Review: Uncanny #25

Uncanny #25, November/December 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “How to Swallow the Moon” by Isabel Yap (fantasy novelette)
  • “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher (fantasy short story)
  • “The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer (fantasy novelette)
  • “My Name is Cybernetic Model XR389F, and I am Beautiful” by Monica Valentinelli (science fictional short story)
  • “Monologue by an unnamed mage, recorded at the brink of the end” by Cassandra Khaw (fantasy short story)

XR389F” is about a maid resisting the sexual harassment a boss is inciting his subordinate to commit. That the maid and subordinate are ineptly portrayed as cyborgs (robots with flesh, here, rather than humans with mechanisms) does nothing to make this science fiction but it doesn’t work as mainstream fiction, either.

Moving to the fantasies, “Monologue” is just what the long title of the flash piece says: an apostrophe to a beloved at the apocalypse. It will appeal to those who want single sentences to contain “tessellated,” “lambency,” and “blackgold kintsugi” and for them to be followed by sentences which contain “fucking door.”

Most of “Moon” is a romance about two women mooning over each other, trapped in oppressive roles by society, but eventually moves to a somewhat rote, but effective, action sequence. Derived from Filipino culture and myth, a bakunawa (gigantic sea monster) ate moons until the last moon was saved by satisfying it with a female sacrifice. While there hasn’t been a sacrifice for a long time, Anyag is raised as a binukot in case the monster comes back, which is to say that she’s kept in almost complete isolation except for her indentured tutor/guardian, “you.” (Yes, this is in second-person present tense for no discernible reason and your name is Amira.) You’re afraid to confess your feelings for Anyag to her but matters come to a head when it’s time for Anyag to get married and a suitor with pointy teeth and nails arrives.

Rose” isn’t a whole lotta story, being slight and undramatic, but this sort of “double flash” piece is nicely structured and amusing and, as AC/DC would say, Rosie is a whole lotta woman. Now that she’s moved on, the various fae and other creatures she’s enjoyed pine for her.

Finally, we come to the third notable story about familial death I’ve read in as many issues. “Ghost Stories” is one of those which is difficult to write about because I don’t want to spoil anything at all, even though readers will be able to anticipate much as they make their way through the story. A folklorist who collects and writes about ghost stories has recently lost her mother to Alzheimer’s. Now able to get back out in the field and solicit ghost stories from people, she learns more than she expected. The first-person protagonist is extremely believable as a person, caregiver, and folklorist in that she’s not a sainted martyr but had her bad days and does talk about her vocation in a sometimes wonky way but doesn’t overdo it. The pain, difficulty, and mixed emotions about her mother’s last years are effectively portrayed and touch the reader, avoiding bathos or mawkishness. Even the story’s “meta”-ness (of the story teller collecting, discussing, and telling stories) doesn’t come across as a cutesy “literary” effect but arises in a natural way and creates a deeper resonance. And the ending is superb. About the only thing I could quibble about is that, while I found the narrator and all she talked about fascinating and all of it was valuable, I don’t know that it was all essential. This really is a short story in terms of outline and conceptual thrust but just crosses the word count threshold of a novelette and anyone not as fascinated might find it a little too long. Still, this gets a strong recommendation from me.


Review: Uncanny #23

Uncanny #23, July/August 2018

  • “Red Lizard Brigade” by Sam J. Miller (science fictional)
  • “You Can Make a Dinosaur, but You Can’t Help Me” by K.M. Szpara (science fictional)
  • “Bones in the Rock” by R.K. Kalaw (fantasy)
  • “By Claw, By Hand, By Silent Speech” by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry & A. Merc Rustad (science fictional)
  • “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander (fantasy)
  • “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon, California, and the Unknown” by Brit E. B. Hvide (fantasy)
  • “Give the People What They Want” by Alex Bledsoe (science fictional)
  • “Nails in My Feet” by Mary Robinette Kowal (fantasy)
  • “Everything Under Heaven” by Anya Ow (fantasy)

The twenty-third edition of Uncanny is a special issue, all the (short) stories of which are set in a shared world of multiversal spacetime gates and which are supposed to feature dinosaurs. A brief introduction credited to several contributors lays out the softly science fictional premise to bring in a subject which many people are inordinately fascinated by: the terrible lizards. Even with these easy parameters, most of the stories mostly or entirely ignore the premise (to the point of not even being in the same genre) and none of them show any interest in dinosaurs. The stories and this aspect of them make me think of the L7 song, “I Need,” which includes the lines, “Enough talk about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me? me? me?” I don’t ordinarily review shared world fiction but entire issues of the magazines I do review aren’t usually devoted to them, either, and skipping an entire issue seems odd, so I’ll briefly sketch what you may be in for.

Red Lizard Brigade” is about a Soviet soldier trying to prevent his fellow soldier and lover from defecting. The two men have a final confrontation in which the dinosaur the loyalist rides is analogous to any military tool. “You Can Make a Dinosaur, but You Can’t Help Me” (me, me, me) is a second person tale in which you were born a female and get mad when your dad won’t pay for your sex change operation. Late in the story, the protagonist says he doesn’t, and I quote, “give two shits about [dad’s] portal and his dinosaurs.” In “Give the People What They Want,” we’re treated to a scam to produce dinosaur porn, the third scene of which is impossibly narrated.

By Claw, By Hand, By Silent Speech” is the last of the vaguely science fictional tales and one that features another strong theme of the issue: insofar as dinosaurs are featured at all, they are still not usually real creatures of flesh and blood but are romanticized symbols. In this one, a deaf person teaches a raptor (almost none of the stories have anything besides raptors, usually velociraptors) sign language because she wants to get inside the cage with it. Coincidentally, I just recently learned about Timothy Treadwell and think our protagonist should fare no better. “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters” is similarly romantic about the noble dinosaur as it treats men as idiots and women as wise but is at least written explicitly as a fairy tale, so its witch hobnobbing with the dinos seems less preposterous. “Bones in the Rock” also recalls “Claw” in the sense that, as “Claw” is aiming for “Enemy Mine” emotional weight, so this tale, about a deeply loving dinosaur reincarnated repeatedly as a human, aims for emotional weight but is fundamentally silly.

One fantasy that doesn’t fit with the others is “Everything Under Heaven” in which a woman complains about her insufficient mother-figure and cooks while the other woman (and prospective lover) hunts the Great Green Dragon. Two even further outliers are “The Emigrants’ Guide” which adds a crazy member to the Donner party along with his pet “strange little bird” and “Nails in My Feet” about a sentient dry-rotted dinosaur puppet. Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Puppet Show” instead.

As can be seen from the increasingly random tales, one of the many ways in which this issue fails is in not capitalizing on a particular virtue of connected story sequences: none of the stories relate to the other except incidentally or accidentally and certainly don’t build on each other to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Taken individually, none is successful and, taken as parts of a shared whole, they’re worse.

Review: Uncanny #22

Uncanny #22, May/June 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Blessings” by Naomi Novik (fantasy)
  • “Sucks (to Be You)” by Katharine Duckett (fantasy)
  • “Discard the Sun, for It Has Failed Us” by Marina J. Lostetter (science fiction)
  • “What Gentle Women Dare” by Kelly Robson (science fiction)
  • “If We Die Unjustified” by A. Merc Rustad (fantasy)
  • “The Cook” by C.L. Clark (fantasy)

All stories are short with the third and sixth being short-shorts. This review will also be short.

Blessings” involves a woman holding a bash for a half-dozen fairies, hoping one will bless her new-born daughter. Things go better than she could have hoped and worse than she probably feared. It’s a simple and abruptly ended tale of what could be feminism but reads more as misandry along with some antipathy towards beautiful women. It seems to love men in comparison to “What Gentle Women Dare.” Early on, I ironically thought this was exactly the kind of fantasy which made me love science fiction as it detailed the squalor and misery of a prostitute’s life in 18th century England but it becomes SF (I’m assuming the ghost of the protagonist’s murdered daughter is a manifestation of her insanity and not a fantasy element) when the corpse who washed up in front of the prostitute and reanimated is revealed to be, not “Satan,” but a weird parasitic alien apparently conducting a referendum on whether to kill all the men who, of course, cause all the evil in the world. And that is a loving story in comparison to “If We Die Unjustified.” In it, a little girl hates killing and is killed. When a tardy “angel” finally responds to her “prayers,” it kills and resurrects her dog and also resurrects her (more or less… actually less). The girl eventually gets around to killing practically everyone. Like Rousseau, she will force people to be free and, like the US military in Viet Nam and many stories these days, she has to destroy the world to save it. The puerility of these don’t merit further comment beyond saying that the first was perky and the latter two exuded miasmas effectively.

In “Sucks (to Be You),” a succubus of sorts meets her match when social media modifies her and her favorite. The stream-of-consciousness monologue from the narrator (who is far more impressed with herself than anyone else is likely to be) is too convincing because actual stream-of-consciousness is boring and artifice generally tries to make it less so and would also usually force it to convey some sort of plot which this doesn’t really do.

Finally, of the two flash pieces, “The Cook” is an underplotted piece about a warrior falling in love with a cook between battles. The other, “Discard the Sun, for It Has Failed Us,” was the only story of the issue that mildly appealed to me. Ken Liu’s “Cosmic Spring” (which I also honorably mentioned) was the most recent story (as far as I know) to use the idea of feeding a sun as one would tend a cosmic hearth. This story applies that idea to our very own sun, eons after we’ve outgrown it. This tale is also a little lacking in plot, basically being an argument between an unimaginative pragmatist and a more sensitive soul, but it’s quite an argument:

“The sun is the only god empirically proven to exist,” I yell. “It created life on Earth. Gave life-sustaining energy. It gave and gave and gave, and—no matter our millennia of trying—our sacrifices could not reach it.”

Now, with our hydrogen-bearing starships, they can.

Review: Uncanny #21

Uncanny #21, March/April 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” by Sarah Pinsker (5300 words)
  • “And Yet” by A. T. Greenblatt (science fantasy short story)
  • “Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (fantasy short story)
  • “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” by Sarah Monette (fantasy short story)
  • “Pistol Grip” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (science fiction short story)
  • “The Howling Detective” by Brandon O’Brien (fantasy short story)

While a couple of the pieces in this issue of Uncanny could be called SF and two feature sorts of paranormal detectives and almost all feature (usually ill-judged) odd narrative techniques, there’s really no special coherence to this issue and I didn’t particularly enjoy any of them, so I’ll just take them in order and, as Pascal said, I apologize for the length of this review but I lack the time to make it shorter.

A generous interpretation of “Heart of Noise” is that it is an exuberant explosion of name-dropping to celebrate artistry by turning Forster’s timeless room of novelists into a Hilbert hotel of all kinds of artists. However, it seemed to me a boring laundry list with no story or only a tiny bit (a fictional artist) wedged into the cracks of this abridged encyclopedia of New York kulchur. I had to laugh when I read, “We don’t need to list everyone.” No, but we’re damn sure gonna try anyway.

And Yet” isn’t good. It isn’t even bad. A person who is supposed to be a college-educated physicist behaves stupidly for an entire second-person, present tense piece in which a “haunted” house is supposed to be a portal to alternate worlds. This is a house that “[t]ime seems to have ricocheted off” of and yet which has “[e]very dip in the floorboards, every peeling strip of paint… exactly as you remember it” and yet in which “[n]othing… has stayed the same.” It’s a story in which “you aren’t claustrophobic until you are.” Lisa Goldstein’s Jan./Feb. 2017 Asimov’s story, “The Catastrophe of Cities,” uses a network of houses to much greater effect in her tale of two separated friends (this one partly deals with two separated brothers) and, while first-person present tense, also addresses “you” but is much better. Mari Ness just published “You Will Never Know What Opens” in the Dec. 2017 Lightspeed and has a different theme but deploys its second-person narrative of a portal house to much greater and more entertaining effect. And these are just two recent examples of I don’t know how many.

River” has one girl who imagines herself turning into apples and rivers and stones for much of the story and another girl who has turned into a boy and a taxidermist. They’re childhood friends and roommates but he’s moving away. Meanwhile, he’s keeping himself busy collecting dead dogs from the side of the road. It ends abruptly yet predictably. There’s also a bizarre part where the first-person narrator mentions “A faint, plaintive bark sounds from somewhere close, almost as if it’s beneath our feet. Speaking loudly, covering the sound, NPW says, ‘Should we go see your mom today?'” and agrees. A third-person narrator might say this but it’s bizarre for the protagonist to be unaware of the thing she’s narrating and to know what the other character is doing without knowing it.

Though ultimately mildly disappointing, “Dragon’s Teeth” represents a quantum leap in narrative prowess over the preceding stories and is the first of our two detective tales. The narrator was a sort of friend to a recently deceased poet before they had a falling out as kids and is now working in the library which has received the poet’s papers. There he discovers a “poppet” (a sort of voodoo doll) and instantly divines that this does not belong to the poet and that he has been murdered and turns into a sort of private detective, solving the case very quickly and easily. This is less about the case and more about peoples’ interrelations and their envy and misunderstandings but doesn’t really plumb those depths, either.

While not remarkable in absolute terms, “Pistol Grip” is this issue’s best story. It’s a Mutt and Jeff tale of homosexual cyborg soldiers avoiding “retirement” by retiring their creators. But it’s really just a familiar tale of finding (a sort of) love in the strangest places. The sexual elements of the opening and closing frame are extreme and will be too much for some—in a reversal of at least American standards, the violence in the middle is mostly tastefully pushed off-stage—but the story is done well enough. (I do question why no cops or others seem to be looking for them and they can freely use an “authenticator” for an “account deduction.”) Other than a speck like a robot waiter referring to “%NAMEOFPATRON%” (which is maybe also supposed to answer my previous question) there was little humor and the science fictional elements were more common and less interesting than I’d like and this was yet another second-person narrative (though, in this case, it retreated unobtrusively into the background) but it was concise and effective.

As “Dragon’s Teeth” was a paranormal detective tale featuring not a voodoo doll, but a “poppet,” so “The Howling Detective” is a paranormal detective tale featuring not a werewolf, but a “lagahoo.” In Trinidad and Tobago, a child has gone missing (presumed murdered) and a person who has no connection to the case takes it upon himself to investigate. This is also easily solved and not really about the case but, despite the police officer saying he doesn’t believe in lagahoos and will do his job, it seems to celebrate vigilantism. The main technical problems with this were what seemed like unclear exposition to me along with the minor but odd choice of the third-person omniscient sections being separated by a first-person reporter interviewing the cop.

Review: Uncanny #20

Uncanny #20, January/February 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “She Still Loves the Dragon” by Elizabeth Bear (fantasy)
  • “Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” by S.B. Divya (science fiction)
  • The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine (science fiction)
  • “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” by Marissa Lingen (fantasy)
  • “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor” by Sunny Moraine (fantasy)
  • “The Utmost Bound” by Vivian Shaw (science fiction)
  • “The Date” by R.K. Kalaw (fantasy)

All the stories are short except the last, which is shorter.

The one I most want to talk about is The Hydraulic Emperor which is probably my favorite story of the young year and certainly one of the top two.

The Hydraulic Emperor is a short “immersive” film and there may be only one print in the universe. Mallory Iheji is a huge fan of the filmmaker, Aglaé Skemety, and is desperate to experience it. When a corporate suit offers it to her in payment for a mission, she accepts. The mission is to acquire a puzzlebox from the alien Qath who are very strange and hold bidding competitions with sacrifice as payment – whether they are psychic or through some other means, they can determine the personal cost of the sacrifice which is what they care about rather than the human monetary value. When an old flame/colleague shows up and begins bidding against her, Mallory’s task of acquiring the puzzlebox (and thus the film) gets more complicated.

Some stories are “Oh, this again,” in a bad way and some are, “Ooh, this again.” The grail motif and the art-within-art element and the weird aliens and the various other things aren’t new, obviously, but are hard to wear out and are good things to build good stories out of. This particular example does a great job of engaging both intellect and emotion. The protagonist is smart and passionate but expresses her deep emotions in an almost stoic or restrained way. The milieu and the aliens are fascinating as is the sacrificial barter concept. Thematically, the story engages several kinds of nullity in a very full way, so to speak. Along with another slight problem difficult to express without getting too much into the closing sequence, you do have to swallow the idea that there is somehow only one known copy of the movie but it’s theoretically possible and worth it to make the story go. I enjoyed this one a lot.

As far as the other stories, there is something wrong in the realms of speculative fiction when I’ve read about as many stories this month about women being burned by dragons and liking it as I have about spaceships. “She Still Loves the Dragon” would seem to be an abusive relationship of some kind but is supposed to be beautiful and empowering somehow. Between the two, I preferred “Mother’s Rules for a Burned Girl,” which is otherwise quite different.

Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” deals with what seems to be an abortionist and her spouse (who has breasts but is not a “she,” if I understood correctly) living in a dictatorial future Arizona when the government forces kill the doctor, forcing the spouse to flee with the two children to California. It’s too overwrought, emotionally manipulative, and too simply conceived, plotted, and resolved, though some may respond to its intensity. “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor,”  is a similarly intense but overwrought and simple story in which a girl walks into a bar… and walks out with another girl and they destroy the world. This “oh, this again” story, like its many companions, lacks shape, judgment, balance… art. Another, more restrained, story about two lonely people finding kindred spirits is “The Date,” a flash piece about a praying mantis lady and some other carnivore.

The Utmost Bound” is almost a good ol’ space story and I’m a supporter of manned space exploration but it’s still inexplicable that two people would be orbiting Venus so they could run a rover over the surface and is further hurt by having one of the astronauts panic at what they find when, like a pilot who calmly tries X, then Y, then mutters “Crap” as the last word before crashing, an astronaut (and most civilians) should be able to handle what happens. Plus, its central idea is simultaneously Fortean and yet too much like a Karl Schroeder story (“Laika’s Ghost,” if I recall correctly).

Perhaps the best of the rest is “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage.” When the protagonist sorceress is stuck inside a tree by her duplicitous apprentice while on a job to find a way to cross the frost giants’ domain, she learns about walking a mile in a cherry tree’s shoes, so to speak, as well as the application of this to intercreature diplomacy. The tone is almost as annoying as it is amusing and it’s conveniently plotted, but it’s still a decent tale.

Rec: “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Uncanny #18 September/October 2017, science fiction short story

Computron is a sentient robot who was created in 1954 in this alternate history story. Years later, he is part of a museum and sometimes answers questions from the audience to demonstrate his sentience. When one questioner asks him if he’s familiar with an anime called Hyperdimension Warp Record which features a robot similar to him, he admits he is not but, later that night, checks it out. The story discusses his entry into the world of anime and fanfic along with his collaboration with a human fanfic writer.

This is a very different story from “A Series of Steaks” from the same author, which I recommended earlier this year, but shares the same sparkling wit. There seems to be an ambiguity in the title where it’s a primer for robots on how to get into fandom but is also speaking of people’s appreciation of robots. There are in-references such as Computron’s being part of the Simak Museum (and perhaps even the Ellison and Williamson references aren’t coincidental) though, oddly, there’s no Asimov reference. The robot is characterized in an amusing way, describing how he can’t possibly be frustrated by it not being time for the show to air, yet constantly checking the time all the same. The descriptions of the quality of much of the fanfic and the chat between a couple of fans were especially funny.

I’m not sure how to interpret the story’s core, though. It obviously deals with “futures past” and how that which seems futuristic at one time becomes dated at another. It also has a elegiac feel when describing how few people seem to care about the old robots and how low-priority the information on them is. But it seems to be a celebration of those images and concepts and perhaps a call to embrace them and continue to reinvent them. There are a couple of contrary notes in the Hexode destruction incident and maybe a subtheme that humans are best suited to write humans while robots are best suited to write robots. Be that as it may, this story entertained me, evoked sympathy for the character(s), and was engagingly written. My only non-thematic quibble was that “bjornruffian” seemed to accept Computron (with the nick/screen name “RobotFan”) as human too easily and thoroughly (Computron’s not unknown and it and the museum would be easily researched, even aside from RobotFan’s remarkable commitment to its robot “role” as “RobotFan”). All in all, another good tale from a likely rising star.