I was in-transit from Medellín to Bello, rushing from one appointment to the next, when I noticed the launch-announcement for my latest novelette at Clarkesworld, “Mercy and the Mollusc”: a meditative space western involving a man and a giant… well, mollusc. Amusingly, too, the announcement arrived within minutes of receiving a rejection for “Fumigative Futures”, a faux-academic essay that I’d written in the same universe as this story — but that’s precisely the nature of life as a creative professional: on rare days one succeeds, on most days one does not, and some days… some days even the successes come with welcome ego-checks.
Both of these stories share an unusual backstory, though, inasmuch as they were inspired by my work last year with a multispecies justice project that culminated in an anthology currently moving through the publication process with Duke University Press. I was brought into that project to speak on one of my Clarkesworld stories, “To Catch All Sorts of Flying Things”, by one of the project’s editors, Dr. Eben Kirksey, author of The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans. There’s a beautiful full-circle sensation, then, in knowing that this project, in turn, inspired another story for publication in Clarkesworld.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t name a few of the folks whose work blew me away during that project: Dr. Radhika Govindarajan, author of Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas, has a powerful storytelling cadence in her academic prose, which allows her to weave together a wide range of spiritual-sociopolitical subjectivities without unduly leveraging judgment against specific agents’ actions. Dr. Kristina Lyons, an anthropologist working with Fundación ItarKa on community-governance and land-based healing in the Amazon, has a publication list in Spanish and English that for me shone light on certain powerful intersections between legal, ecological, and local narratives in Colombian restorative justice. And Drs. Michele Lobo and Gina Moore, collaborating on a multimedia experience that imagines possibilities for human/non-human communication on non-human terms, sharpened my hunger for more fully multi-sensory approaches to multispecies justice.
But it was another of the three editors for this working group of brilliant anthropologists, ethnologists, and related interdisciplinary specialists (Dr. Sophie Chao being the third) who inspired these two stories: Dr. Karin Bolender (author of The Unnaming of Aliass). During the course of these weekly workshops, I learned about her nuanced frustration with the Western, as a literary genre, and the various artistic intervention projects that she (often in collaboration with her daughter!) had advanced to critique and de(con)struct how its colonialist frontierism still shapes many of our cultural relationships to our ecosystems.
I resonated with that frustration but in an adjacent domain, because I’m fully aware that science fiction, as it was established as a commercial genre in the 1920s, is absolutely colonial frontierism in space. For this reason, the U.S.-centered heritage of SF&F is deeply informed by many of the Western’s most notable (and restrictive) tropes. Everything I’ve ever written in SF&F, I’ve written with full cognizance of the ghosts that haunt us in this genre, and the ways that we can end up unwittingly reinforcing terrible ideologies simply by centering them in our work — even if the only reason we’re centering them is to critique them.
And so, as weeks passed in our workshop series, I got to wondering whether I could more effectively subvert “the Western” within speculative fiction than I ever had before. Could I take some of its core tropes — the rider, the steed, the barren frontier, the fool’s errand, the no-good, one-horse town — and shift their signifieds into something new?
“Mercy and the Mollusc” was my answer to this question: a story that has a man on a distant, near-barren world who rides a non-human animal, but who resists ownership over it from the outset, and who is serving in the mollusc’s quest with this one last ride. But the story also asks other questions, such as whether the man is really avoiding the trap of anthropomorphizing his companion, or if he’s only found a different way to impose human expectations on non-human intelligence. Also, the hard-bitten world they move through is not something “outside” humanity so much as an environment created to serve human beings, at cost to the planet’s original ecosystem.
(I hope you enjoy it! I won’t spoil more, except to note that it is a highly contemplative piece.)
While I was drafting this story, though, we in the multispecies-justice working group were also trying to figure out what a useful contribution from me might look like, and one idea that came to mind was a faux-academic paper, set a couple of generations later on this same world. This academic analysis would depict how humanity and its colonists responded to realizing what their terraforming ships had destroyed, and the various ways in which human groups and “converted” native species cope with the planet’s eventual reversal back to its original climate.
That piece is “Fumigative Futures: Disparate Notions of Toxicity and Freedom for 4Gen Elders and Rural Oomu on a Rapidly De-Terraforming TRAPPIST-1d”, and it was a lot of fun to write.
By design, though, it was not the sort of piece with many chances of finding a formal home.
Ultimately, the anthology project decided to go a different way. I sent it next to Analog Science Fiction and Fact, a place that historically enjoys form-bending fiction (and which published a faux-longform-article of mine in the past!). Trevor wrote that “It’s a good story, but I’m afraid it didn’t strike me quite strongly enough to take it”, which was fair enough!
So, next I sent it to Reckoning: Creative Writing on Environmental Justice, pretty much the only other place that seemed a good fit for odd-ball pseudo-non-fiction. However, the same day “Mercy and the Mollusc” launched at Clarkesworld, Reckoning rejected “Fumigative Futures”, with an editor writing: “This is a really well-made story-masquerading-as-paper, but we found it’s masquerading perhaps a bit too well, and it seems to us that story is sacrificed for the form.”
(As you can tell, fellow writers, you’ll always have conflicting opinions between editors! Don’t let one dictate whether your choices are the right ones for you!)
However, what luck! I’m now all out of venues-of-good-fit for a story like this, so I’ve decided to share it with you below. I’ve formatted it to look a little like a proper journal article, even though it’s quite silly to imagine that we’ll still have the same delivery-vehicles for our academese in the 38th century. (You’ll also note that I’ve valiantly asserted, in the bibliography, that Chicago-style will win out in the long-term battle between reference formats, but… that’s just a given, no?)
In any case, I do hope that some of you find this a fun experiment, and a worthy bit of bonus material to read after the novelette. Rest assured, “Mercy and the Mollusc” absolutely stands on its own — you have to squint a bit to realize where it would fit into this later-generation report on what happens to the world as a whole — but as two different ways of deconstructing colonial frontierism in science-fiction, I do so hope they both leave readers with a little food for thought.
All warmth to you and yours.
P.S. Oh, and writers? Keep experimenting! The right venue might not show up for your work at the time, but your work will always awaken you to new possibilities for the stories still to come.
P.P.S. If the Scribd reader isn’t working for you, please let me know, and I’ll find a way to share this work in a more accessible format.
M L Clark shares “Fumigative Futures”, a faux-academic companion piece to the space-western “Mercy and the Mollusc” (Clarkesworld, Feb 2021).Tweet