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Gracias, Orlando: A Genre Film and a Queer Body Awakening

(Content Note: child abuse, religious abuse)

 

“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” —Richard Lovelace

 

It is 1993 and I am 19 years old, working at a business that makes sense in today’s systems but was innovative at the time: delivering VHS movies and snacks for subscribers. The business has a fleet of Yamaha bikes and overeager drivers to make it happen. I am not on a bike. I help one of the locations fulfilling orders. Rows and rows of movies, ready to be put in bags and driven away. I remember a particular anxiety dream of not having enough copies of The Fugitive, when we received 200 a day before.

One of the benefits of the job was we could take any movie we wanted to watch at home. I took advantage of that all the time. Before the internet, it could be a crapshoot. I remember taking both La Femme Nikita and Point of No Return the same night, only to find out the latter was a remake of the former. I still watched both.

At first sight, the box art for Orlando (1992) seems very straightforward: the portrait of a man in British regalia. I can’t remember the VHS’s description. Sally Potter was mentioned but I didn’t know who she was then. Auteur cinema was not something I gravitated during those years. I was merely a kid watching new movies, some fun, some odd, some unique.

By the end, my heart felt raw.

There was something that felt fable-like to me from the start. The costumes. The bucolic and privileged life Orlando has; akin to both the empty piece of paper and the doubt of using it. Queen Elizabeth I, played by Quentin Crisp, bestows on the young Orlando property as well as a command. “But on one condition. Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.”

Orlando’s life goes on, breaking the fourth wall, the voice of the poet who needs to tell us more about who this person is at the time. He gets into an arranged marriage, but the heart wants what it wants. When a Russian delegation visits during a brutal winter, the young poet falls head over ice skates for Sasha, the daughter of a delegate. She is in many ways an ideal for Orlando: someone who shares his passions and seems to have her heart into these. Alas, the young lover sees her leave, forever. This leads to the first one of many slumbers, where his body rests between eras, sleeping away, still young. From meeting his lyrical inspiration and discovering the reality to meeting his heroes, to serving the crown in far lands, Orlando changes in how the world is perceived. A lesson and a long drowse.

Then, the phrase.

“Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex.” —Orlando

This sequence, this awakening, was something unlike anything else I had seen. Orlando rises up from the bed, still bearing the clothes from the night before. A wig is left behind for the morning ritual refreshing the face with water. Dust motes fly around the screen, disturbed by the protagonist’s actions, like snowflakes dancing around, witnessing a miracle. Orlando perceives something is different, now facing to the distance. Beauty like this was meant for a large screen but still felt terrifyingly beautiful on my old TV. Orlando then says those words, directly to the audience. This character had changed, and my brain was processing it. I didn’t question it. It was Orlando’s life.

I want to point out the version of the film available in México didn’t have the scene with Orlando looking at her body. It took me a few years to get the uncensored DVD and notice what was edited out due to Mexican prudishness. I think my heart broke a bit due to what I missed the first time around.

Even without Tilda Swinton’s naked body, what I saw was disruption. I felt connected to Orlando. A new seed of doubt was fertilized in my heart. I didn’t know at the time if Tilda was a man or a woman. A piece of my heart had fallen for Orlando. An invisible chisel was put into my hands. From the start of the movie. I had a crush on a man. It wasn’t my first one.

Catholic nuns were a big part of my life while growing up in México. I saw them as the ambassadors of God’s love, teaching us catechism and preparing us for the sacraments of confirmation and the first communion. I’d seen their positive depictions in the media, mainly La Novicia Voladora (The Flying Nun), and was expecting their comforting care.

Part of Catholic catechism is training children on how to behave according to the Bible. Before my first communion, we had to practice how to confess our sins. We had a private conversation with one of the nuns, sharing the sins they told us we had. I shared how I envied the attention my younger sibling commanded from my mother, my desire to steal comics I couldn’t afford, how I wasn’t dedicating my life to my parents as I was supposed to be.

“Do you like anyone?” the nun asked. I didn’t know what she meant. “Like, to kiss,” she tried to explain. There was another boy at the class. We were friends. I liked him. I said his name.

Red pain burned my cheek. The nun swung at me and started berating me. She told me how, if I didn’t change, my family would suffer as I would go to hell. I started to cry but another slap shut me down. She was very clear about how I was sinning. She made it clear also whenever she reached me with the belt and laughed. God’s plan, amirite?

I have gynecomastia. Other kids made fun of my breasts and how I looked. I felt abnormal. I also have wide hips, which besides framing my noticeable butt, made me feel self-conscious. I wasn’t aggressive like the other boys in school. I enjoyed reading and imagining things I found different or clever. I enjoyed bonding with my mother over telenovelas while we both knitted. I often wondered if I was a woman and something got mixed in the uterus. Body dysmorphia wasn’t in my vocabulary back then, but it is very clear to me now.

Orlando, by itself, is a story about changes: in time, in attire, in perspectives. It is also a story about how the character adapts to the new realities faced after every slumber. Orlando follows the command given: Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old. She is vibrant in every life embodied. The corpus may look frozen in time but she experiences tastes, sounds, touches, ideas, dreams. Orlando is forever young in her heart, where it matters the most for the character.

I’ve never craved Orlando’s immortality, but I felt a tinge of jealousy at one moment reared its nasty head. It was after I saw an uncensored version of the movie. How the character sees herself for the first time, in her body, gorgeously framed by that mirror. A full-frontal statement of acceptance of who she now is. I wished I knew who I truly was in my gender. But the same piece of art can evoke different reactions by the same person across time. Like Orlando’s sleeps, every view has given me a new life, a new understanding, a more developed personal purpose. I accepted my bisexuality, I saw myself as a non-binary being, and reclaimed my creative voice.

Virginia Woolf wrote the novel Orlando: A Biography in 1928, inspired by a longtime romance with Vita Sackville-West, a member of her writing group. The novel told the story of how a person escaped the concept of birth gender and had a happy ending. Orlando experienced romance in different ways, fully falling, and entirely whole, with a heart that seeks others, even while broken, still giving and thriving. When a world seems heartbreaking, Woolf’s optimistic vision is there to comfort us.

Orlando opened the doors to question who I was. The movie created a new concept, one that would grow. That windowless gender room that I was told I belonged to by the nuns, my parents, and society, was chiseled away, one small queer thought at a time, leaving behind a heart full of hammering energy. As a stealthy queer genre novel, Orlando gave me a new language, a new technology, one that I continue developing, at every step while I try to accept who I am, demolishing the walls of Catholic dogma.

The existence of queer narratives helps us feel, besides seen, understood. Orlando gave me the initial tools to see beyond what I was taught. Every new story or narrative that helps us question our nature, expand our concept of being. Creativity can open new doors, create new concepts. It is a technology. Whenever we add to our languages a new concept, it resonates with others, letting us feel identified with the new lingo. Our stories open new paths for others to traverse, if they feel welcomed by the worlds we construct. These new concepts can help us better grasp a reality we have not yet confronted. It gives us the language and understanding to better express ourselves and build better futures, demolishing the invisible windowless rooms we never knew had trapped us.

No Astra without Aspera

I grew up reading a lot of hard science fiction, particularly the vintages from the 1970s and 80s, which probably isn’t too surprising given my current occupation (astrobiologist). I liked how the books would challenge my imagination but kept me grounded within physical reality (give or take a few conceits as necessary).

What I found most intriguing was depictions of interstellar flight. It was one thing to just handwave the vast distances away with some sort of hyperdrive or other faster-than-light gimmick, but to see a writer lay out a truly plausible way that humanity could reach the stars was awe-inspiring. Whether it was Larry Niven’s ramjets or the small and sleek antimatter-powered craft from the works of Charles Pellegrino, the fact that people had sat down and worked out, at least approximately, what was required to reach nearby star systems enraptured me.

So, it was with great delight that I discovered the Breakthrough Starshot initiative—a project, funded by a few tech billionaires, to build a proof-of-concept interstellar probe and send it to Alpha Centauri. We, as a species, were finally getting real about exploring the stars!

Then I read the technical specs.

Based on my science fiction reading, I had always imagined that the biggest challenge to interstellar spacecraft would be simply generating enough power to propel them. For example, Pellegrino’s antimatter starships required covering a large swathe of the Moon with solar-powered particle accelerators to produce the requisite fuel, and Niven’s ramjets need both well-understood fusion propulsion and enormous superconducting magnetic scoops. In the case of Starshot, however, the technology involved for propulsion is actually quite well-known: as a light sail, it will be lofted into the stars with a phased laser array. While the array would have to be built on an unprecedented scale, spanning kilometers in size, the basic principles behind it require no new theoretical breakthroughs, unlike fusion or antimatter.

As it turns out, however, the tricky part isn’t the propulsion—it’s the actual spacecraft itself. Starshot’s design calls for a “gram-scale” probe, something that would make your average smartphone look like a gargantuan hulk. While we’ve certainly come a long way in miniaturizing electronics, designing a high-resolution imaging system with the same mass as a paperclip—and which will remain functional over the hundred-plus year span of the mission—almost defies reason.

Breakthrough Starshot arose, in part, from the 100 Year Starship project, a DARPA-led effort to try to tackle some of the technical hurdles posed by interstellar travel. From 2011 to 2015, the project awarded small-scale grants to relevant research and hosted an annual symposium. While some of the science featured was relatively pedestrian—investigations into preventing the loss of bone density and muscle mass due to prolonged microgravity conditions, for example—many of the involved researchers were focused on developing radical new forms of propulsion. Physicists proposed possible warp drives or wormholes that could make interstellar travel vastly faster and easier. The only problem was that, much like Breakthrough Starshot’s nanoprobes, no one actually has any idea how to practically build any of these technologies yet.

I would later discover I wasn’t the only one who was underwhelmed by these efforts. Author Kim Stanley Robinson was present at one of the 100 Year Starship symposia, and by all accounts, was dismayed by what he saw. In particular, he was discouraged by the idea that rather than taking care of our own planet we should just move to a new one. To be honest, I think this is a bit of a straw man—I’ve never encountered anyone who has seriously suggested that kind of planetary migration as a solution to our ecological woes—but, nonetheless, it motivated him to write a novel, 2015’s Aurora.

Aurora is the counterpoint to the interstellar dreams of the hard science fiction of my youth. The titular starship, filled with people hoping to colonize a new world, represents a massive economic undertaking—and one that proves doomed to failure. In Robinson’s universe, planets either already have their own indigenous life (which inevitably proves lethally pathogenic to humans) or are completely uninhabitable. To make things worse, when the would-be settlers give up and head back to Earth, the ecosystem of their generation ship breaks down, and only an unexpected technological fix saves them.

I will admit, as an astrobiologist who studies exoplanets, I find Robinson’s view on the subject unrealistically pessimistic. First off, given how fine-tuned life tends to be to its environment and biochemistry, it’s unlikely that an alien microbe would be able to adapt well to the very foreign environment of the human body. However, even if indigenous microflora did eventually develop a tolerance for human physiological conditions, we would still be far from defenseless. The human immune system is incredibly adaptive—I even remember my Intro to Immunology professor, way back, in the day, explicitly saying that we’d be able to deal with alien microbes. While we’d still undoubtedly face significant—and perhaps insurmountable—challenges into integrating into an extraterrestrial ecosystem, disease itself isn’t likely to be a showstopper.

Furthermore, as we’ve gotten better at modeling the evolution of planets, we’ve discovered there may be many worlds where interactions between water vapor in the atmosphere and ultraviolet light from the host star have yielded an abundance of oxygen—all in the complete absence of life. While this has been bad news for exoplanet scientists such as myself, as we now have a very real risk of false positives in our search for life beyond Earth, it’s good news for interstellar colonization. These worlds would be quite hospitable to us, but have no native biosphere to compete with us. However, in the long term, we’d still need to import our ecosystems in order to survive, which is no mean feat.

In fact, creating functional ecosystems is probably the biggest obstacle towards crewed interstellar travel, and one that I was very glad to see Robinson recognize. As a species, we still haven’t successfully constructed small-scale closed-looped ecosystems; the most well-known attempt, Biosphere 2, rather famously proved to be a failure when oxygen uptake by soil microbes present proved to be much higher than predicted. While that specific issue is much better understood today, it demonstrates the fragility of ecology at such small scales. When your margins are that tight, a single crop failure, unexpected algal bloom, or miscalculated rate of erosion can doom your whole population. If we are to take the slow route to other worlds—never mind setting up whole planetary biospheres from scratch—we must become vastly more familiar with the ecological processes that keep us alive on this one.

One possible solution to the delicateness of small-scale ecology is to simply make your ecosystem-in-a-bottle as large as possible. To do this, however, requires bringing an inordinate amount of mass with you. Ironically, the starship design perhaps best suited to this task is one of the oldest.

Starting in the mid 1950s, the US government initiated Project Orion, a study into the use of nuclear explosions to propel spacecraft. The project, led by physicist Freeman Dyson, not only found that such a concept was workable, but that it actually became more efficient as the spacecraft was scaled up in mass. Due to a quirk of nuclear weapons design, the same amount of enriched uranium is required to launch a 2,000-ton Orion vessel as was required for an 8,000,000-ton craft. The latter design, nearly half a kilometer in length and nicknamed “super Orion,” was explicitly envisioned as a self-contained city and “interstellar ark.” While small by the standards of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama or Gene Wolfe’s Whorl, it would still give the Vanguard of Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky a run for its money. With a maximum speed a little over ten percent the speed of light, an Orion starship could make it to Alpha Centauri well within a human lifetime. There are even faster versions, making use of antimatter, but unlike the vanilla version of Orion, those remain beyond our current technology.

Of course, Orion has a major drawback: getting it up into orbit requires detonating dozens of nuclear weapons, and would violate several treaties in the process. One built in high orbit, away from the vulnerable Earth, may be more achievable in the future, but for now, that remains purely speculative. And it’s possible that size alone will not be enough—without further research, it’s hard to say if a larger closed-loop ecosystem would be sustainable, or simply delay the inevitable. Even a fleet of worldlets, like that seen in Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, may still eventually break down over time.

Interstellar travel—whether it be in the form of robotic probes or crewed starships—would undoubtedly represent the single greatest effort ever undertaken by our species. Perhaps it’s just as well that we’re reminded of the enormity of what would be required of us to achieve such a dream. While it may very well happen someday—perhaps after some unforeseen technical breakthrough greatly reduces the mass and energy required—the current obstacles stagger the imagination. I wish Breakthrough Starshot all the best, but can’t help but think that they’re working in a realm perhaps best left to hard science fiction authors for the time being. Authors, in the meantime, can keep up with the current science (personally, I just check and see what’s on arXiv.org periodically), as this often provides a bountiful treasure of new ideas for stories. As Carl Sagan put it so eloquently in his last work, Pale Blue Dot, like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

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!

Wax Sealed With a Kiss

“For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

―C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

 

“I love you, and I love you, and I want to find out what that means together.”

―Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War

 

A letter is a time capsule. A physical doorway to a single moment in time. It is memory personified.

In a past life (only a decade ago) I was a full-time historian. I spent hours sifting through the correspondence of people long dead, and understood their lives through these small glimpses into their shared realities. I would observe through aging paper what it was like to care for one another during wars, during jail sentences, during long distance relationships. John and Abigail Adams wrote one another enough letters to be collected in literal volumes. So did Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Correspondence to a loved one is an art form that we had lost, I thought.
Until 2020, and the worldwide pandemic, when I was reminded that the art of the love letter was not lost at all, it was merely a device which was best used in times of longing.

The first letter he ever wrote to me was addressed to “Elsa, sword wielder.” I know this because I’ve kept every letter he sent me, tucked in a letter holder on my desk, and because that memory is photographic, as though my mind knew it was important.

The letter itself came in a cream envelope, addressed in bright green ink which made me think of Virginia Woolf. Even though I’d never seen his handwriting before, I knew the letter had to be from him. Not just because of the form of address (though that made me smile) but because the form of address was so clearly from someone who was fond of me.

He wrote in tiny script that I had to crack out the magnifying glass for, on the back of a card printed from a photo he took of the Writers Rock on Iona. That card is tacked up on my bulletin board, but from time to time I take it down and read the text. It’s not a love letter, but it was so clearly written by someone who understood the references that I would get and found them charming rather than annoying. He understood where I was coming from, which allowed me to unfurl.

In epistolary stories like This is How You Lose the Time War, Sorcery & Cecelia, The Moonstone, and The Screwtape Letters, the audience is left with introspection and the unpacking of experiences by the “writer” to understand the story. Each narrative piece unfurls the motion of the lives that we follow, and we can see that in real lives too.

On December 1st, 2019 my marriage ended. My ex-husband informed me of this fact. I know this because we both made Facebook posts on the same day. Mine was a grownup post, a request for privacy and a version of the story that was for public consumption.

His was a joke about a horse walking into a bar.

Like an epistolary novel, I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions about what that means.

The divorce had been coming for a long time—and like in a story told in letters, the time dilation is intense. I can only rely upon my journals, selfies, and chat records with friends to chart my unhappiness and to understand the context of my memory.

In The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, we get to see into a world that we otherwise wouldn’t get a glimpse of: because of course humans aren’t supposed to know how demons are meant to tempt us. In this Christian text, we are given a view of one human’s path in life, and one demon’s failure to bring him to Hell.

It is very easy to observe failure in epistolary narratives because we have the view of the outsider. As Wormwood fails, the audience knows why because they are in on the ultimate joke: The audience desired his failure (well, a Christian audience anyway, I sort of root for demons generally…)

Letters are confidences. They are private and intimate discourse between individuals, and they are tools for authors (and for people looking at their own lives) to remember and to share truths.

Like how the letters from Barrett Browning betray her chronic illness, or Abigail Adams’s demonstrate the needs of women during the revolution, my own marginalia show the things I tried to hide with the text. My own subtext shows how difficult things had become.

But there are other forms of epistolary narrative. They are harder to pull off in some ways, because when the audience is rooting for failure, they can find it on every page. But when you want us to cheer for the characters in question, when the narrative is less predictable (because what is less predictable than love?) well…the stakes for the writer, reader, and subject change.

“Will you share your life with me for the next ten minutes?” asks the male lead in The Last Five Years during the only duet of the entire musical. Ten minutes can feel very short or very long, depending on who you spend them with. Ten minutes in a doctor’s waiting room? An eternity. Ten minutes sitting quietly with someone you love? The blink of an eye.  Ten minutes as yourself? Priceless.

When you ask someone to share ten minutes with you, it’s an easy ask, it’s the following ten-minute increments that begin to matter.

Shared time becomes an act of choice when viewed through this lens, it’s a gift. Not in the way that you think, we do many things in ten-minute increments through inertia, but this is the deliberate choice to spend time with someone you care about, or spend that time on them that matters.

Ten minutes can be squeezed in after Rosh Hashanah services during the children’s naptime, or for a quick hug between meetings on a day when my divorce negotiations became unbearable. Ten minutes can be found.

Dating in your thirties is an exercise in understanding that every ten minutes that you spend could be spent doing something else. Maybe that seems like an obvious thing to mention, but I think for many people they go about their days not thinking about how time functions for them—as a historian I know that time is different now in the 21st century than it was even a hundred years ago. There is an immediacy to our culture that has taken a blow since the advent of COVID-19.

I have to pick how I spend each of my ten minutes very carefully. I’m a Deafblind woman, I manage my health conditions, a full-time freelance job, and this year I was also managing a divorce. I’m dating a father of two who lives half a city away, with a full-time job and his own writing practice. Plus, it’s 2020. We’ve been living in a world that feels like every five minutes there’s a new crisis, and every ten they’ve multiplied by degrees.

Falling in love through ten minutes, through forty-minute walks after dark in parks, through snatched weeknight dates after the children are in bed, it would all be relatively normal (I suspect) in the Before Times, when busyness was a commonality.

But it was when we started snatching ten-minute increments at our writing desks, lifting fountain pens to stationary paper and sending our thoughts to one another that I think things shifted.

We had been dating for six months when the first letter arrived. Four of those months were in the first lockdown, ten minutes on a park bench watching the stars on a cold April night, twenty minutes in that same park watching surveillance helicopters, a series of flirtations via text message between Zoom calls.

But that first letter reminded me how very much I liked him. It landed in my mailbox on a bright June day in Seattle, while protests raged a few blocks away. Through the summer and into fall and winter the letters continued. Quick paced (though not always quick to arrive, as we both watched our mailboxes, hoping a decaying postal service would come through), both of us using deliberately chosen stationary, theming our ink colors, and finding new forms of address that confused the postal service and felt like a form of flirtation all their own.  Elsa Death Bredon Wimsey, Dame Elsa, Mr. H. Vane, Poirot, Rupert Giles, we borrowed from fiction, from television, from each other’s personal quirks. These letters are precious to me, because they are one of the ways we fell in love.  They gave us extra minutes to share who we were—and sometimes it was almost easier to write down what I felt than to speak to him. I’m a writer, and my best foot is forward with a pen in my hand.

With each letter a little bit more of myself came back, with each literary reference I was able to show my cards, and each time he responded with a reference just as obscure as my own, I felt safe enough to be myself. To be the person I am, and who I had been before my marriage had made me hide inside of a different persona.

With that first letter he inspired me to go rooting through my storage unit to find the stationary I had packed in a box six months earlier in New Jersey, when I was a woman remembering what her own soul felt like again. I hadn’t written a letter in months, I’d barely even cracked my fancy pens out for my bullet journal. The divorce had been hard on me, harder than I’d expected. But even before the divorce I had been made to feel embarrassed by who I was. A woman who loved the feel of a good pen in her hand (why did I need a fancy pen, he would always ask, usually laughing.)

I felt like an Austen heroine, like Lizzie Bennett getting another letter (he even sent me one with her name on it.)

That first letter tripped something over in my mind, I found myself giddy with the idea that I had met an equal. Someone who could trade not just literary references, but snark in equal measure. Who could flirt with gifs until I was put in check mate (a rare occurrence). Who took joy in finding words I did not know, purely because he loved the written word as much as I did.

Like Jonathan and Mina Harker, we were able to close the distance that the pandemic imposed upon us through the written word. Even if we were only a few miles apart, rather than hundreds of miles and countries, the sustenance that our love fed on was the written word.

It’s old fashioned to write love letters, most people in my generation laugh when I say that we’re writing to one another. But letters and communication through distance is not as old fashioned as all that: we see video communication through The Martian, and when I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, I couldn’t help but see us in the encrypted interstellar love letters written by Elma and Nathan.

Yes, we’re in old fashioned times. A first date these days might be going out walking together, keeping an appropriate distance. A curtsy is a more appropriate greeting than a handshake, or a hug. We are in a time of longing. Letters from the past show that people often had to spend time apart, remembering each other through the process of a letter. And every time a new letter with his spidery handwriting appears in my mailbox a smile lights up my face, my heart skips a beat or two, and my pace quickens back to my desk so I can carefully open the letter and see what he had to say this time.

They aren’t always love letters, though there is love in each of them, the careful crafting of each missive written in the snatches of time that we have to spend at our respective writing desks. He has children, I have a busy freelance career that often makes for long days spent thinking. But each time a letter comes, I carry it to my desk and I take a minute to read, even if I won’t be able to reply until much later in the day.

More ten-minute increments spent at our writing desks, more shared moments, though they be asynchronous: a letter read between job interviews, or written between line edit chapters is still a letter, a shared moment.

I carve out ten minutes, then twenty, then 114 ten-minute increments, then 228…we find days, we find hours, we find time.

Those letters are ways to share our time when we can’t be present in each others’ lives in the same way.

Readers access the emotions of characters through letter writing, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, or the love letters of Griffin & Sabine. The intimacy of the letter allows characters to be more direct with their emotions, because a letter is only meant for one reader.

Any person writing a letter today is coping with the reality that the world is forever changed, that the affection they share with someone is built on a foundation of a time that has changed them permanently. That moving forward in a relationship built in 2020 is one that is built out of hardy material. (Not my idea, but his. Shared here because the truth feels important to note.)

Each letter is a piece of time, an archival document of affection at a time when the world feels changed. It is a piece of a person’s soul, or a character’s. It is a plot point—a way to tell the story.

The last letter I wrote him in 2020 will not be the end of our correspondence. If I’m honest, I could see myself writing him letters for the rest of my life. I can see myself picking up a pen and sending him a letter in a year, a year after that, five years after that. I can see myself carefully selecting inks and stationery in ten years.

The letters are a promise of sorts, they’re a space where for a moment we are only thinking of one another in the space of our excessively busy lives.

A letter is timeless. Like Lewis himself says, it touches eternity. It is that moment, that emotion, that feeling, captured by paper and ink and left indelibly in the hands of time.

In fact, letters let us travel through time and through emotion.

An Invitation to the Weary

We are reaching for each other. There is so much space between us, and yet still we are always reaching for each other, even if we’ll never quite manage to bridge the gap between our fingertips. We are reaching, although we are very tired. We are reaching as best we can.

Do you have a moment?

Afternoons used to be the longest part of any given day. I remember the span of them. Time would stretch out warm and elastic. Either there would be a lot to do and a lot of time to do it in, or nothing to do and an endless expanse of hazy hours to fill. This was true for a long time—even during the part of my life when I woke before dawn to head to the first of my three jobs. Back then, the morning started so soon after the end of the previous night that getting into bed felt like an inside joke I shared with only myself. I saw about as many of the early hours as I saw of the later ones, but that didn’t matter: in the middle of the day, time somehow ballooned. There was more room in it. I’m far from nostalgic for that time in my life, but I am curious about it in hindsight. Something has changed since then. Where did that feeling of elasticity come from? What happened to the time I had then, that I’m so sorely missing now?

I promise this will not take long.

There’s so much to do. There’s laundry to wash and laundry to fold. There’s an envelope from the bank that says ‘open immediately,’ and it might be a misleading advertisement for an exploitative loan, or it might be the kind of problem that will eat up the rest of the day. There’s a looming pile of deadlines that lurks in the corner like a malevolent haystack, hissing about commitments that must be fulfilled and timelines that will not bend. There are friends to check in on and emails to return and bills to pay. There’s that big wracking heart-crunching cry that’s frankly overdue. And all of those things need to be stacked up around all of the grief and all of the fear and all of the work of reaching out from one lonely place to another. It’s too, too much for anyone to carry.

I know time is in short supply.

The problem is that grief is at once profoundly individual and profoundly communal. We must grieve alone, but we do not ever grieve alone. We cannot possibly share the burden of loss, nor can we keep it to ourselves. The same is true of the kind of fear that has lately seeped into everything, everywhere, all the time, thick and invasive as fresh-flowing sap. We calculate our risks together now in a way we never have before. Those risks are constant and they change by the minute and we can’t trade off who attends to them because it has to be all of us. We share the fear because there’s no way not to share it; it belongs to everyone, all at once. So we share with each other because we must share; we reach for each other because we must reach.

Only, wait here with me a minute.

We can’t make it all the way to each other, not quite, not with the space we need to bridge and the distance we’re able to span. There is so much work required to close the expanse between me and you, and we are both too exhausted to meet each other halfway. So we miss each other, wonder after each other, worry about each other. We have our thinking of yous and our hope you are wells and our let’s catch up soons. The love and the longing are real. But there’s that envelope from the bank, and then everyone in the house needs to take a test because one person might have been exposed, and still the specter of the long-overdue cry is hovering at the edge of everything, demanding attention more and more insistently by the hour. And so we reach and we reach and we hope the reaching will be enough, because it’s all we’ve got in us and we don’t have capacity for anything more.

There is time for this, though.

What if there was something that could fit in the space between my reach and yours? What if there was a resting place for both of us, where we could linger for just long enough to feel everything else fade a little? I am thinking of a secret pocket in the cosmos. A tiny nook we could tuck ourselves into, without everything following us—not the fear, and not the grief, and not the laundry. It’s not that we won’t talk about the fear and the grief and the laundry. But maybe we can talk about those things differently, when we’re tucked away together. Maybe we can talk about them as if they belong to someone else. Maybe then, it won’t be so hard.

Just for a little while, you understand.

Hell, we don’t even have to go there together. I would gladly give you a hideout all to yourself. My colleagues and I spend most of our time crafting them. There are little crevices that are made for rest, and there are larger alcoves that are made for staring down old monsters. There are shadowy corners where, if you need to, you can finally have that big cry, or at least a piece of it. Sometimes it’s best to have a big cry in pieces, anyway. Maybe when my reach can’t make it all the way to where you are, we can bridge the distance with a handoff. I have a gap in the world precisely big enough for you to slip into when you need it.

Maybe you need this more than you realize.

It’s all too, too much for anyone to carry. We are terribly tired and sore, and things seem to keep getting heavier and heavier. Come and rest for a moment, then. Come and meet me in a story that understands how heavy things are, or a story that will let you imagine a world in which things are lighter, or a story that will simply remind you that your burden isn’t the only thing in this great wide universe. It’s okay if you don’t have time for a lengthy journey into a story that will take you hours to read; it’s okay if your heart’s too heavy for you to carry it down a winding road hundreds of pages long. You don’t need to make that kind of commitment.

I promised this wouldn’t take long, and I meant it.

In a world where everything is constantly fraught, it can feel like there’s no room for error. When you’re stretched nearly to the breaking point, the smallest complication can create a disaster. It makes sense that committing yourself to a journey you can’t quite know the shape of might feel like too big a gamble. It can be hard to trust that you’ll end up where you need to be; it can be harder to trust that you have the stamina to get there. But you deserve a place to go. So why not try this: a story short enough that you can stand at the beginning and know for sure that you have the momentum to make it to the end. You can be tired and distractible—that’s okay. You can be busy. You can be impatient. You can be picky. You can be precisely the person you are, with no goals or obstacles standing between you and a much-needed rest. If you decide you don’t like the path the story took you down, you’ve lost nothing but a handful of minutes.

Give yourself this.

A short story is not going to fix everything. It isn’t made to fix everything. It is made to give you a place that isn’t here. A short story can offer you comfort or challenge. It can give you a chance to hide or a chance to be seen, all in the amount of time it takes to eat your lunch. You can discover and inhabit and love and destroy a whole world while you wait for the bus. You can share a short story with someone you’re missing, and in so doing, you can tell them: here is a place I think you might like to go. Here is a break from the things you are carrying. I think you deserve this. I think you deserve entire worlds. This is the gift we give each other as writers and readers: the gift of being transported.

We are reaching for each other, but it’s hard to find a place to meet.

I’ll meet you in a short story. It will only take a moment.

 

The Yearning Body Problem

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.”

― Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

The ongoing pandemic has weathered its own internal seasons; microclimates and trends that could only have happened under the bizarre circumstances of a slow-moving apocalypse. At no other time could everyone else have been trapped in the shadow of Tiger King or decided that baking sourdough was the best place to focus our manual fidgeting and jaw-clenching chew. So, too, have we endured seasons in reading. We have swelled, en masse, toward cozies and romances when it was all too much, toward plague apocalypse fiction when we needed to remember that it might be worse, toward portal fantasies and second-world escapes when even happily ever after wasn’t enough. As we careen toward endemic with no end in sight, I find that the only thing that resonates for me is open, naked, vulnerable yearning.

Weren’t all those things just clothing the nakedness of our longing, anyhow? We can settle in and let Netflix work on us like anesthesia, we can fill ourselves with bread so that the heart cracks softly above the pillow of a stuffed belly. We can dream ourselves to the castle, to outer space, to anywhere but here. All those things are only cover for the feeling we cannot cope with, our constant gnawing companion through all this: yearning.

We are social apes and Zoom does not feed the beast. We crave each other, specifically and in the flesh, and nothing else will do. We have suffered through two grueling years of hopes-dashed holidays and turned-down trysts, telling ourselves there will be respite if we are good. If we get our shots, if we isolate and test and trust. There is no balm in Gilead, only a fresh variant and another season of weddings washed away and dates dashed. And so now all I want to read about is yearning.

All I want to do is fall into Miles Vorkosigan’s unrequited love for Elena Bothari, never to be assuaged, only to shift to Rian Degtiar without changing tenor or intensity. Bujold shows me the hole in her heart and I feel it open up in my own; a pair of best friends getting piercings at the mall before summer vacation tears us apart. I cry out across a colonized universe, and the Aegean Sea answers back with the longing of Achilles for Patroclus. How Madeline Miller made a story three centuries older than the invention of soap feel new again is beyond me, but it’s also curled up inside me, hollowing me out like the grave of the beloved. Song of Achilles was sold to me by countless friends on the strength of its prose (superb!) and the way it brings the ancient world to life (I can taste the blood of Troy in my mouth!) but I didn’t realize it would fill me with longing the way a giant horse is packed with secret soldiers. I can feel them bunked up together in the undercarriage of my heart, holding each other and dreaming of a cigarette, dreading the dawn.

As if I didn’t already loathe the footprints on the ground urging me to keep my social distance, as if I wasn’t already waking from feverish dreams wherein strange women in sequins kiss me on the street, Last Night at the Telegraph Club reminded me of the frenetic fragility of queer spaces. How I crave the brash bawdiness of a drag brunch, the clandestine coyness of a lesbian bar even in America’s queerest city. Malinda Lo wove together the Red Scare and the Lavender Menace into such a comely cord that it drew me neatly down the street to Passing Strange, Ellen Klages’s own speculative speakeasy novella. Both are set in San Francisco, both in the era of WWII, both among women who love women and the unique dangers the world dreams up for us. Both reminded me how yearning is a component of queer art; that we are almost never truly free to reach for one another if the lights are on, if people are looking. Both drew me into the deep water between words, made me gasp for air when I could surface and remember across the folds of time and space that my own yearning is the same.

Not so different to yearn for a nemesis as for a lover. The intensity of feeling is the same, only inverted as mountains and canyons are both too far to climb without contemplating death. I sought out depictions of yearning for one’s opposite number, of unions that can never be because the heights and depths are simply too great to safely cross. Good Omens, both book and television show, came to me at the right moment to show angel and demon fated and bound and seeking one another out, again and again, despite various ends of sundry worlds. Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War blew everybody away, but specifically during the pandemic I felt that Red and Blue took turns jerking me around by my lapels, asking me to tell the other that her days were numbered, but never speaking directly to one another. Instead, that book was a series of letters stuffed into my right and left ear to be yanked out the opposite side by the intended recipient. My brain was flossed with longing. Is there—is there balm in Gilead? Sometimes. What relief, what primal joy to see She-Ra and Catra finally (spoiler!) kiss (go find it!) and kiss (you need it!) and bring some completion to the incomplete; finish the arch for half an arch will not stand. We cannot stand. We must still sit and wait.

What are we waiting for? The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is the kind of book only an established novelist with a record like V.E. Schwab will get to write. It unfolds itself as slowly as a life in which there are no parties, not even at New Year’s Eve, and it expresses nothing as much as yearning. Addie lives a beautiful life with loves and adventures, admirers and artworks, but no one can remember her. She cannot leave her mark on anything, and no one who knows her story will remember it. As the months fell from the calendar and the clocks melted all around us, who among us did not worry that we might be forgotten? Which of us does not fret that the constellations of our freckles were fading from somebody’s sky forever, untouchable and thus from the flesh drive of the brain? Addie LaRue was the sweetness to contrast the bizarre sours of Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Nabokov’s late-career novel, and perhaps his strangest. This slyly speculative (blink and you’ll miss the brief mention of alternate history where Russia settled the U.S., the banning of electricity) sinslide of a book is steeped in illicit lust between siblings who spend all their time longing for one another, trying to recreate their earliest memories in marginal arguments over a mumbletext of half-remembered summer sensualities. Did it disgust me? Nabokov always does. Did I go back for more like a kid who has thrown up brownie batter made with bad eggs and has learned not a thing? My fellow yearners: you know I went back to licking the bowl.

But my longing is like a fever, longing still for that which further nurseth the disease. I find a new flavor or yearning to lick down and sick up every time I touch my Kindle. Time Was, Ian McDonald’s novella of two nearly immortal men writing letters to one another in a used book swapped and sold across time, fills the void left by Nicky and Joe in The Old Guard (who get only a single scene to explain that their love has carried them since the crusades and no mortal bigot could possibly understand the tide of yearning that has shaped their shared shores). Time Was combines the desperation that only an epistolary can scratch on the walls; the wartime urgency of a love that must be spoken before the bomb goes off, and the inimitable torch-passing between queer generations that takes the place of a more traditional form of reproduction. And the combination of queerness, queer parenthood, and that traditional reproduction dance swirls together in that sultry masterpiece of longing, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. These were pleasure and play to my younger brain that wanted only kink and intrigue and loved the racy tattoo on the pretty lady on the cover. Now, an intellectual saddled with decades of variegated longings and a Greek chorus of affairs spread out over Telegram, Signal, iMessage, Gmail, and borne on the decaying backs of the U.S. Postal Service, I feel the ache in Delaunay’s slaughtered prince like never before. I nurse Joscelin’s piety and surrender to the anguish of love where I used to get high on contempt. I sail morosely on the ink-dark waters of every love denied to Phèdre, drown in her desire as it transcends the flesh and propels her into a yearning that is only assuaged by stuffing her mouth with the secret name of God (I am not exaggerating. If your yearning is as extra as mine, I promise this one comes in your size.)

There is no cure for yearning. There is no projected period to this pandemic, no end in sight. Take, then, these vaccines and booster shots to lessen the effects of your suffering. Inject yourself with a microscopic dose of the virus and let your immune system gain a memory of its shape and taste, let your cells embrace it and destroy it in a few cubic centimeters of fictional disease in the hopes that you may survive and live to yearn again. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that satisfaction will cure your yearning for good; we will close the gap of six feet and strip off our masks one day, clasp and kiss and cough again. And still we will yearn, for yearning is what the body does until it reaches the end of desire.

Don’t worry. There are books about that part, too.

 

 

The Uncanny Valley

Hello, Space Unicorns! This month, the fabulous Liz Argall created a special comic for the editorial, featuring Hugo the Cat!

FABULOUS NEWS, SPACE UNICORNS! HAPPIEST OF DAYS!!! FIFTEEN Uncanny Magazine stories are on the prestigious 2021 Locus Recommended Reading List! WE ARE SO THRILLED! Congratulations to all of the authors!

Best Novella:
The Giants of the Violet Sea” by Eugenia Triantafyllou

Best Novelette:
Mulberry and Owl” by Aliette de Bodard
Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde
That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell
Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim

Best Short Story:
If the Martians Have Magic” by P. Djèlí Clark
The Wishing Pool” by Tananarive Due
Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte
Immortal Coil” by Ellen Kushner
Presque vue” by Tochi Onyebuchi
A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard
Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker
Thirteen of the Secrets in My Purse” by Rachel Swirsky
How the Girls Came Home” by Eugenia Triantafyllou
The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente

ALSO! Congratulations to Uncanny Magazine Managing Editor/Poetry Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu! Her novelette “And for My Next Trick, I Have Disappeared” is on the list! PLUS! Congratulations to Uncanny Magazine Nonfiction Editor Meg Elison! Her short stories “The Pizza Boy” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Served With Fries” are on the list!

This means you can vote for these stories in the 2022 Locus Poll and Survey which determines the Locus Awards! Voting is FREE TO ALL! Along with these stories, Uncanny Magazine is also eligible for a Locus Award in the Best Magazine or Fanzine category, and Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas are eligible in the Best Editor—Pro or Fan category! Vote for the things you liked, and you can even write in things that didn’t make the 2021 Locus Recommended Reading List! YOUR VOTE ALWAYS COUNTS!

Space Unicorns! It is time to announce the TOP STORY in our Uncanny Magazine 2021 Favorite Fiction Reader Poll!
It is…. *drumroll*

A TIE!!!

The TOP SHORT STORIES are:

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker

The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente

Congratulations, Sarah Pinsker and Catherynne M. Valente! SNAZZY CERTIFICATES will soon be on the way!

The rest of the Top Five are:

2- IS ALSO A TIE!!!

The novelette “That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell

The novelette “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde

3- The short story “Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte

4- The novelette “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim

5- The novelette “Mulberry and Owl” by Aliette de Bodard

Congratulations to John Wiswell, Fran Wilde, José Pablo Iriarte, Caroline M. Yoachim, and Aliette de Bodard!

Thank you to everybody who voted!

Hugo Award nominations are now open! If you are an eligible member of DisCon III or Chicon 8, you should already have your membership and voting information so you can start nominating online!

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. (Note: If you are nominating the Thomases in this category, please continue to nominate them together. They are a co-editing team.)

You can see all of the eligible Uncanny Magazine stories and their appropriate categories here!

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 45! The phenomenal cover is Habitation by Paul Lewin. Our new fiction includes Maureen McHugh’s pandemic tale of survival “The Goldfish Man,” Miyuki Jane Pinckard’s exploration of grief and very good dogs “Boundless,” Shaoni C. White’s dreamlike coming-of-age story “The Kaleidoscopic Visitor,” Carlos Hernandez’s journey to the undiscovered country “I Will Have This Diamond for a Heart,” “The Path of Water” Emma Törzs’s fairy tale of roles and memory, Stephen Graham Jones’s story of mystery during a hike “Flowerkicker,” and Margaret Dunlap’s examination of toys and childhood “Requiem for a Dollface.” Our reprint is Richard Butner’s “Under Green” which originally appeared in The Adventurists (Small Beer Press) in 2022.

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include the “Ask a Unicorn” column sponsored by our Kickstarter Year 8 backers, “Acknowledging Taiwanese-American Vampire Foodies” by Jo Wu, “Resisting the Monolith: Collecting As Counter Narrative” by Rebecca Romney, “Wax Sealed With a Kiss” by Elsa Sjunneson, and “An Invitation to the Weary” by Sarah Gailey, and Nonfiction Editor Meg Elison’s editorial “The Yearning Body Problem.” Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “Irreconcilable Differences” by Lalini Shanela Ranaraja, “Omonhinmin” by Praise Osawaru, “Jingwei Tries to Fill Up the Sea” by Mary Soon Lee, and “A Wreckful Planting of small Pockets of Thirst” by Nnadi Samuel. Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Miyuki Jane Pinckard and Emma Törzs about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #45A features “The Goldfish Man” by Maureen McHugh, as read by Erika Ensign, “Irreconcilable Differences” by Lalini Shanela Ranaraja, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Maureen McHugh. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #45B features “I Will Have This Diamond for a Heart” by Carlos Hernandez, as read by Matt Peters, “Requiem for a Dollface” by Margaret Dunlap, as read by Erika Ensign, “A Wreckful Planting of small Pockets of Thirst” by Nnadi Samuel, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Carlos Hernandez.

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

Even After Death: An Essay in Questions

*what does it mean to be born of the dead?

This question hangs in the margins on pg 42 of my copy of The Deep: A gorgeous novella by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes that delves into the mythologized history of the wajinru who are merfolk, born of Black enslaved wom*n thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. I have taught this tiny book in almost every single one of my creative writing classes. This is because it is the type of work that names intellectual and emotional experiences of collective grief and memory in ways that I did not know could be articulated.

This articulation is a question that ties into any analysis of Black death and the afterlife of slavery, I would argue, and colonialism, coined by Saidiya Hartman, the brilliant writer of the critical fabulist work, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. To be born of the dead is to live for the past as it is to live for the present. To live for the past is to invoke it into the present.

Black Indigenous understandings of life and death collapse time. Afrofuturism as a placeholder word then becomes an apt mode of both explaining and living in Black grief.

 

“I was furious. It was as if staying alive just gave everyone else time to leave you.”

—Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi, pg. 167

 

Mimi nimechoka- Me, I am tired

A list of grief feelings

 

Anger.

The audacity of someone you love to die, to just leave as if it wouldn’t break you to pieces. The fact that they will never be there for your graduation, celebrations of love, children… future. The audacity of the world to go on, to keep moving as if time hasn’t just stopped with death. Anger at the…

Hopelessness.

You are absolutely fucking powerless and you cannot bring your love back to life and what’s the point of having the power to do anything if you can’t do this one thing and you are realizing just how weak you are in the grand scheme of everything and there is absolutely nothing you can do to escape how terrifying this all is so you feel

Shame/Guilt.

For not loving them enough in life, not calling to check in as much as you would have liked. For not living with death in mind. For making this about you. Do you even have a right to grieve in the ways you are? How to hold space for other versions of grief while so deep in your own? It is

Fear.

Of not being able to process. Of never being the same again, of losing all the other love in your life.

What does it mean to defend the dead?

Christina Sharpe in her Black grief-centred text In the Wake reiterates this question. Sharpe correlates defending the dead with the idea of “tending to the Black dead and dying.” She emphasizes this by adding that defending the dead “means work…hard emotional, physical, and intellectual work that demands vigilant attendance to the needs of the dying and,” as she adds, “also to the needs of the living.”

There is a blurring between life and death here as there is a blurring between past and present.

 

“When you look at life from far away enough, the things we talk, think, and gossip about fade into tiny dots, to nothing. I think, will this all matter in thirty years?”

Ada, Freshwater, pg. 201

 

Majina- Names

Majini- Spirits of the Water

Names of Loves I’ve Lost

Guka Gichuhi (mama’s memories of you)          Uncle Moses (the first I

knew to go)

          Cucu Wambui (you said you were tired & you were ready)

Cucu Njeri (who I am named for)       Tata Kabura (you gave & gave & gave)

                           Uncle Ken (your daughters weren’t ready)

Paul Chege (constant reminder of risks worth taking)      Noni (sweetest binamu)

Uncle Kariuki (I watched you fade)

 

Last week another name was added to this list but the time between that loss and the writing of this essay is too short for me to process the addition. On paper, names appear as dead things. On my tongue, they are living stories inhabiting the air between me and anyone who would care to listen. This memory reliving is tending to them (the dead) while tending to myself (the living). To my people, a person does not fully die until the memory of them is completely erased. The hopes and the limitations of language.

Diasporic Black Indigenous understandings of the metaphysical don’t need the word magic. In our communal memory the metaphysical has always been a part of the physical and not apart from it. Yet we do have words, words such as juju, uchawi, vodou, and so on that speak to specific magics which cannot be removed from their long, nuanced, baggaged history.

I recently learned that in my mother-tongue, Gikuyu, the word ‘Ngoma’ which today is associated with the devil originally meant ancestors or souls at rest. The Gikuyu conceptualization of the departed placed them in the ancestral plain which was endless grasslands that never lacked rain or sunshine. (Basically a way better, less capitalist version of Heaven.) This realm is different from the tangible world we are in but can still influence our world.

Gikuyus appeal to the ancestors, knowing they have some influence over the course of events that take place on this plane of existence. When the British—who had already dismissed colonized nations as backward, immoral, and uncivilized—heard the prayers and petitions not directly attributed to Ngai (God) they immediately associated any other entity prayed to with the devil. Colonialism set its claws so deep into my people’s minds that we could not differentiate the meanings we had assigned to our own words from the meanings Empire had ascribed us.

Uchawi, then, instead of being positively associated with magic or miracles, was negatively associated with witchcraft and possession. Same goes for juju and ‘voodoo’—a broad term used to debase all African religions that diverged from Christianity, thus forcing us to cut ties with our grief.

In Kenya there are multiple tribes—the Luo and Luya especially—who hire professional mourners or ‘wailers’ during funerals. Ones who beat their chest and scream at the sky as the body of the departed is transported to the grave. This ritual is about permission. The wailers, by performing mourning offer an invitation to express the deep waves of grief however the body wills. It asks family, friends, lovers to experience Feeling EVERYTHING in the flailing of arms, the screaming lungs, and the stomping of feet.

 

“…but sometimes it shows up like a continent shifting on my chest.”

Ada, Freshwater, pg. 202

 

Afrofuturism is an exploration, an experiment in both the collapse of time and the sitting in the feeling of everything. Believing and living in the worlds created for Black afterlives is permission, allowing us to see our pain as valid enough to sit with in our bodies for as long as we need to. One of my favourite books of all time is Kei Miller’s Augustown, a little Jamaican novel that offers an alternative history of the Black prophet Alexander Bedward. At some point in the novel he poses the question, “What if the question is not whether you believe this story or not but whether this story is told by the types of people you have never taken the time to believe in?”

Because this story is about the metaphysical from a Black diasporic perspective, the book is asking the reader to take it as more than just a cute anecdote. The book is asking for faith. Belief in this story told by people who have historically been dismissed and called ‘mad’ for offering alternative ways of moving through the world. The book asks for belief in Black belief.

What happens when we remove the separation of the physical from the metaphysical? Afrofuturism treads on blurred lines. This we can see in everything from Octavia Butler’s world where characters have gifts like empathy—Parable of the Sower—a gift which is literally the feeling of everything, to the juxtaposition of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s imagining of a world where a pill can take away all the ‘bad’ feelings in The Era. The blurred lines of how the Spiritual functions as the political can be seen in everything from N.K. Jemisin’s consistently rich world building to Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s reimagining of East African Kingdoms. Most of these recountings of Black death and Black life from an Afrofuturist lens function as portals so that boundaries are not about lines but doors. Inviting movement between this realm and the next through storytelling.

 

Kupona/ Healing

Last year when my cousin Noni died, I was stuck in America because borders were closed due to COVID. It wrecked me.

Something about the elements of the earth makes for a beautiful description of feeling. Grief like waves. Through multiple panic attacks, I remember explaining to a friend how it felt like I was drowning and she said, “sometimes you just have to sit and let the waves take you over”—a practice in the feeling of everything.

In the moments where I was finally, briefly able to come up for air, where my chest was not compressed in, and I could breathe. In those moments, I noticed the trees. I fell in love with this one birch tree at our local park. I named it Noni because it felt like this was the gift her spirit was leaving with me.

I’ve recently been listening to this podcast on Spotify called Matirî Ngemi that goes back into my tribe’s communal archives to narrate our pre-colonial beliefs, ways of life, and cultural understanding of the world. One of the episodes goes into Agikuyu Spirituality and Religion, breaking down the history of a mythological tree that carries important cultural value in our tribe. The roots of this tree open up to portals that transfer the dying to the next realm. Can you picture tree roots as portals? Leaves and stems and branches that tend to both the living and the dead.

To witness the significance of trees to Gikuyus in this moment broke something in me that was still trying to logicalize death. I knew/know with everything in me that my cousin was communicating through the trees, instilling an assurance that I am seen. Tending to me as I recounted stories of her life, tending to her.

Isn’t the notion of a tree ushering us into the afterlife also the most fitting thing? It just makes sense.

 

“You say madness such as mine doesn’t exist, but it would exist in you, too, if you had to experience the ugly things I do all the time…”

―Rivers Solomon, The Deep

 

 

 

Gone with the Clones: How Confederate Soft Power Twisted the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy

The Star Wars prequel trilogy was not very good. [citation not needed]

You’ve probably heard a lot of explanations for this famous artistic failure: pompous writing; wooden acting; over-reliance on then-cutting-edge CGI which delivered on spectacle but fell apart on realism; George Lucas literally divorcing the only editor who could bring his scattered Sunday-serial narrative impulses to heel, i.e., Marcia Lou Lucas; etc.

Today, we’re going to look at a new culprit. In this essay I will show how the Star Wars prequels were RUINED—

—by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

For a series literally named Star Wars, the films never cared very much about the imagined history of the wars among the stars. Lucas is no Herbert or Cherryh or Palmer, intricately inventing fantastic factions and their evolving animosity to set the stage for epic battle.

No, Star Wars is simpler: it just grabs the cultural memory of a famous war out of the US zeitgeist, slaps some lasers and rockets onto it, and shouts “roll film!”

The real-world inspiration for the original Star Wars trilogy was, of course, WWII. From the transparently-named “stormtroopers,” to the Hugo Boss-inspired, SS-style Imperial uniforms, to the fighter-pilot-vs-battleship climax sequences (directly cribbed from actual WWII combat footage!), the fingerprints of WWII are all over those movies.

The thing is, Americans know what WWII was about: Nazis. Who are bad.

When the time came for the central conflict of the prequel trilogy (the long-awaited Clone Wars) Lucas reached for another actual war, deeply embedded in the US cultural imagination: the American Civil War.

Again, the fingerprints are obvious. In Attack of the Clones, a simmering secession crisis erupts into a shooting war. The unionist faction’s military is the Grand Army of the Republic. The secessionists’ government is the Confederacy of Independent Systems. This is not super subtle.

There’s just one problem. The (white) American public doesn’t know what the Civil War was about. 

We don’t know, because our public imagination—our art, our culture, our politics and laws—have all been undermined by a vast, intergenerational propaganda campaign to keep us confused and ignorant about the true nature of the Civil War and our History. A campaign waged in large part by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

A quick review of the history:

The American Civil War ended in a decisive Union victory. Confederate armies were defeated in the field and surrendered, effectively unconditionally. Confederate cities were destroyed, Confederate institutions dismantled, and Confederate states placed under military occupation and reintegrated into the Union. The Confederate States of America ceased to exist as a going concern.

But this defeat did not annihilate what Frederick Douglass (and others)1 called “the slave power”—the social order based on a white planter aristocracy ruinously exploiting the vast majority of Black Americans.

The slave power had written every Article of Secession and created every organ of the Confederacy. But even after the cause of Secession was defeated, the slave power fought on.

Through guerrilla warfare, terrorist violence, political maneuvering, and cultural propaganda, the slave power fought to renegotiate its surrender to the Union to more favorable terms. And by and large it succeeded.

After twelve years of that fighting (the Reconstruction era), the slave power achieved a new detente with the Union (Redemption). In this new arrangement, secession remained impossible and slavery remained outlawed. But the slave power implemented a renewed subjugation of Black Americans: economically, through debt peonage (sharecropping); culturally, through segregation (Jim Crow); and politically, through systematic disenfranchisement and terrorism (Jim Crow again). And the slave power ran the governments of the former Confederacy as one-party Dixiecrat states.

During the subsequent era (Jim Crow and the nadir of American race relations) the slave power preserved the legal right of white people to kill Black Americans with impunity, especially in large groups (lynchings), and erected a bunch of statues of Confederate generals to commemorate their ongoing power.

Nor was the slave power’s influence restricted to the former Confederacy. Other states and the federal government pursued their own segregationist and racially repressive policies. Slave power cultural propaganda was ubiquitous.

And—most relevant for Lucas and his prequel trilogy—the slave power set the terms for how all white Americans across the country would come to understand the Civil War, through both cultural propaganda (pro-slave-power works like Gone With the Wind and Birth of A Nation swept the country) and by seizing control of how (white) schoolchildren throughout the United States would learn about this conflict.

This campaign—the conquest of the (white) national memory of the Civil War—was primarily waged by organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy, a Klan-affiliated advocacy group composed of the descendants of Confederate soldiers.

They had a name for the dishonest, Orwellian historiography of the war they wanted every (white) child to learn.

They called it “the Lost Cause.”

The simple fact of the matter is: the Confederacy had rebelled against the Union to preserve the institution of slavery. But the institution of slavery was transparently abhorrent and had been universally abandoned—which made the slave power look evil—and the Union had crushed the Confederacy in fire and blood—which made the slave power look weak. How could the Daughters of the Confederacy rescue such a humiliating reputation?

Their strategy had two pincers.

First, glorify and romanticize the Civil War, as a sort of ecumenical adventure. Flowing locks! Rugged beards! Daring cavalry charges! Strange new weapons—ironclads and machine guns! Etc.

The function of this pincer was to frame the war as a sort of mass spectacle—a thrilling but ultimately two-dimensional backdrop for individual adventures.

Second, replace public understandings of the cause of the war with specific slogans (memes, thought-terminating clichés) designed to give the impression that people understood what the war was about, while not actually meaning anything at all.

This strategy may justly be called Orwellian, but a more precise sci-fi example comes in Philip K. Dick’s “The Mold of Yancy,”2 where the corporate overlords of Callisto brainwash the population with continuous broadcasts from the fictitious Yancy.
Dick puts it like this: “All Yancy’s beliefs are insipid. The key is thinness…We’ve come as close as possible to no beliefs…without a viewpoint…but with the illusion of a viewpoint.”

What was the Civil War about? The Lost Cause has answers, rote phrases you’ve probably heard before: “states’ rights!” (states’ rights to do what?); “economic differences!” (the Union and Confederate economies differed how?); “clashing cultures” (the cultures clashed why?).

These slogans seem to be answers. Instead they obliterate answers. They are clichéd and analytically sterile; historical dead ends that point away from every source of truth.

This is, of course, exactly how the Clone Wars are depicted in the Star Wars prequels.

Why were the Clone Wars fought? The prequels will not say. Indeed, they do not seem to know.

Which is kind of weird. We viewers actually spend quite a bit of screentime with the political leaders of the nascent Confederacy! (Contrast this to the original trilogy, which utterly fails the political Bechdel test—no two characters ever exchange any dialogue about their ideologies or values.) But even though we literally eavesdrop on their councils, hiding in the rafters alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi, we get nothing. The corporate factions moan about tariffs and trade. Dooku sermonizes incoherently about democracy and corruption. The Senate debates whether mobilizing an army is ipso facto a provocation. It all adds up to basically nothing.

The prequel trilogy even loves to talk about slavery specifically! Anakin Skywalker is born into intergenerational chattel slavery; both the Republic and the Confederacy field overwhelmingly unfree armies. But the films contrive for the issue to remain neutral in the Clone Wars: Anakin’s slavery is (somehow) outside of both Republic and Confederacy; and the droids and clones alike are CGI pawns, carefully balanced between sides.

Even the exposition itself buys into this frame of meaningless equivalence. The opening crawl to Episode III explicitly states “There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.” (Try, for a moment, to imagine those sentences shoehorned into The Empire Strikes Back!)

All of that means that when the war explodes, we viewers have no sense of the stakes. The Clone Wars are ideologically and morally incoherent—and thus narratively unsatisfying.

Quite the opposite happens in the original trilogy. Not through exposition-dumps or elaborate debates, but just as the natural result of clear characterization. The Star Wars original trilogy is about fascism and its enemies. The Empire is a recent fascist state; the Rebel Alliance opposes it because fascism is intolerable to free people.

So within ten minutes, we learn from Darth Vader that the Emperor has dissolved the organs of democracy. We see fascism’s supporters—the dehumanized and dehumanizing military—violate the laws of war by bombarding a consular ship. Throughout the films, we see the Empire employ torture, mass reprisals against civilians, and casual displacement of indigenous populations.

The depiction of fascism’s enemies is equally precise. Who opposes fascism? People of principle (Leia Organa). Idealistic youth (Luke Skywalker). Oppressed minorities (Chewbacca). Black marketeers—if they have a conscience (Han Solo). Religious leaders (Obi-Wan Kenobi). Royalists (the Organas, offscreen). Provincial leaders with local autonomy (Lando Calrissian). Elected officials of the prior democratic regime (Mon Mothma). The dramatis personae of the original trilogy reads like a goddamn slideshow of the Allies’ “This man is your FRIEND. He fights for FREEDOM” poster series. It’s not an accident that Princess Leia’s rescue from the Death Star plays out as a fantasy of saving Sophie Scholl from the Nazi guillotine.

But the Clone Wars, deprived of this outsourced—yet effective!—moral clarity, descends into banal meaninglessness.

There is room for a more ominous interpretation here. After all, if the secession crisis in Attack of the Clones is the secession crisis of 1860, then Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious)—the unexpected leader from a rural backwater who rises to power on the eve of battle, who preaches peace but secretly courts war, who exploits the conflict to amass his own tyrannical power, who threatens the liberty of the entire galaxy—the Dark Lord of the Sith is Abraham Lincoln.
Or rather, he is the tyrannical vision of Abraham Lincoln that motivated John Wilkes Booth to assassinate the Great Emancipator.

With this interpretation in mind, all six Lucasfilm Star Wars movies descend into obsessive crypto-neo-Confederate propaganda of the strangest, basest type. The hero’s journey is to restore the Confederacy! A more elegant weapon, for a more antebellum age! The South and/or Jedi will rise again! Etc. Etc.

But, for my money, all that is a bridge too far. Lucas hasn’t suggested any secret Confederate sympathies; nor have actual neo-Confederates drawn the parallel themselves. No, Lucas isn’t the intentional author of secret slave power propaganda. He’s just another victim, regurgitating the same lies we’ve all been fed.

The real tragedy is: there was room to do better.

Rian Johnson (director of Star Wars: Episode VIII, The Last Jedi) memorably defended the prequel trilogy as follows: “Lucas made a gorgeous 7-hour long movie for children about how entitlement and fear of loss turns good people into fascists.”

He’s not wrong about what Lucas seems to have been trying to do. But the foundation Lucas built upon—(white) America’s cultural memory of the Civil War—had been compromised by the slave power’s propaganda, and the message became muddled and lost.

There were better ways. Lucas could have leaned into the parallel. Anakin is born into slavery—and the Confederacy is seceding to preserve those institutions of exploitation. Qui-Gon’s body lies a-mouldering in his grave, but his soul goes marching on! And so on. (The only issue there would be the slight awkwardness of either having the victorious Republic descend into Imperial tyranny, or writing to an alternate history where the slave power won.)

Other works of sci-fi have handled these periods and themes of American history far more thoughtfully—works like Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, or the recent Watchmen miniseries. The key ingredient seems to be observing the war and the tyranny from the perspective of Black America—clear-eyed about oppression, possessed of moral urgency, uncontaminated by slave power propaganda.

Alternatively, Lucas could have reached for another historical inspiration; Caesar crossing the Rubicon and marching on Rome would be an obvious choice, if a bit obscure to modern audiences. Perhaps more compelling would be the Spanish Civil War, the most famous instance of a 20th-century fascist regime being established through open warfare. This war’s story later served as the deeply effective frame narrative for Pan’s Labyrinth, which won over American audiences at the same time the Star Wars prequels were losing them.

Lucas could have leaned into the critique of the War on Terror that he occasionally fumbles towards. He could have remixed Vietnam and Watergate—surely every male Boomer director has at least one Vietnam movie in him! He could have looked at the Delian League’s descent into Athenian thalassocracy; the end of Taishō Democracy; the collapse of the French First Republic into Empire. He could have followed in the footsteps of the great space operas and struck out for something genuinely novel—following droids and clones and what they mean for life and for war. Any of these options would have taken Star Wars in an interesting, enlightening direction—and the American moviegoing public along with it.

But at the end of the day, he did none of that. Instead, he lazily recycled the slave power’s propaganda. And so the Star Wars prequels have a hole in their hearts; and so the lies of the Daughters of the Confederacy—of wars without meaning and without purpose, of a history that cannot tell the difference between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis—got yet another day in the twin suns.

This was bad for Star Wars. But, despite my quarter-century love affair with the Galaxy Far, Far Away, I am forced to admit: it was worse for America.

The slave power—both its dead hand and its all-too-living manifestations—is the enemy of American liberty and American democracy. It’s the crack in our national foundation that strikes at every American dream of freedom and of justice.

We deserve better.

And as science fiction fans and creators—as the lovers of the literature of the imagined future—we can do better and we must do better.

America needs us. The future needs us. Where Lucas has set down the work of Reconstruction, we must take it up ourselves! By the rotoscopic flashing of our ancient laser swords: the truth is marching on!

 

 

1 Wilson, Henry, and Samuel Hunt. History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. Boston, J.R. Osgood And Company, -77, 1872.

2 Dick, Philip K. “The Mold of Yancy.” The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. Volume 4. The Minority Report [1954-1963]. Burton, Mi., Subterranean Press, 2013.

 

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