Monday, January 23, 2017

Quick Sips - Uncanny #14 (January Stuff)

Uncanny has kicked off the new year with an issue that reminds me of all the reasons that I love SFF. These are intensely original works that begin to break down what it means to be human. What it means to be different. What it means to live in a world that isn't really safe. Where things can do suddenly and terribly wrong and where sometimes people are forced to fight because the world is not fair, is not organized in a way that gives them room to breathe. It's a wrenching and emotionally heavy issue that tackles some very difficult and dark topics—assault, suicide, intolerance, violence. And yet there is a fire burning through these pieces that unites them, a contagious spark that, if you're not careful, might start a fire within you, as well. So let's get to the reviews!

Art by John Picacio

"Goddess, Worm" by Cassandra Khaw (1943 words)

This is a deeply dark story about surviving, about abuse and about injustice and about ways of facing it all. The main character of this piece is without a name, and I feel that does a great job of making her name both incredibly important and almost immaterial. On a personal level, the name is vital. It's identity. It's agency. And yet on a larger level the character could be anyone. Anyone who has been abused and hurt. Anyone who has found themself in a bad situation and made deals that weren't fair. That couldn't be fair. The main character's lack of a name makes them someone nearly universal, but even that is a sort of harm being done to her. Even that isn't something she would have picked if the system wasn't so broken. And I like how the story takes this mythic scope, how the very highest of courts is permeated with these lies that the story introduces early. That men and women are different in their natures and that, essentially, it's impossible to violate a woman. This is a belief that very much exists, that somehow women wouldn't be a part of a system where their abuse is foundational to everything. But the lie is insidious, assuming consent when there is only abuse. Where there is only coercion. And treating that like it might be fair. Like there's no way to separate it out. And when the system is broken, what can you do? The story I feel seeks to answer that and the answer it comes up with is powerful and sharp. That resistance can require participation. The story doesn't offer a happy ending, exactly. Even the victory here is a defeat because the choice being made is not free. That doesn't mean it's not the right call for her. That doesn't mean that she doesn't do something beautiful and good and compassionate. But that, too often, what is asked of survivors is to stay in the system that has hurt them, because there's good to be done. It's a great, short piece and a nice way to kick off the issue.

"Bodies Stacked Like Firewood" by Sam J. Miller (6947 words)

Okay, first thing's first. Nerding out about the references to "The Heat of Us." AHHHH! I loved that story and here we see at least some of the ideas picked up while telling a wholly new tale of loss, fire, grief, and art. The story follows Kelvin, who has traveled from New York City to Albany to attend a memorial for Cyd, a friend who died. And with him he brings his own baggage, his own guilt and fear and loathing. And he meets Link, one of Cyd's friends who had an equally complex relationship with him. Together the two start to orbit around the absence that Cyd has left, and start coming to terms with their own feelings, their own lives. The piece looks at art and interpretations, frames the story as part narrative and part critical essay on _The Great Gatsby_. It's from the essay that the story picks up some of its speculative elements…kind of. Really, the speculative elements come from this world that seems to share space with "The Heat of Us," where people are made of a fire that burns through time and outside of time. It's something that works its way into the theory of F. Scott Fitzgerald's psychic time travel. And I love the way that these various elements come together, the way that the essay informs the story of Kelvin and Link, drawing on reading as an act of resistance. For me, at least, the story comes down to that quote that gets repeated throughout, that "Our job as readers is to find the scientific formulae for survival." Which to me creates this idea that whether or not The Great Gatsby is about the Holocaust, it _is_ about the Holocaust. It's about the culture that created it, that allowed it, that led up to it. It's about the pain and suffering and trying to find something in that for those who survive to keep surviving and to work toward a better system, which becomes a sort of magical action, which takes on a fire and a power. The story is filled with longing and with pain, with wanting to reach out and being too afraid, too wounded. But it's also about hope and about art, about becoming readers seeking to distill from art something to carry forward. To take that spark, that infectious spark, and burn with it, and burn so hot and so hard that it melts down the barriers and the institutions of injustice. It's a lovely story and a powerful, poignant depiction of death and life, love and loss. Go read it.

"Monster Girls Don't Cry" by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (4998)

Awww. This is a story that explores what it is to be monstrous. To be seen as wrong and ugly. To live in a world where that is the verdict given over your body. Your person. To be a monster. But like with so many things the story shows that monstrosity doesn't mean being wrong or ugly. Or, at least, it doesn't _have to_ mean that. In the story, Zaria and her sister, Phoebe, are monster girls. Taught to hide what they are in order to remain safe. Taught to blend in. But where Zaria internalizes this desire for normalcy as self-loathing, Phoebe seems to make peace with herself, refuses to blend in, but in doing so becomes an outcast, never leaving her home. The story follows them as they age, as they see more of the world, as they deal with being different and in danger. Slowly things seem to get better. Zaria meets someone and Phoebe has her art, but when a figure from Zaria's past returns with something of a vendetta, well…things move to some dark waters. The story is vividly told and richly developed, the monster-girls limited by the prejudice against them but strong, resilient, and magical. I love the way that Zaria finally is able to look at herself with something like compassion, because that's such an important thing to see. Self-loathing is something that is easy to fall into when that's the narrative being shoved down your throat, and to watch Zaria struggle against that and find some peace is a wonderful experience for me as a reader. The story is not without a heavy darkness but it is not the darkness of monstrosity so much as it is the darkness of hate. The darkness of a world that sees some people as deserving of torture. The times when the story is most uncomfortable (for me) are the times when the story shows what is allowed to happen to people who are deemed monstrous. It's important to see, though, and provides a gripping backdrop to a story of sisters and lovers, despair and hope and freedom. An amazing read!


"Jean-Luc, Future Ghost" by Nin Harris

Well okay a little teary now. This poem is about a moment and about more than that, about a shock and about hope. About dreams that you almost didn't know you had until they are shattered. Also a little bit about Stark Trek and about possibilities (at least to me). And perhaps it's toward that where my favorite interpretation of the poem comes, in the direction of discovery and possibility. The story, to me, evokes Star Trek with its first lines, creating a character to step into adventures and out of the galaxy. To push boundaries. And in starting that way I feel the story is tapping into the dreams we in SFF have to boldly go, to see a future that is boundless. It's something that has always inspired me and it's something that we as humans use often times to avoid the difficult realities of our situations. Because we can imagine. Because we can be inspired. And yet this same drive that pushes us to explore the infinite possibilities of the universe in our minds is also something that can hurt us. That can create something as real as reality so that when we lose a possibility, an entire sector of our imaginations, that loss is real. Is no less real for it being hypothetical. Is no less real for it being fantasy (or science fiction). These losses are like losing someone that we love. Are like losing a piece of ourselves. And the poem explores that effortlessly, building up this possibility and then tearing it away. In one swift kick, one swipe of the sword, the poem wounds and draws real blood. And the last line! This is an excellent poem that might well destroy your feels but let it, dammit! It's great and you should read it immediately!

"In Lieu of the Stories My Santera Abuela Should Have Told Me Herself, This Poem" by Carlos Hernandez

This is a great piece about family and about the stories that we never know and never ask for. Or think to ask for only too late. It's about a woman displaced but still powerful, empowered by ways that people did not understand and did not want to understand. Empowered because she chose it and used it as she could to protect herself and seek a stable life. The story is also of a grandson looking back on his family and remembering a grandmother who seemed indomitable and fierce and yet isolate and cut off from the life that she was used to. The poem is a story in many ways, told from two perspectives. The first section of this poem, which is long, is told from the grandson's point of view, in some ways told by the grown grandson to himself as a child, when his grandmother was still alive, asking himself to ask her for stories that, to me, it feels like he had never asked. That there is this missing history in the first part that drives the narrator forward, that makes him want to understand the woman who he can no longer talk to or question. That makes him admire and wonder after her stories, which he has really only had second hand. And the second part of the story, then, is his past self taking that advice and asking, and being answered. It's a great examination of regret especially when it comes to the loss of elders. To the loss of their stories. Especially when those stories can be tied to identity and culture that has undergone a Diaspora. And it's also about a desire to connect to a familial line, to hear it from the mouths of those people who lived it, to recapture their voices. It's a poem that is filled with humor and love, and it's a fun, fascinating read!


"Why You Should Read Romance" by Natalie Luhrs

As a writer of romance, I have lots of feels when it comes to this article. A lot of it rings incredibly true to me. The sneaking romance books when younger. The sneaking them later, as well, and running into a bit of a wall of resistance when it comes to talking about romance and reading romance. And I do read romance. And I do write romance. Part of me wants to interject that this article looks at romance and speculative fiction as entirely different things. Which is largely true, because there is quite a genre divide between historical romance and speculative fiction. But this article makes me want to speak to the ways that speculative fiction and romance are already interwoven. To me, at least, the distinctions we draw between speculative fiction and romance are often based more on marketing and gender expectations than they are based on the actual stories being told. There are already a great many speculative fiction stories and novels that I would classify as romance or at least that I could see classified as such with the alteration of the cover. Similarly, there are many romance novels that with a cover swap would become more mainstream SFF. The differences, especially for those already writing at the margins between SFF and romance, are blurry and often come down to editing and marketing, come down to framing rather than content. There are huge differences when it comes to existing in each space. Blarg, I could go on and on about the differences in spaces, but that would be a bit unfair to the article, which does a nice job of examining the strengths of romance as a quasi-genre (fwiw I don't know how to feel about romance as a genre because it feels too unwieldy to be helpful. I'd prefer, personally, to couch romance as part of the other genres it belongs to, as that just makes more sense to me…grouping SFF romance with SFF rather than with all other flavors of romance and grouping historical romance with historical fiction instead of all other flavors of romance and etc.). Really the article points toward dropping the stigma that's associated with stories labeled romance while still being proud of the label. And that is a fucking hard line to walk. Am I proud to be a romance writer? Yes. Do I think that SFF romance writers are SFF writers? Yes. There's this tricky area because to be categorized as SFF would erase the importance of the romance. But romance as a genre (and especially in the case of many publishers) reinforces the separation that keeps speculative fiction and romance estranged. It's frustrating because the gatekeeping doesn't come from just one place. But there's tons of work to be done with breaking down the stigma of reading romance. And that's work that people who enjoy reading should do. Especially given the amount of SFF romance out there, and given that most SFF contains some level of romance anyway, fans of SFF will probably be well served doing a little searching through the romance shelves. And before I write more about this, I will just say the article is certainly worth checking out and makes me want to rant for like 10,000 words on romance and SFF. Check it out!


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