I’m a relative newcomer to science-fiction/fantasy (SFF) magazines, mostly because there are so many out there to peruse. Uncanny Magazine came my way after discovering the poem “The Eaters” by Filipina poet M. Sereno, published in volume 3, and it was enough to convince me to try another issue.
Hugo Award-winner Lynne M. Thomas and Hugo Award-nominee Michael Damian Thomas co-edit the magazine, providing an outlet for speculative fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews with the people making SFF what it is today. Their focus on people of colour (POC) in the genre is laudable, especially in light of conversations like those swirling around the Hugos, and movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Mike Glyer’s short piece covering the history of the awards, and the recent nomination controversy, was a refreshing read. As I mentioned, I’m not too familiar with the extensive history and layers of the SFF community, so a lot of the back-and-forth blog posts and think pieces were going over my head. I especially appreciate Glyer’s admission that the Hugos function as both an ideal and a real reflection of what the SFF community is today. It’s followed by a list of the top five myths about young adult fiction, curated by Julia Rios, which is a little undone by its structure and doesn’t add a whole lot to discussions on YA today. Reiterations that it isn’t shameful for grown-ups to read YA just feels off in a magazine aimed at adults who are likely to be accepting of genres beyond literary fiction. The nonfiction section does bounce back with Kameron Hurley’s striking piece about writing versus storytelling, and the struggles she had with those differences as she progressed through her writing career. It’s a fitting essay to include in an issue that places import on the stories we tell each other and ourselves, the places where they don’t meet, and what those places say about who we are.
Volume 4 likely would have won me over with its lead piece from Catherynne M. Valente, one of my favourite authors, no matter what, but this particular issue does feel tailor-made to a reader like me, who wants to be surprised as she’s swept away into new worlds. Valente’s story “Planet Lion” is a challenge, but a welcome one—it entices the reader into the planet Bakaneko and the explorers who encounter it. Bakaneko (a loose translation of the Japanese words would be “stupid cat”) is the stage for several time periods described in the story, tied together by the lions that populate the planet. It’s the kind of story best served by rereads, as it is easy to miss details as you piece together exactly what happened on Bakaneko, and the subtle commentary on colonialism and sacrifice.
The rest of the stories in this issue are similarly layered, and crafted with humour and clever revisions of familiar ideas. Elizabeth Bear’s “In Libres” is a delightful romp of a story, mixing mythology and irreverence in sharing a university student’s trek to find the right book in the Library to finish her thesis. An easy task, one might think, until one realizes that a) the Library is alive and b) our brave student Euclavia is not the only bookw(y)rm in residence.
“The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A.C. Wise answers any questions you might possibly have about finding a new place to set your cauldron, whether you’re an old witch or young. The structure allows for several mini-stories about witches who have set out to find/build/grow/breed their own home, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who would gladly read an entire series based on this one installment of The Practical Witch’s Guide.
“Restore the Heart into Love” is a little harder to pin down in terms of structure and storytelling. John Chu’s story of an Chinese archivist entrusted with the Byzantium Library, the last collection of ideas from Earth, is interspersed with the archivist’s personal history, specifically his relationship with his mother. The science-fiction aspects of the piece were solid, and the descriptions of the Library’s systems fascinating, but the story faltered when left to focus on the emotional and linguistic distance between mother and son. The last line in particular felt heavy-handed, too much of a push towards a specific theme to let the story breathe. I would have enjoyed it more had it been a little longer, especially since the included interview with Chu hinted at more depth.
The only story I wouldn’t want to extend itself is “Three Voices.” Lisa Bolekaja is a true force in this 19-page stunner about a composer searching for the singer who can match the music he and his father have worked on for most of their lives. Bolekaja lulls readers into seeing only one side of the story before yanking away the curtain with an ending that quite literally, left me mouth agape. If nothing else, this single piece has made me want to read everything Bolekaja has ever written.
The single classical fiction entry in this volume actually comes from one of Bolekaja’s mentors from the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop, Delia Sherman. “Young Woman in a Garden” is one of those stories that you think you know, that the ending seems so pre-written you feel confident you could write it yourself. But like “Three Voices,” it hides reality behind the assumptions it lets you make about the characters and their relationships with one another. Sherman discusses the story in the second included interview conducted by Deborah Stanish, explaining the personal history and interests that came into play as she wrote about a painter and the two women who came into his life.
Intersections, like those relationships, are the lifeblood of the three poems in this issue. Alyssa Wong revisits the story of Persephone and Hades in “For the Gardener’s Daughter,” going beyond shallow layers of romance to present the tangible connection between two lovers. “Apologies for breaking the glass slipper” by Isabel Yap is a lilting song of a brief encounter in the middle of busy junctions, the melody of one’s steps away from a possibility to return to reality. And in the powerful “From the High Priestess to the Hanged Man,” Ali Trotta offers advice on taking well-worn paths and seeing them in another way, maybe with more flaws, broken stones, sacrifices infusing the ground beneath your feet.
It’s all tied together by Tran Nguyen’s astonishing cover art, if anything a tribute to the untameable nature of science fiction and fantasy, and the possibilities within. If there was ever a time to start reading Uncanny Magazine, Volume 4 confirms is it, with stimulating and truly enjoyable fiction, and a strong developing nonfiction base.