A Brand New Periodical: A Review of Unstuck, Issue 1

Since this is apparently the season to be jolly, here’s a real cause for celebration: December 12th sees the birth of Unstuck, a brand new periodical for your amusement and literary delight.

Unstuck is an independent, non-profit annual based in Austin, Texas and edited by Matt Williamson, a promising SF writer who came to my attention via the stunning short story “Sacrament” in John Joseph Adams’ Brave New Worlds anthology. Matt’s works can or will also be found in Bat City Review, Barrelhouse, Gulf Coast, Cimarron Review, Portland Review and the Fraudulent Artifacts anthology, and to that résumé we can now also add Executive Editor of this impressive new annual journal.

Unstuck is not a pure science fiction and fantasy magazine in the traditional sense, but there’s enough overlap with the genres to make it interesting for SFF fans. In the editors’ own words: Unstuck emphasizes “literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, the surreal, or the strange—a broad category that would include the work of writers as diverse as Borges, Ballard, Calvino, Huxley, Tutuola, Abe and (of course) Vonnegut.” Several of the twenty-one stories included here have little or no genre elements at all, while in others the influence is more obvious. What’s more important, though, is that the quality is uniformly very high, so if you don’t mind the kind of short fiction that’s less easily labeled SF or fantasy (or anything else, really), Unstuck is definitely worth your time.

Unstuck opens, probably not coincidentally, with “Monument”, a beautiful miniature by Amelia Gray about townspeople who meet at a cemetery to clean up and restore the graves, but instead end up doing something completely different. The story’s understated style and its close-to-the-surface symbolism are characteristics that show up in many of the stories in this first issue of Unstuck. Because of this, this is one of those magazines that just flows well, lacking the jarring changes in tone and style occasionally found in others.

Next up is “Ancestors” by Kiki Petrosino, the first of five poems to appear in the journal. In addition to poetry, Unstuck also includes one essay (a gorgeous piece called “The Eel” by Rennie Sparks) and a wealth of beautiful and intriguing drawings by staff illustrator Matthew Domiteaux, whose contributions play a huge role in creating Unstuck‘s unique style and identity.

Unstuck continues strongly with Matthew Vollmer’s “The Ones You Want to Keep”, an extremely well written mix of funny and creepy that takes several surprising twists and turns along the way, followed by Matthew Derby’s “Dokken”, a futuristic tale set on the sea of garbage floating in our oceans. This “plastic gyre” is also mentioned in the aforementioned essay by Rennie Sparks, one of several times when an image echoes throughout more than one piece in this periodical, which is yet another reason why the entire set feels cohesive and reads so smoothly.

And so it continues. It’s difficult to review all twenty-one stories, not to mention the poems and essay, so here are just a few more of my personal favorites in order of appearance, hard as it is to pick from the strong line-up offered here. (And as usual when reviewing an anthology or magazine, I feel horrible about only devoting a paragraph or so to these stories, because they’re all wonderful little microcosms of thematic complexity and deserve articles that are at least as long as this entire review is. So while I know just a paragraph is not nearly enough, it’s really just meant as a way to highlight the stories that, in my eyes, stood out from the pack.)

  • Rachel Swirsky’s “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” is a wonderful story, as you’d expect from this author, and rather than try to describe it in a few words, I’ll just offer the first two paragraphs to wet your appetite:

On the night of the winter solstice, when the dead get their annual reprieve, they go up to the 24-hour donut shop and wedding chapel to get hitched. Marriage is a good and proper pursuit for dead people.

For a while, it relieves the dark, shuddering loneliness of the afterlife. When the couples tire of each other, they go their separate ways, for the until-death part has already happened.

  • Leslie What’s “Big Feet” is a brilliantly lucid snapshot of the thoughts and aches of a giant during his flight home after settling his recently deceased father’s estate. It’s one of those stories that blows up a small-scale situation until the level of detail is so high that you have trouble looking away, as much as you’d maybe like to.
  • “Peer Confession” by John Maradik and Rachel B. Glaser starts off as the funniest story in the magazine, but somewhere along the way it takes a surprising turn and pulls you along as it explores themes of redemption and forgiveness. Joe Meno’s “Apes” pulls a similar trick, although the turn doesn’t happen until the very end in that story.
  • Randy Schaub’s “The Dobbs House” and Andrew Friedman’s “The Rain Falls Down and Hits Us, So Down’s Where We Must Be” close out the magazine with strong, complex stories. They couldn’t be more different from each other, but both are at least in part about the holes in our lives left by absent family members and about how connections to prior generations can have an effect on the present—which, in a very indirect way, brings Unstuck full circle to the story that opened the magazine.

Aside from the authors already mentioned, the magazine also includes works by Aimee Bender, J. Robert Lennon, Marisa Matarazzo, Arthur Bradford, Helen Phillips, Lindsay Hunter, Charles Antin, Meghan McCarron, Sharona Muir, Andrew Friedman, Julia Whicker, Judson Merrill, Karin Tidbeck, Zach Savich, Dan Rosenberg, Kaethe Schwehn and Patrick Haas.

Unstuck is an “annual,” meaning that, well, it gets published once per year. This schedule and the magazine’s physical format—350 pages in a perfect-bound volume, but Kindle and ePub editions are also available—make Unstuck feel more like a generously priced anthology than a magazine. I don’t want to go “all this and a stick of gum” on you, but at $10 for a subscription or $12 for just the first issue, this is a very affordable way to explore some great new fiction.

Finally: to celebrate the release of its first issue, Unstuck has set up a micro-lit contest you can enter until the end of the year. Also, they’re giving away robots.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. Many of his reviews can be found at Fantasy Literature.


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