Queering SFF

We Are One Thing: Boys, Beasts & Men by Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller’s long-anticipated first collection Boys, Beasts & Men gathers fourteen pieces of his deliciously strange, sexy, provocative short fiction. With original publication dates ranging from 2013 to 2019 and one piece new to the collection (plus the interstitial narrative woven between the stories), the book spans the work of almost a decade. As Amal El-Mohtar says in her introduction, these stories of “alternate presents and shadow futures” are further “transformed by their proximity to each other”—a revealing closeness.

Miller’s fiction has previously landed him Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards, in addition to several “Best of the Year” nods from NPR, Vulture, Washington Post, and others. His most recent novel The Blade Between (2020) centers gentrification as a source of horror—one that creates vicious, ghostly manifestations, but also communities of resistance. In a review-essay, I argued that The Blade Between is a “mature, thoughtful, and challenging novel that tackles the problem of being ethical in the world,” without offering “straightforward or comfortable” answers about the use of violence, or systemic inequalities, or coalition-building.

With those themes lingering front of mind, the stories within Boys, Beasts & Men offer “an essential career retrospective”: a glowing tracery of the fantasies, fears, and imaginaries underlying Miller’s fiction through the last decade—as well as his ongoing artistic growth.

One of the things I always appreciate about Miller’s work is his weaving-together of two fictional lineages: the tradition of political queer sf, and the tradition of weird gay art. It’s fascinating how different audiences respond to his stories depending on their familiarity with either… or, as it is for me, how they respond to the raw satisfaction of getting both together. While Boys, Beasts & Men spans a broad range of stories—a riff on Carpenter’s The Thing set during the earliest stages of the HIV/AIDS crisis and a high school revenge tragedy ft. mind-control, for example—the gathered pieces craft a cohesive world by deftly layering the “unreal” fantastic through “real,” mundane life.

And these prose techniques are grounded by an unapologetic, ferocious queer ethics. By which I mean: the ethics described by Cathy Cohen back in ’97, one where “the radical potential of queerness” lies at the “intersection of oppression and resistance […] to challenge and bring together all those deemed marginal and all those committed to liberatory politics.”  While Miller’s stories often explore gay eros, masculinity, desire, and danger… he also critiques poverty, incarceration, homelessness, state violence, racism, and misogyny.

In this sense, his fiction follows the political speculations of writers like Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin, as well as artists like David Wojnarowicz. However, sincerely political queer art—like the stories of Boys, Beasts & Men—often receives cringing, confused responses from critics unfamiliar (at best) with its goals and lineages. I can’t help but note a dog-whistle discomfort around stories of gay erotic life, the generational trauma of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and uses of violence in resistance, where the work is dismissed as “narrow” or “didactic.” I’ve got to ask, narrow for whom exactly? Didactic for whom, exactly?

I happened to run into a devastating, beautiful reading confluence with this collection—namely, I’d just finished Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT-UP New York, 1987-1993. (If you’re curious, I tweeted a loose thread of responses and quotations.) As a child during the years before the drug cocktail arrived, and as a young queer teen in an early-2000s rural area where it regularly still hadn’t, I struggle to express the hugeness of the grief and rage I feel about our lost generation. As Miller writes in his afterword story-notes,

“I still feel so much rage and anger, from losing loved ones to the disease and from seeing so much power and promise murdered by governmental inaction. […] how much art was lost—a queer, creative revolution was murdered in its crib, and only now are we seeing a resurgence of that kind of astonishing, world-changing creativity.”

Speculative fiction, then, offers a phenomenal opportunity for exploring the emotional truths of queer history(s): how those plague years felt, how both the survivors and the generations following in their footsteps feel. How our futures altered irreversibly. Reading some of these stories—whether for the second, first, or fourth time—I wept. No big sobs, just the reflexive choking up that comes and goes, the instantaneous tears. Two stories stand out to me in particular for their compassionate, critical engagement with the plague years: “Things with Beards” and “Angel, Monster, Man.” Each is poised at differing moments through the ’80s and ’90s, processing the horror of state-sanctioned death as well as how people come together, resist, and fall apart.

“Things with Beards” re-imagines the conclusion of Carpenter’s The Thing as the alien-infected MacReady returns to New York. The story engages with masculinity, racism, and the misery of knowing he’s become “a monster”—as have “countless others, people like Hugh who he did something terrible to, however unintentional it was.” While lesions from KS spread over his partner’s body, then his own, MacReady participates in a campaign of (ideally, fatality-free) resistance bombings across the city. As events unfold, he poignantly imagines shapeshifting into a being without an “immune system to attack,” a creature who could escape out amongst the stars. Then there are the concluding lines of the story, which itself remains ambivalent about MacReady’s actions. He reflects,

“Changing minds means nothing if those changed minds don’t then change actual things. It’s not enough for everyone to carry justice inside their hearts like a secret. Justice must be spoken. Must be embodied.”

Those lines, drawn tenderly loose from their story, seem to encompass one core ethic of the collection.

Meanwhile, “Angel, Monster, Man” sees the birth of Tom Minniq, a destructive elemental figure readers of The Blade Between should recognize. As the story opens, a trio of friends mourns their lost lovers, colleagues, and world—then as a response, they craft a (fictional) artist from memorial scraps: poems, photographs, plays, and more. Tom, the sensually dangerous man arising from those publications, first seems to be an angel of their mourning. Miller’s narrator Jakob writes, “Our boys, our men, our dead lived once more. They looked down on us with pity, and with love.” However, things begin to go awry—or, at least, off-course. Tom’s sometimes-indiscriminate acts of resistant violence gain progress for some over the course of the story, it seems… but the piece ends on a protest interrupting the Minniq benefit with banners reading “WOMEN DIE TOO and DEATH TO GAY MISOGYNY.” Miller thereby echoes the conflicts (and coalitions!) of actual political history in this challenging, discomfiting piece.

Other stories grappling with anger and violence appear throughout the book; communities, relationships, and justice are all shaped by this struggle. As Miller notes, he’s concerned with “how we are monsters, and how we can be better.” When the protagonist of “Conspicuous Plumage” sees a boy weeping at the site of her brother’s murder, she thinks: “Boys don’t cry, I thought, a hateful ugly thought I did not believe, but that somehow lived inside my head.” But her cruel, instinctive response then opens her to understanding Hiram better—because she questions it. Using similar characterization techniques, Miller crafts compelling stories on the failure of the housing system in the U.S.A. (“Ghosts of Home”); state-sponsored abuses of poor and racialized people through incarceration and exploitation (“We Are the Cloud”); and complicated experiences of parenthood and kinship (“Calved,” “When Your Child Strays from God”). Across these pieces, he rarely offers a clean, simple solution—and as a result the lingering impressions are always striking.

Even while wrestling with big, gnarly themes, though, Miller holds onto a strong sense of queer futurity rooted in pleasure and joy. For example, “The Heat of Us: Toward an Oral History” narrates the Stonewall Uprising—except with the added fantastical conceit of spontaneous “hellfire” incinerating the cops during the raid. By the conclusion of the story, the closeted officer (whose own twin brother dies in front of him during the conflagration) confesses his theory of why the hellfire sparked from their dancing crowd that night as opposed to any other: “I believe joy is the only thing stronger than sadness.” And no matter how many times I’ve read it, this piece shocks me like electricity; its arguments are, let’s say, a little boundary-pushing.

Ultimately, the collected stories of Boys, Beasts & Men overflow with a relentless queer presence. I resonate with the book’s artistic sincerity, as well as its openness to desire, to horny risk and ferocious joy, to the “everything all at once” mess of gay life. Maybe the framing tale—the slipstream collection of paragraphs giving us the eye, seducing us onto the stroll, as we read further—carries the greatest distillation of these energies. As the narrator writes of the man he follows from the bar, unsure of how their encounter will go or what might spawn from it, “this, too—this fear, this risk—is part of the joy.”

And so I also feel about Miller’s first collection.

Boys, Beasts & Men is available from Tachyon Publications.

Lee Mandelo (he/they) is a writer, critic, and occasional editor whose fields of interest include speculative and queer fiction–especially where the two coincide. Summer Sons, their spooky gay debut novel, was recently published by Tordotcom, with other stories featuring in magazines like Uncanny and Nightmare. Aside from a brief stint overseas, Lee has spent their life ranging across Kentucky, currently living in Lexington and pursuing a PhD in Gender Studies at the University of Kentucky.

Footnotes

citation

Back to the top of the page

0 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.