Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Quick Sips - Uncanny #36 [September stuff]

Art by Christopher Jones
The latest from Uncanny includes three new short stories and two new poems that speak of space, of people finding themselves in a new place, unsure of the rules, hurting from the baggage and scars they bring with them, trying to find a way forward. A way to stop being hungry--for food, or experiences, for closure, for revenge. The works lean a bit more towards the science fictional side of things (or well, the fiction does), with a slight divergence to a work that...seems to blend science and fantasy. The works are well built, vividly imagined, and have a bit of aching need at their core, and I should stop being vague and get right to my reviews!


“Anchorage” by Samantha Mills (5857 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story isn’t exactly who they seem. On the outside, they are a delivery robot named Geneva, part of a spaceship crew with four other humans: the mysterious Captain Rousseau, the recently injured Olivia, and the more outgoing Malala and Santiago. On the inside, though, the narrator is hiding something that would be...rather huge if discovered. And everyone is harboring the lingering effects of a recent trauma. When they come across an anchorage, a somewhat rare event, the narrator is very excited to dock, to experience more of the world, to relish the feeling of having a moving body capable of seeing the stars. But there’s a fragility there, as well, and a grim reality of the galaxy as its revealed that speaks of misunderstandings, loss, and a thin hope that, for the moment at least, hasn’t broken.
Keywords: Space, Accidents, Lichen, Listening, Confessions
Review: I really like the weird and messy and fragile situation the story gradually reveals. Where the narrator at first seems like they must be an AI who has undergone a singularity, an awakening into sentience, but which actually is a bit more complicated than that. That links to this event that happened where Olivia lost her hand, where the rest of the crew splintered some because of the responsibility they feel (rightly or not) in the event. In the loss. And I really like the way that’s explored, the sort of shared pain that the whole crew feels, that they wish they could get over but that’s complicated by the physical injury and loss that Olivia can never really get over. Get through, maybe, but for the moment it’s left everyone hurt and angry and grieving. And I like how there’s this power to the anchorage that the ship comes to, that the crew experiences. And I really like the fresh take on the excitement for exploration, the desire to see and to get out there to really see what the galaxy has to offer. The narrator has this bright outlook, this kind of relentless optimism, and I really like that they’re not supposed to have that, have to constantly be suppressing what they want, what their inclination is, because it’s suspicious, because they don’t want to be discovered. Because they know that they’re not really welcome as they as, that they will be seen as a threat, maybe as an invader, and certainly as responsible for a lot of the pain that has happened recently. They hide because they are desperate not to lose their freedom, lose their access to the wider galaxy. And to their crew specifically, who they have come to care about, to love. And it all comes to a head at this anchorage with the strange anchoress, who lives behind a brick wall, who everyone feels like they can talk to because she wants to listen, because she seems to know things about them. And so the story is something of a confession, or at least features a confession, and indeed a multitude of confessions, each one enough perhaps to rip the crew apart, and yet uniting them at the same time. A wonderful read!

“Laws of Impermanence” by Kenneth Schneyer (3839 words)

No Spoilers: On its surface, this story is about an inheritance. Featuring a will that has been missing for a long time, that is incredibly unreliable because of the central speculative element of the setting--that texts change over time, like the written word plays telephone with itself so long as no one is actively remembering it/observing it. It means that most texts drift over time, not because of translation or transcription but because of transmutation, where texts will spontaneously just change. Each time in fairly small ways but, over time, very significant variations expressing profoundly different things can develop. As the family with the uncertain will discover along multiple axes as they try to figure out the intentions of the husband and father they’ve lost. It’s a sinking piece, the implications philosophical and metaphysical in some ways but also chilling and a statement on the unreliability of history and texts in general.
Keywords: Wills, Family, Transmutation, Change, Texts
Review: I love the central idea here, which speaks to the unreliability of texts. Which to me speaks to all the ways that texts sort of lose their authorship over time. Not in our case because the texts physically change but because as texts move and survive, they are brought out of the very specific context of their creation and enter into different contexts that give them different meaning, different energy, and very different interpretations. The truth is that while the words might not change, the definitions of the words do indeed change, and alter over time, so that an older text might be significantly shifted when encountered by a newer reader because language is not still, is not static. Further, there are linguistic and contextual differences that happen across geography and culture, even at the same time, even within populations are cohabitate the same space. The truth is that meaning changes, words do change, everything changes once it leans the author’s head. Once there, there’s no real control of it, not without the constant input from the author. Which means that texts can change significantly rather quickly, and especially over the long term can be so different as to be basically unrecognizable as the original. And I like how that’s treated something as benign, as scientific, as this thing that happens almost randomly...but not necessarily. Because the actual text the story follows in its change does so to sort of align to the ways that the culture is structured. Erasing an act of violence by a man against a woman and slowly replacing it with a story of a woman ultimately hurting herself out of her own emotionality. And I think that’s a really interesting and subtle point here, that no one within the text really talks about, that changes often are about what the current readers want to encounter. That it might favor the same people who are always favored. That these changes aren’t just random, but follow the paths that pervade a place, that lead to a certain reading, a certain transmutation, becoming viewed as the real deal. And it’s a complex and grim look at this, interesting and well worth spending some time with. A great read!

“Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher (7180 words)

No Spoilers: A man builds two sentient machines, Brother and Sister, and then they set out improving themselves, finding out what shapes they want to take, all on the ruins of a planet that has been stripped of most of its natural resources. They enjoy their lives searching the planet for new metals, but all the same the lack of mineral resources leaves them hungry. And when their maker, their father, falls ill, he sends them out into the asteroid belt to survive and wait until he is better. But it’s little more sustaining out there, where the resources have also been stripped away. Until, that is, they find a huge ship, rich in metals, and think they’ve hit the jackpot. Until the owner of the ship returns and demands they pay of their hunger. The piece is strange but a lovely spin on a fairy tale told across the stars, and the action is grim even as it shows the siblings finding a way to stay alive and stay together despite the hungers within and without.
Keywords: Fairy Tales, Space, Hansel & Gretel, Lies, Wings, AIs
Review: I really like how the story twists the classic Hansel and Gretel narrative, the siblings in this case sentient machines, just like the “witch” who finds and imprisons them, who lies to them at a time when they are innocent of lies, when they don’t even know what that means. It’s sister to actually figures it out, and finds in the process that in gaining the ability to lie the price is to never be able to fully trust, because knowing that power exists in yourself is to suspect it always in practice in others. And I really like how that goes, that for Sister the ability to lie is necessary, is what ultimately saves her and her brother. But it’s also transforming. she can’t go back to being unable to lie, and in that she stops being able to fully trust people. A survival mechanism for existing in the galaxy they live in, but still something of a loss. Because it recognizes that there’s something of a choice, to act honestly or to lie, and bad actors have made lying and distrusting people necessary. And I like too just the feel of the story, the way that Brother and Sister try their hardest just to exist, to stop the hunger pulling on them, and how they still meet the galaxy with excitement, with a kind of wonder. Again, a wonder that is dimmed in Sister a bit by her discovery of the predators waiting out there, but that is not extinguished, and that she still gets to feel reflected from Brother, their togetherness still something that is hopeful, free. There’s also a nice grimness, though, that cuts through it all, in good fairy tale fashion. A sense that this galaxy is worn, and full of wolves or other beings who are quick to exploit, who are hungry in ways that has nothing to do with having enough to eat. For the being they encounter, it’s a hunger for dominance, for revenge. For others it’s a greed, a need to grow without thought of sustenance or being satiated. And it’s a fun mash up of genres and elements into a story that holds up and is satisfying. That doesn’t lose itself to the grim and gritty setting, that manages to hold onto a grain of hope and resilience, to give rise to a kind of integrity and joy that might yet stand against the almost foregone conclusion of destruction and devastation. A fantastic read!


“Fin” by Terese Mason Pierre

I like the way the poem builds around a meeting, a boy walking near the shore, a woman in the sea, both of them seeing in the other something of themself. The boy sees his mother, the woman, her son. And in that moment of recognition there opens something, something both warm and cold, beautiful and chilling. And I think that gets at a lot of how the poem strikes me, that it’s setting up this place and this situation that is rich is as rich in beauty as it is in horror, in the memory and history of violence. At least, the piece seems to me to set up some kind of tragedy both in the boy and in the woman in the sea. His mother is mentioned wandering, and for me that speaks to perhaps a situation where she’s not always aware of where she’s going, that this might have happened before, where she’s been found somewhere strange, dangerous. And the woman, she’s calling to him. Beckoning him. Calling him like her child, the implication there for me that said child isn’t around anymore. Lost to hunters or nets or pollution or what, I’m not sure, but I do feel the poem sets the scene heavy with the potential and the marks of loss, the characters reacting to strongly to each other because their pain reflects, because it finds in the other a mirror as well as a companion. And that sort of sparks that blink between when they are apart and together, from him on the pier, her in the water, to the both of them together, like magnets pulling on each other, jumping without even really thinking about it. She found the way to call him, and he didn’t really fight it, not even when he realizes that she’s not exactly human. Which doesn’t seem a thing, to him, as his laugh becomes part of the landscape, as he becomes a part of the sea. It’s a breath of relief that I fel from the ending, of joy, the recognition that there is pain, and loss, all around, but that it doesn’t tame the spirit, doesn’t drown connection or love. At least, for me it feels more full of hope than sorrow, a nature with its dangers and its mood, but not all of them angry or vengeful. A great read!

“My Cat, He” by Beth Cato

This piece seems to take pet ownership and connects it to issues surrounding eating, and I appreciate the way that it takes a subject that is often kind of light-hearted (cats!) and interjects a much more serious aspect of them. A way that they can be selfish, but a way that they can be rehabilitating, loving, and caring as well. For the narrator of the piece, their cat is a sort of reminder, and a force in a life that seems perhaps in some ways out of control. So that the narrator, devoid of much in the way of desire, seems to be wasting away. Against that stands a cat. A cat who wants to be fed. A cat whose hunger might be the spark the narrator needs to light their own. And for me it really speaks to the ways that pets can help with depression, with disordered eating, with all sorts of things, by being a demand on a person. The cat needs to be fed, and cats are quiet about that, aren’t subtle about that. Certainly there’s the possible reading of cats that they don’t care about you so long as they get fed but that selfishness might be a little overstated. Because a cat will bring you food (obviously not often the kind you want). A cat can sometimes sense when you’re not well, and will come to find you and will give comfort. Will lie on you and purr on you and sort of help you heal. Not only physically but mentally as well. What a cat won’t let you do, though, is rest when it’s food time. And for the narrator that seems to be what they need, that physical manifestation of hunger to remind them to eat. To live. That there is this creature full of warmth and claws that depends on the narrator for its life and that sort of puts things a bit into perspective and also makes very clear some things. That the person who feeds the cat is important to the cat. That they have power, that they are in control of this thing but have to take control of it. Have to feed the cat. And in return there is love, and cuddles, and companionship. And it’s a warm poem that does take on some rather difficult and uncomfortable themes and issues. It’s not an easy poem, for all its about cats. But it’s a beautiful take on pets and care and eating and hope, and it’s a brilliant way to close out the original content this month!


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1 comment:

  1. I am flattered and impressed by your thoughtful review of "Laws of Impermanence"!