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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Recommended Fantasy & SciFi On the Screen from 2009

Part 3 of my recommendations of great SF from 2009 – fantasy & scifi on the screen, including film, television, and other miscellaneous forms of dramatized entertainment. (Just wait until you see the miscellaneous.)  These are the works that I’ve nominated for the Bradbury Award (basically, the Nebula Award for Dramatic Presentation – technically not a Nebula, but it’s pretty Nebula-like since it’s nominated on voted on by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America).  Some of my recommendations pretty much follow the mainstream, others less so:

  • Up: One of my favorite Pixar movies to date, write up there with Wall-E and The Incredibles. So many things I loved about this.  The fact that a cranky old guy is the hero (not just a colorful supporting character).  The fact that many laws of physics are defied but no one cares because it’s awesome.  (E.g., I’m no expert, but you probably can’t walk around pulling along a house held aloft by hundreds of balloons as if it were a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.)  And the fact that the metaphorical, character, and plot arcs all come together so beautifully.
  • Doctor Who – ”The Waters of Mars”:  I’m a recent convert to Doctor Who and this special was one of the strongest from the show.  I love that they’re pushing David Tennant’s Doctor to such challenging new places before he takes his final bow. And, as they’ve done in many Doctor Who episodes, they’ve taken something ordinary – water – and made it disturbingly horrific.
  • Pontypool: This independent film is sort of a sophisticated zombie apocalypse story.  The premise is that you are infected with insanity not by a blood or saliva, but by the English language itself – certain words carry the virus.  Wonderfully original surreal science fiction horror.  If you can find a way to see it, then do so.
  • District 9:  Despite some drawbacks, this was one of the most sophisticated and thought-provoking pure science fiction movies to come out in a while.  Broke a lot of new ground for SF on screen.
  • Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” Music Video:  Yes, Lady Gaga.  This is a ground-breaking pop music video akin to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and like “Thriller” it is firmly rooted in the SF genre, drawing on traditions of horror, science fiction, and surrealism.  In five minutes Lady Gaga makes a stonger artistic statement than James Cameron does in 162 minutes of Avatar. I know I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, so I may need to write an entire post on this one…

So those are my personal top five dramatic presentations in SF from 2009.  The new Star Trek movie was also entertaining, but not much more than that – and I do hope for more than just entertaining when it comes to Trek.  Despite my swipe at Avatar, I found that entertaining too, and I was very happy any time I was watching luminescent alien landscapes in 3D.  But the story and characters were just not interesting enough to put it in my personal top five. This year’s Harry Potter movie was my favorite to date and probably would have made my top five if there weren’t such other good contenders this year.

I also am waiting to catch up on Season 4 of Doctor Who before watching David Tennant’s final appearance, otherwise that one might have made it too.  Similar note for Torchwood: Children of Earth and Moon – heard they’re both excellent but haven’t seen them yet.   And, lastly, oh how I wish the last episode of Battlestar Galactica had been even worth considering for a nomination, because it was a really awesome show up until that disappointment…

Still to come: recommended books, and possibly a note on why we should enthusiastically embrace Lady Gaga as a member of the science fiction community.

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Ben Francisco. About me.

Ben Francisco is a writer of fictions. His stories range from magic realism to space opera, and have been known to feature oversexed ghosts, epidemics of phosphorescence, zombie musicals, and pantheistic vampire aliens who reproduce like moss. Common themes include cultural misunderstandings, family dysfunctions, LGBT experiences, and spiritual searches. Also, lasers.

Ben’s stories have been published in Realms of Fantasy and the anthology Dreaming Again. Other stories are forthcoming in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Shimmer. He has also written nonfiction columns and articles for Fantasy Magazine.

Ben is a graduate of the Clarion South 2007 writers workshop in Brisbane, Australia, a science fiction boot camp where he spent six weeks writing non-stop, playing Mafia, and staying up till the wee hours of the morning talking about the physics of cannonballs, unicorns, and zombie watermelons. He is also a graduate of Taos Toolbox 2008, another intensive workshop, taking place at very high altitudes in New Mexico. His friends and family may soon have to perform an intervention to help him break his workshop habit.

He lives in Brooklyn with his partner, Hassan. Their diet consists mainly of chicken.

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