Saturday, 31 July 2021

Interview with Alexandra Seidel / Alexa Piper

We’re very happy to welcome to the TFF Press blog author Alexandra Seidel, whose “The City, My Love” we published in TFF#57 earlier this year, and who also writes steamy, speculative romance as Alexa Piper. She joins us to answer a few questions about her work, and also share some snippets from her recent publications.


Alexa Piper writes steamy romance that ranges from light to dark, from straight to queer. She’s also a coffee addict. She loves writing series, and her Fairview Chronicles follow a ragtag gang of supernaturals who try to make their city safer. Mostly. Her second series, Dusk & Dawn, explores banter and the trappings of a world in which Vampires, Werewolves, and the Fae live alongside humans. Elvenswood Tales is a new series that expands the Fairview universe.

The Future Fire: Your story “The City, My Love” is both a love story from a city and a love letter to historical urbanism all in one. Is there a city in your life that you immediately felt a special connection to?

Alexandra Seidel: Oh, there are a lot of cities I adore! I’m lucky enough to live in a place where it’s easy to travel to some of the bigger ones in Europe, although the list of cities I still want to see is long. The city I may have visited the most is Prague, and it’s a strong inspiration for New Elvenswood, where one of the series I write as Alexa Piper is set. But perhaps the city that really charmed me with its difficult to love character is Beijing. To me, as a Westerner, it’s a place of contradiction, a reflection of the people and politics around it. Maybe because of that, its character is so strong and memorable. And yes, it made it into one of my books as well.

TFF: Cities can sometimes make people feel swallowed and invisible. Is there a piece of urban cultural heritage that you like, and that reminds inhabitants how they are part of the place’s history?

AS: Personally, I love architecture. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know much about it, but buildings that have been there for a few hundred years and show it just have something about them that always draws my eye. It’s no wonder that the city in “The City, My Love” feels like it does about its buildings. In terms of connecting the people with their city, there is a so-called Schuttberg or rubble mountain in Munich, which is where the rubble, left behind by the bombs of WWII, was collected. It’s now part of a park, it’s green and from the looks of it, you wouldn’t know how many individual tragedies are connected to it. It certainly is a way to maintain a connection with the past for the inhabitants.

TFF: In The Hunting Mates you explore an unlikely genre crossing, between romance and noir. How did you manage to harmonise the feeling of bleakness that fills noir stories with the cozy promise of a HEA?

AS: That’s an interesting thought. See, it never occurred to me that you need to harmonize anything here. A HEA (happily ever after, for all those who are less familiar with the romance lingo) offers the promise of a happy relationship after the book is done. I feel like a strong, healthy relationship can thrive even if the outside circumstances are dire, even if characters have a dark past or demons that haunt them (which I don’t mean literally, but sure, I can see myself write someone literally being haunted by a demon. Let me know if you think that would be a good idea!) The one is the outside world, the other is the relationship between characters. Maybe it’s because I don’t think the former can ruin the latter that the romance works out as it does, even gets stronger as two characters go through life together.

TFF: Speculative erotica is a tricky genre, since to meet its potential the sexuality needs to be science-fictional, fantastic, or surreal, not just the background. How would you balance inventive erotic pairings or scenarios with relatable romantic or sexy scenes?

AS: Let me quickly clear up that erotica and romance are not the same thing, and what I write as Alexa Piper is steamy romance.

I’m not exactly sure how to answer this question! I mean, as far as logistics are concerned, we have the basic male and the basic female configuration to work with. Yes, Loved by a Kraken offers additional appendages, but that’s why it’s fun. And yes, I sometimes have multiple pairings (two sexy guys and one sexy gal in Bonfire Bright, the latest in the Elvenswood Tales series,) and the line editor mentioned she was tempted to break out dolls to follow the blocking, but for the most part, I’m not reinventing the wheel there. One thing I use to strengthen a character’s viewpoint is how they see the world; my snake demons are sensitive to temperature, my siren understands the world around him by sound as much as sight, and the kraken demon mentioned earlier gets a lot of sensory input from his suckers.

TFF: Your Fairview Chronicles series combines fantasy, crime and comedy. There is a famous saying: “It’s easy to make people cry, it’s making them laugh that is difficult.” Would you agree?

AS: I’m going to say yes. And I’m going to tell you a secret. I don’t really try to make anyone laugh. I mean, have you been keeping track of the body count in my books? I’m worse than Shakespeare trying to write a teenage love story when it comes to the body count, I assure you. It’s the voice of the characters and the kind of narrative that makes the humor happen (I once wrote a joke into a book and I didn’t even notice I did that until a proofer pointed it out.) I mean, in A Naughty Creation, I have a reanimated corpse who is very committed to cleanliness and cutting the heroine’s heart out. That should not be funny, right? I didn’t try to put any jokes in there, and I swear I don’t know where those flying eyeballs came from. These things just happen, much like demonic possession and projectile vomiting. It’s life.

TFF: Speculative fiction is often seen as a convenient medium for discussion of social justice issues, because it purports not to be about the real world (while of course it is). Is this something that works for you? Are there other stories about the real world that SF allows you to tell?

AS: I think fiction is an outlet that allows any kind of story to be told. That being said, I’d like to point out that writers don’t always try to do that. I don’t set out with an agenda in my head, and I don’t aim to write manifestos. Yet, our personal experiences will inform the way we think about any given situation, real or imagined. In my case, that is not always conscious or intentional, but I can certainly see it in my own work once I’m done writing.

TFF: How do you go about attributing personalities to inanimate objects or places? Are you led by their material qualities and physical details, or by the overall narrative?

AS: This question really wants to be answered with an easy to follow, step-by-step process. Except I don’t have that. For “City,” it just happened. I sat down, and the story wanted to be told like this, in that particular voice. I have a scene in Arrow Struck that is told by flowers in a garden (it’s a fight scene,) and that just happened without me planning it like that. Stories, like cities, are things that grow, and not always like you expect them to.


Thanks for joining us, Alexa! And good luck with the latest novels.

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Email subscription to TFF Press blog

Just a quick note to let you all know that if you subscribe to the TFF Press blog by email using the old Feedburner service, that service will be disabled in the next couple weeks. (Not our doing—Goog just decided to retire the only feature of Feedburner that anyone I know uses!) There are other RSS-by-email services available, should you choose to migrate your subsciption. We have added a new “Subscribe by email” form to the sidebar to the right, using the Blogtrottr service. We hope you'll continue to follow the TFF Press blog, one way or the other.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

New Issue: 2021.58

“I said, ‘I’m not in trouble about being gay but I do have trouble identifying with those queens,’ and then a queen overturned that police car and changed my life.”

—Edith Windsor

[ Issue 2021.58; Cover art © 2021 Cécile Matthey ]Issue 2021.58

Flash fiction

Short stories

Poetry

Full issue and editorial at futurefire.net/2021.58

Download e-book version: PDF | EPUB | Mobi

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Tech Noir special: in conversation with Zoë Blade

Way back in 2013 we published a story that could have been a paradigm for the speculative, progressive Noir crossgenre, in the form of Zoë Blade’s “Terminal City.” Fittingly, as we prepare for the Spec-Noir themed issue of TFF at the end of the year, we have invited Zoë over to talk about Cyberpunk and Noir aesthetic, social justice and speculative fiction, and transhumanism, among other things.


Zoë in the studioWhen she's not writing cyberpunk fiction, Zoë Blade can be found in her studio, making music for the leftwing side of YouTube.


The Future Fire: Would you like to talk a little bit about Terminal City to start out? We enjoyed this story not only because of the social-justice and dystopian themes, the alternative-history cyberpunk setting and classic Noir aesthetic, but also because of its unapologetically geeky and subculture references. It's also a powerful story in its own right, and it lets a little more hope creep in at the end than some Noir allows itself, but it by no means overturns the dystopian setting or guarantees a happy ending or improved circumstances for the protagonists. To what degree did you think about genre and aesthetic writing this story, as opposed to letting the plot and characters dictate elements like settings and environmental details?

Zoë Blade: Thank you! I think I started with an image in my head of someone using a public terminal in the rain. I'd read about the Esper machines in Blade Runner, how they were networked and performed all these other tasks besides zooming into photos. You can see a few in the film, but they're never mentioned. This was as interesting to me as anything in the film.

Companies, universities, and libraries used to have these big mainframes, that people would access remotely with dumb terminals instead of having their own computers. As a teenager, I was amazed when I first installed a Unix clone covermounted on a magazine. I got to play around with a tiny mainframe all of my own! It felt very empowering, the same way it felt getting my first home computer.

Another big part of the hacker community is phone phreaking, another large network you can only access in small glimpses. I'd also become fascinated by Kowloon Walled City, perhaps the most cyberpunk-looking place on Earth, a maze of rooms where everyone would steal everyone else's electricity and sublet wherever someone might conceivably fit, even in the middle of a diner or factory. So I kind of connected all these threads together.

At its heart, I think “Terminal City” is about a corporation trying to control a piece of technology, computing power, versus a flourishing community of street-level hackers trying to turn it into something everyone can use independently. It made sense to me to set it in an alternate history, where a phone company leased out accounts on their mainframe, that you could access via public terminals strewn throughout the city, and no-one had their very own computer, only leased terminals they could plug into their network and log onto their paid account. I think the main difference is that in real life, no corporation ever tried to suppress microchips, thankfully.

Perhaps it was mostly written out of frustration at what I saw as people ripping off the least interesting aspects of The Matrix. Behind the Bullet-Time effect and the violence was a tale of diverse hackers standing up against authoritarian white men in suits telling them who they couldn't be and what they couldn't do. In a BDSM club, naturally. Who doesn't want to visit that world?

TFF: What did cyberpunk mean to you? Is the character of the hacker an essential prototype, like the P.I. in Noir?

ZB: As a Brit who grew up in the eighties and nineties, it’s somewhat inevitable that I’d be immersed in the dominant popular culture of the time, hailing from the exotic lands of Japan and America. As a loner who enjoyed programming home computers like my trusty Commodore 64, my taste naturally skewed towards the usual suspects favoured by hackers: Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, Snow Crash, Pi, and The Matrix. They feature hackers as heroes, an escapist fantasy for technically-minded shut-ins. And as a transgender woman, I naturally gravitated towards stories of people who modified or outright abandoned their own bodies, and questioned who they really were in spite of how others treated them.

It was only years later, as an adult, that I learned Brits and Americans had feared Japanese businessmen taking over their corporations, something they projected onto everything from Brazil to Die Hard. As a child, that fear completely went over my head. Of course the future was Asian. Watching Dominion: Tank Police, with its female protagonist, I’d associated more with that imagined world than any of the American ones.

As for the hacker: I try to avoid using the generic archetype characters I've seen mentioned in writing guides (“hackers are tricksters like the mythological Loki”) in favour of what I know: hackers tend to be technically knowledgeable yet socially naïve people who wield a lot of power with reckless abandon, for better or worse. I think that covers everyone from Aaron Swartz to Zuckerberg.

TFF: We’d like to ask you more about the relationship between body and identity, which is a popular trope in Cyberpunk, from machines that gain consciousness (or become more human than humans), to people trying to replicate or download their memories and feelings. How do you feel this concept resonates with those who have made the decision to modify or otherwise redefine their bodies?

Terminal City, illustrated by MonosílaboZB: I suspect I'm far from the only transgender woman who felt Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell resonated with her. Though in a way it's reversed, as she wasn't convinced she had a human brain, and felt that how other people treated her was what granted her humanity; whereas transgender people generally spend a lot of time and anguish working out exactly what and who their brain is, in spite of other people's disbelief.

What always seems absurd to me is how many cisgender people consider themselves to be transhumanists, imagining themselves to have escaped the rigid bonds of being overly attached to an unmodded body... and then proceed to be transphobic without missing a beat. If you're against people overriding their own endocrinological system, then what exactly do you want to allow people to do? I think for most transgender people who overly think things through, it's a natural extension to be very much in favour of everyone's bodily autonomy. A lot of us have firsthand experience of its necessity for happiness or even any kind of normal life.

It's also obviously a nice fantasy that you could transplant your brain into a body that hasn't been damaged from being on the wrong hormones, but allowing young people to block the wrong ones before they can take effect has presumably diminished the need for such escapist wishful thinking.

TFF: Cyberpunk literature and popular culture have probably made us imagine artificial intelligences as an expression of rigid objectivity. But now that we can actually see AIs at work, we see that they simply replicate the same biases that appear in the data that were fed to them. Do you think that this changes the way we look at AIs in cyberpunk, not as superior ethical and objective beings, but bearing the baggage of all our worst prejudices, power imbalances, and other ugliness?

ZB: I think there are two quite different concepts of AI here, leading many people to talk at cross-purposes. Cyberpunk imagines a general-purpose AI that's roughly analogous to a human brain: simple parts, replicated billions of times, interconnected. Like a human child, this new kind of lifeform would need to be carefully nurtured and loved in order to grow into a responsible adult. The main issue there being that only corporations and perhaps governments could afford such technology, at least at first, and they are far from loving parents. Raising a human child in such an environment would be unconscionable, and the scenario isn't improved with that child having thought processes that are utterly unfamiliar to us, and eventually far smarter than us.

What we instead currently have in real life are small, specific bits of computer code that were rapidly evolved in an automatic training process. You tell a computer “here's somebody doing a thing. Please write some random code and tinker with it until it does more or less the same thing as them.” All we've managed to do there is automate the biases of the person whose work is being replicated. All this technology, and we've simply automated racism. It's bias laundering, so managers can say “see? This machine's doing the same thing, and it can't be prejudiced, it's a machine.”

A third option I'm hopeful for is some kind of artificial intelligence that can look at the big picture and point out our biases. That can sift through all the data out there and work out various things we've misinterpreted, or that are statistically suspicious. Something too smart to say “Bob's giving more jobs to people named Greg than Lakisha, so I'll do that too, as presumably Gregs must be better at the jobs.” Instead, it might say “Bob's giving more jobs to people named Greg than Lakisha, so let's work out why this correlation exists,” then it would go off and look at all the worldly data it can find, and finally show how racism and sexism have tarnished all our knowledge and actions. But then, we don't need a machine to tell us that the system's rigged. We need to listen to all the minorities who have already been telling us for a very long time.

TFF: Is cyberpunk basically “tech noir” then?

ZB: Cyberpunk’s aesthetic is solid Noir. Hidden beneath the glamorous façade portrayed elsewhere, the seedy underbelly is populated by far more relatable characters, denied a place in mainstream society. Forced into black markets just to survive, their lyrical street slang obfuscates the illicit work demanded from them, at once publicly punished and privately required by polite society, from the sex work that exploits their perceived exoticism through to the corporate espionage that requires their unique skills.

The aesthetic is an easy sell, a cluttered mess of smoke, rain, neon, cables, litter, and the violence that inevitably engulfs black markets. The harder pill to swallow is that these seemingly superficial trappings are inexorably intertwined with the all too real poverty and discrimination endured by people denied legitimate jobs. It’s a genre of underdogs, relatable realism for some, poverty tourism for others. Because even your suffering is a commodity to be packaged and sold.

At the heart of the genre are clones, robotic replicas, and wholly new AI, all trying to break free of their bonds, placed on them by the all-too-human heads of megacorps and zaibatsu, who fully expect them to be as oppressive as themselves. While the fear of being literally inhuman is a modern one, being treated as such is all too real for many people.

Blade Runner is the epitome of this future noir, showing someone mercilessly hunting freed synthetic slaves only to have his own humanity in turn questioned. The aesthetics, themes, and plots are inseparable. Cyberpunk expresses our fight to have our humanity recognised, and our freedom granted.

TFF: Is there something else you’ve worked on recently that you’d like to tell us about?

ZB: Let’s go with Inhuman, a comic about a Japanese hitwoman who wakes up to discover she’s a synthetic replica of her former self, who her client is trying to kill. Which corporation would you want to have full autonomy of your body?

When an assassin regrets killing her latest target, she discovers how hard it is to quit her job and go freelance.

At its core, Inhuman is a story about a woman who has a phobia of electronic recreations of people, only to wake up one day to discover she's been made into such a recreation herself. She has to team up with her original human self in order to work out why the corporation she was working for robbed her of her body, and expose their secrets.

I originally wrote it as a screenplay, but as it's an original property and would need the kind of ridiculously high budget reserved for established franchises, I'm currently working with my regular artist Monosílabo to turn it into an online comic book. We’ll hopefully be sharing it soon on our online media, including https://twitter.com/zoeblade and https://twitter.com/monosilabo_art.

TFF: Thank you for joining us, Zoë!


If you fancy your hand at some speculative or progressive Noir short fiction or poetry, please consider sending something in for the TFF-Noir themed issue this year.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Noir special: Conversation with Curtis C. Chen

Six years ago we published an urban fantasy/political thriller novelette by Curtis C. Chen, titled “Godwin’s Law,” that we now look back on as one the great instances of speculative noir that we can point to as an example. As we’re currently reading for the Noir-themed issue of The Future Fire due at the end of this year (see Call for Submissions here), we invited Curtis to come and chat with our guest editor Valeria about the genre, setting, and progressive values in fiction.


Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen (陳致宇) now writes stories and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. He's the author of the Kangaroo series of funny science fiction spy thrillers and the showrunner for Echo Park 2060 on Realm.

Valeria Vitale: “Godwin’s Law” stood out for us at TFF for its fairly uncommon genres-crossing that involved noir and magic. Even though it sounds like a less likely literary avenue to explore, we think it is actually a very interesting blend. How did you come up with this idea, and what do you think the crossing adds to both genres?

Curtis C. Chen: A lot of my favorite stories involving magic are about keeping secrets, usually magicians hiding their powers from the mundane world. And noir, as a genre, is also deeply concerned about people's secrets and how they try to protect themselves from exposure. I thought it would be interesting to explore that overlap.

VV: The setting of “Godwin’s Law” is not a very classically noir one. Not only for the presence of the magical and futuristic elements, but also for the absence of many of the recognisable noir tropes (the rainy city, the PI in a raincoat, the femme/homme fatale and so on). But what we have tried to define as a sort of “noir feeling” definitely comes up, in our opinion, in the nuanced morals of some of the characters, and, ultimately, in the lack of resolution for the protagonist. Did you conceive this story as a noir?

CCC: This story started out focused on the idea of wartime espionage, but as I worked on it I decided that making everything intensely personal for the characters was ultimately more interesting. I think that's what leads to the "noir feeling," especially when people are forced into situations where they have no good choices. For me, the moral ambiguity of noir really grows out of exploring individuals' wants and desires, especially when they don't line up with what others want.

VV: One thing that we especially liked in this story was your use of an explicitly unrealistic plot (with magic, portals and shapeshifters) to bring attention to less acknowledged historical atrocities, like the Japanese internment camps in the US during WWII. Do you think that fantasy and other speculative genres are an effective means to talk about tragic historical events?

CCC: I certainly hope so. One encouraging recent example is how the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was featured in two different HBO series, Watchmen (inspired by the comics) and Lovecraft Country (based on Matt Ruff's novel). I know people who had never heard of that real-life atrocity, and were moved to go learn more about it afterward. The other side of the coin with respect to secrets is knowledge being suppressed by those in power, and that's also important to explore in fiction. (Look up "Chinese massacre of 1871" if you want another depressing dose of reality.)

VV: As much as we love Noir, it is undeniable that it has very often been plagued with very misogynistic, racist, and homophobic stereotypes. One of them is the use of East Asian characters (and elements of their culture like the language or food) as means to give “colour” or “atmosphere” especially in very grim and dystopian settings. Do you have any thoughts about the exoticisisation of East Asian cultures in the noir genre?

CCC: It's definitely still a problem, but there has been progress. We've come a long way from the 1974 film Chinatown, which used an entire community as a mere punchline, to Henry Chang's and Ed Lin's novels exploring the complexities of immigrant identity. My small contribution to that conversation will be Echo Park 2060, a collaboratively written noir serial involving human clones in a future Los Angeles, forthcoming from Realm Media. Our writing team also includes Sloane Leong, Millie Ho, Monte Lin, and Jenn Reese. Look for that this fall on your favorite podcast platform!

Coming soon: ECHO PARK 2060 season 1 on Realm podcasts

If you write Noir short fiction that you think we might like, please see our Call for Submissions and give us a try.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Micro-interviews for issue #57

As you’ll have noticed by now, we like to run a series of mini-interviews, just a couple questions, very short answers, with the authors and artists of the latest issue of TFF. We’re in the process of running the interviews with the creators features in TFF #57 at the moment, and those we’ve posted so far are gathered here:

We’ll add more links from time to time as they come in, but if you want to be sure not to miss them, these are posted on TFF’s Fakebooc page, and also cross-linked on our Twitter from time to time.

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Speculative Noir retrospective: Damien Krsteski’s “Siv Delfin”

In anticipation of the Noir-themed issue of TFF due later this year, we’re thinking about some of the stories we have published in the past that fit the bill. First up, we have invited Damien Krsteski to come and talk to us about his 2016 story, “Siv Delfin”—if you don’t remember it, please read the story before the rest of this post, to avoid spoilers…


Illustration by Miguel Santos © 2016
TFF: This was a dark and almost nihilistic story that struck us from the moment we first read it, with its underworld grit and the existential dread of the premise, with the permanently consciousness-altering drug and the powers-that-be (both official and otherwise) pretty much impotent to do anything about it. Although the protagonist was a cop, the Noir aesthetic comes through in her powerlessness, her (ultimately fruitless) alliance with the crime lord, her grief and desperation. There is no resolution to the crime investigation: (some) understanding, perhaps, but no justice. And it is also, as the best Noir—and the kind we’re looking for in our forthcoming themed issue—consciously both philosophical and political: What does it mean to have no fear of death? What does it mean to be a counter-culture with no central organisation or leaders? What society are you trying to protect if all you’re doing is preserving the status quo? It doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it knocks the cop protagonist’s certainty apart on all fronts…

Damien: Thanks for the great words on the story; I think you’ve perfectly expressed the thoughts that were swirling in my head around the time of the writing of the story. To add to that, a bit more context:

There was a point in my life where I became obsessed with the fear of my own death. What probably started as sophomoric musings on the nature of our existence (nudged by some unfortunate events from real life) quickly turned into a gripping anxiety, into a fear of falling asleep, into an obsession with remaining alive. And I started to think, and I realized how much our actions, both as individuals and as a society, are driven by this fear of our own mortality. Our biological imperative to stay alive has fashioned and shaped scientific, sociological, artistic processes, to the point where I wondered: what would happen if we remove it? If we forget about Death, would we care about science? Would we care about resources, territory, cures for diseases? Would we be moved by art? And what’s more, would some completely different set of societal processes emerge, orthogonal to the ones that we currently take for granted?

I wanted to explore these questions in “Siv Delfin.” I wanted to see what would happen on a macro level, to see what “progress” would look like, what kind of new world the characters would build. And, on the individual level, Claire is the perfect character through which to look at this new world; I needed somebody tragic, broken. Someone straddling these two societies, and tempted to hop over to the other side. That period in my life slowly passed and I no longer obsess over Death. I like to think that writing “Siv Delfin” was one of my ways of draining the pus and letting the wound heal slightly.

TFF: We’ve always found it interesting that people find speculative fiction (of whatever flavour) a useful medium for exploring political, philosophical or ethical questions—perhaps because the distance from “realist” work gives us permission to focus more on universal truths without worrying about exposing ourselves or others in the stories to too raw a self-representation. Do you think the Noir genre or aesthetic also serves this sort of function?

Illustration by Miguel Santos © 2016
Damien: Writing SF is a very liberating way of exploring philosophical questions. My favorite SF reads like a natural extension of philosophical and scientific thought experiments—and vice versa, from Plato’s Cave to Maxwell’s Demon—and I believe that’s because you need an element of the strange in order to imagine and understand Truth, to expand your mind a tiny bit in a particular direction and make space for reality. If you stick to so called “realism” (which sometimes can be shorthand for “mundane”), and extrapolate only from your “real” experience in the “real” world that you see and feel with your eyes and hands, can you imagine that spacetime is curved, that time is relative, that biology changes and evolves and that we grew arms and legs when we crawled out of the seas?

Noir SF is capable of the same, except this strangeness is a background to characters that are powerless against it, or consumed by it, or sometimes, unwillingly, its perpetrators.

TFF: Building on what you said before about Claire being a “broken character,” I was wondering if you would like to share some thoughts on the tension between the lack of resolution and the feeling of defeat that are so characteristic of noir fiction on one side, and the desire to explore the genre to tell progressive stories that invite to resist and fight back on the other. In brief: do you see progressive noir as an oxymoron or as an exciting opportunity?

Damien: A progressive message can be conveyed even in a story steeped in despair and depravity. If a broken protagonist gives up the fight, that shouldn’t always be taken as an example to follow. Alternatively, it shouldn’t always be taken as a lesson, either; sometimes authors like to be sadistic, plain and simple, and write horrible characters and put them through misery as a way to vent and to exorcise their own demons. I personally find value in both approaches, and in a way, I consider both progressive—in the sense of pushing boundaries, whether personal and emotional or societal. Noir SF seems to exist at an interesting intersection, and the genre can take different shapes in different hands.


Damien’s latest story “Slow Eshtyca” appeared in GigaNotoSaurus in March 2021. You can also follow him on Twitter @monochromewish where updates on his publications are posted.



If you would like to try your hand at some speculative Noir, why not hit up our Call for Submissions, which is open now.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

New Issue: 2021.57

“We all have dreams, and these dreams keep us positive about the future because if we really want to achieve the dreams that we have and the hopes that we have, that means we have to get fighting for the future. So that’s one of my biggest motivations to keep fighting.”

—Vanessa Nakate

[ Issue 2021.57; Cover art © 2021 Cécile Matthey ]Issue 2021.57

Short stories

Poetry

Download e-book version: PDF | EPUB | Mobi

Full issue and editorial 

Monday, 29 March 2021

Companions and Earthbound double anthology

We’re very pleased to receive a visit from Olivia Dreisinger, who recently published a pair of linked anthologies through Painwise Press: Companions and Earthbound. The volumes group together stories on the themes of disability and the environment (themes that have long been dear to us at TFF), in creative nonfiction and SFF respectively. We asked Olivia to tell us a bit about the books (and if you read to the end, there’s a little gift for TFF readers as well).


Companions & Earthbound
A paired anthology of new disability writing

Edited by Olivia Dreisinger

Painwise Press, 2021. 168 pages.

This 2-in-1 anthology collects writing by nine authors about disability, animals, and the environment. A werewolf with PTSD and an environmentally ill AI are featured alongside human characters living with brain injury, chronic pain, neurodivergence, and more.

Contributors: Alexandra Box, Olivia Dreisinger, Sophie Helf, Bára Hladík, Cypress Marrs, Koyote Moone, seeley quest, Vanessa Santos, and George Wu Teng.

Cover concept by Sasha Zamani
Artwork by Audrey Leshay


Endorsements

“You might think that an anthology centered on disabled people and animal companions, captured with a wide-angle eco lens, might end up too narrowly focused. In Companions and Earthbound, the opposite is true: from its chosen center point, the stories and essays burst outwards with energy, complexity, and tender, thoughtful detail, all different, all unique, all worth spending time with.”
—Lori Selke, editor of Outlaw Bodies

“The experience of reading the stories and creative essays in Olivia Dreisinger’s Companions and Earthbound dual anthologies is akin to sitting down with a friend who intimately knows both the pleasures and pains that come with disability. The catch, however, is that friend is a shape-shifter: sometimes animal, human, or imagined intelligence. No matter their shape or space of residence, the voices of these narratives underscore the connections of sinew, blood, dirt, and spirit that bind us together, reminding us that disabled bodies, animal bodies, are expansive and whole and beautiful.”
—Kathryn Allan, editor of Accessing the Future and Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure


I’m a first-time editor. While assembling this anthology, I found myself constantly referring back to my well-worn (and much-loved) copy of Accessing the Future. How could I ever pull off something as amazing as this, I thought to myself. The stories in Accessing the Future pushed me—hard. I’d be lying if I said this anthology measured up to Accessing the Future, but maybe let’s just say they’re different.

This 2-in-1 anthology looks at disability, animals, and the environment. An encounter with a therapy horse and, later, a service dog in my life really got me thinking more seriously about what disability and animal liberation had in common. Most of the stories inside don’t push for liberation (well, some do). Instead, they focus on our proximities to animals in sometimes banal—or overlooked—ways. (There is something to be said about the banal.)

The anthology is split into two sections: contemporary non/fiction and speculative fiction. I wanted to be open to different styles of writing and telling stories—styles that may very well be informed by the writer’s disabilities. Maybe it’d be accurate to describe the anthology as a disabled hodge-podge—something that I hope you will find generative. May these stories matter.


You can buy Companions and Earthbound from Painwise Press. As a special gift to TFF readers, if you use the code TFF10 at the checkout you can receive a 10% discount.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Speculative or progressive Noir recommendations

“If you’re still in need/of something to read…”

A few weeks ago we ran a round table discussion on Progressive Speculative Noir, which was more focussed on issues, tropes and definitions than recommendations, per se. Today, a few friends join us with some suggested reading or viewing to get you thinking about the possibilities of Noir that push the boundaries, either of social mores or genre (and ideally both). We’d love to hear your suggestions as well!

Mame Bougouma Diene

  • Gabino Iglesias:
    • Zero Saints
    • Coyote Songs
  • Nikhil Singh:
    • Club Ded

Djibril

  • I feel like Ernest Hogan's High Aztech has some noir tropes, but pushes the envelope in probably every direction at once, so is almost unrecognisable by the end…
  • I recommend Rosa Montero’s Tears in Rain, which subverts speculative Noir in the most blunt way possible, by pastiching and upsetting the sexist/racist underpinnings of Bladerunner.
  • R.S.A. Garcia’s Lex Talionis is a SF/mystery that has heavy Noir influences

Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Neither is speculative but I'd call both progressive:

  • Love Kills Twice by Rien Gray
  • The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith

Valeria Vitale

We’ve discussed most of these already, but they’re really the best place to start:

  • Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall
  • Sarah Paretski's series of novels featuring V.I. Warshawski
  • Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and the rest of the Easy Rawlins series
  • Lauen Beukes’s Zoo City

M. Bennardo

I can't quite tick all the boxes with these... but I would recommend the following as noir-ish (but not speculative) books that have a non-typical point of view that made me think about crime fiction differently.

  • The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
  • Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street by Heda Kovály
  • The Street by Ann Petry (not usually classed as noir, but it hits a lot of the tropes)

Fabio Fernandes

  • The Golden, Lucius Shepard. It's Gothic Noir—a whodunit, actually, but with a vampire detective in the late 1800s, complete with a femme fatale of sorts (but who's far from being a damsel in distress, on the contrary; she's a vampire of noble ancestry and very much in control of things).
  • Sandman Slim. Supernatural noir with sharp, witty and funny dialogue. The protagonist is a (not very) beautiful loser, and there are no femme fatales: all the women there are fierce and he respects and admires them a lot

If you would like to add any suggestions or speculative or progressive Noir (stories, novels, films, other) to this list, please use the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

If you would like to create more progressive speculative Noir to redress the shortage of such work, please consider submitting to our Call for Submissions for TFF-Noir.

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Author and artist micro-interviews: TFF 56

So that no one forgets the unconditional struggle for a better world

We have been running short interviews (two questions, one line answers) with many of the authors and artists whose work appeared in TFF #56, to find out a bit more about what went into their stories, poems and illustrations. And just to have a little chat—we don't do enough of that at the moment!

For those of you who won't follow us on FB (or Twitter, where we also cross-post links to these mini-interviews from time to time) here is a collection of the posts that have appeared so far:

We'll add more links here as the interviews go up, or you can see them as they go past by liking or following TFF on FB. If you have any follow-up questions for the authors and artists, feel free to ask them (there or here) and we'll pass them on.

Monday, 22 February 2021

Round-table: Progressive Speculative Noir

We will be publishing a Noir-themed issue of The Future Fire later this year, guest edited by TFF associate editor Valeria. To get us into the mood, and to help prospective authors think about what the intersection of Noir and TFF’s interest in progressive speculative fiction might look like, we have invited a handful of authors, editors and other friends of TFF to discuss the questions and think about examples. Welcome and thanks to M.L. Clark, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Mame Bougouma Diene, Fábio Fernandes and M. Bennardo. Valeria will kick us off…


Valeria Vitale: Thank you all for joining this virtual round table. We can take the discussion in any direction we like, but I’m particularly interested in speculative noir fiction, and in how a genre that has often hosted the ugliest stereotypes about gender, race, sexuality, disability can be (and has been) used to tell progressive stories, without losing its distinctive character.

I’ll introduce myself briefly: I am one of the editors of The Future Fire magazine, and I have co-edited some of the Futurefire.net Publishing anthologies. I discovered Noir through cinema in my teens, and I’ve fallen in love with it since. I think that what attracted me to the genre then was how it seemed to break all the rules about what a successful story should look like: there was no happy ending, no catharsis, no redemption. And yet they were immensely popular and resonated with a very large audience. I think I liked how they put the spotlight on our fragilities and our mistakes. Maybe they made us a little bit kinder to ourselves.

Let’s start with this question: Why does Noir fascinate you?

M.L. Clark: I’m struck by the positivity in your view of Noir, Valeria; mine bears quite the opposite. For me, Noir initially arose from growing cynicism in public institutions, along with mounting anxieties about the loss of secure life prospects for traditional masculinity—both concerns being heavily informed by how The Great Depression shaped the US economy. From classic 30s through 50s films and books of the type, to resurgences in the 70s and 80s, to recent additions like True Detective, Noir consistently depicts a smart, disaffected outsider to the whole facade of ‘normal’ life, who knows (or learns) too much about how broken the world really is to feel that he can do much for it… except maybe fix this one small thing, solve this one little case. And yet, along the way femme fatales, queer-coded men, and other disruptions of a lost ideal (usually “innocent,” nuclear-family America; in speculative variants, often the loss of the fully “human”) leave him wondering if even that one small thing was worth fixing at all. Noir fascinates me because it’s an extremely dangerous storytelling mode, most commonly reinforcing the idea that our damaged world can’t really be healed, even if some of us feel compelled to try anyway. The genre’s remediation is, for me, not an easy task—which makes it all the more interesting a challenge.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew: Noir is traditionally rooted in gender roles of the most restrictive, frequently misogynistic sort. But I find there’s a lot of potential in the aesthetics and atmosphere of it, because bleakness interests me (and I find catharsis in the bleakness itself), and I got really fascinated by the (rare and few) lesbian Noir I’ve come across. The Noir detective is very much a social outcast, who feels othered from social conventions and the social contract; a queer one seems like the obvious choice. And at the same time the Noir format refuses didacticism, the idea that characters have to ‘grow’ and ‘change to become better’ by the end, which is an idea I’ve always found simplistic and stultifying.

Mame Bougouma Diene: I usually think of Noir as a visual genre before being literary, probably because my introduction to it was through Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum. I was struck by the cynical, witty, I-don’t-give-a-f repartee and the bleak outlook on life. Noir is very much the anti-Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Broken characters who usually can’t see the happiness that is right at bay. Kazuo Ishiguro does that a lot: the reader sees all that the character is missing, because his own trauma gets in the way. I like it because there is an absence of idealism that is very common in real life. Most people don’t change, it’s very difficult as individuals to break with our outlook on life, pull a 180 and drag ourselves out of the hole. Mindfulness is not prevalent in real life, even for mindful people, and that realism works for me; often my characters are that cynical, disabused person, whose ideals are motivated less by utopia than sheer spite. A lot of cliches are attributed to Noir: the femme fatale and a lot of 60s gender ideals, but it doesn’t have to be. When people are hurting, even the most beautiful people, how does that play out? I think Noir ask essential questions about happiness, but from the other angle: when you start so low, how far do you get? Not how far can you get. How much control we have over our own lives, is it the events that influence us, is it our past and never shaking it?

Fábio Fernandes: I’ve been kind of fascinated by Noir lately less because of its time-honored stereotypes than because of the possibilities still untapped that steer the narrative out of the usual scenery of gumshoes-and-femme-fatales, of rain-soaked seedy streets at night and all that. I discovered recently the Surf Noir subgenre when I was invited to write for a Brazilian anthology, and I found that I could play with some Noir stereotypes while dismissing others and changing things a lot in the process. I took what fascinates me more about Noir: its rich characters. At its best, Noir presents the readers with fun, snappy dialogue from people from all walks of life, and usually you don’t get to know much about them—all is presented by the writer on a need-to-know basis, a thing which I’m totally fine with, even though I always want to know more. So I tried to put more flesh in these characters, or more color. That’s what fascinates me in Noir: the fact that most of it is in black-and-white only on the surface, but very colorful deep inside.

Valeria: Thank you for your replies. It’s great to see how a genre that is considered so notoriously formulaic still resonates in slightly different ways with each of us. I wouldn’t say my vision of Noir is positive, but, like Mame, I also find Noir often closer to life than other genres. And, even if the main character is usually disenchanted or even cynical, they can’t help trying to fix that one small thing that really starts bothering them, as ML said, even if it may turn out to be impossible or pointless. I like the fact that Noir protagonists never seem to learn. Again, pretty much like us.

I’m not surprised that in a round table with quite a few writers, you’re drawn to the challenges: deciding how much information to devote to the investigation/resolution of the mystery and how much to character development; how to play with the tropes but avoid the cliches; how much to push the witty dialogue without making it obnoxious. But also by the rewards of telling a story that breaks some worn expectations.

Let’s move forward with the second question, that Fabio has already introduced: What does Speculative Noir look like? How has the genre evolved over time, thanks to the interaction with other literary genres and traditions? What are the most interesting cross-contaminations? The most natural as well as the most unexpectedly good?

For me, having grown up with a taste for the gothic and the macabre, the most obvious encounter was with ghost stories and, in general, with the supernatural. I was also introduced to Noir through cinema first, and Hollywood was disappointingly very cautious about adding any non-realistic element. The corpse-narrator in Sunset Boulevard is more a narrative device than an actual supernatural touch. And even though the supernatural element in Vertigo is a part of a con, I always thought it worked well enough as a gothic story in its first part of the movie. The Curse of the Cat People is the only Noir with an explicit non-realistic element I can think of, from those years—though the underlying xenophobic narrative makes it a bit hard to watch. The first novel I read with Noir taken completely out from its familiar contexts was Zoo City. With that I discovered that Noir and magic could go very well together, and I have become a sucker for any good example of this cross-genre that I can find!

What about you? What does Speculative Noir look like?

M.L.: Funnily enough, I’m re-watching The Expanse Season 1 at present, and of course fedora-flaunting Miller is a perfect example of contemporary speculative Noir. Miller is cynical and wise, with a soft spot for petty criminals just trying to get by, and a hard line for those who exploit the vulnerable. He also has a “cute missing girl” he just can’t shake, even when his boss tells him to drop the case, and it leads him to folly the way Noir so often does. His social context is also established through the genre’s two most common reference points for “seedy underworld” (brothels and bars), although he’s figured as a friend rather than an exploiter in both realms.

Just as classic Noir insinuates that the world has been made hopeless by the loss of traditional U.S. white-heteronormative stability, so too does speculative Noir thrive on its own notions of What We’ve Lost. In early cyberpunk, these were shaped around strong loss-of-empire anxieties (i.e. white-coded protagonists adrift in bleakly Asiatic high-tech futures). In a great deal of sci-fi Noir today, transhumanist anxieties persist alongside fascination with new-tech itself.

To my mind, Miller is the best traditionally coded character in the contemporary subgenre—a hapless fallen angel bearing witness to a broken world—but do we need to keep using traditionally coded characters in speculative Noir? Not at all. The real potential of the subgenre, as others have already alluded to and will surely expand upon, lies with altering the nature of its detecting protagonists, along with the “What We’ve Lost” component shaping each story’s moral backdrop.

Mame: I was thinking of how The Expanse started off as well, I liked the detective vibe, and I’m realizing that most of the Noir I wrote has either that detective or seedy underworld thing, perhaps I can’t imagine much beyond what I know, but looking at running TV shows I find that Doom Patrol epitomizes what spéculative Noir can do.

It opens as classic Noir with the Nazi doctor in South America but it’s what it does with the characters. There is that almost inevitable investigative plot but I like how it takes broken and diverse characters and explores how their own attitudes got them where they are. It is witty, dark and cynical, and laced with unresolved genuine feelings. I like how Rita comes to look back at how she was molded into a femme fatal, and the show questions that. Larry was closeted and never came to terms with it. I am glad they explore the complexity of what it really means to be Cyborg, and only as human as he feels he is.

That’s where I see potential for Noir and spec fic. By sublimating the characters, and imbuing them with powers, you detach them and almost force them into being self reflective and question old cliches through the show. I hope it doesn’t get too hopeful though, Noir has to stay noir

Benjanun: Ergo Proxy (2006) is an interesting neo-noir show, centering a female protagonist living in a dystopian shielded city that’s located on a post-apocalyptic Earth. The show opens with her dealing with rogue AIs but of course it soon turns into much more—she uncovers the truth of her city and the world outside, and of the immortal artificial beings that have been created to guard the decayed world. Being an anime it doesn’t engage or have any interest in orientalist tropes, and the visual quality still stands up surprisingly well. It inherits a lot of sensibilities from the 1995 Ghost in the Shell and pushes at the questions of state surveillance, what existence is like when you’re essentially state property. Re-l, the protagonist, dresses a lot like the traditional Noir detective: lots of black, carries a big gun, is technically a cop. She is privileged but also alienated from her society (and, as she later discovers, she’s a clone of one of the world’s immortal guardians). She is empowered and outwardly cold, but at the same time subjected to the genre’s misogyny (is it really necessary that she’s attacked in her bathroom, though thankfully she’s clothed at the time?), positioned as someone close to finding the truth but also too sheltered to confront it. And, unfortunately, heterosexual because despite the show’s self-conscious avant-garde approach it’s still written by people who don’t have much conception of queerness.

But it’s still, to compare to a very low bar, much more interesting and much less misogynistic than say The Dresden Files and its copycats; simply making the protagonist—the very first person who introduces us to the world—a woman rather than a man changes a lot. Here the Noir anxieties are woven into the nascent sapience of ‘infected’ androids, and the truth of the world being too terrible is literalized: everyone in the dystopian cities have been lied to, and no one’s identity is what they think it is. The show concludes on an ambivalent note, part catharsis and part hinting that what comes next will be genocidal war. The scope of it is much bigger than traditional Noir, and its speculative elements give the story a lot more freedom (and a lot less restrictions in gender roles).

M. Bennardo: I was excited to read Valeria’s views on speculative Noir, as she mentions several of my favorite Noir classics. But I have a bit of a different reaction to the cautiousness regarding outright fantasy that she describes. Just as speculative fiction can have a complex relationship with reality, so often does Noir. I wouldn’t like to argue that Noir is a subgenre of speculative fiction (it obviously isn’t), but there are certainly elements of Noir that can scratch the same itches for me that some SFF stories do. Importantly in Noir, the fantastic must exist comfortably alongside the “real world” and cannot break the sense of underlying reality. But rather than disappointing, I find this approach endlessly fascinating because it mirrors how the fantastic fits into my own life. I have certainly had extraordinary experiences that have shaken my views of reality or my own identity, but like the inhabitants of Noir stories I still have to find a way to go on living in the everyday world.

Many others in this conversation have already noted how Noir (anti)heroes are separated or outcast from the “normal” world in various ways, which is a theme that’s right at home in much speculative fiction as well. Others have also mentioned the stunning and distinctive aesthetics of Noir. Noir films, almost by definition, take place in a world where patterns of light and dark, rainy city streets, cocked hats, and clouds of cigarette smoke reflect the moods of the characters and hint at dark conspiracies glimpsed obliquely. When this kind of expressionist visual style reaches extreme heights, as in the famous river sequence from Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, there can be moments in which Noir drifts into a mode that feels closer to fantasy than reality.

The same kind of tweaking of reality happens in Noir-era crime writing as well. The French writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (writing together as Boileau-Narcejac) had an extremely prolific and successful partnership in the 1950s writing the novels that would be adapted into Vertigo and Les Diaboliques, as well as the screenplay for Eyes Without a Face, among others. Just from that list of credits, it’s obvious that they hardly shied away from mixing crime, horror, and fantasy themes into the same story. Reportedly, their writing method involved Pierre Boileau outlining wild plots full of fantastical twists and turns (like the apparent reincarnation of a dead woman in Vertigo), while Narcejac would then write the stories out in the most realistic way possible. As Boileau described it in an interview: “[Narcejac] turns a witch or a ghost into someone you might meet on the Metro.”

If you’re willing to squint, there are many other potential connections between the themes of Noir and SFF, given how often the genre deals with changing identities and dark doubles (see: Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley), or revelations that splinter a previously mundane reality (see: the already-mentioned Out of the Past or Vera Caspary’s Bedelia), or questions about the truth of our perceptions (see: Vertigo or Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, based on Evelyn Piper’s novel) or the ensnarement of an innocent person in a bewildering world of crime and conspiracy (see: any wrong man thriller). Of course, any suggestion of true fantasy is usually explained away by the end… and yet, in these cases and many others, the feeling of the fantastic is often what lingers for me even after the explanations have been given, only heightened by the carefully-drawn reality with which it coexists.

Fábio: The Expanse has already been mentioned here, and, though I’m really enjoying the series (haven’t got to the books yet), its contribution to the Noir subgenre is basically the archetype of the sad, broken gumshoe, but this time in space. I just started rereading one of my favorite Iain M. Banks’ novels, Use of Weapons, and, even if we can’t call it a Noir novel, it certainly shows a few aspects of this subgenre that I enjoy hugely. To wit: the down-on-his-luck spy, Zakalwe, who is called to another mission and does it, even if reluctantly; a dark secret of the past; a femme fatale (though here the concept is quite subverted), Diziet Sma, whose relation to Zakalwe is never made clear, and she doesn’t quite seduce him, but rather prods him in the direction she wants him to go. There’s one moment, halfway through the story, where Zakalwe acts pretty much like David Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and this cloak-and-dagger business is not that different from what Philip Marlowe did in The Big Sleep, for that matter.

Valeria: Thank you again for your replies. And also for feeding my reading/watching list! I really enjoyed your takes on how Noir themes became intertwined with sci-fi, cyberpunk, gothic and speculative fiction tropes more generally. You mentioned quite a few interesting examples, but I’m sure there is still a lot of room for exploration.

Our third (and last) question focuses on progressive Noir. We have all noted how often Noir is built on retrograde narratives. But I believe that these narratives are not prescriptive of the genre, and that they are not a necessary ingredient to recreate the “feeling” of Noir. If an author thinks there is no Noir without misogyny or racism, that probably tells more about the person writing than the Noir aesthetic. There are excellent noirs with women detectives, for example, like Sarah Paretsky or Nicola Griffith’s novels. One of the things I appreciate in those books is how no one seems especially surprised about it. I see more and more noirs that, instead of simply avoiding offensive stereotypes, actively tell progressive stories, exposing racism or xenophobia, for example. The most notable example is probably Walter Mosley, here. What I have been quite enjoying lately in Noir is a certain tenderness towards those “seedy underworlds,” not because they are picturesque/exotic or because they make us feel patronisingly superior, but because they are populated by people who have dignity and deserve respect, and maybe even a loser detective who is ready to listen to what they have to say. What I would really like to see is a Noir story where everything goes wrong, of course (it’s still a Noir after all), but a group of dropouts decide to stick together while they go through it.

Now, over to you: What can make Noir progressive? Have you come across interesting examples of progressive Noir? What did they do well, and what do you think is still missing?

Benjanun: I loved the Aud Torvingen novels—the detective isn’t just a woman, she’s a fantastically wealthy butch lesbian; she is a rejection of Noir’s misogyny several times over. Aud views the world, at the start of her series, almost purely through a lens of violence. She graphically imagines how she could murder complete strangers with her bare hands, which doesn’t make her very nice but then again, why would she have to be nice? As a character she repudiates both the thought that lesbians must suffer from trauma related to either homophobia or sexual assault, and that queer characters must model good behavior to be respectable and acceptable. It’s still all pretty white, but as far as lesbian power fantasies go it’s potent.

Turning back to visual media, and the speculative in particular, Psycho-Pass is a cyberpunk procedural with a lot of the usual elements of Noir (the police officer turned maverick to hunt the criminal who got away in vengeance, a lot of seedy underbelly). It does something interesting by having a sheltered young woman as the co-protagonist while leading you to believe that the cat-and-mouse chase between two men is the primary driving story; by the end this is subverted—she turns out to be the agent of systemic change. Two of the secondary characters are women in a relationship (and who survive the entire series), and the setting is a sharp critique of state surveillance, border control, capitalism, and the suppression of political dissent. Unfortunately the franchise still stumbles into sexist pitfalls, and there’s a lot of graphic violence—sexual and otherwise—where women are the victims. The treatment of its few trans characters is heinous, so even in more thoughtful mainstream works there’s still a long way to go.

M.L.: When it comes to progressive futures for Noir, I keep thinking philosophically. Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1976) makes an important point we often forget because of, well, the kinds of assholes who usually talk about Foucault. In it, Foucault argues that mid-20th-century Western society routinely invoked Victorian mores as oppressive (even though they were far messier and more impassioned than most realize), so that any deviation from them would suddenly make us seem progressive by contrast. In reality, though, the construction of this imaginary Victorianism was just another way of keeping our culture conservative, always pulling us back to a more rigid starting point than we needed to accept in our worldbuilding. We keep putting ourselves in cages, in other words, so that we can seem radical for even just trying to break free.

Noir, I think, falls into this pattern of establishing cages that can make the merest efforts of escape seem radical—which makes a genuinely progressive breakout tough. As I noted in previous responses, there’s a “What We’ve Lost” cadence to huge swaths of Noir, and I think this has to be our starting point for changing the nature of the genre’s “cage”. Rather than fixate on a lost ideal, we need to build Noir that targets a lost commitment to the hard and ongoing work of progress—and the capacity for optimism amid the struggle. I think folks in my North American generation—Gen Y—will resonate strongly with this, too, because when we were kids our TV was strikingly progressive. We had far more mainstream representation of a wide range of cultures and issues, in a wide range of genres, and kids’ shows were allowed to be radically environmentalist in their messaging. 9/11 brought a vicious turn in our media consciousness, very much in keeping with the worst of Noir’s ideas about a “lost white nuclear family ideal” being responsible for the nation’s vulnerability to attack. In the wake of this shift, movies and TV became more conservative, more homogenous and heteronormative, and more stratified. A whole Anglo-Western generation has grown up with that shift to “neutral” and “less political” programming, and only in recent years have we seen more mainstream pushes to reinvent the wheel.

What I want speculative Noir to do today is provide characters who walk through the flaws of the world with pragmatic hope, not cynicism; who look upon the work required to do the slightest good in the world… without despair. To this end, John Wick might be a good example of how such a Noir sensibility can be carried forward—because he’s propelled through struggle by the knowledge that if he dies, the memory of all that was good and beautiful and kind in his love will die, too. That series retains quite a few Noir sensibilities in its criminal hierarchies, weapon and clothing fetishism, and overall filmic aesthetic… but it has love at its centre. I look forward to more Noir with “heart” like that.

M. Bennardo: I love the idea of talking about “the feeling of Noir” as opposed to some circumscribed set of Noir texts that supposedly define the genre. It does feel pretty hopeless to try to find anything truly progressive while limiting a concept of Noir to works produced in mid-century Hollywood, or even works that directly engage with that narrow canon alone. But of course, even in the 1940s and 1950s, that feeling of Noir was impossible to contain in a single neat set of works. There’s always been a big fuzzy halo of noir-ish works created by people from outside that central nexus, and more and more I’ve found it very refreshing to get a different perspective on Noir themes.

These days, I find myself much more excited about the re-release of the 1951 film adaptation of Native Son than about any Humphrey Bogart movie. (No offense to Bogey, but I’ve seen so many of his already!) The adaptation was made in Argentina outside the Hollywood system and stars Richard Wright himself in the main role. The re-release is being marketed specifically as Noir, which I find intriguing and promising as it points to an opening up of the usual understanding of the historical genre.

We don’t usually list Chester Himes’s Harlem Detectives novels or Ann Petry’s The Street as Noir classics either, but they certainly have “the feeling of Noir” for me. Himes’s Harlem is an expressionistic nightmare where violence (both from criminals and cops) always leads to blackly comic chaos. And Petry’s novel about a postwar single mother trying to raise a young child while pursuing a nightclub singing career (and dealing with various lowlifes) has the same bleak view of the American dream as many noirs do.

Other recent reprints that I’ve avidly devoured include a couple anthologies from Sarah Weinman. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin Books) is a collection of short stories by women, all domestic suspense from the 1940s–1970s. And the two volumes of Women Crime Writers from the Library of America together collect eight novels from the 1940s and 1950s written by women. One of those novels in particular, The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, follows a housewife trying to cover up an accidental killing… while simultaneously evading the suspicions and fulfilling the demands of the same family she’s trying to protect.

There’s plenty to find from the same period or the decades after from outside the west as well. Japan has its own long tradition of crime fiction, some of which feels very noir-ish to me. Among my favorites are Akira Kurosawa’s kidnapping police procedural High and Low, and the corporate espionage thriller The Informer by Akimitsu Takagi. Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy is a raucous brawler of a book about a profane Mexico City hitman trying to stay alive amidst a bewildering possibly-international conspiracy. And Heda Kovály’s Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street details the dehumanizing fallout from a deeply corrupt murder investigation in communist Czechoslovakia, in which the mere presence of the police is enough to ruin everyone’s lives.

The point is not that any one of these works is perfectly “progressive” in itself. (Though I think at least a couple of them get close.) And neither am I prepared to argue with a literary historian that they are all absolutely Noir. But I do think the more we have a broader understanding of what Noir could have been like in the past (if only Hollywood and the critics of the time had been less exclusionary!), the clearer we may see what a more progressive type of Noir might look like in the future.

Mame: Matt’s response has me thinking of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. Goines less so but Slim’s novels would certainly count as Noir. Not speculative in the least but Mama Black Widow is about a gay black man in the south. I wouldn’t call Slim’s work progressive. It’s violent, underworld, and machistic. But it does offer a great counter perspective to white Noir (hahaha) and the historical perspective ranging from WWI through the sixties etc is fascinating. Slim is self reflective especially in Pimp, trying to understand the psychological issues that got him where he is. Perhaps there’s something progressive in that. Without excusing the individual, still appreciating the introspection?

Fábio: There’s a whole lotta pieces we can move on the Noir board. We can do gender-swapping, for instance; we can get rid of the racist and sexist stereotypes (we must!), and we should be more Marxist, since Noir is about the troubles and tribulations of the working-class, poor detective. We should be subversive and very antifa in the future Noir. That, of course, is my take on things. That’s the kind of Noir I want to see in SF, and I’ve been thinking of a few stories I want to write in the near future.

Valeria: Thank you all so much for all these thoughts, recommendations and hopes for speculative or progressive Noir. I have no doubt this conversation will be inspiring, and the suggestions for reading and hopes for new stories are exactly the sort of thing we’re looking for in TFF-Noir. You’ve done a better job of explaining it between you than we could have in a detailed call for submissions.

Dear readers: do you have further comments, questions, examples of speculative or progressive noir, or anything else to add to the discussion above? Please leave your comments below this blog post.


If this conversation inspires you, or if you also write Noir-adjacent fiction that intersects with the speculative or the progressive (or even better both), please consider sending something to our Noir-themed CFS this year.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Interview with Margrét Helgadottír

Margrét Helgadottír, editor of the Books of Monsters series, is an old friend of TFF: we have reviewed several of the previous volumes (European, African, Asian, Pacific), and interviewed many of the individual authors and contributors (Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Tihema Baker, Brian Kamaoli Kuwada, Raymond Gates, Iona Winter, Isabel Yap, Yukimi Ogawa, Eve Shi, and Margrét herself), and she wrote about the series for our Making Monsters anthology. The seventh and final volume in the award-winning series, Eurasian Monsters, appeared in December 2020, featuring 17 authors and including seven translated works.

Margrét joins us today to talk a bit about this new anthology, and the series, and monsters.


TFF: Could you tell us a bit about the thinking behind editing a volume of Eurasian Monsters specifically, since it’s a slightly different concept from the other six volumes in the series? Were there gaps in the European and Asian volumes that you designed it to fill?

Margrét Helgadottír: The book embraces the vast region stretching from the Chinese border (but not including China) to eastern parts of Europe. The profile of the book is the same as for the first six volumes, it’s just the geographical area that is different. It’s been challenging since it is actually covering two continents. This is the book in the series I have spent most time on preparing. I was forced to make decisions, and I chose not to include stories from the Asian parts covered in Asian Monsters. I also chose not to include stories from the Baltic, or from the western parts of Balkan, mostly because that would mean including 5-10 more stories, if done properly. There seems to be different definitions of what is Eurasia, but I hope I am forgiven to have included a few stories from eastern Europe, a part neglected in the first monster volume covering Europe. I struggled most with locating authors from Central Eurasia, but I managed to get stories from Georgia and Kazakhstan. I am also proud to have stories from Russian authors from several parts of the huge country, not just Moscow. So all in all, I hope the readers feel they get some glimpses of some of the cultures within this vast region.

TFF: Can you describe the process of commissioning and editing Eurasian Monsters? For instance, did you have a call for submissions, or was everything commissioned or reprints? Did you have to deal with translators, or did you only look at work that was already in English?

MH: I worked with tracking down authors and artists to Eurasian Monsters the same way as for the other monster volumes. These books have been invitation-only anthologies. I had a number of available slots, I wanted a balanced representation—mostly covering as many countries in the region as possible, but also gender, sexuality, indigenous backgrounds etc. So what I did was carefully send out the invitations, only one at the time, building up the table of contents slowly, to make sure the representation became good. For some books I have used 4-5 months before being able to finish the contributor list. Some times I had a story I wanted to publish before contacting the author, but mostly I’ve invited the authors to write a new story within a set of guidelines.

We have had translations in several of the volumes. I have had no other choice than using the translator tools available, just to get a feeling about the author’s voice, and to be able to consider if the story fits the anthology. In Eurasian Monsters I had seven translations by four translators, six stories exclusively for the book. Of these a few reprints but also newly written stories. So that has been challenging because I have not been able to start the editing work until the translation work is done. I have learned a lot, and I do hope the translators feel happy about how the stories turned out.

TFF: Now that you’ve been around the world in eighty monsters, are there any patterns that you have noticed in stories and beliefs about the mythological creatures, or does each region have its own unique kinds of monsters and relationships to them?

MH: It is a difficult question. In general, humans of all times have created stories and myths about beasts, dark creatures, and monsters. You can find traces of them in old texts, architecture, art, in legends and myths, and even in old sea maps. Monster folklore is passed down from generation to generation, and these stories are not just for fun, but often teach a lesson as well, or make sure that curious people stay away from specific areas (like haunted houses). No matter where you are in the world, monsters have been there to take the blame when bad things happen—like shipwrecks or sudden deaths, or they can be a way to explain frightening phenomena like thunder and lightning.

Some monsters are universal. You will always find the shapeshifters, the flesh-eating walking dead and the great monsters of the lakes and sea. But just like the everyday lives of humans are influenced by whether their home is at the coastline, in the desert, in the jungle, or in the mountains—the monsters attracted to these different geographical conditional possibilities are also different. A vampire avoiding the sun might not find it pleasant to stay in the Sahara desert, nor would the hyena shapeshifter thrive in the Arctic either.

It might be a coincidence but I do believe I’ve spotted some regional differences, while editing the monster volumes. To name a few observations: Magic is for instance a strong theme in monster narratives from Africa and South America, though it manifests in slightly different ways. The volume focused on North America has many human-made monsters, or monsters with human-like attributes. The Africa and the Pacific volumes have more beasts, when compared to the other volumes in the series. These two volumes and Eurasia also have a multitude of dark creatures from the wilderness or oceans, or with a connection to natural forces such as thunder storms. In both the Eurasia and Africa volumes several of the stories are concerned with place and origin, about immigration and going home. But Eurasian Monsters feels closer to the feeling of home created in the Asia volume, where it is not so much about the place but more about the family itself and the strong relationships between loved ones—dead, living or absent. The spirits, ghosts and demons create an almost floating atmosphere.

TFF: What about the oral tradition of sharing scary tales? Do you think that an anthology is its natural descendant, or that we are missing out on something?

MH: That is an interesting thought. An themed anthology like this could indeed fill some of the need to share the scary tale by the camp fire, both because short stories are shorter snippets with different author voices, and here you would have voices from different geographical places telling you tales about frightening creatures you’ve never heard about. What you would miss out is the sharing: People like to get scared together. And an anthology is (usually) about the relationship between only the author and the sole reader.

TFF: Could you invent and briefly describe a totally made-up monster that somehow clearly belongs in the Eurasian as opposed to any other volume in the Books of Monsters series?

MH: I was surprised there weren’t that many classical shapeshifters in Eurasian Monsters since so much of this region is vast wilderness, and the winters are cold and long. So I would nominate shapeshifter monsters with jaws, like the big brown bear or the giant grey wolf. But of course all these would also be able to exist in many parts of the Northern world. But if you combined it with the many beliefs in ghosts and spirits, especially house spirits, it could be a quite scary monster who lurked between your kitchen and other dimensions, and between a manlike form and an animalform.

Or even a cranky and bloodthirsty version of the prehistoric gigantic mammoth, maybe trampling people to death or piercing them with its long teeth. This latter is actually an intriguing idea, if you picture it in tunnels and not on the Siberian tundra. According to the great interwebs, there existed a belief among indigenous peoples of Siberia, that the mammoth was a creature that lived underground, burrowing tunnels as it went, and would die if reaching the surface.

TFF: Thanks for joining us, Margrét!

MH: Thanks for having me!


Margrét Helgadottír’s Eurasian Monsters, and the other six volumes in the series, can be found at Fox Spirit Books, links at Margrét’s website, and many other online bookstores and libraries.