We chose the name Uncanny because we wanted a publication that has the feel of a contemporary magazine with a history — one that evolved from a fantastic pulp. Uncanny will bring the excitement and possibilities of the past, and the sensibilities and experimentation that the best of the present offers. . . . It’s our goal that Uncanny’s pages will be filled with gorgeous prose, exciting ideas, provocative essays, and contributors from every possible background.
Issue One opens with “If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” by Maria Dahvana Headley, in which the animal stars of movies and television have personalities, hopes, wishes and complaints much like human movie stars. A young journalist has been sent to Jungleland, where the aging animals live in genteel poverty, to interview Leo, the lion who starred in the opening sequence of every Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film since the 1920s. The journalist wants to know about those rumors of a romance between Leo and Greta Garbo. It is through his eyes that we see all of the animals in a state of terrible decline:
The leopards were using heroin and even the ostriches, traditionally abstemious, were drunk. A cancerous camel strutted the perimeter, spitting tobacco juice. The residents were lonely in their various sections of the park, all of them stretched on old recliners in their terrycloth robes, drinking forlornly from bottles and bent tin dishes.
Headley mashes up animal behavior with human behavior to give us a picture of a world of animals as tragic as the world of any declining star. The images she paints are so vivid that I could see the weeds growing up between the cracks of the cement around the pool. Headley talks in her interview in this issue about the facts behind the fiction, making this story seem almost entirely possible.
Ken Liu’s “Presence” starts from the premise that there is a technology — a “telepresence machine” — that allows one to travel halfway across the world to see and touch another person without moving a step. Told in the second person, the story relates how “you” use this technology to care for your dying mother from half a world away. “These robots are built for the guilty, for those too far away and with too many excuses,” Liu tells you. It’s a commentary on how Americans treat their aged relatives; I found it frightening from both the perspective of the mother and of the son.
“Late Nights at the Cape and Cane” by Max Gladstone is a romp about supervillains and their fraught relationship with superheros. It plays off the fact that the supervillains never win, no matter how good their costumes or special effects. Doc Sinister can’t stand the fact that he never wins, and he’s getting good and drunk to prove it. But the first person narrator of the tale, Stella (who apparently isn’t even nominally human), has to tell Doc how the rules work, and what is risked by one who breaks the rules — by, say, a supervillain who wins for once. It’s one of the best stories about superheroes and supervillains I’ve read.
The first person narrator of “Celia and the Conservation of Entropy” by Amelia Beamer has invented a time machine that she figures she can use to win the school science fair as well as to rescue her dead grandfather’s lost novel. She has to struggle with ancient technology once she gets back to her grandfather’s basement all those years ago — dual 5-1/4 inch floppy drives! — but that’s not the biggest problem. Nor is the fact that her relativity coordinator still needs some work, so that she winds up returning to the present in a location far from where she wants to be. No, the real problem is that she can never transport the novel from the past into her present. Which means she has nothing to show at the science fair. Life can be tough when you’re a teenager. Beamer captures the teenage tone convincingly, and her way of dealing with paradoxes created by time travel makes for an enjoyable read.
In “Migration,” Kat Howard gives us a fantasy about a phoenix who is tired of her immortality. She has carried 13 souls into final death and been resurrected 13 times, but few deaths require a phoenix; she has lived for over a thousand years. There are rituals and procedures she must follow to ensure that she will not be resurrected again, but most importantly, she requires another phoenix. This story requires several readings to sort out one phoenix from another, as it alternates between the tale of Lara, told in the third person, and an unnamed, ungendered first person narrator. It’s a tricky way to tell a story, and isn’t entirely successful. Howard’s elegant, poetic use of language, though, makes this story worth reading and rereading until the reader gets it sorted out.
Christopher Barzak reworks an early Peter Pan tale, one not so familiar to us as the one about the Darling children, in “The Boy Who Grew Up.” The first-person narrator is a teenage boy who has run away from home, at least for the night; he’s been fighting with his father. He goes to Kensington Gardens, where he always goes when he’s angry. This time, though, he doesn’t merely have memories of his mother’s tale of fairies disguised as flowers. Instead, he meets up with Peter Pan, who is admiring his own statue when they first encounter one another. The narrator is a child of the twenty-first century, and he doesn’t easily buy into the idea that this is really Peter Pan he’s dealing with. Instead, he sees Peter as a nut who has weird ideas about fairies and about children being born from birds’ eggs. The narrator has reason to be so far from fancy. His parents’ breakup has hit him hard, especially because of the things he heard his mother say when she didn’t know he was listening — hurtful things about his father, but worse, hurtful things about him. Barzak skillfully uses the sexual ambiguity of Peter Pan (who has almost always been played by a young woman in theatrical productions) to tell his story of a teenager confronting his own sexuality.
“Her Fingers Like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors” by the late Jay Lake begins as the narrator tells us of her Mother, who is old and impatient, and who eats her children. The narrator is the Doorkeeper, maintaining the Doors between day and night and listening to the stories told by humans. Then the viewpoint shifts to the third person, and we’re with Addison, who has just had a chemo port implant for the therapy she will have to endure, following the partial thoracectomy that removed her tumor. She is hiking far from her home in Laramie, Wyoming, an ocean away, when she comes across the Doors and their Keeper, just as her grandfather told her she would. The two women have a meeting that could change the fate of the world, and certainly changes theirs. It’s a story about cancer, but much more than that, it’s a story about being human, about being mortal. It is also a reminder of what we lost when Lake died so young.
“The Kissing Song” is a poem by Neil Gaiman that I suspect would actually work better set to music than it does on the page. “The New Ways” by Amal El-Mohtar is full of fantastic imagery about space and the sea. “The Whalemaid, Singing” by Sonya Taaffe is a whale’s song rendered in words, with the same eerie beauty that whalesong has. The latter two poems are available on the magazine’s podcast, to which I have not listened — though these poems make me want to.
The nonfiction in this issue is well-written and informative. Sarah Kuhn writes about cosplaying (that is, costume play) at the San Diego Comic-Con; but that is an excuse for writing about the shabby treatment of women in the geek community. It’s an angry and defiant piece in which the essayist finds joy in her geekishness despite the sexism she has to battle almost constantly. A long roundtable discussion about WorldCon discusses how this convention differs from smaller, local conventions, and how rewarding it can be to attend and volunteer at a WorldCon. It’s a lengthy, informative discussion that also considers ways in which the convention can be improved. Tansy Rayner Roberts writes about romance and sex in science fiction, positing that the disdain with which such subjects were once treated in the SF reading community is changing, not just to resignation but to intense interest. Christopher J. Garcia is the author of “The Short List: The Ten Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Shorts on the Web,” reviewing short films that I had never guessed were out there; Garcia convinced me that I should devote an afternoon to watching these ten films sometime soon.
Interviews with Maria Davhana Headley, Beth Meacham (Jay Lake’s editor at Tor Books) and Christopher Barzak round out this issue. They have much depth and interest to them. I particularly enjoyed Headley’s discussion of the real history that lies behind her story.
Issue Two is equally packed with stories, poetry and nonfiction. The first story, “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu, is a strange and exciting tale of a Beijing so crowded with people that it has been divided into two parts which exchange places above ground every twenty-four hours First Space is where the wealthiest live; it has the smallest population, the most time awake, and the most beautiful and uncrowded space in which to live. Second and Third Space share the 24 hours following First Space’s 24 hours. Second Space’s residents are awake and about between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.. Third Space is where the poor live; its principal industry is sorting trash. Its inhabitants are allotted the time between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. to do their living, a mere eight hours out of every 48. Lao Dao, a resident of Third Space, has undertaken an illegal trip to First Space to deliver a message in a desperate gambit to earn enough money to send his child to a good kindergarten. The set-up is marvelously imaginative and carefully described so that a public works project to rotate the city actually sounds plausible. I had not fully realized that income inequality was an issue in China, just as it is in this country — perhaps even more so — and I was fascinated at this “solution” to the problem it presents. I am delighted that science fiction readers are becoming more open to translated works; this story is especially one that I am glad to have had the opportunity to read. Liu also translated for an interview with Jingfang that gives further insight into the politics from which this story arose.
“The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” by Sam J. Miller is a fictional accounting of the Stonewall Uprising in New York that marks the beginning of the gay rights movement on June 28, 1969. It happens on the same day that Judy Garland’s body is returned to the United States from London, where she had died of “an incautious overdosage” of barbiturates. Craig Perry, a university administration employee, heads for the Stonewall, a gay bar, that night to drink away his sadness, but he feels something in the air; “Sadness is a better spark than rage.” Ben Lazzarra, an NYPD beat cop, also heads there to dance away his fear and shame. So far, we’re in the realm of history. But then we are told that the Stonewall Uprising was “the first public demonstration of the supernatural phenomenon that would later be called by names as diverse as collective pyrokinesis, group magic, communal energy, polykinesis, multipsionics, liberation flame and hellfire.” It’s a great idea, the notion that enough anger can turn into literal fire when concentrated over time in a big enough population, and Miller writes it well.
“Pockets” by Amal El-Mohtar is a lovely story about women finding things in their pockets that they never put there. It happens to Nadia first; she finds a piece of fudge in a jacket pocket, and she hates fudge. How could it have gotten there? Then it’s a lipstick, then an antique map of Syria, then an old, worn coin. The objects she finds become increasingly odd, and, after one particular item comes from her pockets, she decides to wear pockets no longer. A friend confronts her about this decision, and Nadia is able to demonstrate fairly conclusively that something strange is going on here. The friend happens to be a scientist, and she promptly conducts tests to figure out what’s going on. Gradually, this tale turns into one about the nature of stories. For when we write stories, we invent something out of nothing, do we not? I loved this story, which is expertly plotted, with characters who feel real, all based on a wonderfully weird idea.
In “Anyone with a Care for Their Image,” Richard Bowes writes from the first-person perspective of a man who programs automata to fulfill his social obligations. This is commonly done, for most people spend their energies blogging and reading the blogs of others instead of attending parties or other gatherings. When things go horribly wrong, the narrator still cannot stop thinking of how his experiences will amuse his blog audience instead of the peril he is actually in. This short tale attempts to do too much in too little space, so that the reader does not get a sufficient look at the world in which the narrator lives.
“Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained” by Sunny Moraine is a letter by a woman to her artificial limb — a prosthetic more advanced than those available today, but still something foreign to the narrator, who does not like the limb, but needs it. Her therapist tells her that the new limb will be double the strength of the arm she lost, trying to make the limb more attractive to her reluctant patient who is learning to feel things again through her new fingers. And, as time goes on, she does become more attuned to the prosthetic, even in ways that seem a bit perverse. Although the technology in this story is advanced, I suspect that the feelings the narrator suffers through are quite real — especially as Moraine refers to herself as “they” in her biographical note at the end of the story.
Ann Leckie’s “The Nalendar” is a fantasy about a tiny god who adopts Umri as she is departing for a voyage upstream on the Nalendar River. More specifically, she is looking for a boat going in the opposite direction from that boarded by Rilhat Imk, who has been pestering her to become his mistress. The god is in the shape of a skink, and offers her a small bit of help in finding the right boat in return for a prayer and carriage onto the boat. In this cosmology, gods become bigger the more prayers they gather, and smaller as their believers fall off. This particular god has offended the river, which is why he needed Umri’s help onto the boat. He’s looking for treasure, and he’ll need Umri’s help to find it. This playful story is a delight from beginning to end, and strikes me as being about as different from Leckie’s acclaimed novels as it is possible to be. This woman has range! She is interviewed later in the magazine, and talks about the influence fairy tales and myths have had on her, especially in the telling of “The Nalendar.”
“After the Moon Princess Leaves,” a poem by Isabel Yap, is essentially about the loss of a child, though it has a fantastical gloss. Mari Ness’s “After the Dance” reminds me of several fairy tales, but has a science fictional twist that makes the poem especially piquant. Rose Lemberg’s “archival testimony fragments / minersong” sets out the musings of metal that used to be a living ship, interspersed with directions by a corporation to its miner employees on how to recognize pieces of the ship. It is an unearthly poem that finds the cadence of corporate speech and manipulates it to make it into something much more.
The nonfiction is again enlightening. In “The Politics of Comfort,” Jim Hines writes about whether politics belong in Hugo Award acceptance speeches. Erica McGillivray expands on Sarah Kuhn’s essay in the last issue about the treatment of women at conventions in “The Future’s Been Here Since 1939: Female Fans, Cosplay and Conventions.” She gives historical context to the problems women face at conventions today. In “Age of the Geek, Baby,” Michi Trota writes about how odd it is that the geek and nerd subcultures, which are supposed to be based on the shared experiences of being social outcasts, are actually not very supportive of marginalized people. Keidra Chaney discusses “The Evolution of Nerd Rock,” starting with They Might Be Giants in their 1990 album, Flood, moving into “[t]he early 2000’s nerdcore hip-hop trend,” and continuing through “wizard rock,” which started with a group called Harry and the Potters in 2002. I had no idea that “geeky” music existed, and I’m now eager to listen to the music discussed in this article.
Uncanny got its start through a Kickstarter to which I contributed. On the basis of the first two issues, it looks like I made a good investment.