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For Your Re-Consideration

There are a lot of speculative films out there so that it’s sometimes easy for quieter efforts to be overlooked in the boom of the blockbusters. Even sadder, some films become lost, forgotten, misunderstood, and/or slammed by bad reviews for all kinds of unseemly reasons. In the spirit of celebrating the subtler efforts in speculative fiction films I present here a couple of speculative films worth seeing again, or seeing for the first time.

 

Morgan (2016)

UK, USA | 92 minutes | Dir. Luke Scott

(see the trailer)

Morgan is a five-year-old teenager who is carefully polite when she speaks, and has an oddly white-silver-ish pallor that extends to her hair and lips. This tense film begins after something has gone horribly wrong. We are not initially told what that something is, but we can tell that whatever that something was must have been really bad because a “risk assessor” has arrived to evaluate Morgan and the scientific team that created her. The scientists walk on eggshells as they encourage the emotionless and calculating Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to see Morgan as they do. At their shared dinner table, this group of people seemed to have formed a family. But they are not a family. They are scientists working for “corporate.” They have accepted Morgan as their child. But she is not their child, or a child at all. They have been tasked by “corporate” with building her as the perfect killer, and they have forgotten that they succeeded.

This is the first feature film directed by Luke Scott, who carefully and quietly builds a layered, deceptively simple narrative of a scientific endeavor gone wrong. This film was initially met with some awful reviews and still to this day garners a much undeserved low Rotten Tomatoes rating. One of my personal suspicions is that Scott’s familial connections may be at the heart of why this film was so harshly and carelessly reviewed. (Ridley Scott is his dad, which, of course, makes the late great Tony Scott his uncle.) Perceptions of nepotism can sometimes blind people to not see what is front of them. Here’s the kicker, though, sometimes someone from a famous family can actually have talent. But we’re not here to talk about jaded, malcontented critics. We’re here to talk about Morgan, a psychological science fiction drama and kick-ass action thriller with a subtle feminist twist. This is not your typical “action flick” with a clearly defined hero triumphing in the end. It’s more complicated than that. And for me that makes for a much more satisfying film.

There is a lot to love about this deceptively quiet film. Let’s start with the casting (and, man, does this film have one helluva cast!): Kate Mara (House of Cards), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit), Toby Jones (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Chris Sullivan (This is Us), Vinette Robinson (Sherlock, Black Mirror), Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dolores Claiborne), Paul Giamatti (Billions, Sideways), and freakin’ Michelle Yeoh (Oh My God!).

Another thing to love is the scenery, which is beautiful, a forested Eden surrounded by wildlife and a peaceful lake. This isolated compound is the perfect place for the scientists to conduct their work. The first time we meet Morgan, we see her as Weathers see her—through the reflection of a glass separator, which is overlapped by a reflection of Weathers herself. They are the same in so many ways. Morgan has been made so that she can easily move through the world, unnoticed and dismissed as a threat because she is just a girl. So, as it seems, is this corporate risk assessor, here to do the difficult job of determining the viability of this project, i.e., whether Morgan should live or die.

In their years in this bucolic setting, the scientists can be forgiven for forgetting that they are not raising a human being. We are shown their research films of Morgan being “born” to them as proud parents and then as an endearing, curious toddler. Now, only five years later, we finally meet Morgan as an intelligent, well-mannered “teenager.” But Morgan is not a teenage girl; Morgan is an entity built for a corporation. The implantation of her emotional perceptional abilities is an experiment to see if this would make Morgan a better tool. Instead, these perceptions allow Morgan to see the world for which she has been made as it truly is—ruthless and cruel. And she reacts in kind.

So why see this film, or see it again if you’ve seen it before? See it for its cinematic beauty and the subtle undertones of its narrative manipulation. There is a feminist quality to this film that can be easily overlooked if you fall for it as a simple amalgamation of tropes. The concepts of mother and child, friend and foe, innocent and guilty, hunter and hunted, have been flipped here. The film left me wondering whether Morgan with her intense perceptions understood that the scientists (her parents) had been building her to be a killer, and that she had made a judgement upon them. If this is the case, isn’t it Morgan who has become the Risk Assessor?

 

Ondine (2010)

Ireland | 103 minutes | Dir. Neil Jordan

(see the trailer)

Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is a fisherman hard on his luck. Or, to be more precise, he has no luck at all. His catches are often small which means he has little money; his nickname is “Circus” because people consider him a clown; he’s been attempting to remain sober in a town with no AA meetings; and worse of all, his delightful daughter has kidney disease and uses a wheelchair for mobility.

One day Syracuse pulls a mysterious and beautiful woman (Alicja Bachleda) out of his trawling net and she tells him her name is Ondine. He doesn’t quite believe this is really happening to him and this strange occurrence also makes him late to take his daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), for her dialysis. He also forgets to carry a book to read to her during her treatment. So instead, he tells her a tale of a fisherman who catches a magical creature in his nets, and it’s the tale of what happened to him that morning. Immediately Annie tells him the woman is a selkie to which he says, “he’s not sure.”

Everything about Ondine fits the selkie myth. The wonderful trick of this film is that there is a perfectly good explanation for everything that happens. The explanations make it plain that this is no selkie story. Yet the explanations can also leave one wondering if the explanations explain that in fact this is a selkie story.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Annie repeats this line from Alice in Wonderland, and we the viewers can’t help but agree with her. This mysterious woman with a penchant for swimming that has appeared in her father’s life has Annie convinced she is a selkie, a creature of the sea who brings luck, and if she cries seven tears will be tied to the fisherman for life. Annie is so convinced that Syracuse becomes convinced as well. After Ondine sings her haunting song and his nets fill with fish, one can forgive him for beginning to believe.

And yes, of course, he falls for her. But loving a selkie can be a dangerous business. Syracuse confesses to his priest (Stephen Rea) that Ondine makes him feel afraid because “she brings him hope” and makes him think that something wonderful and terrible is going to happen. To which his priest replies, “Misery is easy. Happiness you have to work at.”

So why see this film, or see it again if you’ve seen it before? First, Colin Farrell with his long hair is so fyne, and his brogue is so hot, it’s actually a bit distracting. (**fans self**) Secondly, this film is a wonderful example of how folklore can be woven into a modern tale. This film leaves me feeling warm inside. It’s not sappy or over-sentimental. And best of all, it’s about ordinary people with ordinary problems who are cut a little break for once. This film is a healthy reminder that when life has been hard on us, it’s okay to accept that life can also throw a good turn now and again.

Speculative films are often known for loud musical scores and explosions. Both Morgan and Ondine are examples of how a science fiction and fantasy film can be an action adventure and/or thriller without bombasticity. The impact of a quieter film can be depth and subtly, wonder and awe, and of course, a pleasurable and memorable experience.

The Horny Body Problem

Short stories are a lot like sex. There are only so many variations of what you can do, writer tops reader, reader comes hungry to bottom. But every angle seems inventive, every person brings their own art to both writing and reading that it feels new every time. We can write in teams and read in groups; threesomes and orgies and the sly pass of a story from one person to be enjoyed by the next. The indulgence is undeniable—it isn’t a novel. A novel is a long-term relationship. A short story is as quick and satisfying as a handjob and takes about the same length of time to complete once the parts come together. A friend once sent me a story with the caveat that she was so obsessed with it, so shamefully entranced, that she felt as though by asking me to read it she was suggesting that I smell her fingers. 

Unsurprising, then, that some of the best short stories are about sex. In speculative fiction, that sex can take many tentacled forms, assume many literary positions. Despite the richness and humanity that sex brings to stories, all too many publishers and editors are squeamish about erotic content. Don’t bring us your horny stories, their guidelines whisper, just below the part where they tell you not to be a Nazi or a pedophile. No graphic sexual stories. All sexual content must be plot-relevant. No open-door scenes. No spice, please. All stories must be PG-13. 

Guidelines like these make writers worry. Makes us think about our mothers reading our stories, our children. Makes us consider the real threat of our work being challenged for obscenity, which is a word school boards use when they don’t want their kids to know the word queer. 

But we’re all still horny, aren’t we? Horny to write, horny to read, horny to lube up and slide sex into the narratives that take us to the stars, to the haunted house, to the enchanted forest. We seek out satisfaction, and the best and bravest publishers are still busting it wide open for us. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to read stories that don’t contain sex; a lot of great ones have not a lick of eroticism present! But sex is part of the human experience, and it as vital to both the expression and appreciation of our art as grief, as loss, as any emotion we treat with greater gravity and respect than the quintessential quality of eroticism. Deeper than that, it exists on a level of need more akin to hunger or thirst, and it is as unwise and unkind to deny. 

Deny yourself nothing, horny reader. Open wide for some recent strokes of horny genius. 

Phoenix Alexander’s “One Day I Will” is the novella in the September/October 2022 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it hooks a finger into the reader right from the get-go. Queer astronauts orbit a planet that makes an ongoing erotic plea like a cat yowling in heat. This planet has got to have it, and when it gets what it wants it’s weirder than anything I’ve seen offered on OnlyFans—and those folks do it all. 

The Binding of Isaac” by Tochi Onyebuchi looks a little more like familiar horny content: pain and pleasure, freedom and erotic bondage, and this gem: “That’s the whole point of kink, Jeryd. It isn’t kink without the bite of shame.” What follows comes on fast and dangerous, like a welcome hand around your throat that darkens the edges of your vision. Onyebuchi wrestles the reader close to the line of pain and penitence, makes us look up and say the name of the thing we really want, forbidden though it is. This story will catch you in the middle of your yes yes yes and remind you of the real power of no. 

When I first read “Dick Pig,” the text had me yelling yes sir right out loud. Ian Muneshwar has the dirty daring to let a character admit the thing we all know is true but struggle to communicate: “there’s a want inside me that I don’t understand.” The story fuses the erotic longing that gets us on to Grindr in the middle of the night to the compulsion to go into the hidden spaces and forbidden passages in a house we know is haunted. All houses are haunted, all ghosts are horny for the mortal plane. We long to come inside, we are spooky little dick pigs, and we don’t want to wear protection. 

There is no protection when the craving is for blood and bone, as in Nadia Shammas’s “First Kiss.” There is no relief from the erotic tension between good and evil, between service and submission, as in Izzy Wasserstein’s “A Hench Helps Her Villain No Matter What.” There is no escaping the cycle of life when everything fucks just as much as we do. Nibedita Sen’s “The Love Song of M. Religiosa” has the unmissable distinction of being a story that can make the reader horny for bugs, hungry for bugs, believing that the best way to attract a mate is to rub their musical legs together and pray for the lover to rip their head off at the moment of climax. Sen is a horny genius par excellence. 

Sex is a lot like a short story; sometimes you just wanna go back to that one time when it was so, so good and reminisce. Vina Jie-Min Prasad gave us an unforgettable ride in “Pistol Grip,” with the phrase “spit-and-shit sticky,” which is a lexical composition that I never want to shower off. “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by Kellan Szpara was a Hugo finalist and it’s clear the minute it begins how deliciously horny it is. Szpara boldly intertwines gender transition and becoming a vampire so that they aid and frustrate one another in a 69 of narrative tension and elegiac eroticism. Jae Steinbacher manages to instill a cyborg story with all the fresh unsanctioned lewdness of teenage sex in “Inter-Exo,” a story that evokes the intense desire and frustration we feel when we wonder what we’re allowed to do, with whom, and where. It takes the question of what is safe and what is prohibited and rubs our trans-humanist faces in it. 

There are two that I can never get away from, that never fail to do it for me no matter how long it has been. Vonda N. McIntyre manages to tangle sex and loss and what we carry with us when we’ve mingled our fluids and untied the knot in “Little Faces.” This absolute banger comes to me when horniness seems contraindicated: aroused at a funeral, turned on even though the news is bad and the right person or persons are not present. McIntyre writes a mode of fucking that doesn’t trifle with anything so insignificant as propriety. This is a story where we sleep off our heartbreak for a thousand years and still cry about it shamelessly to our next lover. No shame because it’s kin; not kink. 

“Ganger (Ball Lightning)” by Nalo Hopkinson is kin and kink, sin and skin. It’s in her collection Skin Folk from all the way back in 2001, and it was for so many readers the first story they read wherein two people swap bodies, swap genitals, swap experiences in the act of penetrative sex. This story is as re-readable as any electrifying fantasy is re-playable. It runs parallel to Kate Bush in her perennial popularity: if I only could/ I’d make a deal with god/ and I’d get him to swap our places. Read it and you can hear the eggshell of gender identity cracking all around you: what if the person you’re literally fucking right now is having a completely different experience from you? What would it mean to swap these underlying conditions? Can the kind of sex you have and the roles you take within it really change who you are? Hopkinson is our horny GOAT; greatest of all time, capable of biting through anything.  

You came. You came to your screen wanting something, though you did not know its name. These stories have got what your horny body needs.

A Dead, Divine Thing

i will always be more tomb than temple, i know.

there are ghosts and gods reclining

on the moth-eaten velvet of my tongue,

tigers and thunders purring in my veins but—

 

if you keep praising the curl of my eyelashes,

comparing them to flying eaves / and if you keep

tending to my collarbones like hanging gardens where

you plant bright, fragrant kisses / and if your fingers

keep fitting the liminal spaces between my ribs,

like lock and key / then you might just adore me

into holiness / as miraculous as a lotus

rising from strange waters, as the moon

swaying high in darkness.

Interview: Vivian Shaw

Vivian Shaw wears way too many earrings and likes edged weapons and expensive ink. She was born in Kenya and has lived in Cardiff, Oxford, Maryland, and New Mexico. She has a BA in art history, an MFA in creative writing and publishing arts, and currently works as a professional freelance editor and proofreader. She writes about monsters, both in and out of classic horror literature; machines, extant and fantastical; disasters and their causes; and found family. She is the author of the Dr. Greta Helsing contemporary fantasy trilogy, Strange Practice, Dreadful Company, and Grave Importance. She reviews for the Washington Post Book World and her short fiction has appeared in Uncanny and PseudoPod. She lives in Santa Fe with her wife, Hugo- and Locus-award-winning author Arkady Martine. “Transference” is Shaw’s second appearance in Uncanny, an ominous story about the lingering effects of a disturbing piece of art.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “Transference” deftly combines a lot of elements—art, nightmares, monsters that haunt us. Are these themes or topics that often recur in your fiction? What other elements are you often drawn to?

Vivian Shaw: Absolutely. Until the past few years, I had never written short fiction, which meant that a lot of the clearer themes in my stories were less obvious at first, but the more I write short form the more evident those themes become. Mostly it’s a riff on the idea of you thought you knew how the world worked but it turns out there’s this impossible other set of rules that have been there all along, and how that realization affects the characters. For me, compelling and interesting stories generally need to have that kind of contrast between elements—setting and characters, characters and events, etcetera—which makes the story unpredictable and therefore more dynamic. In “Transference” the narrator never expected his ordinary yuppie life to be subsumed into this desperate effort to be free from a supernatural influence, and he’s not great at dealing.

Uncanny Magazine: Was the artwork in this story inspired by a real-world painting and/or artist? What is the most memorable painting you’ve ever seen?

Vivian Shaw: Definitely. The painting it’s inspired by doesn’t have a name (it’s literally called Untitled) but once you’ve seen it you will not forget it, like the rest of Zdzisław Beksiński’s works. Beksiński’s paintings look like fever-dreams, awful and compelling and familiar-distant all at once; he even said it himself, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.” He did; he absolutely did, and I knew I wanted to do something to convey how much this particular piece affected me. And I’d also been watching a lot of TV featuring tattoo artists and tattoo styles and application, and the whole idea just clicked.

I think the most memorable painting I’ve ever seen is a Jean-Léon Gérôme work called Duel After the Masquerade. I love Gérôme, he’s one of my favorite painters (I did a degree in art history long, long ago) and Duel is one of the most atmospheric pieces you’ll ever see: it’s a snow-covered meadow at night, surrounded by trees, the sky lit up with the dim orange glow of a city beyond the forest. The successful duelist is being led away by his second while the fallen man’s friends cluster around him in despair, all still in costume, and you can smell the acid electric sharpness of the snow, almost feel it touching your face. Beksiński is that vivid; the difference is that you don’t want Beksiński’s paintings anywhere near your skin.

Uncanny Magazine: What was your favorite thing about writing this story? What was the most challenging part?

Vivian Shaw: “Transference” is the second story I’ve written that basically gave birth to itself in one go, instead of lurking around as a vague idea in the back of my mind until I could find a way in to tell it properly. Like “The Utmost Bound” (also in Uncanny, issue 20), “Transference” was the result of two ideas that fascinated me and came together in an unexpected but powerful gestalt. Once I had the idea of someone wanting a tattoo, not because they liked the design or thought it would look cool or wanted to memorialize something or someone, but because they wanted to put it on the outside of them instead of on the inside—to transfer the image, like a stencil, moving it without removing it—I then thought about why. And then I thought about nightmares, and inexplicable, unforgettable horror, and the dreamlike painting of the burning city came to me all at once. Tattoo-as-transference; painting of dream: story.

Uncanny Magazine: The line that begins “I’ve deleted my search history so many times since this began…” is something many writers can relate to—what interesting or ominous things have you searched for as story research?

Vivian Shaw: There are so many. So many. When I was writing the first three Greta Helsing books I was researching everything from clandestine sewer exploration (with pictures!) to 1940s electrical infrastructure to abandoned Parisian subterranean gypsum mines to extremely specific Metropolitan Museum of Art display rooms and the sightlines therein; for my short fiction, there’s a lot of very detailed search strings regarding air crash investigation and aviation in general, lost cosmonauts, and the effects of Venus’s atmosphere on titanium alloy; and just at the moment I’m doing a deep dive into several aspects of Alaskan king crab fishery. I love doing research and I’m somewhat passionate about it—I’m old enough to remember when research was actively effortful, involving card catalogs and interlibrary loans and legwork instead of a couple of lines typed into Google, and the fact that we now have so much information so easily available makes it that much more irritating when people don’t bother to do the work. I don’t write about something unless I’m confident enough in my understanding of the subject to not get it hilariously wrong, and if I’m not that confident I will either put it aside until I can improve my own understanding or get someone to explain it to me. This isn’t to say I don’t make mistakes, far from it—but I try quite hard to catch them before the thing goes out into the world.

Uncanny Magazine: “Transference” does a wonderful job creating the sense of dark foreboding that is key to horror stories. What are some of your favorite horror stories or novels? Who are some of your literary influences, either in the horror genre or more generally?

Vivian Shaw: Stephen King, of course—he and Pratchett and Gaiman and to a broader extent Robin McKinley and Dorothy Dunnett are probably the most obvious influences on my work. King nails the ordinary/extraordinary contrast thing I mentioned above; he’s a master of the normal guy finding unspeakable horror lurking in an otherwise normal world, which is what I also apparently tend to gravitate toward: the stomach-dropping shock of finding out that everything you thought was absolutely true is not and never has been. There’s a passage in It where he explains this from the point of view of hyper-rational Stan Uris that has always stuck with me: the existence of the dead boys in the Standpipe is not just frightening, it is offensive. Stan thinks he can live with fear, but maybe not with offense:

 

…because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after awhile you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some of them have five raised to the fifth power of sides.

 

That’s the aspect of horror I can’t get enough of, that sensation of wrongness and the vertiginous shock that comes with not knowing which way is supposed to be up. I didn’t write short fiction at all until fairly recently, and while I don’t deliberately try to come up with ideas that rely on that as their general theme, it’s becoming more and more evident that this is what I like writing in short form. (It’s fascinating to see yourself developing as a writer, almost from the outside.) But if you’re talking about the single horror author who has legitimately scared me enough to keep the lights on, it’s absolutely M.R. James. His horrors are unexpected and unforgettable, and I hope that his fans who’ve read my novels will take my inclusion of various species of monster inspired by his work as an homage. If you haven’t yet read him, may I point you toward “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” in particular?

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Vivian Shaw: More stories! And some longer work. I have two novellas that will be coming out in the next couple of years, one of them with Lethe Press (The Helios Syndrome) and the other with Orbit (Bitter Waters) as well as the final novel in the Greta Helsing series, Strange New World (also Orbit). I’m also focusing more on expanding my freelance editing business: I offer developmental, structural, and line editing along with standard copyediting and proofreading services. It feels good to be back in the game after a couple of fallow years!

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Transference

It’s working.

With every buzzing, burning line Rae traces on my back—the needle feels like a red-hot knifepoint drawn across the skin—it’s working.

I was terrified when we began, not of the pain but of the uncertainty: would this do anything at all, would there be any difference whatsoever in the dream I’ve been trapped in every single night since I first saw that painting? That first night when I fell asleep with fresh ink on my back and found myself in the awful black-and-scarlet burning city again, I truly did think I’d go mad, until I noticed there was a difference, subtle but present. The light-pole in the middle distance was gone, and the black square from the top of the frame simply was not there.

The creature hadn’t changed, though. That’s going to be the last to go, if this does work all the way. I’ll take anything to be rid of this—anything at all—but Rae and I both knew the process couldn’t start with the creature. Scribing that thing on my back wouldn’t take it from the dream. It might simply draw its attention, and possibly the only thing that’s kept me sane this long is that in the dream the creature does not seem to have noticed me; that its awful eyeless bandaged head turns to and fro as it creeps along without peering in my direction.

I don’t know what it is, or why it’s there, or why it’s on all fours, only that it is terrible, and will be more terrible if I see it any closer up.

In the beginning, once it was clear I was not going to stop having the dream, I thought with increasing hysteria of ways to kill myself, and it is only blind luck that I’m too much of a coward to have actually done the deed before realizing something unspeakable: at least at the moment I have my days, my waking life, free of the thing. If I walked into traffic or washed down a handful of Vicodin with vodka, there is every fucking chance I’d find myself back in the burning city—with no way to wake up from it. The thought of being trapped permanently in that place was enough to make me do two things: one, be scrupulously careful with myself, and two, start looking in earnest for someone who could take on a project like this one and understand what it meant.

I’d spent two weeks going from tattoo shop to tattoo shop, increasingly desperate, and in the end I only found Rae through the purple neon in the window rather than the phone book. Purple neon means psychic shit, and the violet moon and stars in the corner of this particular tattoo-shop window hit me like a physical smack, jarring me out of my glaze of misery as I trudged along. I’d tried two places already that afternoon and realized I’d forgotten my fucking umbrella at the first one too late to go back and fetch it, and I was soaked to the skin and utterly convinced the thing was hopeless, and bam, purple neon, out of the corner of my eye, and I stopped.

Inside, Rae looked at me for a long moment without saying anything, their eyes bright clear grey, the purple neon in the corner of their window seeming to throw a weird edgeless tint over everything in the studio. I don’t think everyone sees Rae’s place. I think for a lot—maybe most—of the people passing by, this shopfront is vacant, or just doesn’t exist at all. That it chooses the people it wants to be able to see it. I try not to think about that too much because I can’t actually imagine what the hell made it show itself to me, what could have motivated such desperately needed kindness, if kindness is the right word; I can only think it found me interesting, the way a doctor might be interested in a particularly esoteric disease. Whatever the reason, I will be paying off this fucking backpiece for at least two years, and I don’t care in the slightest: I would pay anything to be free of this, anything, anything at all.

(I know that payment isn’t going to start and end with money, I know that very well, and it still absolutely doesn’t matter what currency I’ll have to use.)

I still can’t believe how it started. I didn’t even know how to pronounce the artist’s name, had seen maybe one or two of his paintings as internet memes, oh, that guy who does the cobwebs and knuckles, freaky shit, nothing more than that. It was my friends’ idea to go to the exhibit, and I have tried so damn hard not to blame them for this, and failed. It was supposed to be a weird-fun afternoon followed by drinks and dinner at our favorite place in Soho, and right up until I turned the corner and came face-to-face with that fucking painting, I was having a ball.

You know how sometimes seeing an image of something you’re phobic about can hit you with an instant, awful flare of fight-or-flight panic and nausea? I have that with holes. Seeing pictures of those horrible lotus pod things people put in potpourri is like a physical shock. This was not like that. This was like—eye contact. Like the painting looked back at me, one face in a crowd, and saw me; saw me very well, just for a second.

It was a weird aberrant moment, and by the time we got out of the exhibit and started arguing over whether Rise or Collie’s served the best dirty martini in Soho, I’d totally forgotten it. I forgot it, in fact, all the way right up to when I woke up in a sick shaking sweat at four in the morning, convinced that the bed was the dream, that I was really back there in that godawful burning city with that thing creeping its way over the uneven bone-strewn ground.

Okay, I’d thought, all the way back at the beginning, sure, that painting was creepy as fuck and maybe it got under your skin more than you thought, it’s not unusual to have that kind of thing show up in your dreams, and I sounded reasonable and convincing inside my own head.

And then it happened again the next night. Exactly the same. And the next, and the next, and the next, and I tried melatonin and I tried Nytol and I tried whiskey and I tried reading about the goddamn artist and why he did the things he did, and I still found myself in the city every time I dipped into REM sleep no matter what.

I’ve deleted my search history so many times since this began, and I still don’t want to know what the FBI would make of this many variants on how to exorcise a painting and haunted by a painting and going insane because of dreams. There are other things, too: remember how that tower block in London burned down back in 2017, and the video of flames billowing from every single goddamn window was everywhere on the news? The first time I saw that video after the art exhibition I nearly threw up from the shock of recognition: it was the burning city in the painting, in the dream. Exactly the same: red-orange on black, windows no longer windows but holes into hell. The hunger of the fire. Its endless greed.

(I went back and watched that video over and over, like you might poke at a tooth-socket with your tongue, setting off the pain-fireworks deliberately, testing how much it hurt, if anything had changed. I read a lot of eyewitness accounts of the fire, late at night, trying to stay awake. I tried to stay awake, in the beginning, and that didn’t work either.)

I don’t remember exactly when I started to think about tattoos. I think to begin with I had some confused idea of exorcising the painting by reproducing it myself, drawing each line onto paper, and then burning the whole fucking thing, sending it up the chimney in a billow of sparks —and then realizing that would just free it again as the paper disintegrated. The problem wasn’t just that I couldn’t draw; the problem was that I couldn’t get rid of it, that it had sunk into me, that it would be inside me for the rest of my life, inside my blood and bone. I think that was when I started to wonder about putting it on the outside of me. Putting it behind me, on my back.

Transference, Rae said, that first afternoon, their pupils slitted like a cat’s in the rainlight. It’s deep in your mind now; you can’t get rid of it, not now, but you can put it somewhere else. It was exactly what I’d been hoping to hear ever since I’d begun searching for an artist who could do the job, and been met with blank expression after blank expression. A couple of them had said they could do the painting for me, but it was obvious they didn’t understand why I needed it done —and I couldn’t very well explain that it was inside my mind and needed to be exorcised. Rae was different. From the moment I walked into their shop they knew exactly why I wanted it done, even before I mentioned the dreams. I’m pretty sure they would have understood without me saying a single goddamn word out loud, that they could have plucked it directly out of my mind without bothering to listen. Purple neon in the corner of the window, in the rain.

Will it work? I asked.

It’ll cost you.

I don’t care, I said. Anything. I’ll—fuck, I’ll sell my car, I’ll take out loans, I’ll do anything, pay anything, just make it go away.

It’ll cost more than money.

I wasn’t surprised, to be honest, but at that point I would have agreed to pretty much any terms they offered: I’ll pay.

They nodded, and it wasn’t until they were actually stenciling the thing on my back that I thought to ask wait, is doing this going to be safe for you? Is looking at it going to make it jump into your mind now?

Rae laughed, and told me to hold still, and not to sweat the small stuff, and soon afterwards that buzzing bright pain began.

By that time I’d lost all my friends and was on pretty shaky ground at my job; sleep deprivation fucks with your productivity, even when it’s not combined with existential horror, and I couldn’t look at my goddamn best friends without a vicious stab of memory: the lighthearted oh hey let’s check out this exhibition, freaky paintings, c’mon, it’ll be fun that had started this entire nightmare in the first place, months ago. I didn’t have anything better to do with my spare time than lie on Rae’s table and try not to mind how much it hurt—and how long I had to wait between sessions for my skin to heal. How much I wanted to do it all in one night, get it over with, put an end to this bullshit, and how much I knew that even if I could have dealt with that much pain for that many hours it wouldn’t work. It has to be gradual, or the thing will notice.

We’re five sessions in now, and Rae says it’ll be another four before it’s done. They’re not doing the linework and then the color afterward; they’re drawing it from the outside in, gradually irising closer and closer to the center of the painting. The creature will be the last thing to go, and that will have to be done completely in one session, lines and color and shading all at once, multiple tattoo machines loaded and ready to go, because if we pause even for a few minutes the element of surprise will be lost: the thing would find a way to escape from Rae’s needles and take up residence somewhere else in my mind, and we’d lose the only way to capture it.

I was only a little afraid of the pain to begin with—desperation will do that to you—and I’ve actually kind of grown to like it, by now: every single line means we’re closer to my freedom. I’m pretty sure that even if the nightmare is gone I’ll hear that buzzing in my dreams, in my bones, for the rest of my life, and I’m okay with that. In the mirrors, the painting on my back looks as if it’s rising out of the skin, as if Rae’s tattoo machines are not so much applying ink as removing blank skin that’s been hiding the image all along, bit by bit: a hellish red sky behind a burning cityscape, awful and desolate, every window lit up with orange flame. I don’t know why the city is burning, what cataclysm set it on fire to begin with; it doesn’t matter. In the dream the air is baking-hot, thick with smoke, vicious to breathe and stinking; the flames roar like thunder, like an oncoming freight train, and from my vantage point in a slightly sheltered portico the creature comes creeping along the bone-scattered ground on its horribly thin hands and feet, skin stretched tight over scrabbly knuckles, its bandaged head turning to and fro as if seeking something it particularly wants. I don’t know if the red stain on the front of that non-face is blood, or whose it might be, and I don’t want to know.

Rae has left that foreground blank, and our last appointment will fill it in. With each successive session the dream has faded: not vanished altogether, but gone out of focus, the roaring sound of the flames muted bit by bit, the red sky less intense, the city disappearing gradually as the ink draws it out of the dream and anchors it into my skin.

Rae says it most likely won’t hurt other people, when it’s done. That I can let someone see it without being afraid that it will jump the gap to someone else’s mind, an awful charge seeking ground. I want to believe that, I really do, but in the bottom of my mind I don’t want to take the chance. Wearing a shirt to the pool or the beach or to bed for the rest of my life is—well, I can deal with that. The thought that I might actually find myself in a situation where someone else might want to look at me without a shirt on is still so strange, after the months of viciously enforced solitude. That I might have friends again, after this is over. That this could be over.

(There’s a line in Tale of Two Cities that’s always stuck with me: you know you are recalled to life? I think I might be. I hope I might.)

Rae hasn’t told me what the non-monetary part of payment will be, and won’t tell me until after the thing is done; that’s part of this, like all the tales, you make the desperate deal with the cat-eyed creature, and only once the bargain is sealed do you find out what you really owe. Be careful what you wish for—but for me, it really doesn’t matter; anything would be preferable to the burning city. If it means a decade off my life, fine. If it means my firstborn child, ever assuming I have such a thing—fine. If it means I’m Rae’s property, that after some specific stretch of time I will have to return to that there-and-not-there little shop with the purple neon in the window and surrender myself to their custody, then I’ll do it. Something I’ve learned over the past months is that you can pretty much always do what you must do, even if it seems impossible.

(The rest of that line from Dickens: you can bear a little more light? I must bear it, if you let it in.)

The thing I will wonder for the rest of my life, no matter what the price I pay, is: why did this happen? Did the artist paint it back in 1973 to rip a nightmare out of his own mind and prison it in oil-paints on canvas—did he know what it would do, did he create it deliberately to transfer the nightmare to someone else’s eyes and mind, or was something working through him, using him as its medium as he used the paint?

Because it’s very definitely not the only painting the artist completed. There are whole books, catalogues full of them, fever-dreams in cobwebs and dry desiccated finger-joints, dim distant cathedrals made of bone, things with empty eye-sockets that follow the viewer around the room. Do they all do what the painting of the burning city does, crawl into someone’s mind and stay there like bone-seeking radionuclides, sending out their silent poison influence? Is the city real, somewhere, and is the painting—are all his paintings—nothing but windows into that other, worser universe? Because if so, there have to be other people who’ve been trapped in them. I don’t know why it got me, but I cannot possibly be the only person whose eyes it slid inside, out of all the eyes that must have passed over it in the years since it was painted.

Rae had known what to do about it. Rae had known precisely what to do about it, so I can’t be the only one who’s needed transference. So how many others have there been?

If I’d followed my first instinct and stepped off a building, would I have woken up trapped in the burning city alone, or with other people who had tried the same thing, and would they still be identifiable as people at all, or terrible creeping things with red stains on their faceless bandaged heads? Would there really be any difference?

But the worst thing—the worst thing because it’s a thought that cannot be unthought, a stone dropped into the deep water of my lowest and most miserable imagination, setting up ripples that just spread and spread and spread, whether or not I want them to—the worst thing is that I don’t know if this is the only one of the artist’s paintings that does this. And because I don’t know the answer, I will never be able to stop thinking of the question, and that means inevitably, eventually, helplessly, I will have to look at the others, in order to find out. All of them. Whether or not I want to. Whatever made me vulnerable to this in the first place will find a way to put me face to face with the others, with or without my active consent. It’s—beyond my control.

I don’t know how many of them I have room for, on my body.

I have a horrible feeling that I’m going to have to find out.

 

(Editors’ Note: Vivian Shaw is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

The Uncanny Valley

We’re writing this editorial in room 2139 at Lurie Children’s hospital. This is day 50 of our daughter Caitlin’s current hospitalization (day 60 since July 27). She was supposed to be discharged last week. It didn’t happen. Yet another major and heartbreaking setback occurred about an hour before we were supposed to get on the road. We’ve had far too many scares during this hospitalization, and have no idea when she will be able to go home. We’re exhausted and terrified, as the doctors gave us the absolute worst news for Caitlin.

We planned on being with our friends at Chicon, celebrating all that is wonderful in the SF/F community. Caitlin and Lynne had spectacular dresses for the Hugo Awards. Instead, we watched on our laptop from here in the hospital.

The one positive of the last few months has been the outpouring of love and support for Caitlin and us during this hospitalization. The well wishes, cards, balloons, donations, and kind words have meant so much to us. We are deeply, deeply grateful.

We very much hope this is the last editorial written at this hospital.

Thank you, Space Unicorns. We love you all. Your kindness remains bigger than galaxies.

And now, happier news!

PHENOMENAL news, Space Unicorns! “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story! Congratulations to Sarah!

Even more wonderful news! Uncanny Magazine (Publishers/Editors-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, Poetry/Managing Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu, Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson, and Podcast Producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky) won the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine! THANK YOU, SPACE UNICORNS!!!

Once again, congratulations to the other five Uncanny Magazine  stories that were finalists: “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim for Best Novelette, “That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell for Best Novelette, “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde for Best Novelette, “The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente for Best Short Story, and “Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte for Best Short Story! Congratulations to everybody!

It was an amazing list of Hugo Award winners and finalists, many of whom are Uncanny authors and friends. CONGRATULATIONS TO EVERYBODY!!! Thank you to everyone who nominated these works, and to the hard-working Chicon 8 staff. We are honored, ecstatic, and overwhelmed.

You can read our acceptance speeches on the Uncanny Magazine website!   

And here comes the bittersweet part of our editorial. As all of you have known since May, after four years, Managing and Poetry Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu has decided to move on from her Uncanny editorial duties after this issue. We can’t overstate how important Chimie has been to Uncanny. She started with us as an intern in 2018, became an Assistant Editor later that year, took over as Managing Editor in late 2019, and became Poetry Editor in 2020. She made everything look slick and professional, always had a strong voice in the poetry, stepped up to every challenge, and has been exemplary in every way. We really can’t say enough great things about Chimie and what she did to make Uncanny what it is today. We know that Chimie is going to do more fabulous things in the future. We wish her so much joy in the next step of her journey. 

Along with Chimie, Uncanny Magazine Senior Assistant Editor Naomi Day is also moving on after Issue 49. Naomi has been with us since Issue 37, and has done a fabulous job. We know Naomi will continue to do brilliant things, and we will greatly miss her.

Along with the bittersweet news, though, we have some fabulous news. This issue is the first issue for new Managing Editor Monte Lin! Monte started as an Uncanny Magazine Assistant Editor in 2021. He has done a phenomenal job, and we expect more tremendous things from him. He is working closely with Chimie, so we know this will be a fabulous transition. Monte is a rising superstar writer and editor, and it is such a joy to work with him. We are very excited about this!

And that’s not all! This issue is the first issue for our new Assistant Editor Tania Chen! Tania brings a lot of enthusiasm to the position, and is already doing a stupendous job!

Excellent news, Space Unicorns! Sarah Pinsker’s “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” won the Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction! Congratulations to Sarah!!!

Congratulations also to Caroline M. Yoachim, whose “Colors of the Immortal Palette” was also a finalist!

And congratulations to all of the other wonderful finalists!

Fabulous news, Space Unicorns! “If the Martians Have Magic” by P. Djèlí Clark won the Best Short Story Ignyte Award, and “POST MASSACRE PSYCHE EVALUATION” by Abu Bakr Sadiq won the Best in Speculative Poetry Ignyte Award! Congratulations to them both!

Once again, congratulations to the other Uncanny Magazine pieces that were finalists: “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim for a Best Novelette Ignyte Award, “The Necessity of Slavery Stories” by Troy L. Wiggins for a Best in Creative Nonfiction Ignyte Award, and “What You Might Have Missed” by Arley Sorg for a Best in Creative Nonfiction Ignyte Award, plus Uncanny Magazine Assistant Editor Monte Lin’s essay “Where Will You Place us When We Are Dead?” for a Best in Creative Nonfiction Ignyte Award! Congratulations to everybody!

It was a fabulous ballot! Congratulations to all of the Ignyte Award Winners and finalists!

Wonderful news, Space Unicorns! Uncanny Magazine is the Spotlight Guest of Honor at Norwescon 45Uncanny Magazine Editors-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas will be representing Uncanny (along with Caitlin!). Norwescon 45 will be held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Seattle Airport, located in SeaTac, WA, from April 6-9, 2023. EXPECT SHENANIGANS!

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 49! The fabulous cover is The Light Between the Sea by Maxine Vee. Our new fiction includes Samantha Mills’s timely tale of pregnancies and abortion “Rabbit Test,” Vivian Shaw’s dark story of art and tattoos “Transference,” Matthew Olivas’s exploration of family and magic “The Other Side of Mictlān,” Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s travelogue of an alien world “Travelers’ Unrest,” Iori Kusano’s story of fast food, identity, and longing “can i offer you a nice egg in this trying time,” Anya Ow’s story of family bonds and self-reliance “Earth Dragon, Turning,” and Emily Y. Teng’s exploration of possibilities “To Walk the River of Stars.” Our reprint is “A Fall Counts Anywhere” by Catherynne M. Valente, which appeared in Robots vs. Fairies in 2018.

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include “The Necessity of Trans Joy” by Izzy Wasserstein, “For Your Re-Consideration” by Jennifer Marie Brissett, “Across the Afterverse: A Conversation with Afropunk SF/F Author Alex Smith” by Alex Jennings, “What Do the Dying Know?” by Karen Heuler, and Nonfiction Editor Meg Elison’s editorial “The Horny Body Problem.” Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “A Dead, Divine Thing” by Eshqin Ahmad, “Crossing” by Ewen Ma, “Sang Kancil at the Protest” by May Chong, “A Testament of Bloom” by Taiwo Hassan, and “I Am a Little Hotel” by Ai Jiang. Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Vivian Shaw and Iori Kusano about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 49A features “Rabbit Test” by Samantha Mills, as read by Erika Ensign, “Crossing” by Ewen Ma, as read by Erika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Samantha Mills. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 49B features “Travelers’ Unrest” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, as read by Matt Peters, “A Testament of Bloom” by Taiwo Hassan, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

As always, we are deeply grateful for your support of Uncanny Magazine. Shine on, Space Unicorns!

Rabbit Test

Content Note: Sexual Assault, abuse, traumatic miscarriage, psych ward treatment, and suicide.

 

It is 2091, and Grace is staring at the rabbit in the corner of her visual overlay. It is an Angora rabbit, fluffy and white, and when Grace picked the icon out, she did not realize how much she would come to dread the sight of it. She moves, and the overlay moves with her. A reminder. A threat.

There are three other authorized users with access to her rabbit test: her mother, her father, and the family doctor who installed it at their request shortly after her first menses.

In two months, Grace will turn 18 and at that point she can maintain or disable the app as she sees fit. But she doesn’t have two months. Her period is six days late, and tomorrow her tracker will automatically administer a pregnancy test.

Grace pulls up the profile of her best friend, Sal, and sends their usual emergency alert: Coffee??

It is 1931, and Maurice Friedman and Maxwell Edward Lapham have just published “A Simple, Rapid Procedure for the Laboratory Diagnosis of Early Pregnancies” in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, volume 21. This simple (very), rapid (by some standards) procedure involves one urine sample and one very unlucky rabbit.

(It is 1927, and Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek have just introduced the test first, actually, and theirs involves five-packs of mice. But the doctors, both Jewish, will soon flee Nazi Germany, and except for the occasional lab that prefers breeding mice over rabbits, it is the Friedman test that will catch on instead.)

Step One: Inject the urine sample into the veins of a live, juvenile female rabbit. Wait several days.

Step Two: Dissect the unlucky bunny. Inspect its ovaries. If they have enlarged and turned yellow, then congratulations or our condolences, this follicular maturation indicates a noticeable presence of hCG. You’re pregnant.

Contrary to the parlance of the time, it is not the death of the rabbit that indicates a positive test. The rabbit always dies.

It is 2091, and the fine folks at Rabbit Test LMC do not have a laboratory farm. There are no animal casualties in the work they do. A very small minority of their users even understand the reference that inspired the company’s name—it is a bit of trivia. Ancient history. An office joke.

Grace doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, and certainly isn’t laughing. She waits for Sal at the coffee shop, and every sip of spark makes her stomach roil with nerves.

When Sal gets there—lovely Sal with her long brown hair and her nails painted like dragon scales—Grace can barely wait till they’re in the parking lot to blurt it out.

“How?” Sal cries. “Didn’t you map it, like I said?”

She had, she had, that was the thing. Grace had watched her cycle tracker like a surveillance drone over a labor march, and even though her parents disabled the setting that indicated her most fertile days (“Don’t get any ideas,” they’d said), she’d done the math on paper to map out her most unfertile days. At least, that’s what she thought.

Now Sal is chewing anxiously on one of her nails (she’ll ruin them that way, always does). “Did you tell Mac? Do you think he’ll stick around? Will your parents—”

“I need a blackout,” Grace interrupts. “Please, Sal. I know you’ve got some.”

It’s a glitch they’ve used before. An errant bit of update code that will block their apps for a day or two. Sal uses them to disable her blood alcohol test whenever her parents are out of town. They download patches every time, but she’s a whiz at writing new ones, and that’s all that Grace needs, just a day or two to corrupt the rabbit test. Under cover of the blackout, she can pull up the profile of one of those old ladies who sells pill packs out of their closets, hoarded up from before the ban.

She tries not to think about Mac, or that night spent fumbling in a sleeping bag in his dad’s backyard. He’s leaving for a deep-sea fishing gig in two weeks. He isn’t even waiting for graduation, it’s the old birthday-and-bounce, and everyone knows how few of those boys come back.

Sal is looking panicked—this is leagues beyond getting shitfaced on a Saturday night—but they’re best friends, weekend witches, twins from different sins.

She whispers, “I’ll do it.”

It is 1940, and bioassays are already shifting away from mice and rabbits and on to frogs: Xenopus laevis, to be exact. It’s a brilliant substitution, inspired by the research of Lancelot Hogben in the 1930s.

(The zoologist: British. His place of study: South Africa. Until he became disillusioned by the racism of the region, at which point he left the country behind and took a colony of frogs with him.)

Here is the genius of the development: within twelve hours of injecting the young frog with hormone-laden urine: poof, she lays eggs. Miles quicker than rabbit death row, and check this out: you can use the frog again!

There are obstacles in place (a doctor must decide that early diagnosis is warranted), but even so, tens of thousands of frogs will be exported from southern Africa each year to fill demand.

It is 1839, and there are no mice or rabbits or frogs in sight, but Catherine knows she is pregnant (she is all-too familiar with the signs), and she knows she cannot manage a fifth child on seamstress work.

She finds an ad in the New York Sun:

 

TO MARRIED WOMEN.—Is it not but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond what the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate?…Is it moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control? The advertiser, feeling the importance of this subject, and estimating the vast benefit resulting to thousands by the adoption of means prescribed by her, has opened an office, where married females can obtain the desired information.

 

The advertiser in question calls herself Madame Restell, and she takes clients at her Greenwich Street office between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Catherine’s grandmother swore by pennyroyal or tansy tea, but she also had more than one friend felled by a toxic dose. These are modern times, and Catherine would prefer something measured with more exactitude. In addition to the simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy Madame Restell offers for people in situations such as Catherine’s, she also sells Preventative Powder (five dollars per package) and Female Monthly Pills (one dollar apiece). Catherine isn’t sure she can fit that into the family budget, but it would surely be a blessing if she could.

(It is 1839, and for enslaved women laboring against their will below the Mason-Dixon line there are no advertisements in the paper, there are no accessible offices on public streets, there is no quiet recovery in the privacy of their own homes, for they own nothing but their wits. For these women, forced to birth more children into the system that enslaves them, there is cotton root bark if they have the supply and the knowledge to use it, a remedy shared in whispers, a remedy that will bring down the foulest of punishments upon their heads if they are caught—but still they try.)

Catherine has no cause to know any of that, and if she did it would make her uneasy at best. She is not the sort of woman who attends abolitionist meetings or subscribes to their publications. She is a woman who scarcely has a moment free to tend her own problems, hence her need to tend this problem. Immediately.

She is lucky that someone has the means, the interest, and the entrepreneurial spirit to help her out.

It is 2091, and Grace is praying that someone might have the means, the interest, and the entrepreneurial spirit to help her out.

Within hours of installing Sal’s blackout code, Grace feels her rabbit test commence. It’s the barest prickle in her arm, the telltale tick of her med chip taking a blood sample. The scan goes straight to her tracker, and the animation of a laughing baby about stops her heart. But Sal’s code holds true—her data is stored locally, and Grace deletes it with a desperate swipe before it can transmit to anyone else.

Grace sobs into her pillow for a good long while, convinced her plan has failed before it’s even begun, because she can’t do this, she can’t do this, how did she think she could do this? She’ll die and go straight to hell.

But her tears subside and she spends the rest of the afternoon scouring protest sites, seeking the ever-changing link to a link to a link that will land her on a temporary profile with the latest bot-evading slang for terminating pregnancy. She uses her bedroom ceiling for the projection, rapidly filling it with open pages, skimming one after another, trying to parse the euphemisms.

(It is 1840, and assorted Victorians are scanning the newspaper for female regulators, cathartic pills, anything that might solve private difficulties by removing obstructions. In 2091 there are no paper ads, but private difficulties remain.)

There. On a university black market page, buried among requests for machine-generated history papers and cafeteria access chips, Grace finds what she is looking for: cheat sheets for rabbit tests.

At least, she thinks this is what she’s looking for. It could mean another blackout—or maybe it’s just for birth control? Grace is vague on how the latter works.

The post is signed with the initials A.M.E. Grace rewrites her message a thousand times before settling on a hesitant, What if I’ve already taken the test?

Thirty excruciating minutes later, a reply pops up. Give me your audio line.

It makes sense not to have this conversation by text, blackout or no, but Grace’s entire body begins to shake as soon as she sends her number. There is no way that she can talk to a stranger about this, there is no way she can make her confession to a possible-troll at best and a possible-cop at worst. When the call comes through her voice cracks on hello.

“You sound a mess,” A.M.E. says, not without sympathy. “Tell me what you’re looking for, babe.”

It all spills out.

Over the next twenty minutes, Grace has one preconception challenged after another. For one thing, she had assumed all of the hoarders were old ladies, but A.M.E.—“Call me Ambrose”—laughs and assures her that he isn’t that old, and he isn’t a lady. Women aren’t the only people worried about their uteruses, and Ambrose saw the writing on the wall long before the 2084 ban passed.

“I had the ol’ womb exhume in the ’70s,” he says, “but I ordered as many pill packs as I could from overseas before the mail cracked down.” He warns her that the pills have been expired for a year, but the worst-case scenario is they don’t work, and she’s already facing that.

He’s charging four hundred dollars—he wants to help but hey, times are tough—and that’s doable, barely, Grace can scrape that together between leftover birthday money and selling old toys on her market page. If anyone asks what the money was for, she’ll say she took Sal out for dinner and a show.

And then he starts asking her questions that nobody has ever asked her before. What does she know about birth control? (“No, babe, taking it won’t make you sterile for life. If only.”) What are her plans after this? Not today, not next week, her real plans. Her life.

As Grace talks, she feels the decision taking hold. That’s the gift Ambrose is giving her with this conversation, when he could have simply stated a price and a pickup location and left it at that. He isn’t pressing her. He’s giving her a moment to think it through, to own what she is about to do. It’s her body.

“So,” Ambrose says. “What’s it gonna be?”

She’s choked silent for a moment by a mudslide rush of fear and guilt. Grace can barely think the word in her own head (abortion) because it is so fraught, made dirty by her parents’ strident warnings.

Her mother was there in 2084, you know, marching for stricter regulation of uterine care. People were killing their babies left and right before that, she said. It was easy. Untraceable. Rabbit tests were private, no requirement to inform a medical office; pills were on auto-order, so you’d scarcely notice the late date before a drone dropped a discreet package down the bathroom chute. And that was only the people who weren’t hacking their natural biology, popping in gestational blocks like getting their ears pierced, as though the country wasn’t in a population freefall, as though they weren’t in dire need of sturdy white babies to survive the coming storms—(her mother’s diatribes took many turns).

Grace still remembers hiding behind her mother’s legs at that march, age nine and terrified of the crowd. She remembers the moment that her mother pulled her into the spotlight, and cried, “My miracle child! This is my miracle child!” And she told the entire story over amplification: how her prenatal pills had been swapped for baby killers (how could such a switch happen on accident? Grace would not question this until she was much older) and the doctor told her the chances of her child surviving were slim, even with immediate intervention, but she had prayed and prayed and prayed, and she’d saved Grace’s life.

So yes, there is guilt. Mountains of it. Vast oceans, roiling with the rising temperature. Guilt the size of a rich man’s space station.

But Grace is also exhilarated. She’ll finish school. She’ll be more careful. What are her plans after this? She doesn’t know yet, but she desperately wants the time to figure them out.

“Tell me where to go,” she says, and she means it.

It is 1978, and Alice is looking at an advertisement for the first FDA-approved home pregnancy test, now on shelves at pharmacies all over the country. It takes nine steps, two hours, an angled mirror, and a vial of sheep’s blood, but for ten dollars you can investigate your own body in the privacy of your own home, and if the test comes up negative you can be eighty percent sure that it’s correct.

It isn’t merely the test that has taken Alice’s breath away, but the coverage in Mademoiselle. For decades it has billed itself as the quality magazine for smart young women—those fashionable, sophisticated, career-minded girls of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s—and alongside the fashion editorials and the beauty tips it has boasted writers and editors such as Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson and James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath.

But this is different.

 

The e.p.t In-Home Early Pregnancy Test is a private little revolution any woman can easily buy at her drugstore…Now its high accuracy rate has been verified here in America by doctors…That means you can confidently do this easy pregnancy test yourself—privately—right at home without waiting for appointments or delays…At last early knowledge of pregnancy belongs easily and accurately to us all.

 

The ad is remarkable enough, but it is the commentary on page 86 that has Alice close to tears. It is beautiful in its candor, its practicality—its honesty, baldly stating that the benefits of private and rapid results are that they give you a chance, if pregnant, “to start taking care of yourself…or to consider the possibility of early abortion.”

To see those words printed openly in a national magazine?

She scarcely thought she’d see the day, because—

Because it is 1971, and Alice can’t imagine how close she is to a future in which abortion is suggested with matter-of-fact sophistication in Mademoiselle and the rest of Condé Nast’s women’s magazine lineup.

Alice is a married woman with two children in school, and every afternoon she calls a list of complete strangers who have left messages for Jane. They are in dire need of help.

Jane does not exist.

Or rather, Jane is several women, and they provide a very specific service to the greater Chicago area. They call themselves the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, but for the purposes of discretion, women in need can call the phone number on their flyer and leave a message for Jane, and Jane will get back to them soon.

(They are not the first group to think of this. There are Clergy Consultation Services in several states already—networks of pastors and ministers and rabbis lobbying for legalized abortion and referring women to legal clinics if they can afford to travel, and to discreet local contacts if they cannot.)

Once a week the whole crew meets up to assign phone numbers to the counselors for a callback. Alice is one of only a few Black members in the group. The rest are white. White housewives, white working women, white activists looking to do something tangible, something now. And they’re helping thousands of people, there’s no doubt about that, but the fact remains that as their service spreads through the South and West Side neighborhoods of Chicago, their clientele increasingly doesn’t match their membership. Alice’s goal is to provide these folks a reassuring and familiar face.

She joined as a counselor, driver, and sometimes-assistant after accompanying a friend to an appointment. Call this number, her friend’s doctor had said. They only charge what you can afford. And sure as shit, Alice helped scrape fifty dollars together and fifty dollars is what it cost. She looked around that living-room-turned-waiting-room, full of frightened teenagers and weary moms-of-three, and she knew she wanted to help.

Abortion hadn’t always been the purview of psych wards and hospital review boards; it hadn’t always been a begrudging concession on one’s deathbed or a desperate gamble in a germ-ridden hotel room.

It used to be the work of midwives and healers, friends and neighbors, those with wombs learning the workings of their own bodies.

Which is why the members of Jane are learning to perform the procedure themselves.

It is 2091, and Grace has no idea how a womb works, but somebody does, and she’s heading his way.

Even with the blackout, she is too paranoid to hire a driver—everything leaves a trail, everything—and so she takes her little brother’s electric scooter from the garage. Ambrose asked that she convert her money into gift cards rather than transfer it directly to him, and she’s shaken by how many potential pitfalls she hadn’t even considered.

Grace’s destination—a parking lot with many exits, behind a hydroponic garden that used to be a mall—is fifteen miles from her home.

She leaves before dawn. Every streetlight is a searchlight, every passing face a spy. She’s on that stage with her mother again, the bullhorn blaring MIRACLE CHILD! MY MIRACLE CHILD! And she’s in her high school health class being told to abstain, make good decisions, have the integrity to wait, do not lift the veil of her body to an unworthy partner, and certainly do not lift it before being wed. She’s failed her parents and her God and her teachers and her boyfriend and herself, but none of them need to know. She’s going to hell, but not today.

Grace doesn’t make it five miles before there’s a horn blaring and her father shouting out the window and her mother sobbing in the passenger seat. Her father’s wristband is flashing at the proximity—the scooter has an old geolocator tag that Grace had completely forgotten about.

Later she’ll learn the details (Sal panicked and told her mother), but at the moment all she knows is that her parents are here, they’ve caught her, the door has slammed shut.

It is 2083, and Grace’s mother is a single spear in a vanguard. Half the world is burning or flooding and the other half is arguing bitterly over who should take in refugees, if at all. (They’d postponed this future, a hard push in the ’30s and ’40s, a desperate revival of green initiatives, wholly reactive and far too late—but it was only a stall, in the end.)

Amelia is marching because she fears being outnumbered. She’s marching because she believes it’s her duty to save babies and place them in homes with good Christian values, because the scientific establishment is out of control, a cabal of demons on Earth locking an entire generation out of salvation.

She doesn’t know or understand all of the terminology, but she’s equally scathing toward every problem facing America today. Invasions at the border and children making up genders and godlessness in schools and lesbians in every sitcom and the greatest problem of all looming over the rest: the intrusion of technology into natural-born bodies. An entire economy of soulless elites enabling—encouraging!—people to tailor their hormones and alter their organs, to implant med chips and tracking devices, monsters who are giving their tech cute names like rabbit test when it isn’t cute at all, it’s a means to leap at the first sign of conception and take control of a natural process that ought to be left to God’s will alone. (The hypocrisy of installing that same test in Grace will never occur to her; the right people have taken over monitoring it.)

The long and short of it is: her daughter will be raised better.

It is 2092, and Grace is a disappointment to her mother.

Breathe,” says the nurse.

Grace is breathing. She’s also crying. She read what she could find about childbirth but nothing prepared her for the reality. At one point she is struck by the desperate, irrational desire to call Ambrose—at least he would tell her honestly what’s about to happen. But that temporary profile is long gone; his number long disconnected.

Breathe,” says the nurse.

Grace is gasping. Her mother is at her side, but they are hardly speaking at this point. There are drugs, but she is in terrible pain. When the anesthesiologist ups the dose and half of Grace’s body immobilizes, she has a panic attack.

The anesthesiologist’s voice penetrates the haze. “…something for the anxiety?”

Grace’s mother says yes. The drugs trickle in, and Grace can’t remember most of what happens next.

It is 2092 and there is only so much comfort modern medicine can provide. Even if Grace’s mother had hired a doula (“You don’t need one,” she had declared. “You have me.”)—even if she had, what could a doula have said to make Grace feel any better? The deed is done.

A nurse holds up the infant, which is squalling in even more terror than its mother.

Barring any gender revelations to come: it’s a girl.

It is 1817, and Asenath Smith is in love with an Episcopal preacher.

His name is Ammi Rogers, and he’s been banned from the ministry in Connecticut for promoting separation of church and state. He works instead on the lucrative traveling preacher circuit, where he’s grown exceedingly popular—particularly amongst the ladies.

Asenath, twenty-one years of age and grown up in a family of independent-minded women, met the controversial figure when he was giving comfort at the bedside of her dying grandmother, God rest her soul. She was smitten. She was smote.

When Asenath realizes she is pregnant, she goes straight to Rogers, secure in the fact of their upcoming marriage. They’ll only have to hasten the date.

But Rogers won’t marry her unless she ends the pregnancy. Most people ignore it when babies are born less than nine months from the wedding, but that courtesy will not be extended to him. His reputation is already under attack.

He gives her medication, but it doesn’t take.

He attempts to use a tool, but that doesn’t seem to work either, so he flees town. Several terrible, pain-ridden days later, Asenath gives birth: a stillborn.

The ensuing scandal is intense—the attempts at prosecution even more so. There is no seduction law in Connecticut, no statute banning abortion. He is arrested nonetheless.

The first trial fails when Rogers abducts Asenath and her sister, locking them up until they agree to withdraw their testimony. They keep their promise and refuse to cooperate at the second trial, but their former statements are presented anyway. In lieu of any charge more accurate, Rogers is convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to two years in prison.

The firestorm rages on. The coercion of Asenath Smith is central to the debate, but the debate does not include ways to ensure that women like Asenath can escape coercion. The General Assembly instead takes aim at medicinal abortion, eager to push midwives and grandmothers (many of them immigrants or formerly enslaved) out of the business—the first antiabortion legislation in the nation. Abortions approved and performed by doctors will remain protected for some time longer, putting these delicate bodily decisions into more authoritative hands.

This conclusion misses the point.

It is 2107, and Grace’s daughter is fifteen years old. They’ve been living on their own for five of those years, finally out of Grace’s childhood home and into a one-bedroom apartment in a downtrodden part of town. Most of Grace’s neighbors are from India, and it’s a relief to escape the constant scrutiny of her former neighbors, a relief to no longer be ducking her head in shame.

It isn’t Olivia that Grace is ashamed of, even though that is what everyone expected of her. (She loves her daughter, despite it all.) Rather, she’s ashamed of how long it took her to get out of that house. A decade of minimum wage shift work and listening to her mother’s remonstrations about her character and the burdens of babysitting and social embarrassment, as if she hadn’t kept Grace under strict supervision for eight months to ensure it would happen—

But it’s over. These past five years have been peaceful. They’ve been revelatory. Her own life is under her own control (to the extent that working fifty-plus hours per week to afford pasta and imitation butter feels like control). Grace has cut ties to her church and only answers her mother’s calls one third of the time. Life isn’t what she hoped for, but she’s learned to live with her life.

And then May comes.

In May, Olivia goes to a party after school and comes home sick. She can’t remember a thing, but she’s aching, she’s distressed, she has nightmares that move like shadows in candlelight. They run a blood workup but whatever was in her system is gone without a trace.

Three weeks later she falls onto Grace’s shoulder, panic-stricken, in disbelief, and in that second before the words tumble out of her mouth, Grace already knows. It’s her rabbit test.

(It wasn’t installed at Grace’s request, or with either of their consent. Med chips are mandatory from age 6, the rabbit test from age 10. It’s been a statewide law since 2102, and Grace can’t afford to leave the state. The protesters who were so quick to condemn its use in private decision-making had no qualms about using it for surveillance.)

“What do I do?” Olivia cries. Over and over. “What do I do?”

Grace’s mouth is dry. The words come out faintly. “I can fix this,” she says. “If that’s what you want.”

“How?” Olivia whispers.

They stay up late that night, discussing the options. Grace tries not to reveal how badly she is shaking. She talks Olivia through the risks of trying to fake a miscarriage versus the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. She tries to give her the information she wishes she’d had, building the conversation without a blueprint.

“Have you run a search?” Grace asks abruptly.

“No, I came straight to you.” Olivia reaches out hesitantly, as if to pull up a screen. “Should I…?”

“No!” Grace claps a hand over hers. “Don’t search. Don’t breathe a word to anyone, not even your best friend, do you understand?”

At the moment, the law only condemns the procurer. Olivia is a minor. Her body belongs to Grace in the eyes of the law, and therefore Grace is responsible for what comes next.

She does everything she can to cover her tracks. An anonymous account from a throwaway device, an exchange location in a terrifying part of town where the network is always down, an even more terrifying night spent rubbing her daughter’s back, coaching her through the cramps and nausea, making note of the size of her blood clots and rehearsing the story they’ll tell the doctor the next morning—

It isn’t enough.

All it takes is one suspicious nurse to flag Olivia’s paperwork. Why didn’t they make an appointment when her rabbit test came up positive? Why didn’t they go to the E.R. at the first sight of blood?

Grace’s background is scrutinized, her location data inspected for mysterious gaps, witnesses contacted in regards to her character. And then, evidence where she didn’t even know to destroy it: a drug test performed on their household wastewater line.

She is arrested for murder, but the public defender tells her they can get it knocked down to voluntary manslaughter if she attests that she was out of her mind, in a heat of passion triggered by the memory of her own thwarted abortion and the lack of a man’s support. Grace doesn’t want to be cast as a madwoman who shoved pills down her daughter’s throat in a fit of old-fashioned hysteria, but it takes the sentence down from twenty years without parole to twelve.

She’ll go away, and Olivia will be remanded into the custody of Grace’s own mother.

And all Grace can think of as she’s led out of the courtroom is: I had five years of my own. I had five years.

It is 1993, and she wants this baby so much, they have been trying and trying; there’s a heartbeat, she can hear it, but there isn’t a brain. Her body won’t let it go, and the doctor says I am very sorry, but I will have to remove it myself.

It is 2015, and she has to sneak in on a Tuesday because her youth group is protesting the clinic on Saturday, and she needs a couple of days to recover or they’ll wonder why she isn’t there. She’ll weep in the recovery room and call the nurse a murderer.

It is 1965, and she has to convince a hospital review board that she’s suicidal, clutching letters from two separate psychiatrists, all for the privilege of spending two nights in a psych ward and having all her bits shaved for no clear reason, but it works, it’s humiliating but it works, and she knows she’s one of the lucky ones for finding a way.

It is 1150, and Hildegard von Bingen, the Sybil of the Rhine, is settling into life as the abbess of a monastery built in her honor. She is preparing to write the medical tomes Physica and Causae et Curae, in which, among many other remedies, she will list her most tried-and-true abortifacients. Officially, the Church considers the practice a sin, but it is not murder until the quickening, that moment four or five months along when the soul enters the body, and so a nun providing this care to her community is not remarkable, but merely practical.

The Romans have their silphium and the Chinese have achyranthes root. The Shoshone have stoneseed, the Lakota have sagewort, the Hawaiians have elixirs of hau, noni, ‘awa, and young kī leaves. The Victorians have their tansy tea and savin, their ergot of rye, their black draught and mallow and motherwort. Millennials have got mifepristone and misoprostol, and the climate generation has gestational blocks and yellow pills droned straight to the bathroom chute.

It is 1750—seventeen fucking fifty—and Mary is consulting a dog-eared copy of The American Instructor, the greatly popular household textbook. It is not an arithmetic lesson that occupies her today—though math will come in useful—but an entry in the medical section at the back.

Mary is reading instructions on how to cure that most common of complaints among unmarry’d Women: the SUPPRESSION of the COURSES. Mary’s courses are suppressed, all right, have been for weeks, and as a widow of certain means and a disinclination to marry again, it isn’t the first time she’s had to consult this home remedy. To cure her Misfortune, she’s got to purge with Belly-ach Root and then drink Pennyroyal Water with Spirits of Harts-horn twice a day for nine days, then take three days rest, then go on again for nine more days. It’s a pain, but better than the alternative.

(It is 1750, and across the vast tracts of North America there are dozens of Indigenous tribes with more than a hundred alternatives, but Mary has just got this book.)

She emits a light, “Fah,” at the warnings and preventative measures listed at the end of the passage, as she always does. They conclude with a prim exhortation not to long for pretty Fellows, or any other Trash whatsoever. Her current fellow is not trash—he is really rather respectable—but Mary has no desire to shackle her person or her estate to another master, no matter how pretty. She watched her mother die on the birthing bed at age 42. She watched her sisters fade to shadows under the demands of overfull houses.

The death of her first husband has given Mary the freedom to move about as she wishes; to run her own household and control her own fate.

She isn’t going to give that up lightly.

It is 2119, and Grace hasn’t given up, but the years have been painful and slow.

Today, she is getting out of prison.

She’s not the same woman she was. She’s angrier. She’s hurting. She has a permanent cough from the last virus to run rampant through the prison population. But after twelve years, she’s just as scared of reentering the world outside as she is of never seeing it again.

Olivia is waiting in the parking lot. They stare at each other for a moment that burns like a California wildfire and then they fall into one another’s arms.

There’s a child in the backseat of Olivia’s car, four years old and squashed nose-first against the glass. He’s named Raley, after the activist who made the marriage of his mothers possible after so many decades in which it was not. The tide is turning on bodily autonomy again. One generation’s fight to choose their partners is fueling the fight to choose the size of their families—a reversal of the historic civil rights progression that will inspire dissertation topics for years to come.

“I missed you,” Olivia says.

“I missed everything.” Grace has held herself together for so long, she refuses to break down in the parking lot ten feet from the damn gate—but she comes close.

And then Olivia says, “I’m speaking at the decision next week. Will you come?”

Grace flinches. It’s too much, too soon. Her world has been reduced to a handful of walls and familiar faces for years, and now Olivia is asking her to stand up in front of one hundred thousand people?

Please,” Olivia says.

Grace shuts her eyes.

The world continued to burn while she was gone. The last decade has seen ever more flooding and fire, hurricanes and heat waves, collapsing coastlines and viruses named for every letter of the alphabet. Some of these disasters hit the prison, in the form of power outages and spoiled food and illness and neglect, but others were only items in the news, dire glimpses of the life waiting for them outside. Grace has missed riots and assassinations. She’s missed a national strike and no small number of election day bombings. But there are strides being made, small victories being won, and Olivia truly believes that a big one is coming next week.

It’s happening. The final vote. Congress is on the verge of overturning the ban and returning some measure of bodily autonomy to more than half the population. There isn’t a supply chain in place for abortion medication anymore; there aren’t many doctors trained in the scant emergency procedures they are occasionally allowed to perform, and they certainly won’t be welcoming any black-market midwives into their fold to make up the deficit. But they have a president waiting to sign. They have businesses eager to flood the market. They have a multi-million-dollar video campaign ready to roll out, complete with celebrity cameos.

If it passes. If.

If it doesn’t, then things are going to get ugliest exactly where Olivia is asking her to be. There will be violence. Tear gas deployed by drone and skirmishes with National Guard robotics. There will be arrests in the thousands.

Grace imagines that chaos and suddenly she’s nine years old again, being dragged into the spotlight as a poster child for uterine regulation. She’s hearing her fate screamed through a bullhorn, she is stepping up to the mic and agreeing my mother saved my life and your mother saved yours, she is two months shy of turning eighteen and nursing the sting of a slap on her face, she is locked in her room except for mealtimes and exercise, she is locked in her cell except for mealtimes and exercise, she is watching her entire life pass by and wondering who she would have been if she’d been allowed to make up her own mind.

Her mother helped break this world. Her daughter is trying to fix it.

She looks at little Raley, his face still pressed to the car window, watching her, wondering what kind of person this prison grandmother of his is, and she’s wondering the same thing. She says, “I’ll go.”

It is 2119, and Olivia is standing on stage with a dozen people behind her and a hundred thousand in front. Her wife is at her side, their marriage barely two years legal. Her son is wedged between them, dazzled by the lights.

The Senate steps are filled with shoulder-to-shoulder policing units, blue lights blinking on their boxy chests. The air is full of cameras—military surveillance and media coverage and endless proxies from supporters who could not make it in person.

It is Olivia’s turn to speak. She is here to represent the grassroots group she joined the day she ran away from her grandmother’s house, living couch to couch and paycheck to paycheck. She is here to represent everyone else who has struggled to build a life on an obstacle course.

She shouts, “There is no justification for obeying an immoral law!” and the roar from the crowd is deafening. She pulls Raley tight to her side, a child she chose, and she speaks of the past and the present and the future.

“At every turn, we’ve sought to know more about our bodies,” she says. “And at every turn, that knowledge has been used to rope us in tighter, to set the deadline shorter, to put private decisions in the hands of public officials, as if we can’t be trusted to choose for ourselves.”

Olivia flings her other arm wide. She says, “We only want to control our own destinies! We want to decide the course of our lives, and not see every scientific advance weaponized against us. It is 2119, and I would not have this child if I’d been forced to term before I was ready, before I had a home worth sharing. And—”

It is 1350 BCE, and she is urinating on bags of wheat and barley seeds, waiting to see how quickly they will sprout. It works more often than you’d think.

She just wants to know, so she can plan, either way. And—

It is 1021, and she is watching the shah’s physician pour sulfur over her urine, looking for the worms he believes will spring from the mix. It doesn’t work any better than you’d think.

She just wants to know, so she can plan, either way. And—

It is 1658, and she is waiting at the home of the local piss prophet. He holds the matula up to the light, peering through the glass to assess the color of the liquid within.

She just wants to know, so she can plan either way. And—

It is 1998, and Lee Berger just identified the fungus causing a decades’ long decline in Australian frog species. It was carried on the skin of our old friend Xenopus laevis, exported by the tens of thousands for urine-injection-pregnancy tests, and now it is threatening extinction to thirty percent of the world’s amphibians.

It’s unfortunate as hell for the frogs, but all of those people just wanted to know, so they could plan either way. Because—

—because she is still ten thousand dollars in debt from her last time giving birth.

—because if she stops taking her medication, she will die.

—because the thought makes him vomit, makes him faint, he wouldn’t survive it.

—because if they don’t finish school, they’ll be raising this baby in their parent’s basement.

—because she simply doesn’t want to, she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t need to be on her deathbed or underage or running from a monster, her doctor said she couldn’t get her tubes tied unless she had three children already, but where’s the logic in giving birth to three children for the permission to have none?

It is 2084 and she is crying, “Our grandmothers fought so hard for this.”

It is 2206 and she is crying, “Our grandmothers fought so hard for this.”

It is 1878 and Madame Restell is bleeding to death in her bathtub rather than submit to another trial. It is 1821 and Asenath Smith is fleeing town in disgrace. It is 1972 and seven of the women of Jane have just been arrested in a raid. It is 2086 and Grace’s medical record has been officially upgraded to that most precarious of categories: potential to become pregnant.

It is 2022 and it isn’t over.

It is 2022 and it is never over.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Rabbit Test” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 49A.)

Thank You, Patreon Supporters!

Uncanny Magazine would like to thank the following people for supporting us on Patreon. This magazine would not be possible without their support.

 

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps RECRUITS

David, Glenn Carruthers, Emily Crossen, Catharine Roseberry, Katie Sinkoski, Jennifer Hisrich, Jenny Barber, Danielle, Mr. Robin White, Andrew Gregg, Anitra Heiberg Lykke, Andrew S. Fuller, Damien Neil, Not_the_brain, james qualters, Maria Schrater, Leetmeister, Max Andrew Dubinsky, Robin Hill, Liz Argall, S P, Ken Schneyer, Neil Ottenstein, Penny Richards, Josh Smift, Jay Lofstead, Annaliese Lemmon, fadeaccompli, Clarissa R., Ai Lake, David Versace, Kate Barton

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps ENSIGNS 

Maya Berger, Alexa, Emily, Uwe Kolley, Lee Stanford, Lori Petrie, Caryn , Brian Collins, HK11, Caroline Cormack, Arun Welch, Divyansha S, Dr. Jobo, Yamagi, Patrick Burke, Ksenia, Emmett Walsh, Justin Yost, Penny Lee, Marie K, Kuks, Hailey Myers, Brit Graham, John Wedoff, Shannon Nelson, Anja, Cheryl Martin, rick kintigh, Brian, Petri Wessman, Em, Emily Robbins, Rick Floyd, Tomb, Susan Yount, James Antill, Kora Bongen, Mark A Dispenza, K. A. T., Zhenya, Cait Coy, Alex Cross, Rachel Green, Jim DeVona, Sean Pruitt, Haven Spec, coffee n’ cats, samuel lightcap, Alysha MacDonald, Dominique Martel, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Maritza Sanchez, John Carr, Riikka, Surya H, Callum Williams, Dilly, Howard Cornett, Fábián Tamás, Ashley Herzig, Carl Olsen, Goran Lowie, Aliénor, Dawn Bonanno, William Hay, Dave McAvoy, Julia Pillard, Nicholas Davies, Monique Cuillerier, Thomas Faust, D. M. Baldwin, John Coxon, Fabienne Schwizer, Greg Chapman, Kael, Colin, Jaime McLeod, Katie Rodante, Kathrin, Ross Williams, Andrew McIntosh, Alec Ross, Karen Young, Simon Hoerder, Melanie Savransky, Ailbhe Leamy, Pete Kirkham, John Atom, Chris Gates, Felicia Jordan, Jes, Tracey Thompson, Ryan V Thummel, Shannon H, Jenn Brissett, Brian, Sonja Pieper, Kelly, Aditya Dubey, Kari Keeling, Taylor Alcantar, Goetz Kruppa, Bonnie, Agnes, Peter Schmitt (Aragos), Douglas Dluzen, Mary Brock, Chawin Narkruksa, Tuomas Pohto, Emily Goldman, Beth Hoffman, Alina Kanaski, Matthew Bennardo, Brad Preslar, Fiona Parker, Alison Gilder, Markus Regius, Natalie Boon, Caroline Pinder, Vicente JM, Ben Hammerslag, Tina Skupin, Eris Young, Chessa Hickox, machine_person, John Derrick, Carrie, Sarah Jansen, Emily Kvalheim, [email protected], Sadie Slater, Andrew Hickey, Julia Struthers-Jobin, Tim Campbell, Melissa Brinks, Nick Mazzuca, Maria Haskins, Sarah Elkins, Victor Eijkhout, Melissa Martensen, Joe Iriarte, Jacqueline Rogoff, Bea, Amanda B Cook, Ellen Zemlin, David O Mahony, Risa Wolf, John Cetrone, Cynthia Murrell, Gina, Tiffany M., Albert Bowes, Amanda J. McGee, Crystal Huff, Leslie Ordal, Gene Breshears, Ysabet MacFarlane, Erik DeBill, Emily Finke, Paul Weymouth, Laura K, Philip Woodley, David Demers, Jeffrey, Ondrej Urban, Emily Hogan, Paul Weimer, Lauren Vega

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps LIEUTENANTS

Dudley Kyle Lawhorn, Amanda Bishop, Claire Argent, Joe Pickering, Dennis Smith, Dale Vaughn, Rachel Donahue, Cass Wilkinson Saldaña, Kate Nussrainer, Samantha Baugus, shapeoflobster, Wichael Tellez, Anthony Agbay, Simone Cooper, Vikki, Parlei Riviere, Shelby Niehaus, Pat Hayes, Tracey Abla, Wendy, Sarah Storm, Brian Withers, Stephen, Will Hamilton, Sean Eric Fagan, smokestack, Heather Holmquist, Ian Sweedler, Kelsea Kreuch, Sasha H, Mark Tyler, Christiane Knight, Sarah Jackson, John Reynolds, Starr Hoffman, John Tobias, Kyle DeVries, Matthew Montgomery, julianna zdunich, Koa Webster, Sarah Hale, Randall Beeman, Danielle Weaver, Alena Geffner-Mihlsten, LInda Thompson, Ahsan A. Latif, Lisa Cox, Stephanie Novak, Rich Rubel, Margaret N. Oliver, Joan Combs Durso, Nancy Palmer, Elan Samuel, Sid J, Sarah Berriman, RMD Cade, devorah hill, Josef D Prall, Sam Gawith, Kirby Bullock, Declan Meenagh, Christi Clogston, jenn northington, Gareth Morgan, Ravian Ruijs, E, David Dagg-Murry, Raphaelle, Emma Osborne, Max G, Matt, Thomas Marks, Derek Smith, Erin Bright, michael smith, Ariana Dawnhawk, tatere, Adrian, Kaylan McCanna, Elena Gaillard, Lorelei Kelly, medievalpoc, Myz Lilith, Devin & Stephanie Ganger, Phil Margolies, Brandi Blackburn, Cait Greer, Jen Talley, Ian Radford, Adam Israel, Aaron Roberts, Jennifer Slaugh, John M. Gamble, John Chu, Brooks Moses, Deborah Levinson, Didi Chanoch, Michael Lee, Adam Leff

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps COMMANDERS 

Jaime Taht, Culture Fuk’d, Cody Duncan, Peter Jones, Kate Boyes, Emily K Miller, Kuang-Yu Liu, Kelly Lester, Camille Knepper, Elizabeth Galliher, Mairin Holmes, Alex Eiser, K.C. Mead-Brewer, Alexander M Henderson, Kate O’Connor, Marzie Kaifer, Edmund Schweppe, Nicole Fuschetti, Dain Unicorn, Jayme, Bliss Ehrlich, Daniel (a raven)

ADDITIONAL SUPPORTERS

Jacob Aldrich, Karen, Roy Ha, SB Divya, Hayley Klug, Will Hindmarch, John Overholt, Martha Hood, Marc Beyer

The Necessity of Trans Joy

I. A Note About Audience

I think often about Charlie Jane Anders’s magnificent and heartbreaking story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue.” As I read it, one of the story’s goals is to help cis people (that is, people whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) understand something essential about trans experiences. It explores the horrors of being forced into a body that isn’t yours and makes an abstraction (“trans people often feel like they’ve been born in the wrong body”) into something emotionally real, something vivid.

The work of making trans experiences legible to cis people is essential. But there’s other essential work that is less frequently discussed. Often, trans folks are writing for ourselves, or to each other. In those stories, cis readers are being invited to listen in on a conversation: it’s an invitation that shows respect. In return, it asks one to sit with discomfort and recognize that trans people need to be able to make art whose primary audience isn’t cis people.

 

That’s what I’m asking of cis readers as I write to my fellow trans folks.

 

II. Seeking Trans Joy

My dear fellow trans writers, I’m not here to tell you what to write, read, or think. Rather, I want to share with you what’s helped me through these bleak times, and see if it resonates with you. I crave stories of trans joy.[1]

I want stories like Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Heart’s Cartography,” which breaks and rebuilds me every time I read it. Jade, a trans girl who is isolated and lacking support, meets a time-traveler whose friendship offers a glimpse into the future. In another author’s hands this tale might be straightforward escapism, but in Bigelow’s it becomes something much more. “We survive,” Jade writes in her diary, a realization that is simple, heartbreaking, and deeply joyful. Like Jade, we—survivors, every one of us—get to decide what to make of that survival.

I want stories like R. B. Lemberg’s novella The Four Profound Weaves, a multiple award nominee. It’s the tale of two trans elders, each of whom have spent their lives feeling trapped by external forces, who find in themselves and in each other precisely what they need to face down an authoritarian threat. As the story unfolds, it shows us that no one is too old to transition or to find meaning in their life. Lemberg’s novella further insists on two truths: we rely on each other, and each of us is essential.

I want stories like Emma Osborne’s “Don’t Pack Hope,” where the horror of a zombie apocalypse mirrors the trauma of the transmasculine protagonist’s past. While that sounds like a depressing tale, it unfurls into something gorgeous and hopeful. It vividly reveals that not only can we survive apocalypses, we can thrive in spite of them. When we consider what we’ve already endured, the apocalypse feels manageable.

I want stories like Xander M. Odell’s “Ink,” which follows a trans tattoo artist who magically helps ease the transitions of other trans folks in ways he was never able to experience. It’s a story that knows both the joy of transition and the weight previous generations of trans people have borne to hold space for us. It tells us that the work of trans liberation has been done by many who came before us, and will be done by those who come after us. Our task is not to finish the work, but to continue it.

As Laura Jane Grace sang, “we can be the bands we want to hear,” and since I want to read about trans joy, I’m also writing about it. No one would mistake my work for being overly cheery, but I believe we can find trans joy even in the midst of terrible circumstances. It’s a subject I return to often in my fiction, such as in my story “Five Reasons for the Sign Above Her Door, One of Them Unspoken,” where a metaphorical trans community finds space for mutual protection and support in the face of bigotry and violence.

 

III. We Need Not Look Away

In calling for stories of trans joy, I’m not asking that we be naive or ignore the horrors we’re facing. (If you’re cis and you don’t know what I mean, I implore you to read more trans authors and listen to more trans voices, because things are pretty terrible right now for trans folks.) One thing I love about the stories I’ve mentioned is that they are stories in which characters find joy despite terrible circumstances, despite pain, loss, and trauma.

These are tales that insist on facing the horrors of the world and finding joy despite them. I come back to them, and to stories like them, to remind me of a truth: despite everything, despite the fascists and the transphobes and the cis “allies” who ignore or turn on us when we needed them, despite all that and more, our lives are brimming with joy. We find it by being our true selves, in trans communities, in love, and in art.

 

IV. We Can Thrive

The world remains deeply hostile to trans people. As I write this, a hospital is under a bomb threat made because it has dared to provide gender-affirming health care to trans folks. Our suffering is real and worth writing about, but it is not, and must not be, the only story we tell. The narrative of unalloyed trans pain may be comfortable for many cis readers, since it often invokes pity while still framing us as desperate, doomed characters in other people’s stories.

Allow me to say, with all the tact I can muster, fuck that. We deserve stories as rich and varied as the stories about cis people. We need stories like “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” and stories of joy. When we write trans tragedies, they’ll be the tragedies we need to tell, ones that center us, that help us make meaning of this transphobic world. And we won’t limit ourselves. We’ll write comedies, romances, erotica, weird tales, thrilling space adventures, and stories of triumph.

Even in our worst times, we will find joy. We’ve always found ways to have it and we’ll keep doing so. And when those joys seem impossibly far away, fiction can help us hold on.

 

1 Not all the authors I mention here identify as trans. I mention these stories as personal touchstones.

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