Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Quick Sips - Uncanny #19 [December stuff]

The holidays come a bit early this year with an extra-big issue of Uncanny Magazine, stuffed with four short stories and four poems. Of course, perhaps because we are finally in winter’s talons, the work has a decidedly complex and not-exactly-happy feel to it, the pieces confronting some very heavy issues and finding characters not always able to escape the harsh realities of their situations. From new gods born from misery and exploitation to an android finding their future grim indeed, from a young girl dealing with trauma and stress to a hero who knows that heroes are anything but always heroic, the stories are tinted windows into humanity, revealing us not always through contemporary humans but through our stories, our creations, and our works. It’s not the brightest of pictures, but it does create for some captivating and compelling short fiction, with a whole slew of poetry that ranges from sweet to brash and back again. To the reviews!

Art by Julie Dillon

“Sorrow and Joy, Sunshine and Rain” by Troy L. Wiggins (5604 words)

This is a story about justice and about gods, about sorrow and the desire to end suffering. But it’s also about being born in pain and from the pain of an injustice so intense and rending that its mark goes deep, that serves to conceal and obfuscate the true purpose of the narrator, a young deity who becomes driven to try and devour the sorrow of their people. Born out of the slave trade and awakened at the height of American slavery, their first reaction to the pain, to the humiliation and hate and violence all around them, is to react in kind, leaning on this idea of retaliatory justice and thinking that it can be used to free their people and bring about a situation without sorrow. To them, as I read it, the problem is only an issue of having a power large enough to finally topple the status quo and reverse it, and to that end they discover that the only way to get that power might be to take it from other deities. I feel that the story does a great job of showing what having no support structure looks like, how the narrator is judged again and again for not know what they should be doing when they were never told, when the only thing they have known has been pain and sorrow. It’s a failing not just of the narrator to try and see beyond this immediate situation, but a greater failing of everyone else who never thought it necessary to explain, who have not tried to reach out to the young in anything but censure when mistakes are made. It’s a complex and intricate story and I love the world building, the idea of these entities moving through the world, dependent on humanity and so bound to them, not able to really change systems from without but rather able to inspire change from within. But that seems to mean, for the narrator at least, having intentions as pure as the desires of their people, and a purpose that’s more than revenge, but truly reaching for justice and peace. There’s action, there’s magic, and there’s a lot to think about in this story, which makes for a great read!

“Pipecleaner Sculptures and Other Necessary Work” by Tina Connolly (835 words)

Well this is a rather short and heartbreaking story about care and about utility and about value, of people and roles and situations. The story condenses a lot of world building into a relatively small space, creating a setting where a generation-ship is almost to its destination and the androids who have been responsible for so much during the transit are being eyed for either decommission or recycling into other roles. For Ninah, who has been working as a preschool teacher, it means the prospect of being reformatted and made into a soldier, her name the same but everything else about her suited to that role. And the story just packs an emotional punch for me when it comes to examining how people assign value to jobs and to other people. The plight of Ninah is palpable and moving, the care that she brings to bring just a bit of purpose to these children’s lives, finding something missing and vital and then working to fill it. And finding, in the grind of this desire to survive and spread, these little things get undervalued. And I think what I like most about the story is the way it shines a light on the way that humans negotiate kindness and compassion against utility and survival. The way that this administrator comes and makes the calculations so neatly, assigning Ninah no “real value” because her role is support and nurturing, because those things are supposed to fall away in the face of “necessity.” But the story, with its title and then with the way it frames this moment, asks the reader what is necessary. What is important. Or maybe ask isn’t the right word. Maybe the story tells the reader that these actions, these roles, these people, are fucking necessary, even in space, on a generation ship, on a new planet. Pretending that they aren’t doesn’t reduce people’s need to have creative outlets. It’s doubly telling here that this android knows better how to be human and what humans need than this man who at the same time wants humans to be robotic and doesn’t see androids as people. It’s a gripping piece, short and precise, a cold blade right to the feels. Definitely read it!

“Learning to See Dragons” by Sarah Monette (810 words)

This story speaks to me of loss and grief, of the sort of relentless feeling that can happen, especially for children, who have less filters than older people, who are newer and more sensitive and able see so well past the lies and half-truths, the explanations and rationalizations of adults. For Annie, seeing past all those things gives her a different sort of view, into a whole other layer of the world, one that isn’t full of pain and arguing and stress and strife, but is full of dragons of the air and earth, stone and sky. For Annie, it’s a world that’s far better than the one where (as I read it) her grandmother is effectively dead and Annie’s parents and extended family are all arguing about what to do next. There seems to be a lot more than just that going on, too, where Annie’s relationship with her grandmother isn’t clear really, just that this loss, this death, that she is able to accept but which everyone is making worse because of how angry it makes them, how hurtful, is something that’s making reality itself fracture. The magic of the story comes from the way that Annie can see the dragons, but also how they see her, and what that means. It’s an interesting way to frame grief and trauma, everyone so focuses on the one event, the grandmother’s situation, that Annie might as well not be there. I like the way that the story explores how this must feel for a child, for someone who is attuned to the way people feel, who doesn’t want to hear the hateful things that are being said, who doesn’t want to have to face this death a hundred, a thousand times, when once should have been enough. It’s a story that for me shows the transformation in Annie, the way that this sight changes her, taking her further and further away from the cause of her stress, from the cause of her pain, until she is left where she is at the end. It’s a bit of a bleak story, but one I think very appropriate to the content, to the loss of a family member at a rather formative moment. So yeah, a wrenching read!

“How to Survive an Epic Journey” by Tansy Rayner Roberts (4580 words)

This is a story, to me, about heroism and what that means, especially for women, especially in a setting like ancient Greek Mythology, with its deeply flawed characters and rampant misogyny. It centers Atalanta and follows her as she tells the story of Jason, though not in the way that everyone is used to. It’s a sort of unauthorized biography of the time, casting the whole endeavor and everyone role in the adventure in new and different lights. And really I love the take this has on Greek myths, drawing out the ways that they are toxic and giving voice to this woman who was present but who would have been up against a lot of shit because of who she was. And the story runs hot and cold with a mix of humor and tragedy, the voice charming but the realities difficult and the outcomes often dire. The quest for the Golden Fleece is one that many people know, and it has its share of messed up stuff that happens, and all of it gives this added level when told from the point of view of a survivor, someone who has managed to navigate everything without succumbing to the pressure to die gloriously (which normally means horrifically). Which I love, because it shows how her perspective, as a woman, as an outsider, gave her the perspective to be able to see the patterns in the stories. Even the ones that she was in, she knew what to expect and was prepared for them, was able to steer a course of her choosing instead of trusting to the gods, who could be real bastards sometimes. And there is a forthrightness about the prose, about the narrative, that lends it an authority, an air of truth for me. Because it is uncomfortable at times, because it doesn’t flinch away from the ugliness of the life that she led and the men who circled around her. And yet she made it through, a monster perhaps but no more than any other hero, and capable still of doing good even as she struggles against the pull of these narratives to create only tragedy, to leave only corpses littering the field. It’s fun and it’s dark and it’s a fascinating subversion of the source material, showing the power of women to survive and thrive in any setting, even if they are erased, their stories twisted to serve the dominant ethos. It’s a fantastic read!


“The Designs of Designer Baby” by Millie Ho

This is a powerful piece about design and about the momentum of history and about the role that individuals can play in it, about the good that they can do. The poem finds a character, designed and created for a purpose, to be a certain thing, but who chooses to follow her own will, her own desires. Still, it’s not something that she can do to just be free. The poem finds her in harrowing situation after harrowing situation, those she cares about taken from her. And every time she tries to fight back against them directly, to try and make a difference, the world seems to go around her. Illness becomes war becomes Armageddon and everything that flows from that shows the character that it’s not just her will she’s dealing with. Because the world has stretched back long before her, it’s not so simple as just deciding what she wants. She is shaped by the past wants of others, by the designs that have made both her and the complications in the world she was born into. The wars and the illnesses are all things that have come about, been made to be, and the impact her, impact everyone. To me at least the poem seems to ask what free action there can be when the designs of past generation so seriously and irrevocably altered the state of the present. It becomes something where she can’t truly have a life of her own until the past has been wiped away, until she is alone to fix the cracks that have been made and heal the wounds without new ones being inflicted, without all her work being undone by a malicious setting. It’s a poem that takes a long look at time and also the damage of broken systems, how it poisons everything, even the potential of this amazingly gifted individual, to do any good. It’s an amazing read!

“Keening” by Valerie Valdes

This is a poem that looks at family and loss, absence and sharpening. The title for me evokes both the idea of a rather piercing noise, most often heard in “keening wail” to describe the noise someone in deep grief makes, and the act of sharpening, of making something keen. The poem focuses on a character who seems to be at a moment crossed by sadness at the loss of her abuelo, and waiting or wanting something. There is an element to the plot of the poem about wishes, about making a wish, and yet there’s also an uncertainty about if a wish has been made, or answered. Instead the piece focuses on whistles, on noise, on calling and being called. And on something sharp and dangerous that the main character is dealing with, something that seems to go beyond just the loss of her abuelo to something even more personal. And I love the feeling of something happening in the poem, anticipation and internal struggle and finally resolution and action. It’s a poem that seems to hinge on what the main character is going to do, if she’s going to remain silent and accept the situation or if she’s going to take steps to change things, even if it means she’s put more at risk, even if it’s something she’s not supposed to do. It’s a poem heavy with what is unsaid and yet I think it says enough to get across this feeling, of fear and yearning and sadness and hope, and it certainly makes for a fine read!

“Afternoon with Grandparents” by Dominik Parisien

This is a very short but tender poem about love and about time and a little about faith, I think. It features a narrator who sees his grandparents dancing and it feels like a religious experience, this moment of witnessing something that confirms through action and beauty and security what perhaps no action done in a church as part of service can do. What I get from the piece is this sense that the narrator is experiencing something real and huge, this moment of clarity and hope and faith not inspired by any religious iconography but in this very personal, very quiet way. That the grandparents represent the idea of forever in ways that didn’t connect with the narrator through religion and that idea of infinity and timelessness. It’s a moment of inspiration and a stirring of emotion that is beautifully understated, leaving it to the reader to create what this must look like, what it must feel like, while dropping just enough sensory detail to make everything come together, that phantom song, the dance in a kitchen, practical and intimate, probably spontaneous, loving even after so many years. It’s a lovely piece that hits with a minimum of words but a maximum of impact. Just a wonderful little poem that you should definitely check out!

“Apathetic Goblin Nightmare Woman” by Cassandra Khaw

This poem has a flow to it, a rhythm aided by a strange rhyming pattern that takes on the tone of a take-down, an epic diss in slam form, the words almost speaking themselves aloud, breaking line length and stanza length, meter and just about everything else. The poem is angry and pointedly so, refusing to hide that anger behind prettier words, behind prettier sentiments. The poem is direct, very clear with its yeses and noes and I like it for that, for the direct line it takes and how it shows how that gets framed, especially for women, who are expected to submit and accept whatever treatment. Deviating from that earns harsh censure and in this case it is the label of nightmare, goblin, all for perceived slights which aren’t even slights, which seem more just a general lack of caring about what this person the poem is addressing says. Which again, I love, because the language is so coded it becomes easier to find the meaning behind the meaning to it all, to find the ways that this dude attempted to manipulate and gaslight the narrator into being closer to the idea of a dutiful woman, something they reject and reject with great gusto and flare. And really it’s a fun poem, one that revels in language and delights in how it resists and deflects the attempts to silence the narrator. And it’s an acknowledgment too that the narrator is a product of this society, no less so than those duty-bound to try and be “good women.” That it’s a system that has left no room to be neutral, no room really to be apathetic when being apathetic is loaded, too, is not paying enough attention to the mens. It’s a place where there is no safety, no woman good enough, no way to ever be good enough, because the goal posts will always move, because it’s just a tactic to keep men in power and comfortable and everyone else scrambling for approval and crumbs. And the narrator here basically says that if that’s the system, then they accept being bad, being a monster, and monsters have power, and teeth, and a hunger that cannot be denied. So yeah, a very fun poem and a great way to close out the issue!


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