The pieces in the February content from Uncanny do a great job of giving a wide ranging view of what makes up short SFF. From stories about love and immigration and Poe to a poem about being hot for Mars to nonfiction that educates and challenges, the issue provides a stunning arrangement of SFF that pushes the boundaries on narrative form and style. Plus there's a story just in time for a certain romantic holiday that is incredibly appropriate and rather fun. The story brings the laughter and the tears and the raw silences and does it in a way that is inspiring and imaginative. So yeah, let's get to the reviews!
|Art by John Picacio|
"Some Cupids Kill With Arrows" by Tansy Rayner Roberts (2599 words)
This is a fun and rather sexy story about dating and about myths and about the idea of romance. It features Meg, a woman who mostly wants to get through life without being harassed but who finds herself pulled into a speed-dating night with a but of greek myths. Seems that Cupid has been off his game for a long time and now needs to make a love connection happen or else. It's a rather cute, rather funny premise and one that the author uses to pull apart the idea of romantic love, and then reassemble it for something approaching a modern audience. Because the idea of romantic love that we are presented from mythology is…not often a healthy one. This recurs again and again when we meet Cupid's friends, the host of greek mythic figures with their tragic stories and less-than-stellar personalities. Meg is a bit more driven, a bit more sarcastic, and a bit less willing to put up with this bullshit to just go along with things, but in doing so she begins to rethink her hesitation to romance. Not that she is sudden "in love" and not that she is suddenly under Cupid's spell. At least, to me it doesn't read that way, though I suppose there could be a reading where this was all part of the plan and Cupid is playing her in order to make good on his bet. I lean away from that, though, and toward something less obsessed with "love" and more okay with sex positivity and fun. Meg and Cupid hit it off, but really only sexually, and there's nothing in the piece that made me feel uncomfortable about what happens. It's a fun and sexy story that makes good use of greek mythology by exposing it to the harsh lights of the current age. A funny and thoroughly enjoyable read!
"The Thule Stowaway" by Maria Dahvana Headley (11,567 words)
This story is something of a Master's course in nested narratives, unfolding like a puzzlebox that defies reality and is much larger on the inside than it appears. I've seen many instances of writers pulling Lovecraft into fiction that evokes his mythos, but I think this is the first time I've seen it done with Poe, the poet and dreamer a character here as well as a frame. The story is in some ways about his work and in others about the mystery of his life, about the absence of the women around him, the losses that are reflected in his work. The story imagines a woman, or perhaps the woman, who was at the heart of many of Poe's tales. Her name shifts but she remains the same, something of a victim in all of this, though something of the hero as well. It's a bit of a strange tale as well, one that develops the world of Thule and Poe as a character even while Poe is also still its author. The idea of the dream within a dream is strong here, and there's a constant question and mystery about just how deep the story has gone. How many layers it has stacked and then slipped into. The answer is one I don't think has an answer, because the story seems intentionally ambiguous in order to ask the question of how much was real and how much fantasy. To blur the lines between those ideas and create this situation where this Poe might be just a reflection or a reflection of a reflection or a multitude of reflections, each trying to show his life in different ways, to explain his last days and his portrait and his works in a way that brings it all together. And I love just how atmospheric the story is, just how much it manages to pull from Poe's stories and how it complicates his life, his works, and our role as readers and as artists who have taken inspiration from his work. It's a story about darkness and hunger and dreams and is a lovely read!
"To Budapest, with Love" by Theodora Goss (3555 words)
This story inhabits the space between fiction and nonfiction, the hyphen-thin area where the author and the narrator consume each other in an Ouroboros of meta-fictionality. How different it becomes, to find this in the fiction section of the issue, instead of the nonfiction, and how much it challenges how that line is drawn. I'm a firm believer that fiction and nonfiction are, at their hearts, not really different. Our lives are fictions that we tell the world, and they take the same form regardless of being lies or the truth. And this story features a narrator that is continually coming back to the city of their birth, to Budapest, though it's not necessarily their home. It's a piece that explores the language of a place and a person and the ideas of alienation and belonging across nationalities and across planets and across time. The narrator is an immigrant and that aspect of themself is part of what guides the story from Budapest to America and back, like a lifelong game of Pong, some force always taking them back to this place where they can feel the world beneath them. When they are on the world, linguistically and spiritually. It's a bit of a strange piece and it's one that brings in a lot of references, from various shows and movies to books to language to history to politics. It imagines a future and imagines a present and imagines a past that might all have happened or might not have. That might have been completely fabricated for the piece. The truth behind those words, though, remains regardless, and I do love the way that the story challenges what a story might look like, and in particular what an SFF story might look like. It's a fascinating piece and worth spending some time with!
"Except Thou Bless Me" by Nicasio Andres Reed
okay yes. This poem is a lovely and rather sexy one about, well, about Mars. About bringing life to Mras through a sensual kind of terraforming. I love the color imagery of it, way the poem builds up the Red, the vibrant and sensual red of Mars but also the blue of life, and water, and hope. And it's not exactly the most innocent of relationships implied between Mars and the narrator. Mars who is aloof, who is distant. Which is cold and yet red. And the narrator is driven, is tempted and tantalized. Regardless of whether or not Mars has sought this attention the narrator is charging, has seen red and is not about to be turned away. The language is of bruises and heat and the fall of hammers on anvils. There is a making implied here that I think is central to my reading of the poem, this act of creation which Mars is a more passive participant. Because Mars is just there and removed from the narrator's desire and yet becomes a sort of canvas. In that it's an excellent metaphor for terraforming, to changing Mars because it's there and because humanity has the desire to live there, to be there, to be welcomed there. Which doesn't really seek Mars' consent and which is at times deeply uncomfortable. But the poem is also a celebration. A declaration. A statement of intent. A way of saying that this passion burns and that it will not be denied. That come what way this narrator is getting to Mars and finding there a beauty and a fulfillment, a blossoming and a pleasure that will result in something amazing and transforming. That might well cool into something stable, something sustainable, but for the moment is pressing, is needing, is raging to be satisfied. So yes, this is a poem that is nicely passionate and wonderfully sensual. Give it a read immediately!
"I Have Never Not Been an Object" by Delilah s. Dawson
This piece takes head on what speculative fiction considers acceptable to put into a story. And not just into a story, into a novel. More specifically, the story is about the pressures to create a "clean" novel that isn't "too uncomfortable" because of its content and because of its style and because of how it treats certain injuries and traumas like rape and abuse. And this pressure to be "marketable" and to be commercial are out there and they push people to fit enough into how the dominant want these stories to be told. Not that rape cannot exist in fantasy but that the way that it is allowed to be presented is typically not a way that honors or empathizes or understands those who live with it as a part of their lives—past, present, or future. And this essay is uncomfortable to read. It asks why people would avoid a story or a character because of the unflinching depiction of their victimization. Why, when the same event portrayed in a much different and generally much more problematic way will be deemed acceptable? It asks why we avoid these uncomfortable moments, like I was tempted as a reviewer to skip over this piece, thus privileging our own comfort and distance from pain. In some ways the piece is a blistering critique of commercial fiction, of the way that novels are expected to be in order to have predictable sales. When all that does is further the culture that allows these things to happen. Is to bury the uncomfortable truth under a veil of lies that only leave people vulnerable to further harm. It's a moving and powerful essay that cuts away all the excuses and asks directly why people look away. Which is an important question to ask. So yeah, don't skip this piece. Read it. Confront it. Think about it.
"Blood of the Revolution: On Filipina Writers and Aswang" by Angel Cruz
This is a great examination of the role of Filipino monster stories both to the author and a bit more broadly. The piece reveals the author's childhood experiences surrounding stories of aswang and mananangggal and then draws them forward to now, to a place geographically far removed from the origins of those stories but still connected in important ways, not least of which how those stories have been and are continuing to be told by writers who also connect back to the Philippines. For me, I can say that the first time I read about these creatures was only a few years ago when I really got into short fiction and learned just how isolated and ignorant I was of the world. In that this piece is a very valuable piece that contextualizes for the author the place and importance of these stories that both are and aren't quite myths. It places the stories and explains how the author feels they tie in to their cultural identity, and even the distance they feel from that culture. The piece goes into how fiction makes immediate feelings that have in many ways become more grounded in the past. And I love the way the piece gives a bit of a sampler of fiction that explores these ideas, like the reader gets to float around and visit these different stories, slowly building an understanding how these stories and poems are different and how they are also connected. And it's a great and fun piece that provides a valuable tool for outsiders to these stories (like me) to be able to feel a bit more of the weight and history behind these stories. Which is great and if you want some free education on the subject or just want to enjoy the easy style and solid prose of the essay, you should be sure to check it out. A great way to close out the issue!