Monday, August 21, 2017

Quick Sips - Uncanny #17 [August stuff]

August brings another packed month of content from Uncanny Magazine. And as much as it pains me to do so, I’m going to be stepping away from reviewing the nonfiction, not only here but probably everywhere. I love Uncanny in part because of its nonfiction, but I feel I need a little bit of slack in what is a difficult time for me so my apologies. I will still definitely be reviewing all the original fiction and poetry, though, and there are three stories and two poems to look at. Everything this month seems to hinge a bit on transformations. Seasons shifting. Women being made into trees. A person becoming a city. These transformations reveal a certain corruption at the heart of the worlds the pieces explore—our world. And they show that often there is no good way to avoid unwanted change, that when there are those with power and those without, harm and injustice often follow, and those without are often the ones to suffer regardless of what they do. It’s a brace of difficult and rather dark SFF, but there’s some light as well. So let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Kirbi Fagan


“Packing” by T. Kingfisher (921 words)

This is a short and rather punchy story about climate change and what we can take with us. The premise is short and subtly heartbreaking, the narrator explaining to someone else in the second person what can be saved, and what can’t be, as the seasons shift and the planet warms. The story doesn’t waste time with thoughts of what if or maybe—it’s a practical voice that drives the piece, that places the reader in the position of having to decide what to save, and what to leave behind. ANd I love how the prose captures the grief and the exhaustion, the impossibility of the task of deciding something so huge as what creatures or plants or anything to bring forward into a future that will look much different from the one now, where the climate will have moved beyond the tolerance of so many plants and animals that we value, that are vital to the world’s ecology. The story brings up briefly the idea of similar exoduses, humanity not innocent to the idea of trying to save what can be saved, but there is no ark here and no happy ending. At least, no uncomplicated happy ending. There is no saving everything. Some are already gone, after all, and others might not make the journey the story implies. It’s wrenching and made more so by the decision to have the story speak directly to the reader. It’s almost like asking what books a person would save at the end, this being forced to weigh what one can carry next to the burning desire to save everything, to somehow make the choice easier. But it’s not, and it’s not going to be, and the story manages in a very short space to spell that out. It’s a fantastic read!

“The Worshipful Society of Glovers” by Mary Robinette Kowal (10070 words)

This story seems to me to linger on the ways that people can be pulled into corruption, and both how little and how much that can mean in a world where corruption is the law. And it features Vaughn, a journeyman glover trying to keep his sister, who has epilepsy, alive and with her dignity. Because of his station, though, that’s a much more difficult thing than it seems at first. HIs Master, after all, is harsh and cares nothing for Vaughn’s situation, really only caring about his own profits. So Vaughn decides to start bending some rules in order to try and reach some measure of safety. Just little things, but they come to a bad end when he’s robbed and beaten. Without being able to afford medical care, without being able to count on his Master to help, Vaughn is pushed further and further outside the rules that govern his world. And I love how the story complicates the idea of honesty and good. Not that Vaughn’s descent into crimes is good, really, as it does lead to some bad shit, but that it’s all part of this tapestry of corruption. The only reason Vaughn was put in this position, after all, was because of his loyalty to a system that does not work for him. That isn’t supposed to work for him and certainly not for his sister. They are just cogs to be worn and replaced, and in this place where human life is not valued, his work and his pain aren’t given space. It’s only by throwing away his loyalty to the system that he is able to pull himself toward some measure of security, and yet the story doesn’t make this romantic or just. It’s just a different form of corruption, and as Vaughn moves he begins to see that as long as the system is built on selfish ambition and naked profit, there is no way to do good. Either he and his sister or hurt, or other people are hurt. And where the law says it should be him that suffers, his sister that dies, he finds that he doesn’t want that, and that he’s willing to act outside his own sense of right and wrong in order to protect those close to him. And it’s hard to condemn, regardless of what happens, because from the moment that random misfortune finds him, his choices narrow to a very dangerous line. A great read!

“I Built This City For You” by Cassandra Khaw (2934 words)

This story mixes weird and terrifying and remorse and denial into a shiny package of transformation, mistakes, and sentient cities. The piece follows Anisa following a breakup with her girlfriend, which has left her...a bit upset. The story does a great job of showing just how scared and desperate Anisa is, how much it terrifies her that she might lose Sara, but also how much that fear stems from something very selfish. The relationship the story reveals is a complicated one and not one that I’d call especially healthy. By which I mean it’s one that’s over, that has ended, but that Anisa refuses to let go of. And the story explores how damaging and frightening that can be, when someone treats a relationship as if it’s not about two consenting people. Anisa refuses to respect or seek Sara’s consent about anything. It seems to be something that led to the breakup and it’s certainly something that puts Anisa on the destructive and dangerous road she’s on as the story opens. And I like the weird flourishes of the story, the way there are these companies, including the Company, who offer an exchange of everything for everything, who take with the promise of giving and yet who are really more predatory, like dishonest lenders, knowingly preying on Anisa’s desires in order to get something from her. Again, it’s something where they offer something and she takes it because she thinks it’s what she wants and yet it can’t be. It’s what they want. Which mirrors what happens between Anisa and Sara, Anisa thinking that she knows Sara best, that she can truly offer her what she needs, when it’s never really been about Sara at all. It’s a creepy and rather disturbing story, one that lingers on how much harm can come from not respecting someone else’s full and informed consent. It’s about bad deals, and worse outcomes, and it’s certainly worth checking out!


“Questions We Asked for the Girls Turned to Limbs” by Chloe N. Clark

This poem looks at myth and the implications of transformations, of deliverance by the gods from danger. More specifically, it looks at the idea of women being turned into trees who were being pursued by men who wanted to rape them. As such, it is a dark poem, and one of questions, the narrator here asking these women again and again about what has happened, about what they feel, what they want, what they miss. And it’s a heartbreaking poem because of the implications of it—the women are trees and as such voiceless, and so these questions will never be answered. And i love how the poem goes about confronting the reader with these, how in the silence of the trees it is the reader who must go about trying to answer the questions, or at least to wonder what the answers might be. The story is one pulled from myth in part to explain a certain kind of tree, which might seem innocent at first but which is actually anything but. Because it means that this kind of violence, this kind of erasure and pain, is something that we have as societies written into our most foundational of stories. The questions that the poem asks carry the power of having never been asked inside the text of the original tale. Once the woman is transformed that is the end. There is no punishment, often, for the man trying to do her wrong. There is no justice. Even the act of saving is one of forced transformation and loss, is not a real saving from hardship, just a covering up of it, literally making it an accepted part of the landscape. And the poem I think does a great job of questioning that, of asking the questions that need to be asked, poking holes in the accepted narrative of victims and gods and salvation. It’s complex and it offers no answers, but that’s rather the point—the answers are what we must find for ourselves. A fantastic read!

“Domovoi” by R.B. Lemberg

This is a strange but compelling poem about a small creature that lives in your kitchen. A spirit, a presence and an absence both, mundane in some ways but hiding a depth that most don’t bother to explore. The poem seems to me written from the point of view of this creature, who I admit I am not familiar with. But then, that’s part of the poem, that here is this bit of folklore that has not been taken and appropriate, captured and kidnapped and sent abroad to appear in a Hollywood movie removed from any cultural significance it might have. But it also means that it’s in danger of being ignore. Or perhaps in danger is the wrong word. The poem to me is about this idea, this entity, trying to get the attention of people moving around it, forgetting about it, it’s purpose and presence fading as the world changes around it, as things grow darker and darker so that there seems to be no room for this small, kind spirit. And from my reading of the poem there is a twist, then, a moment when the narrator, the spirit, changes. And how much it changes because of the circumstances and how much it changes because it wants to are a bit hazy. For me, it’s a moment when it wants to explain the beauty of itself, to show that it is kind and it is worth attention and respect. And at the same time it doesn’t even seem aware of how it has changed, that the kindness is being lost, that even as it was trying to explain itself it was being transformed into a different kind of spirit, one with blood in its mouth. It’s a rather creepy way to close out the story and also to me a rather sad way, that implies that its kindness had no room in a mythology that is dominated by violence and blood. By monsters. And so, because the subtlety is lost, the appreciation for kind, small things, it is pushed toward a homogeneous monstrosity that fit with mass consumption and distribution. It’s a difficult, dense little poem, but it is very much worth spending some time with, and it’s an awesome way to close out the issue!


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