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Your Eyes, My Beacon: Being an Account of Several Misadventures and How I Found My Way Home

She is light. Until she is not, and the lighthouse goes dark as the waves crash against the cliffside, the rocks at its foot jutting and jagged, a peril to even the most skilled navigators’ ships.

“Fuck me,” I swear at the sudden black spot in my vision.

The lighthouse, which burned so bright not half a second ago, was gone. Nothing left but the burning after-image against the black night.

I run for a lantern, just like everyone else. Make the whole ship into a bloody torch, if we have to. We can’t well get through the Strait of Splintered Masts blind.

The captain screams something but goddess knows I can’t make out a single blessed word she’s saying. Iouni grabs me by the collar as I run past her—the lantern swinging from her upraised hand highlights her stern glare and soft cheeks. She’s got this look of confusion on her face and I want to say there’s not a bit of disdain because we’ve been the best of mates as I learned the ropes, but that would be a lie and her mouth is already twisting when the ship shudders beneath our feet.

We both look down. Then the ship bucks again, properly, like an unbroken horse, and I’m airborne, Iouni looking at me with her mouth in a round “O” of surprise.

Too late, she reaches for me. Too late.

Iouni’s palm, flat and wide and too slow as I sail over the rail and hit the water with a deafening splash.

I have only two coherent thoughts in the frigid darkness:

Do not get hit by the ship.

Where did the light go?

The lighthouse keeper finds the ragged sailor in the morning, caught in the stone teeth at the base of the lighthouse cliff. The change of season chills the air. She hopes this will be the last ship that braves the strait this year. For now, though, the sea is calm and bears no guilt for the unconscious woman’s fate. The guilt belongs to the lighthouse keeper alone.

I wake up in agony, and I’m so goddess-damned cold my teeth are chattering before I even realize I’m conscious.

Before I realize someone’s got my arm in their grip. My arm is numb and their touch doesn’t feel like aught else but a vague probe on some fleshy limb. Still, the pulling scrapes my ribs against cold rock and I protest through my half-frozen lips. That keening sound is me.

The pulling stops.

A face appears above me, golden in the dawn light. Wide dark eyes, short curls across her forehead, dampened by the spray. Mouth parted—no, speaking. All I hear, though, is the lapping of the ocean against my legs, against the rocks beneath me.

The goddess? I’ve heard that she can take whatever shape she likes, but why would she come to me? Unless I’m dead.

I try to pass out again.

A sharp slap stings my cheek and my eyes shoot open.

The goddess is angry. She’s still talking at me.

Slowly, the words begin to make sense.

“I can’t carry you up alone. Can you walk? Can you move at all?”

Surely a goddess could carry me?

So I take stock. Hard to point out a single injury when you feel bow to stern as if you’ve been keel-hauled.

My ship.

I don’t realize I’ve said the words aloud until the goddess answers me, her face pained.

“The ship is gone, friend. I don’t know how far she could’ve gotten.”

And what can I say to that? Not a bloody thing.

She stands split-legged and sure above me, one foot on each rock as she pulls me up. Her hands are rough and strong and too warm for the brisk air.

With her help, I wedge myself from the rocks and when we reach the narrow strip of pebbles you might generously call the beach, she chuffs some heat back into my legs until I can feel them enough to walk.

Even then, the way is rough and slow because I am rough and slow. My ribs scream against every breath and I hold one arm close to my body to balance. My eye is swollen shut.

All in all, I’m a misery and feeling bloody fucking sorry for myself.

“Just leave me here, come back in an hour?” I say, wincing and light-headed.

She stops, considering. Then she looks up at the sky. Like she tastes something in the air. She shakes her head.

I don’t understand, but I’m grateful anyway. I don’t want to be left alone.

The lighthouse keeper attempts to doze but can’t help but watch the stranger sleep on the single bed in the corner. She sips her tea, instead, willing its bitter herbs to restore the flame within her. In the hearth, the fire burns warm, burns easily. The lighthouse keeper has never lit the fire before, partly because it hasn’t yet been the season; not under her tenure here. Partly, though, because she does not think she will need it, no matter what weather the wind blows down from the mountains.

The stranger’s injuries are extensive but not threatening. What the keeper cannot stitch, time will heal. She tends them out of guilt.

Also, she is not upset at the prospect of company when the wind blows in. There are other chills to keep away.

The stranger stirs.

I wake to warmth. Heavy blankets and the crackle of fire. The goddess’s voice, rougher than I remember, and scratchy as if from silence.

“How do you feel?”

The goddess is a lighthouse keeper, sitting in a chair across the small room. There’s a book on the table, a sturdy clay mug in her hand, resting on her thigh. She tilts her head back against the wall and looks down her long, sharp nose at me.

I work my tongue around my mouth, test my jaw. It’s stiff, swollen but hurts no more than the time Iouni “accidentally” elbowed me in the face hauling lines.

“Can’t say I’ve been worse,” I test. I sound like a crushed frog soaked in beer.

The lighthouse keeper smiles. It makes me bold.

“What happened?”

“You fell from your ship, as far as I can guess. I found you wedged in the rocks. I carried you here. Put you in bed.” She speaks slow to me, like I’m someone with a bloody awful head injury she’s just realized is worse than she thought.

My thoughts are clear enough, though. I remember all of that. I remember why my ship ran aground.

“No,” I say. “The light. It went out.”

The other woman looks askance at the cup in her hand.

“I…was sick. I—the flame went out.” She doesn’t look at me as she says it. Ashamed-like, and why not? What kind of lighthouse keeper lets their flame go out when who the hells knows what sailors are depending on you? It’s the whole job.

“How?” I ask. Her head jerks up at the judgement I can’t quite hide.

“It doesn’t matter,” she snaps. “Anyway, I saved you.”

I bite my tongue on any other retort.

“Aye. Thanks.” I clear my own throat, sheepish-like.  “I saw a road. That’s the way to town?”

“Aye. A five-day journey. I doubt you’ll make it before the first snows come down and the route is notoriously hazardous even in a good season, let alone in winter.”

“Can you spare some supplies? Bet I could make it—” I push myself up, but a catch in my ribs rips a gasp from my lungs.

She raises an eyebrow at me but least she has the decency not to laugh. Then she says, “Can you get up for breakfast, then, too, or shall I bring it to you?”

She doesn’t laugh with her mouth, but it’s in her eyes and her voice, in the lines of her shoulders as she stands and crosses her arms.

My face heats, but I grin through the embarrassment. “Well, if you’re up anyway…”

She scoffs and disappears. The banging of pots lulls me into a stupor and suddenly she’s kneeling beside me, helping me upright and placing a plate of dried fish and pickled vegetables on my lap. She sets a cup of steaming peppermint tea on the table next to me.

“See how well you get through this,” she says. “Then we’ll see about getting you down the road.”

But the next day brings snow and the lighthouse keeper was right: I can barely sit upright without pain. Every breath is a hitching struggle. I can’t walk like this, let alone carry a pack with food and water.

“I’m sorry,” she says to me when she comes down the stairs from the light tower.

I wonder what it’s like up there. To be able to see the whole strait laid out before you. It must be so clear from that height. I can imagine her watching us, some ship so small, trying to avoid the wrecked ships of centuries and the even more ancient rocks. The Strait of Splintered Masts is the fastest path between the East and West seas, a spit of icy sea separating one side of the world from the other. The lighthouse keeper holds the world in her hands. Does she know that? Probably. It’s a damn heavy weight to carry and not notice.

“It’s…okay,” I say thickly. Even though my eyes are burning hot and I’m clenching my aching jaw tight.

She looks between me and the window. Fat, white flakes drift past.

“You can stay here, of course.”

“Were there…any others?” I ask what I couldn’t ask yesterday. Not while I was still hopeful. Now that I’m about to cry, the answers can’t make me feel any worse.

Even so, I can’t say, “survivors.”

She comes further into the room. Her tea smells sharp and peppery, not like the cup she hands me. I hold it tight in my grip, absorbing its comforting heat. She’s still looking out the window. It faces the ocean, but from the bed, I am too low to see anything but white-gray sky.

“I didn’t see anyone,” she says. “They might have made it to the next town for repairs.” She nods to the door. “The one you want to go to.” She shrugs and drops into the chair at the table. “Or maybe they foundered just past the bend. I don’t know.”

My gaze drops to my hands. I twist the cup around and think of Iouni, laughing at me, laughing with me. I think of Iouni, drowned. I think of Iouni, broken on the same rocks I’d been wedged into. A tear ripples the surface of my tea.

The keeper watches me with deep-set, shadowed eyes. For the first time, I notice how drawn her narrow cheeks are.

“When do you sleep?” I ask.

“Now.”

I blink stupidly. “Where?”

She stares pointedly at me, then down at the nest of woolen blankets I’m wrapped in.

“Oh. Sorry. You could—” I try to budge over, make room to share, but wince again.

She snorts. “I’ll be fine.” She makes us breakfast. Takes her own plate to the table. She doesn’t even bother with her utensils, just picks up a limp green and sucks it listlessly from her fingers.

I swallow down my bite of smoked salmon and cream on the hard flatbread she gave me. “So…how long have you kept the light?”

She turns slowly to me, brow furrowed, as if she’s forgotten I can speak.

“A few months,” she says, stuffing a piece of salmon on a thick cracker into her mouth. Around the mouthful, she says, “Since spring.”

“Oh. Who was it before?”

She smiles ruefully, her cheeks full. With her hand in front of her mouth—she’s proper mannered—she says, “My father. Before that, his mother, and her mother, and her father…” She waves her hand, so on and so on. She nods toward the fireplace. Charcoal sketches of people lining the mantle.

I chuckle. “Family business?”

She doesn’t smile this time. “Something like that.” She taps the last bite of her crackers and salmon on her plate before stuffing it in her mouth.

“You don’t like it?” I’m not totally oblivious to her mood, but I am curious. I want to know who I’m stuck with.

She grumbles. Sounds like, it doesn’t matter if I like it, but I can’t be sure.

“Eh?”

She turns to me and widens her eyes. “It’s exhausting. That’s all.” She pushes aside her plate and then crosses her arms on the table to use as a pillow.

I take the hint and go quiet, burrowing deeper into my stolen bed. It’s smallish, but hells bigger than a ship’s bunk and better than sleeping crooked over a table in a wooden chair.

I clear my throat. The lighthouse keeper jerks her head up and glares at me.

“There’s room here.” I make a show of moving over, smothering the grimace of pain. “Come sleep. Bloody awful of me to put you out like this. You’ve a job to do; better if you’re rested.”

Her eyes drift to the bed hungrily; I’ve seen sailors look at lovers when they reach land with less longing.

Then her eyes meet mine and she cracks a weary smile. “I usually learn a woman’s name before we share a bed.”

Though I hadn’t meant anything by it, I blush. “Sigo. My name’s Sigo. From Khalifren.”

“Sigo.” She rolls my name around in her mouth as she comes closer. It’s not unpleasant. “You’re a long way from home, Sigo from Khalifren.”

“I am. And you?”

The bed shifts beneath her weight as she sits and I fight not to roll into her. The effort hurts.

“I grew up nearby.” She kicks off her boots.

“And your name?”

“Audei.”

“Audei.” I stretch out syllables—a sound of pain followed by the breaking dawn. It feels as good in my mouth as hearing my name in hers. “Thank you for saving me, Audei.”

She snorts again and curls into the bed, her back turned to me. “Goodnight, Sigo.”

The stranger stiffens beside her, but Audei is warm and horizontal and on a soft pallet, so she is unconscious before she can think much of it. Sigo is still “the stranger” for days longer, while she recovers, or sometimes, “the sailor,” until Audei asks her what her heading was, and Sigo evades the question—so Audei begins to think of her as “the pirate.” Still, the pirate is warm against Audei’s back. Warm as the nights and days both grow colder. Audei finds that she goes to sleep later in the morning and wakes up earlier in the evening to talk to the pirate. The sailor. The stranger. Sigo.

Audei also dodges questions: Sigo’s questions about the heart of the lighthouse. The questions that Sigo doesn’t know are about her.

The days pass, blending into one another like they do at sea.  When I can walk and bend down without crying out, I find the small galley, and make breakfast for us. The first time Audei trudges, bleary-eyed down the stairs and finds fish and hard bread smeared with the cream she likes, her eyebrows shoot up into her dark curls. Her hair is thick and short, but tousled as if she’s been running her hands through it. We sit on the bed together and eat.

“You don’t have to do this,” she says.

“I want to.” I do. I want to help. “If you teach me, I can even take shifts upstairs—”

“No.” Audei says sharp-like.

I pull back. She’s like a bloody cat with its back arched, flashing eyes and ready claws, tense and tight.

“Fine. Sorry,” I mumble into my meal. “I just thought if I’m going to be here for a while, I could be useful.”

“It’s not that.”

Audei stares at her food for a long while, long enough for me to finish mine. I get up to leave her the bed. There’s a pack of playing cards on the table and not much else for me to do.

“Look.” Audei puts a hand on my arm, holding me in place as surely as if she’d grabbed me. “I can use the help. There are other things—like the garden, and maybe some repairs on the building?”

I nod down at her, at the place where she touches my skin. Her hands are hot—all of her is, really. I have to toss away half the blankets anytime our sleep overlaps.

Audei points out a couple of spots on the roof where shingles have fallen. Shows me the garden, where kale and cabbage grow and leeks poke from the soil. Two seagulls stand on the fence and stare at us with beady black eyes.

“Half of it’s ready to eat now, but I thought to wait a day or two,” she tells me.

I’m not listening. Down off the cliff and into the strait are the rocks that took my ship from me. The rocks that saved me. I run my hand along my ribs and they still ache.

I turn from the sea to watch her back as she returns inside to sleep.

The slump of exhaustion in her shoulders goes away as the days pass, the bags beneath her eyes shrink. I enjoy her company. I enjoy the way her eyes linger on me when she thinks I’m not looking. Be lying if I didn’t admit that my gaze lingers, too. She’s taller than me by a hair, her muscles are lean and ropey. She looks bony until her muscles flex as she pulls herself up a ladder.

She never lets me join her in the lighthouse.

Audei does not like the way Sigo looks at her.

She doesn’t like it because it is careful and caring and curious.

Audei doesn’t like the way Sigo looks at her because she likes it too much.

When Audei took up her post, she girded herself for loneliness. For solitude. She convinced herself that she loved it. That it brought her peace. Sigo makes her question that certainty, and Sigo will leave Audei in the spring.

Sigo will leave in the spring and she asks too many questions.

Audei is hiding something about the light, and I want to know what. If I were a better person, I’d respect the boundary she put up—she doesn’t tell me, she keeps me out, it’s not my business. If I were a better person, though, I’d have never left home. And the longer I’m here, the stranger it is not to know.

After a month of wondering, I give in. I crawl into bed with my tea and one of the old salt-stained books she has in the house, like I usually do after we share a meal—my dinner, her breakfast—and a hand of cards. I’ve scandalized her with every cheat I know, and the appalled shock on her face that disintegrates into laughter when she finds out how I won—well, maybe I like that, too.

How will her face look if she catches me tonight?

I wait until it’s full dark; it’s not long. The days are shorter now, the nights long. Maybe a part of me—misses her? Maybe that’s it. I am lonely, and so I break her trust. Right shitty. Still and all, I pick my way up the path worn into the dirt between the house and the lighthouse tower. The darkness is lit up by the light Audei keeps. It flashes in time with my steps—or maybe it’s me, matching my steps to her light.

The door groans open and I pause, waiting for her to shout down at me—but it’s surprisingly dark inside the base of the tower. The heart is closed off. Then the light pulses again and as it illuminates the night, it brightens the tower, too. I fumble for the shadow of the railing and head up the tight spiral staircase, wary of creaking wood.

My legs burn and my breathing is heavy by the time I reach the top. Now that I’m here, I don’t know what I expected to do, to see. The door is like a floor hatch, only above me. No window, and the gaps in the door aren’t big enough for me to see beyond. I consider knocking, startling her into acknowledging that I’m here, into opening the door and letting me in, but even I am not so cruel. And I don’t think I could bear it if she hated me after.

I turn to go back to the house when I hear her.

A moan. Loud and wrenching, caught somewhere between pleasure and pain—and at first, I’m embarrassed. I wonder if she’s—and I mean, who could blame her? The nights are long, and I have, too, when she’s gone. The thought flushes me with a different kind of heat.

Then another moan rips through the room, and it’s pain, it’s definitely pain, and it’s followed by an unmistakable sob.

My guts clench up tight, and I reach for the handle of the hatch—but then I imagine Audei’s face. A rictus of pain turning into anger when she sees me.

Silently, I backtrack.

She is light, she is light, she is light, she is light.

I don’t follow her every night, but many nights. I sit below the door, watch the light pulse like a heartbeat. I pretend I’m keeping her company through the long night, even though it’s just my own loneliness I’m fighting.

Tonight, I wake with a jerk against the door to the heart of the lighthouse. Groggy, I look for what woke me, expecting Audei above me, glaring. She’s not. Then I realize what’s wrong: the beating warmth that lulls me to sleep has gone dark. First, I think I’ve overslept, but the windows in the stairwell are still black with night. I push myself back to my feet, just in case Audei comes out. As I sneak back down the stairs, though, the light beneath the door flickers on again. Not a steady rhythm, more like a guttering candle in the wind, fighting to stay lit.

Something’s wrong.

I climb back up, thinking again about knocking, about breaking the last thin wall of privacy she has. I don’t. But I wait. I stay awake and wait until I know in my bones dawn has come.

Try to stay awake, at least. I don’t know I’ve failed ’til the door inches open and she’s standing there, a dark shadow silhouetted against the sunlight coming in from the window. I don’t have a chance to scramble to my feet, I’m still flinching away from the sudden bright—but she doesn’t even notice me.

Audei stumbles past me, gripping the railing desperately. Her hair is damp with sweat against her forehead, her skin too pale—her eyes are barely open.

Let her go, I think.  Pretend you were outside. She won’t know.

I can’t leave her like this, though.

Then Audei’s eyes roll up into the back of her head mid-step.

It’s like the gods have given me the gift of time: first it slows. Her hand goes slack on the rail. Her knees buckle. Then I can see the future: Audei halfway down the stairs, curled against the wall, her neck at an impossible angle. I cannot bear it.

“Audei!” I cry, lunging for her.

I catch her around the waist, but my haste and her momentum carry me down the stairs anyway—my heel slips from beneath me and I slide down half a flight on my back, Audei unconscious on my chest.

My back screams in pain when I try to stand, so I don’t. I lie there trying not to think of how Audei feels in my arms. How it feels to keep her safe. I can’t tell if she’s hurt, but she’s breathing steady enough. When she blinks her eyes open again, I’m close enough to see that her brown eyes are actually hazel in the sunlight, a circle of yellow-green around her pupil.

“Audei—”

She startles away from me, almost tumbling the rest of the way down the stairs before I catch her by the coat.

It takes her a second before she understands. Then she looks at me accusingly.

“What are you doing here?”

I swallow. “You fell.”

She breaks eye contact and seems to take in the fact that we’re halfway down the stairs. That I’m lying on my back and our legs are tangled.

“Why are you here?”

“I’m sorry.” I close my eyes. There’s nothing I can say to make it better, so I try the truth. Part of it, at least. “You sounded like you were hurt. I didn’t want you to be alone.”

I wait for her to rip into me. To tell me what an idiot I am, to remind me that she deserves to live her life without this stranger she rescued prying into it, but she doesn’t. She only stares at me and somehow, that’s worse.

After a minute, she sighs. “Help me up.”

Both of us wincing, I let her lean on my shoulder down the rest of the stairs and into the house.

It’s not until we’re there that I notice—for once, her skin is cool to the touch.

I let Audei sleep until the light changes. It’ll be dark in less than in hour, and she’ll go back up the tower to do whatever it is that hurts her so bad she can’t walk after.

I stroke Audei’s arm gently with my knuckles until she rouses.

She blinks up at me. “Oh.”

“It’s sunset.”

“Ah.” She looks miserably at the hand of solitaire I’ve spread on the bed.

“Are you…okay?”

“Not really.”

Her honesty surprises me. “But you’re not going to tell me what’s wrong? What happened back there.”

Silence is the only answer she gives me. She’s still in her cable-knit sweater and canvas trousers, and she runs her hand up and down an arm.

I hold my hands up in front of my chest. “It’s okay. Really.” It wasn’t. I hate to see her like this. My helplessness leaks into my tone as anger. “I just—I know it hurts you, sometimes, and I…” I gesture vaguely at the tea I made, and the bed. It’s all I can do, and it feels so small in the face of something that can leave her weaker than a half-drowned kitten. I throw my hands down in frustration.

Audei’s eyes on me are sharp.

“I’m going to tell you something.” So much about her is sharp, even ill as she is. The way she speaks, the way she moves. Her chin, her nose, her bony elbows.

I swallow and sit up, leaving space between us. I pull my knees to my chest like a cricket.

“Swear that you’ll keep this secret.”

“I swear,” I answer without a breath.

Audei works her bottom lip in her mouth. “I…am the light.”

I blink. “What do you mean?”

She shakes her head, tossing her hands. “See? Why bother?”

I grab one of her hands. It’s a normal temperature, now, like my own skin. Still colder than hers should be. I rub it between my own hands. “Explain. I’m listening.”

Staring at our hands, she licks her lips. “The light? Guiding ships through the strait? It’s me. I don’t keep the lighthouse. I keep the light.”

“You mean—it’s inside you? You let it out?”

“No, I mean I am the light. It’s hard to explain. But I am, as all my family was before me, and so I stay here and carry out this duty that’s been passed on from generation to generation.” Weary bitterness creeps into her voice. She’s had this conversation before.

“But you’ll be relieved, right?”

“No.” She nods to the family charcoals above the mantle. “I’m the last of us. My siblings died, one from sickness and another fell off a cliff. My parents never managed another. Then my mother died and my father followed her shortly after. In the spring.” She sighs. “Go ahead. I know you have more questions.”

I do, like why can’t she ask for the lower courts to assign someone else to the post, and I still don’t understand how someone can be the light, but all my selfish curiosity vanishes in the face of her pain, ripped open for me, so matter-of-fact. “You must be lonely.”

“I am. Was.” Her eyes meet mine and something passes between us. We’re caught in a current that I, at least, am too weak to fight. I try anyway.

“There hasn’t been a ship since you came and there won’t be for another month. No one is coming.” Then under her breath, she mutters, “I’m burning myself out for nothing.”

“Rest.”

Deliberately, Audei scoops up the cards I was playing and puts them aside. I’m left looking up into her eyes over my knees. She pushes down one knee, and then the other, until, on her own knees, she straddles my straightened legs.

“Audei…” Her breath is warm on my face.

“Sigo.” She holds herself up with a hand propped on the wall above my head. She caresses my neck with the other, her fingertips warming against my cheek. She traces my brow, then my lips.

I want her to keep going. I want her mouth to follow her fingers. But she stills and she waits.

I don’t. I take her by the waist and surge into her kiss, pulling her onto me.  Let the strait have a lightless night. Let me have her, here.

We melt together like a spilled candle as the sun sinks below the horizon. We break apart just long enough for her to pull off her heavy sweater and the woolen top beneath. Her skin pebbles beneath my fingers as they rove her body.

“What do you want?” I whisper into her ear before tracing my tongue around the shell of it. It makes her gasp and tighten her arms around me. I love it. I want that sound again and again, but she pulls me away by the neck. Her teeth are bared, sharp as the rest of her.

For Audei, desire is straightforward.

She rises on her knees again so her hips are level with my face and hooks a thumb into her trousers, yanking them down just enough to reveal the crease between hip and thigh—enough for me to understand.

Me, though, I do like my tricks—my cheats, my teasing. I undo the buttons on her trousers slowly with my teeth, looking up at her while she bites her lip impatiently, her nails digging into my scalp. When my tongue does find her, her groan is worth the wait.

I find my own heat while my mouth is pressed against her, and together, we cry out our pleasure in the darkness.

It is a pleasure, not to burn.

Audei wakes beside me with a start, gasping and clutching at me like I’m driftwood. It’s still dark out, but I can see the shadow of her heaving chest.

“I’m here. You’re all right.”

“I have to go,” she sobs. She fumbles for her discarded clothing in the mess we’ve made of the bed.

I grab hold of her arm. “Wait, you don’t have to—”

She throws me off. “Yes. I do. If I don’t, who will?” Her voice is choked—with fear or tears or some combination, I can’t tell. “There could already be someone out there—what if it were you?”

The thought gives me pause. What if I were the one out there? What if she’d been out for a fuck the night my ship ran aground?

“You said yourself that no ships come this way now—” I scramble out of the bed and reach for her but she spins away, shrugging back into her sweater.

“It was selfish and stupid and I was tired and wanted to get laid.” She holds out a hand between us. Her fingertips just brushing my bare chest. “Sigo, please. Don’t make this harder than it already is.”

I walk into her hand until her palm is flat against me, and closer until her elbow bends and her arm folds between us. I wrap her in my arms and bury my face in her hair. It smells like sea spray and sex.

“Let me come with you.”

Audei exhales with a shudder against me. “Alright.”

I follow her back up the lighthouse stairs, utterly dark now with neither her light nor the sun through the windows. She pushes open the hatch that leads to the heart and gives me a shy, almost wary look over her shoulder. Then she climbs up.

The room is glass on all sides, an odd glass that warps my own vision. To magnify the light. Her light.

She fixes me with a stern glare. “If I let you stay, you can’t tell anyone what you see. Understand?” Fear in her eyes, behind the fierceness.

“Aye.”

She nods back, a grim set to her chin. “And when I… Go down to the observation level. Make sure—I just have to know no one is down there.” That no one tried and failed to sail past while she wasn’t standing watch, she means.

“Okay.”

It starts with her eyes. They start to glow white-hot like the sun and I step back, almost falling down the open hatch. Then, she’s all over light. I have to cover my eyes.

“The High Court will hunt me like it hunted the other light keepers,” she whispers as she burns. But there’s no fire. No heat beyond her normal too-warm skin.

“My father always called it a gift from the goddess. That she tasked us with guiding sailors through her seas.” Her voice is threaded with strain, or memory, or both. “For all I know, I’m the last of all of us, the other keepers replaced by common wood and glass tricks.”

I’ve heard stories of how the High Court has no love for those blessed by goddess with gifts of ice or flood, so I’m not surprised they’d try to snuff out a gift of light, too.

Audei grunts as if she’s been punched.

“Audei—” I glance up in the moment of dark as she begins to pulse, but the light comes back too quickly and I wince away again.

“I’m fine. Go make sure.”

I climb down, slamming the hatch closed above me.

There are no ships and no bodies in the water below.

So the lighthouse keeper and her guest pass the rest of the winter: Sigo repairs the house and tends the garden during the day; Audei burns through the night; and they laugh and talk and make love in the blush of dawn, the afterglow of twilight.

Then one night, Audei hears it: the first ship passing through the strait, and then the second. Sigo confirms from the observation deck.

Audei will be alone again, soon.

“I’m not hungry,” Audei snaps.

“You have to eat something, you’ll exhaust yourself—”

“I eat enough. I just need to sleep, if you’d let me.”

Her words sting like rope burn. I get up from the bed. “Fine.” I leave, and when I look back, her lip trembles as she stares at the blanket.

I spend the day walking the cliffside path. Spring is here, however brisk. I remember that I don’t belong here. That all of this, the land, the light, the woman—it was all supposed to be temporary. The warmth in the air does set my heart racing. An itch to roam.

I come in when the sun starts to dip toward the horizon, and Audei is awake again. She’s dressed and holds a cup of her tea as stares at the charcoal drawings of her family above the fireplace. She casts me a wary glance when I come in.

“Sigo.”

“Audei.”

She faces me but stares into her cup, like she’s building up to an apology or confession. For a wild moment, I think she’s going to tell me to leave, and my heart leaps into my throat.

“I…need a favor,” Audei says, as if it’s the greatest defeat. She won’t meet my eye, even when I come close, hold her by the elbows, and say, “Anything. What?”

She shakes the cup in her hands. The bitter scent wafts up.

“I thought I had another bag. I don’t. I’m almost out. It’s the only thing that keeps me…” She shrugs.

Keeps her burning. Keeps the fire from burning her out. She doesn’t need to finish.

“Tell me what I need to know.”

The lighthouse keeper is alone in the house for the first time in months. For the first time, the creak of the door cannot possibly be the woman who shared her life for a brief season. The sudden crush of loneliness is too much to bear; but there is also hope and patience. Sigo will come back soon. She will come back, and Audei will ask her to stay.

The road feels good under my feet. The path is narrow, overlooked by a sheer rise on one side and a steep drop on the other. I navigate over fallen trees and the remnants of a mudslide. The five-day journey takes seven.

When I do finally arrive, there are so many people that I’m torn between running to hide behind a building or running up to the first person I see. I pull a deep breath and push it out. I smell a million things that aren’t dried fish or smoked fish or pickled vegetables or sea spray or Audei’s skin.

I gawk my way to the apothecary where Audei said I could find the herb she needed; he knows her and her family, keeps it in stock for them. But when I go inside and tell him what I need, he shakes his head, his white eyebrows low on a sagging brow.

“Tell her I’m sorry. The snows were bad up the mountain this year. Lost two of the boys we sent up. Didn’t make sense to send more. It’ll be at least a month, and that’s if I can find someone to go up.”

A month. I think back to the half-empty little bag in our—her—small kitchen. We’d gone through several over winter. How fast would she go through what was left? What would happen if it ran out?

“Sorry,” he says again.

“Thanks.” I stumble back, feeling disoriented.

“Who are you, anyway? I know everyone round here. Not been time for anyone to make it up the road, and you wasn’t on that ship what washed in a few months ago.”

I straighten. “What ship?”

“Ah, it’s gone now, long gone. Just meant some stragglers. Been holed up here waiting for the next ship to stop—”

Stragglers. The next ship.

I’m out the door before he can finish his thought. I hoist my pack higher on my shoulders and stride for the harbor. A ship. Of course. I’ve watched them pass by daylight and by Audei’s light.

And there she is. Not my ship, not any ship I know, but a ship. I could be back on the sea again, back with a crew. I can make my way back home to Khalifren. It’s like a cage I’d forgotten I was in suddenly sprang open.

“Sigo?” An incredulous voice says my name and I turn, just as baffled.

It’s Iouni. She’s worse for wear, with a scar cutting across her cheek and lower lip. She looks meaner than ever and I clasp her in a hug.

“You fucking bastard, how are you?” I say, hands on the side of her head while she holds my shoulders.

She rakes me up and down with her eyes. “Better than you, I’d say. You been living in the goddess-damned woods or what?”

For the first time, I think about what I look like from someone else’s eyes. How I must have changed. I’m thinner than I was before and I wear one of Audei’s baggy sweaters. Still and all, I fill it out more than she ever has.

“Close. The lighthouse.”

“The lighthouse?” Iouni repeats, considering. I wonder how much the rest of the village knows about Audei and her family. Iouni shakes it off, though, and steers me away from the ships and into a tiny public house.

“Sounds like we got a lot to catch up on before we set sail. Have a drink, eh?”

“Set sail?” I repeat like a mimic bird.

“Aye. Tomorrow morning with the tide.” Iouni blinks in confusion. “That’s not why you’re here? Get out of this tiny little shithole?” She lowers her voice and smirks. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re nice and all, but if I wanted to see the same ten people for the rest of my life, I wouldna hopped a ship in the first place, eh?”

“I…”

“You know they don’t stop here often, the ships. Harbor’s too small, no market for anything. They only stop if something goes wrong. Might be months before another one actually puts in.” Iouni sucks her teeth. “Less than a piss stop, this town.”

I think back to Audei, waiting for a medicine I can’t even bring her. There’s no time to go back, to say goodbye. I think of the one night she slept in my arms, of her single-minded focus and devotion. There’s no room for me in that.

She made room for you, a judgmental voice says in my head. At dawn and dusk, you were hers and she was yours.

It’s not enough. I want more, and I want more than just her on our—her—cliff and the lighthouse.

I’ve left more than her behind me. I can do it again.

“I’ll come.” I wish that I’m not so easily infected by Iouni’s boisterous excitement, but I grin. I’ll send a letter back through the apothecary. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Ha!” Iouni claps my shoulder. “We’ll have you back in Khalifren in no time. Just a few stops on the way for some fun, eh?”

Audei waits longer than she should with twin coals of hate and hope burning in her chest. Hate for Sigo, whom she knows won’t return. Hope that she is wrong.

Sigo sails the world. She stops in port after port, city after city. Meanwhile, Audei burns.

Sigo loses herself in the arms of eager women and rides the storm-swells of the ocean. Meanwhile, Audei burns.

Audei burns and burns and burns until she cannot, and both hate and hope go cold.

The wind is cold with the first blush of autumn when I hear the first rumors in a public house.

The lighthouse at the strait, did you hear? It’s gone out.

Aye, no one’s passed through safe for weeks. Splintered masts and broken hulls. Bloody graveyard.

High Court hasn’t assigned a new lighthouse keeper yet? Gotta be just a matter of time—

I heard they did, but the poor bastard went on the run. Fate worse than death, that lighthouse.

Cursed by the goddess, I hear.

I grab Iouni’s arm.

“Eh?” She frowns at me.

“Audei.” I breathe.

After a long moment, she grunts. “Your lighthouse keeper.”

Mine. Yes. And I had abandoned her.

All this time, whenever I worked alongside my crewmates, I thought of the way Audei and I worked together, sometimes only in passing, as I came in with my tools and she climbed up to the tower. The moments we shared in the bed in the half-light. Keeping watch from the observation deck while she lit the night. Carrying her back down in the morning.

Everything I have now feels hollow. What I thought I wanted. I roam free as a gull, aye, but there’s no joy in it—I list, without a heading.

I think, too, of the lighthouses I’ve sailed past. How many of them were once lit by light keepers, instead of lighthouse keepers? How many have the High Court taken?

“I have to go back,” I whisper.

Iouni looks at me like I’ve sprouted tentacles. “You’ll never find a ship to take you now.”

But I do. Slowly, jumping from one ship to another, I make my way back north until I’m back in the little harbor town. I learn it’s called Makeway. Fitting.

I don’t bother to find a room and drop my bags. I run as fast as I can to the apothecary.

“You?” He smiles, showing a missing tooth. “Thought you’d left with the other stragglers.”

“I did. I’m back.” Before he can interrupt with pleasantries I don’t care about, I ask breathlessly, “Why haven’t you sent the lighthouse keeper more tea?”

He leans back, puffing his mustache out and shaking his head, not sad and slow like before but like I don’t understand.

“Last I sent someone to check on her, the keeper sent the poor lad back running. Fair blistered his ears. Said don’t send anyone back if they ain’t got fire-starter. And we ain’t got it. I told you, I can’t make someone go up there.”

“Why can’t you?”

“Look around, friend.” He waves his hand toward the town beyond his door. “Makeway ain’t exactly crawling with youth. Surely you noticed? Even you couldn’t wait to get out.”

I have no answer for that, just my frustrated exhalation through my nose. The apothecary blows his breath out through his cheeks again. This time, it’s the slow, sad headshake.

“Yours is the first ship to come up this way with any decent supplies in months. I had to send to the High Court again. If the keeper can’t do her job properly—”

“She can’t do her job properly because you won’t help her!” I finally snap. “She can’t do it on her own!”

The apothecary’s surprised silence lets the words echo in my head. You made her do this on her own. You have to fix this.

“How long will it take the Court to send someone?” I drop my bags to the ground. I’m already looking through them to see what I can sell in exchange for food, what I can leave behind, what I should carry on the journey.

The man shrugs and huffs again. “If they think we’re worth the trouble, could be a couple of weeks before they’re here. I wrote them—”

I cut him off. The High Court might not give a shit about Makeway, but Audei’s lighthouse is causing more trouble than a hungry piss-stop village. The scuttlebutt said that much. Two weeks isn’t much time. “How do I get up there? What’s it look like?”

“You’re not—”

“I’ll go. Tell me where.”

I leave him with another letter.

I find the first corpse before I even reach the start of the climb. He’s half buried in leaf litter on the forest floor—I think, and then I realize there’s only half of him left, the other half eaten. I vomit noisily, holding myself up on a tree trunk.

I can’t face Audei empty-handed. I hike on, wary, trying to be light on my feet in case I have to escape some beast.

The second corpse is on the mountain, whole and only just starting to rot, but with a ghastly gray tinge. I wonder if he was lost in the winter and froze. A closer look and I see the rope belted around his waist. It’s not connected to anything. I look for the climber’s rings the apothecary said I would find and—there’s the other end of the rope, blowing in the wind like a vine.

But I’m a sailor. Ropes are my business.

The stone is cold beneath my fingers. They’re shaking and turning blue already, but I couldn’t afford gloves. When the wind blows and I cling to the rock, praying not to fall, I think of riding the rigging over the ocean’s waves. I tie a new knot with the fresh rope as often as I can; the last climber’s body is too vivid in my memory.

It takes the better part of the day and I’m nowhere near the top when the sun begins to set. I look west, for the lighthouse, but there’s nothing. What if I’m too late? Audei never explained what would happen—would she just lose her fire? Or worse? I push on. And if the Court’s people get there before me—even if they don’t find out she is the light, I know enough about the High Court’s justice that I don’t want Audei to face it.

Then I see it, sprouting from the mountain’s cracks in clusters the size of my head, its leaves green, flame-shaped and tipped in red. He said the locals call them fire-starters, said they make you horny, but I don’t think anyone but he and I know what Audei uses them for.

I dig my boots into the rocky wall and reach for the nearest clump. It sticks, roots clinging fast, but I yank and the plant comes free. The effort makes me sway on my rope and my stomach lurches but I press close to the cold stone and slow my heart.

Eventually, it beats in a rhythm I recognize: the steady throb of the light that’s gone.

Audei needs me. I won’t let her down again.

I inch left and right to collect as much as I can, pausing only to eat more of my food and make more room.

Maybe I get careless, maybe I get too cocksure. It’s one last reach, one stretch of my fingertips that makes me slip.

Oh, goddess, no. Not now. I don’t know if the goddess of the ocean can hear me halfway up a mountain.

Freefall. Wind rushes past my ears, my stomach lodges in my throat—

Oh gods, oh goddess—

The rope snaps taut.

I bang against the wall once, twice, until I catch myself with stiff fingers on the stone.

With a shaking hand, I reach for my pack. Still there. Still full. And through the swelling on my face, I smile. Then I start to sob.

Days down the mountainside. Days more up the narrow road to the cliffside cottage and its burning tower. The tower that’s not burning, leaving me only starlight and glowing gibbous moon to find my footing.

My body is at its breaking point but I push harder, up that last stupid fucking hill, the one that started it all.

I open the door, but Audei isn’t in the house, even though the light in the tower is out.

Shit. What if she—or what if the Court’s people have already—I don’t let myself finish the thoughts. I throw the bag of fire-starter to the ground and race up the tower, shouting.

“Audei! Audei!”

The tower is dark, but I know the stairs by heart. I race up, ignoring the hot protests of my muscles. I climb through the hatch.

She’s curled up in a ball, trying even now to light the room—her faint glow comes in spurts.

“Audei,” I breathe. I sink to my knees and pull her into me. She’s cold as that half-frozen corpse.

Audei uncurls in my arms just enough to look at me, brow furrowed. “Sigo?”

“Aye. It’s me.”

“Fuck you.” For a second, she flares brighter.

I’m hopeful. “I never should’ve left.”

Another flare of light, enough to make me squint. “Should have stayed gone,” she says faintly, hitting her fist against my chest. There’s no strength in it, though. “I don’t need you.”

I laugh. “Then who’d bring you your fire-starter?”

“You—” Her eyes clear. “You brought it from town?”

“I climbed for it.”

“You climbed?”

“I’m so sorry, Audei.”

My throat is too thick to ask for what I want but I don’t have to.

Audei pulls me to her by the neck and when our lips meet, I shut my eyes against a blaze as bright as the sun.

They are light. They are light, together, they are light.

 

(Editors’ Note:  “Your Eyes, My Beacon: Being an Account of Several Misadventures and How I Found My Way Home” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 46A.)

The Suffering Body Problem

As a millennial, what was I to do when I got COVID but announce it on the internet?

I was miserably ill with the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus. I ran the typical fever, had the characteristic fatigue and the long cough. I had not been so sick in decades. I felt the sapping of my energy—physical and mental—so keenly that I legitimately worried about my ability to rise from the bathtub once I got down into it. I languished. I had no doubt in my mind that if I had caught this strain of this deadly plague without the benefit of having been vaccinated that the infection would have threatened my life.

Naturally I told the internet. I could see no one—my partner and I quarantined absolutely the second we realized what we probably had. I had been largely locked in my house for a year and a half already, and I had gotten infected the moment I’d broken that lockdown. I was lonesome for company, craving the extrovert’s perfect drug, and frustrated as an artist who lives to eavesdrop and people watch. All I had was the internet. I told the story of my symptoms and my discomfort, my misery, and my gratitude that it was not worse.

Unexpectedly, friends in the SF/F community reached out to share not just solidarity but real advice. When I worried in the open about long COVID and my (still ongoing but much diminished) parosmia, I got a DM from S.B. Divya, a talented author and early COVID sufferer. Divya has been open about her infection and its long-term consequences, but I hadn’t read the story yet. She reached out and explained how it had been for her, offering her sympathy and an opportunity to talk. I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

My friend and fellow genre writer Effie Seiberg also wrote fearlessly about her experience with myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), which is an autoimmune disorder that has been triggered for some people following COVID or other viral infection. Seiberg has been generous in this conversation, enduring the projections of people who live in fear of living as she does, advocating for herself and people like her while also recommending that folks do everything they can to avoid catching COVID.

Thus armed with the compassionate nonfiction of my friends, I returned to my endless unrefreshing COVID sleeps and tried to force my brain to read fiction. I gave up on trying to get it to make fiction in the early days, but I was lucky enough that I could keep reading.

I wanted to read about disease and suffering, but the great COVID novels are still slouching toward New York, ready for their time to come around. I thought of old and new favorites: of Stephen King’s plague opus The Stand with its 1970s style reliance on institutions and the American-do spirit that sees town hall democracy standing watch against demonic powers and small-town politics alike. In all its hundreds of thousands of words, The Stand has the room it needs to describe a respiratory illness turned deadly, featuring first-person suffering of breathlessness, mucus production, and the delirium of fever between the boiling of a brain and the comprehension that evil walks the world in cowboy boots.

I turned back to Scalzi’s Lock In because we were all locked in, weren’t we? Not like the people in his novel who suffer from Haden’s syndrome and cope with their comatose consciousness by walking around in AI-integrated robotic transport bodies. Scalzi shows us the body in the sickbed, needing care but nearly forgotten, even by its owner, for the crime of becoming moveless. However, as COVID dragged me through a third week of breathless exhaustion, I would have said an enthusiastic goodbye to my suffering body and yes to such a device.

Plague and zombie novels are as common as table salt. More difficult to find were the stories told from inside the suffering body. Even inside the fog of desperation, I could not help but think like a writer—why is it so hard to tell people how it feels? Is it that suffering is too universal, to repetitive, too inane to be compelling? I searched for proof that that wasn’t the case, and I found it.

I returned to Nicola Griffith’s 1992 debut novel Ammonite, winner of the Lambda and Otherwise awards that year, for her particular view of suffering. Marghe, Griffith’s linguist and explorer, intentionally allows herself to get infected with an alien virus in order the comprehend it and become one with the people who suffer from it. Marghe’s decision leads her to deeper understanding of gender, as this is a sex-linked plague, and to a trance state that allows her to adjust the conditions necessary for conception on a world without men. Ammonite makes suffering into something useful, something meaningful, rather than just a difficulty to be endured.

I took Sarah Gailey’s advice about meeting what I needed in a short story and read “Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia (translated by Ken Liu). I followed a girl who cared for her aging grandfather as he recovered from surgery, reading the careful and caring way Xia describes the suffering of the body as it is compounded by age and eased by the love of those close to us. I delighted in Rachael K. Jones’ “Six Fictions About Unicorns,” especially the way she juxtaposes the everyday expense and suffering of a disease like diabetes with the wonders that a magically gifted animal can and cannot perform. Scrolling in the middle of a sleepless, delirious night, I stumbled across a letter by novelist Frances Burney to her sister about her experience undergoing a mastectomy—a process that by 1811 could be completed successfully and leave her to tell the tale, but was as yet administered without the benefit of anesthesia. I found “Desire” by Kiini Ibura Salaam, an indulgently beautiful story that mixes the heavily erotic and sensual with suffering, where the god of disease pursues even as we enjoy the prime use of our bodies. I felt that in my bones—the endless forest fire of desire never surrendering, even when sickness seems it will never abate.

Since S.B. Divya had been my tour guide as I began my descent into COVID’s dank basement, I riffled through her published works and found “Microbiota and the Masses: a Love Story,” a prescient 2017 story about what we are willing to brave the risk of infection for, how we regard the thrill of exposure to both love and disease. Divya is that rare kind of writer whose prose is delicate and accurate, who doesn’t flinch from the reality that a character trades a night on the toilet for an evening of heady romance; a quality I find admirable beyond words. Someone reminded me of Nisi Shawl’s “The Things I Miss the Most,” from Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and I howled at the sense of loss and suffering only increased by a dubious cure that does not consider the whole person who has gained something valuable from how they have learned to live. C.L. Clark writes excruciatingly about the suffering that is essential and inescapable in what the body must do, what it must be made to do in “You Perfect, Broken Thing.” I read John Wiswell’s “We Are Not Phoenixes” about how the tone and focus of suffering changes when we accept that there is only one way out, and it is coming soon enough. There is no need for platitudes or pyrotechnics when suffering is at its final end.

Rivers Solomon’s searing novel Sorrowland dives right into the suffering of the pregnant body, the world-rending agony of birth and then the recovery from birth, before proceeding into the specific suffering of a body as it changes. Solomon’s Vern must feel her body changing in ways that are unexpected and inexplicable, largely in isolation, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to live with an illness without a name, without research or support or a celebrity spokesperson. Sorrowland and all of Solomon’s work are uniquely fluent in the language of loneliness and how it is often the largest dimension of any suffering the body may feel.

Searching for hope, I found My Real Children, and elegant and complicated novel by Jo Walton. The main character Patricia (Pat/Trish, depending on the timeline) is suffering from anaplastic thyroid cancer caused by the detonation of nuclear weapons, and a kind of confusion that presents as dementia but may just be the effect of living two lives at once. A talented prose writer, Walton makes suffering new and individual each time it occurs, dragging the reader through Pat/Trish’s mental anguish over the life lived and not lived, while also dwelling deeply in the body as it suffers the indignity and exhaustion of prolonged pain. It is a masterwork of fiction that show us what it means to live, and how life is always a sacrifice to itself. Walton sanctifies the personal and the political pain of living. My Real Children is a perfect sickbed read.

To be a body is to suffer. Suffering is as profound as any other individual experience, and as inane as any universal one. The suffering body is not one at rest, as anybody who has had COVID will tell you. There isn’t enough sleep in the world to make a brain feel rested when it cannot get enough breath. There isn’t a story that can be read in that bed that will make the suffering stop, any more than having a unicorn will solve all a girl’s problems. But given the choice between suffering with a sympathetic story or without one, I will always choose to open that humble SF/F magazine, pick up a book, or let the podcast reader tell me a good one. When it comes to suffering, there isn’t a cure. But there is always a comfort.

The Uncanny Valley

It’s a wet and cold spring as we write this in Central Illinois. We are falling asleep most nights to the rumble of our sump pumps, which hopefully will keep our house from sinking. These are anxious times, but overall the Thomases remain well. Caitlin has dodged hospitalizations for a full year (*knocks on wood*), Lynne continues to adore her day job as the Head of Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Michael and Hugo the Cat have many adventures around the house, much to the bemusement of Lynne and Caitlin.

We’re slowly making plans for the year. All of us hope to see more of all of you at conventions. Things are scary, but we muddle through the best we can.
We couldn’t do it without you, Space Unicorns. You are a fabulous and kind community. In a world with so much toxicity and tragedy, you work so hard to make things better through your words and actions. You are amazing—the absolute best. Thank you, you shining and wonderful Space Unicorns.

PHENOMENAL news, Space Unicorns! SIX Uncanny Magazine stories are finalists for the prestigious Hugo Award! “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim is a finalist for Best Novelette, “That Story Isn’t the Story ” by John Wiswell is a finalist for Best Novelette, “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde is a finalist for Best Novelette, “The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente is a finalist for Best Short Story, “Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte is a finalist for Best Short Story, and “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker is a finalist for Best Short Story! Congratulations to everybody!

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) is once again a finalist for Best Semiprozine!

Finally, former Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson is a finalist for Best Related Work for Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism! Congratulations, Elsa!

It is an amazing list of Hugo Award 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.

From the Chicon 8 Press Release:

The Hugo Awards are the premier award in the science fiction genre, honoring science fiction literature and media as well as the genre’s fans. The Hugo Awards were first presented at the 1953 World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia (Philcon II), and they have continued to honor science fiction and fantasy notables for more than 60 years.

Only Chicon 8 members will be able to vote on the final ballot and choose the winners for the 2022 Awards. If you are not already a member, please go to our website https://chicon.org/home/membership-rates/ to register as at least a Supporting member in order to participate in the Hugo Awards. The 2022 Hugo Awards, the Lodestar Award, and the Astounding Award will be presented on Sunday evening, September 4, 2022, at a highlighted formal ceremony at Chicon 8.

More information about the Hugo Awards is available at: https://chicon.org/home/whats-happening/hugo-awards/

Questions about the Hugo Awards process should be directed to [email protected].

The 80th World Science Fiction Convention, Chicon 8, will take place in Chicago, Illinois, USA from September 1–5, 2022. For more information about the convention, including current membership rates, visit http://chicon.org. All media releases are available at http://chicon.org/home/about-worldcon/press-and-media/. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @chicagoworldcon.

Outstanding news, Space Unicorns! FIVE Uncanny Magazine stories are finalists for the prestigious Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America! “The Giants of the Violet Sea” by Eugenia Triantafyllou is a finalist for Best Novella, “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim is a finalist for Best Novelette, “That Story Isn’t the Story ” by John Wiswell is a finalist for Best Novelette, “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker is a finalist for Best Short Story, and “Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte is a finalist for Best Short Story!

Congratulations to Eugenia, Caroline, John, Sarah, and José!

It is an amazing list of finalists, many of whom are Uncanny authors and friends. Congratulations to everyone!

From The SFWA website:

The awards will be presented in a virtual ceremony on Saturday, May 21, 2022, that will stream live as part of the 2022 Nebula Conference Online. Winners in each category will be determined by the vote of Full, Active, Associate, and Senior members of SFWA.

More great news, Space Unicorns! Five Uncanny Magazine poems are nominees for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award for speculative poetry! L. X. Beckett’s “What The Time Travellers Stole,” Mary Soon Lee’s “Confessions of a Spaceport AI,” and Abu Bakr Sadiq’s “POST MASSACRE PSYCHE EVALUATION” are all nominees for Best Short Poem. Theodora Goss’s “Medusa Gets a Haircut” and Avi Silver’s “The Captain Flies” are nominees for Best Long Poem. Congratulations to L.X., Mary, Abu, Theodora, Avi, and all of the Rhysling Award nominees!

Even more fabulous news, Space Unicorns! The 2022 Aurora Awards finalists have been announced, and “Eighteen Days of Barbareek” by Rati Mehrotra is a finalist for the Best Short Story Aurora Award! Congratulations to Rati and to all of the phenomenal finalists!

From the Aurora Awards website:

This ballot is for works originally done in 2021 by Canadians. The Aurora Awards are nominated by members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association. The top five nominated works were selected. Additional works were included where there was a tie for fifth place. An online awards ceremony will be held on August 13th, 2022 hosted by When Words Collide (www.whenwordscollide.org ). NOTE: Links have been provided to the works to help you get more information about them.

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 46! The phenomenal cover is Wall of Roses by Elaine Ho. Our new fiction includes C.L. Clark’s saucy tale of a lighthouse and the sea “Your Eyes, My Beacon: Being an Account of Several Misadventures and How I Found My Way Home,” Fonda Lee’s satirical look at a new circle of Hell “The Eternal Cocktail Party of the Damned,” Haralambi Markov’s exploration of love and duty in the far future “Bones Are Stones for Building,” Eugenia Triantafyllou’s flash story of community “This Village,” John Wiswell’s examination of a very important person “The Coward Who Stole God’s Name,” Maurice Broaddus and Rianna Butcher’s tale of family, magic, and self-empowerment “Spirit Folks,” and S.B. Divya’s surprising retelling and expansion of a familiar tale “Two Hands, Wrapped in Gold.” Our reprint is “The Scholar of the Bamboo Flute” by Aliette de Bodard, which originally appeared in Silk & Steel: A Queer Speculative Adventure Anthology in 2020.

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include “The Boy Who Cried Historical Accuracy” by Francesca Tacchi, “From Panic to Process: What Taking Criticism Actually Means” by Marissa Lingen, “Gracias, Orlando: A Genre Film and a Queer Body Awakening” by Héctor González, “No Astra without Aspera” by Tessa Fisher, and Nonfiction Editor Meg Elison’s editorial. Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “Timeless Pie” by Beth Cato, “In Stock Images of the Future, Everything is White” by Terese Mason Pierre, “Spirituals” by Anjali Patel, and “Wormhole” by Abu Bakr Sadiq. Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Haralambi Markov and S.B. Divya about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #46A features “Your Eyes, My Beacon: Being an Account of Several Misadventures and How I Found My Way Home” by C.L. Clark, as read by Erika Ensign, “In Stock Images of the Future, Everything is White” by Terese Mason Pierre, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing C.L. Clark. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #46B features “The Coward Who Stole God’s Name” by John Wiswell, as read by Matt Peters, “Spirituals” by Anjali Patel, as read by Erika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing John Wiswell.

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

The Eternal Cocktail Party of the Damned

Content Note: Threat of Sexual Assault, Casual Violence

 

“Ooh, let me show you the pictures.” Bayzoth the demon scrolls through his cell phone and holds it out with pride, raising his voice over the noise of the party. “She was the runt of the litter—only two heads—but she’s just the sweetest floof.”

“Awwww,” Asphos croons appreciatively. “No pets for me, but here’s a picture of an amazing sandwich I made using some leftover crispy skin from the hot oil pits.”

Bayzoth waves a dozen people through the entrance, freshly damned souls by the look of them, still cowering and blinking in confusion, stumbling a little. Unlike an ordinary bouncer, Bayzoth’s job is to bring in as many partygoers as possible. So far, that has not been a problem. Steady streams of the condemned flow past him, and whenever it seems to be getting crowded inside, the venue expands: another floor of the club opens, another balcony appears, doors materialize in walls and lead to captivating new rooms. Every once in a while, someone balks and tries to turn away before they enter, or some of the humans inside make a valiant attempt to escape the party, and then Bayzoth has to step in with a touch of mind control to keep them there. “You still work over in the burning and boiling circle?” he asks Asphos.

“Only part-time,” she says with a shrug, stirring her drink. “It’s pretty dead over there. No pun intended, haha. Not like over here. This place is where it’s happening.”

It’s true; the newest circle of hell is a sensation. The damned have been flocking to it in droves, eschewing old standbys like fire and brimstone, the skinning racks, the scorpion tanks. Contrary to what the living believe, the residents of hell always have a choice as to where to spend their eternity of torture. An important principle of perdition is that suffering is always worse when it’s the result of one’s own decisions. Many damned souls choose the relatively new “soul-sucking dead-end minimum-wage job” circle thinking that it’ll be pretty much identical to their lives on earth, only to regret it deeply once they learn what an actual soul sucking process entails.

“Dress code is lot more relaxed over at hot oil pits, though,” Bayzoth points out. Here, he’s expected to maintain a human guise; one of the features of the party is that the hosts blend into the crowd just like everyone else. At the moment, Bayzoth has donned the identity of a Wall Street banker. Asphos is posed as a Bitcoin farmer.

“Sure,” Asphos concedes. “But this job is so much easier. Compared to all the physical labor—heating the oil, wrangling the chains, lowering the thrashing humans, pulling them out again—this is a cakewalk. We barely have to do anything except keep the vibe going and the humans do all the work for us. I’m really hoping to get a permanent transfer.” She sets down her empty drink glass and surveys the activity. “Speaking of which, we’d better do the rounds; it’s starting to feel a bit calm in here.”

Bayzoth hadn’t really noticed any lull. The party is always shifting and changing. One door might take a wandering soul into a packed and pulsing dance club; at other times that same door leads to a rooftop garden brunch. The party continues nonstop at all hours, not that there’s such a thing as real time in hell. At this moment, they’re in a sprawling penthouse banquet room with classy black cocktail tables and clusters of comfortable red furniture around which the guests mingle and converse. The longest buffet table anyone has ever seen is laden with every sort of food, and servers in waistcoats bustle efficiently to deliver drinks and offer canapés on silver trays. Red wine flows from the mouth of a serpentine crystal fountain, and glass wall scones burn with bright white light that masks the opaque, sickly green glow of the underworld fog that swirls in the oblivion on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The partygoers, it seems, are having a grand time. Laughter and boisterous chatter fill the air. Guests pose to show off their outfits, which change immediately with a mere wish; the physical rules of the living don’t apply here, after all. Old friends greet each other and new acquaintances strike up conversations. Only a closer look at the faces of the humans reveals the terror lurking in their eyes, the twitchy animal fear behind their smiles. Many of them move and talk with unnatural deliberation, their glances darting from side to side, often freezing or flinching like electrified mice.

On the stage, the five-piece band finishes a set. Some guests applaud, others shout praise and throw money onto the stage. Then someone yells, “Your drummer sucks!” A pistol is fired at the offending band member from near the front of the audience. The keyboard player tries to pull the drummer to safety while drawing a semi-automatic from his waistband to return fire. Another guest mows the keyboard player down with a short burst of machine gun fire. The remaining band members flee. The grenade that explodes on the stage behind them turns the vocalist and both shooters into sauce.

“Oh, thank Lucifer, that’s more like it,” Asphos says over the screaming.

“Shall we mingle?” Bayzoth jerks his thumb toward a group of guests in Confederate flag bandanas. “Head that way and see what we pick up along the way?”

As the demons move unhurriedly through the crowd, dozens of giant screens suspended from the ceiling flicker in a rapid-fire onslaught of sound and images. Everything that’s happening in every corner of the boundless and constant underworld party is being recorded and replayed, far too fast for humans to keep up with, which is why infernal caretakers manipulate the screens, keeping the party mood going like DJs spinning dance tracks. Bayzoth passes a man telling a story about losing an epic eating contest. Immediately, the images of carnage from the band stage are gone, replaced by the storyteller’s face, rendered gigantic, every mole and hair follicle visible in high definition as his hilarious tale booms from the speakers. Everyone laughs and applauds. The man flushes and waves. “Thank you, everyone!” Then he blurts desperately, “Please, help me, someone—” but Bayzoth moves on and the sound cuts out.

“Bayzoth! Asphos!” A young woman with blue hair in pigtails glides into their path before they can turn their attention to anyone else. “Fancy running into you again so soon! Not that any of us can leave, so, no surprise.” She giggles a touch manically, then her voice turns sultry and coy as she shimmies between the two demons. “By the way, did you know I was voted to the Hell’s Most Fashionable list a second time?” She’s wearing a corset made of human skin, an ivory tiara made of rhino horn, and thigh-high boots that are literally on fire; flames scorch the floor where she walks. She turns in a circle, well aware that her image is now flashing on all the screens.

“Ainsley,” Asphos says congenially. “Forget it.”

Of all the countless damned souls present, only a few guests have been granted VIP status by the hosts. They’re haloed in a cold blue glow that sets them apart. Hell’s eyes focus on them and ignore others. They supposedly get better service from the waiters as well as other perks, although no one is entirely sure what those perks are.

Ainsley Chu is not a VIP, although she wants to be. Her large posse of hanger-ons come up behind her and hiss and make angry faces at Asphos. Ainsley wraps an arm around the waists of the two nubile young women on either side of her and turns to Bayzoth with a pout. “Come on, what’s a girl got to do for some recognition?”

“Yo Ainsley, we’re going to gang rape you later!” cheer the neo-Nazis.

Ainsley’s face twitches spasmodically and her smile wavers for an instant before she looks over her shoulder and waves to the crowd casually. She turns back to Bayzoth. “Just tell me,” she begs in a whisper. “Why won’t you make me a VIP?”

Bayzoth shrugs. “You’re not important enough.” The woman flinches, and the demon grins. When she was alive, Ainsley Chu was a media influencer and aspiring actress. That was before she lost her battle with depression and committed suicide. It never ceases to amaze Bayzoth how easy it is to torment humans simply by allowing them to act in hell as they would in life. To make his point, Bayzoth points to the Eating Contest Man, who has retreated to a corner. Instantly, a blue glow surrounds him from head to toe. The party cameras zoom in on the man’s stunned face as he stares down at his hands and realizes what’s happened. “WELCOME TO OUR NEW VIP!” boom the speakers before Rick Astley music starts blasting over the crowd.

Angry shouts start up over the Rickrolling.

“Oh, come on! What did that asshole ever do to deserve VIP status?”

“He lost the eating contest but gets rewarded for being a fucking loser??”

“It wasn’t even a funny story! He’s just desperate for attention!”

“Well, it worked, didn’t it? Worst wannabe comedian thinks he’s better than us!”

Eating Contest Man lets out a terrified squeak and flees, pursued by a pack of people throwing steak knives. Several of them sink into his back as he runs through a door, disappearing for less than a second before he bursts through an identical door on the other side of the exact same room. Bayzoth shakes his head and Asphos rolls her eyes. Silly humans; they ought to know by now that escaping hell isn’t simple. Eating Contest Man dives behind the bar and barricades himself into a corner with bar stools.

“Still want to be a VIP?” Asphos asks Ainsley Chu.

Ainsley huffs. “That guy was obviously asking for it, showing his ass with that ridiculous story. I mean, such a bad look. Why would you tell on yourself like that? And then to take a condescending attitude with his fans.” She scowls prettily at the two demons. “Even if you make anyone into VIPs these days, some people just aren’t cut out for it. Take it from a professional: If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Ainsley Chu’s followers nod and gaze at her admiringly. “We know you’d never let us down, Ainsley,” one of them declares. “You’re one of the best people in hell.”

“Thank you, my dear friends,” Ainsley says solemnly. “VIP status is meaningless anyway. I’m here to genuinely connect with people, and I don’t care about anyone else’s recognition so long as I know you’re all with me.” They share a group hug.

“Let’s go back to the buffet and get some sushi,” someone suggests.

Ainsley glances over at the buffet table where pink lobes of beautifully arranged mystery flesh pulsate gently on a long bamboo platter. Several pieces of sashimi undulate feebly toward escape off the edge of the table. They are delicately captured with chopsticks and returned to their rightful places by the watchful sushi chef.

Ew. Honestly, I never really liked sushi even when the fish were dead instead of me.” Ainsley laughs and starts to walk away. “How about the salad bar instead?”

She stops in mid-stride as her own voice booms over the party. “Ew…Ew…Ew.” Ainsley looks up to see her own enormous image say, “I never really liked sushi. Ew. Sushi. How about the salad bar instead? Sushi. Ew.” The replay flickers over and over again, the spliced repetition of the words strung into cacophonous poetry.

Ainsley spins to face her devoted followers. One of them volunteers, “I don’t love sushi either,” and another nods in agreement, but others stand and stare at their idol with expressions ranging from confusion to shock, disappointment, and anger.

“Ainsley,” one of them exclaims, “you hate sushi?”

“No!” she exclaims, panic beginning to swell in her voice. She takes a step back. “It’s not my favorite food, but I don’t hate it! I was only looking at what was—”

Asphos lazily flicks a finger and the party’s cameras instantly whiz over to a random guest on the other side of the banquet floor, sipping a fruity cocktail from behind a mask of black feathers and glitter. “Ainsley Chu says she’s disgusted by sushi! She hates it so much that she literally prefers salad. That is so racist.”

A tsunami of outraged shouts rises at once. Bayzoth and Asphos exchange a high-five and work quickly to capture and amplify as many of them as possible.

“I can’t believe I voted her Hell’s Most Fashionable. Huge mistake!”

“The absolute disrespect to my favorite food. I’ll never forgive her.”

“Isn’t she half-Korean? Or Chinese? So awful to find out she’s racist against Japanese people, but being Asian doesn’t excuse you from being anti-Asian!”

“There was always something off about her. This one time I met her, she…”

Ainsley’s face is frozen in horror. She spins wildly, her fiery boots leaving a blackened circle on the ground, with her in the center of the scorched area. “I wasn’t talking about sushi in general,” she wails. “I love Japanese culture! I…I watch anime and I’ve visited Japan and one of my best friends is Japanese, and, and I do like California rolls and also tempura!” She sobs and hides her face in her hands.

“Oh my god, California rolls aren’t even Japanese,” another guest chortles.

“She got called out, and then doubled down on the racism!”

Voices drown out Ainsley’s crying. Several of her followers flee the scene, but others meld into the encircling crowd and tell her with cold regret in their voices, “You messed up, Ainsley. You ought to simply apologize for the harm you’ve done.”

“The…the harm?” Ainsley whimpers in miserable confusion.

“To the Japanese people.” There are no Japanese people in the immediate area, so Asphos helpfully cycles through the camera views until the screens display some yakuza members in the club lounge two floors beneath them. They look extremely serious and worried because whoever loses the game of cards they’re playing will be sent to the hot oil pits for three hundred subjective human years, but it’s also conceivably possible they might be culturally offended by slander against sushi.

“You attacked Chef Yamato,” another interlocutor intones, one of the girls that was last seen with Ainsley’s arm around her waist. “How do you think he feels?”

The sushi chef is an eight-foot-tall unsmiling blue-skinned oni whose white horns poke through the top of his chef’s hat. At the mention of his name, Yamato looks up briefly from behind his prep table before returning to skinning baby dolphins alive.

Bayzoth and Asphos head over to the bar to get themselves a celebratory drink. Their work is done and Bayzoth leans back to enjoy the show. He loves this part.

Ainsley drops to her knees. “I’m sorry,” she moans. “I didn’t mean it.”

Low growls erupt into snarling, magnified throughout the room.

That’s it? You call that an apology?” A plate smashes over Ainsley’s head.

“No acknowledgement of what you’ve done wrong and absolutely zero sense of how you’re going to change in the future! Aren’t you in hell to try to better yourself?”

A crab fork is jammed into Ainsley’s eyeball and she lets out a bloodcurdling shriek. She staggers to her feet, tiara askew, blood streaming down her cheek as she tries to run. She doesn’t make it far before she’s pulled to the ground and hacked apart with machetes. The Nazis wander over, lamenting that they did not get to gang rape her, but agree that watching an orgy of her dismemberment is the next best thing. Gory bits and pieces of Ainsley Chu are scattered across half the penthouse banquet room. They land in the punch bowls and the chocolate fountain, are kicked under the armchairs and tables, and end up squashed underfoot or piled into corners by bored participants. All the blood vanishes into hell’s highly absorbent red carpeting.

Once the activity begins to die down, Bayzoth set down his drink glass but Asphos motions considerately, “I’ve got this.” She brings the images on screen to guests hanging out in the karaoke bar five floors down. “I’m so disappointed,” one of them sighs. “I was really rooting for Tinsley Cho. I knew she was on some sort of list, I can’t remember which. Can’t have been very important. Anyway, when I heard she was problematic, you can bet that I stopped supporting her right then and there.”

The faces of the two supporters who initially expressed less-than-enthusiastic opinions of sushi appear on screen next. They try to stammer out that they never even knew Ainsley, but they are chased down and beaten to death with tire irons.

The camera pivots to Eating Contest Man, who had been surreptitiously crawling out from behind the bar, still holding one of the stools for protection. A pause of one and a half seconds descends as the party waits to hear the opinion of its newest VIP. Eating Contest Man freezes like a wide-eyed rabbit, not making a single sound.

“We see you being silent!” yells the guest in the ballgown and black mask holding Ainsley’s right elbow joint. “Cowardly VIPs failing to condemn bad behavior!”

Eating Contest Man dives back behind the bar and curls up in fetal position. He doesn’t seem about to do more than quiver helplessly for a while, so Asphos sets the cameras to automatically monitor the Star Wars fan gathering on the far side of the penthouse floor. “The Last Jedi was a good movie,” screams one man as he skewers another through the throat with a fireplace poker. He’s unable to gloat over the other fan’s body because an axe splits his skull down the middle, spilling his brains.

“That’s for saying Rogue One is overrated,” snarls the axe wielder.

None of the dispatched guests are dead, of course. Or rather, they are all already dead, so nothing that happens to them here is real in the physical sense. Ainsley Chu can be killed over and over again and still return. Already, her head, neck and one shoulder have glommed back together, although she looks quite grotesque. “Stop,” her disembodied top quarter of a body wheezes weakly. “It hurts so bad. Please stop.”

“Ugh.” A man-sized frog steps around her and kicks away the ribs that were rolling their way toward the spine. “What do you have to complain about, Miss ‘Hell’s Most Fashionable?’ I’m a fucking frog. Stop playing the victim already.”

“As I was saying earlier,” Asphos say, “this is the easiest job I’ve had since I was spawned. Whoever came up with this new circle is a genius. Was it Asmodeus?”

“Nah, it was that new guy,” Bayzoth corrects her. “Jack.”

“A genius,” Asphos repeats. “Bright future in hell for him. I truly can’t believe I’m being paid to do this. Oh wait, never mind, I’m not!” The two of them laugh.

“We do it for the pure love of the work,” Bayzoth says. They laugh harder and clink glasses. “Oh, hey, I have to show you another picture. My hellhound puppy did the cutest thing the other day, you’re going to love this.” He takes out his phone.

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

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

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps ENSIGNS

Anja, Cheryl Martin, Michael Mendoza, rick kintigh, Brian,  Petri Wessman, Em, Emily Robbins, Rick Floyd, Tomb, Susan Yount, James Antill, Kora Bongen, Mark A Dispenza, Zhenya, Cait Coy, Alex Cross, Rachel Green, Jim DeVona, Sean Pruitt, Haven Spec, coffee n’ cats, samuel lightcap, Alysha MacDonald, Crystal Hill, Dominique Martel, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Carla B. Estruch, Jordan,  Adrienne Joy, Duke Kimball, Maritza Sanchez, Alina, itay parasol, Emilie De Saint Martin, Zanele Ndaba, John Carr, Riikka,  Tatyana,  Surya H, Callum Williams, Dilly, Howard Cornett, Kellen Harkins, Fábián Tamás, Ashley Herzig, Rhian Bowley, Carl Olsen, Goran Lowie, Aliénor, Dawn Bonanno, William Hay, Dave McAvoy, Julia Pillard, Nicky Martin, Nicholas Davies, Monique Cuillerier, Thomas Faust, D. M. Baldwin, John Coxon, Fabienne Schwizer, Greg Chapman, Kael, Colin, Jaime McLeod, Katie Rodante, Sofia G, Kathrin, Ross Williams, Andrew McIntosh, Alec Ross, Karen Young, Simon Hoerder, Melanie Savransky, Ailbhe Leamy, Pete Kirkham, John Atom, Chris Gates, Kim Park, Felicia Jordan, Jes, Tracey Thompson, Ryan V Thummel, Shannon H, Jenn Brissett, Brian, Sonja Pieper, Kelly Quantrill, Aditya Dubey, Kari Keeling, Taylor Alcantar, Goetz Kruppa, Bonnie, Agnes,  Peter Schmitt (Aragos), Douglas Dluzen, Hiu Gregg, Mary Brock, Chawin Narkruksa, Tuomas Pohto, Emily Goldman, Beth Hoffman, Alina Kanaski, Matthew Bennardo, Brad Preslar, Fiona Parker, Alison Gilder, Markus Regius, Natalie Boon, Luke, Caroline Pinder, Vicente JM, Ben Hammerslag, Tina Skupin, Eris Young, Chessa Hickox, machine_person,  John Derrick, Charlie Lindahl, Lauren Strenger, Carrie,  Sarah Jansen, Emily Kvalheim, [email protected],  Leanne Kathleen Ingino, 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, Sarah Bea, Amanda B Cook, Ellen Zemlin, David O Mahony, Risa Wolf, John Cetrone, Cynthia Murrell, Gina,  ShadowCub,  Tiffany M., Albert Bowes, Amanda J. McGee, Crystal Huff, Leslie Ordal, Maria,  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

Shelby Niehaus, Pat Hayes, Tracey Abla, Wendy, Sarah Storm, Brian Withers, Stephen,  Will Hamilton, Sean Eric Fagan, smokestack, Heather Holmquist, Ian Sweedler, Gregor M. Geemd, Kelsea Kreuch, Sasha H, Mark Tyler, Christiane Knight, Salvatore Fabbiano, 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, Haley N Cowans, A T-L, Margaret N. Oliver, Joan Combs Durso, Nancy Palmer, Elan Samuel, Sid J, Sarah Berriman, RMD Cade, devorah hill, Josef D Prall, Sam Gawith, Kirby Li, Declan Meenagh, Christi Clogston, jenn northington, Gareth Morgan, Ravian Ruijs, Bee Buehring, 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 Melchert, John M. Gamble, John Chu, Brooks Moses, Deborah Levinson, Michael Lee, Adam Leff

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps COMMANDERS

Emily K Miller, Kuang-Yu Liu, Kelly Lester, Chip Roland, Camille Knepper, Elizabeth Galliher, Mairin Holmes, William T. McGeachin, 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

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

Timeless Pie

she saved her money to buy

a thirty-minute trip back in time

to visit the diner where

she could watch her grandpa

young with a head full of hair

working behind the counter

as she ate a piece of his

maple apple pie with coffee

 

the piece she ordered to-go

traveled fifty years

ahead of time

to be sneaked to her grandma

in hospice care

who couldn’t eat more than a bite

but breathed it in

and smiled

The Boy Who Cried Historical Accuracy

“It’s that it’s not historically accurate.”

The sudden popularity of this criticism just so happens to coincide with the rise of diversity in popular media. It was raised for the latest installment of the God of War franchise, which dared to portray a Black Angrboda, and for Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher, as it stars “ethnic” characters in a European-inspired medieval world. When it comes to sexuality and gender identity, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard the cry of “historical accuracy” being used against the inclusion of queer characters in fantasy books—as if queer people were invented in the ’90s. Disabled characters are also an issue, for these concerned citizens, because disability too—apparently—is a modern invention. The inclusion of the “combat wheelchair” in the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons caused an uproar, with insults and even death threats hurled at the creator!

Historical accuracy has become a shield branded to justify one’s own bigotry, and to keep the fantasy genre as white, allocishet, and able-bodied as possible. As a lover of both history and fantasy, this bothers me. A lot.

Unfortunately, a common response to such bigotry is that “it’s fantasy, so historical accuracy doesn’t matter.” Which, if possible, bothers me even more, because it’s a very dangerous stance that can have repercussions in real life. It reinforces the idea that the bigots are right, that European history was dominated by white, allocishet men; when in truth it was anything but.

The myth of a homogenous Europe, perpetrated by white supremacists and—involuntarily—by progressives alike is just that: a myth. An extremely historically inaccurate myth, I daresay, but one that also serves a very specific purpose: to erase those who are not white, allocishet, and able-bodied from the European past, and from its present as well. As a queer and neurodiverse Southern European with a multicultural family, I know this all too well. And products of entertainment have a role in perpetuating this myth, as they—especially when they have such a big fandom, like The Witcher—shape the way we perceive reality around us. Which is why I find discussions around historical accuracy disingenuous at best, and dangerous at worst.

So, let’s talk about what is historically accurate, starting with a white supremacist’s favorite: the Roman Empire. Specifically, the Roman Empire as it’s portrayed in HBO’s show Rome—dominated by white men with inexplicable British accents. The real Roman Empire, though, was one of the most diverse empires in history, and in its diversity lay its greatest strength. Did you know, for example, that a whole line of Emperors was North African? Septimus Severus was a brown-skinned Libyan, and North Africa was one of the core provinces of the Empire along with Italy—as testified by the imposing Roman ruins to be found in Tunisia and Libya, to rival those of Rome itself. Eastern Romans—the Byzantines—maintained diplomatic relationships with the Chinese Tang dynasty—there’s a whole Wikipedia page devoted to Sino-Roman relations!—and a Byzantine medic even served as Imperial physician at the court of Emperor Gaozong.

Historian Bret Devereaux does a splendid job in dispelling the myth of a homogenous Roman society in his series of blog posts “The Queen’s Latin,” or “Who Were the Romans,” especially in the article “The Color of Purple”—which I warmly recommend reading.

This diversity does not translate in most movies and shows about the Roman Empire, like HBO’s Rome. It’s not the result of mere laziness, but the legacy of how history was studied, and taught, in the West till not so long. Roman history, for example, was warped in service of Western imperialism, of which the British Empire is a prime example—ironically so, since the Romans didn’t care much about Britain to begin with, a remote island populated by barbarians.

But what about the Middle Ages? Surely, medieval Europe was not as diverse as The Witcher or The Wheel of Time adaptations would have us believe. These shows do not portray a medieval society in an accurate way.

To which I’d ask…why do you believe the opposite to be true? There exists this misconception of medieval Europe as a homogenous area, thanks both to historians who tried to erase the contribution of BIPOC, disabled folks, and queer people from European history, and to movies such as the adaptation of The Lord of The Rings, which set the standards for what medieval fantasy must be like.

Truth is, the historical reality of medieval Europe was far more diverse than you’d imagine. Look at Italy, for example. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, my country was conquered by Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and the French. We were a commercial hub with lines extending as far as Indonesia and the Philippines. We had a Black head of state (Alessandro de’ Medici, nicknamed “Il Moro,” who ruled Florence between 1530 and 1537) and we were so gay, homosexuality was labeled as “the Italian illness”—as described by Régis Revenin in his essay, “Homosexualité et prostitution masculines à Paris: 1870-1918.” We even had our own Stonewall—The Compagnacci Insurgence—back in the XVth century!

It pains me to see this richness and diversity erased whenever historical accuracy is discussed. On one hand, we have people claiming historically accurate settings must not be diverse. On the other hand, we have people insisting historical accuracy doesn’t matter when diversity is concerned—implicitly agreeing with the first in positioning diversity and historical accuracy as two opposite poles.

Luckily, many people—historians and history nerds alike—are shredding the legacy of old imperialism and white supremacy and are portraying the past—in this case, the European past—without prejudice and without an agenda. Just the past as it was; rich and diverse, beautiful and terrible in equal parts. Notable examples are Bret Devereaux’s blog, which I already mentioned, as well as Dr. Eleanor Janega’s Going Medieval Patreon, and accounts such as Medieval POC or Roman Middle East.

I hope to add my contribution with this little essay, which is really an open call to European writers and content creators, especially from marginalized groups. European fantasy does not have to be just small villages, mountains, and feudal lords. It can also be interactions between different cultures (without an orientalist lens, mind you!), women head of states (they existed! Think about Matilde di Canossa, whose story I have summarized here), and queers fighting for their rights or simply…living their best life. Disabled folks must not be left out either, as we have thousands upon thousands of medieval prosthetics artifacts, and it’s not like neurodivergence didn’t exist in the past. An interesting theory is that Byzantine Emperor Justinian was autistic, based on the way his behavior was described by contemporaries. It’s also almost certain Roman Emperor Claudius had cerebral palsy or Tourette syndrome.

As creators, we can play a role with our art in shifting the popular perception of what historical Europe looked like. And by learning from our past, we can help shape a more inclusive future.

Plus, history is a source of untapped potential when it comes to inspiration for writing. In fact, there are great books that, in my opinion, did something amazing by drawing from European history without prejudice.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson, is perhaps most famous for its brilliant discussion of imperialism and for its tragic lesbians. Despite Dickinson’s Masquerade mapping better on western empires from the XIX and XX centuries, I found Aurdwynn—a realm with a lower technology level and a feudal political system—a close representation of what medieval Europe, especially in the early Middle Ages, would have looked like. The fact the feudal lords were of various genders, with heritages from different cultures and ethnicities, makes it way more realistic than one would expect.

Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon is another fantasy book set in a world reminiscent of medieval Europe, but which manages to be extremely diverse with its cast of well-rounded women, people of color, and queer characters. Shannon herself is a history lover, as testified by the meticulous research gone into her worldbuilding. In devising her world, she drew inspiration from different historical periods—such as Elizabethan England—as well as different countries, creating a complex and vivid theater for her characters to perform in.

The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid is inspired by Eastern European medieval history and Hungarian folklore, and focuses—through a fantasy reimagining—on the antisemitism and hardships Jewish people had to face in the region. Reid’s book is extremely important, as it highlights how Europe has always been a diverse area…for good or bad. Jewish and Roma people, particularly in Eastern Europe, and Sámi Indigenous people in Northern Europe, have always existed as minorities and thus have always been targeted by systemic racism and harassment.

And in the last century, the aftermath of colonialism and a renewed migratory flow have done nothing but increase European diversity. Europeans of color, Indigenous Europeans, Black Europeans exist now as they did in the past. Sci-fi and fantasy writer Aliette de Bodard is of Franco-Vietnamese descent, for example, and despite being born in New York she grew up in Paris—where her fantasy series Dominion of the Fallen takes place. Zen Cho, author of Black Water Sister, grew up in Malaysia but migrated to London—theater of her debut, Sorcerer to the Crown. The novel, set in Regency England, tackles white supremacy, colonialism, slavery, and the white hypocrisy in the abolitionist movement. Much like The Wolf and the Woodsman, Cho’s Sorcerer reclaims a space for people of color in European history, while also denouncing their de-humanization in white European society.

This is extremely important, as in my opinion by claiming historic Europe to be a monolithic white space, we not only erase the incredible richness of the continent’s history…but also the ugly aspects of it. We erase the history of oppression minorities faced in this country, as well as their contribution to our history.

Which is why, as someone extremely passionate about history and a writer who holds representation dear to my heart, I believe we should stop dismissing historical accuracy, and start wielding it as a weapon against those who try to erase minorities in Europe. Both in fiction and in reality.

 

Interview: Haralambi Markov

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian fiction writer, reviewer, & editor with a background in content creation, who currently works as a freelance writer. He was the first ever Bulgarian to be accepted to attend the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2014. His work has appeared in Tor.com, Evil in Technicolor, Weird Fiction Review, Stories for Chip, Eurasian Monsters, and Lackington’s. He was part of the team of BonFIYAH 2021. “Bones Are Stones for Building” is his second appearance in Uncanny—a powerful exploration of relationships, set in an eerie post-human world.

 

Uncanny Magazine: There’s a lovely weirdness and futuristic feel to the worldbuilding in this story, and beautiful descriptions that immerse the reader in the world you’ve created. What is your process for worldbuilding? Did you have a good sense of the world before you started writing the story, or did it emerge as you went along?

Haralambi Markov: “Bones Are Stones for Building” is based on a famous Bulgarian folk song about how in order to erect a building one of the builders has to bury his young bride into the foundations alive. He’d leave only one breast exposed so that she could nurse their child. That’s the whole conceit of the story—where does this practice lead over time by cannibalizing on a single family line.

This led me to a weird, post-human, post-planet place that I crafted as I went. My whole process had to do with the divorce from the land and the physical, and the grotesque of the technological in some way.

I would say worldbuilding in general boils down to two things: a mood, and a single central image, which weaves everything else together. I’m highly visual so it’s always a distinct image that comes to mind.

Uncanny Magazine: What was the easiest or most fun part of writing the story? What was the most challenging thing?

Haralambi Markov: Nothing about this story has been easy!

I’ve been working on a variation of “Bones Are Stones for Building” since 2015, which is ridiculous. It started off as a folk tale that ended in futuristic sci-fi, but it didn’t work, so I tried different ways to reverse engineer it so at the core always stood the concept of entombing living people into the foundation.

Uncanny Magazine: One focus of “Bones Are Stones for Building” is relationships—the story explores a parent-child relationship, a family lineage, and a marriage. Are relationships a theme that you often return to in your work? What other themes do you find yourself drawn to?

Haralambi Markov: Families are somewhat central in my work. You are chained to the rhythm of life through blood. Whether you embrace it or seek to destroy your belonging to your kin, it’s still there. There’s some really heady horror there as you don’t choose your family as a child. Your family is something done to you for better or worse.

But above all else—death and bodies are central themes in my work. The finality, the gentleness, or the denial of death through transgressive body horror. I’m fascinated by the idea of your body not belonging to yourself. Not truly.

Uncanny Magazine: If you could visit one spot in the world you created for this story, where would you go and why?

Haralambi Markov: I want to walk the viewing platforms tethered to the moon and hang out there. It’s only mentioned in passing, but I tend to yearn for the places I’ve yet to explore.

Though I am tempted to trek downwards through the layers of time in the abandoned surface of the Earth. If only I was not afraid of the dark.

Uncanny Magazine: Who are some of your literary influences? What is something you read recently and loved?

Haralambi Markov: As a whole, I take my inspiration from short story writers—Kaaron Warren, Angela Slatter, Lisa L. Hannett, Karen Tidbeck, A.C. Wise. These writers make up my immediate canon. I’m also quite in awe of the works of Jeff VanderMeer and David Mitchell.

The last book I quite enjoyed is a short story collection by Olga Tokarczuk, Opowiadania bizarne roughly translated as Bizarre Stories, but that collection has not been translated into English yet. I read it in Bulgarian.

Short stories I think about often are “What Floats in a Flotsam River” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu and “tragedy of the sugarcane ghost” by Desirée Winns.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Haralambi Markov: Currently, I’m juggling several projects. Right now the priority is to revise my Bulgarian cosmic horror short story “Root of the Womb,” which is a sequel to an earlier story I published “When Raspberries Bloom in August” back in 2015. I’m fascinated about weirding my homeland in ways that I’ve seen done in the West. Together they make up the frame of a horror cycle I hope to get rolling soon.

I’m also in the midst of drafting a script for an otome mobile game. It’s a dating simulator game where the player immerses themselves into the inner workings of a bookstore. It’s gay. It’s light. A complete 180 from the usual nightmares I write about, but it’s a fun side project I’m doing with a friend of mine who handles the art.

In between, I’m polishing up a collection manuscript, which I hope I can place in a loving home.

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

From Panic to Process: What Taking Criticism Actually Means

One of the most common pieces of wisdom I hear directed at new writers is that You Must—oh, You MUST—Learn To Take Criticism Well. Intoning this solemnly seems to protect its proponents from ever having to articulate what that process would look like. Where is the middle path between placid accommodation and knee-jerk spite? What does it mean to take criticism well? How does it apply differently to critique (before the work is published) and criticism (after the work is out in the wild)? The sum of most advice for productively taking post-publication criticism is “don’t respond to reviews”—often the right answer but not all that can be learned.

One of the default assumptions people carry in from school and other experience before their writing lives is that criticism means negative commentary. Critical is rarely taken to include in-depth positive or even neutral commentary. But critique and criticism are not merely assessments of a work’s flaws. In fact, some of their most interesting moments can come from an analysis on forms and themes in a work that are neutral or positive. Even this, however, can be disconcerting and take practice and deliberate plans to get used to as a tool.

Critique/Pre-Publication

For me any piece of critique, large or small, can raise two questions about a work. First, how does it bring this work into better alignment with what it was intended to be doing? Second, if it challenges or reshapes those intentions, does it do so in a good way? The former question sounds grandiose when applied to small tasks like removing vague or repetitive language, but specificity helps convey your vision. Whether they change punctuation or add entirely new characters and subplots, revisions should have some method for bringing the work closer to its originating vision.

I think the latter question is often neglected because there is a common idea that only the creator can conceive of an artistic vision, which should remain pure and untrammeled. And this is true up to a point. But it is also true that sometimes it is not the execution but the concept itself that can benefit from critique. Those cases are the exception to the rule that revision should bring works closer to their original intention—rather, the entire vision for the work can be improved.

The default critique group method in science fiction circles—in many creative writing circles—is the Milford Method, in which the person whose work is being critiqued is expected to sit silently while the group delivers its commentary. For writers building an individual process of taking critique, there are advantages and disadvantages to this system. It’s intended to keep the writer’s ego from getting in the way, to allow the critiquers to have their full say without argument from someone who is knee-jerk defensive and treating every pixel out of their own computer as deathless prose. The other advantage of Milford is that it spares the author from having to come up with clever discussion on the spot—silence gives time to consider rather than react, and time is a staunch ally in finding graceful ways to process criticism.

The problem is that in compensating for defensive egotism, Milford may conceal or even create other problems. If critiquers go off on a very wrong path from misreading text that is actually present, being able to point out what’s there is sometimes useful. If they are even further unhelpful to the point of being offensive, allowing the author to respond to comments like “no autistic person would ever think this” with “I’m autistic myself, actually” can save the group a great deal of trouble—and the author a great deal of pain.

So beginners often start with critique in the Milford mode: sitting silently as a group goes around and takes turns giving their opinions, listening without giving any response. Whether this is the initial mode of critique or some other, it behooves the writer to pay attention to their internal response to it. What parts of it work well? What parts don’t? Writers are allowed to ask for particular things in a critique—either particular questions (“does the ending work?”) or a particular critique format. It’s useful to pay attention not just to whether a particular critiquer tends to have good ideas but to how the writer reacts internally to certain kinds of critique in the moment—shoulders tensing up when people say them out loud vs. writing them down, or the other way around? Stomach roiling for a point-by-point or an overview? There is no one true path here, but listening to very basic bodily signals from certain forms of critique can be a good signpost for which ways might be more productive for each individual.

It’s okay to say, “I’m feeling very shaky on this one, I’d like some encouragement.” If I had said the name of a friend who said that to me recently, you’d probably be surprised—the person has many well-deserved awards. We all have rough patches. We all need encouragement. It’s okay to say, “I’m not looking for line edits at this time.” There is no shame in letting critiquers know that you’re in that place with your work—or with a particular aspect of your work. “I’m curious about how the character relationships work for you,” or “I’m wondering if the pacing is going okay,” or “The cat is staying in no matter what, please leave the cat alone” are all acceptable things to say to critiquers in advance. I keep using the plural—but it’s okay if you find out you do better with one at a time.

Once you’ve received the critiques, you can again try different iterations of what works for you in processing them. Do you do better taking notes and organizing your thoughts right away, or does that make you feel rushed and stressed? Sometimes letting ideas percolate helps you find the right balance of your vision and other people’s ideas.

Sometimes, even having put down boundaries of this nature, there will still be something in your work that made a critiquer feel honor-bound to speak up in an area you did not request. Nobody likes to hear that they’ve accidentally (…one certainly hopes accidentally) propagated biased views in their work, but a critiquer who encounters something of that nature will often feel it is important to mention even if it wasn’t the requested focus of the critique. No beta reader is perfect, and it’s okay to consider whether one reader is reacting to your work as inaccurate to one individual rather than misrepresenting a group or propagating bias against it. But it’s also a good time to take a hard look at what you’ve written and how it might say things you don’t believe—or even things you do believe, but wish you didn’t. It’s not fair to ask readers to assume that you’re being your best self if you’re not willing to actually examine yourself and your work to ensure that this is genuinely true. This is a case where you should err on the side of things you don’t want to hear. “You’re too sensitive” is for semicolon use, not prejudice.

Your original vision was almost certainly not that you would perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or any of a number of other problems. This is a chance to move your work closer to that original vision, which did not have those problems. Fundamentally, any manuscript problems are problems in words, lines, paragraphs, chapters. Is that too obvious? But when you’re feeling attacked and defensive, such problems can seem holistic, personal. Instead, look for how to address them in the same way as you would the rest of criticism: where in the manuscript does this problem occur? How can I address it in concrete, practical terms? This moves the question from a personal attack (“Am I a bad person? What’s wrong with me, that I wrote a manuscript with this kind of problem in it?”) to a practical problem to solve.

When you read the acknowledgments of a published book, you may never know which of the names helped in the form of hugs and brownies and which helped in the form of sharply observant critique—but some of them will spell it out to you. Whenever you see, “Thanks to Doodle, who helped me see the relationship between the main characters so much more clearly,” in the acknowledgments, that’s an author who learned to take pre-publication criticism well.

Criticism/Post-publication

Do I have to tell you not to argue with reviews? Generally, on the whole, do not argue with reviews, this is the main advice you get for a reason, it is good advice, get it printed on a coffee mug if you have to, embroider it on a pillow, and sleep clutching that pillow to your bosom. Do not say, “Marissa Lingen wrote an entire essay about this and never said not to argue with reviews so I totally can.” Okay? Yes? We’re on the same page here and now we can say more things? Good.

It’s important to remember that the primary audience for reviews and criticism is not the author. They’re about the work, not for the author’s benefit. Even professional reviews and criticism exist as part of a larger conversation with the work they’re reviewing and other works; reader reviews are a chance for readers to talk to each other. Does that mean authors can’t ever add anything to their process based on those pieces of criticism? Never is a long time, friends. The important caveats to remember from both sides of the table here are that published works are finished. Done. New editions are rare and, in most cases, require a lot of work if they can happen at all—if you’re not the sort of person who gets an all-new edition with a special introduction written by someone else, brand-new cover art, etc., they are not likely to happen for you. (The exception here is if your work is ebook/online only, making it much easier to change.)

This means that most of what an author can—can, not must—learn from criticism is going to apply to the next work along the line—or more realistically, a work several years down the line. Ursula Le Guin’s beloved and influential The Left Hand of Darkness sparked a great deal of critical thought about gender, but as discussion evolved, the limitations of using “he” for all of the persons of a species that does not gender the way humans do became clearer to all concerned, including Le Guin herself. She followed up with discussion in a later edition’s afterword and with a short story, “Winter’s King,” making the opposite choice. Had she lived longer into the era of comfortable, ordinary nonbinary pronouns, who knows what further art might have been inspired.

More recently, Kristin Cashore has spoken about how critical discussion of her portrayal of blindness in Graceling helped her to realize that she needed a more nuanced portrayal in a later book in its series, Bitterblue. Cashore stresses not only the specific things she has learned about disability representation for this series but also its applicability to future examples of writing characters not like herself and her intentions to seek input on these topics earlier in her process. Other authors have given shorter examples of similar themes, such as Joe Abercrombie realizing that how he was handling point-of-view had implications in larger questions in his work.

In one of the rarer cases where an author had a chance to adjust aspects of a work post-publication, Mary Robinette Kowal has a thorough discussion of how her story “Weaving Dreams” changed with critical input post-publication. She talks about her vision of the story and how it went into the world achieving some things that were the opposite of that vision when it came to racism and colonialism—and because it was an online story, these aspects could be changed for all readers. Kowal has chosen to post notes about this process rather than trying to erase the previous problems with her work, allowing others to learn from the discussion as well as the results.

Author Diane Duane also responded to both her own desires to revise her Young Wizards series and to criticism of the series for the New Millennium Editions of the books. While it’s impossible to guess which motivations were internal and which external, Duane has commented on how reader feedback about her portrayal of an autistic character in A Wizard Alone in 2002 led her to revise that portrayal for the updated 2013 version. Duane talks about the balance of positive and negative criticism in her work, wanting to retain elements of the crucial character that had resonated for some autistic readers while improving the parts of her portrayal that other readers found wanting. In this case the importance of positive criticism is clearer than in most examples of demographic bias criticism, because it gave the author clarity on which parts of her story had a solid foundation and which were on shakier ground.

If you are one of the authors making post-publication changes, it’s important to take a beat to process what you’re hearing—even more so than with pre-publication critique. The speed of internet communication may make it feel like you have to react in the moment, but it’s even more crucial not to have an unconsidered response that you will regret. The authors who have issued edited works, and especially the authors who have applied lessons from criticism to later works, have taken time to consider and process.

If you choose to make a statement rather than letting your work speak for itself, that’s a great time to run that statement past another person before making it public. Your agent, the work’s editor, and a small group of trusted colleague friends are all wonderful ideas for people to help with this process and may give you much needed perspective and parallax on your public statement.

Writers are not required to read criticism of their work, much less to draw inspiration from it. You can put off reading reviews and literary criticism or have trusted friends or colleagues filter it for you in useful ways. But its uses can come in small ways and large. “They’re right, I really don’t have any disabled characters in my stories. Let’s figure out how I can change that,” is one beautiful way to take criticism well. So is, “I wonder how I can keep reaching the audiences who squee about my lapidary prose.” So is, “Thank you to all of my fans, your support and encouragement makes all of this worthwhile.” They’re facets of the same process.

No work of criticism is going to be perfectly geared to your learning. Even when you’ve had the opportunity to ask for the shape of critique that suits you best, it may show you things you wished you hadn’t seen. But with time and space to process, they can be a source of growth rather than angst.  You are free to become a better person at any time—more interesting, kinder, more knowledgeable, more thoughtful about the experiences of others—and bring your work up to the standard you have achieved. Sometimes other people offer to help you and your work with this. Take them up on it.

In Stock Images of the Future, Everything is White

I don’t want flying cars. I want my language back.

I want to glass-bottom boat my way to a dirt road

 

with no street signs, squeeze myself on the grave

of my restlessness, my atomic self-esteem.

 

Five hundred years and we have finished. What

have burned sugar and dyed cotton blighted?

 

I stain my skin with sunlight, try on those

new underwater lungs, which is to say, I search

 

for new meaning in old salt. Sand dollars are dead,

I discover. I trade them for a tour ride round

 

the mountain. The cyborg guide has a tinny

Guyanese accent, points to a crashed, cracked

 

ship, which several Locals have adorned

with bougainvillea, flags and wooden beads.

 

The guide says, remember when the sky became

red? Look—how the giant stars came to us.

 

Someone beside me regrows their limb. I try,

but I’m stopping myself, and I want to go backward

 

in time immediately. There’s another word

for lost, but I can’t remember.

 

(Editors’ Note: “In Stock Images of the Future, Everything is White” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 46B.)

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