Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Quick Sips - Uncanny #18 [October stuff]

October arrives at Uncanny Magazine with a flush of monsters and love letters, a complex web of desires, communities, and speculative traditions. The stories aren’t really what I’d consider spooky, though they do have an eye toward “classic” costumes—monsters, historical fashion, and robots. Instead, the stories and poems as well seem more concerned with the ideas and styles of the past, about the ways the present erases the past in order to create a new vision of the future. Or, perhaps, the ways that people now imagining the future come to override the imaginings from the past, so that what is futuristic and what is contemporary and what is anachronistic all are thrown into question. In some of the pieces, it means the styles of the past are updated and reinvigorated, while other works seek to find strength and joy in how the past imagined the future and how the past actually was, before time and taste and injustice erased everything that didn’t fit into the dominate narrative of history. So yeah, these are some complex and deep stories that still manage a sense of fun and focus. To the reviews!

“Down and Out in R’lyeh” by Catherynne M. Valente (7571 words)

This is an incredibly weird story that still manages to capture a lot about style and about dissatisfaction, about drugs and rebellion and generations and hope. It stars Moloch. a Lovecraftian horror who’s more bored with life than anything, and certainly bored with R’lyeh, his home. The story builds up a mythology where the vast and terrible gods, Old and New and everything in between, live in this nightmare city and, mostly, just sort of get on with business. For those like Moloch, young and without much hope of actually getting to participate in any of the events that his kind are supposed to live for, the world is just a string of hanging out with his friends and getting blitzed out of his mind by whatever means possible. And, as this is R’lyeh, there are many means possible. The story follows him as he gets high and experiences the ins and outs of the city, highlighting his relationships and showing how stifling his situation is, where all of existence seems to be waiting. Waiting. For something that only the Great Old Ones know about, and the rest, the ones like Moloch, have to believe in even as they must also accept that their lives are without agency or power. They aren’t really poor off, but they aren’t allowed any say in the way things are, and...well, and the story does an amazing job of bridging the gap between the disenfranchised of this world and that beyond our possibility to comprehend. The story becomes about youth and about lost potential, about the way that older generations refuse to let go of power, refuse to let the younger generations try to make the world work better, or worse, or anything. Things are stuck, and it’s a feeling I’m familiar with and one that comes from this corruption that I expected from R’lyeh, from these ancient evils, and yet to see it parallel so well the situation in the here and now, is rather delightful and deep and just fuck. The story is densely worded and took me a minute to get used to, cloaked in overly-wrought simile and words suited to the style, but twisted into a sort of Lovecraftian slang that is fun and weird. It captures the Lovecraftian mythos in a very new way, a way that allows for a lot of depth while still driving the plot through some weird fucking locales. It’s not the most...pleasant of stories, I will grant, but then I appreciate that it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a story about Eldritch horrors and ultimately that’s where the story lingers, showing that even given power these are characters more interested in fucking around than really believing in something or making anything better. It does show that being dissatisfied isn’t enough, doesn’t justify not trying to push for change or falling back on being a literal walking scab. And I could go on and on about this but I will cut myself off and say that it’s very much worth checking out and a great read!

“At Cooney’s” by Delia Sherman (7634 words)

This is a lovely story about time and about taking chances, about the magic of music and of seeing histories that have been lost, that have been erased. The piece follows Ali, a woman going to university in New York in the late 60s, a woman who is probably a lesbian but doesn’t really know much about that, has been brought up in an oppressive household and only while away can begin to give voice and shape to who she is. She definitely isn’t straight, though, and is crushing pretty hard on a classmate, Grace. The story captures so well a person struggling with identity and with labels, with the pressures to not be queer, to not be out, to not be vulnerable. With history, and especially with queer history, there is such a strong narrative of “this is weird, this is wrong, this never happened before” that is used to suppress queerness, to pressure people to remain quiet and alone and full of hate and fear about themselves. For Ali, it means wanting so badly to explore and to accept who she is but thinking it impossible, foolish. And then magic happens, and a bit of pure yearning mixed with music transports her back in time and reveals to her a piece of that erased history, a part of New York that has always been queer and vibrant and alive and dangerous. She sees not just that there were queer people in the past, but how they were at risk, how the system was designed to hurt them. And yet she sees them, sees them struggling with the same things she is, and yet still being themselves, still finding this space to be, even if it’s one being constantly violated by the police. And I love that even seeing the harsh reality of it, even living the harassment and systemic injustice, the experience is in many ways incredibly affirming for Ali, who at least gets to see that people like her have always existed, that they’ve always been there, and that her struggle ties into a larger one, a history she can lean on when she feels weak, that can give her strength when she feels alone. It’s a wonderful piece and an amazing read!

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (3530 words)

This is a delightful story about robotics and fandom and emotions. It tackles some of my favorite tropes surrounding artificial intelligence and is just the cutest goddamn thing and you really have to read it. It follows Computron, a sentient robot with a classic, boxy shape, who has become something of a symbol for how people think of outdated robotics, despite the fact that he is the only sentient robot in existence. Most of his life is spent answering questions and acting as an educator about robots through the museum he’s technically owned by. That is, until he discovers an anime that features a character that looks a lot like him, and through that show he begins to explore more, taking time to discuss the show with other fans, reading and then writing fanfiction to better represent robots like himself and like Cyro, the character who resembles him. And I absolutely love how the story explores fandom, some of the less savory aspects of it but also the way that it shines in Computron being able to connect to something because of the representation in it, because of how that stands out as something he’s never really been allowed. It shows how powerful that moment can be, that Computron, who seems so sure that he can’t feel emotions, has such a strong draw to this show, to making sure that the depictions of Cyro are done right, to the show and the experience and everything about it. He’s able to step out of this very narrowly defined role he’s been stuck in while still really being an educator, helping people to see that just because he looks out of date doesn’t mean he’s obsolete. It’s something the story gets into a bit, how people can view something that’s supposed to be futuristic as outdated because of an aesthetic shift. Computron, left behind because of who he is and how he looks, finds in this show a mirror for himself, and in the community of fandom surrounding the show, a place to belong and have friends and a meaning that goes beyond merely performing what people expect of him. It’s an incredibly sweet and fun and amazing story and you should read it immediately. Go!!!


“A Lovesong From Frankenstein’s Monster” by Ali Trotta

This poem shines and sinks in short, flowing lines that build toward a picture of aftermath, of recovery that might not ever be over. The title puts the body of the poem into an interesting context, taking a piece that speaks of loss and trying to heal and putting it against the story of creation and revenge, monstrosity and violation. And I like how the poem draws itself out, long and with a feeling of a prolonged existence. Part of it feels to me like the sensation of waiting, waiting for something to get better, wondering if the healing can happen after the revenge has been achieved, after everything has played out and there is still life to live. Things were supposed to be fixed, after, and I love that’s how the poem begins, completely cutting away everything that happened before and looking at the idea of after. How, after, the expectation is that the healing can begin, that the wound is closed, and yet for the monster that doesn’t seem to quite be the case. Though the events are over, the pain lingers, and the reality seems to be that true recovery might be impossible. Created and in a state they don’t want, the monster is faced with the prospect that their entire life might be this, that the pain might never fully go away, and that for all they did to try and fix this, to try and be whole, they might have only been reaching for a false kind of hope. Or, at least, a hope that can feel false at times, when the only recourse is to keep going, to keep living with the pain, to keep hoping that relief might come eventually. It’s not a poem about regret of what happened, but perhaps it is about exhaustion and despair in the face of pain, and way that survivors are often never free of their traumas. It’s a difficult but rewarding poem that is definitely worth spending some time with. A great piece!

“The Golem of the Gravestones” by Gwynne Garfinkle

Of all the pieces this month, this is the one that feels the most “October” to me, if that makes any sense, though there can been a focus over all on monsters and other “spooky” fare. And yet here we find a poem that for me speaks of death and rest and purpose, of justice and the promise peace in death. The poem is narrated by dead to a living person (though how long that will still be true is in strong question). And in many ways the poem follows a pretty straight-forward situation, where people come to desecrate some gravestones and come up across the guardian of the dead, a golem who has been tasked to watch over the site, and does so with some brutal efficiency. I don’t read it as quite so straight-forward, though, especially because of the times in which we live and a lot of the context of the piece. Because, well, it’s not like there has ever been a time when Jewish gravestones have been safe, but the instances of Anti-Semitic crimes and vandalism is incredibly high because of the hate being allowed and promoted at the highest levels in the US at least. And so the poem gains some depth as the piece speaks not to some hypothetical delinquent, but rather to a very specific kind of person who would be coming to knock over Jewish gravestones. And the poem becomes about the protection of the dead, the protection of those who are gone by what remains behind. In the poem it is a golem, a creature made to defend and defend rigorously the sanctity of the past. More, though, I feel the poem is a call to arms of sorts, a call to be a defender of the past and the present, to fight back against those who would bring their hate to try and destroy people, to try and trample on the past. It’s a call (for me, at least) to treat this sort of action as the attack it is, and to set to work pushing back and fighting for justice. It’s a great poem and a wonderful way to close out my reviews of the issue!


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