Better Living Through Algorithms by Naomi Kritzer

Clarkesworld has gotten a lot of media attention lately with its problems with AI-generated story submissions. We see plenty of negative effects of these new tools, but this short story manages to propose something a bit more constructive use of these tools – with respect to the more questionable moral dilemmas they also add.

In this near future a journalists hears about a new app that apparently is great at helping people to be more productive and happier. At first she thinks it sounds like a cult thing with how every user talks about it a bit too passionately. She tries it though and the key element is that the app is built around a community where other users are instructed to make real phone calls to other users. Like telling them it is time to wake up and remind them of their personal goals. This turns out to be quite effective. As we all know, the motivation to actually do something is low if it is just an app telling you, but if you have a friend waiting for you at the gym – then you have to go.

The story centers around this journalist and how she tries to unravel who or what is behind this special app. What starts as a great community where people help each other is quickly ruined by an influx of scammers and commercial interests.

I found this story to be fairly realistic in what tech could evovle into in the near future, while also acknowledging how easily otherwise noble intents can be quickly ruined by a few bad people. Not unlike how AI tools are used today.


Read in Clarkesworld May 2023
Rating: 4

Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo by John Varley

A couple of years ago I tried reading some of John Varley novels, but didn’t find them interesting. Reading his short stories is a completely different things. There are so many interesting stories from him the 70s and 80s, and this is just one among many in the big collection The John Varley Reader.

The basic setup for this story is really something else. A young girl stranded alone on an abandoned space station with only some dogs and plenty of alcohol for companionship. After years of living like this a Lunar police officer manages to get in contact with her, after it is discovered that someone is actually alive aboard this station that is about to crash. The mystery of who she is and why she is alive on the space station reveals a fascinating back story about a terrible virus that ravaged decades ago.

It is a very tragic and sad story, but not overly so because Varley often writes with a little added humor and lightheartedness. It wasn’t a particularly sad reading experience even though the actual story is.


Read in The John Varley Reader
Originally published in Blue Champagne
Rating: 4

Saving Galileo by Sean McMullen

Sean McMullen is an Australian author I have just recently discovered and have been very impresses with basically every short story I have read of him so far. His collection “Dreams of the Technarion” is worth checking out.

The story follows Lars who has worked as an engineer on a large telescope project located on the Moon. He goes on a sort of date with a woman who turns out to be a contract killer on a mission to kill him. Somehow Lars is neither surprised nor very upset about this. The assassin can’t help being curious about why this seemingly harmless engineer has a price on his head, so Lars gets to tell his story.

McMullen manages to create an engaging story even though it is on the surface just two people talking. The main character even acknowledges this directly:

I have found that questions are the best way to explain a difficult idea. Do an info-dump, and people’s eyes glaze over. Force them to follow a trail of reasoning, and you have a convert.

p. 117

Both characters are interesting and the actual mystery about what Lars know and why someone wants him dead was well done and original.


Read in Analog May/June 2023
Rating: 4

Death Game by David Gerrold

A reality tv show where it is literally about life and death is not a new idea in science fiction, and this story might not be very original, it still handles the subject in a very believable and engaging way.

The concept introduced here is pretty simple. 1000 people sign up for the event, everybody has to swallow a pill and a random person dies. Proceed to the next round to win more money or quit and keep your winnings. Rinse and repeat. The story is told by one half of a couple who entered together, so we know at least one of them survived, but how it all develops throughout the several months long tv program kept me hooked from start to finish.

It is sort of predictable how things escalates, how they have doubts as the odds gets worse and how they get hooked on the thrill so they can’t stop even though their winnings are already way beyond their initial goal. Even though the story didn’t throw any huge surprises at me – the ending being a slight exception but not huge – the execution from Gerrold is just very well done. I was hooked like it was an actual game show I was watching and everything surrounding it felt very realistic and plausible. I wouldn’t completely rule out such a reality show in some future at least.


Read in Galaxy’s Edge March 2023
Rating: 4

Time Out by Edward M. Lerner

One of the great things about going back to older issues of a magazine is when you read a great story that you would otherwise have missed, because it hasn’t been reprinted much. This time travel novella is one such story.

The setup of this story could almost have come out of the same magazine in the 1930s. Jonas is the typical mad scientist. He is working alone because his fellow researchers at the university have turned their back on him and his unorthodox interests. He is claiming to be very close to discovering time travel. He needs an assistant at his lab and along comes Peter, an ex-convict willing to accept the low paying job but with full accommodation at the scientists’ lab.

The version of time travel that Jonas invents is the one where it is possible to send objects back in time. But only if there is a compatible receiver running in that time. Neatly explaining why no time travelers from the future have been seen yet. In all this, Peter is doing his job as a general handyman while being equally intrigued and perplexed by what is going on. He becomes somewhat friends with Jonas and they go through the usual motions of discussing all the well known paradoxes of time travel.

As the story moves forward and Jonas successfully manages to get messages from his future self – with some good stock tips among other things – Peter becomes increasingly worried about the consequences of trying to change the course of history. Butterfly effect and all that.

While the story starts kinda light, the tone gets progressively darker. The stakes are ramped up and the cascading effects of messing with time lines become harder to ignore. While this story doesn’t do much new with how it deals with time travel paradoxes, it handles them well and understandable. The author is aware that the typical Analog reader likely knows the genre well enough, and he uses that to take what might seem at first to be the usual route for time travel stories, but the ending was something different – and quite moving I might add. Very much recommended.


Read in Analog January/February 2013
Rating: 4

Neighborhood Watch by H.G. Stratmann

A delightfully silly story with the amusing premise that all the planets in the solar system are inhabited with intelligent life, only humans don’t know it.

All the different species in the Solar System have some sort of union where they discuss things and what to do with the increasingly curious humans. It was easy enough to fool the scientists of Earth when they invented telescopes, but with spaceships surveying planets and landrovers on Mars, the need for complex holographic illusions has increased. The story evovles around the martian Twee’ll (a clear reference to Tweeel from Stanley G. Weinbaums “A Martian Odyssey”) and its dealings with the other solar species about how to proceed with the Earth situation.

This is the type of story I always love to see in Analog. There should be room for these less than serious stories – as long as they are as entertaining as this one.


Read in Analog January/February 2013
Rating: 4

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

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