REVIEW: “Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson

Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s, “Old Habits”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Like many classic ghost stories, “Old Habits” is a study in futility, stasis, and regret. There’s nothing the dead in Nalo Hopkinson’s story can do about their situation. Trapped in the mall where they died, they have almost no agency, and are forced to regularly relive their own deaths. There are no heroes in Nalo Hopkinson’s ghost mall; no magic bullets, no tantalising opportunities to rejoin the living. And the mall they haunt isn’t exactly Valhalla.  

The mundane, slightly sordid, nature of the afterlife Hopkinson has created, and the powerlessness of her characters, could have made this story a frustrating experience for a living, breathing reader. This story rejects well-worn fantasy plot structures that focus on active questing characters changing, or finding, their fates through sheer force of will. It also centres the experience of a group of powerless ghosts instead of, as so many ghost stories do, concentrating on the living, or giving the ghosts powers. And finally, this story pushes readers to face the banal ways in which mortality can be brutally stripped away. “Old Habits” is not a comfortable read, and that’s before the reader finds out that these ghosts can be hungry, and vicious, when provoked by their own kind.

However, out of all this difficult material, I think Hopkinson has created an affecting, quiet story about the pettiness of loss. Partly that’s because its conception of death is so rooted in the mundane, and everyday; presenting, like much apocalyptic media, enticing details of a world which, at least for these ghosts, cannot be regained. And that central concentration on the powerless is a theme carried through to great effect. The story opens with the death of a disenfranchised woman, crushed by corporate security, in a nod to many real life deaths in custody. While it’s not a story I’m in a rush to read again (facing this vision of an afterlife is a hard ask) it’s certainly a well-crafted piece that plays on my mind. “Old Habits” is a reminder that ghost stories can be just as inventive as every other part of the SFF and horror genres.

REVIEW: “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” by Sarah Monette

Review of Sarah Monette, “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is a slow-burn, literary, magical murder mystery. The narrator, Mr Booth, is placed in charge of papers written by a celebrated literary figure. Among the papers, he finds a poppet, which he believes has been used to murder the author – Geoffrey Usborne Bryant. Concerned that the perpetrator of this magical crime will hurt others, the narrator sets out to discover who put the poppet in Usborne Bryant’s boxes. While engaged in this detective mission, Booth reflects on the troubled, fleeting association he had with Usborne Bryant when they were at school.

Sarah Monette’s story delicately expresses how Booth’s sleuthing allows him to come to terms with the real shape of a relationship long-past. His quest to find the poppet maker is littered with small, stabbing pains of repressed past hurts and old emotions. Booth’s conversations with Usborne Bryant’s friends, as part of his amature detective work, show that he has developed a clear understanding of how people work. However, he has never quite understood the shape of his own past with Usborne Bryant. As he slowly works his way towards the criminal, Booth untangles the small-scale, but complex, web of interactions and emotions left unaddressed since school. This story is as much a work of emotional detective work as it is a detective story.  

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is also about the importance of acting morally in the face of difficult personal feelings. In keeping with the tone of the story, Monette expresses this theme without any flashy signposts that her narrator is morally compromised, and yet still manages to strongly convey that doing what is right is not always a lot of fun. From the fact that the narrator ‘fled’ when the criminal faints at the end of the story, and the way that ‘something of my emotions bled through in my voice’ at the end of the story, the reader gets the sense that while the narrator’s quest was a success it did not lead him to any kind of satisfaction (beyond a certain understanding of his past).

Strangely, this story reminded me of a favourite Philip Larkin poem – “Dockery and Son“. There’s the similar subject matter of someone thinking back on their school days. And there’s something about the pace of the story, content to dwell on scraps from the past on its way to its destination, which evokes a similar tone to the poem; as does the simple poignancy of the story’s final line. “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” was weird, and quiet, and slow, and I loved it, readers.

REVIEW: “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” by Sarah Pinsker

Review of Sarah Pinsker’s, “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Sarah Pinsker’s “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” uses subtle, repeating images, colours, or references to emphasise the connection between the lives and work of different American artists, writers, and musicians. For the reader to be able to engage with the story, they needs to be familiar with the cultural references Pinsker includes. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the American 1920s art scene, or the works which were mentioned, to grasp the full significance of most of the references. I didn’t understand this story, and couldn’t really connect with it. And, because I wasn’t sure what had happened in real life, and how each section related to the whole, I had trouble working out what made this story science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction.

What I can say, is that Pinsker’s writing style is very elegant and it’s easy to get swept up in the rhythm of her prose. The device of using references to connect each section is intriguing. And the selection of scenes that the story presents are detailed and interesting. I’d encourage anyone who knows about the 1920s American art scene to give it a try, because I’m sure that someone who can spot all the references, and understand how story fits together as a whole, will find a lot to delve into. This story wasn’t for me, but it’s bound to be a better fit for other readers.

REVIEW: “And Yet” by A. T. Greenblatt

Review of A. T. Greenblatt’s, “And Yet”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“And Yet” is an original, creeptastic take on the haunted house story. The protagonist returns to the haunted house of their childhood determined to investigate parallel universes. Aware that the house really is haunted, and that it hates visitors, this is, as the narrative admits, ‘a terrible idea’. This story is full of dread, and anticipation, right from the first section.  

Told in the second person, and focused on an unnamed protagonist, the narrative feels reminiscent of the ‘choose your own adventure’ genre. The main character moves through the house choosing doors, and unlocking scenarios. Each room shows a new nightmare vision of the past, or a possible past which they have thankfully never had to experience. The narrative refers to the protagonist as ‘you’ which means the reader can easily insert themselves into the story, and this makes the horror of the story feel all the more immediate and effective.

At the same time, “And Yet” relates an intensely personal, specific story about the main character’s loss, personal growth, and disability. The house draws on their pain, and fear, as it attempts to push them into leaving, and the protagonist’s journey through the house allows A. T. Greenblatt to slowly construct a picture of her protagonist’s life for the reader. It’s a young life that was dogged by abusive, difficult family members, bullies, and tragedy. However, the story shows that the main character has largely escaped that past, and built a new life, with hard work, the support of new roommates, and a personal trainer. Still, one formative incident has irrevocably shaped their present, and their current scientific work.

“And Yet” is a real gut-punch of a story on multiple levels, partly due to the smartly built structure of the piece. The horror of being forced to repeat traumatic incidents will resonate with just about every reader, as will the idea of parallel universes which contain a poor imitation of a much happier life. The main character’s past is so tough it hits hard. And all of this is carefully layered into a claustrophobic, slowly ratcheting piece of horror through the device of the inescapable house. The story culminates with a a poignant heart-breaker of an ending which will wreck you in the best way. Run, don’t walk, to this house of horrors.

REVIEW: “Conservation Laws” by Vandana Singh

Review of Vandana Singh’s, “Conservation Laws”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

On a trip to the Lunar Geological Institute, Vikram, a young student currently living on the moon, meets Gyanendra Sahai; an explorer from an ill-fated mission to Mars. Delighted to discover that they are from the same state in India, Bihari, Vikram invites Gyanendra to move into Sinha Auntie’s boardinghouse where Vikram, and a small group of lively, intense students, reside. During one Saturday afternoon discussion, Gyanendra is finally drawn into relating what happened to him during his trip to Mars. His tale is remarkable.

Sometimes a story comes along that you just can’t make head or tail of, and unfortunately I couldn’t really connect with “Conservation Laws”. My confusion started when the students at the boardinghouse began a discussion about mirror universes, conservation laws, and ‘Universal Field equations’, none of which I have the scientific knowledge to grapple with. I quickly became lost. Then I had trouble imagining the shape of the fantastical science fiction objects, settings, and journey in Gyanendra’s story; again probably because I don’t have a reading background in technical SFF, or stories which deal with alien technology,. And finally, while the ending clearly had some significant connection to the mirror universes mentioned during the student’s discussion, I couldn’t work out what the significance was. I was left with a sense of foreboding as Gyanendra is ‘sorrowful’, but didn’t understand the full meaning of the ending; mostly because I hadn’t followed the initial discussion.

So, my difficulties with this story largely came down to a lack of personal context which kept me from putting all of the pieces of Vandana Singh’s story together. Not all stories are for everyone. However, I’d suggest maybe dipping your toe into this story just to see if it’s for you instead.

REVIEW: “The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine

Review of Arkady Martin, The Hydraulic Emperor, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

At one point Mallory, the protagonist of The Hydraulic Emperor, describes an artistic influence ‘unfurling’, and it struck me that this is the perfect word to describe the story itself. Arkady Martine has written a slow-burning story, which uses the focus and fascination of the narrator to lull the reader into a state of curious contentment. I, for one, was happy to follow as this story slowly stretched itself in interesting directions.

The Hydraulic Emperor is powered by the attraction of a Macguffin; in this case a ‘Qath puzzlebox’. Kinesis Industrial One engage film collector Mallory Iheji to acquire the box. In return, they offer her the chance to finally view The Hydraulic Emperor by obscure filmmaker Aglaé Skemety. Neither the film or the puzzlebox are important on their own, although Martine skilfully makes it feel as if they are both extremely significant. Instead, The Hydraulic Emperor is all about the journey. The crucial quest’s the thing in this story.  

As Mallory journeys towards the defining point in her collecting career, Martin unspools a languid meditation on sacrifice, anticipation, completion, and enticing art. In some ways its themes and structure bear comparison to Moby Dick, although in this story film occupies the space religious themes take up in Melville’s work. Martine complements these thematic strands with smart world-building, an original plot, and interesting hints about Mallory’s past life.  

Sadly, for a story which often delivers a slow, lush examination which rewards the reader’s attention, the ending of this story left me a little bit unsatisfied. I wanted a little bit more closure when it came to the relationship between Averill and Mallory. I also really wanted to know what happened to Mallory’s bidding partner, Julie, after Mallory was awarded the puzzlebox. What happens to her when she is left without the puzzlebox or her precious Old Earth sacrifices? Unlike the unanswered questions Mallory is left with by the end of The Hydraulic Emperor, my unanswered questions feel like untidy, loose strands, and I’d have loved to see a fuller conclusion.

REVIEW: “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” by Marissa Lingen

Review of Marissa Lingen’s, “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

A little like Doreen Green in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Shuang, the narrator of “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” has a creative approach to solving big problems. Trapped in a cherry tree by her faithless apprentice, Shuang escapes by magically encouraging the tree to merge with her human form. Where other sorcerers might have blasted their way out with magic, Shuang chooses a non-violent path because, as a consequence of being encased in the tree, she understands that the cherry tree ‘mattered’, and that even a non-sentient tree can be hurt.

Whether she is escaping from a cherry tree, or trying to defeat iron giants, Shuang works hard to find solutions which are both effective and empathetic. While other people try to barrel through situations with might and entitlement, Shuang absorbs the concerns of those around her, and designs solutions which allow everyone (or everything) to benefit. She, and her story, are a symbol of what can be achieved when people seek to cooperate with nature rather than to conquer or defeat it. And later in the story, this choice allows Shuang to form a successful plan for passing the iron giants who block the northern trade routes; something no one else has managed to achieve.

“Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” encourages the reader to take a second look at nature; to really think about its value, and its needs. It pushes readers to consider alternative, co-operative solutions to problem solving. It asks readers to think about how solving human problems impacts the environment. And it also critiques the old story trope of humanity conquering nature which I’ve seen crop up in everything from wilderness adventure stories to fantasy novels.

If that makes “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” sound super serious, be assured that this story is full of light humour. When trapped in the cherry tree, Shuang remarks that ‘Though fragrant, this was inconvenient’, and her first person narration is often peppered with sarcastic, or naturally ironic remarks. The conversations between her and her new, exasperated apprentice are a tonic, and reminded me very much of certain exchanges in Terry Pratchett’s books. There’s plenty of fun, and plenty of substance, to be found in this story, so check it out asap.

REVIEW: “The Utmost Bound” by Vivian Shaw

Review of Vivian Shaw’s, “The Utmost Bound”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

In “The Utmost Bound” Vivian Shaw uses the routine of everyday life in space to ease the reader into her story. There is much ordinary dialogue, chatter about conditions, and thoughts about the dreary on-board food. It’s clear that the story’s protagonist, Commander McBride, has become accustomed to his life in space. Everything that might stand out as new and strange to the reader is old and familiar to him; even annoying. The view is ‘predictable’ the sky is ‘Yellow sky. Ugly as shit.’

His colleague Artanian also finds that space holds few terrors, and is just a series of regular, fact-finding missions passed down to them by their reliable connection in Hawaii, on Earth. In a way, maintaining the ordinariness of the experience is how they cope with the fact that they are working in extraordinary conditions – ‘The conversation between them was part of the morning ritual: the conversation meant they were still people, out here in the black.’

Of course, this is how many horror movies start – with quite ordinary people, going about their regular lives, until something terrifying subverts all that normality. Often the destruction of all that normal stuff emphasises the horror that comes after. And I think that’s the structure “The Utmost Bound” is playing with, as it builds its own story of space terror. However, this story is more about the cerebral terror of discovering the limits of humanity than about the terror or finding alien monsters in space.

While the story certainly brings some political horror to the surface, it loses some of its impact because the main characters are physically safe (although mentally shocked). It lacks the immediacy of media like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (which it references), because its characters are removed and reporting rather than directly involved. And, while the monstrosity of what they have seen brings a vivid depiction of governmental disdain into the story, it is perhaps too easy for the reader to shuck off their feelings at the end of this story. At least, while McBride remains haunted, and concerned about the scale of what may have happened, these feelings didn’t quite stick with me as I exited the story.

REVIEW: “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor” by Sunny Moraine

Review of Sunny Moraine’s, “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor” is a visceral story about love, betrayal, and revenge, which unspools from the opening of a joke – ‘A girl walks into a bar.’ The story’s structure jumps around between a series of close up scenes, and introspective sections; often returning to the joke and its opening line. This anchors the story, which is often deliberately chaotic, by providing a repeating line and theme. By using this repetition, the story allows the reader to collect themselves after another bout of zinging, explosive imagery, and encounters with a timeline which rarely allows the reader to gain a firm grip on reality.   

Sunny Moraine’s story follows its unnamed female narrator as she careens through a messy, passionate love affair with another woman. Both of the women have extraordinary powers. Their relationship begins with a fistfight and ends with an apocalyptic collapse. In other words, it’s complicated. Moraine uses intensely physicality, and often violent, imagery to build a poetic language which emphasises the intense emotion the two characters feel. It is a joy to see this kind of language used to show the female leads active in the creation of violence and passion, rather than static objects on which violence and sex are visited.

As in her story “Eyes I Dare Not Meet In Dreams” Moraine brings a strong feminist line to “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor”, particularly in passages like:

They teach us not to be angry, she says. Y’know? Heard it in a Women’s Studies class in college, and yeah, there was some bullshit in there, but that rang so true, like a fucking bell in my fucking head. They teach us not to be angry. No one likes a bitch.

However, through the narrator’s interior monologue, the story shows how a single person’s conception of feminism and justice can be multi-layered, conflicted, and difficult to articulate; especially when feminism intersects with violence and romance.  

“Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor” is yet another valuable addition to the ‘monstrous women of SFF’ feminist sub-genre. And it’s a complex story of what happens when love is damaged by revenge and manipulation, but still somehow persists. Read it alongside “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander and “A Fist of Permutations and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong.

REVIEW: “She Still Loves The Dragon” by Elizabeth Bear

Review of Elizabeth Bear’s, “She Still Loves The Dragon”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“She Still Loves The Dragon” works deliciously well as a metaphor for the pleasures and pains of being open to love. A knight-errant heads up a mountain to face her final challenge; a dragon. As the knight travels, the story illustrates the importance of healing old hurts when embarking on a new relationship:

The knight-errant who came seeking you prepared so carefully. She made herself whole for you…

She found the old wounds of her earlier errantry and of her past errors, and the other ones that had been inflicted through no fault of her own.

At the top of the mountain, the knight-errant finds a complex creature who she comes to love, and who loves her in its turn, but who always has the power to hurt the knight. By using fantasy to place the knight-errant in an unbalanced romantic relationship, the story underlines the important role trust & vulnerability play in making a relationship work. Unfortunately, when the dragon become bored, it sets the knight-errant on fire to see what will happen; illuminating the dangers inherent in laying yourself open to love.

The knight-errant keeps the fire stoked with her own anger because she is afraid of how she’ll be changed when she stops burning. When she eventually lets the fire die down she finds ‘The scars are armor. Better armor than the skin before. Not so good as the flames, but they will keep her safe as she heals.’ The scars are a defence mechanism, but she is also ‘stiff and imprisoned in her own hide.’ The heroine is in the middle of a healing process after a betrayal; not necessarily wishing to leave the dragon who broke her. It’s important to note that while Elizabeth Bear’s story works well as a metaphor, the dragon is not a stand in for an abusive lover. It is clearly a supernatural force that operates by different, inhuman standards, and the knight-errant is free to leave when she is finally able to do so.

Eventually, the knight-errant scratches off her scars, and finds she has become ‘the thing I am. I am the space I take up in the world.’ or as the dragon says ‘what you made of yourself this time was not for anyone but you.’ The knight is reborn into someone more ‘tempered’; more experienced, open, and ‘complete’ in herself. Bear has crafted a story that calls out to be examined from all different sides, and is full of artistry to be enjoyed as the reader travels through this story of identity, love, and bravery. I would be interested to know however whether readers think this story strays a little too close to imagining a magically healed disability as it evokes its story of emotional healing.