Sam J. Miller is joining us today to talk about his short-fiction collection, Boys, Beasts, and Men. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In Nebula Award-winning author Sam J. Miller’s devastating debut short-fiction collection, featuring an introduction by Amal El-Mohtar, queer infatuation, inevitable heartbreak, and brutal revenge seamlessly intertwine. Whether innocent, guilty, or not even human, the boys, beasts, and men roaming through Miller’s gorgeously crafted worlds can destroy readers, yet leave them wanting more.
“Miller’s sheer talent shines through in abundance . . . Boys, Beasts & Men is an outrageous journey which skillfully blends genres and will haunt you with its original, poetic voices as much as its victims, villains, and treasure trove of leading actors.”
Despite his ability to control the ambient digital cloud, a foster teen falls for a clever con-man. Luring bullies to a quarry, a boy takes clearly enumerated revenge through unnatural powers of suggestion. In the aftermath of a shapeshifting alien invasion, a survivor fears that he brought something out of the Arctic to infect the rest of the world. A rebellious group of queer artists create a new identity that transcends even the anonymity of death.
Sam J. Miller (Blackfish City, The Art of Starving) shows his savage wit, unrelenting candor, and lush imagery in this essential career retrospective collection, taking his place alongside legends of the short-fiction form such as Carmen Maria Machado, Carson McCullers, and Jeff VanderMeer.
What’s Sam’s favorite bit?
Sam J. Miller
My Favorite Bit: Remembering the Last Plague
It’s Pride Month, which is always bittersweet for, well, lots of queer people.
We love a parade! And dancing and music and celebrating each other, and being out and proud and visible to a world that would prefer we didn’t exist.
But for anyone with even a mild critique of capitalism, it can be infuriating to see all the rainbow posts from companies and institutions that used to fire people for being gay – or lobby against extending benefits to same-sex partners – or keep queer storylines out of their shows and movies (especially the ones that are still actively doing that).
And while it’s great to see so much societal acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s tough for me to look around and see all the queer elders and mentors and rabble rousers who got us here, but aren’t around to see it.
Stonewall wasn’t a party. It was a riot. It wasn’t led by Absolut Vodka; it was sparked by queer people – predominantly trans people of color, and sex workers. And queer visibiity in mainstream media didn’t happen because the suits decided to let it – the fierce and principled activism of the AIDS era pushed queer voices and queer stories into the foreground.
And in a world where we just crossed the one-million-deaths mark in a global pandemic exacerbated by government inaction and the anti-science forces of evil, the parallels and contrasts between COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS are startling and illuminatory.
I’m old enough to have come of age as a gay man in a time when gay sex could literally be fatal, and to have lost loved ones to the virus. To have steeped myself in the literature of AIDS, the cries of rage and grief from people who watched everyone around them die slow horrible deaths while the government pretended nothing was happening.
Seriously. Can you imagine if COVID-19 was first discovered in 1982, but the President of the United States didn’t even mention it until 1985 – and only then because a journalist at a press conference asked a tough question? Because that’s exactly what happened with Reagan and AIDS. You’ll notice there was an entire election cycle in there – 1984 – and the president was never in a single debate or interview pushed to say a word about the deadly virus devastating the country.
HIV/AIDS haunts my work. My 2018 book Blackfish City (which was nominated for a Nebula! that I was very happy to lose to Mary Robinette!) is set in a floating city in the post-climate-crisis Arctic, but the mysterious sexually-transmitted-infection making its way through the city’s marginalized communities is very much a product of the rage I still carry (and the lessons for activism that I think we can still learn).
And two stories about the AIDS crisis appear in my new collection, Boys, Beasts & Men. “Things With Beards” is fanfic about John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing, in which a closeted MacReady wrestles with the realization that he might be a killer shape-shifting alien, and also infected with a killer immune system disorder. As with Blackfish City, I was as motivated by grief over the tragedy of AIDS as I was by reverence and humility before the incredible activism led by people with AIDS. As MacReady begins to suspect he’s turning other people into Things, sowing the seeds of the end of the world, he wonders: are murderous aliens worse than murderous racist cops? Would a world made up of Things be crueler to its own people than the world currently treats the poor and the marginalized?
But my real “Favorite Bit” is in the story “Angel, Monster, Man,” set in the darkest part of the AIDS crisis, when the disease was a death sentence and friends and lovers were dying on all sides.
Three gay men, overwhelmed with rage and sadness, who’ve inherited suitcases and boxes and garbage bags full of unpublished work from fellow writers killed by the virus, invent Tom Minniq: a ghost writer, a collective pseudonym under which to publish all the orphaned work of brilliant writers whose careers were cut short.
And while Tom becomes a literary superstar, he doesn’t stay on the page. And he starts acting out their anger in ways that they couldn’t anticipate, and can’t control. And each of them, in turn, is visited by a very different Tom Minniq.
And, yeah. That goes as violently wrong as you’d expect it to, in a story from somebody who read way too much Stephen King at a formative age.
“Angel, Monster, Man” took shape in my mind while reading gay fiction and poetry of the 1980’s.* You can’t help but be struck by the staggering volume of young, fresh, powerful, innovative artists whose voices were silenced by HIV/AIDS before they’d had a chance to change the world like they clearly would have.
And not just writers – the editors, agents, critics, audiences who supported and built these voices… it’s hard not to come away feeling like fiction was in the middle of a real revolution in terms of storytelling and voice and content and attitude, which was strangled in its crib by a deadly disease and a toxic homophobic patriarchy.
But I started thinking: what could have happened, if all that rage and talent and fire hadn’t been snuffed out? What if it came to life and changed everything? All the powerful words that went unwritten, or were written and lost because there was no one left to get them out into the world – what if they all added up to something real – and terrifying?
So, that’s my favorite bit. Remembering the last plague, whose victims we never properly mourned and whose lessons we clearly never learned. Imagining what could have been. What could still be.
* If you’re looking to explore these exciting voices, start with these two great anthologies of poetry from writers lost to HIV/AIDS: Things Shaped in Passing (edited by Michael Klein and Richard McCann), and Persistent Voices (edited by David Groff and Philip Clark)
Sam J. Miller is a Nebula-Award-winning author. His debut novel, The Art of Starving, was an NPR Best of the Year, and his second novel, Blackfish City, was a Best Book of the Year for Vulture, The Washington Post, Barnes & Noble, and more, as well as a “Must Read” in Entertainment Weekly and O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine. A recipient of the Shirley Jackson Award and a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Sam’s work has been nominated for the World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, John W. Campbell, and Locus Awards, and reprinted in dozens of anthologies. The last in a long line of butchers, he lives in New York City and at samjmiller.com.