real.

It is not a story with plot-twists or big revelations, but it has a lot of atmosphere with a sense of melancholy. There are countless stories of computer uploaded minds but this captures how such simulations will likely still miss something to feel completely real. We don’t get any background information on any of the characters, but we get a very clear sense of their motivations and internal struggles with living inside computer simulations. They all seem to be missing their real physical life and will happily settle for a simulated world that has more depth than breadth in its level of details. Whatever goes on in the real world is story is not mentioned but not important. The story works very well within it its own little microcosm.


Read in Asimov’s November/December 2022
Rating: 4

And Wild for to Hold by Nancy Kress

Kress is mostly known for using biology and especially genemodifications in her science fiction, so this time travel story from 1991 is a bit different but still very much a Kress story.

Everyone knows the trope about going back in back to kill some historic person in order to prevent a terrible war, though I can’t really recall many stories directly doing that. Here Kress creates an interesting setup where a mysterious church group tries to manage different time streams. They do this not by killing people in the past, but taking them hostage. The story follows Anne Boleyn being taken hostage and held in a facility with other historic figures like Helen of Troy and Herr Hitler. She is treated well given the circumstances, but what she wants most of all is some explanations on why she was taken out of her time and what her now cancelled future would have looked like. Rightfully she feels robbed of having the freedom to live her own life and decide her own destiny. This causes some problems for her hostage takers and are forced to reevaluate their methods.

Anne Boleyn was the queen of England from 1533 to 1536 when she was executed. Removing her before that apparently would prevent the great English Civil War about a hundred years later. I am not that well versed in that period of history, but while interesting – that part of the story is really not that important. What makes this story good is Anne, her perseverance and vigor to work within this system that has captured her and robbed her of her life, to achieve some kind of justice in the end.

You don’t need to be a history buff or even know who Anne Boleyn is (admittedly I didn’t) to enjoy the story. The characterization of Anne is what makes this story worthwhile. The time-travel stuff is just a delightful bonus.


Read in Asimov’s July 1991
ISFDB Link

Rating: 4

Falling Off the Edge of the World by Suzanne Palmer

The cover story for this issue of Asimov’s brings us aboard a spaceship that has some kind of accident. This gets told from two alternating point of views. From the rescueship and from the livestock manager Gabe aboard on the other ship.

I was a bit confused about the structure at first because switching between viewpoints and time usually means that they merge for some reveal in the end. However here it is quickly revealed that the rescue will be successful and that Gabe has survived almost 30 years on the ship. So a good deal of the story is various flash backs of his time on the ship, how he makes food and such, and most importantly – gets in contact with the only other other survivor, Alis. She is in another part of the ship that is sealed off, so they are never able to reach each other but stay in touch with radio communication.

At first I thought the story was well written with a steady engaging flow, as is to be expected by Palmer, but lacking a bit in drama and tension because the immediate dangerous situation is relatively quickly resolved. I also didn’t feel that engaged in the main characters – yet.

Because without saying too much, there is a twist and reveal later in the story that turned things around. That started a very emotionally engaging end to the story and made the Gabe character much more interesting. So it started out as sort of fine 3 star story for me, but turned around to a story I will definitely consider for my vote in the yearly Asimov’s Reader Award poll.


Read in Asimov’s November/December 2022
Rating: 4

Solidity by Greg Egan

I found this story to be quite interesting. It follows a young high school boy when everything in the world slightly changes. Everyone is similar to who he knows but not quite. People are not the same, but are being replaced by other with similar looks and background. It becomes clear that everyone is somehow shifting around in parallel worlds. Everyone else is experiencing the same thing and if you look away for a few seconds everything shifts again. The boy manages to stay together with a man resembling his father – as long as they keep watching each other.

In this world breaking event society doesn’t quite break down but everyone is struggling with this new unexplained world shifting. In typical Egan style people start to work on the problem in a logical, methodical and scientific manner. Testing various things to see what makes people able stay together, how to communicate across worlds or test if the process can be stopped by video recording.

What I think Egan is going for here is to comment on whether society will descend into anarchy or solidarity in the event of a global crisis. Egan is somewhat mostly in the positive camp here, which is a nice change from all dystopian stories.


Read in Asimov’s September/October 2022
Rating: 4

Music to Me by Richard A. Lovett

This story is part of a series of stories with recurring characters, but I think it stands quite well on its own. In a future where spaceships have an AI personality, after a long journey to the outer parts of the solar system a ships AI, named Brittney, have become more self aware than is usual for these AIs. Going back to Earth Brittney must adapt to “survive” so it can keep its memories and unique personality. Brittney gets sort of refurbished into a personal AI for a human host. They start working together for shared and individual goals.

There are so many AI stories in the last couple of years that I become tired of them quickly, but this story tells me that better and more interesting AI stories were written several years ago. Lovett creates the right balance between a relatable and interesting AI character – without it is too much like a human. Very much recommended.


Read in Analog January/February 2014
Rating: 4