Paul Di Filippo Reviews The Best of Uncanny, Edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas

The Best of Uncanny, Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, eds. (Subterranean 978-1596069183, $40, 680pp, hardcover) December 2019

In this challenging, ever-mutable internet era, when publishers are continually searching for ways to find an audience and stay alive, a magazine can take many forms. Some remain old-school print-only. Some are exclusively web-based. Others are hybrids on a regular basis. But one other interesting business model for zines that are virtual during their daily existence is to have an occasional presence in hardcopy. Clarkesworld does this, as does Lightspeed. And now Uncanny joins their ranks.

Uncanny launched its first issue in 2014, and so celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, after racking up many awards. The table of contents for that debut featured such names as Jay Lake, Ken Liu, Maria Dahvana Headley, Kat Howard, Christopher Barzak, Neil Gaiman, and Sonya Taaffe. Quite a stellar lineup! The current mammoth volume collects forty-four items from the first twenty-two issues. Due to this wealth of goodness, we can only take stock of some standout items, with the assurance that the rest of the catalogue is of the same merit, based on a close and enjoyable reading of the entire table of contents.

“Blessings” finds Naomi Novik wearing her revisionist fairytale hat, as she depicts the christening scene for a princess who is beset by too many blessings, some unconventional. A quick jump in time to the girl grown older finds her adapting in surprising ways. The piece packs a short lifetime into a compact vignette.

The multidimensional “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, reminds me of Phil Farmer’s Dayworld cycle with its startling account of humanity divvied up amongst overlapping continua. A nice blend of adventure and cognitive estrangement.

Reading a bit like a primo episode of Futurama, “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad chronicles the attempts of a robot named Computron to get its brain around the concept of audience loyalty and involvement.

In “Wooden Feathers”, Ursula Vernon arranges some tender interactions between her young female woodcarver protagonist and an older artisan who has used his craft most unwisely. Surprisingly, what could have been a predictable tragedy turns out well for everyone.

The landmark Stonewall Riots acquire a magical patina in Sam J. Miller’s “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History”. The allegory is grounded by deft naturalism.

If you blended Thorne Smith with Tim Powers, you might end up with the gonzo antics of “Ghost Champagne” by Charlie Jane Anders, in which a struggling comedian finds herself haunted by her own fetch.

Uncanny publishes poetry as well as prose, and Theodora Goss’s “Rose Child” is a sterling example, a quiet and calm but striking account of a person finding a Thumbelina-like manikin in the garden. It reminded me of Jeff Ford’s great “The Annals of Eelin-Ok”.

John Chu conjures up a dense feeling of entropy versus hope in “Restore the Heart into Love”. Our star-traveler awakes at intervals in a long journey to battle the memory failures of his ship, until the repairs become almost more real than the destination.

Elizabeth Bear delivers a strange story of love and hate between a female knight and the dragon she corners in “She Still Loves the Dragon”. It has the heft and ambiguity of Lucius Shepard’s Dragon Griaule tales.

“If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” by Maria Dahvana Headley is my favorite piece. It stands shoulder to shoulder with work by Howard Waldrop and graphic novelist Kim Deitch. In the late 1960s, a reporter visits Jungleland, the “retirement home” for all the animal stars of Hollywood, fully sentient and individual. Here’s the opener, and it just gets better from here out.

The lion sat in a lounge chair, his cocktail coupe full of something redder than bourbon and darker than blood. He lapped at it unhappily, his eyes settling on nothing in particular. He was flanked by two aging blondes in tarnished spangles, their diamante balding, but still impressive, even in the unforgiving light of the California afternoon.

Leo, the star of the opening sequence of every Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Film since the 1920s, and I, a 28-year-old journalist on assignment for a men’s magazine, looked out at the half-full pool. A few of the pythons and boa constrictors drifted on their backs, their skins shedding into the chlorine. I’d gotten used to it. I’d been here six weeks and the Forever Roar refused to give me the time of day.

To stay on the theme of lions, “Planet Lion” by Catherynne M. Valente is the vivid evocation of the truly alien species on a world sought for human settlement. Something along the lines of Tiptree’s “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” with a tinge of Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest.

C.S.E. Cooney appears to have swallowed an R.A. Lafferty pill of some sort in “Though She Be But Little”, a marvelously surreal adventure from After It All Changed.

When the sky turned silver, Mrs. Emma A. Santiago woke up Emma Anne, eight years old in her jimjams and Velcro sneakers. One belt, one tin can on string, two stuffed toys the richer. Sans house, sans car, sans monthly Bunco night with her girlfriends of forty years, sans everything.

(The Bunco Gals had all been turned into the Chihuahua Ladies, who tottered around Mill Town on red high heels that were fused with the flesh of their ankles. Their necks were long and smooth, covered in fawn-colored fur, their heads tiny and large-eyed, with long ears that twitched at the slightest sound. They traveled in a pack of twelve, furry necks writhing like pythons, and yapped whenever they saw Emma Anne. She avoided them—and Mill Town—until her supplies went from meager to mere rearrangements of empty jars and boxes.)

In the space of just a few pages, Caroline M. Yoachim crafts a beautiful allegory about how expectations contour reality. “Skinwriters” enforce traits on their subjects with magical pens—hence the title, “The Words on My Skin”—but our protagonist undermines the system with a bold act of refusal.

Channeling a mystic fusion of Henry Kuttner and Kelly Link, Amal El-Mohtar gives us “Pockets”, wherein an average, unsuspecting woman named Nadia suddenly finds out she can pull unlikely, hitherto-unseen objects out of the common pockets of her clothing. Refusing to believe this is mere magic, her friend Tessa helps her discover the scientific logic behind the phenomenon—but Nadia discerns the spiritual angle on her own.

Emerging from this splendid collection, can we discern any commonality among these tales, a signature “Uncanny magazine” trademark? The subgenres range widely, from magical realism to near-space-opera, from folktales to horror, from high fantasy to slipstream. One shared aspect is a plethora of unique voices: each author is a stylist, eschewing any kind of bland “transparent” prose. Some stories and poems are a tad more didactic and engagé than others. Some could have emerged only from the twenty-first-century weltanschauung, others are more timeless.

But the one overriding feature of them all is disclosed right in the introduction by the Thomases: “We believe there’s still plenty of room in the genre for tales that make you feel.” These stories never privilege their novums over their visceral effects. True to the common definition of uncanny—”strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way”—these tales do not seek to push intellectual or ideational buttons—at least not primarily—but rather to make the reader shiver or cringe, laugh or wail, smile or gape. Their shared motto is Kafka’s aphorism: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

The custodians and contributors of Uncanny have seen their mission, and carried it out in exemplary fashion.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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