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

Murder by Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness by S.L. Huang

This story is a unique mix of non-fiction and fiction dealing with a very realistic near future technology of chatbots run by AI – especially with the recent ChatGPT.

The story takes the form of a mix between an article referring to past events and a regular short story told from the point of view a reporter. It starts with events leading to a suicide of a businessman who was under investigation for knowingly selling faulty pacemakers. Apparently he got a ton of private messages through various digital channels in the months leading to his suicide. The messages were very demeaning and could have pushed him over the edge to commit suicide. The reporter investigates the origins of these messages in this and similar cases, and through her investigation discovers an automated chatbot named Sylvie. But the bot doesn’t just try to push bad people to commit suicide, it also uses the same machine learned algorithms to help people in need. All this is mixed with various fact infodumps about machine learning technology and some philosophical arguments about the ethical and legal issues of such an autonomous chatbot.

The story is very successful is introducing some interesting dilemmas we might very soon face with current technology. I am just not sure it entirely works as a fiction short story since it is mostly an opinion essay on the subject, but I can also see how using a fictionalized case study to explore the issues makes the morale questions easier to relate to. A story worth reading but a mixed experience.


Read in Clarkesworld December 2022
Rating: 3

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

Live Update by Lettie Prell

There have been written countless stories about people uploading their mind to a computer simulation, but this story did it from an angle that I haven’t seen often. A group of scientists are working on an early prototype of a computer simulation where they can upload their minds before the die. The premise here is that people die from the procedure. The protagonist of the story is a scientists who is dying of cancer but is hoping to be able to continue her work in this simulation.

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What I like about this premise is that it follows the mind upload technology in its very early stages and convincingly show that that is a very error prone process. Science fiction too often portrays almost perfect technology, but reality is usually more messy with software full of bugs. In this story things go wrong while still being successful. A group of various scientists is living inside a computer simulation but their memories are weird and not reliable. They need to work together with the technicians in the real world to set things straight.

The story is told with alternating scenes from the past and the present situation with the simulation and this works quite well. At 20.000 words it is a bit too long in my opinion, but worth reading none the less.


Read in Clarkesworld September 2022
Rating: 3+