Uncanny Magazine Issue 50

Uncanny Magazine Issue 50 cover

Time for the next magazine review in my year of short fiction. This one is Uncanny Magazine Issue 50 for January/February 2023. Let’s dive right into the story reviews!

The first story, “Collaboration?” by Ken Liu & Caroline M. Yoachim, is experimental. It attempts to tell the story of two beings creating worlds together. In the ebook version they use what they call an accessible version that will work for screen readers. It didn’t really work for me. It’s a little better on the website but still not my cup of tea. (My rating: 2/5)

Next up is “Cold Relations” by Mary Robinette Kowal. This is by far my favorite story of the year so far. It tells the tale of a brother and sister on opposites sides of the law where magic is concerned. They’ve become estranged but start to come together in a way that surprises. Emotion-filled storytelling that is both realistic and tugs at the heart. (My rating: 5/5)

How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub” by P. Djèlí Clark is exactly what it sounds like in the title. A wannabe somebody in the Victorian era mail orders a kraken egg and raises it in his bathtub. As you can imaging, things don’t go to plan. The author really brings you into the world of his unlikable protagonist and makes you feel the consequences of his hubris. (My rating: 4/5)

A. T. Greenblatt shows us Waystation City” through the experience of twins who are seeking to leave it. Everyone arrives without knowing when they will leave. The twins get tired of waiting and seek a guide to get out sooner, as many others have. The feel of the city and how those in it are feeling really shine. (My rating: 5/5)

Imagine a plague-ridden world hollowed out by millions of deaths that has descended into a dictatorial corporate government. Now you are a trans woman living alone in an apartment where you once cared for the now-dead owner. Oh, and “you see dead people”, that is ghosts. This is the setup for “Horsewoman” by A.M. Dellamonica. The loneliness amidst all the voices is what came through most to me. (My rating: 3/5)

In “Flower, Daughter, Soil, Seed” by Eugenia Triantafyllou, a mother tells her daughter of the women in her family all the way back to her great great grandmother. The twist here is that they are all flowers. Each generation is a different flower that grew up in a different environment. The love flows through and down to each new generation. (My rating: 4/5)

In “One Man’s Treasure by Sarah Pinsker, the wealthy have so much magic they can afford to throw away its tools and artifacts. The garbage workers need to be careful not to be hexed by the things they pick up. One crew finds a statue that may be more than it seems. This story felt very Agatha Christie to me in all the best ways. (My rating: 4/5)

What if the Jesuits had an enclave on the moon? Why the moon? What would they do there? How would they relate the church authorities? E. Lily Yu explores these questions and more in “The Father Provincial of Mare Imbrium“. Like other Jesuits, these are scientists, and they discover something important. But will they be allowed to share their findings? (My rating: 5/5)

A cold, dark man arrives at a small village each month to take one of the women to be his servant for the month. No one ever sees these women again. “Silver Necklace, Golden Ring” by Marie Brennan is the story of one of these women. But she resolves to do something about her situation and takes her fate into her own hands. A well-told fairy tale of female agency in less than ideal circumstances. (My rating: 4/5)

Married husbands accompany a young female magician into the desert to guard her as she undoes the magic  at the request of a recently deceased woman who performed that magic long ago in “Miz Boudreaux’s Last Ride” by Christopher Caldwell. Shades of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds heighten the fear and foreboding. (My rating: 3/5)

No matter where he lives or tries to escape it, the protagonist of John Wiswell’s “Bad Doors” simply cannot get away from the mysterious door that keeps appearing in the walls of his homes. It doesn’t help that he is dealing with a global pandemic and an uncle deep into conspiracy theories. Angst and helplessness and frustration are on hand here. (My rating: 3/5)

In “Prospect Heights” by Maureen McHugh, a young woman in a gentrified neighborhood of New York is warned not to turn right out of her apartment. Of course, she does, and as she explores the dilapidated building thinks she sees herself. Nothing really new here for me but the imagery and writing are good. (My rating: 3/5)

One bonus review. I don’t normally review the essays in these magazines, though I do read them. I highly recommend from this issue “Building Better Worlds” by Javier Grillo–Marxuach which discusses how world building in fiction works. It deals mostly with film and TV but also applies to writing. It is fantastic resource for any storyteller.

Overall, this was an excellent issue in my opinion. My short fiction ratings average out to 3.75. I’m looking forward to reading more short stories in my February issues!

Timeless Storytelling

Hyperion book cover

My book club decided to read Hyperion by Dan Simmons for your January book in the science fiction genre. This book was first published in 1989 and won the 1990 Hugo award for best novel. I had it on my to read list, but it just didn’t call to me. I read something that described it as Canterbury Tales in space. Didn’t really appeal to me. But boy am I glad my book club selected it to read.

Though it was written in 1989, it still feels contemporary. There are references to a communication technology called the Web that’s not the same as what we have today but has a similar feel. It speaks to “time debt”, taking into account relativity and how that would affect a space-faring civilization. And the storytelling is superb.

The plot involves seven people making a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion. The book is essentially a series of related short stories, each chapter being the story of one pilgrim’s reason for making the trip. In the background is the mysterious Shrike who lives on the planet and is the destination of their joint pilgrimage. Their reasons vary from love to religion to family. Each story by itself is worth your time, and together they make a novel that stands the test of time.

Unusual Style

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream book cover

I was familiar with the name, but I had never read anything by Harlan Ellison. Recently his Hugo Award winning short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” came to my attention, so I borrowed the book of the same name from my library. It is a collection of some of his short stories, originally published in 1967.

The book includes an introduction by Theodore Sturgeon and a Foreword by the author. The author also writes a brief introduction to each story in the collection. The story titles are:

  • I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream
  • Big Sam Was My Friend
  • Eyes of Dust
  • Word of the Myth
  • Lonelyache
  • Delusion for a Dragon Slayer
  • Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes

My favorite stories are the first and last. His style is unusual. A bit stream of consciousness. In the foreword and introduction, both writers comment on how Ellison’s style is not for everyone. For me, the stories here were a mixed bag. Some I liked okay. Some felt a bit dated. Overall, I have to say that I appreciate having read this book, but I don’t know if or when I might pick up anything else by Harlan Ellison.

Exploring Human Challenges

A Psalm for the Wild-Built book cover

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is exactly my kind of science fiction–the kind that explores ideas. Like her longer novels, in this novella Becky Chambers shares a vision of a future that is both positive and optimistic. The story takes place on a verdant moon where humans have confronted what they were doing to the environment and corrected their activities. One of the catalysts for this was the rise to sentience of their robots. The story takes place many years after that.

The novella tells of a young monk who has a crisis of purpose and decides to change their vocation. At first they find their new work quite a challenge. Eventually they become very good at it and find that the hole they felt inside is not filled after all. At this point they take drastic measures to address this personal crisis. And throughout the descriptions of the countryside and outdoors in general nearly give the same feeling one gets from walking in the woods oneself.

I love it when science fiction addresses both the outward and inward challenges that humans face. This book does a masterful job of addressing both. It shows a positive future (though not a utopia) where humans have successfully and collectively navigated past a challenge that faced them all. But the core of the story is about one person trying to figure what their purpose in life is.

Storytelling at Its Finest

Something Wicked This Way Comes book cover

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury is superior storytelling, though I didn’t think so as I was reading it at first. I found the language over flowery and a little old fashioned (the book was originally published in 1962). But I got used to the language of the time. And the prose is full of so much metaphor that it almost felt like poetry that paints not just a picture you can visualize but one you feel. Instead of trying to see all the description, I instead let it wash over me and move me emotionally. That’s when the book really came alive for me.

The book is the story of two boys–best friends–in a small town in Iowa. One early morning in October, a carnival arrives. But it is no ordinary carnival. The boys are drawn to it and adventure follows. My favorite aspect of this book is the relationships. The two friends are very different but very dedicated to each other. Jim is the adventure seeker. He wants to do things just because he can and to see what happens. Will is the good boy who feels deeply and sees deeply into others. Will and his father also share a relationship that grows and changes as the story unfolds.

But the part I love most about this book is what it says about the nature of evil and how to overcome it. This story could be characterized as horror but doesn’t share the hopelessness that I associate with that genre. Rather it evokes a living and breathing sense of ominous and imminent doom but resolves it in the most unexpected and satisfying way.

Why I Read Uncanny Magazine

Uncanny Magazine Issue 49 cover

Every other month, I read the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine. Why do I do this? Lots of reason, really. There are great stories in each issue by well-known and new writers. The non-fiction essays touch on topics modern with respect to our culture and how it is evolving. But mostly I love how new cultural and technical ideas are explored in its pages.

Speculative fiction is my favorite genre. I love it when a writer takes some idea, tool, or practice in today’s world and twists it with a “what if” that explores some aspect of that thing that most of us have yet to consider or think about. That’s why I read this magazine. Six times a year, I get to read the thoughts of people who have pondered these ideas deeply and share them through stories and essays. I encourage you to dive in and see for yourself.

Here are the pieces I most appreciated in the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine, Issue 49 November/December 2022.

Short Science Fiction and Fantasy

Uncanny Magazine Issue 48 cover

I still subscribe to and read every issue of Uncanny Magazine. The latest is September/October 2022. Here are my favorite stories and essays.

A Timeless War Story

The Forever War book cover

One of my fellow students in the writing workshop that I attended through work (see previous post) recommended reading Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. I had heard of this book before, but it had never appealed to me. At his suggestion, I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did.

The Forever War takes place in the future where mankind is at war with an alien species. Soldiers travel through wormholes to find and engage the enemy. This travel is essentially time travel into the future. Due to relativity, the soldiers age much more slowly than those left back on earth. By the time they return (if they return), hundreds of years will have passed and their home will likely feel alien.

The book is about how a never-ending war affects soldiers both as they fight that war as well as what happens when they return home. The book was written during the Vietnam War. It does an excellent job of projecting the feelings from that war into the future and generalizing them. I suspect that any veteran of any war could commiserate with the soldiers in this novel on the alienation of war, bureaucratic mindlessness, and returning home to people who just don’t understand what they went through.

Despite how heavy I just made it sound, the story is a personal one. It tells the story of one person as he fights to survive this war and figure out how to live his life through it and after it, should he survive. It is at the same time personal and cosmic in its scope, perhaps even timeless.

An Alarming “What If?”

Upgrade book cover

I have read two of Blake Crouch’s previous novels–Dark Matter and Recursion. I thoroughly enjoyed those, so when Upgrade was released on July 12, I snapped up a copy. While I have to admit that I enjoyed his previous novels more, the subject matter here is closer to reality and thus more alarming.

Upgrade is about bio-engineering, or more accurately, bio-hacking. The main character has his DNA altered in a way that pushes his capabilities beyond those of any other human while making him so different that he questions his future ability to engage with the rest of humanity. In this way, the novel has a passing resemblance to Shelley’s Frankenstein. But rather than embrace this change, he fights against those who changed him against his will.

Before I started reading this novel, I also started reading Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker about the development of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. In addition to the history, that book goes into the debate around the ethics of how far the human race should go in directing its own evolution. This novel is the “what if” version of someone taking it upon themselves to actually do this.

In the future of this book, gene editing is illegal and the main character works for the agency that polices such illegal activity. His mother caused a global famine through genetic engineering that resulted in it being outlawed. He deals with guilt from that as well as other family dynamics that surface later in the story. There is also the philosophical dilemma of whether it is right to sacrifice some innocent lives to save an entire species. But mostly, the novel is a thriller of the near future.

While the book succeeds quite well as a thriller that explores contemporary themes in a world that feels very close at hand, it somehow still left me wanting more. Maybe his other books spoiled me for this one by lifting my expectations. Regardless, it is still a top notch novel of speculative fiction by one of the world’s best.

Sci Fi Satire

Made for Love book cover

Like my previous post about The Time Traveler’s Wife, I decided to read Made for Love by Alissa Nutting after learning that it was a new series on HBO Max. Made for Love is a science fiction satire about a woman who is running away from her tech billionaire husband because he wants to test his latest product on her. The story gets weird when she ends up at her father’s house only to discover that he is sharing his home with a lifelike sex doll. And then is becomes absurd. A secondary character is a con man who suddenly finds himself no longer sexually attracted to the beautiful women he scams. His new objects of carnal passion? Dolphins.

I have to admit, I almost didn’t finish this book. Numerous times. I decided to finish it because I was interested in learning how the core story came out. It is the kind of science fiction that I like. What happens when a tech genius pushes things a bit too far and a regular citizen decides not to go along? I was mostly satisfied with that story line and the way in plays out. Unfortunately, I had to wade through the nonsense of the rest of the book to get there.

Don’t get me wrong. The book is entirely well-written. I am sure that fans of absurdist fiction as well as those who appreciate the take-down of overly serious science fiction will greatly appreciate the parts of the book that I didn’t much care for. For me they felt overly forced without adding all that much to what the book says. In the end, it felt like a book that was trying to do two very different things at the same time but only succeeded mildly at both.

I have yet to watch the HBO Max series of Made for Love. I am hoping that I like it better than the book. Since my post about The Time Traveler’s Wife I have watched all the episodes available. I really loved it! I think that book is very difficult to make into a series. They found a way to tell the story and convey the feeling in this very different medium. I highly recommend it!