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Uncanny Staff Members Share Their Holiday Favorites

Happy Holidays, Space Unicorns! There’s plenty of the holiday spirit here at Uncanny, so several of our editorial staff decided to share some of our favorite pieces of media for the holiday season. If you’re looking for something fun to watch, listen to, or read as the holidays approach, we hope you’ll find something to enjoy in our suggestions!

Erika Ensign, Podcast Co-Producer and Podcast Reader
This Christmas I bring you the gift of music! I used to pretend I hated holiday music because it wasn’t “cool” to like it. When I grew out of caring what other people think about the things I enjoy, I admitted I love December because radio stations (two in my city of Edmonton!) play nothing but holiday and holiday-adjacent music. (I’m sorry, but “River” by Joni Mitchell isn’t really a Christmas song, even though it mentions Christmas. Neither is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”) Sadly, local radio is rather limited in its choices. There are so many great holiday songs I never hear on the radio, so I wanted to share a few of the poppier tunes I wish I heard more often.

“I Want an Alien for Christmas,” by Fountains of Wayne, is a delightful little ditty that’s about exactly what you’d expect from the title. It is upbeat and peppy and full of clever turns of phrase like “I want a little green guy about three feet high with 17 eyes who knows how to fly.”

YouTube (animated fanvid)
YouTube “lyrics” video
Spotify

Weezer released a two-track Christmas EP in 2000, which has brought me a great deal of holiday joy over the years. “The Christmas Song” is very much an example of Rivers Cuomo at his whiny-piniest, but that’s one of the things that drew me to Weezer in the first place, so I am so on board for a schmaltzy-waltzy song about being lonely at the holidays. “Christmas Celebration” is much more upbeat—at least the music itself is. The lyrics are cynical and sarcastic. One of my favorite genres is poppy-peppy songs with pessimistic lyrics, so I am here for this. In the interest of calling out the problematic bit of a problematic fave, I really do not like the fat-shaming in this one so I come back to this track less often than the previous tune, even though this one is peppier and I like the tune more.

Spotify

Stephanie Malia Morris, Podcast Reader
It’s that time of year again, when a combination of so-close-you-can-taste-it holiday PTO and end-of-semester stress and relief (I work in a college library and absorb both from students and faculty alike) send me tailspinning into various obsessions. This year’s monkey is named murder: I’ve been gobbling up Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series while I wait (#223 of 223 holds!) for her latest book, The Witch Elm, to arrive at the local library. I did not realize I needed the Dublin Murder Squad books until I read In the Woods and fell into immediate, transcendent hate with the main character, a detective haunted, much like Scrooge, by the ghosts of past and present raised by the novel’s central case. The Dublin Murder Squad is everything I have ever wanted in a good murder mystery: tight plotting, intriguing characters, detailed research, settings so vivid they too are characters. As a holiday bonus, the series has a thing for the holidays and winter weather, from unheated interrogation rooms to catching murderers over Christmas dinner.

Chimedum Ohaegbu, Assistant Editor
Spoilers, but: this movie’s an absolute delight.

Animaniacs came into my life in a somewhat backwards manner: its finale (this film) released a year after I was born, and by the time I was old enough to watch TV, the most regular rerun from the series was Wakko’s Wish every Christmas. It’s highly representative of the zany, whip-smart show.

In Wakko’s Wish, orphans Yakko, Wakko, and Dot live in a town suffering under the greedy king’s tyrannical fist. Dot is sick in a Victorian-waif way, and Wakko works for a year to earn a ha’penny (as a kid, I thought this was an imaginary, infinitely large unit; learning he’d earned half a penny is both hilarious and almost relatable) to pay for Dot’s medical expenses. The ha’penny is promptly lost to the king’s tax collector, and desperate, Wakko wishes on a star. It works! Sort of: the Warners must travel to where the star fell to claim their wish, and when the town—and the king—catch on, it becomes a race.

If you’re not already raring to (re)watch Wakko’s Wish, consider its fantastic sense of humor and its extremely catchy tunes. “It’s all for one and one for all — times three,” sing the Warners in a blend of individuality and common goals that I really relate to as the eldest of a trio of siblings. Overall, Wakko’s Wish is a great movie if you want to add some festive songs to your roster while visiting old friends.

Steven Schapansky, Podcast Co-Producer
I’ve never had a favourite Christmas movie or TV show growing up. I vaguely remember watching bits of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Frosty the Snowman when I was a kid, but it never really stuck. Actually, my main memory of watching a movie at Christmas is when my Mom needed to wrap some presents and sent my Dad on a mission to the local theatre to keep me and my sister occupied by watching “Pinocchio” (a movie that traumatizes me still).

The award for my favourite Christmas viewing was finally claimed on Christmas Day, 2010, when I watched the Doctor Who Christmas Special A Christmas Carol. It was the first such special for the new Doctor Matt Smith, as well as the Yuletide debut for head writer Steven Moffat. Moffat crafted a brilliant time travel infused take on the traditional Charles Dickens tale, which involves the Doctor having to convince a miserly Scrooge-esque figure to allow a crashing spaceship to be saved by going back in time to show him his past, present, and future, and how he could be a better person. It’s at times hilarious, thrilling, sad, moving, and it’s topped off by a wonderful child-like performance from Matt Smith. It also has a flying shark. God bless us, everyone.

Lynne M. Thomas, Co-Publisher/Co-Editor-in-Chief and Interviewer
I’m a sucker for The Avengers, the 1960s spy show with a strong leaning towards SF/F, particularly the era featuring Patrick McNee as John Steed and Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel. Steed and Peel have a delightful on-screen relationship where the champagne flows freely, they respect each others’ skill sets and rely upon each other utterly as partners while looking FABULOUS, and they flirt outrageously, all the while foiling 60s spy plots. The holiday episode “Too Many Christmas Trees takes this to its best possible extreme, introducing telepaths that are trying to steal secret’s from Steed’s brain at a Dickensian-themed Christmas house party. Which means that we get not only fabulous 60s clothing, we get costumes, including Steed dressed as Sidney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities (swoon) and Peel dressed as Oliver Twist. While I am here for all of the Steed/Peel banter, and it is DELIGHTFUL, my favorite part is the ending kicker, which takes a long-running subtext and makes it text.

Michael Damian Thomas, Co-Publisher/Co-Editor-in-Chief
People are much too hard on the Star Wars Holiday Special (Singing Bea Arthur! Life Day! A VERY HAPPY Grandpa Itchy!), but I’m not here to defend that. No, I am here to tell you all about the greatest moment in Star Wars holiday history: Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album

This glorious album was created by Meco, the genius behind the Billboard #1 hit disco version of “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” (he later followed that up with the “Ewok Celebration” which features a RAP BREAKDOWN IN EWOKESE!). 1980’s Christmas in the Stars is a Star Wars concept album featuring Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. He and R2-D2 are visiting a droid toy factory making toys for the S. Clause. What follows are a series of songs about their Space Toy-making adventures and teaching R2-D2 the true meaning of Christmas! Listen to Anthony Daniels talk-singing like a metal Henry Higgins in “Christmas in the Stars”! Dazzle at the should-have-been-a-holiday-standard “What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?)! And be amazed by “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which features the first recorded vocals of Jon Bon Jovi! Really.

Listen! Enjoy! Discover the meaning of bells in space! Then go and enjoy the oral history about the making of THE GREATEST CHRISTMAS ALBUM OF ALL TIME!

Michi Trota, Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve very likely seen me geeking out over Leverage. The show hits so many of my favorite story-telling spots: found-family, intricate puzzle heists, pop culture references, competence porn, a character who loves food. And there’s even two holiday themed episodes! While “The Toy Job” in season 5 is perfectly lovely, the season 3 episode, “The Ho, Ho, Ho Job” is on my shortlist of “things I watch every year for the holidays.” The episode has everything: a villainous plot to exploit Christmas for selfish gain, a literal plea for help from Santa, heists-within-heists with loads of delightful misdirection, a character’s grumpiness over the holidays that belies a truly giving nature, sharp dialog and banter, and even Die Hard references (Go Team “Die Hard Is a Christmas Movie”). Most importantly, the episode doesn’t just show how good Nate, Sophie, Eliot, Hardison, and Parker are at what they do, it’s the perfect snapshot of how much of a family they’ve grown into, and how deeply they’ve come to respect and understand each other. I can’t think of anything better for the holidays.

Chimedum Ohaegbu Receives Katherine Brearley Arts Scholarship

Fantastic news, Space Unicorns! Uncanny‘s fabulous Assistant Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu is being honored as one of the recipients of the Katherine Brearley Arts Scholarship at the University of British Columbia!

In selecting recipients, consideration is given to both scholarly excellence and the demonstrated ability to work with and lead others in student and community activities at the university, local, national, and/or international level.

Chimedum has done a huge amount of work and contributed her leadership skills to her community to earn this award. She’s an integral part of Uncanny‘s success, and we’re so proud of her for this achievement! Please join us in congratulating her!

On Writing the Exhibit Text for Worlds Beyond Here: Expanding the Universe of APA Science Fiction by Michi Trota

Being a science fiction fan has opened a lot of doors for me that I would never have thought to even knock on several years ago, and “writing the text for a museum exhibit exploring the history and representation of Asian Pacific Americans in science fiction” would definitely have fallen in that category; yet here I am, on my way to Seattle to because I got to do just that for the Wing Luke Museum’s new exhibit, Worlds Beyond Here: Expanding the Universe of APA Science Fiction, which opens on Friday, October 12, 2018, and will run through September 15, 2019.

The exhibit covers pop culture touchstones like Star Trek, Star Wars, time travel, “cli-fi,” and sentient robots, as well as how APA creators are imagining silkpunk worlds, reclaiming the genre from Orientalism, envisioning exploration narratives free from colonialism, and grappling with the ethics and morality of technological access and development, as well as science fiction’s ever-present questions of what it means to be human—all through the lens of APA experiences and perspectives.

I’m excited to recognize many of the names of creators, actors, artists, and other notable APA figures in science fiction, but even better were the names I didn’t know and got to learn about while writing the exhibit text. I’m particularly thrilled the exhibit explores the topic of Pacific Indigenous futurisms as well. The importance of understanding what it means to be APA in science fiction, and to have our experiences acknowledged isn’t even a question in this exhibit—it’s taken as fact that our history and visibility matter, and that’s incredible to me because despite how much I loved science fiction growing up, it often felt like the genre and community didn’t actually love me back, or even care about people like me. And I know I’m not alone in feeling that way. I hope that by seeing this exhibit, others who have felt similarly will be able to see how in fact APA perspectives and creations are thriving in science fiction, and making more space and opportunities for more APA creators and fans to participate and be welcomed.

Being a fan of science fiction (and fantasy) has in large part been the reason I’ve been able to connect with and learn from other Asian Pacific Americans about what it means to be part of a larger collective of marginalized cultures. It is because of science fiction and the many, many APA creators and fans I’ve met that only now, heading toward middle age, am I finally comfortable exploring the complex and often deeply painful questions of what being APA means to me, and how our portrayals in science fiction, pop culture, and beyond irrevocably shape our perceptions and concepts of identity. Contrary to what I’d been told and what I saw growing up, APAs are intensively active in science fiction, with contributions to and influences on the genre that are extensive and inspiring. Our stories, our faces, our work, are irrevocably, proudly, part of science fiction, and I’m so proud to be part in this because not only did I write the exhibit text, I am also loaning my first Hugo Award (2016) as Uncanny Magazine’s Managing Editor, for which I became the first Filipina to win a Hugo, to the exhibit for the next year!

A whole museum exhibit dedicated to highlighting APA history in science fiction, and getting to be a part of it, means more to me than I can say. The fact that the exhibit opens during Filipino American History Month is also deeply meaningful (*waves at all my Fil-Am Spec Fic Fam who are too numerous to name*). Writing the exhibit text was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve done, because how can you distill decades of history and do justice to just how much APA creators and fans have done in science fiction? I hope what I’ve written for the exhibit makes it clear to visitors why representation matters, because science fiction has been an important part of how APA creators and fans see ourselves, the art and stories we make, and the worlds we’re able to imagine. It matters that we can see ourselves, and that others can see us, in a genre that has enormous influence on the world and cultures around us. Above all, I hope it’s clear that there is space for all of us in science fiction, and that space is continuing to grow. Now all it needs are more of us to fill that space with our stories, our art, our visions. Get to it, friends, we can’t wait for you to join us.

Many thanks to the Wing Luke Museum for extending this opportunity to me, especially Exhibit Developer Mikala Woodward for her infinite patience and encouragement.

Worlds Beyond Here: Expanding the Universe of APA Science Fiction

October 12, 2018 – September 15, 2019

Wing Luke Museum, Seattle, WA

Admission includes all-day access to other museum exhibits, including Day in the Life of Bruce Lee: Adult $17; senior (62+): $15; student (13-18 or with ID): $12.50; youth (5-12): $10; children under 5: free

 

Meet Uncanny Magazine’s New Intern Chimedum Ohaegbu

Fantastic news, Space Unicorns! We’re so pleased to share that the awesome Chimedum Ohaegbu has joined the Uncanny Magazine team as our brand new intern! Chimedum is a passionate fan of science fiction and fantasy, with impressive editorial experience. We’re eager and excited to work with her on more Space Unicorn shenanigans!

Chimedum attends the University of British Columbia in pursuit of hummingbird sightings and a degree in English literature. She was the 2017 recipient of the full Tan Seagull Scholarship for Young Writers, a programming intern at Wordfest, and her work is published or forthcoming in Arts Commons Magazine and various UBC-affiliated publications. When she’s not yelling approvingly about cool stuff she’s read, she’s usually editing one thing or another.

Uncanny Is Opening an Internship! POC and Native and Indigenous People HIGHLY Encouraged to Apply!

Fantastic news, Space Unicorns! We’re extremely excited to share that we will be offering an editorial internship position with Uncanny Magazine to which we STRONGLY encourage people of color and Native and Indigenous people to apply! The internship will begin in January and run through the end of December 2018, and will come with a small stipend.

We’re looking for someone with a deep love of science fiction and fantasy, and an interest in editorial work and publishing. The internship will allow opportunities to participate in the daily operations of running a two-time Hugo Award-winning online bimonthly publication in the SF/F field, with a focus on working with the managing editor, Michi Trota, to produce a regular newsletter. While the internship emphasizes editing and production, there may be some opportunities to work with basic graphics and design.

The internship will require roughly 10-15 hrs per month. The internship is not location-dependent; communication and tasks will be done primarily online via email, Slack, and Google Hangout or Skype.

Prior experience in publishing and familiarity with using programs such as Google docs and WordPress is beneficial but not required.

Applications for the internship will be open from December 1st through December 15th. Please submit a short personal statement (up to 300 words) via Uncanny’s contact form with “Uncanny Internship” in the subject line.

Good luck, Space Unicorns!

Meet New Uncanny Podcast Reader Stephanie Malia Morris!

Wonderful news, Space Unicorns! The talented and amazing Stephanie Malia Morris is joining Uncanny Magazine as a regular reader for the Uncanny Magazine Podcast! Stephanie did a fantastic reading of N. K. Jemisin’s “Henosis” from the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 18A as a guest reader and we’re thrilled to have her on board as a regular member of the Uncanny team.

Stephanie works in a bookstore by day and a library by night, which gives her access to more books than she will ever be able to read in this lifetime. She is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop, and her fiction is in the fourth issue of FIYAH. She has narrated short fiction for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts. You can find her on Twitter at @smaliamorris.

Liz Argall’s Things React to Fandom for Robots

As you may remember, one of the stretch goals for the Uncanny Magazine Year Three Kickstarter was a continuation of our webcomic feature. Each issue, the multi-talented Liz Argall will have a special Uncanny edition of her webcomic Things Without Arms and Without Legs where they react to a piece in an issue of Uncanny Magazine.

For Issue 18, Liz’s Things react to “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.

A Dearth of Fairy Godmothers

(Guest post by Kat Howard)

I am not the sort of writer who generally knows where she’s going when she begins a story. I’ll start with a character, a voice, a scene, and then I just write. So when I started writing An Unkindness of Magicians, I didn’t know that much about what I wanted the book to be.

What I did know was that I wasn’t writing a fairy tale.

I love fairy tales. My first novel, Roses and Rot, is full of them, and I’ve retold them elsewhere as well. I’m certain that they’re something I’ll return to. But with An Unkindness of Magicians, I wanted – I needed – to tell a different kind of story.

Fairy tales often rely on the idea that good will be rewarded. That the deserving daughter will go to the ball, that an old woman will offer a wish in exchange for a kindness, that a mechanical bird will cry out against injustice.

An Unkindness of Magicians is not that kind of story. There are no fairy godmothers coming to save anyone.

Magic is not a thing that is given as a gift in the world of An Unkindness of Magicians. It is not a reward for good behavior. It is wielded like a weapon, it is kept behind locked doors, it is taken.

We say things that happen easily, unexpectedly, miraculously, happen as if by magic. But that’s always struck me as a too-easy explanation. Magic embodies the imagined; it makes the impossible commonplace. If magic were real, practicing it would not be an easy thing.

But even in a society of magicians, people with magic in their very bones, people for whom the right words could conjure the impossible, there would be people who would want magic to be easier.

There are always people who think that things should easier.

That’s not to say that ease is bad. There is an ease that comes with practice, with skill, with study. If you work, you may find that what was once difficult comes with ease. There are also technologies specifically designed to make tasks easier, and of course those should be used.

The problem with ease is when you make your own life easier at someone else’s expense. Those aren’t fairy tale creatures anymore. Those are things from a horror story, vampires and other such ghastlies that feed off the blood and life and soul of others.

An Unkindness of Magicians is not a horror story either. What it is, is the story of a corruption. A thing like a pea, put under mattresses and quilts to bruise the flesh of a true princess, only instead of a pea it is rot, and it has spread through everything.

But An Unkindness of Magicians is also not simply the story of a corrupt society that collapses under its own weight. It is the story of what happens when society stands on the brink of that collapse. Of the people who say enough, and the people who are still willing and happy to sacrifice anyone so long as they get theirs.

Here is the other thing about fairy tales: evil is punished. The doves peck out the eyes of the cruel stepsisters. Bones sing to name their murderer. There is a sense, at the end of the stories, that justice has been done.

An Unkindness of Magicians isn’t that sort of story, either. Sometimes justice can’t be done. The dead do not sing, but stay silent and dead. Even if you cause people to look, straight on, at what they’ve done, the past cannot be unseen.

There is no inherent reward or punishment here. The last words I typed in An Unkindness of Magicians were not “happily ever after.” And anyone who is saved, saved themselves.

(Editors note: Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians was released on September 26, and is now available at all booksellers.)


Kat Howard lives in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, anthologized in Year’s Best and “best-of” collections, and performed on NPR. Her debut novel, Roses and Rot, was named one of the best SF/Fantasy/Horror books of Summer 2016 by Publishers Weekly and is a finalist for the 2017 Locus Award for First Novel. Her second novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, was published September 2017 from Saga Press, who are also publishing her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in fall 2018. You can find her on Twitter at @KatWithSword.

Liz Argall’s Things React to Qi Xi

As you may remember, one of the stretch goals for the Uncanny Magazine Year Three Kickstarter was a continuation of our webcomic feature. Each issue, the multi-talented Liz Argall will have a special Uncanny edition of her webcomic Things Without Arms and Without Legs where they react to a piece in an issue of Uncanny Magazine.

For Issue 17, Liz’s Things react to the poem “Qi Xi” by Joyce Chng. This particular comic also features an appearance by Mayara, a Tamarin-sized Tamarind who loves the cosmos!

Max and Amal Go to the Movies! The Girl With All the Gifts

Welcome to another installment of authors Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s movie reviews! 

Amal El-Mohtar: TO THE MOVIES!

Max Gladstone: The Girl with All the Gifts!

She has so many gifts—

You guys—

Much Pandora, many things in boxes!

Amal El-Mohtar: Get ALL the Gifts!

Max Gladstone: Perhaps we should set the stage for the movie a little? Because this is one I imagine many people in our audience (hi, audience) haven’t seen?

Amal El-Mohtar: So, Max, before we began this column in earnest we totally had a list of movies we wanted to cover. You made a list, I made a list, we compared our lists, we had a system.

Max Gladstone: We had, at least, something adjacent to a system.

Amal El-Mohtar: It was a good almost-system! So good that I feel almost-bad for abandoning it nigh completely in favour of talking about whatever interesting movie we’ve both recently seen.

In this case: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS.

Which we watched largely because you were visiting me and my husband insisted it was amazing.

Max Gladstone: Ssh, we don’t want to reveal our Highly Scientific Selection Process.

Amal El-Mohtar: OH, you’re right, I will totally edit that part out.

Max Gladstone: Which totally isn’t “We are trapped in a satellite and Pearl keeps sending us movies.”

Amal El-Mohtar: MAX NO!

Max Gladstone: Aaaand now I’m recasting MST3K with Steven Universe characters.

We must stop this or else there will be no column.

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS.

Amal El-Mohtar: (Would Pearl even send us this movie? Oh man—actually, this is surely the quintessential Gem Horror Film. SUCH ORGANIC.)

Max Gladstone: (I recently as in just this morning read a really interesting Strange Horizons review of SU that pointed out that strawberries grow in sandy ground, like the kind of ground you’d get after you crushed and shattered a lot of gems.)

Amal El-Mohtar: (WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT!)

Max Gladstone: (I thought it was just a Beatles reference!)

(ANYWAY.)

Amal El-Mohtar: ANYWAY.

YES.

So this film is based on the book by M. R. Carey.

Max Gladstone; Film! Book! Carey!

MR not Jacqueline!

Amal El-Mohtar; I refuse to take the bait for that OBVIOUS DIGRESSION.

Max Gladstone: Bait? Who’s bait? Oh look a chocolate! *gets chocolate* *is trapped under box*

Amal El-Mohtar: When the book came out, everyone seemed to be talking about it but also not talking about it?

So I knew that there was a SHOCKING TWIST, and also that there was something to do with zombies.

Max Gladstone: Yes.

This is what I also knew about this book.

In fact, that kind of turned me off the entire project of the book?

Amal El-Mohtar: SAME! Because I HATE ZOMBIES.

Max Gladstone: For me it was that I hate twists.

Or, rather, I have a chip on my shoulder about stories you can’t talk about without talking about the twist

So it was really weird, and blessedly cool, to see this movie blow past the twist in the first five minutes.

Amal El-Mohtar: Ha! I sympathise with that at the same time that I actually kind of love twists when they aren’t over-hyped OR being ruined for me in advance, which I concede is sort of contradictory, but here we are.

And yes!!

So, full disclosure, we are obviously going to spoil the heck out of both book and film because, you know, Big Twist in First Five Minutes.

Max Gladstone: Well, so, here’s the thing about twists.

A good twist does not prevent you from describing the movie to a prospective viewer.

The Usual Suspects is a heist story told by crook Kevin Spacey to the police in the aftermath of the heist’s utter failure, about how all his friends got killed by this arch-criminal. You can even stop before the comma of that sentence and it sounds like a compelling flick.

Similarly, “Bruce Willis is a psychiatrist who, after his own near-death experience, tries to help out this kid who believes in ghosts” sounds like a movie I’d go see.

ANYWAY.

But yes! Spoiling the heck out of the movie.

Let’s maybe scroll down some spoiler space?

Amal El-Mohtar: Oh that’s a really good point.

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By that token, Melanie is a brilliant child being kept prisoner with other children in a military facility. She’s in love with her teacher, Miss Justineau, and consistently cheerful in the face of having guns pointed at her while soldiers strap her into a wheelchair to take her to and from her classes. Every now and then Dr. Caldwell comes by and comments on her “exquisite mimicry.” This is all Profoundly Uncool. How could anyone treat these sweet children in this terrible way?

The answer is:

BECAUSE THEY ARE ZOMBIES!

Sort of.

Max Gladstone: nom nom nom

So, in the film, this reveal happens maybe five minutes in. Which is great, because it’s a necessary element of scene-setting. It’s either the end of the first act or the middle of the first act depending on how you want to run the act breaks for this film. We know, all of a sudden, most of the stakes and context behind our central characters’ relationships as they understand them—though that will be broken open over the course of the movie, because many of the characters are lying to one another, or mistaken, or incompletely representing themselves.

Amal El-Mohtar: Yes! Everything about the setup and the reveal are wonderfully, economically done. We start by wondering why on earth these poor children are being called “friggin’ abortions” by aggressive awful guards, with Miss Justineau’s tearful affection towards them being our natural representative—and then there’s the revelation that, if they get a whiff of human effluvia, their jaws distend and they become these teeth-clacking horrifying creatures lusting for your flesh.

And what’s brilliant about it is that Miss Justineau knows this, but maintains her sympathy, while the guards know this and don’t.

And that’s a fantastically subtle piece of storytelling: showing you two equally true facts and two equally plausible positions on the subject.

Max Gladstone: Right. And perspective is hugely important here.

Miss J. has a limited perspective on her charges in one way, because she doesn’t tend to see them (or other zombies) being clacky chomping death monsters, while the guards do. On the other hand, the guards never see zombies as people, even limited-edition conscious zombies like Melanie.

Amal El-Mohtar: LIMITED-EDITION ZOMS!

AAHHHH!

Max Gladstone: They’re both wrong—and they both become deeply uncomfortable when presented with the limits of the boxes into which they’ve put the kids. Miss J sees them as children, which they aren’t—quite—at least not the way she thinks of children… and the guards see them as zoms, which, again, they aren’t. Quite.

Amal El-Mohtar: I am super restraining myself from jumping in immediately with my reading of this as a decolonial text about the limits and uses of respectability.

Max Gladstone: Why wait?

Amal El-Mohtar: No, no, I just think that there’s a ton of REALLY FASCINATING things to talk about besides that. Like Glenn Close’s role!

Max Gladstone: Right! Excellent! Glenn Close, as Dr. Caldwell, Avatar of Science.

Amal El-Mohtar: Can you think of another instance of that role—the hardcore pragmatic scientist for whom the ends justify the means—being played by a woman? Because I can’t!

Max Gladstone: Hm, I’m trying to! I feel like I’ve seen it done before but I can’t think of a specific role. Maybe Sigourney Weaver in Avatar, but that’s not really the same kind of role.

So, we have Glenn Close Dr, Caldwell, who really, really wants to eat your brain—I mean study! Study your brain!

Amal El-Mohtar: HA!

Oh man I hadn’t even thought of that comparison!

That the only character in this movie who is SUPER INTO BRAINS is the doctor trying to cure zombie-ness!

Max Gladstone: I think that’s a big part of why it works!

Over the course of the film we’re forced to slowly accept Melanie’s zombie-ness—she’s not human. She’s like human in many respects, she’s deserving of compassion as are all sentient beings, but she is very different. But at the same time we see that all the humans, especially Caldwell, have their own sort of insuperable automatic behaviors.

Paddy Considine’s Sgt. Parks, our resident Man of Action, at the film’s more-or-less exact midpoint, says something like, when your life’s on the line, you never know what you can do, what you’re going to do, until it’s done.

Amal El-Mohtar: OH MAN that is such a good point that I absolutely at no point thought of during the film and this is making me (almost) want to watch it again!

Max Gladstone: By what right are we supposed to think that the downfall of humanity is bad? Well, zombies are all automatic behavior—they have no will, no personality, just chompings. Dr. Caldwell’s stated position is that Melanie and the other limited edition zoms are pre-zombies—creatures that exhibit human behavior without sentience.

But again and again we see humans exhibit pre-sentient, conditioned, automatic behavior. To the extent that, in the film’s climax, when Caldwell has sedated Melanie and wants to operate on her, she’s staggering around and moaning just like a zombie, and she literally wants to eat Melanie’s brain to survive.

Well, okay, “use” and “titrate” instead of “eat” but you see where I’m going with this.

Amal El-Mohtar: I DO.

I DO SEE.

Max Gladstone: So there’s a strong Buddhist read here as well.

Amal El-Mohtar: Haha the only Buddhist thing I am seeing here is “the world is on fire.

So please tell me more.

Max Gladstone: Hahahah

IT IS THOUGH.

Well, without getting too far into it, and recognizing that there are lots of different traditions and ways around Buddhism, the questions of “liberation” and “wakefulness” are at the heart of a lot of Buddhist teaching. So, the goal is to be liberated from suffering. But why are you suffering? Because of clinging—not only to specific sights, sounds, emotions, but to the consciousness that underpins them—the notion that these thoughts and experiences are in some sort of absolute and context-independent way.

So one part of liberating practice is meditating on the codependent origination of phenomena—you figure out where things came from, and discover they’re not essential substances at all. Including, and this is the tricky thing, thought.

Amal El-Mohtar: This sounds an awful lot like turning into a tree.

Max Gladstone: Hahaha yes!

A lot of our thoughts, if we ask ourselves why we’re thinking them, end up being sort of reflexive—we have them because we’ve been conditioned to have them.

Which raises the question: why are we acting or thinking this way? Often it’s not actually because we want to, or because we’ve given the matter any thought—it’s because we’re responding automatically to stimuli. We’re preconditioned by our history and surroundings, including culture, upbringing, systemic racism, our own view of our history, etc. We’re thinking in the way context has made us think. If we trace the causes of our mental formations, we gain a little bit of metacognitive perspective—enough, perhaps, to free us from unquestioned allegiance to our environment, and the cycle of perpetual suffering where people keep hurting each other forever.

So I see that playing into the question of automatic behavior and the existence of free will (and the relevance of consciousness) in this film.

Make sense?

Amal El-Mohtar: It makes total sense! I am persuaded! And that COULD dovetail neatly into my view of this as decolonial—which is likewise a process of questioning received defaults that have shaped us, uprooting and responding to them.

Max Gladstone: ++

Decolonialism is wicked Buddhist, I think. Or at least the approaches have a great deal in common.

Amal El-Mohtar: But I want to talk about fast zombies first.

Max Gladstone: ZOOMBIES.

Amal El-Mohtar: So, broadly speaking, I hate fast zombies. I feel like it’s cheating.

But.

Touching on what you point out about the ways in which the film shows us humans behaving in zombie-like ways? The zombies’ speed makes it extremely difficult for us to tell who’s a hungry and who’s not.

Max Gladstone: TRUE.

Amal El-Mohtar: That speed is also super effectively contrasted with the zombies’ behaviour of congregating in groups and standing utterly still in order for the fungal infection to achieve the second part of its lifecycle: LITERALLY TURNING THEM INTO TREES.

This film isn’t using fast zombies as a cheap scare tactic—it’s using speed very, very deliberately to position them as human in motion and alien in stillness.

Max Gladstone: Oh, wow, yes! Which then effectively transforms the natural environment around our human (or near-human) protagonists into a threat.

Amal El-Mohtar: (I only just noticed the pun in ZOOMbies by the way.)

(Because I am not fast like a zombie.)

Max Gladstone: (It sneaks up on ya.)

(Not entirely unlike)

(A ninja.)

Amal El-Mohtar: I have just vacillated between whether to respond to that with a facepalming gif, a Max No, or silent ellipses.

I chose none and all of them.

Not entirely unlike

YOUR PROTAGONIST Melanie, beautifully portrayed by Sennia Nenua!

Max Gladstone: She’s SO GOOD.

Amal El-Mohtar: She’s so amazing it’s hard to even talk about how amazing she is. This girl is what, maybe 13?

Max Gladstone: She’s so, so very sharp.

Amal El-Mohtar: And she absolutely holds her own against GLENN CLOSE.

Their scenes together were some of the most scintillating in the film. Melanie is so loving and careful and smart, and it comes across so profoundly that all she wants is to learn, all she wants is for these adults to teach her about who she is and how to be in the world, but all they can teach her is to hate herself and hate her hunger and wear a LITERAL MASK TO PROTECT THEM FROM HER and ok I can restrain the decolonialism no longer here we go.

Max Gladstone: Woooooo! Go!

Amal El-Mohtar: I was absolutely shocked at the film’s ending. I thought it was the most radical thing I’ve seen on a screen in a long time. But I’ve had some difficulty articulating its nuances to myself.

I guess the thing to say at the outset is that the film is not a 1for1 analogue, and that’s a feature, not a bug (as it were). Obviously this fungus is literally colonizing humanity, and humanity is fighting back—BUT LOSES. How could that be about resisting colonialism, you might justly ask? How does that not simply position a young black girl as somehow INVADING WHITENESS and playing into the rankest bullshit of white supremacist narratives?

Well! Because it lulls a hegemonic audience into an ironic sense of security, given that this is a horror film.

Max Gladstone: *chinhands*

Amal El-Mohtar: You think you know, heading into this movie, what you’re rooting for. You think you’re rooting for Tolerance and Understanding via Miss Justineau. You think you’re rooting for a cure that will eradicate difference and eliminate Melanie’s hunger via Dr. Caldwell.

Max Gladstone: Hm, interesting. Not certain I’m with you there, but, please continue!

Amal El-Mohtar: And you think that, consequently, you’re rooting for Melanie—that rooting for these things is rooting for Melanie.

Max Gladstone: *nod*

Amal El-Mohtar: But the ending strips that way. You’re not rooting for Melanie—you’re rooting for part of Melanie, the part that is sweet and smart and like you, the part that loves listening to your stories, the part that works hard to protect you from the parts of her that threaten you.

And what Melanie says, by putting the match to the seed pods, is that you’ve not been rooting for her at all.

Unless you literally turn into a tree.

Then you’re rooting for her just fine.

(I’m sorry.)

Max Gladstone:

Ow.

Amal El-Mohtar: OK I welcome you to chime in here as I further gather my thoughts about the ending. What was the part you disagreed with?

Max Gladstone: Mostly the sequence you present!

Let me see.

I don’t have an undergirding theory here, but, we’re not on Justineau’s side at first. We start off with Melanie—we’re rooting for her, against this screwed up system, against the soldiers, against the teachers. We do like Miss Justineau when she shows up, but that’s because (1) the movie plays a trick on us by having her come in to relieve the jerk teacher, so she’s not immediately and intuitively associated with the soldiers and authority, and (2) Melanie likes her.

The film gets a lot of its power by testing the affection we form for Melanie in those first few minutes. Do you still like her now? How about now? How about now?

And because it’s well-balanced and effective, the answer is yes. It has to work a lot harder to encourage empathy with the humans, who, at rock bottom, fear her and want to imprison Melanie (though in Miss J’s case, she commits actual armed rebellion to try to save Melanie, so that’s a thing. Even though she doesn’t seem to have a plan.)

Amal El-Mohtar: Oh, absolutely! I may have skipped a few steps, but that’s totally in line with what I mean—a big part of why we have affection for Melanie is because she’s SO exceptional and SO polite and SO remarkable, even in the face of all this violence exerted against her.

Max Gladstone: Hm, interesting. Again, I’m not sure that’s so?

We have affection for this kid who’s looking at her cat photos and counting to herself…

That I don’t think is conditioned on her performing niceness…

Amal El-Mohtar: You don’t think an audience’s relationship with Melanie would be different if she was shown to be sullen and furious and fighty at the outset? Instead of sunny and sweet?

I think the enormous contrast between the guns pointed in her face and her very genuine warmth is a huge part of the effect.

Max Gladstone: She would be a different character, certainly, and the effect would be different, but I don’t think it would be particularly difficult to get the audience to empathize with her

If anything, I think her niceness marks her as a bit uncanny in the opening scenes.

Especially given what’s going on around her.

Amal El-Mohtar: I agree that it’s uncanny—I spent a portion of that first act trying to figure out how much of it was genuine—but let me put it this way: it felt extremely familiar to me as a tactic for moving through a hostile world, of working extremely hard to be beyond reproach in even the most extreme and provoking of situations in order to protect oneself from attack.

Max Gladstone: Sure.

Amal El-Mohtar: And I felt that was a deliberate storytelling choice—that the dynamic would be different otherwise. And obviously I’m not saying it would have been impossible to empathize with her! Only that it would be a different dynamic, and I’m fascinated by how the story chose this dynamic.

Max Gladstone: Okay, I can see that. I got the impression you thought our ability to empathize with Melanie at all was contingent on her presenting in this way; it doesn’t seem to me that this is a necessary precondition of empathy. And that the film positions her niceness as being uncanny itself—which I think supports your point in a way.

Amal El-Mohtar: No no, not contingent—but connected! And yes, I think so too. This is an uncanny response to an uncanny situation.

This is also what I mean by it not being a 1for1 analogue: I definitely see a parable about respectability in the way Melanie’s positioned, but that’s not ALL I see.

But it maps on so effectively on to elements of my own experience, I can’t help but foreground those. To grow up speaking more than one language and learning which is valued in which context; to feel that you’re expected to hide parts of yourself until those parts are useful to others; even the scene where Melanie’s communicating with the feral children, seamlessly switching from speaking to them in their language and to the adults in theirs, is uncomfortably tidy.

In its associations, I mean.

Obviously the scene itself is very… Messy.

Max Gladstone: *nod* Yeah, that make sense! How does that feel, seeing it portrayed in this way  this context and on screen?

Amal El-Mohtar: It feels INCREDIBLE.

It feels—heh.

I am probably extrapolating here.

Perhaps too much.

But you know what the camera does whenever Melanie gets to eat?

It’s a little like that.

But less murdery.

Max Gladstone: Hahaha!

Don’t eat the cat!

Amal El-Mohtar: OMFG STU IS ALWAYS ACCUSING ME OF WANTING TO DO THIS!

BASELESSLY.

I HASTEN TO ADD.

Max Gladstone: As someone who has seen too many people cite “Save the Cat,” I felt sort of glorious watching Melanie bliss out on cat-murder—even though I like cats a lot. Cats are great and I do not condone their zombie murder

Amal El-Mohtar: I love cats! I have two of them! I want neither of them to get eaten by anything!

But only ONE of their people consistently refers to Millie as a PIE, STU.

*cough*

Anyway.

From here we could probably branch (snrk) out into where this story intersects with climate change stories and gets a bit VanderMeery.

Since domestic cats are pretty invasive and stuff, I mean.

Max Gladstone: Kill songbirds. Delicious little elf monsters.

But: Yes! Change! Ecolo-Gs!

Amal El-Mohtar: This isn’t a zombie story where Humanity Engineers a Plague, you know? We never learn where the fungus comes from.

Max Gladstone: Nope. It’s pretty clearly a cordyceps (I think they even call it cordyceps somethingorother), adapted to humans.

Which could easily happen as a result of climate change—certainly climate change releases stuff buried in permafrost, all humans die, is a doomsday climate change scenario that gets kicked around quite a bit.

Amal El-Mohtar: Yes! And since we never learn whether it’s aliens, or Science Gone Bad, or whatever, my headcanon has it as a naturally occurring phenomenon to recalibrate a population which has grown uncontrollably parasitic.

Because humanity is

[Agent Smith] a virus [/Agent Smith]

Max Gladstone: This is all Nausicaä backgroundfic.

Amal El-Mohtar: Aw man I still haven’t seen Nausicaä.

…Maybe we should watch it next.

Max Gladstone: Oh man! It’s so gooooood.

We should!

Amal El-Mohtar: But if we want that to happen probably we SHOULDN’T add it to the list.

Max Gladstone: I mean, setting aside normative language like “recalibrate.”

There’s a lot of evidence that habitat intrusion and climate change have introduced new strange pathogens and chaotic cascades we don’t understand yet.

IIRC this is probably where ebola came from, etc.

Amal El-Mohtar: (Is that normative? Can’t we recalibrate into difference?)

Max Gladstone: Let’s consult Merriam-Webster, the standard dictionary of the resistance.

Calibrate: 1:  to ascertain the caliber (see caliber 3) of (as a thermometer tube)

2:  to determine, rectify, or mark the graduations (see graduation 1)of (as a thermometer tube)

3:  to standardize (as a measuring instrument) by determining the deviation from a standard so as to ascertain the proper correction factors

4:  to adjust precisely for a particular function calibrate a thermometer

5:  to measure precisely carefully calibrate the dosage of a medicine; especially :  to measure against a standard

Amal El-Mohtar: OK but as per Merriam-Webster if my usage changes it

haven’t I

recalibrated

something

What were you saying above about metacognitive processes? >.>

Max Gladstone: Hahaha, yes, but against a standard or to bring it in line with an existing standard?

Hehehe.

Amal El-Mohtar: PROBABLY we should stop this from getting any sillier by which I mean I should stop and anyway I agree with you!

Max Gladstone: But we do have a situation where something has shown up and the new, post-event equilibrium for the Earth doesn’t involve humans living in it.

As far as humans are concerned, this is of course a major catastrophe.

As far as Earth is concerned, lingering heavy metal and radiation contamination is probably going to be a bigger deal than human absence from the biome.

(I bought a book about this recently, can’t wait to read it.)

One of the questions stories like this raise, for me, is, well, what would happen if all humans died?

What kind of moral event is that?

I mean, obviously it would suck to experience, and there are many people I don’t want to die—most, even!

Amal El-Mohtar: Most Magnanimous of Maxen, truly.

Max Gladstone: I guess it feels like it’s asking a different sort of question than “Would you want some specific human to die?” (The answer is no.)

I don’t know if this is making any sense.

Amal El-Mohtar: No it totally does! Which is also really interesting in terms of the ending—that Miss Justineau ends up positioned as potentially the last of her species because Melanie doesn’t want her to die.

I really felt that the film wasn’t making a moral statement there about who deserves to live or die—but that there was a deep respect for agency in the deaths of Sgt. Parks and Dr. Caldwell, even as Melanie, exerting her own agency, made the world uninhabitable for them.

I’m still not sure what to do with that, to be honest, ethically speaking—just that it spoke to me as something that films don’t usually do.

Max Gladstone: Yes. And by the end the film has us so much on Melanie’s side that her decision feels at least sorta justifiable.

Amal El-Mohtar: It’s the fact that she waits for Caldwell to acknowledge her personhood, I think.

Max Gladstone: I can’t go all the way to “justifiable” because she’s literally killing the entire human race.

That’s part of it, yes.

Overall I think the film resists the very, very easy temptation to cast anyone as a “bad” guy.

Amal El-Mohtar: YES, exactly. From the first act, it’s so, so easy to empathize with everyone’s actions.

Max Gladstone: Everyone does their thing. Sometimes that works out well for people you like. Sometimes not.

It’s heartbreaking and it feels true.

Oddly, also, everyone gets exactly what they want. Or, dies in the process of getting there.

Gallagher dies getting the food they need. Caldwell dies in search of her cure. Parks dies looking for his daughter. Justineau wants to live and teach, and she gets to do that.

Amal El-Mohtar: OMG, you’re so right, AND I just noticed that each of those desires is neatly subverted!

Gallagher dies… And BECOMES food.

Max Gladstone: Hah! Yes!

Amal El-Mohtar: Caldwell dies succumbing to a different disease, turning into the zombie simulacrum you described above.

Parks—whose arc I interpreted as being partly about protection—ends up needing to be rescued by the girl he’s come to treat as a surrogate daughter.

Max Gladstone: (And who’s almost certainly in an identical position to his real daughter.)

Amal El-Mohtar: (RIGHT!!!)

Max Gladstone: (Well, not *identical* identical.)

Amal El-Mohtar: And in the tidiest reversal, Justineau wants to live and teach her imprisoned students—but ends up being the one imprisoned as she does so.  

Max Gladstone: I agree completely though I see Parks’s arc as being different: he talks about protection and about the survival of the species, but when the chips are down, he’s in all this because he wants to know what happened to his wife and his kid. And in his last moment, he learns.

Amal El-Mohtar: Aww, yeah. I totally forgot about that, you’re right.

Max Gladstone: That moment between Parks and Melanie is beautiful—and it’s only possible if he fully knows her, including that she’s someone who would set the trees on fire and release the spores.

Amal El-Mohtar: It so is. He’s not even mad.

Man, this was such a great film. I’m just remembering how when all these characters are together in the van for the first time I kept exclaiming how much I loved ALL of them and could see where they were all coming from!

Max Gladstone: It’s really great! It even is comfortable with the ending being sort of down-up.

Amal El-Mohtar: It’s a profoundly empathic film, even at its most frightening—the zombies, when eating, are so peaceful, so joyous.

Imagine, it says, being so hungry, and then eating.

Melanie is so, so beautiful, even when her face is covered in gore.

Max Gladstone: It’s blissful and effective.

And the fact that it doesn’t shrink from the ugliness or the beauty makes it feel profoundly ecological.

Amal El-Mohtar: Yes! Nature red in tooth and claw; Anne Rice (heavens help me) and her Savage Garden.

Max Gladstone: Which feels profound and real, compared to the sense I’ve received from some books that play this general “and then the world was reclaimed or transformed by nature” game, that we’re supposed to feel really great about the fact that the Forest has Reclaimed Everything.

We shall Stride Forth into Transformed Eden, etc.

Amal El-Mohtar: Hah, yes.

Turn to the nearest woman and call her Eve.

Max Gladstone: And I’m sitting here reading, like, motherfucker, I have friends with type 2 diabetes and a nut allergy.

Fuck your Eden fantasy.

Amal El-Mohtar: AAHHHH THIS.

OK once again Max you have sung a note I cannot top, so shall we leave it at Fuck Your Eden Fantasy?

Max Gladstone: Hahaha Yes! But just where I was going with that: I love how we get that kind of ecological, end-of-humanity note here, and it’s the zombie apocalypse. We’re not holding hands and humming. Even if something happens after us, it will look so, so different from us.

Everything changes. Some things are truly lost.

Amal El-Mohtar: YES. Exactly. And there’s tragedy and beauty in it, as Justineau continues to tell the children stories as a means to them making up their own, and it all comes so full circle that I get a bit dizzy.

I wonder what beings will make powder of the human-muching cordyceps for their wellness supplements.

As Paul Fidalgo once sang, “And when we’re all dead and seep into the crust / The beings to come can make oil out of us.”


Amal El–Mohtar has received the Locus Award, been a Nebula Award finalist for her short fiction, and won the Rhysling Award for poetry three times. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty–eight different kinds of honey, and contributes criticism to NPR Books and the LA Times. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Uncanny Magazine, and The Starlit Wood anthology from Saga Press. She lives in Ottawa with her spouse and two cats. Find her online at amalelmohtar.com, or on Twitter @tithenai.

Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated (twice!) for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published Last First Snow, the fourth novel in Max’s Craft Sequence (preceded by Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five) in July 2015. Max’s game Choice of the Deathless was nominated for the XYZZY Award, and his short stories have appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine.

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