Unicorn Noir: Burgeoning New Sub-Genre?

Yesterday I got my copy of Peter M. Ball’s novella Horn direct from Australia, and of course it was immediately bumped to the top of the reading list.  The book daringly seeks to establish a new sub-genre with a hard-boiled noir story rooted in a world of unicorns and faeries.  One of those ideas that would be disastrous in the hands of a weaker writer, but in Peter Ball’s hands it’s like sitting in a hot sun drying up your clothes after they’ve been soaked by a downpour of rain.  (That was me, trying to do a noir simile.  Clearly I don’t have Peter’s talent for it.)

Miriam Aster is an ex-cop and an ex-lover of the ex-Queen of Faery. Now she’s a PI, taking on cases with a bit too much magic and complexity for the guys at the precinct.  When a dead girl shows up in a dumpster and a unicorn’s on the loose, only Aster realizes just how bad things can get.  She has to crack the case before the unicorn in heat finds its next victim, if she can wind her way through the tricky magicks of the fae, the bureaucracy of the precinct, and the complexities of her relationship with a woman she swears she’s not in love with anymore.

OK, clearly I loved this novella.  The noir voice keeps you reading and has just the right amount of irony and humor.  And any time things start to slow down, Ball adds another layer of complexity to keep things interesting.  Here’s one of my favorite passages:

I was looking for Heath Morrow, a morgue institution. … He preferred working the late shift and had a fetish for the odd cases, which meant he called me in every chance he got.  I should have hated Heath, but we got on okay.  For all his ambient creepiness, he never assumed I was crazy and he’d become more bearable since I’d come back to life on his autopsy table.  His tendency to talk to my chest vanished after he’d cut me open.  Apparently it’s hard to objectify someone once you’ve had a scalpel poking around their innards.

I had the privilege of seeing this one in its larval phase, so it’s a pleasure seeing it out in the world, a full-grown gorgeous butterfly (or moth – would moth be more appropriate for noir?).  Twelfth Planet Press also did a great job with the packaging, with a knockout cover and a nice design overall.  The quality of the book made me want to go out and check out more of their stuff.

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Thoughts on District 9

Saw District 9 the other day and I think I liked it. It’s one of those movies that takes a while to sink in, that requires some marinating before you can really be sure how it tastes.  The clearly-cool thing about it is that it’s totally different from any SF movie ever made.  It has a certain gritty realism to it that makes it compelling and, at times, appropriately horrifying.  I love the central premise of aliens being refugees on earth, facing all the prejudices that humans tend to have, even when it comes to things that are much less alien than, well, aliens.

The movie combines a gritty documentary realism with a more standard Hollywood narrative – which is understandable, since it is a Hollywood movie after all. But as the movie progressed it shifted more and more toward the Hollywood end of the spectrum, which was less interesting to me and also felt a bit clunky at times. I also generally liked the choice of South Africa as a setting, but the depiction of the Nigerians felt like it strayed into a colonialist view at times.  E.g., do we really need subtitles for Nigerians when they’re speaking English?  Despite those disappointments, overall it’s an engaging movie charting new territory for scifi on the screen.

The novel is progressing very well – I’ve written a total of about 4,700 words since I started the marathon four days ago, which puts me only a few hundred words behind schedule.  I’m skipping around quite a bit, jumping ahead to the parts that are clearer in my mind or that come to me with a burst of enthusiasm.  Which has been working well, because then it’s fairly easy to go back and fill in the gaps.

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SFWA’s new look

There are some cool folks at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) who have been working hard to make the organization more relevant and visible. Up until recently, SFWA’s website looked a bit like a time-traveling refugee from the early 1990s. But now they’ve upgraded by a couple of decades with an attractive, professional look, and lots of cool features: a blog with regular updates, a “featured author” and “featured book” providing a rolling spotlight for SFWA members right on the homepage, and an online “suggestion box” for the Nebula Awards.

I signed up yesterday as an associate member and immediately received an automated reply. In less than 12 hours, SFWA had finished processing my membership and my username, password, etc. were all set up. So it looks like they have an impressive and speedy service model on top of the revamped look. Very cool.

On a more personal note, I’m trying to imagine what my teenage self would say if I went back in time and told him, “Some day you will be a card-carrying member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.” Largely excited, I think, though he might have the sense to not tell the other kids in school.

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Superhero Self-Help

Just finished reading From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust. The novel is a hilarious send-up of the superhero genre, told in the form of a self-help book for superheroes: “When Being A Superhero Can’t Save You from Yourself – Self-Help for Today’s Hyper-Hominids.” The novel is narrated by Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, who is leading six dysfunctional superheroes through group therapy in the wake of a fellow hero’s death. The opening paragraph gives a pretty good flavor:

You can wrap a steel I beam around your neck with your bare hands and wear it like a tie. You can swim so quickly that you can go back in time to offer Columbus correct directions to India. You can climb the outside of a building, regurgitate the ton of paper you’ve eaten, and weave a beautiful multilevel hive while not paying a cent in downtown rent.

But are you happy?

Faust not only riffs off superhero psychology to hilarious effect, he also explores a sort of alternate Marvel/DC universe that is as diverse as the real world. His racial (and gender/sexual orientation) critique of the superhero genre is brilliantly constructed – and brings a lot of laughs along the way.

At about 100 pages in, the book started to feel a bit slow to me, and I even wondered if there was really enough material for a 385-page superhero send-up. But then it quickly picked up again, and there was a series of twists and revelations that were unpredictable, engaging, and just plain fun. As the novel approaches its climax, the complex social criticism beneath the humor comes into sharp focus, and the result is nothing less than mind-blowing. My laughter and pleasure in the book slowly gave way to anger as the intensity of the larger plot became clear. Without getting into spoiler territory, the ending is unexpected, but completely apt, and it got me thinking about endings more generally. So many endings aim to leave the reader satisfied, sad, even horrified – but rarely is anger the intended reaction. Perhaps more books ought to do so; there’s no shortage of injustice for us to be angry about.

My sense is that Faust’s critique is not so much of psychology but rather a certain aspect of the individualistic, self-help culture – a paradigm that, when taken to its extreme, tends to pathologize self-sacrifice and heroism, and leaves little room for an understanding of social justice. It’s quite impressive that a book so successful in its humor is also so successful in its thought-provoking social commentary.

Faust is also brilliant at voice and dialogue – his mastery of multiple dialects reminded me of greats like Mark Twain, and that alone makes the book worth reading. Recommended for anyone who loves superheroes, social criticism, or laughing out loud.

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Pre-Order Polyphony 7

Polyphony is a wonderful anthology series that’s published some of the best speculative fiction out there in recent years – with a specialization in the weird and interstitial. Volume 7 is now available for pre-order at Wheatland Press, and it features a great line-up of writers like Howard Waldrop, Mikal Trimm, and Bruce Holland Rogers. Unfortunately, in the current challenging economic climate, it looks like they won’t be able to publish the book unless they get enough pre-orders. So why not just order your copy now? You get a great book plus you get to feel good about supporting a great small press…

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Why It’s Fantasy When Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (co-author of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is not a work of speculative fiction. Or so I thought until I turned the first page.

Nothing in Boy Meets Boy defies the laws of physics. The novel doesn’t feature any technological advances beyond cell phones and instant messaging. It’s not just a clever title, it’s also a handy plot summary: Paul is a high school sophomore who falls for Noah, the charismatic boy who’s new in town. Paul pursues Noah while navigating the complexities of friendships, ex-boyfriends, and high school life.

And yet as I began reading Boy Meets Boy, I got the strange feeling I was reading fantasy. Maybe because Paul’s high school is not quite like any high school I know. The star quarterback of the football team, Infinite Darlene, is also the homecoming queen; she has trouble getting along with the other drag queens in school because they feel she doesn’t care for her nails properly. Paul’s kindergarten teacher helped him understand that he was gay, and when he came home to tell his mother, her reaction was to yell to his father, “Honey … Paul’s learned a new word!” Paul helped found a gay-straight alliance in the sixth grade, mainly to help the straight kids with their fashion sense and dance moves.

With telling details, Levithan creates a world without homophobia, a town where everyone accepts everyone else for who they are. And that is a speculative element if I’ve ever seen one. In that sense, the book is part of a small sub-genre of works that create a secondary world that is much like our own contemporary world in both natural law and technology, but with a culture that is unfamiliar in some way. I’ve read a few short stories in this vein, but Boy Meets Boy may be the first novel of this sort that I’ve encountered.

Early on in the book, when Noah and Paul are on their first date, Noah brings Paul over to his house, and leads him through a secret passage in his closet. As they venture through layers of clothing, Paul asks, “Are we going to Narnia?”

Yes, I thought when I read those words. We are going to Narnia. This book is taking me to another world. When I read the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, I drew tremendous pleasure from entering a world where children could become heroes. Reading Boy Meets Boy gave me a similar vicarious pleasure, bringing me to a world where my own high school experience would have been completely different, where I might have worried not about getting called “faggot” in the hallways, but instead about whether my new boyfriend will hear that I accidentally kissed my ex-boyfriend.

But was that vicarious joy all there was to it? Was that the only reason this book seemed like spec fic?

Taking a step back, it’s helpful to look at Boy Meets Boy in the context of LGBT literature. In early gay-themed fiction, especially before the 1960s, gay characters were usually tragic, lonely figures, with suicide their typical and apparently inevitable fate. Later, especially after the 1969 Stonewall riots (seen as a watershed for the gay movement), LGBT authors developed new narratives, particularly the coming out story – a uniquely gay variation on the coming of age story. Other narratives were still tragic, but in more complex ways. Several gay novels of the seventies focused on gay men whose lives centered on dancing, drugs, and sex. With the eighties came the AIDS epidemic, and an entire literature that sought to grapple with its overwhelming consequences. The romance also became an important narrative, especially in lesbian literature. In recent years, the budding genre of gay young adult fiction has focused on the experience of being an outcast, and of finding community with one’s fellow outcasts.

In this context, Boy Meets Boy is something of an outlier. It does fit squarely in the romance category, but it’s not quite like any other gay romance. Even when works of LGBT fiction don’t directly deal with homophobia, the backdrop of a homophobic world pervades the text. The coming out story is the story of unlearning the homophobic messages that gay people internalize while growing up. Any narrative of HIV takes place in a world where AIDS was ignored for years in part because it was initially perceived as a gay disease. Even in the stories of dancing, sex, and drugs, homophobia’s specter is there, lingering ominously in the background.

Given all that, it would be easy to argue that Boy Meets Boy is trivial, that it fails to grapple with the challenges facing the LGBT community. Some critics have more or less made that case. We have important social issues to tackle – why waste our time with a novel about a town without homophobia? Why waste our time indulging in fantasy?

But that’s always the question asked about speculative literature, usually by people who don’t quite get the genre. Mimetic fiction (i.e., “realistic” fiction) seeks to imitate life, to capture the realities of our daily lives in some meaningful way. But fiction – like all art – can do more than imitate. It’s also a space where we can imagine new possibilities. Speculative fiction, maybe more than any other genre, embraces that aspect of art. We imagine the possibility of flight long before the Wright Brothers make it a reality; a distant planet where gender operates completely differently; worlds where heroes use extraordinary abilities in the service of justice. Some of these things have already happened, and some may never be, but only after we begin to imagine them do they enter the realm of possibility.

And so David Levithan has imagined a community without homophobia. Levithan knows what he’s doing, and it’s no starry-eyed dream. As with all good SF, Levithan’s speculative element is also an essential part of the narrative. Paul’s best friend, Tony, is from the next town over, a town that’s much more like the ones that you or I grew up in. As the novel climaxes, Tony’s conservative parents ground him and forbid him from seeing Paul because he’s such a bad gay influence. Paul’s utopian world comes head-to-head with Tony’s homophobic world, a clash as intense as any interplanetary conflict in speculative fiction.

At one point in the midst of this clash, Tony tells Noah, “The first time I met you, I honestly couldn’t believe that someone like you could exist, or even a town like yours could entirely exist.” When Tony speaks, I can’t help but feel he’s speaking for all of us – whatever our sexual orientation – who grew up in towns much more like his than like Noah’s. Tony’s life changes because he sees that a place like Noah’s town is possible; Boy Meets Boy does the same for its readers. By imagining a place like that, we’re brought one step closer to making it a reality.

There’s just one other reason the novel feels like SF. From the Gaystafarian dance concert that opens the book to the invented language that Tony and Paul use when English words just aren’t enough, the book leaves you with a feeling that’s difficult to describe. It might not be all that different from the feeling you got on your first trip to Narnia. That thing you’re always hoping for when you open a spec fic book.

A sense of wonder.

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Concrete Monsters and Music at the End of the World

… are among the stuff of the stories of LCRW 25, which will be coming out in April-May-ish. This issue includes my story, “This is Not Concrete,” as well as “Music of the Spheres” by my Clarion-mate Daniel Braum. I’m very psyched to be sharing a table of contents with Mr. Braum for the first time. I’m also very psyched to appear in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a wonderfully infamous zine that’s published some of the best interstitial, slipstream, just-plain-weird fiction of the modern epoch.

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Tio Gilberto All Over the Internets!

My short story, “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts,” is now available for free online at Realms of Fantasy’s website. It’s also being featured next week in io9′s short-story reading club. The short story club is a new feature at io9, and the first few stories featured included stories by Isaac Asimov and Elizabeth Bear, so it’s a thrill and an honor to be in such amazing company.

BTW, io9 is one of the coolest places on the internets for sci-fi goodness, as exemplified by recent posts such as 38 reasons why Iron Man is cooler than Darth Vader, Patrick Stewart Explains How Shakespeare Prepares You for Science Fiction Acting, or 20 Great Infodumps from Science Fiction Novels. Definitely worth adding to your RSS and/or regular routine of obsessive blog-checking.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the discussion of “Tio Gilberto” at io9 next Saturday. Many thanks to David Grossman at io9 and Doug Cohen and the gang at Realms for making Gilberto’s internet tour possible!

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Went to the Moon for Spring Break but the Moon Turned Out to Completely Suck

That’s a paraphrase of the opening line of M.T. Andersen’s Feed, a young adult novel about an eerily familiar future in which everyone is connected to a neural feed, which transmits information, messages, and lots of advertising directly into your brain 24-7. The story mainly follows a group of teenagers as they hang out, date, and consume. The novel is one of the best I’ve read in recent memory, and has pretty much everything you want in a science fiction novel: great characters, an interesting and well-thought-out future, a brilliant voice, a good dose of humor, and some thought-provoking ideas about the world we live in. Possibly the most powerful thing about the novel is what’s mostly unspoken in the background: things have gotten pretty bad in this future, and meanwhile these American teenagers are just obliviously hanging out at the mall. The fact that most of them have developed unexplicable lesions bothers them at first, until lesions become the latest fashion trend, of course.

It’s hard to say much more, other than that this book meg rocks. Put it at the top of your reading list and you won’t be disappointed.

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Birthday Business, Shout-Outs, and Other Matters

Today is my 33rd birthday, and I’m celebrating by taking a mini-cation from work to write and see close friends – two of my favorite activities. I was thinking of having a big party for myself but that sounded an awful lot like the event-organizing I’ve been doing for work lately, so I decided to postpone the party to a less busy time. I’m thinking I may have a party some time in the summer to celebrate hitting a third of a century.

There are many other illustrious figures born on March 18, including at least two others born in 1977, the year that Star Wars was released and Harvey Milk was elected. A very special happy birthday to Peter Ball, my birthday-brother from Australia, a fellow writer who defies categorization, writing in every genre from magic realism to pulp noir, and possibly inventing some new sub-genres along the way. For a free online taste, I recommend this short story at Strange Horizons about merfolk, Copenhagen, love, and loss.

And happy birthday to all the other fabulous March 18ers, including Jordan, a new friend who was born only a half-hour apart from me, and Fernando, an old friend who was born a bit further apart from me than that. 🙂

In other news, SF Signal recently asked this year’s Nebula award nominees for recommendations of other worthy stories. I was honored and flattered to see that “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts“ was mentioned by several of the nominees. Many thanks to Chris Barzak, Richard Bowes, Will McIntosh, and Rachel Swirsky for the shout-outs. It’s especially nice to get kudos from those four writers, all of whom much deserved their nominations and routinely write some of the best stuff out there these days.

All right, time to get some real writing done…

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