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What a Fourteenth Century Legal Case Can Teach Us about Storytelling

A scandal has fractured the world of medieval historians, and it turns on the meaning of a single word of Medieval Latin. The word is “raptus” and it appears in a batch of late fourteenth century legal documents pertaining to Geoffrey Chaucer, famous author of The Canterbury Tales. In late 2022, two scholars announced a discovery: a few lines of medieval legalese, penned on narrow strips of parchment, completely transformed how they had understood “raptus”—and Chaucer’s life. More importantly, they gained a rare glimpse into the life of Chaucer’s servant Cecily Chaumpaigne, and the crap she had to deal with on the job.

To understand the scandal, however, we must follow the word “raptus” across the centuries, from an internecine court battle in 1379, to Chaucerian scholar’s parlors in 1873, a feminist outrage in 1993, and the completely unexpected archival discovery in 2022. Along the way, a story emerges—a story about the act of storytelling, and who gets to do it.

Schoolkids in English-speaking countries are taught about Geoffrey Chaucer as a great medieval poet. But he was also a high-ranking public official and diplomat who left behind a complicated paper trail in various archives of the court. There are over a thousand legal and business documents that detail his whereabouts, his jobs, and his personal affairs. These scraps of paper are of interest to Chaucer nerds, but also to historians generally. They offer us a portrait of middle-class life during a turbulent period that encompassed both the apocalyptic Black Plague and the subsequent Peasants’ Revolt.

Chaucer was about five years old when the bubonic plague hit London in 1348, killing at least half of its residents over the next four years. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for young Geoffrey, growing up among adults who obsessed constantly about an unimaginable horror he could barely remember. Still, he managed to lead a very privileged life. As the son of a winemaker who sold goods to the royal family, Chaucer was the rare example of a non-aristocrat who rubbed shoulders with London’s ruling class. Educated and well-trained in war and diplomacy, he rose through the ranks first as a foreign diplomat, then a customs official at the Port of London, and finally a justice of the peace.

Because of his social status, Chaucer wasn’t directly affected by one of the worst outcomes of the plague: a law called the Statute of Laborers, enacted by the landholding classes after the plague burned itself out in 1351. After half the nation’s labor force perished in the plague, the laborers remaining were suddenly much more valuable. They could reasonably demand more money for their work. To prevent this, the Statute of Laborers limited wages to their pre-pandemic levels. It also prevented employers from poaching laborers from their neighbors with the promise of higher wages. The existential crisis of the plague years had morphed into an economic one.

Frustrated with the unfair wage freeze and job restrictions, laborers organized a series of “Peasants’ Revolts” all across the country in 1381. In London, where Chaucer leased a set of modest but cozy rooms over Aldgate, the revolt became violent. Several of the poet’s wealthy neighbors were dragged from their houses and murdered for the ways they had treated their servants under the Statute of Laborers. Chaucer’s “raptus” legal case was brought in 1379 and concluded in 1380, just a few months before the Peasants’ Revolt. So we have to hold that in mind, to understand this case against a backdrop of brewing worker uprisings.

Now flash forward roughly half a millennium to 1873, when a Chaucer scholar named Frederick J. Furnivall discovered the first document in the raptus case—a quitclaim, or withdrawal of a legal claim, from May 4, 1380. In it, a baker’s daughter named Cecily Chaumpaigne said she released Chaucer from “all manner of actions related to my raptus.” Given that the word “raptus” is generally translated as “rape” or “abduction,” it appeared that Chaumpaigne had accused Chaucer of rape and then withdrawn the accusation for unknown reasons. The idea was an unwholesome blot on the life of a beloved poet, and many nineteenth and twentieth century scholars tried to downplay or deny it. One argued that such a great poet couldn’t possibly be a rapist. Another joked that Chaucer was just having a bit of sexy fun.

But then in 1993, a researcher found another quitclaim related to Chaucer’s raptus case, filed in a different court by Chaumpaigne, in which the word “raptus” had mysteriously been removed. This seemed a bit fishy, as if Chaucer had somehow used his legal acumen and connections at court to cover up a dark crime. And it led to some extremely acrimonious disagreements in English literature departments.

Spurred by advances in feminist studies at the turn of the twenty-first century, medieval scholars like Samantha Katz Seal and her colleagues began to explore what it meant for Chaucer to be both a great poet and a rapist. They argued that the patriarchy isn’t just a blunt hammer that oppresses women overtly—it is also a nuanced force, creating alloys of beauty and horror, poetry and violence. In a recent article, Seal argued that it is possible to teach Chaucer as an important figure, while also acknowledging that his work contains violent misogyny and racism. Other scholars raged at Seal’s work, claiming that she was trying to “cancel” a poet who died over 600 years ago.

This debate was essentially about historical worldbuilding. How should we recreate the social world of Geoffrey Chaucer, a wealthy medieval man, in modern-day classrooms? Obviously, the concept of patriarchy would have been foreign to the poet and his contemporaries. Does that mean we should dismiss rape accusations with the same indifference that Chaucer’s friends probably did? Or should we, as Seal urged, consider the rape a new key to understanding his work? It certainly added a layer of meaning to the many sexist assumptions and misogynistic jokes in his poetry. Whatever answer a scholar chose would profoundly affect the way they explained this fourteenth century celebrity to twenty-first century students.

Then, in the early 2020s, a researcher at The National Archives of the UK named Euan Roger discovered two new historical documents related to the raptus case that changed everything. Roger was working with Sebastian Sobecki, a medieval literature scholar at the University of Toronto, who was trying to figure out how Chaucer managed to get the word “raptus” taken out of the second quitclaim. He asked Roger to start looking further back in time, trying to find other documents that might be related to the case.

Roger stumbled across the original court filings, which blew his mind. In a blog post about the discovery, Roger and Sobecki wrote:

The first of the two newly discovered records is a warrant dated 9 April 1380 (the first day of the Easter law term), in which Cecily Chaumpaigne appointed two attorneys, Edmund Herryng and Stephen Falle, to act on her behalf. They were appointed, not against Chaucer, however, but against a man named Thomas Staundon. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, they were not appointed to act for Chaumpaigne as a plaintiff in the case brought before the court, but as a defendant, against charges brought under the Statute and Ordinance of Labourers… Chaucer also appointed the attorney Stephen (del) Falle to answer charges brought against him by Thomas Staundon.

This was a truly unexpected left turn. First of all, it turned out that Chaucer and his servant Chaumpaigne were both being sued by this guy Thomas Staundon—and they shared at least some of the same legal team. Plus, it wasn’t a suit related to “raptus” at all, but instead a dispute triggered by the controversial Statute of Laborers. So who was Staundon and why were Chaucer and Chaumpaigne hiring lawyers to defend themselves against his claims?

The answer came in the second document Roger discovered, which was the original writ, from October 1379. In it, Staundon claimed [sic]:

The aforesaid Geoffrey admitted and retained Cecily Champayn, formerly the servant of the aforesaid Thomas, in his service at London, who has departed from the same service before the end of the agreed term, without reasonable cause or licence of Thomas himself, into the service of the said Geoffrey.

Staundon added that he asked Chaucer to return Chaumpaigne to his service, but Chaucer had refused, causing a “grievous loss” to Staundon. It appears that Staundon was trying to force Chaumpaigne back into his service by invoking the Statute of Laborers, which forbade employers from poaching servants. Suddenly, we have an entirely new view of the situation. Staundon was trying to prevent his employee from taking a job for higher pay, and was using every method and every law at his disposal.

Returning to the original quitclaims—both with and without the word “raptus,”—Roger and Sobecki were able to recontextualize what had happened. The word raptus was being used metaphorically, in this legal context, to refer to “the physical act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s service—using the language of ‘abduction’ to represent a physical transfer from one household to another.” It would seem that Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from the “raptus” accusation so that Staundon could no longer claim she had been abducted. This would have prevented Staundon from forcing Chaumpaigne back into his employ.

Given how many court filings it required to get Chaumpaigne out of a job she didn’t want, it’s easy to imagine how hard it would have been for someone who didn’t have the means (or powerful friends like Chaucer) to help them. Chaumpaigne’s lawsuit—for it is truly her lawsuit—is one of the few surviving examples of the everyday conditions that led to the Peasants’ Revolt.

Scholars had misunderstood what happened—and the word “raptus”—because they had an incomplete context, both legally and historically. This was a case about labor abuse, not sexual assault. The discovery was so explosive that it was even covered in the mainstream media. Inevitably, many headlines trumpeted gleefully that Chaucer had been “wrongly accused of rape for 150 years.” But Chaucer’s innocence or lack thereof was never the point.

As Sobecki and Rogers pointed out in a special issue of The Chaucer Review, the raptus debate isn’t about canceling Chaucer. It’s about how to tell stories about Chaucer’s world from more perspectives than, well, Chaucer’s. It means asking what Chaumpaigne wanted, and what kind of legal recourse she could use to get it.

There is no pure, unfettered access to true history—but there is the hope of understanding how complex people’s relationships were in the past. Even as the raptus case was unfolding in 1379, it’s obvious that Chaumpaigne and Staunton had very different ideas about what was going on. Chaucer probably had yet another idea. We don’t even know who first decided to use the word “raptus” in the case. Was it Staunton? The lawyers? The bureaucrats who ran the various courts where the case was heard? On top of that, there are intriguing new scenarios we might spin up about why Chaucer was breaking labor laws to help Chaumpaigne. Perhaps he was sympathetic to the demands of laborers? Or maybe his desires were actually predatory.

It’s frustrating that we’ll never be sure what Cicely Chaumpaigne experienced in Staunton’s employ, and why she was willing to go to court to get a different job. But we do know what happens when modern male scholars are presented with evidence of rape. They hide it. They laugh it off. They claim that good poets can’t be rapists.

Put another way, the raptus case lets us think critically about the way Chaucerians have traditionally told stories about the poet’s life. Feminist scholar Seal pointed out that male Chaucerians spent decades shutting down feminist colleagues who wanted to discuss what seemed at the time a credible rape accusation. For Seal, the raptus scandal is about nineteenth and twentieth century debates over female autonomy, not what Chaucer did in 1379. She writes:

It is a story not about Chaucer’s attitudes to women, but about the attitudes of Chaucerian critics to the female creatures who, by claiming their own humanity, by asserting their rights to vote, attend college, and even, by the 1970s, start competing for English department jobs, seemed to be undermining the very edifices of race and class and gender that had seemed as if they would always be there to lift men of (somewhat variable) genius up.

We always look at history through the tinted lenses of the present. But the act of trying to find connections with people in the past, of pushing our empathy backwards into the 1300s, helps us to know ourselves. This is not about erasing history; it’s about understanding that history belongs to us. By telling new stories about the past, we broaden the canvas to see what was actually going on outside the narrow corridors of wealth and power.

There will always be more interpretations and more perspectives to consider, many of them contradictory. That’s how history works, and that’s how storytelling works. Put another way, good worldbuilding is never finished.

The Haunting of Her Body

As of the writing of this essay, I have had a cough for five weeks. No one can figure out why. The cough plateaus after medication but does not cease, lingering in my body like a ghost.

I am tired of living in a haunted house, and I don’t mean the property that I own. I mean the body that I live in.

Haunted house stories are manifestations of lived experience. They tell us what it is like to live somewhere that is heavy with reminders or contains lots of surprises.

I have enough ghostly manifestations like this cough that my body could be the setting of a Mike Flanagan show, with hundreds of hidden ghosts spliced neatly into each frame.

So why do I love haunted houses and horror so much, if every single day of my life is the site of a haunting, a medical mystery that will probably go unsolved?

Because at the end of most haunting stories—even Flanagan horrors like The Haunting of Hill House, Bly House, and The Midnight Club, there is so much closure.

There is closure for the reader, who gets to walk away from the creeping horror when we find out who is behind the haunting, or what caused it in the first place. But living in a haunted body causes no such relief.

I think one of the things that makes these stories particularly interesting to me is that they do, in fact, create false closure. Perhaps you are able to end the haunting of your house, but does it end up becoming the home for another? What’s to say another ghost won’t come along and try to take up residence?

That’s the experience of living in a chronically ill body like mine. You’re never quite sure which time is the last time.

This is what’s so compelling to me about Mike Flanagan’s newest show: The Midnight Club. It features terminally ill characters who are obsessed with telling horror stories. This particular framing device really resonated for me as a disabled person who loves horror and who lives in a body not quite like theirs, but similar. I was surprised to see this show on Netflix of all places: a proudly disabled story with the kind of snark about what it’s like to live in bodies that don’t particularly want to listen was revelatory.

Let’s start with Dana. Dana is the show’s Irish power chair user. Dana’s character is an excellent representation of disability, comparable to disability autofiction. Look no further than Alice Wong’s Year of the Tiger for an example of the kind of storytelling I mean, which interweaves real history with imagined reality in the same way Dana’s story “The Two Danas” does. In stories structured like these two, the reader cannot be completely sure of what’s true or not, or where the real experience of Dana’s disability came from. (For the most part, disability origin stories are always obscured in darkness. I used to tell people my heart surgery scar was either from a tiger attack or from a swordfight.) But Dana’s story, even with the appearance of the Devil, has truth to it. Truth in self-harm. Truth in failure. Truth in Dana’s body being uncontrollable, and therefore difficult for her to accept.

Dana is a disabled person I know. I’ve seen her rage, her snark, her storytelling in other people’s experiences.

And then there is Spencer, who I also know. Spencer, the main character of The Midnight Club, has HIV. Watching Spencer’s story was hard for me, because his story was not just a true one when it came to his disease. In the moment when he rolled back his sleeves to show a lesion from Kaposi sarcoma (a type of cancer associated with advanced HIV infections) on his arm, I gasped. Harder still were the ways in which his illness and his life have divorced him from his family. For Spencer to be welcome back home, for him to feel his mother’s support, he would have to go back to church, have to stop identifying as a gay man, have to say that he had done something wrong.

In Spencer’s story what I see is the true gift of disabled community. When it comes to the end of Spencer’s story for his group of horror obsessed friends, he admits that he knows he is loved. Maybe not by the people who raised him, but he has found new community.

The Midnight Club beautifully portrays this experience of new family, and the knowledge that even if the people who raised you are ableist, or sexist, or homophobic, you can find new family in the people who will always tell you that your disabled life (and death) are worth living and honoring.

Of course, the show has its problems. Set in the ‘90s with a host of ableist language, but it features an honest look at disability and its relationship to the horror genre nonetheless.

I will continue to lean on my friends, to address the hauntings of my body, and to find humor in the fact that sometimes I feel like a cyborg. I will sometimes tell stories about my body to make it more livable, and I will never, ever, take the dark elevator down to the basement by myself. That kind of adventure is reserved for a group of disabled friends with flashlights, ready to investigate the haunting that’s real: the ghosts that haunt old houses, not the illnesses that we experience. Sometimes the lights we carry with us come from the stories that we remember. The Midnight Club shines bright in those dark elevator shafts. And we don’t have to go alone; Dana and Spencer are the kind of characters who would always take a hand and come with us.

The Uncanny Valley

This is Uncanny Magazine Issue 50. Our double-sized, milestone Issue 50.

There’s been 100 months of Uncanny Magazine on the Internet. 

HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?!?! 😊

We are massively proud of this achievement, Space Unicorns. When we launched our first issue in 2014, we had no idea that we would make it to 50 issues. It’s not easy for magazines to achieve that, especially a magazine that does it with yearly crowdfunding. We are gobsmacked and humbled by reaching this fabulous milestone.

We could only have done it with your support, Space Unicorns, and with the help of the greatest staff in the universe. We think we’ve made a fairly dandy magazine over the last 9 years. In that time, Uncanny Magazine, or pieces from Uncanny, accumulated 166 award nominations and 35 award wins—wins that include 6 Hugo Awards for Uncanny, a Hugo Award for the Uncanny Thomases’ editing, and Uncanny stories winning Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Ignyte, and World Fantasy Awards. This is completely beyond our original dreams and expectations. 

We opened our first editorial in November 2014, with: “January 28, 2014 was the worst day of our lives: A parade of awful news culminating in our 11-year-old daughter Caitlin nearly dying during her spinal fusion surgery.” It was worse than that in the autumn of 2019, when Caitlin almost died many more times. The absolute worst, though, has been the last 6 months. Caitlin has been through so very much, and is currently home in palliative care. (The doctors have told us her current health issues are terminal, and we are doing everything we can to make the time she has left as wonderful and loving as possible.) Somehow, during all of the hospitalizations and life changes and chaos, we’ve managed to get every single issue of Uncanny Magazine out on time and to our standards. 

We’re still here. Caitlin, Lynne, and Michael persist—as does Hugo the Cat.

It hasn’t been easy. Magazines are tricky in the best of times, and we’ve created Uncanny during tremendous challenges. Often we will check in with each other to make sure that the time and energy spent on the magazine are worth it.

It has, and always will be worth it. 

We believe in this art. We believe stories matter. We believe in this community. We believe that the best way to build a better world is to create things—things that give hope and catharsis. We want to help spread art that has meaning and escape. We’re here to bring you beautiful words and to always, always Space Unicorns, make you feel.

Thank you, all of you. We couldn’t have done this without our devoted readership, our phenomenal writers and artists, and our tremendous staff, which includes our Managing Editor Monte Lin, Nonfiction Editor Meg Elison, Podcast Producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky, Podcast Reader Matt Peters, Interviewer Caroline M. Yoachim, and Assistant Editor Tania Chen, plus our alumni staff of Managing /Poetry Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu, Managing/Nonfiction Editor Michi Trota, Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson, Poetry/Reprint Editor Julia Rios, Poetry/Reprint Editor Mimi Mondal, Senior Assistant Editor Naomi Day, Assistant Editor Angel Cruz, podcast readers Amal El-Mohtar, C. S. E. Cooney, Joy Piedmont, and Stephanie Malia Morris, and our interviewers Deborah Stanish and Shana DuBois, and finally, all of our many Submissions Editors through the years.

LET’S MAKE 50 MORE!!! 

It’s the time of year when people post their year-in-reviews to remind voters for the different SF/F awards what’s out there that they might have missed, and in which categories those stories are eligible (especially for the Hugo Awards and Nebula Awards). 2022 was the eighth full year of Uncanny Magazine (Issues 44 through 49). We are extremely proud of the year we had.

This year, Uncanny Magazine is still eligible for the Best Semiprozine Hugo Award. Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas are also still eligible for the Best Editor (Short Form) Hugo Award for editing issues 44–49. (Note: If you are nominating the Thomases in this category, please continue to nominate them together. They are a co-editing team.)

The stories at the link below are eligible in either the short story, novelette, or novella categories of the SF/F awards. If you are a SFWA member nominating for the Nebula Awards, you can find eBook copies of these stories in the SFWA Forums.

Please also note that essays are eligible for the Best Related Work Hugo Award, and poetry is eligible for the Rhysling Award. As Uncanny is a semiprozine, all of the essays and original art also contribute towards the creators’ Best Fan Writer and Best Fan Artist Hugo Award eligibility.

You can see the entire list here!

And now the contents of the DOUBLE-SIZED Uncanny Magazine Issue 50! The fabulous cover is Sharps and Soft by Galen Dara (who also was the Issue #1 artist). Our fabulous new fiction includes “Collaboration?” by Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim, “Cold Relations” by Mary Robinette Kowal, “How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub” by P. Djèlí Clark, “Waystation City” by A. T. Greenblatt, “Horsewoman” by A.M. Dellamonica, “Flower, Daughter, Soil, Seed” by Eugenia Triantafyllou, “One Man’s Treasure” by Sarah Pinsker, “The Father Provincial of Mare Imbrium” by E. Lily Yu, “Silver Necklace, Golden Ring” by Marie Brennan, “Miz Boudreaux’s Last Ride” by Christopher Caldwell, “Bad Doors” by John Wiswell, and “Prospect Heights” by Maureen McHugh.

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include “Something in the Way: AI Art and the Real Killer” by John Picacio, “The Haunting of Her Body” by Elsa Sjunneson, “What a Fourteenth Century Legal Case Can Teach Us about Storytelling” by Annalee Newitz, “The Magic of the Right Story” by A. T. Greenblatt, “The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm: Audio Writing” by Diana M. Pho, and “Building Better Worlds” by Javier Grillo-Marxuach. Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “The Hole Thing” by Neil Gaiman, “Love Poem: Phoenix” by Terese Mason Pierre, “The Credo of Loplop” by Sonya Taaffe, “Kannazuki, or the Godless Month” by Betsy Aoki, “The Witch Makes Her To-Do List” by Theodora Goss, “Temperance and The Devil, Reversed” by Ali Trotta, “Driving Downtown” by Abu Bakr Sadiq, “Hel on a Headland” by Elizabeth Bear, and “To Whomsoever Remains” by Brandon O’Brien. Finally, Tina Connolly interviews Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim about their story, and Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Eugenia Triantafyllou, E. Lily Yu, and Christopher Caldwell about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 50A features “Cold Relations” by Mary Robinette Kowal, as read by Erika Ensign, “Love Poem: Phoenix” by Terese Mason Pierre, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Mary Robinette Kowal. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 50B features “How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub” by P. Djèlí Clark, as read by Matt Peters, “Kannazuki, or the Godless Month” by Betsy Aoki, as read by Eika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing P. Djèlí Clark. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 50C features “One Man’s Treasure” by Sarah Pinsker, as read by Matt Peters, “The Witch Makes Her To-Do List” by Theodora Goss, as read by Erika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Sarah Pinsker. Finally, the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 50D features “Bad Doors” by John Wiswell, as read by Erika Ensign, “Driving Downtown” by Abu Bakr Sadiq, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing John Wiswell.

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

The Tired Body Problem

Editors of fiction and nonfiction alike live in a cyclone of recurring themes. We receive pitches and submissions along seasonal and cultural currents; we can always tell when an anthology call made waves or a new magazine made ripples. More than that, we can usually sense which way the wind is blowing for writers and creatives in general, because everyone finds a way to express the same general feeling.

For the entirety of my time here at Uncanny, I have received essays that express fatigue. Everybody is tired. Writers are tired, and more than that, burned out. That feeling is elegantly expressed by Premee Mohamed, who noted that the entire world seems to be burning down, but only our deadlines remain fireproof. Sarah Gailey invited us, the endlessly weary, to take a break with a short story. And what are those stories for? Inspiration, sure. A window out of this world into another? Sometimes. A way to rest, when all else in life calls for our unrelenting efforts and demands that we produce at an incredible rate even as our beds are burning? That’s the one.

That last is a vast understatement of the facts. We are all of us living out our wild and precious lives. Each life is a tragedy in progress. Each tree of branching relationships is a living drama. Each absurd indignity of being a human is a comedy. And although each of these facts has been true of every human who has ever lived upright and used a language, our time seems, if not unique, at least louder, and more frenetic than any that preceded it. That is perhaps due to an unprecedented (who’s tired of that word?) acceleration in technology accompanied by social upheaval and political turmoil and climate change. These factors are exacerbated by our all-new ability to hear the inane and terrifying thoughts of the millions of minds around us, thanks to social media, while we contend with our own micro and macro horrors. Add to all this the pressures of late-stage capitalism under an income inequality not seen in centuries, and it’s a wonder we don’t all just lie down in the street and refuse to get up.

But it is the hubris of each generation to imagine its suffering is new and different than any other. Science fiction writers have been trying to undo the human need for sleep for decades now. In 1957, J.G. Ballard imagined an existence without sleep. His optimists in “Manhole 69” believe that life might be more interesting and more productive without the loss of eight hours of torpor. His pessimists predict the outcome we all know to be the truth from our own experience with continual exhaustion: the human mind simply cannot take it. Ted Chiang’s 1991 “Understand” draws a similar conclusion: the mind that does not sleep loses something essentially human. When we are tired, we are less than ourselves. Certainly less than our best.

In 2014, Karen Russell published Sleep Donation, an early entry into the conversation about sleep and capitalism. In her tale, talented sleepers can donate or sell what they’re good at to insomniacs who desperately need it. Even this seemingly reciprocal arrangement is no good: the exchange of dreams and nightmares uncouples the work on an individual from the mind that created it. The result is inhumane and more tiring than the garden-variety lack of rest.

This most recent year of the pandemic (which pandemic? Why, the one that brings viral fatigue! The one we’re all so very tired of! The one that’s wearing us out when it doesn’t kill us!) brought readers The Sleepless, by Victor Manibo. In Manibo’s neo-noir, a cascading series of environmental and pharmacological pressures makes about ten percent of the human population sleepless. They’re up all night in neon cities, working second jobs and trying each other on like onesie pajamas. Manibo’s nightlight fantasy is so appealing, mostly because of capitalism. Imagine having no fatigue to strain the potentials of wage earning. Imagine wide-open rooms in an apartment, because the person who lives there has no need to cede real estate to a bed. Imagine living twice as much life, because half of it isn’t spent unconscious.

The idea appeals, at first. Somewhere deep within each of us there lives a sullen toddler who does not want to go to bed. Other people are awake, and surely they must be enjoying something illicit from which we are excluded. We want to stay up and be grown-up and cool.

The toddler needs a nap. The grown-up needs a nap. We all need a nap.

At the beginning of the pandemic (which pandemic? Why, the one that will be over before you know it! The one we can curtail through masking and social distancing! The one where we’re flattening the curve by caring about one another) brought readers a new Tim Pratt novel, called Doors of Sleep. In this Sliders-style adventure of parallel universes, our hero wakes up in a new world every time they sleep. This makes sleep both the enemy and the vehicle of adventure itself. The main character has to carry stimulants and soporifics alike, to bring sleep when it’s needed (when the world is dangerous, when they have to escape) and to ward it off when the world is welcoming (this world has food, this world has a hot tub, this world brought me a companion whom I’d like to take along). Doors of Sleep is a cunning and charming creation that makes the reader think of sleep with such tension: dare I slip off into another world? What’s happening to this one while I’m away?

It is this last worry that hangs over each of these submissions that I read. If the body is tired, we should feel no guilt about giving it the rest that it so clearly needs. We should surrender to the nap, to the deep night, to the time off of work, to the quiet when the kids are out of the house. We should breathe deep in it, knowing that we deserve it, and take the benefits it brings with gratitude.

But we don’t. And in our wildest dreams, our farthest-reaching stories, most of us do not imagine a world where rest is enshrined as sacred, and our devices are turned off, and we forgive our bodies the weakness of not being machines in perpetual motion. We imagine the singularity. We imagine augmented cyborg bodies that can outrun every human frailty. We dream of being awake, eyes pinned open, never missing a thing.

There are several subgenres of fantasy and science fiction that we don’t commonly include in our reviews and our counts. They don’t come up in awards conversations, and they’re rarely considered art. These stories exist in a specific section of our libraries, behind a beaded curtain like erotica. Like erotica, they’re meant to act on the somatic self rather than the imagination. On every podcatcher and audio book app, there are stories designed to help folks sleep. They’re sometimes stories about spaceships gliding between peaceful planets and elf maidens building a bower where anyone might rest their weary heads. They’re read in soft, soothing voices, and they last about as long as it takes to get settled down and remember how to breathe without the firehose of information in our mouths.

The body living in 2022 is so tired. That’s true across the board, and any editor or reader can attest. Being tired is not a weakness, and sleep is not a surrender. The relationship between the two is, as Ballard and Chiang and Manibo and Pratt conclude, utterly human. Give yourself the gift of that realization. If you’re having trouble, settle in and let yourself have story time.

Something in the Way: AI-Generated Images and the Real Killer

When I began my career as a science fiction/fantasy/horror artist back in the ‘90s, illustrations on book covers were created by illustrators. Or I should say, by human ones. Even back then, change was coming. It was in the wind.

Before that, comics were my first love, my first language. I was a child of the 1970s. Superhero comics were my first memories. That perfect alchemy of words and four-color pictures, drawn with pencils and inks, printed on cheap pulp paper between slick covers—Batman, Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Justice League of America, Action Comics, the Spectre and more. I wanted to be a comic book artist and storyteller, more than anything else. That dream carried me through high school until I took a college detour through architecture.

After graduation, I was working by day as an intern architect, while writing and drawing my own comics in the wee hours. Those self-published comics ended up getting me noticed by book publishers and that’s when the science fiction and fantasy publishing world came knocking. In 1995, Mojo Press asked me to illustrate a 30th anniversary edition of Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. I knew who Moorcock was but I wasn’t sure the job was for me. I still wanted to do comics. The publisher took me to Mike’s house. Mike talked. I listened. And that changed everything.

The way he carried himself as a professional, his humility despite being one of the undisputed giants of the field, his high standards and pure enthusiasm for SF/F made me fall in love with the book business. Mike became a mentor to me. I learned so much from him. He was part of a continuum across decades of SF/F literature, and I wanted to be part of that. Building a career as an SF/F cover artist was all I wanted to do. But even then, I realized that SF/F was a last bastion for illustrated cover art in the book industry as a whole. Iconic artworks created by extraordinary visionary illustrators were once seen across all forms of pop cultures and across all divisions of literature. But in the publishing business, SF/F was one of the few markets where that work was still hotly pursued and consumed.

Around the turn of the millennium though, I was seeing more and more publishers using less cover illustration, which may have saved them a few dollars, but generally made for some very forgettable covers. My career was ascending though, and cover art opportunities were coming my way fast and furious. I wondered if the next generation after me would be able to make a living creating book cover art, as I was doing. I realized it probably wasn’t going to happen for them, and I was probably amongst the last of the American illustrators who would have the chance to make a living solely creating book cover art. I was able to do that for the first ten years or so of my career, with some magazine illustration sprinkled in. But for the most part, book cover art was how I paid my bills and mortgage for over a decade.

As this current COVID-stricken decade has unfolded, the smart move has been finding new ways to diversify my earning ability as an illustrator. The one that made the most sense to me was creating my own stories, or at least co-creating them, and being part of the ownership of a story, rather than just the art that heralded it. It’s a future I’m still working toward, even as I study modern greats like Brom, Shaun Tan, Yoshi Yoshitani, Ruth Sanderson, Charles Vess, Dave McKean, and Greg Manchess blazing their own illustrated story trails.

Amidst this evolution, along come artificial intelligence (AI)-generated images (AKA “AI art,” which is not a phrase we should concede carelessly). AI image platforms are going to be a destructive force in the coming months and years. They’re evolving on a daily basis, and it’s clear that working artists are going to be decimated by this event. These platforms function by stealing the published work of working artists and using it without permission. This is not about inspiration or using creative work as reference. This is theft. Plain and simple.

I don’t subscribe to mantras that proclaim “art is dead” or “all pro illustrators are screwed,” BUT yes, the livelihoods of all working visual artists are in grave danger. The viable market is about to have a massive contraction. For writers and consumers of the written word, this may seem like a “ho-hum, I’m really busy here, thoughts and prayers” moment. But trust me, we’re all going to be lesser for this seismic shift. Each and every one of us. Yes, even you, dear writer. And oh yes, especially you too, dear reader.

Artists must always evolve. It’s in the nature of the role, right? But take note—the arrival of AI-generated imagery now heralds that artists who don’t have a very strong and urgent “why” baked into their future visuals will be obsolete. Probably already are. Why? Because the exponentially rising, infinite, crushing tsunami of technically pretty “hey, it looks cool” artistic dreck we’re about to experience is going to be unprecedented and “good enough” will become the standard for the vast majority of the audience who can type a few prompts and get what that they think they want.

Read that again—the AI itself may not be the end of art. It will be the end of many, many livelihoods. Entire portions of industry and work gone for good. Devastating. Heartbreaking. Culture-changing. But for those professional visual artists who do overcome that—an audience’s belief that “good enough” is sufficient will be the killer we can’t survive.

So it’s gonna come down to the question of “why.” Why does that next picture need to exist, and the power of that “why” will be what separates the magical work from the mundane. Has that always been the case? Yeah, I think so. But communicating the urgency of that “why” in the work itself is where we now are, and arguably is the most essential remaining value left for visual creators.

So that takes us back to asking if all the loss is worth the dopamine gains. Right now, the most addicted and binge-driven are the ones running the conversation about AI-generated images. Might be a need for that to change. The “why” takes us back to story and narrative, and not just narrative in a textual sense, but the kind of pure visual narrative meaning that words can’t do (sorry, wordsmiths). And yeah, I think AI is coming for the writers too. No doubt.

Machine-driven narrative will get better and better as the taste for popular narrative gets more and more watered down. And again, it won’t necessarily be because the AI does better work than working visual artists and writers, but because the audience settles for accepting the mass convenience of “good enough,” drowning out the need for quality of content. Audiences cherish convenience over quality. It’s what drives our ethos, at least here in the U.S. No reason to believe people are suddenly going to wake up and change.

The arrival of AI generated-images (and how industry chooses to use it) goes far beyond what happened upon the advent of photography or even Photoshop. This is NOT the same conversation. AI is a tidal shift from the center of human context that defines meaning. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Choose your yellow brick road very wisely, folks.

Personally, I’m gonna evolve. I’ll find a way forward amidst the carnage. To be clear, that does not mean I will collaborate with AI. That’s not my path. Mine lies in the opposite direction, finding ways for my most commercial work to be imbued with my most personal values. Same as I’ve done for more than twenty-five years—but with even more urgency, more context, more meaning, more “why.” What I’m not sure I can survive is that gaping disconnect of the human audience settling for “good enough.” That giant whale shape just under the surface…that swelling loss of human value that now extends beyond the horizon. It’s getting bigger. And unless we all recognize it—and our responsibility to oppose it—I realize that’s the one that may take us all down.

Beware of “good enough,” friends. Expect the best from art. Expect originality. Do not settle. Resist. Persist.

Back to the drawing board.

What Do the Dying Know?

To be young and whole is to own the earth, to own the story. But the story doesn’t end when we pass peak performance. Where are the tales about what happens then?

Because the body does, indeed break down. I think of the original Star Trek episode, “The Menagerie.” Captain Christopher Pike’s body is so damaged that he can’t move or speak, and he’s in a strange box-like contraption. He’s given the opportunity to live on the planet Talos IV, in a world that allows him the illusion of himself as young and healthy. I have no quarrel with being able to project himself in a better life, but the body in a box always seemed to me to be a metaphor for old age. Old bodies are traps.

Cronenberg has said about his 1986 film The Fly that it is a story of aging, and it gives this to us by the device of an unwelcome intrusion of a foreign body into his own. It overtakes him.

Our fundamental desire, our belief, is that our body won’t betray us, and of course there are many people who maintain a good physical existence to the end. But the rest of us don’t.

I was 19 when I suddenly became partially paralyzed, due to an undiscovered congenital spine defect. It was my first body betrayal, and very far from the last. Over the years, more spinal issues arose, and the memory of moving easily was just that, a memory. It has influenced a lot of my stories indirectly. We love the idea of, say, replacing the parts that stop working—androids, for instance—or moving our aging brains into new bodies. We hope there are cures every step of the way as hearts murmur, and joints lock, as vision and hearing and balance fail. We are fascinated by the idea of growing new ears and organs on pigs, and I’ve used that in a story. Or we twist the concept of body failure by turning bodies into alien beings, as in The Fly.

Because of the numerous replacements and surgeries, people laughingly say, “Oh, you’re bionic.” I actually prefer “rebuilt classic.” Because the mix of old and new suggests restoration. I have willingly incorporated new parts as I go (new knees, new hips), as long as I can continue to move (again, that Star Trek episode haunts me). The mix of parts suggests a scientific solution to aging, as if I could someday acknowledge that I am Borg: a basic human plan with added technology.

As I age, the metaphors for it in my stories lead themselves to contained, distinct alienation of the body. I’ve written about fingers betraying a woman’s hands, perhaps in response to what arthritis is doing to my hands. I wrote a story where a woman’s hair was stolen by a coworker. While the story never suggests it, it referred to how I viewed the hair loss associated with chemo. Stolen. But my body is the true metaphor.

And the body, with all its aberrations, still goes on.

There’s a dearth of great stories about aging, especially about women aging, and aging women, about being left out of most discussions, about accepting and continuing.

I try to include aging and disabled (the two don’t always go together, but sometimes they do) in my stories. My latest novel, The Splendid City, has a senior witch who is increasingly disabled, and we see her go from a cane to a wheelchair. In fact, she flies in a lawn chair. Who can sit on a broom after 30 anyway? She still has power, and she has the added authority of experience and understanding.

By and large, old women don’t have much place in modern society. Aging, of course, is not restricted to women, but women become increasingly invisible.

In “The Space Crone,” Ursula K. Le Guin suggested that if aliens were to ask for a representative individual from our earth, we should consider the ordinary old woman who has worked for her family and who has gone through enormous changes such as childbirth and menopause, things most men don’t do and therefore can’t experience as life changes. These women have seen and done more than men do, and have never been considered important, despite their rather pivotal roles in society. But they have a fuller life than men. This reminds me of Miss Marple, who was acute at divining the criminal because they reminded her of the past criminals she had encountered. She perceived patterns.

One scene that stands out for me is Jet in Alice Hoffman’s The Book of Magic, involving the aging witch Jet, who has just found out that she has only a week before her death. It’s particularly striking that she is a strong woman, in control of her life, though not always effective in the lives of those she loves. Her last days are powerful, not because she wins a ring or a stone or a battle, but because she sees with remarkable sight what the world is, and what she is. Perhaps what bothers me so much about how aging and death are portrayed is that we want a bigger boom than insight and acceptance, and love. But Jet’s death is a powerful chapter, the letting go with love, and the reconciliation with love when her family line has always been cursed to lose what they love. Nothing diminishes her. What she has is the wholeness of life behind her.

It’s this wholeness of life that Miss Marple, Jet, and a host of other detectives earn through aging. Life is both surprise and repetition. We learn from both.

I’m working on a story where the older women in an urban neighborhood have set up their own watch—in touch with each other from block to block, aiding in solving crimes. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but it’s part of a collection I hope to have some day, called, “The League of Invisible Women.” They’re invisible because that’s what women after menopause are: invisible. But they have sharp eyes and enough of a network to function effectively. They are the senior eyes in the neighborhood; they may not have the action scenes but they have knowledge, and by working within the community, together, they pass that knowledge down.

If the end of life is finalizing, letting things go—what do we learn from that? What is the takeaway? We’ve heard so many times that the last regrets are not what we did, but what we didn’t do: where is the way to evaluate that? There are so many things we didn’t do; wouldn’t it be worthwhile to know how to judge them? Wouldn’t there be value in being told what did work in a long life, what they’ve seen fail not only with themselves but with the larger world? What broad wisdom are we letting slip away? What is the underlying pattern?

The questions to the dying of course should be, what have you learned about values? What in the world should be changed? What are the patterns and how do we see them and address them? How can we be better?

So, what do readers like me want to see? I want women of all kinds and ages to take their place in our stories, to face their aging with courage and deal with it. Because we do.

Across the Afterverse: A Conversation with Afropunk SF/F Author Alex Smith

I first encountered Alex Smith’s writing when we were both published in a tribute anthology for Samuel R. Delany called Stories for Chip (Rosarium Books, 2015). His fiction was dense, anarchic, compelling, and blazed with an overheated sense of wonder. I knew I’d be seeing more of him, and Alex has continued making a name for himself ever since. We recently sat down for a Zoom chat during his successful crowdfunding campaign for Issue #2 of his queer cyberpunk superhero series, Black Vans.

 

Alex Jennings: Your art, writing, and music are deeply connected to Philadelphia. Is that where you were born and raised?

Alex Smith: Born and raised in Greenville, NC, but I’ve lived, loved, and grown here since 2002! Even though I only moved here when I was 26, I’m a lifer.

AJ: What brought you to the SF/F field?

AS: Honestly, I still don’t feel like I’m properly in the SF field. It feels very regimented, very exclusive in a lot of ways. Like, there are too many tiers and hierarchies and sometimes it reminds me of the Church, which makes sense considering a lot of sci-fi stories are structured—usually subconsciously—like some kind of tiered religion; see Harry Potter or nearly any story with authoritative “world building.” I don’t know what cons to attend and how to submit, or any of the protocol, I just try to write wild, explosive, hyperactive stories filled with queers and gays, Black people doing strange stuff, fat people being free. I definitely create speculative fiction across several subgenres, but I am also hyper-aware of my outsider status. I’m thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had, though!

AJ: How do you feel your work fits into the Afrofuturist movement?

AS: Squarely and properly, I think. I’m pretty excited about my association with Afrofuturism and the qualities that it brings to sci-fi and speculative story telling! I’ve been doing Afrofuturist work since 2011, around the time I met my friends in the Metropolarity sci-fi arts collective—Ras Mashramani, Monk, Camae Ayewa a.k.a. Moor Mother and of course, Rasheedah Phillips, who started the Afrofuturist Affair and Black Quantum Futurism. I was always hesitant to align with it at first because it seemed like, on the surface, some head-in-the-clouds, pseudointellectual shit, but really it’s totally punk rock, totally hip hop in its scrappy, DIY nature. It’s a lot more cyberpunk than people give Afrofuturism credit for. Queer Black people reimagining their future is what I’m 100% all about. The definitive book hasn’t been written on the movement, but from my view it’s always represented rebellion married with an appreciation of speculative movements that have come before—African spirituality, the griots, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Sun Ra, the Black Panthers, Rammellzee, the Detroit techno musicians—all of whom represent that lineage. I’m carrying it on.

AJ: Who are some of the major influences on your work?

AS: I learned how to write reading Sports Illustrated in the mid ’80s, being fascinated with how they told stories about basketball players as if they were both mythic geniuses and regular people whose lives have these epic arcs. Comics and comic writers like Grant Morrison (especially), Samuel Delany, and Octavia Butler of course, especially Delany—his work, his existence, and his poetic, otherworldly writing style and conceptualization, confirmed to me that the themes and subject matter that interests me and how I engaged with them had a place in SF/F. Also, in my late teens and early 20s, I really mostly leaned on Black post-Beat and post-modern Black writers like Ishmael Reed, Walter Mosley, Andrea Lee, Victor LaValle, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (ugh, so many of my early stories were just re-treads of this book!), Percival Everett, Paul Beatty. These writers aren’t necessarily sci-fi, barely speculative, except for some flourishes, but their writing is so powerful that I wanted to bring the things that make their work literary into my SF/F and even into my superhero writing.

AJ: It’s clear from Black Vans and your other comics work that Body Positivity and Fat Positivity are important to you. What brought you to those movements?

AS: So, I’ve never been a fat person, but obviously I’ve had fat friends and fat lovers; it always stuck out to me, even at a young age, that this group of people have been wildly underrepresented in comics, film, television, and literature—except as a villains, tough guys, sad sacks, and representations of evil—and I just never really got why. Activism is important to me, and my activism in the fiction I create definitely extends to fat people. It’s important that everyone can see themselves as powerful, sexy, determined, real, and whole. It’s important for so-called “average” or so-called “athletic-bodied” people to see it too! Small folks need to get over ourselves and learn to appreciate and feel empowered and turned-on by fat bodies! Fat people aren’t waiting around for their/our approval anymore, they will absolutely choose who they want as friends, partners, lovers. James Dillenbeck and I like to challenge people to recognize and observe fat bodies by INCLUDING THEM IN OUR WORK! It’s one thing to be like, “oh I’m not fatphobic,” but we are constantly criticizing our own non-fat bodies in public or excluding fat people from everything from plans to go out by failing to consider whether the environment is friendly to fat folks, or by failing to include them in our creative portrayals. It’s time to end it. Also, I like seeing beautiful, powerful people on the page, so that is why I portray them.

AJ: What was the genesis for your comic series, Black Vans? What sets it apart from mainstream superhero comics?

AS: Black Vans started as one of three synopses I sent to James [Dillenbeck]. I tried to cater each of them to James’s specific style. James chose that one, and I’ve cannibalized some of the material from the others to add a little bit of texture. The idea is what if Marvel and DC did a story about Oracle, Microchip, and Ned from the Spider-Man movies and they were all gay. The Guy in the Chair trope has made its way into mainstream pop culture in recent years, and while they assist the heroes, they’re never the stars of the story. Being used for supporting castmates means they can have all sorts of ethnic/racial backgrounds, different body types, and sexualities from the main heroes, but they’re never the focus of the story. When their heroes start disappearing mysteriously, it’s their time to step up.

AJ: You mentioned that the Black Vans leads have different body types than their heroes. Can you say more about that?

AS: Many of these are fat, queer characters who are the geeks in the van, but they’re not without their own resources and capability. Electros is heavily connected, confident, and could kick your ass. And why shouldn’t he be portrayed that way? Similarly for Bo. These are fat characters, but with dimensionality, and capability. They get underestimated by the villains, and even once the villains realize it, they keep fighting.

AJ: This story takes place in a wider universe called The Afterverse. Could you tell me a little more about that?

AS: The Afterverse is an exploration of the techno-fantastic, a multiverse where unicorns exist alongside advancements in biotechnology; where bio-appropriate nano-tech innovations are run on magical systems, all through a queer, African diaspora lens, centering Black people not just as survivors of possible dystopia, but as continued innovators in an ever-changing world.

AJ: You are active across several art forms. How do you feel these relate to and inform each other?

AS: Deeply and intimately. The music, art, writing, and comics I do are all spiritually connected even though there’s no real through story. I use similar imagery, similar themes, and similar ideas in each medium, just constantly expanding on queer Black futurism through this chaotic, spiritual punk gang feel—chaotic and free. I worked hard to sort of refine a—not a brand, but an aesthetic place in the universe. I feel like my unique take on collage art, storytelling, and song craft all blend together; all represented by a cut and paste futurism that seeks new pathways to total liberation.

AJ: What do you want to see from SF/F in five years?

AS: An integration of our ideas into the real world, into our everyday lives—not just in the form of cool gadgets and robots, but a sense of how to move in the world. That we will start living sci-fi lives, dismantling the systems and attitudes that have held the human race back. I want to see more cooperative business and collective living and working towards liberation—we’re losing our rights! I want SF/F fans to really think about what their favorite characters would do if faced with this kind of heat-death, this kind of cult hellscape—the X-Men, Neo and Morpheus and Trinity, Princess Leia, Harry Potter—fight back against tyranny. I want SF/F to breach the fourth and fifth walls and to truly seep into our minds, and not just be costumes we wear and intellectual property we consume. I want us all to live deliciously, dangerously as living science fiction.

AJ: What do you have coming up in the near future?

AS: My comic company the Afterverse, Unicron willing, will have three books in circulation: BLACK VANS drawn by James Dillenbeck; BETA BOY drawn by Steven Arnold; CHROME AND CHAOS drawn by Shawn Alleyne. My debut short story collection, ARKDUST, will appear from Rosarium Publishing on September 1! I’m also ssssslllloooowwwwllllyyy working on a rap/punk/hip hop hybrid album where I rap as different members of this queer street gang called the Amber Goons. It’s a high-concept LP that I’m taking my time piecing together, still gathering beats and bits and pieces of lyrics for it. After that, I want to start working on a novel based on the characters I’ve rendered using A.I. apps like Midjourney. We’ll see.

The Horny Body Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Uncanny Valley

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

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

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

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

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

And now, happier news!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And congratulations to all of the other wonderful finalists!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Is on Fire Except My Deadlines

My debut novel was signed in 2018 and came out in March 2020—straight into the maw of Ye Pestilence, the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 global epidemic. Since then, I’ve had five more books come out (only some of which existed at deal time) and several more contracted, which I will have to figure out how to write. Out of necessity I have become one of those writers who went from needing to be perfectly in the mood to write to saying, “Well, if everything’s burning at least I can use the firelight to see the notes on this manuscript.”

Which is easily accomplished if I’ve gone dead inside. I cannot verify that I haven’t, but I think I’ve gotten better at deliberately compartmentalizing and here seems like a good place to talk about it!

To start off, let’s picture yourself—your everything, who you are, mental, physical, spiritual—as a country. You have natural resources! You have imports and exports. You have, maybe, a government center—let’s say it’s a castle if you’re in fantasy, and a nice arcology if you’re in sci-fi—and you have neighbors, local flora and fauna, a population of citizens, all that. The goal is to keep your country stable and running.

And now let’s picture all of that on fire.

 

  1. “Everything around my country is on fire and it’s burning up my allies and friends and the flames are licking at the borders!”

 

In the old days you would have known the fires were at your door by hearing the shrieks of the villagers living in the evacuation zones. Now, thanks to the firehose of social media, ads, and every webpage boasting a little box on the bottom saying, “NEW THING ON FIRE,” not only can you not avoid knowing, but you’re now worried about fires burning a thousand miles away. The goal here is to protect your own citizens from real harm, prevent panic and irrational behavior, and help your neighbors—if you can, and in that order.

For me, that looks like muting hundreds of words and phrases on social media and blocking people at will. Enough slips through that I stay informed about wars or climate change or natural disasters or murderous legislation, but instant curation makes me feel less overwhelmed and helpless. When I can, I also boost and donate to the people putting out the fires. I may not be able to send firefighters of my own across the ocean, but helpers always need money and visibility.

This also applies to non-world-changing things like The Latest Outrage About Some Celebrity or Hark, The Town Crier Is Salty About a Publishing Thing. Generally as soon as they come up, if I’m interested, I read one thing from someone who seems like they’ll say something intelligent about it, and then I block and mute. If knowing about it isn’t going to enrich my life but will instead impoverish it, who’s got that kind of money?

If each of us is a nation as I suggested, you’ve got, maybe, a taxpayer-funded Innovators & Changemakers reserve to administer as you see fit. We should definitely fund the groups in your country that are doing good work and keeping the lights on. We absolutely must not fund the useless outrage manufacturers that are just running around screaming, “Everybody, tools down! I just heard that this one director doesn’t like Marvel movies!”

 

  1. “But I don’t have time to both write and run the country!”

 

As writers everywhere keep pointing out, it’s not a matter of just writing the thing, selling the thing, repeat. We also have to scream at our printers (why can’t printers just work?), complete edits, research our stories, organize notes and files, track tax information, do interviews, podcasts, livestreams, charity events, and giveaways, write essays and articles to promote our own books, blurb other people’s books, appear on panels, volunteer for writing organizations, keep up on craft and our fields of expertise, and…somewhere in there…also write more fiction?

“Wait a minute,” you’re saying, “I don’t do all that.” Congratulations, you’re smarter than me. “Write” is a verb that includes about 50 other verbs these days, and a lot of those verbs have significant demands on time and energy. Everyone tells writers, especially newer ones, to learn to say no. Unfortunately, many of us (me) are natural people-pleasers and also live with the eternal fear that the next opportunity we decline will be our last, because someone will declare us uncooperative or grumpy or a demanding diva who doesn’t want to give back to the community, and that’ll be the end of that.

First of all, that won’t happen.

Second, you literally have to say no because writing is more important than any of those other things. (Especially if you have deadlines and people will not give you money if you miss them.) The Word Mines of your country generate all those other industries. If nothing is coming out of the mines, those so-called precious opportunities will dry up anyway. Writing comes first. The time you take away from your writing and give to these other things is time you will never get back.

If it helps, I’ve also made a kind of rubric for saying yes to things myself, in order of priority:

  1. Will I be compensated fairly for my time?
  2. Is it for a friend?
  3. Will I have fun?

With a real job and volunteer commitments and publicity and other demands on my time, I started getting sick of hunting for fifteen-minute scraps in which to actually write. I know a lot of people who can write in those odds and ends, which is amazing! Tell me your secrets! I, sadly, cannot. When I carve out time, I really carve. I turn down things I don’t desperately want to do (or that I can be paid to want to do). I examine my fears of invisibility, failure, letting people down, and I know that I fear the results of not writing more than any of those things.

 

  1. “Speaking of writing, I am serious, how do you write when the world is on fire?”

 

Have a process. Trust your process. Make sure the machinery does not break down when everything is on fire.

Alongside my Word Mines, whether or not there’s actual ore coming out, all the local factories are still running regular shifts using existing feedstock: revising, editing, researching, outlining, submitting. Even if the mines themselves are temporarily dark and silent, that whole little valley is always full of light and industry. If I can’t draft, there’s always something: I take notes and do line edits at lunch because an hour isn’t enough for me to descend to the good word seams; I highlight nonfiction books on my e-reader during my commute so I can use it in stories later on; I keep a trove of craft e-books so I can open the app on my phone and get a quick belt of motivation or do a writing exercise if I find myself with a spare fifteen minutes.

I also, in this metaphor, occasionally block all signals coming in and out of the mines so that people can do focused work—I write in Google Docs so I use the Forest Chrome extension for productivity to temporarily “lock” myself out of my most egregious time-wasting websites. This works for me because I feel too guilty to kill the little trees, and it’s easily customizable in terms of time periods and tagging. It also does what my therapist encourages: puts a pause between emotion and reaction. I notice that when I feel reluctant to do something, my emotion can be “NO TOO FRIGHTENING,” and so my action is “I’M GOING TO GO FIND SOMETHING COMFORTING AND FAMILIAR.” Usually this involves opening Twitter and going to see what my friends are up to. Friends! Good! Safe! Will not hurt me!

But just sitting with the anxiety for the five seconds it takes to show me I might kill my tree is enough to go, “Oh, okay. I could choose a reaction, instead of acting reflexively.” Breaking that cycle never happens automatically for me, so I’m glad I can outsource it.

Ditto with occasionally planting a tree so I can devote it to a “writing stretch” (I particularly like the ones from Cat Rambo’s Flash Fiction class) which keeps all the processing equipment in good repair, helps with everybody’s muscle memory, and can produce great, emotional, unselfconscious writing with no pressure to do anything with it afterwards (although actually I often do).

 

  1. “Okay but none of these workers are paying attention and I feel like that’s totally okay on the one hand because everything is, in fact, on fire, but on the other hand, words are our main export!”

 

Yeah no listen, after my Adult ADHD assessment one of the team members pulled me aside and asked if it was okay to use my data for a research paper. Their verdict was that I had the most severe case of Inattentive-Type ADHD they’d ever seen—the computer test results, in particular, put my attention span at a maximum of two to eight seconds.

“But you’ve exported so many books from Great Country Premonia!” Yeah, and they all got written in five-second bursts. My entire life is a tissue of coping mechanisms to deal with the ADHD that I didn’t know I had; so now that everything is on fire, I’m just leaning harder on them and hoping they don’t collapse.

The main one, as discussed is Forest, which does not force me to focus for 45-minute slots but does prevent me from focusing on anything else. Secondly, I try to automate as much as I can—recurring items in Google Tasks, for instance, so that I don’t fall behind, and reminders in my calendar so I don’t miss deadlines.

I also try to create specific deliverables and make them as binary as possible. For housework this might look something like, “Are all the dishes in the draining board dried and put away Y/N.” Being able to say one or the other is way more motivational to me than some nebulous spectrum of “done-ish.” It also means that each individual thing can be as small as needed, which is useful when trying to write through disaster. “Did I email that one podcast guy back Y/N.” “Did I complete those short story edits Y/N.”

This also, somewhat weirdly, fed into why I taught myself how to outline—with limited attention, time, and energy, I could no longer keep my “I’ll do it when I feel like it” style of writing and still meet deadlines, ditto with “I’ll just pants my way through it and fix it later.”

Fixing a poorly built piece of infrastructure isn’t too bad if you have the time and labor and no one’s waiting for it to work again! Sometimes, though, you’re sitting there muttering about how much easier and faster it would have been to build it properly to begin with, and how you literally can’t do that now without tearing down the whole thing—instead painstakingly extracting embedded wires, laboriously replacing the damaged drywall, dismantling all the shoddy work so you can rebuild to current standards. Some people enjoy this kind of thing! I don’t mind it. It used to be my whole M.O.

But it’s definitely more time-consuming and time is the one thing I cannot afford any more. If changing a major item in the plot affects every scene that happens before and after it, it’s better if that change happens at the low-stakes, quick-to-fix outline stage, so when I’m ready to draft I can do so knowing that I won’t have to constantly interrupt myself to go back and build part of the structure.

 

  1. “Sounds good, but last big thing is that, uh, everything is so much and so relentlessly on fire that the country’s morale is in the toilet, people are too tired to even protest, and I think entire provinces are physically falling apart at the seams.”

 

Nothing I can say about self-care will be anything new to anyone reading this—including the idea that most self-care suggestions are for people who have a lot more free time than I do. We already know different maintenance teams are needed for damage in different regions. I need a two-hour bubble bath like I need a hole in the head—but making popcorn and spending a few dollars to rent a movie is a good way to patch the holes in my soul. Choose what works for you and ignore the generic self-care lists out there!

Other authors have written at length about this problem and going to them for support and encouragement worked for me when nothing else would have. Never Say You Can’t Survive, by Charlie Jane Anders was a favorite recent read, and I cannot recommend it enough both as food for the writerly soul and also crammed with practical ways to write through either personal or global disaster. On the other hand, The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston gave me the priceless gift of a non-prescriptive framework that helped implement all my existing half-baked plans to organize my writing, my process, and my time—it’s full of good ideas that can be picked out and used on their own.

Distraction doesn’t put the fires out. But it is good for the ability to work and for morale; people who feel hopeful about surviving long enough to get one more treat are in better shape than people who can’t even hope for that.

Hope is the one thing. Then there’s all the other emotions…anger, frustration, and righteous lust for vengeance can be treated like radioactive waste and decanted into barrels to be stored in salt mines, absolutely. But they can also be reprocessed into fuel—ask any writer. For me, journaling is the first step of doing something with all that sloshing toxicity. The feelings aren’t gone, they’re just easier to manage when I put them on the page.

It’s the same with venting on social media. It’s good to let off steam, of course, but steam is what runs power plants. Your anger may be generating it, but you get to decide where the steam goes after it’s made. Maybe that can be into stories. Maybe that can be into action.

Everything’s on fire? Not ideal, but let’s burn it under something and put it to work.

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