This week’s stories are a mixture of hope, sadness, cynicism, and cute animals. There’s a lot of heartstring-tugging. I regret none of it.
Crystal by Ken Liu | Daily Science Fiction
The night before my departure, I trembled in the bed that Nainai and I shared, the darkness outside the window as frightening and unknown as the country across the ocean.
”Why would a boy be afraid to see his own mother?” she whispered to me.
But of course I was afraid. I didn’t remember my mother. She had left me behind with Nainai to go to America and start a new life when I was a baby, back in 1980. I knew her as black-and-white photographs and a voice on the old Bakelite phone twice a year: Chinese New Year’s and my birthday. I thought of her as a ghost who lived in the earpiece, and I never knew what to say to her.
Nainai held me tight so that I could hear and feel her heartbeat. She stroked my back again and again until I fell asleep.
In the morning, she made me drink a bowl of hot, sweet soymilk and eat two whole youtiao, still warm from the vendor’s fryer. Then she handed me the crystal.
”What is it?” I asked.
”When you miss me,” she said, “just squeeze it in your palm, and you’ll feel my hand squeezing back.”
I almost didn’t include this story because it’s a stretch to say that I “liked” it. It made me feel deeply, deeply sad and wanting to run away from that sadness. Which makes this story successful, if not exactly enjoyable. It’s effective, affecting, and awfully wrenching for something so short.
Caterwaul By Edlyn Tokley and Simon Brown | Cosmos Magazine
The lone person in the room was staring at a computer screen.
“Michel?” Arad said.
“It’s not the plague,” the man said without looking up.
Arad took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Sarah felt as if she’d appeared halfway through a conversation.
Professor Michel Lilar shrugged. He was a large overweight man in his 70s who looked as tired as Arad. “No sign of buboes or gangrene on any of the victims, nor any trace of Yersinia pestis.” He jabbed a finger at one of the specimen cabinets. “And the bacillus wasn’t found in any of the rats I tested. It is not the plague.”
“That’s a relief,” Arad said.
“That’s terrible,” Lilar told her. “We know what to do if it is the plague. We do not know what to do if we do not know what is killing everyone.”
This story puts me in mind of Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps, but I can’t tell you why because spoilers. I can tell you that I appreciate how the authors drop in just enough science, just enough politics, and just enough characterization to bring the story together.
Egg Island by Karen Heuler | Clarkesworld Magazine
Audra Donchell’s right arm was 3D-printed; she’d lost the original in a scooter crash when she was a teenager. That was years ago; she had a number of arms she could take off and put on; she could remodel them and change their color. A different color for every day.
All the parts worked smoothly; all she had to do was think—or not think, simply imagine—and her arm moved and bent, her fingers picked and pinched and tapped. There was a certain distance to it, but she had finally adapted to the slight sensation of objectivity that had been her original experience with it. The other great thing about her 3D arm was that it could hold heavy objects, like her suitcase, for longer times than her other, natural, arm could.
Carrying her case effortlessly, she took the supertube to the heliport, then took the copter to the helipad that used to be an oil platform. There was a party there—teenagers, how tiresome—so she took a glider to Stepoff Point, the last bit of land before the ocean.
Her destination was a small spot on the planet where the natural evolution of plastic was taking place. She was interested in plastics and she was interested in this development; she thought (as many did) that plastics had in many ways shaped the present and would save the future. She was nearing thirty and it was time to think of how she could contribute to life; she might get a clue from this visit.
This is one of the first stories I’ve read that fits into the Cli-Fi genre (of stories that are about climate disasters and ecological themes), and also one of the very few stories I’ve seen with a hopeful tone about our future. I don’t know if I am as positive about plastic’s role in our future as the author is, but at least she’s injecting some hope into the conversation.