Thursday, December 13, 2018

Quick Sips - Uncanny #25 [December stuff]

Art by John Picacio
It’s a month of ghosts, cyborgs, and mages at Uncanny Magazine this December, with three stories and two poems fleshing out a vibrant range of short SFF. The pieces very much represent a wide swath of genre work—one contemporary fantasy, one near-future science fiction, one mix of fantasy and horror and science fiction. The poems look at language and at loss and rebirth. And together there’s an interesting take on family and vulnerability, showing characters trying to find ways of dealing with a new and possibly destructive present while changing their assumptions and focusing on adaptation and perseverance. It’s a great bunch of works, and I’ll get right to the reviews!


“The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer (7637 words)

No Spoilers: Leah is a folklorist specializing in ghost stories, who sets herself to collecting and categorizing the stories into different types, seeking to find commonalities among the kinds of ghost stories that people tell, all the while having to keep herself distant from the belief in ghosts themselves, interested instead on the stories and what they might mean for people. Paired with that is Leah’s own personal life, especially her caring for an aging mother with Alzheimer’s who eventually dies. But who might not, it turns out, be entirely gone. The piece blurs the distance between Leah and her subject matter, making ghost stories achingly personal. At the same time, it approaches regret and the desire to reach through the veil of death in order to do something left undone, to gain closure on something that wouldn’t be possible to otherwise. And it’s wonderfully meta, a ghost story about ghost stories that’s also about family and grief.
Keywords: Ghosts, Loss, CW- Dementia/Death of a Parent, Heirlooms, Ghost Stories, Mediums
Review: I love how this story is layered, a fiction about a “real” ghost story through the lens of a folklorist looking at the fictional nature of ghost stories. Or, at least, not treating ghost stories as literally true, but rather as expressing some anxiety about death and loss. And in being structured like that, the story (to me, at least) both affirms the academic study of ghost stories as cultural artifacts as well as complicates the idea that ghost stories can be entirely explained by neat psychological or even literary theories. That, for me, the story becomes about the value of research and sociological and anthropological artifacts, but also about the very different, very personal connections that people can have with ghosts. Which are not always allegorical or metaphorical. Which can be very real, or at least most meaningful when literal. And I just love how the story takes these two often conflicting levels of interpreting stories and harmonizes them. Because, for me, in the end, the story shows that these ghost stories don’t become less valuable when considered real. That they can exist simultaneously as fact and fiction, and that people finding meaning and impact in the belief of ghosts aren’t to be dismissed or ridiculed. That ghost stories do something immediate and real and often needed. And there are certainly things that can’t be explained, a pervasiveness of the idea of ghosts that might be more than just expressing the human inability to properly approach and conceptualize what death is and means. And while they are also worth studying and categorizing and discussing at a level of myth and folklore, dismissing all firsthand experience as superstition or a misunderstanding disrespects what these stories mean to those who believe they’ve been visited by a ghost. Because, ultimately, there _is_ an unknown that surrounds death, and the story shows how the narrator approaches that unknown, complicating her own assumptions and bringing her a deeper appreciation of ghost stories as a result. And it’s a beautiful and moving read!

“My Name Is Cybernetic Model XR389F, and I Am Beautiful” by Monica Valentinelli (3263 words)

No Spoilers: Cybernetic Model XR389F is a cyborg designed to dispose of toxic materials in a lab setting. And yet they (they’ve been assigned a female gender and yet that doesn’t seem exactly consensual so I’ve sticking to neutral pronouns) find themselves at the center of a kind of interrogation, and one that they realize might pose a danger to them. Because, unknown to them, they’ve been pulled into an experiment by one of the people they work with—an experiment designed to prove this man’s theory about cyborgs and sexuality. And yeah, that’s about as sketch as it sounds, and might almost be a joke except for the deadly seriousness that XR389F has to take it, because it does mean their life. Their continued existence begins to be linked to something they can’t control or fight against, and the story takes that premise and walks it into a dark place, though one that reveals some deep truths about double standards and misogyny.
Keywords: Cyborgs, Experiments, CW- Harassment/Assault, Orders, Survival
Review: I love how much the story almost dares the reader to dismiss it as unrealistic. Because on the one hand, it’s very tempting to want to believe that this is ridiculous, that there’s no way an advanced robotics laboratory would have the kind of asshole as Robert Brandt, who uses the threat of violence against XR389F in order to try and make his point, in order to try and “prove” that his misogyny is science! I think at this point, though, it’s clear that there really is no level of obvious, terrible asshole who doesn’t actually exist. And, indeed, that his level of terrible actually offers him protection. Because people don’t want to believe that he exists. They want to think that this must be all allegory, all giant exaggerations. He’s cardboard, people might argue. Unbelievable. Cartoonish. And yet that makes him terrifying, as well, especially for those who have a lot to fear from people like him. Especially for those who are moving through the world with some heavy double standards, as XR389F does. Because they cannot actually hurt him. Can’t defend themself against him. They know, because it is written into their code, that the only hope they have is distance. Is to avoid him. Which isn’t always possible. Which might well eventually lead to the same end that they want to avoid. Because they know that they won’t be believed if they complain. Or, if they do, they will still be blamed. Will still be hurt. And wow, yeah, that aspect of the story is devastating, because it shows just how obvious this kind of treatment can be and how some will still refuse to empathize. Some will still bend over backwards to declare that this is too over-the-top and angry and etc. to be taken seriously. When really, it’s very much a story worth lingering on, and spending time with. A fine read!

“Monologue by an unnamed mage, recorded at the brink of the end” by Cassandra Khaw (1054 words)

No Spoilers: Narrated from one magic-user to another after the stars have winked out and strange, cosmic gods have arrived to end all things, the story is much more a love letter than a goodbye, though it might be a bit of both. The piece gives a brief background on the couple, star-crossed and defiant and given this choice of relative safety but having to be apart or joining the front line against the end together. The world building here is broad strokes, the trappings a mix of Big Ideas, and I like the focus on gods and invasion and stars and stories. The narrator speaks to their love, and through that gives a feeling of this moment “at the brink of the end,” which brings with it a whole slew of implications and impacts. Hope mingles with crushing devastation in the face of the unknown.
Keywords: Magic, Relationships, Struggle, Apocalypse, Gods, Stories
Review: This is a short piece but packs a lot in, favoring a quick pace and a voice dripping with impending doom. And that’s really the heart of my reading of the story, the destruction implied by the title, that this is the end, and that in some ways the narrator has to know that. But that in the face of that ending, they’re also weaving a sort of spell that goes beyond the mathematical, the logical. That even as the characters inside the story are using a traditional kind of magic to try and beat back the assault of the gods, which seems all consuming, the narrator is casting their spell with the story itself—that the narrative and the connection between the characters is the magic. And I rather love that, that it sort of holds up the love story the narrator weaves as being the more potent magic. Which, hey, most people love a love story. It has a weight and a gravity to it, a sort of aching need and tragedy that is tempered by the devotional and perseverance of the characters. And that it makes the reader, the listener, _want_ to see this couple succeed. And that, maybe, that will carve out a space in the cosmos for that to happen. That that, failing everything else, might be enough to thwart the will of these gods, who know nothing of love. And it’s a breathless read hung on the edge of an abyss, a prayer against the dying of all things, not outward to another power but inward, straight to the heart. A lovely and potentially devastating read!


“Osiris” by Leah Bobet

This poem flows with a great control of language, rhyme, and rhythm. And it builds up the picture of a narrator studying anatomy and, though it, death. I find myself struggling to some degree to figure out what the poem might be speaking to, because while I love the sound and the feel of the poem, there’s a context or reference I feel like I might be missing. I’m not super knowledgeable with Egyptian mythology/ancient religion, so it’s quite possible that this takes an element of the god Osiris and pulls that into a present where Gray’s and Ebers are present. It might also then have to do with the looting of the pyramids by Europeans, with the mentions of lamplight and catgut. And there’s a violence to the piece, as if the narrator is a kind of hunter moving among the tombs of Egypt seeking out those who might loot them and disrespect them, who might exploit them. And the narrator seems to make victims of them, using their wounds to learn, to come close to the god that they worship. It’s a piece that seeks to me to understand the dead, to appreciate the connection between bodies and death. For me, at least, the movement from the first stanza, which is more violent, more about the breaking of bones, the second reads to me more about the narrator passing into the next life. The true life, it seems, with the use of waking and resurrection. A return to where they will once more feel the touch of the being responsible for life and death. Or, I mean, that’s kind of the feeling I got from it, with the caveat that it’s very possible I’m missing the mark entirely. Whatever the case, it’s a strange and kinda creepy read, interesting and well worth spending some time with!

“Translatio” by Sharon Hsu

This poem speaks to me of language and of empire, colonization and the pressures to assimilate to a culture where your heritage isn’t considered valuable. For the narrator, they have reached adulthood without learning the language of their mother, something that was intentional growing up but lacking the perspective of time and grief. Growing up, the focus seems to have been on fitting in and integrating into the value systems of the place, which valued Latin and Greek and certainly not Chinese. Growing up, this seemed just a matter of course, not wanting to be opened up to the criticism and ridicule that might come with knowing Chinese, a language considered too difficult, too strange, too decidedly not Western for children in the Global West. Only now, as an adult, can the narrator really understood what they were missing, what they were giving up in exchange for fitting in. And it is their family, and a connection to their past. It is the writings of their mother, who dies, that the narrator cannot translate, cannot know “in the original.” And for me it’s that personal lost connection that comes through in the piece, the way that the narrator understands (perhaps better than most) that translation is possible, but that it’s not the same. And that there’s this guilt and shame associated with losing this, with not having the tools to reach back just a single generation and touch something real and important. The loss is double, and the grief is compounded because of it, dredging up all of these emotions that the narrator was avoiding about the culture they grew up into and the one they grew away from, pushed by death to consciously examine the foundations of their attitudes about language and value and finding complicity in an erasure and avoidance of Chinese. And it hurts, and it’s a complex and wrenching read about the costs of empire and the loss of family. A fantastic read!


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