Author exposes Scuppernong to ‘Alien Virus’
“Can’t remember if I was 9 or 10 when the sex robot fell from the sky.”
As the opening “If You Could Be the God of Everything” demonstrates, Abbey Mei Otis knows how to get your attention. I’d call her debut fiction collection Alien Virus Love Disaster “infectious,” but that lazy blurb is unfair to a writer whose work is not only mordantly funny but frequently heartbreaking.
Other things break in her stories or were broken before they begin; not just sex robots, but systems and dreams and promises, as well as skin and bone and flesh. She writes of transformations both agonizing and transcendent, as bodies mutate and tumors erupt into sparkling star-stuff. The Pushcart-winning author Joanna Ruocco described Otis’s stories as occurring in “bargain bin worlds remaindered from the near futures of the more fortunate,” an apt descriptor for her fierce identification with marginalized communities many science fiction writers pretend don’t exist.
I first heard of Otis when her publisher Gavin Grant emailed about her upcoming appearance at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books, where she’ll be appearing at 7 p.m. on Aug. 21. Small Beer Press, which Grant founded with University of North Carolina at Greensboro MFA Writing Program alumnus (and Pulitzer nominee) Kelly Link, is one of the country’s most ambitious genre imprints, publishing not only the acclaimed Link but many other imaginative and literate writers of fantasy and science fiction. I had high expectation for its newest author. Otis’s book surpassed them.
Sometimes she grabs you even before the first line with titles like “Sex Dungeons for Sad People” or “I’m Sorry Your Daughter Got Eaten by a Cougar.” That last title is a good example of her genre-blurring approach. I can imagine editors telling her that the story should be about the mountain community dealing with the loss of a child, or about the narrator’s sexual relationship with an undead Civil War soldier, or the visiting space pilots called “shuttlemen” (a coinage worthy of the great Cordwainer Smith), but not all three. Yet she mixes these elements deftly while dealing far more achingly with loss than the title might suggest.
However, she’s subtle, too. One of the best stories is the affecting “Moonkids,” about young people born in a lunar colony, but exiled from it after failing a crucial exam. Surgically altered to survive Earth’s gravity, they attempt to adapt to life in an American beach town. She unflashily but expertly sets the stage in her first three sentences:
“Suzo says Moonkids find their way to Sandpoint because they’re drawn to the tides. They like to be around something else that’s ruled by the pull of the moon. Colleen thought she came to Sandpoint because Crabby Abby’s was hiring and soft shell didn’t seem like such a bad thing to eat for lunch every day, but she’s willing to concede that maybe Suzo has a point.”
In an email, I told Otis that I found her decaying suburbs and abandoned housing tracts a more believable portrait of our future than the cliché cyberpunk megalopolis and that she seems more genuinely interested in social margins than many authors of what was considered science fiction’s cutting-edge subgenre when I was her age. Her response was more nuanced than my glib dismissal of (some of) her predecessors.
While acknowledging that “the stereotypical cyberpunk tropes were imagined primarily by white straight cis men, and the horizons of marginality that can be imagined by those guys are always going to be narrower than those imagined by queer and POC people.” She praised the work of Samuel R. Delany and Pat Cadigan. “I’m always hesitant to write off subgenres as too dominant-culture because I don’t want to contribute to the erasure of marginalized people working in those genres. And often what those writers did was widen the perspective, so we can see the margins of the margins.”
She also wrote that her interest in marginalized communities stems “from trying to grapple with big questions about what it means to share suffering, or to transgress laws, or to long for home.” These questions, she explained, are the ones “asked most urgently by people shoved from the center of society,” adding that her depiction of marginalization may be the least inventive part of her work.
“If you want to write horror, I can’t think of anything more horrifying than what this country has done to poor people, and people who are gender- or neuro-divergent. I can’t think of anything more surreal and inventive than how this country conceives of laws and then punishes lawbreakers. Grappling with those questions through speculative fiction is a way of defamiliarizing them a little, and trying to dig toward truths without speaking for or raising my voice above any one specific group of people. Maybe estrangement can enable clearer sight, or maybe it’s just a way of holding up the nightmare with tongs.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.