The Future Alternative Past: it's all about the L.O.V.E.

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. Read past columns here

Love Makes Our Worlds Go Round

The first story published in the SFFH series I mentioned last month, the Slate Magazine series on life under Presiden Trump, is a love story: Hector Tobar’s “The Daylight Underground.” Love moves the immoveable, and SFFH is rife with its primal and paradoxical power. Sometimes love is the motivation for the accomplishment of impossible journeys, as in John Crowley’s post-apocalyptic novel Engine Summer: hero Rush that Speaks traverses time and the troposphere in search of his lost love, Once a Day. Sometimes love’s workings are changed by a story’s science fictional or magical or horrific elements, as in Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling, her last novel, in which a predator builds a polyamorous romantic relationship with its prey. Or as in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, in which a human linguist’s sexual involvement with his nonhuman bodyguard gradually adapts to very different emotional defaults rooted in their distinct biologies. Sometimes love is the means by which science fictional or magical or horrific change is brought about: in Ursula K. Le Guin’s groundbreaking novel The Left Hand of Darkness, ambisexual politician Estraven’s desire for male ambassador Genly Ai contributes to Estraven’s gender transformation.

There are plenty of other intersections between SFFH and love — even if we restrict our definition of love to the sort that’s sexual and romantic. Love and the fantastic imagination are twined together in a very twisty knot.

Often we fantasize privately about love — we dream impossibly erotic dreams, tell ourselves “meet-cute” stories that have no chance of ever coming true, and watch porn movies in our heads that we know we’ll never film. SFFH’s public fantasies have to have a greater degree of verisimilitude.

One of my favorite SFFH books-to-read-with-one-hand is Margaret and I by Kate Wilhelm. An Amazon reviewer called it “a profoundly unsettling and hallucinatory exploration of a woman’s sexual and emotional self-realization.” My note on the first page of my vintage 1978 paperback says it’s “good, and hot too!” Wilhelm’s undated inscription (probably circa 1999, when we met) informs me that I was “too young the first time around.” Surely not — when Margaret and I originally came out I was almost 16.

As for the less carnal sorts of love, when I want to swoon over the ideal knight, I read Tanith Lee’s Cyrion, or another novel-in-short-stories she wrote, Kill the Dead, or her somewhat-problematic romanticization of chattelhood, The Silver Metal Lover. When I want to get all starry-eyed over a lady, I turn to the strong and endearingly pessimistic heroines of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and The Two of Them.

Then there are authors providing what you might call reliable surprises: Samuel R. Delany, who can write lyrical passages about the joy of snot-eating and the richly erotic pleasures to be found in cutting up raw potatoes. And Kai Ashante Wilson, who blows my professional author defenses to smithereens with rude yet gently balmy whisperings about entanglements between princes and soldiers and dead musicians.

Then there’s Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut novel Amberlough.

Recent books recently read

Love and sex drip from the pages of Amberlough (Tor) like mead from the rim of an upended bottle: sweet, yeasty, and bound to bring on fever-filled dreams. Set in an imagined secondary world similar to our own, this tale of espionage aimed against a Nazi-style populist movement is all too relevant to the current moment. Statuesque drag queen Aristide so truly loves twinkish spymaster Cyril DePaul that he fixes him up with a pseudo-girlfriend in the form of the frankly polyamorous Cordelia Lehane, Aristide’s costar at the decadent Bumble Bee Café. As in Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series, there’s no magic per se to be found within the pages of this fantasy of bedside manners, only the stinging fascination of seeing heart-stealing characters play out their desperate gambits against an ever-so-slightly defamiliarized background. From the slang for cigarettes (“straights” rather than “fags”) to streetcar-riding butch lesbians dodging brawling fascist demonstrations, Donnelly provides plenty of second-worldly details. It’s the sensual ones that stick, though: a breath, and then a knee parting thighs and then another, softer breath. The sights and sounds of a temporary heaven on earth.

In Calabria (Tachyon Publications), Peter S. Beagle’s story of an Italian farmer encountering a gravid unicorn, is reminiscent of his 1968 masterpiece The Last Unicorn. But the new book emphasizes the interior transformations caused by this mythical animal. A simultaneous affair between 50-ish widower Claudio Bianchi and a fierce motorcyclist young enough to be his daughter reads alternately as metaphor for the irrationality and vulnerability of love and as simple wish fulfillment. The unicorn colt’s sire, black and furious, appears near the book’s end as counterbalance to the dam’s white beauty, a compelling vision of the positive masculine principle lacking in Beagle’s early work.

Readers of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the mainstream literary scene’s many small, high-prestige magazines may be familiar with Colombian American author Juan Martinez. Best Worst American (Small Beer Press), however, is his SFFH debut. Faithful to the transparency of contemporary genre-adjacent practices — simple statements of the unlikely, repeated refusals to linger on any comfortable thought or image — Martinez can still manage to impinge directly on the genre of SFFH itself via his subjects: immortal strippers, the end of the world, suburban housing developments empty of everything except myriad ghostly stillbirths. Brevity is another hallmark of modernity, but though this slim volume is filled with sleek, bold flash, its longer stories are also intensely affecting. “Hobbledehoydom” examines gracelessness in love in the light of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s sad self-diagnosis. “Errands” follows an unfilial nine-year-old on a shopping trip through the forest where her parents live. Weirdness builds upon delectable weirdness throughout the whole book.

Cons and the conlike

The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts blends academic conference and SFFH convention together, and the result is a warm, salty success. Every March scholars and professional writers gather at the Orlando Airport Marriott Lakeside to explore fiction that flows along courses more outré than literature’s mainstream. A robust programming track includes dissertations on clones, robots, vampires, and the philosophical questions raised and answered by their imagined existence. There arealso readings by writers and panels on which they expound on their work — my favorite pronouncement being Ted Chiang’s description of himself as “entirely stitial.” Plus the pool’s lovely, the bar’s relaxed, and the alligator keeps her distance.

Ted’s remark, in case you missed his reference, was made in response to the label “interstitial.” Fiction which is interstitial occupies the notional territory between genres, and FOGcon 7’s theme is “Interstitial Spaces.” This new Bay Area convention welcomes authors Delia Sherman and Ayize Jama-Everett as its “Honored Guests,” and would like to welcome you as well. Highlights include the annual “Unaward Banquet” and Clarion-style writing workshops.