REVIEW: “The First Witch of Damansara” by Zen Cho

Review of Zen Cho’s, “The First Witch of Damansara”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

When Vivian’s grandmother dies, Vivian’s family ask her to return to Malaysia for the funeral. Her grandmother was a witch of some renown, while Vivian ‘in contrast, had a mind like a hi-tech blender.’ On returning to her family home, she finds troubled spirits in the shape of her grandmother’s wandering ghost, and her magical sister, Wei Yi, who is trying to work out how to honour her grandmother properly so she doesn’t become a kuang shi, or vampire.

I didn’t notice until I’d finished “The First Witch of Damansara” that Zen Cho presents an entirely female family story. There’s a fiance ‘beautiful, supportive, and cast in an appropriately self-effacing role—just off-screen,’ and Vivian’s dead Yeh Yeh plays a role in the story, but otherwise men are entirely absent from this family tale. The important conflicts, and relationships, all play out between women.

A significant part of Vivian’s story revolves around how she fits into her magical, Malaysian family’s life now when she has been apart from them for so long. In order to find her place she has to interact with her sister, mother, and even her grandmother’s spirit in ways that are often infuriating, but nevertheless help her to find a significant role in their lives again. I’m always excited to see family stories that allow women to develop strong, and complex, bonds with each other. And “The First Witch of Damansara” certainly brings the importance of female relationships to the fore.

The story whizzes by because it’s so well-paced. The conversations between the characters read with the naturalness found when people have known each other for a long time but still don’t always understand each other. And there’s a character here to capture the imagination of every reader: practical, fish out of water Vivian; tricksy, smart Nai Nai; argumentative, determined Wei Yi. I was already a big fan of Cho’s novel Sorcerer to the Crown, but after reading “The First Witch of Damansara” I’m eager to try out more of her short fiction too.

REVIEW: “Making Us Monsters” by Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly

Review of Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly’s, “Making Us Monsters”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Do you enjoy weeping? Well then, I highly recommend you read “Making Us Monsters”. Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly have written a correspondence across the ages between wartime poets, and lovers, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. If you’re not crying yet there’s a good chance you will be by the end of the story.

The science fiction element in this story is quite subtle. In 1932, Sassoon suddenly begins to receive letters from beyond the grave. Front line missives from Wilfred Owen are delivered by post or appear mysteriously among other correspondence, in pockets, or among the pages of books. These letters, delivered by an unknown hand after all these years, is all the sci-fi the story includes, but such a small otherworldly touch yields a deep, examination of two men, their relationship, and war.

Sassoon documents these finds in his diary, and is soon speaking directly to ‘Will’ in his entries. It is clear that Owen thinks Siegfried has forgotten him, as he receives no reply in 1918. Siegfried fears what each letter will bring but also longs for each new word from his former lover.

The idea of letters supernaturally appearing from beyond the grave alludes to the growing interest in spiritualism that followed WWI, as people sought solace, understanding, and connection in the face of such large scale tragedy. And there is so much to dig into in this story. The distanced correspondence sharply dissects Sassoon, a man often torn between hatred of the destruction war brings, and a belief that war somehow uplifts and unites men to make the feeling beyond soldiers finer than anything else. And the writing style does a fabulous job of emulating the way the poets wrote about war – often full of tragedy, emotion, and lush, dark imagery that seduces the reader into seeing war through the prism of gothic romance before it rams home the utter, brutal hell of battle.

Sassoon’s relationship with Owen – as mentor, lover, and stirring influence – is laid bare, and is heartbreaking. Was I wrong to hope that the science fictional aspect of this story might lead to a happier conclusion? A letter that allows Sassoon to find some peace? An entirely out of this world reunion with Will? Sadly, it was not to be. Instead I was left sad, although in other ways quite satisfied, by “Making Us Monsters”. The horrors of war, especially the way the men in charge aim to create soldiers who suit their bloody purposes, are brought to the fore. And I found this story a fascinating take on the First World War, and on these two men in particular. If you enjoyed Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy about the war poets make this your next read.

REVIEW: “Elemental Love” by Rachel Swirsky

Review of Rachel Swirsky’s, “Elemental Love”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Elemental Love” is a story about the poetry, and romance, of science. If you feel a sense of wonder when you hear that ‘we are all made of stars,‘ this is the story for you.

An unnamed narrator details the remarkable nature of the elements contained inside their lover’s body. Under their watch, each component is revealed as a marvel with links to the wider world, remarkable properties, and a deep soulful poetry at the heart of their function:

One percent: Phosphorus.

Named the light-bearer for the morning star, for Venus glowing on its nightly rounds. It dwells in the membranes of your cells; it nurtures them; it mends them. Love’s namesake keeps you whole.

It is an unbearably romantic declaration. What a shame biology lessons were never like this in my day.

The narrator unfurls this list of elements in response to their lover’s query: ‘You asked: Why I would love you.’ And this is where the more traditional science fiction element of the story kicks in. It is revealed that the narrator is something other than human, and considers their own body less full of wonder. ‘There are no miracles in me,’ they announce towards the end of the story.

However, it is clear from the reported speech of their lover that not everyone agrees. The narrator’s miracles are the kind of engineered marvel that many a sci-fi fan can appreciate. The story ties up with a little bitter-sweetness, as the narrator casts doubt on the value of their own astonishing nature. Yet the reader is able to see that this romance is more equal than the narrator perceives, and leaves this story with the satisfying image of two beings tangled together in awe. Biology meets engineering, and both prove as fascinating as the other.

As in her Hugo nominated story of love and loss, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love“, Swirsky shows a deft touch for rhythm and feeling in “Elemental Love”. The flow of this story, the placement of line breaks, and the restraint of what Swirsky chooses to include about each element, all build to help this story move at a perfect pace; slow, rippling, and subtle. Let yourself be seduced by Swirsky’s way with words – you’ll never look at your own body the same way again.

REVIEW: “At Cooney’s” by Delia Sherman

Review of Delia Sherman’s, “At Cooney’s”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Delia Sherman certainly has a way with sensory description. After a few lines of “At Conney’s” I felt like I had been whisked away to the dingy bar of her imagination:

Down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there’s a little bar called Cooney’s. It’s an old bar, with a tin ceiling and carved-up tables and a floor you don’t want to look at too hard and no air-conditioning to break up the historic atmosphere of stale beer and dusty upholstery and unwashed hair.

Enter Ali, the story’s narrator, who is sitting in Cooneys with her friends Grace and Michael. Grace & Ali argue with Michael about how ‘his man Dylan didn’t invent poetic protest songs.’ and discuss the history of black musical protest. It’s 1968, and Ali is in love with Grace. Grace is black, Ali we’re left to assume is white. Ali doesn’t know how Grace will react if a girl professes their love to her. So, from its opening moments, “At Cooney’s” is a smart, politically focused story.

During an emotional breakdown, Ali stumbles into the bathroom only to find herself transported back in time. Sherman creates real jeopardy with this device. The past is not a safe space for Ali. She arrives without money, or I.D. And her 60’s fashion choices get her branded as a girl dressing as a man.

Even returning to her present doesn’t guarantee Ali safety. It’s 1968, a time when Michael can ask, without much censure, whether the young girls on stage are ‘lezzies’. This choice to transport a narrator from the reader’s past into their own past, and then return them to a historical present, sets “At Cooney’s” apart. Sherman’s story challenges the idea that the present is always a safe space; a space where underrepresented characters are required to “be grateful”.   

In fact, despite the problems of the past, her trip provides Ali with many examples of strength. It turns out, Cooney’s used to be a club where the clientele dressed to express their true gender identities without fear of censure. When the club is raided, she sees people for who ‘being busted is a familiar pain, like a bad hangover, the price they pay for letting it all hang out, even in a speakeasy.’ And yet, these people continue to come to Cooney’s and dress the way that makes them feel their best. There she meets Ronnie, an incredibly seductive character. It’s worth reading “At Cooney’s” just to watch Ronnie’s moves:

Her breath is warm, her voice like damp velvet. I shiver, my eyes on the couples gliding past, bright-eyed and flushed, absorbed in the music and each other. Ronnie’s lips move to my mouth, and somehow we’re still dancing as we kiss, slow, slow, quick-quick.

Ali returns to 1968 with new drive to get over her fear, and to tell Grace she loves her. And while the reader never knows how Grace reacts we’re left with hope hanging in the air.

REVIEW: “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Review of Vina Jie Min Prasad’s, “Fandom for Robots”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Fandom for Robots” is a sweet story about a robot finding a friend, and a voice, in the fandom community. It’s often a funny story, and its humour will resonate with anyone who has ever been really into a TV show:

‘Computron feels no emotion towards the animated television show titled Hyperdimension Warp Record (超次元 ワープ レコード). After all, Computron does not have any emotion circuits installed, and is thus constitutionally incapable of experiencing “excitement,” “hatred,” or “frustration.” It is completely impossible for Computron to experience emotions such as “excitement about the seventh episode of HyperWarp,” “hatred of the anime’s short episode length” or “frustration that Friday is so far away.”’

Computron, ‘The only known sentient robot’, resides in the Simak Robotics Museum. While considered a marvel when originally built in 1954, Computron’s design is now regarded as outdated. He is brought out as ‘a quaint artefact’ in the Museum’s Then And Now show, but no one really engages with him as a sentient being.

One day, a girl asks whether Computron has ever watched Hyperdimension Warp Record, and this launches Computron on a journey of discovery about fandom, friendship, and his own life. As Computron learns more about the anime show, and meets bjornruffian (a fellow fan, robot enthusiast, and fandom illustrator) on he begins to develop a wider sense of self.

“Fandom for Robots” is a great look at how empowering fanwork can be. In the museum, Computron is told not to talk too much but fandom allows him to have a voice. Computron provides helpful criticism of bjornruffian’s drawings of Cyro; the robot character on the show, and he writes his own fanfic.

Computron is also able to assert his identity through fanwork by helping to shape the robot bodies and storylines that appear in fanfic. Hyperdimension Warp Record gives him a way to process difficult memories. His friendship with bjornruffian gives Computron a reason to make his own decisions, and determine his own path, when he has so far lived quite a passive life. He makes a real connection with bjornruffian, and he ‘goes into sleep mode less’ which sounds a lot like a robot escaping from depression. It’s really lovely to go on this journey of personal development with Computron, and to see fans enjoying his and bjornruffians slash comic collab.

Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Fandom for Robots” is perfect for fans of Merc A. Rustard’s “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps”, Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please”, and Martha Wells All Systems Red. If you like robots, fandom, internet culture, or if you got emotional about that XCDC Mars rover comic, then this is the story for you.

REVIEW: “Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney

Review of C. S. E. Cooney, “Though She Be But Little”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

C. S. E. Cooney has produced a distinctive world full of pirates, animated stuffed animals, and world changing magic. Readers who enjoy stories from the New Weird genre will find plenty of surreal, unexplained fantasy in this tale. Readers who like their weird mixed evenly with charm will enjoy “Though She Be But Little” even more as Cooney mixes in wry pirate jokes, and off-beat details, with her more bizarre, haunting creations.

The sky in Emma Anne’s world went silver one day, and suddenly everything changed. Overnight, Emma Anne went from being ‘Mrs. Emma A. Santiago,Navy widow, age sixty-five’ to ‘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.’ “Though She Be But Little” has a keen eye for subtler horrors as well as presenting a truly terrifying monster in ‘the Loping Man’ who is coming for Emma Anne.

“Though She Be But Little” is ultimately a story about transformations, good and bad, and quietly about female friendship. The ending, which presents a fantastic scene of monstrous women coming together, was my favourite part.  

REVIEW: “Down and Out in R’lyeh” by Catherynne M. Valente

Review of Catherynne M. Valente’s, “Down and Out in R’lyeh”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Down and Out in R’lyeh” is like A Clockwork Orange with demonic gods in waiting. Catherynne M. Valente has built a story with its own street language of drugs, fashion, and class politics that works just as well as the patter of Anthony Burgess’ novel:

Be me: Moloch! Dank as starlit squidshit, antique in the membrane, maximum yellow fellow! Only five thousand years old, still soggy behind the orifices, belly full of piss and pus and home-brewed, small-batch disdain for all he beholds. Keeps his tentacles proper pompy-doured and his fur 100% goat at all times. Keeps his talons on the sluggish pulse of the nightmare corpse-city that never sleeps…

The language that Moloch (‘not THE Moloch’) uses to narrate this story asks the reader to do a lot of work in order to parse his meaning. He obscures his tale with slang and eldritch references, and so it takes a while to adjust to his way of speaking. However, the meat of his story quickly becomes clear. Moloch is part of a disaffected generation, trapped in a small town, waiting for his elders to yield the field so they can have their go at destroying the human world. In the meantime he, his girlfriend, and his best friend spend their days getting high or ‘mundane’ in a variety of elaborate ways. When that’s not enough they go out looking for trouble with the ‘gloons’ or the poseurs of their world. While they may be supernatural creatures who look and behave so differently to humans there’s a very basic relatability at the heart of this story. It’s a smart and inventive science fiction parody of stories like A Clockwork Orange but it also works as its own entertaining tale of one long hazy night.

“Down and Out in R’leyh” is a story I think I would have got a lot more from if I had read Lovecraft’s original Cthulu stories. However, I did know enough to see that two female characters burning down Cthulu’s house, while he’s inside, could be interpreted as a feminist strike in the heart of Lovecraftian territory. Even without knowing much about Lovecraft’s original stories, I had a lot of fun threading my way through Moloch’s story (even if the imagery is quite deliberately gross which is not usually my thing).