|Art by John Picacio
I’d say that it’s a short month from Uncanny Magazine, but despite there being only two stories and two poems, one of the stories is a whopper of a novella, so wordcount-wise it’s a very robust issue. And the novella is certainly a story that captures some of the feeling of the uncanny, strange and mixing science and magic, focusing on a girl tossed back in time, struggling with her own desire not to screw up the timeline and her desire to prevent a tragedy from happening. And the story doesn’t re-tred old ground in providing a wonderful murder mystery time travel adventure, full of shadows intense and unsettling. The rest of the stories and poems round out a strange but rather lovely and haunting feel that for me personally fits with the time of year, with the first tendrils of winter digging in, and the sudden shortening of days and deepening of night. To the reviews!
“A Time to Reap” by Elizabeth Bear (25177 words)
No Spoilers: Kat is a sixteen-year-old actress playing a twelve-year-old murder victim in a play about a series of murders unfolding at a New England family reunion. The murders were never solved, and after a VR game about it, the play is set to open, but not before the cast gets to take a tour of the house where it all happened. And on the tour, Kat, who is suffocating on the attention of journalists and the expectations of her mother, decides to see a bit more than is on the tour. An accidental time jump later, though, and she finds herself not in 2028 getting ready for her role but in 1978, the very day before the murders are set to begin. It’s a tense mystery, one that reveals that there was more (and more tragedy) going on at the house than even the playwrights imagined. And it finds Kat having to make some hard decisions about protecting the timeline or trying to do something for the people who, in her present, are long dead.
Keywords: Time Travel, Murder Mysteries, Theater, Horses, CW- Sexual Assault/Rape/Pedophilia (implied)
Review: I like how the story draws a line between Kat and the girl she’s playing, Sissy. How Kat feels this connection in part because of her own loneliness, her own isolation. Despite being surrounded by people, she struggling with the abuse she’s faced from her mother, the demands to be an actress and the resentment that Kat has succeeded where her mother did not. And so she treats her role like a friend, not realizing that he’s about to end up meeting the real Sissy and having to decide how to handle the situation. Is it just a chance to get more material to mine for her performance? Is there nothing she can do to change this past that won’t jeopardize her future? Or should she be trying to prevent the tragic circumstances of that reunion in order to save the girl she feels that connection to? I really like the setup and the feel of the piece. There is a creepiness and danger to being a house with someone that you know is a killer. And I love how that feeling is replaced by something else even worse. Because it turns out that the darkness of the house is even worse than fiction. And that everyone has already been living as Kat acts, in a atmosphere of silence and dread. Because it turns out that the killer isn’t the real issue. The uncle who is abusing the children is. And that opens up a whole new and deeper tragedy, where the killer turns out to be a victim as well, and wow shit got real pretty quick after that. For me it really does show Kat coming to terms with a story she thinks she knows that gets completely turned around. With an outcome that she thinks she’s comfortable with except that once she gets a real feel for what’s happening, she can’t let it be. She can’t prioritize herself and her career over doing the right thing. The right thing, that might undo her existence. And there are some other twists and turns as the identity of the killer is guessed at and finally revealed, and there’s a way of wrapping things up that’s rather neat and satisfying. It’s not a typical time travel story, nor a typical murder mystery, but it manages to do a refreshing job of both while maintaining some strong character moments and a poignant and empowering ending. A great read!
“Nutrition Facts” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (2841 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is supposed to be on a diet for their health, which sends them again and again to a food dispenser that has been built to resemble a woman. Every day she gives them their food without incident, until they start getting messages. Messages that seem to be asking them to do something, and that are paired with strange tastes that remind them of their recently departed mother’s cooking. The piece is strange, and vaguely haunting, the narrator desperate for something that seems so close, but might be impossibly far away.
Keywords: Food, Diets, Robots, Family, Ingredients
Review: Okay so the way that the story uses the nutritional information in this piece is rather great, in part because it’s an interesting way to encode a “secret message” and in part because it’s actually kind of creepy the way it works. I mean, that love is an ingredient that makes them start to believe that their mother might have someone entered into the programming of this automated food dispenser is...sweet in some ways but also maybe not. Especially because as the story progresses the picture of the home life the narrator had gets a bit more complicated. There’s nostalgia that surrounds the meals, yes, but it hardly seems like it was a harmonious home, and for me at least I feel that there’s a hint of shadow here. where the narrator is chasing something but it feels a bit more desperate to me than affirming or seeking closure. More that the loss of their mother has opened up a space where they were used to having that forceful presence in their life and, now that it’s gone, there’s nothing that has filled the gap. Their meals have become mostly tasteless, though they don’t necessarily feel unhappy, at least at first. I like how the story draws more and more into that, though, how we as readers come to see more and more that the narrator is starving for what they’ve lost, isn’t dealing with the loss of their mother, and in some ways it’s hard to tell if the messages from this food dispenser are really happening or if they’re figments of the narrator’s imagination. It’s a story that delves into that uncertainty to present what I find a somewhat unsettling read about the power of the past and comfort even in a nostalgia that’s not incredibly pleasant. It’s definitely a story to spend some time with, and fine read!
“fear cat” by Hal Y. Zhang
This is an interesting and strange poem about fear on a mountain, on a ski/snowboarding slope. A fear that is embodied in a cat, and roams the mountain as the narrator of the piece remains...kinda stuck. For me, though, the implication isn’t that the narrator has crashed, as they are kind of depicted in the piece (cut and scraped and embedded in the snow). Rather, for me, the piece takes place before the narrator has begun their descent. At least, I love the way the poem captures the feeling of standing somewhere high up like that and looking down and feeling that fear creep around. As I read the piece, the fear cat is that sensation, is what freezes the limbs of the narrator, makes them unable to push off, to start that descent. That it’s not a snowbank that they are stuck in, but still at the top of the mountain, watching the sun track across the sky, having that fear cat nestled in their heart. And it makes it so that acting is impossible because the fear cat has mapped every way that they can fail, every way that they can hurt and bleed and humiliate themself. It has found the infinite number of bad endings and it carried them to the narrator’s chest and sat down. And the weight of that is more than the narrator can easily bear. It’s an anchor. And someone who does not do well with heights and who has made an ass of himself trying to un-ascend a mountain on his only ski experience, it’s something that I might be focusing on rather than looking for other interpretations, but I love the way that it makes fear a real presence, and how it does so, with all the danger of a big cat and the nonchalance of a house cat looking for a warm lap. A fantastic read!
“Without Prayer or the Place in the Forest” by Sonya Taaffe
This piece speaks to me of inspiration and generations, of care and art and expression. The narrator of the piece speaks of a we, a pair (you and I), who they then place into the context of a story. In a magic realist novel, the piece begins, and for me this evokes quickly and powerfully a sense of meaning and depth, that in a magic realist novel there would be things that would stand in for the mundane. It wouldn’t be just finding an old diary and rediscovering a family member you never really knew fully. It would be captured with something grand and magical, a confrontation with a firebird, a chance of facing the past and all its implications and complexities. For me the piece looks at the mundane but very real issues that the pair has, the money issues and the stress, the struggle and everything, but also how, through all that, they have each other. And they have a history and a heritage to lean on, to delve for things that will help them going forward. They can draw on the inspiration of the past, the resilience and the fire. That fire becomes the way forward, the way to stay warm and alive, and as the poem relates, fire needs fuel. And so the narrator and their partner have to feed it with the things they don’t need, the things that aren’t helping them. All the things they’ve inherited that don’t suit them should be tossed into the fire, all the junk that came with the house, with their lives. And through the fire they might burn away the things that are cluttering their lives and dragging them down, giving them new energy and purpose to keep going on and on, telling their stories until they run out, which hopefully won’t be for a long time yet. A strange and beautiful piece, and a great read!