Monday, May 22, 2017

Quick Sips - Uncanny #16 [May stuff]

This is another full issue of Uncanny Magazine, with May containing three original stories, two poems, and four different nonfiction pieces that I’ll be looking at. There’s a reprint and another nonfiction piece that I won’t be looking at because I’m not familiar with the text it’s discussing, but otherwise this is a very nicely balanced issues that focuses on resistance and fighting back but knows that there’s no hiding from the despair of oppression and the harm being done. And while many of the stories are quite hopeful, and while much of the nonfiction is about how to resist and how to maintain hope even in a very bad situation, there are also stories that know very well that there is also exhaustion, there is also hurt. And while none of the pieces stop there, some of them do carve out a space to feel that pain and recognize it. To show that it’s okay to hurt and to focus on that, while still leaving a path forward for when healing is possible and the fight can be resumed. It’s a powerful issue and I’ll get to those reviews!

Art by Galen Dara

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon (4331 words)

This is a fun and lovely story about a young man, Allpa, who is given a magic sword by his dying grandmother. And the story circles around despite and heroism, growth and change. The sword is a tool for war and as such nothing that Allpa wants anything to do with. The sword is inhabited by three people—Sun, Moon, and Dust, who are supposed to train Allpa to be a warrior, to be a hero. And I love how the story sets it all up and that it unfolds from Allpa’s point of view, because he is so disinterested in war and fighting. His perspective is one concerned primarily with the earth and growing things. He wants to be a farmer, wants to improve the land, wants to pursue that more than anything, and having a bunch of pushy sword-people trying to teach him how to fight isn’t exactly his idea of a good time. But he is delightfully polite, and so because he doesn’t want to displease the sword, he tries. The story challenges the assumptions of a lot of epic fantasy that every farmer boy is a hero waiting to be activated, that in the heart of every young man there is a desire to be a ruthless or honorable warrior. Allpa, despite being brought up at least partly in the presence of warriors, doesn’t care to get involved. He shows that there is nobility even in farming, and indeed that it has a lot fewer ethical issues than going out and killing people or hurting people for a good cause. There is the sense that he’s supposed to be “fixed” by the sword, but the story doesn’t reinforce that. It allows Allpa to be himself, for his values to be those that can govern his actions, and it doesn’t punish him for his desires by having his farm attacked or anything so obvious. Instead, he becomes a teacher himself, showing the sword-people that there might be another way. And it’s just a touching and fun story that’s a joy to read. Check it out!

“Read Before Use” by Chinelo Onwualu (5374 words)

This is a story of corruption and privilege, academia and politics, heat and betrayal. Alia is a professor from a distant land come to Satelight City, under its dome, in order to research ways to save the city from its failing power source. It’s said that the power source has an instruction manual somewhere, and Alia believes that she can find it. Unfortunately, she’s not given a lot of support in her search, and the only person that seems willing to help her is a bit of a rogue, though that doesn’t stop her from taking him as her lover. The story captures quite nicely what living under a dome does to the city, which is supposed to be free of strife because it enjoys free energy, but where class structures are still brutally enforced and where the elite treat everyone else like servants or worse. Even Alia, who is learned and valuable, is not able to truly overcome the intolerance over her skin color and where she’s from. The city is xenophobic and closed, the dome a physical barrier to embody an ideological and social isolation that is upheld by a power source that has been inherited, which the ruling psions don’t know how to work or fix. Alia plays along hoping to better her situation, and yet the more she strives to do good by the psions the more she realizes that they don’t care about her and that they will never give her what she wants. That even if she does exactly what they want, she will always be cut off from the respect and prestige that are her due. Matters only get worse when she is forced to break the rules in order to try to find the key to the machine powering the city and in so doing trusts the wrong person. It’s a tragic story, and one made more complicated by the fact that Alia can also use fire magic, something that she hides from the world, something that is supposed to give her power and protection but only seems to further alienate her. The setting is vivid and a great sci-fantasy world, and the character work is solid and moving. Alia’s plight is wrenching and the ending is beautiful even as it’s devastating. This is not the most hopeful of stories, but it does expose that sometimes hope is not enough, especially in the face of vast systems of oppression. And yet even so, resistance is possible, and change, though not immediate, might be possible. A gripping read!

“Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me” by John Chu (6671 words)

This is a story about bodies and about image, about drive and about self-destruction. Charlie is a man who’s always wanted to be bigger. To be stronger. To have a body that is powerful enough. And yet despite his time weightlifting, it always seems out of reach. Until a rather shady organization came around and offered him something more. Skeletal enhancements, brand new DNA, and a chemical processing-plant of a body that can make him huge. Only it’s not enough. It’s not enough and Charlie’s hoping that he can go farther, do more. The world that the story builds is much like our own, only a bit into the future. Charlie is a character scarred in many ways by a childhood that made him feel small and powerless. After meeting Thom in college, though, and finding lifting, he’s taken his desire to be big...a bit far. The job he has is definitely south of legal and his drive is killing him. The only thing grounding him is Thom, though even that relationship is all tied up with Charlie’s body image and his drive. It’s a complex story about the need for enough in a world where enough might not be possible. In a world where there are always ways to make someone who is marginalized feel small. Regardless of of muscles or augmentation, Charlie still has a lot to work out, and yet has run from it, has bottled it up and doesn’t know how to safely release it. And the story does an excellent job of exploring how that feels and what that does to Charlie, and how difficult it is for him to admit what he’s doing and perhaps start looking for help. I also like how the story shows that Charlie becomes an expert on movement, on transportation, and yet he remains trapped himself. In the body that doesn’t feel right, in the situation that It’s a complex read and one that doesn’t offer easy answers, but still I get the feeling that there’s hope in the ending, in thsi quiet scene, at the opening of a play, that something new is beginning, and maybe it will be better for Charlie. In any event it’s a great story!


“Twenty Seventy-One” by Sonya Taaffe

This story takes aim at the history of dystopian thought and discourse and draws the line to the present, to our current moment in time and history, and yet also to all times. The poem evokes Orwell’s 1984 and shows that times have changed but they have also not. That some things appear over and over again. And the poem does a great job of showing just how closely fiction mirrors reality and, sometimes, reality mirrors fiction. That the lines we trace to map oppression and corruption and fear in our stories, in our fantasies, are sometimes the same lines that people take as maps of the real world. And how dangerously similar those places can be at times, how dangerously mercurial. What makes 1984 so effective is, after all, largely to do with how it treats with language and fiction. If the state can control the language we use to make stories, if it can erase nuance with big, very big, double very bigly, etc., then we loose the ability to talk about things in a meaningful way. We loose the ability to sharply criticize. And that seems so much of what a lot of recent authoritarian movements want to do. They want to take away the language that would criticize the dominant. That language is PC language and therefore bad. Unbigly. It’s a terror that we live with now constantly, and the poem reveals it through simple lines that make history and fiction into a jumble. What remains is a present that is also the past. And it can be exhausting, wearing a person down, because we were supposed to have gotten over this. We were supposed to have won. But we have always been at war with fascism, and now we have to remember that. It’s a great bit of inter-textual poetry and you should definitely give it a read!

“Dancing Princesses” by Roshani Chokshi

This poem evokes fairy tales in an interesting way, revealing an ever-changing door that transports princesses to where they need to be. The door is something different for each, and it’s hard to say if the door is good or bad or something else entirely. The poem, after all, twists and complicates the simple narrative of fairy tales, of princess and prince. There are no princes here, not really, just a hunger and a great many different needs. There’s also a very dark sense of magic here, where the door is not benign or innocent. It, too, is hungry, and for all that it can offer the princesses something it also feeds on them and in some ways consumes them. Does it bring them into other stories, stories where they can find fulfillment? Or does it take them from whatever situation they were in and bring them according to its desires, their dance just a new cage they are forced into? The answer for me is that I’m not sure. There is a hunger to the thing, the door, that the poem describes, a way that it is predatory, that it uses the harms of the world to lure these young women inside it. And perhaps it’s just a recognition that in these places, for these people, even the promise of a portal fantasy is full of danger and hunger. For all that they might be able to escape some specific abuses, there is no way to escape the hunger. There seems only a way to take the hunger inside their bodies, reflecting it back so that they, too, are dangeorus and mysterious and magical, like the door. It’s a strange poem and one that I might be missing entirely, but it takes the idea of the portal fantasy, of the magical doorway, and turns it into something with a sinking dread and haunting beauty. And it’s definitely a poem to check out!


“City of Villains: Why I Don’t Trust Batman” by Sarah Gailey

This is an interesting piece of fanfiction that explores the idea of Batman and Gotham City from the ground level. From the streets. From the perspective of a person who was orphaned by the violence of Batman’s war on crime and who has come up with chronic pain and with not much in the way of skills to work security for various people, pretty much all of whom turn out to be on the wrong side of the Bat. And at the same time it’s an exploration of the inequality inherent in the Batman story and world and the injustice of that whole type of superhero, the billionaire who maintains an alterego and feels compelled to fight crime because he is wealthy, because he sees this as his way of getting back. When really it’s the most selfish way of trying to “do good” because it still centers the man with the money, dresses him up in tech that costs ridiculous amounts and says that the system, that the infrastructure, that everything about Gotham is so broke that it can’t be fixed. Screw social welfare or jobs programs or anything, Batman is about punishment and incarceration. I actually think the idea of Bruce Wayne being further enriched by owning the prisons that he sends people to one that is both terrifying and fits so well. He’s money and part of his story is that he deserves to be wealthy because he’s willing to stand up to villains. But it’s true then that everyone without money is a villain, then. Because they can’t do what he does, because his decisions mean that their decisions so often have to be working with a “villain” or not having work. And he never cares enough because he’s always at a safe distance from the poverty he maintains. So it’s a wonderful bit of fanfiction that you should definitely check out!

“Missive from a Woman in a Room in a City in a Country in a World Not Her Own” by Mimi Mondal

This is an essay about erasure and about place. About feeling like you belong to a parallel dimension. Or that you’ve passed through some portal and instead of the fantasy realm where things were going to be magical and just, you find a banal and ruthless place that is actively seeking to create a past that never existed. And it’s a brilliant take on a world that for many people makes less and less sense. Because for so many who find that they just want to exist and who have in fact always existed, that existence is being called into question. The piece explores the idea of intersectionality from the perspective of someone at a whole lot of intersections, both in the U.S. and in India. The piece looks at global trends and the promise that was linear social progress and the cognitive dissonance that has arrisen from the breaking of that promise. This is something that I feel is the case for many people, and especially for many people who can no longer consider themselves young but who are not considered truly adult yet. There is so much that is tied up in the current moment, this sense of betrayal, that things were supposed to be different. And the essay looks at how the current moment is failing, how history seems to fail in the face of what is going on. Because people like the author have always existed. There have always been people at the intersections, people who have not fit in any single box. And yet the people who don’t want to see that are seeking to actively destroy the past and replace it with one that fits with their binary beliefs. What is left are people who feel like their own past is in question, who are constantly being gaslit and lied to in order to maintain the lie that the past was great and monolithic. Where marginalized people either didn’t exist or accepted their sad place without too much complaint. It’s a difficult and moving essay that really gets at what makes living at this point in time, in this place, so difficult and frought, and how it complicates the experiences of the people whose past is constantly being overwritten, with a look at how that, in turn, informs speculative fiction and especially alternative history stories. An amazing read!

“Resistance 101: Basics of Community Organizing for SF/F Creators & Consumers—Volume Two: Deepening Your Engagement” by Sam J. Miller

The resistance learning keeps on coming in this new 101 course about taking that spark of resistance and fanning it into something hotter and brighter but also more focused and refined. This piece looks at how to go from the desire to protest to moving toward something bigger and more organized. And organizing is something that many SFF will already know a bit about. At least I assume that many people in SFF are used to having come up and having to organize things. Whether that means clubs or meetings, conventions or discussions, many who find themselves in genre are used to having to do some of the work of being passionate themselves or else having no place to express their passion (except the internet, I guess). It doesn’t make the decision to take resistance out of the crowd and into the realm of individual targeted action and organization any easier, especially for introverts, but it does mean that some of the work might be familiar. It just carries with it a lot more weight because it’s seeking not to just carve out a space to enjoy SFF but rather to effect policy and public opinion. It means risking retaliation and arrest. The essay, though, takes things slow and maps out resistance in clear terms and spaces. There is a progression here, described in steps in order to make it all a bit more digestible. It makes this very scary, but also very important process, something that is approachable and manageable. It’s all just solid advice, allowing people to begin to take their resistance a bit deeper without overwhelming with a lot of new information. Definitely keep yourself current with this series!

“Meeting with Your Legislators 101 and 201” by Sarah Pinsker

This is a rather insightful step-by-step guide to meeting with your elected congress-people. It offers tips and scripts in order to set up a meeting and gives a general idea of what that meeting might look like. It offers up some information on how to prepare and how to focus in order to have the greatest impact with meeting with your elected officials. And, what’s more, it offers further guidance on the particulars of moving around and checking on legislation and trying to leverage your meeting into something that might be able to effect policy. It’s all very clear and well explained and while it might not be inherently SFF-related it is in keeping with the focus of the issue, and especially when paired with the last piece on resistance it sets up a very nice one-two punch for social engagement for SFF readers who might not have a lot of experience dealing with politics. Given the current state of things, though, it’s very solid reading for anyone hoping to take their resistance before their elected officials. Obviously such action isn’t for everyone but having this guide to how it runs might make the whole experience a bit less intimidating. And it does cover how to work with other people or organizations to tell a story, to find the story that might be most impacting to your legislators. And storytelling is indeed what SFF is all about, and where SFF storytellers might be able to put their skills to use in resisting injustice and corruption. So yeah, a great way to close out the issue!


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