Monday, October 19, 2020

Quick Sips - Uncanny #36 [October stuff]

October doesn’t really bring a great deal of spooky material to Uncanny Magazine, but it does bring some stories that are very aware of isolation, of oppression, and of transformation. Of characters caught under the weight of their trauma, their wounds, their fears and hurts. Seeking ways to escape, to slip free, to get out from under the crush of historical abuses and more contemporary and intimate ones. Finding the power of moving in unexpected ways, of reaching for affirmation and comfort in the midst of conflict, war, and strife. It’s a difficult month of fiction and poetry, but it’s also a lovely selection of works that flow wonderfully together. To the reviews!


“Juvenilia” by Lavie Tidhar (4166 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator is a woman taking over a caretaking assignment in the British countryside following one of the World Wars (probably the second, if there’s large amounts of rebuilding being done in the capital?). The rules are simple. Don’t engage with the guests of the proprietors, don’t smoke in bed, and don’t go into the North Tower. The story is, among other things, an account of how she ends up breaking the rules, and what that means. But it’s also a story about storytelling, about fantasy, about family in some ways, and time and loss. The narrator is fleeing the horrors she witnessed during the war, and the estate offers her a way to isolate herself, to hide away. But that might not be what the narrator really needs.
Keywords: Portal Fantasies, Houses, Dreams, Family, War
Review: I love the feel of this story and how it brings up ideas of escape, war, and change through evoking the work of the Brontes, who as a family had created a fantasy realm that seems to intersect with this estate that the narrator comes to caretake. It’s like a haunting in some ways, especially because the story features an old Anne Bronte at the end (who died when she was considerably younger). The style of haunting, though, is strange, yearning, like being haunted by a story, by this fantasy realm that the kids had created. The narrator stumbles into it time and again, in the form of soldiers preparing for battle, in the form of songs that carry through the hall. And finally by stepping fully into that world. But this is a fantasy world that has lost its architects, its storytellers. And it’s a fantasy world that has been changed by the events of war. The colonial attitudes that helped to create the world has led to greater and greater violence. The weaponry of the soldiers that the narrator meets are advanced, not the older kind that would have been embodied in the toy soldiers the kids used to shape their fantasy stories. The city is abandoned. The fantasy is in ruins. Because of a “loss of innocence” as exemplified by the war? Because growing up means recognizing that childhood fantasies are often riddled with issues and need to be re-examined? Because childhood fantasies are just that--childish--and need to be put aside for “grown-up” concerns? Maybe to all of them, though for the narrator it’s none of those. For her the fantasy world she steps into doesn’t lack power for being empty. It’s a reminder of what she’s been running from, yes, but also a warning not to let go of what’s important. To not lose the power of fantasy in the face of the very real, very brutal realities of life. Not to escape from it, but to recontextualize it. To make it something easier to understand, and to respond to. To illuminate it in a way that is empowering for the narrator. And it’s an interesting and complex story that looks at history and narrative, at the legacy left behind by a very creative and story-driven family, and how it still echoes through time to now. It’s a wonderful read!

“In The Space of Twelve Minutes” by James Yu (6620 words)

No Spoilers: Reuben is the husband of a taikonaut who’s currently on mission on Mars. To combat the interpersonal issues that arise with long-term space missions, though, the Chinese space program running the mission has come up with a novel idea--to use a stable couple and not send them up together, but give them each an avatar that will sort of filter the other into their lives in a way to promote harmony. For Reuben’s wife, it means getting a husband who can help with the mission while providing real time emotional support via a kind of neural link to the Reuben on Earth. While on Earth, Reuben will live with an avatar of Claire who will be the presence at home that might help him. The problem is that, while this works great for the mission on Mars, Reuben on Earth isn’t as well served, and the avatar he’s living with has needs all her own. The piece is tense and emotionally resonating, building a fragile situation on the cusp of scientific discovery.
Keywords: Space, Mars, Relationships, Avatars, Science!
Review: I like the way the story sets up this relationship and the way it works and, ultimately, the way it also doesn’t work. Because despite the love and affection between the characters, between Reuben and Claire, between Reuben and Terra, there’s also this thing at the heart of them that...keeps them apart. The part of Reuben that looks to the stars but stays planted on the Earth. The way that both Claire and Terra (the later despite her name) reach to go out into space. In some ways it’s what brings them together, their shared interest in space, in discovery, but they have these two very different approaches. And because of the nature of those approaches, they are always kind of saying goodbye from each other, always passing out of orbit. Able to be near while space and gravity allow but always bound to move back apart, lonelier for it. And it’s not lost on me that for the Reuben avatar, all that was tweaked it seems was his aversion to being out there, in space (which the avatar got to skip mostly, anyway). And yet that’s also what breaks Reuben from his avatar, just as the desire for space breaks Claire and Terra. There are these things that are sort of key to who they are, and while Reuben can be shifted to be happy on another planet, being more domestic and helping out Claire’s research, he also can’t take that step. Whereas with Claire and Terra, there’s really no making them domestic, making them happy to stay in one place. Reuben puts down roots, is nurturing in many ways, but ultimately he is attached to where he is. Claire and Terra can’t be happy that way, and it makes for a rather emotionally charged reading because they seem destined to drift apart, to break up, and it hurts because it’s not that they don’t love each other. For the Reuben on Earth especially, he’s stuck always being left behind, and making peace with that because it’s the only way he can enjoy those moments when the orbits allow closeness, and the loneliness can lift. It’s a lovely and yearning read and I definitely recommend checking it out!

“The City of the Tree” by Marie Brennan (4815 words)

No Spoilers: The city of Cahuei is a city of a great tree. The great cyprus, which has stood for thousands of years. Which houses the religious sects of the Issli, and which is just not coming out from occupation from a foreign power that destroyed its history, its traditions, and maybe even the tree itself. Because, following the awakening of the archon of the tree, the being asleep at the tree’s core, the being who kept the enormous tree vital and living, and his subsequent death, the tree is dying. And nothing the newly-free Issli can do seems to be able to stop that. So they turn to some drastic options, setting up a new cycle, a new life for their tree, but also maybe a new tragedy, a new rot, and a new promise of devastation to come. It’s an interesting story, quiet and with a certain distance to it, not quite a myth. Almost like a backstory, a history that is unfolding amidst loss, desperation, and the need for recovery.
Keywords: War, Trees, Decay, Summoning, Stories, Archai
Review: I love how the story takes on recovery, takes on the wounds of occupation, the Issli having been conquered and hurt. How this force tried to break them by attacking their past, their heritage, the trees that helped to give the Issli and the various tribes contained in that larger identity a sense of connection and history. It’s been burned away, and then the archon of the tree woke, and was killed. And now the tree is dying. And though the colonizers are gone, the Issli who remain have lost the stories of what the tree fully is. Who the archon fully was. How it all came together to make the tree in all its complex majesty and magic. That doesn’t mean they are willing to give up. But it means that when they act, it’s grasping in the dark, trying to find something they don’t fully understand. Something that’s been taken and that they might not be able to retrieve. And the option is to abandon who they were, who they feel they are, or to try and recreate it. How they do that, though, is...well, it’s not exactly without some cost. Without in many ways compromising who they are and who they were. Taking a page from their oppressors, doing things that aren’t really cool. But the story recognizes that there really might not be a great way forward. So much has been lost, that the tree itself, its future, is so loaded with meaning, with need and desperation. With hurt and despair. But also with hope, with the hope that what has been lost is not ultimately fatal. That Issli can recover. And the piece in some ways to me feels like a history, like a back story, setting up this city as a home of contradiction. Past and future. Freedom and containment. Promise and betrayal. It’s an interesting story in its own right, but it doesn’t really resolve the question of what can grow for this new seed, this new magic, this new archon. And that’s a story I’m very interested in. But what’s here is complex and layered and complete, and it’s a great read!


“As if My Flesh was Summer Soil” by Lora Gray

This piece speaks to me of care and change, growth and cycles. It seems to feature a narrator who is pregnant, though that pregnancy might not be what most people would expect. At least, the narrator refers to what is growing inside them as their sparrow, which speaks to something strange, something more dangerous, as the sparrow is all sharp edges, the promise of blood. There’s a generational element of it, though, the way the narrator connects to their mother, to their mother’s own pregnancy with them. All of them connected by feathers, and perhaps too by loss. For me at least the piece is ripe with the feeling of loss, the narrator going through these motions that they have learned, that they are familiar with because it’s how they were taught by their mother. But the mother doesn’t seem present any longer. And so that absence takes on a weight, pulls at the poem, at the narrator. There is something restrained in the words for me, the lean toward the sudden outburst, the narrator wanting to express something wild, something dramatic and loud, but smoothing out their disquiet, their worry, their anger even at the situation, at the way they seem alone. And there’s just a lot going on here, a lot that might mean that the narrator isn’t pregnant, that the sparrow is something else. A constant sign of infertility? The poem does use imagery and words, from the summer soil of the title to nature being tricked in the end, that seems to imply to me that the narrator doesn’t really believe themself capable of growing anything in that way. Of bringing forth life. Whatever the case, for me the piece really deals with cycles, with generations, with a narrator who is going through these motions, unsure of what is coming, perhaps afraid, perhaps resigned, but waiting for something to happen. For whatever is going on to full arrive. And it’s a difficult thing, complex and wrenching, full of the possibility of tragedy and pain. That said, it’s a lovely and a bit haunting piece that I think well worth spending some time with!

“The Body in Revolt” by Rita Chen

This piece is well paired with the previous poem, as both deal with bodies, with things that might be pregnancies. With people dealing with these layered and passed-down horrors and weights. Here, though, the narrator is in a much more traumatic situation, impaled on a wooden spear and left, growing slowly around the wound but never really healing. They are transfixed, spilled open, and as the poem progresses a wider picture comes clear, that the narrator has things living in them, creatures, animals. They are become a piece of the landscape, old but alive, conscious, clinging to an existence that seems to carry on despite this old injury, this violence that was done to them. For me, the piece seems to set the narrator up as someone who has been defeated. Banished. A monster, maybe, or at least perceived as one. But a victim, too, attacked and subdued but not killed. Trapped, alive and aware but without the power to really recover from what’s happened to them. The piece is grim, and writhing with imagery of transformation, of...not rot exactly, but a kind of decomposition all the same, the body of the narrator birthing new life, becoming something different than it was, new and terrible. All the while, the piece also seems to deal with stories and cycles, the narrator born again and it seems again in a string of agains, all of them changing the narrator and their nature, their outlook. Crashing back into violence, death, decay, but again springing forth and forward, slipping free of the skin and body and becoming something new, each time maybe getting closer to something ethereal, something that can’t be pinned by a spear, can’t be hacked by an axe. Something that cannot be wounded in that way, that can dissolve, free at last. At least, for me the piece deals with the difficult and often visceral realities of life and feeling or being powerless and the power that comes from getting away, from escaping, from breaking free of the cage of injury and oppression and becoming something new and different and beautiful. And it’s a great way to close out the month’s originals!


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