Review: Uncanny #20

Uncanny #20, January/February 2018

“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.

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Review of Uncanny #19 for Tangent

After recommending a story from the March/April issue and one from May/June and two from September/October, I have at most a couple of honorable mentions for stories in the November/December, but here’s the full review:

Review of Uncanny #19, November/December 2017

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.

Rec: “Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney

Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney, Uncanny #18 September/October 2017, fantasy short story

One day the sky turns silver and the Earth is magically transformed. For instance, sixty-five-year-old Mrs. Santiago becomes fierce eight-year-old Emma Anne. In this story, we follow Emma Anne and her sentient stuffed animals, her pirate frenemy, and her efforts to deal with the scary, deadly, mantis-like Loping Man.

Oh, he was enormous, colossal, an armored giant, but so very terribly compactable. Yes, and maybe that was where he went all day. Not away, but down, folded into leaf and twig and compound eyes, origamied into torpor.

Yes, verbing weirds language—sometimes to great effect.

This is very much like “Gallows Girl,” which I recently recommended, in that it may reduce to a “stick it to the man/grrrl power” theme (with an ambivalent connection between two female figures) but is also wrapped in a wonderfully inventive confection of imagination climaxing in a violent confrontation. However, it is nothing like it insofar as the imaginative details are different and this story has a great deal more whimsy, exhilaration, and lightness of touch. I enjoyed both in their ways.

Rec: “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon

Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, Uncanny May/June 2017, fantasy short story

Allpa’s dying grandmother leaves him a magic sword. When unsheathed, Sun, Moon, and Dust materialize from it and they’re all supposed to go be heroic warriors together. But Allpa is a simple, dutiful, potato farmer. The tale deals with his unenthusiastic participation in training and his varied relationships with the ill-tempered and bloodthirsty Dust, the somewhat remote Sun, and the sympathetic Moon.

This rural encomium, while thematically in Vernon’s comfort zone, is conceptually more of a BCS-style secondary-world pure-fantasy tale than the Vernon I’ve read which tends to be fairly connected to this world regardless of its fantasy elements. It’s also not her strongest, perhaps because of this. But her strongest is extremely strong and this is still pretty good. I particularly like her similes and turns of phrase, as in the scene where Moon is expressing his feelings about his own long-forsaken lands and Allpa reacts:

“You can stay here,” he said. The offer was purely instinctive, as if Moon was bleeding and he had lifted his hands to staunch the flow.

There is also humor such as when Dust is wanting to kill Allpa and be done with him, else they’ll have to wait in the sword for the next owner to unsheathe them:

“And look at him, the wretch, you know he’ll live to be ninety!”

Rec: “Rising Star” by Stephen Graham Jones

Rising Star” by Stephen Graham Jones, Uncanny March/April 2017, science fiction short story

If nothing else, I like this story for talking about the spatial problems with time travel but there’s much more. The synopsis is quite simple, though. A scientist – or crackpot? – or the author? writes a proposal to a grant committee with great certainty that it will be accepted and explain a (real) mystery.

The only real complaint I can see regarding this story is that, by being a letter, it isn’t the most action/adventure-oriented plot but, by being all about the concept and detailing some pretty intense stuff it’s quite exciting. Otherwise, this has clean narration and the perfect marriage of form and content that “Cease and Desist” had. Further, it’s a genuinely tight and fun concept. I’m a guy who’s a hard sell for time travel stories but I’m buying this one and hope you do, too.