Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Quick Sips - Uncanny #20 [January stuff]

Kicking off the new year with three original short stories and three original poems, Uncanny Magazine structures a lot of its pieces this month around hurt and love and obsession. From a knight who falls in love with a dragon only to be burned to a woman who wants more than anything to add one crowning piece to a collection that gets her into a dangerous situation, the focus is often on how people are drawn to situations and people who aren’t necessarily safe. And how, deeper than that, safety isn’t an option, because of the world they live in, because they themselves don’t fit, aren’t welcome. The mood of the pieces is fitting for winter—the desire for warmth, the dangers of finding yourself locked out in the cold, losing feeling. It’s a difficult bunch of short SFF, but also a beautiful and rewarding bunch. To the reviews!

Art by Tran Nguyen

“Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” by S.B. Diyva (3922 words)

No Spoilers: A person living in a state ruled by restrictions and fear tries to help who they can in a dystopian setting that becomes intensely violent and immediate when they have to flee with their family. The hits just don’t stop in this story, which is about perseverance and love and survival in a world that shouldn’t be as frightening as it is. Upsetting, difficult, and fucking powerful.
Keywords: Resistance, Dystopia, Queer MC (bisexual), Loss, Family
Review: Okay wow, so Uncanny might be trying to destroy my feels in its very first story of 2018. This is intense, and tragic, and just absolutely devastating and beautiful so if those are things you’re not in the mood for, be warned. The piece sets the stakes early and lets the reader see the knife only moments before it’s plunged home, right into the heart, leaving it there to twist every now and then for good measure. The story follows the main character (who I don’t think is named) as they flee with their children following the state finding what they and their wife have been up to. It’s a nightmare of a read, set in an America where states are basically separate countries, and some of them are hellish with regards to the rights of anyone but able straight white men. The narrator, who uses a prosthetic limb, has to move with children through a world that suddenly got a lot simpler, though also much more dangerous. Run and live. Or die. The piece is very much about survival and how stacked this situation is against the narrator making it through. It’s about the decision to stay and try to resist a bad government, and the price of that. A price that might need to be paid, for as much as it hurts. Because it’s going to be paid by someone regardless, either by those who stay and try to fight or those for whom there is no help. This is a world where there is no safe option, and the story drives that viscerally home. That there is no safe place, that there is no “just move.” It’s a piece that shows just what people can endure to survive, to protect their families, but also sometimes what they must endure, because the system is so broken. And yeah, it’s just a great read!

“The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine (6598 words)

No Spoilers: Mallory, a collector and fan of immersion films, is hired by a corporation to take part in an alien auction, one that centers on the idea of sacrifice. Of course, things don’t go as planned. About collecting and yearning, the piece does a great job of looking at value and what makes things meaningful to people. And for a story about an auction, the piece is a bit harrowing.
Keywords: Film, Auctions, Sacrifice, Collecting
Review: Collecting is something that I have a weird relationship with. As the story itself says, a lot of the value of a collection is intensely personal. It’s about the act of collecting itself, as much as it’s also about the value of the objects involved. For Mallory, who is into immersive films, the Holy Grail of collecting (or maybe her white whale) is _The Hydraulic Emperor_, a film made by her favorite creator. And she’s given a chance to get it, this elusive reel, possibly the only copy in the galaxy. What follows is a story that’s all about stakes and about manipulation. Mallory, being set up to lose, being set up by everyone to lose, and yet unable to back down or turn away. Because she’s put into an impossible situation, because she’s pushed to chose between the thing that she wants maybe more than anything in the universe, or something else she might want just as bad. The story becomes about doing something for yourself against doing something for someone else. For me, at least, it’s about that idea of sacrifice, and the value of sacrifice, and what matters being the context, being the emotion and the desire. The story plays around with this to some extent, Mallory faced with a man from her past who is participating in the auction, too, who bets are such that Mallory wants him to lose more than she wants to win. But that, in the end, it means that she’s giving something up. Needing to chose what’s more important, even when that choice seems impossible. It’s a compelling read, complex and intricate and I’m guessing one that unfolds with further readings. I love its take on collecting and value and sacrifice, though, and I definitely think this is one you should spend some time with. Another fantastic read!

“She Still Loves the Dragon” by Elizabeth Bear (3255 words)

No Spoilers: A knight pursues a dragon. Alone. Naked. What happens happens. There’s a heavy weight to a lot of this story, which examines love and hurt, armor both physical and emotional. It’s about recovery, and trauma, and the different ways that people seek to define their existence. For the dragon, and for the knight, it seems to be about trust and fear and vulnerability.
Keywords: Dragons, Knights, Love, Fire, Scars
Review: The story does a great job of remaining...not vague, exactly, but perhaps archetypal. The characters are not named, are just the woman/the knight, and the dragon. And the story frames them as quasi-historical figures, quasi-folktales, where their story is part song, part tradition, part intimate story about how this knight climbs this mountain and finds a dragon there, and how they love each other, and how the knight is burned. There is an edge about everything to the story, and I like how the piece uses a poem-within-a-story to encapsulate a lot of the themes that resonate through the larger work. This idea that here is love, and here is this element of danger and hurt, and how there is something in the nature of this love that leans towards the flow of blood, the crackle of burning flesh. For all that the story features a woman burning, though, it also mainly concerns itself with what happens around the burning. Not with the act itself, with happens almost in passing, without thought, but to the ways that the people strive to recover, to move forward, the knight forever altered and the dragon still a dragon. For me it’s a bit of a difficult read because I feel it’s about the messy nature of love and vulnerability, how people hurt each other and how they can still love, and how their love can grow and complicate from that first burning fire to something different, tempered. It’s a lovely piece that keeps a distance between the reader and the characters by refusing them names, and they also draws the reader in by the use of sporadic second person and a haunting feel. Definitely a story to spend some time with!


“The Knight of the Beak” & “The Early Ones” by Sofia Samatar and Del Samatar

There are two poems this month that are paired with original artwork. The first, “The Knight of the Beak,” speaks to me of relief and danger, of transformation, of power. The poem focuses on a knight, on purity, on the clarity of purpose that often comes with stories of knights and quests. And yet there is something else to the poem that draws it into the present, or the near past, a “we” that watches a show and goes to school and occupy a more nebulous space where their identity is questioned, where they find that clear lines of knight stories blur in their case. The standards and emblems that for others get to be clear and proud are denied this we of the poem, and so to me it seems like they revisit the stories, seek to complciate them and make them their own. The picture of the griffon on the knight’s shield becomes the picture that accompanies the poem, their knight very different from the traditional picture, more bold and stylized, fierce to stand up to this scrutiny of people, an attempt in my opinion for the we of the story to attempt to reclaim this thing that others seek to strip from them. For me it also feels, though, like the piece explores how different the world can be between the public life and the private for this we, how they revel in this secret story they make for themselves in order to build their defences against the dangers and aggressions of the world outside. And, though delicate or fragile, their stories and their image of the feathered knights help them be stronger in order to withstand the attacks from without.

The second piece, “The Early Ones,” looks at difference and time and language. The art here for me evokes depictions of elves or perhaps aliens, and in the poem these people are described as early, as having existed before there was a fixed idea of what or who they are. Which, of course, is a hurt that hits twice, once because they are denied the tools and language to build community and find each other, and perhaps more devastatingly, they are denied a language with which to really think of and identify themselves. I love the feeling that here are people who have always lived among people, who have always been present, but who seem early because of how ahead of the times they are, because they are orhpaned or made refugees not necessarily because of place but because the societies they live in are not advanced in terms of valuing people as people. Are not advanced in terms of justice, in terms of safety. Instead, these people have to live in part hiding what makes them who they are, what makes them unique, so as to avoid the dangers of sticking out. And that it shows that what progress we might make as a society, as recognizing different not as lack or impairment or inferiority, it doesn’t mean that any group of people finally recognized and given language hasn’t always been there, erased by a history that refused to give them words to be recorded. Invisible, vulnerable, struggling to be stay alive. And that the work isn’t done. The art here pairs with this sense that here are people, alive and present, sure of themselves in this moment of recognition, seeing themselves in the reflections on glass even as we the reader have a chance to see ourselves reflected in them, in their hopes and joys and dangers. Both pieces are wonderful and you should definitely check out these poem/art combos!

“The Cat’s Daughters” by Nitoo Das

This is a rather strange poem about family and about growth, about hunger and about flight. It focuses on the offspring of a cat, or something like that. The style at the same time evokes fairy tales with talking animals as well as the founding of Rome, here two daughters raised by a cat instead of two brothers raised by a wolf. For me, the piece is about the hungers that are inherited, about how these daughters are raised on the dreams and angers of their mother, the way that she wants fish, wants to be full, but gets no relief or attention. She has daughters and it seems she expects them to make up for some of what has happened to her, put on them this burden that has been her life. And they, shrinking from that, turning away from that, running from that, refuse to play the roles she assigned. It’s a piece that for me has a solid tragedy to it, because these daughters in some ways understand their mother and her pain, the way that she was disappointed and frustrated, and yet it doesn’t erase the ways that she hurt them, and so the poem presents this rather messy relationship, this push and pull, all of them bound by their hungers—the mother for fish, the daughters for a sort of kindness and security, and none of them really getting what they want or need. It’s a difficult piece, too, leaving a lot of space on the screen, allowing and requiring the reader to fill in the gaps, to try and piece together what’s going on. For me, it’s a moving narrative of hunger and inheritance, family and hurt. I think it’s a piece that’s well worth checking out, though, to find what you might be able to unpack from the verse. A fine way to close out the month’s offerings!


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