[GUEST POST] J.M. McDermott on Writing Science Fiction at the End of the Genre
J.M. McDermott is the author of Last Dragon, Disintegration Visions, The Dogsland Trilogy, and Women and Monsters. He holds an MFA from the Stonecoast Program from the University of Southern Maine. He lives in San Antonio, Texas. On February 1st, around noon, he will be signing books at the Twig Bookstore in San Antonio.
The end of genre is at hand. It did not die in a massive burst, and there was no single moment to point to that nails the coffin shut. No, it is the way things die when the demographics shift. The radios that play that song dwindle into the AM bands, go out like little lights, with a few hanging on a while, for old time’s sake. This is happening. This is our future. Genre existed to create a space for the marginalized dreamers, the outsiders, and the strange. But, everyone is strange now. Our biggest movies are genre. Our biggest musical acts are bisexual aliens. Everyone loves comic books, now. The conventions make the front page news all over the world. Like all good, American things, our young people love it more when it comes back to us made strange by a foreign culture. It’s not the Beatles, this time. It’s Anime.
Writing a book in this climate, a genre book, is a grand shrug against the tides of time.
Maze is my first science fiction novel. I thought I should write science fiction because I hadn’t done it before and I thought it would be interesting to make a fundamentally fantasy idea truly a work of science fiction. There’s that old cliché that science far enough removed from the technology of the culture present is indistinguishable from magic. Well, biology is strange enough that it can easily be a kind of magic when looked at too closely. How do the Mitochondria know when to split, for instance? Why, exactly, did some people catch the Spanish flu and get wiped away like the world was sneezing souls, and others barely flinched? It is only called science, not magic, because it can be tested in a laboratory. Laboratories are an exceedingly young invention. Calculus is not as old as Christianity.
The chips are falling all over. We have been subsumed into the mainstream culture and that means our little spaces will all be devoured by marketing machinery of media entities that look at us not as passionate fans, but as wallets with legs and eyeballs. In the mainstream, there is no room for things that cannot be explained on the back of an envelope. “Jesus had a secret baby with Mary Magdalene” is about the limits of the collective consciousness when it comes to complexity. Ergo, the role of the fan becomes the cultivation of the best of things. The role of the writer, outside the mainstream, is to make the best work, regardless of market forces.
Maze is a book that you might like. It is science fiction. It does not read like science fiction most of the time, because the landscape is alive and hungry and you have no tools that you do not peel from tree bark and fallen stones in this place.
I tried to imagine Henson’s Labyrinth in a realist, science fictional mode. This pocket universe Sarah encounters, populated by alien mutant people – imagine the kind of dwarfism that comes from island evolution – and alien mutant things. How old is everything that it has become this? The walls that speak, possessed of ancient AIs that have not worn down from their codes and programs, run a master plan directed by a master programmer. The destruction of the space was the virus that converted the native defenses against the code itself. Affection may be the source of the decay, but by the end the whole amazing universe had imploded into fake glass wipes like a digital toaster effect.
My Maze is no Labyrinth. It is no idyll for the young and young at heart. It is a place that will strip you naked and eat your skin. It will slurp up all the water in you, for it is thirsty for water all over. Fight if you wish to live. Hunt if you wish to live. Eat maggots and strips of boiled leather. Eat insects spread over hardtack. Feel the real monster of the maze reach over you, and press her fingers into your stomach and squeeze: winter famine.
Also, remember, the stone walls and winding pathways are a maze that makes every colony an island locked in the ground. Live, and evolve.
This is what we’re doing too, now that our whole island is flooded and driven our group back from the tide of comic book films and urban fantasy television shows and another movie based on Philip K. Dick’s short stories. Now we climb back deeper into the halls, hunt the best things wherever they are made, and consume them, and we change or die.
Maze is out now, and I don’t think it’s quite like any science fiction novel you’ve read, ever. If you like that sort of thing.
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