Short Fiction Spotlight

Short Fiction Spotlight: The Uncanny Valley

Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.

Once upon a time, magazines of short speculative fiction were as prevalent and accessible as newspapers, but the periodicals of the past have been dying a slow death for decades. Don’t give up hope, though, for there are those who still believe such publications have a place.

Amongst their noble number, we have Hugo Award-winner Lynne M. Thomas and Hugo Award nominee Michael Damian Thomas, who last week launched the first issue of Uncanny, a brand new bi-monthly “that has the feel of a contemporary magazine with a history—one that evolved from a fantastic pulp. Uncanny will bring the excitement and possibilities of the past, and the sensibilities and experimentation that the best of the present offers.”

This is not a small promise, and whether the two Thomases can keep on keeping it remains to be seen, but Uncanny’s initial offering—which includes six original stories, a great Jay Lake reprint, a fair few interviews, and fascinating non-fiction features, plus poetry by Neil Gaiman, Sonya Taaffe, and Amal El-Mohtar (of our own Rich and Strange)—certainly makes an excellent first impression.

In large part that’s thanks to Maria Dahvana Headley, whose contribution to Uncanny kicks off the first issue. “If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” is an Angela Carter-esque affair “set in the late 60s, with black humour mixed into longing for a lost world.” Its narrator, Mitchell Travene, is a men’s magazine editor dispatched to Jungleland—a retirement community cum rehabilitation clinic for aging animal actors—to find “ten thousand words of zoo scandal, crimes, or perversions.”

As it happens, he doesn’t have to look far. Jungleland is on its last legs when we’re ushered in, like so many marks into a safari park. In their distress, the residents have turned to drink, drugs, and an assortment of debauchery:

Jungleland, by the time I drove through its rusting gates in ’68, was bankrupt and officially plotted to hit the block.

Dr. Dolittle […] had been released the year before. It was the final humiliation, a generation of serious actors performing in a skin show, their dialogue spoken by human ventriloquists. The animals went on strike, of course, but there was no union.

The compound’s pachyderms—who’d once elegantly congaed in a small ring before retiring to practice their Martha Graham-choreographed scar dances—stood by the side of the road, shamefacedly trumpeting for traffic, but the cars stopped coming.

Obviously, “the grandeur is gone”—as a miscellaneous monkey explains—yet traces remain; echoes of the animal magic that made the place so unimaginably marvellous.

Our man does meet a few humans here, but they’ve basically gone native, and he isn’t interested in their descent, in any event:

The magazine was looking for an article one part cult massacre, one part Barnum, but above all, they were looking to profile the Forever Roar, who’d remained mum for the past twenty years. It was their last chance. An ecology group had threatened to buy Leo at auction, take him to Africa and release him into the veldt.

The Forever Roar is, of course, the MGM mascot, and if this deeply surreal love story has a focus, it’s the last hurrah of Leo the Lion: an enigmatic character whose choice to remain mute speaks louder than any of words Mitchell wishes he might mutter. The moment when he breaks his silence for a song is not one I expect to forget.

“If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” is easily the weirdest work of fiction I’ve encountered in ages, but it’s wonderful as well—moody but not maudlin, it lands somewhere between lush and lascivious—and no less inventive for the fact that it leverages a facility the existence of which I, in my innocence, was absolutely taken aback by.

The animals of the real Jungleland might not have talked, but if they had, I’m convinced this is what they’d say—or, at the very least, the way they’d say it: regretfully, with an edge of invention.

Between “If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” and the other short fictions it features—by Kat Howard, Ken Liu, Max Gladstone, Amelia Beamer, and Christopher Barzak—the quality of the first issue of Uncanny is quite frankly remarkable. If the two Thomases can keep to this level of merit, their magazine might just have a chance in the modern market. They’ve certainly secured my support.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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