Monday, October 12, 2015

Quick Sips - Unlikely Story #12 - The Journal of Unlikely Academia

Hot off becoming the latest SFWA-qualifying market, Unlikely Story is finally out with its new issue, the Journal of Unlikely Academia. And, well, it is not a small issue. Eight stories, with many over 6,000 words. The good news? They fucking rock. The issue shows why Unlikely Story deserves that SFWA seal of approval, with stories that run from bawlingly tragic to fist-pumpingly inspiring with many stops in between. The theme is about learning, about school, and these eight stories do a hell of a job exploring those ideas. So to the reviews!


Art by Patricio Beteo


Stories:

"Follow Me Down" by Nicolette Barischoff (7612 words)

This story walks a fine line between sweet and disturbing, hitting both and nicely complicating the school and learning theme. In it, Ramona is a graduate student at a school that specializes in demi-human births, children that are born of human mothers and non-human fathers. Children who are often rejected by their parents. Children when need someone to care about them. As much as the story is about Romona's hope and promise, it's also about Kora, a young girl born from a woman and an incubus, a human but with a knack for getting into trouble. The story does an excellent job of examining Kora's nature, her quest to find herself, to see herself in something, to find her heritage. She has the ability to walk through dreams, and she attaches herself to Romona, looks up to the older woman because Kora has no family and no one to explain the world to her, and she sees in Romona an authority that she might be able to trust. For all that Romona chafes having to babysit a young troublemaker, though, she also has things to learn about herself and her duty to help the weakest most overlooked. Together they both find themselves learning, growing, gaining something from their time together that they were missing. A nice way to kick off the issue.

"Minotaur: An Analysis of the Species" by Sean Robinson (2010 words)

A story told as a study on Minotaurs, this story carries a certain weight because of its structure, a certain ring of truth even as it also manages to be a bit funny, and a bit disturbing. The humor arises from the fact that the voices of the Minotaurs mixed in with a research group that is obviously a bit confused by what it's doing. There is a great sense of meandering in the report, as if the researchers themselves are lost in a labyrinth of study, being stalked without really knowing it by some force that compels them on despite a general lack of detail. There is something charmingly doomed about the project, about the participants, the fatalistic Minotaurs who know their own destruction, who crave release even as they want to live. They are varied and unique, their voices strong, carrying the story through as a story, as a series of observations but also something larger, a gestalt that conveys something about the labyrinths that we build, the monsters that we try to forget but which find a way back, as punishment perhaps but definitely as a sort of Justice. They are the shadow that lies beneath and beside, the reminder that we are one turn away from something strange and inescapable. It's a strange story, but fascinating, and short enough that the impact lingers long after the report is done, a hanging question that remains not wholly answered. Indeed!

"The Librarian's Dilemma" by E. Saxey (6375 words)

This is a somewhat difficult story to read for me. Mainly because the story is so achingly beautiful in how it captures Jas' conflict, his yearning want to do right, and the utter devastation he feels when he finds that he's been used, is being used, by forces that actively subvert his efforts, that turn them to dust. Jas is a librarian, or wants to be a librarian, working to free information, and he comes to a rare collection in hopes of making it available to the world. [SPOILERS} Only the collection doesn't want to be made public. At least, the woman who runs the collection doesn't want it made public. Because the collection is one of mostly vile books, books that were bought to be removed from circulation where they could do harm. And my god this book is full of conflict, Jas knowing that some of the books in the collection are important, are on queer history and might help people to understand themselves, to see themselves in a moment and in all times. And Jas sort of falls in with Fred, finds himself sleeping with the manic Scotsman even as he seems blind to Fred's true motives. And the book sets it up so well, because of course most people reading this story love books, love information. Of course most people reading this story will empathize so purely with Jas' situation that what happens…well I might be shaking at bit at the end. I might be all sorts of worked up and it is amazing. There are time when short fiction just fucking hits and this is one of those times, the ending being a crash of implication, of emotion, of everything. Just…damn, this is a good story. Go read it.

"The Dauphim's Metaphysics" by Eric Schwitzgebel (6210 words)

This is an interesting story about what makes a person, what makes an individual, and whether those things that make us all unique are what's really important. It's a rather dense story, then, that follows a rare female professor advising the prince of the kingdom about the possibility of preserving a person after death. Of transferring a consciousness from one body to another. It's a project that she doesn't believe in, but one that she pursues because she must and because it does allow her to work on what really is important to her. But once her task is "accomplished," it remains a question of what the point of such a thing is. The new person is not really a reincarnation but someone new, with new ideas and experiences, a person made to be like an old one. It's a tempting loop, because there is the hope, there, that the new versions can be better. Healthier, free of old traumas, that these people can be designed. And the story does an excellent job of building up the drive and the philosophy while also showing the characters as vulnerable, fallible. There is no real answer to the question of what these new people are, or what they should be. It lets the idea sit, the characters hopes and dreams on the verge of collapsing, or being realized, or something else entirely. It's a deep story, and one that I wish I had the time now to reread a few times. As it is, it's a provocative story that left me with lots to think on. Onward!

"Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood" by Julia August (3377words)

After some of the stories in this issue, this one is a nice breath of air. A lighter story told with a great structure, as a series of emails and articles and texts. As a story that is about texts, and disembodied ones at that, the story does an excellent job of fitting form to function. It also slowly builds up the underlying drama and tension of the situation which at its surface only resembles a matter of scholarly import. But instead there is a story beneath the texts, expertly laid, that unfolds throughout, of ancient prophesies and people working to prevent or at least delay the end of the world. The way in which the different people were captured, the slapdash correspondences of Cara and the serious, ponderous (and increasingly exasperated) pieces from Stephen are great and provide a very entertaining mosaic. I personally love the idea behind this and just want more. That promise at the end is just so delicious and I loved the way it all came together. With a unique structure and some clever formatting, this story is another one to definitely spend some time with.

"And Other Definitions of Family" by Abra Staffin-Wiebe (7391 words)

This story hits a few things that normally make me a bit wary about stories. Nothing wrong, really, but pregnancy and prostitution stories are ones that I can be a little gun-shy around. Luckily, this story does a good job of making light of neither while giving May, the sex worker in question, a strength and agency that makes the story fun, tense, and fascinating. Of the stories so far, this one probably takes the most…liberties with the idea of Academia, but that's rather the point, and May's brand of learning is certainly effective, giving her access to many aspects of alien biology and culture that more established scholars in the setting have been unable to obtain. She's a mercenary mind, but not one only out for profit. At least, not money. She's out for knowledge, for experience, for understanding the different cultures of the galaxy. And when a male from a bat-like species asks if she will carry an alien fetus, it's too tempting for her to turn down. It's a neat story, more action than contemplation, and May carries herself well, never losing sight (well, kind of…) of what's important, and managing to further her quest for knowledge at the same time. An interesting read.

"Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat" by Pear Nuallak (5722 words)

And then I get to this story and am back to all the feels. This one centers on a young androgynous person named Pensri as they attend an art school. They are detached, and distant, and dealing with a certain professor who seems intent on misgendering them, forcing them to fall into lines with the "civilized" views on gender and morality. It's strong stuff for being so understated, so deceptively sharp. The way that simple actions can cut to the core for a person, as they cut to the core of Pensri, who maintains a strong work ethic but a rather doomed outlook. Until, of course, they start making friends, learning what it is to interact and be accepted. Seen. Many of the stories in this issue deal with the idea of being seen, and here is a very strong example, with Pensri unable to truly learn in an environment that sees them as something lesser, foreign, and not real. An made-up thing and not a person at all. But Pensri is vibrant, is alive with worries and also hopes, a voice that both fears to speak and must. It's a powerful story of finding a place, of choosing whether to bend to the principles of a school in order to succeed by it or try something different. Something dangerous. Something freeing. An excellent story.

"The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eyes" by Rose Lemberg (1502 words)

This is an amazing way to close out the issue, with the shortest story so far. In it, Warda is a university professor at a time when being a university professor is kind of one of the worst things to be. Having seen the harrowing that higher education, that education in general has seen in my own state, I can imagine that elsewhere the story is similar. Emphasis on marketability, inability to hire new teachers, students that have to go more and more in debt to attend. Less pay, more work, politicians forcing budgets that take away even the promise of trying to teach widely. There was actually an attempt in Wisconsin to take out language from the University Charter about encouraging diversity. So reading Warda's growing fear and burden, her growing disillusionment and despair, is not the easiest thing to do because this is hardly fiction. Except that here the burdens placed on students are literally erasing them, making them blur into the background. Taking them away from opportunity, from education. A sea of people without a voice, without a place, because those with power decided what it doesn't want is more people to be educated. And Warda's struggles to fight against, to rise despite, is an inspiring gesture, inspiring because it flies in the face of those who would say that it's not enough, that why bother if it can't fix anything. When really the battle is lost if you're taking life pass/fail. It's not about the grade but the knowledge, the power that language holds, the power that education and fellowship holds. It's the power that Warda is trying to give back to her students, the power to rise out of the blurriness that besets them. It's a short story and one revealing a truly dire situation in education today. So it's incredibly appropriate that it is the last word of the issue, that last lingering reminder that academia is not eternal and it is not free.

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