May 18th, 2007

  • pgdf

Monstrous Bodies Chapbook Introduction

Two years ago, at the generous invitiation of Dr. Lisa Yaszek

I attended the Monstrous Bodies symposium at Georgia Tech.

Besides being a generally bouyant, art-affirming experience, this multimedia literary extravaganza introduced me to the work of several talented student writers. Their stories were later gathered into chapbook form by the university, and I was honored to do the introduction. That text, which I think maintains general interest, appears below for the first time outside the chapbook.

The field of fantastical literature demands a steady infusion of new talent in order to flourish.

Viewed in the long term, such a statement is staggeringly obvious. Writers, being mortal, die off or fall permanently silent while still alive. (Or, worse, they continue to natter on without saying anything fresh, creating an actual drag on the field rather than a mere vacuum.) Sheer mortality necessitates replacements.

But there’s more to my observation than mere actuarial wisdom.

Even during a period in the genre when many mature and talented writers are working at the top of their powers, providing plenty of honest entertainment, the arrival of new voices on the scene provides a lift to the whole field.

New writers possess a karmic blankness and raw vitality lacking in the seasoned professionals. They are full of piss and vinegar undiluted by marketplace compromises. Their ambitions tower to the heavens, and they are ready to assault any and all barricades, to topple any sacred cows, in their quest for both individual glory and the furtherance of the artform they passionately love. Their esthetics are still chaotic and unformed, but correspondingly totipotent, able to assume whatever shape and functionality is demanded by their latest dreams. Young writers have the physical stamina and emotional resiliency not only to labor on for long hours at their keyboards, but also to thrust themselves out into the so-called “real world,” where they will suck up a hundred thousand wild, boring, dangerous, dopey experiences that will fuel their story-telling. Young writers—despite possessing any number of inutile jagged edges that will be worn down by experience, despite falling into any number of traps and venturing down any number of dead-ends—bounce back ready to try again.

All this is true.

I should know.

I was a young writer once myself.

With hardly any effort at all, I recall the sensations surrounding my first sale, nearly thirty years ago. (Not that selling a story is a prerequisite for attaining true spiritual writerhood.) The mad exuberance, the sense of predestined accomplishment, the conviction that I could flare like a comet across the skies of science fiction, the dread of subsequent failure, the stern determination not to fail, the welter of alluring projects beckoning like sirens, the disdain for any old farts impeding my progress.

Little did I know at that moment that another eight years would pass before I would sell a second story.

Yet even had I known about this interregnum, I would have gone on cloaked in the same nimbus.

Needless to say, whatever emotions attendant upon my career that I feel these days, whatever personal ambitions I have, whatever program I’d like to impose on the field, I certainly don’t experience anything like the collage of sensations that I did back then.

Just as well. My time to be a young writer has come and gone.

Whereas the time for the five writers showcased in this chapbook to be young and wild, loud and daring, bold and foolish, vain and selfless, creative and destructive—

Their time is now.

Under the tutelage of Professor Lisa Yaszek, these five undergraduate students at Georgia Tech have labored long and hard to increase their craft and capture their dreams on the printed page. They represent the future of science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and horror—all the fantastical literatures. They are a hot wind off the desert, a cold wind off the sea. They utter things unsaid in languages previously unrecorded. They borrow bits and pieces of the past masters, reconfigure them like fiery-eyed bricoleurs, mash them up with unique insights into the present and the future, and present us with gleaming structures heretofore unseen.

Consider for a moment the variety of voices, the range of themes and topics, the heterogenous milieus on display here.

Our volume opens with Kalani Reel’s “Seventh World.” A portrait of a far-future universe where a small minority, the Hunted, struggle to hold on to baseline biological truths in the face of myriad bioengineered weirdnesses, this story manages to mix the lush romanticism of Tanith Lee with the space-opera harshness of M. John Harrison.

Next up is “Draco: Draco Prodigium,” by Joshua Faith, the penname of Chris Hundley. Over its spy-thriller armature is laid a thoughtful examination of what it means to belong to a family of choice, rather than a family of birth. Additionally, musings on patriotism, love and transhumanism create a kind of Richard Morgan vibe.

Amelia Shackleford’s “Double Helix” takes root in the gritty street culture of contemporary times, following the intertwining fates of two outcasts. The figure of a prophetic older woman is the glue that cements their timelines. The whole is reminiscent of some of Lewis Shiner’s best work.

In “I Vant to Vleed My Vlood,” Paul Clifton deconstructs the mythology of vampires in a sardonic, surreal, novel fashion, full of rich sensory details and subtle touches of characterization. He manages to make one of horror’s oldest tropes seem freshly minted. A kind of Lucius Shepard vibe resonates throughout.

Finally, as a guaranteed slambang closer, comes “Working Undercover for the Man,” by Matt Jaehn. Like some kind of late-period Mark Twain, Jaehn limns a bracingly black worldview in which mankind is cursed from birth by its own monkey nature, compounded by the hard hand of a demented god.

Five vibrant visions, five distinctive voices.

Yet a few observations apply across the board to these stories.

The writers are all interested in structural and narrative experimentation. Like such past masters of the innovative as Bester, Delany and Brunner, these writers don’t necessarily buy the “plain style and linear narrative are best” argument. They are intent on forging new tools for new purposes.

Secondly, all these visions are rather dark and bleak. As a Boomer, a child of the ‘Sixties, I acknowledge that growing up in the ‘Eighties, ‘Nineties and ‘Oughts is a rather different proposition than my youth. We laughed at the clap. Nobody laughs at AIDS. But despite this somberness, I get a sense of hope waiting to burst out from its shackles, of triumphs made the sweeter by the harshness of the barriers to victory.

A third point: all these tales seem to hint at vast backstories behind them. That’s a mark of true creation, the sense of a larger life for the created universes and characters outside the parameters of any individual slice.

Lastly, these stories do not reflect a heavy media influence. There are no Matrix simulacra, no Star Wars clones, no Blade Runner replicants. These writers seem to derive their inspiration and models from the printed page, the great legacy of books. That’s reassuring and heartening to a hardcore print junkie like myself.

Some days, in some lights, it’s easy to proclaim that science fiction, fantasy and horror on the printed page are dead media, drowned under the bright tide of videogames and films.

But to crack this little book and enjoy these fine stories is to give lie to that rumor.

Nothing could ever die that has inspired so much youthful life.