|Art by Julie Dillon|
May brings three short stories and two poems to Uncanny Magazine, and there’s plenty of strangeness to go around. Now, I’ve seen it said that the publication lacks a central guiding aesthetic, and to a point I agree that it is eclectic and shows a wide range of the genre, but I also think that the title gives a lot away. There is a general feeling of the uncanny that I think the publication maintains, and this month is a great showcase of that, with three stories that are very different, but that carry along visions of the uncanny, worlds and people who are almost like our own, but different in some ineffable way that leads to a kind of disquiet and tension through which we can examine those strange new worlds as well as the reflection they cast back on our own. So yeah, to the reviews!
“Through the Veil” by Jennifer Marie Brissett (3454 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a scientist researching how to pierce a sort of layer between realities. A wall that they’ve just discovered. Even as they work toward their goals, though, a beige seems to overcome them and their world. A sameness, a blandness, and it leaves them unsettled and at times unfocused on anything other than their work. When something threatens that work, though, the narrator must take some drastic actions to protect their research and continue toward a breakthrough they suspect is almost in reach. It’s a weird, almost dreamlike story, told from the first person but with a distance to it that seems imposed by the beige, and that complicates some the idea of portals and escape.
Keywords: Science!, Parallel Dimensions, Portals, Dreams, Hair
Review: This is a difficult piece for me to really feel like I “got,” in part because of the weirdness. But for me there’s a lot going on here with regards to portals, to different worlds, to stress and especially stress on black women in academia and the sciences. Because there’s that beige, which given the contrast to the technicolor of beyond the veil (or over the rainbow) speaks to me of a feeling that things have slipped into the monochrome of black and white movies. The narrator is like Dorothy in some ways, except instead of a Kansas farmstead they are a scientist, and the beige isn’t a lack of magic but what might be a stress-induced depression, the narrator confident of their work but never valued, always having to prove something to everyone else because they are the target of prejudice. And despite of or because of the beige, they end up stealing their tech and research and pursuing it on their own, not allowing it to be shut down by their university. Only what they find in the push to break the veil is that it’s not exactly science that does it. It’s a melding of dreams and reality. A blurring of there and here. And it continues to take its toll in the form of the narrator’s hair falling out, even as they venture further and further beyond the barrier, beyond the veil. And the ending is strange, an escape that is framed as a transcendence, as a victory. As a way of leaving the values of the rest of the world, the beige depression and stress of having to live by those values, far behind. So it’s kind of triumphant, but there’s also something a bit haunting there for me, that this is a loss as well, if not for the narrator than for the rest of the world. Not unjustified, but sad all the same. And whatever the case, it’s a beautiful piece that’s definitely worth spending some time with!
“A Being Together Amongst Strangers” by Arkady Martine (3054 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story works in conflict resolution in a future New York facing the ravages of climate change, where climate refugees are putting additional stress on everything and the narrator’s augmented brain is specially able to diffuse certain situations. More than that, though, it’s also a musing on cities and death, sacrifices and an accident that happened a long time ago when the New York subways were being excavated. The story follows the narrator on a single commute, their thoughts running from music to what it means to be a New Yorker, and the result is strange and haunted, vibrant and exhausting all at once.
Keywords: Translations, Subways, Death, Conflict, Implants, Climate Change
Review: I love the way the story links the deaths of a group of miners with a kind of magic that helped New York grow and survive. For the narrator it represents a kind of sacrifice, or sacrament, the city gaining something from that horror, from the catastrophe. And it also gives her something to focus on, something to sort of frame her work and what she tries to do, placing her in some ways into the role of the priest to came down to try and give comfort to the dead and dying, kneeling int he blood. The world building here is interesting, too, with the narrator housing implants in her head that allow her to be a sort of translator, able to listen to all sides and then express what they are all saying in a way that the other side will understand. In their language, thus erasing the linguistic ways people create borders and enforce otherness and marginalization. For all that, though, the story finds her in a place where she can’t use her company-given implants, where there’s an incident and she has to rely on her own skills and the nature of New Yorkers, both the unspoken ways that they give each other space and ignore what’s going on and the way that, once things start going down, they tend to come together to stand against bullshit. The story isn’t exactly an easy one, dealing as it does with conflict growing out of need and out of oppression, but it shows a kind of grace, a kind of yearning for peace, hearing the ghosts all around and trying to push back against the weight of violence, the history of death that weighs on the city, that might some day crush it, crack it, destroy it, if hate and violence take too firm a hold. It’s another weird piece, but here there’s a feel for a city, a place, and a people who are defined in part by that place. By New York, in all the complicated ways that marks a person. A fine read!
“High in the Clean Blue Air” by Emma Törzs (6176 words)
No Spoilers: Alice is a shifter, though definitely not a “normal” variety. She splits her time between being a human and being a loon. Not governed by the moons, able fully to control the transformation, and never actually fully either species. She’s in between, like the rest of her people, and aside from that the biggest defining thing is that they keep their souls outside their bodies, and like selkie skins if those souls are taken it locks them into one form. And now she’s on the run from a Collector and is stopping to see her best friend for what might be the last time, all because of a mistake she made in the past, a violence she did that she can’t just take back. It’s a wrenching piece, full of the ways people hurt each other and leave each other, and it’s beautifully rendered and achingly real.
Keywords: Shifters, Souls, Regrets, Bargains, Family, Queer MC
Review: I like the fresh take on shifters here, less as humans transforming into an animal and more as something between the two, a being who is part human and part loon, not really one or the other, but able to be trapped in a form if their soul is discovered and locked away. And I like how the story builds the kind of fear that builds, the ways that these beings don’t really put down roots, splitting their time between forms, between places, in part to keep themselves safe from humans who would Collect them. And that means different things to different people. For Alice, she might not be able to remain in human form indefinitely, but she does have strong connections there, in largest part her best friend, Elena, who has been there for her since they were both small. They are basically sisters, and that bond is the one that the story explores even as it also reveals the other relationship that Alice had that...didn’t end well, and that’s now back to haunt her. That never stopped haunting her because she did something terrible to someone she had cared about, out or hurt and anger, and time hasn’t made that act any better. And the confrontation with it is harrowing, visceral, and unsettling, the violence of it reflecting the violence that Alice did but was so much cleaner about. The piece looks at that, though, without necessarily condemning Alice for all time, seeing her hurt at the time and the way she was also betrayed. It’s messy and it’s raw but it’s also resonating because it speaks to the push and pull within people, the need to be in between even as each moment might cry out for solidity, for permanence. It’s complicated and carefully done, with an ending that yes, is quiet neat and happy and just a little bit convenient, but that plays into the mythic/fairy tale elements of the story and Alice’s nature. And it’s a wonderful read!
"Athena Holds Up a Mirror to Strength” by Ali Trotta
This poem speaks to me of the kind of inner monologue that might give a person encouragement and support when they look into the mirror. Mirrors, after all, aren’t exactly neutral things. Many people are trained to value themselves based on what they find there, how it compares to a model of beauty and worth that is determined not individually, but societally, and for some (especially women but along different axes as well) there’s a sense of never being able to reach the kind of perfection that is required or at least that is pushed as necessary. And so for me the piece takes on the voice of doubt and insecurity that is quick to point out every flaw, every blemish, every perceived lack, and refutes it. Now, the way that the poem works that, the title makes it seem like the mirror is being held by Athena, the goddess using her powers to show strength in the people who might not see it, who might see only weakness or lack. At the same time, there’s an element of the poem that feels to me that it’s a sort of inner monologue, that this is a person looking into a mirror to remind themself that they are powerful, that they are strong, that they are worthy of whatever it is they are reaching for. In that, the second person “yous” of the story become a kind of self validation, a pep talk that maybe even Athena needs to give herself sometimes, because everyone needs to hear they aren’t worthless, that they aren’t weak. And so the poem for me is tied very much to the ways that mirrors are often toxic in our lives, the ways that they are often meant to remind us of smallness, of ugliness, of needing to be concerned most about appearing a certain way to please a certain group that get to decide what beautiful is, what strong is. Here the mirror is reclaimed, showing not the funhouse distortion of fear and loathing, but reminding the viewer and the reader that they are amazing. And that makes for a wonderful read!
“Assimilation” by Valerie Valdes
This poem starts immediately with concession, tying the title, the idea of assimilation, to that of loss. And the rest of the poem plays with that further, showing how being assimilated is a violence, and often it is a violence that the assimilated is expected to do to themself. And the poem places very viscerally the reader into the place of the assimilating majority (or if not even majority than dominant). The narrator here is speaking to a “you” that seems passive but in that passivity there hides this pressure, this constant reminder. The microaggressions are prods, are small cuts that weigh more and more over time. That lessen as the person being hurt adjusts their behavior, becomes more acceptable. It’s a way of conditioning people to erase parts of themself, to make themself more appealing to the dominant to avoid punishment, to avoid the pain of having to be reminded and slighted again and again. And the poem captures so beautifully and so horrifically how that works, the way that it tears the narrator apart, the way that it makes them disassemble themself, cook themself down, render themself for the tastes not their own but those that might offer them a false peace and acceptance that is solely conditioned on being bland and unremarkable. It shows the price of assimilation, not just for the narrator (though that is the more important and gutting price) but for the greater whole as well, as it homogenizes everything, evens it out so that there is no flavor, nothing that might challenge or inspire. All that’s left is a thin broth, the promise of a singular cultural identity that doesn’t really fit anyone but that is reinforced and policed by all. The narrator becomes voiceless, formless, disembodied, and yet free from the pain that being different caused. And no longer at risk of being singled out and destroyed for their difference. A fantastic and sharp poem!