I didn't set out to do it. I didn't even know I was doing it. But it seems I have written a science fiction novel. At least that's what the SF community is telling me with their much-appreciated support for my novel, Black Moon.
What makes this book science fiction? This is tough to answer. My film teacher in college comes to mind when such questions are raised. "There is no genre!" he would shout, pounding on the podium. "There is no genre!"
It took me a while to get what he meant. Okay, even now I'm not entirely sure. His French accent was pretty thick and he often smoked a cigar while lecturing. But I think the gist of his assertion was this: When you look closely at something you think can be categorized a certain way, you find exceptions and deviations, even willful subversions. It changes before your eyes, becomes idiosyncratic and impure. If you look deeply enough, most works of art—like people—will resist categorization.
As a category, science fiction comes in a variety of flavors — categories within categories. Certainly you could call Black Moon speculative fiction. You would be within your rights to call it dystopian. After all, it's about an insomnia epidemic that causes the collapse of society. Is it futuristic? Somewhat. I'd say it's set about fifteen seconds into the future, which could very well be light years away.
So there's definitely a SF case to be made, however loosely. This makes some sense, given my SF past, which dates all the way back to my childhood magazine subscriptions (yes, my parents encouraged this). I was an avid reader Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine—a bi-monthly journal about the size of a Reader's Digest.
The covers either featured Asimov himself, with his insane mutton chop sideburns, or a whimsically rendered scene inspired by a story from the issue. I loved these illustrations of bizarre worlds and spindly creatures and scantily clad, mostly bipedal females, maybe even more than the stories themselves. At the time, I liked my science fiction light on science and heavy on laser battles and enslaved princesses.
I was twelve.
At an even younger age, however, I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on a flight to Asia. I had no headphones but the silent images of an untethered astronaut tumbling into the void of space stayed with me, especially so soon after watching real astronauts bounding over craters on the chalky gray surface of the moon. It was a haunting vision that produced a strange feeling in me—a kind of unarticulated existential longing, a vague awareness of humanity's essential aloneness in time and space. It was a curious, nuanced mood of my small boy's heart and it spooked and enticed me.
I recognized that the feeling was conjured by other lesser films and books of the period: The Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, Logan's Run, even Woody Allen's Sleeper. Many episodes of the Twilight Zone also did the trick. I read Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, and learned to relish the sense of apocalyptic foreboding.
The flipside to this was comic books and, eventually, Star Wars, which certainly captured my imagination and, yes, became my boyhood obsession. But the films did not necessarily evoke the dark sense of cosmic isolation I had found so weirdly fascinating in other works. The franchise was simply science-fantasy nerd candy that I could not stop eating.
I hit rock bottom trolling the library stacks for Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, like Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye or the Han Solo Adventures books (not to be confused with the Han Solo Trilogy). It was a time of guilty pleasure that went well with the Rush and Queen LPs—and other B.C. (before The Clash) operatic productions—stacked on my turntable spindle.
But the search for that more profound, somewhat eerie sense of world's both lost and discovered pushed me deeper into the classic SF canon. Frank Herbert's Dune saga was a step up in sophistication. Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard and William Gibson showed me how SF can be voice and character driven, but still engage the grand science fiction themes, such as the dangers of technology-driven dehumanization. I re-read a lot of Ray Bradbury after meeting him in a suburban bookstore as a high school sophomore. Then Vonnegut's humorous, slyly science fiction novels became my addiction the summer of my sixteenth year.
Soon after, because it seemed the mature thing to do, I migrated to more realist writers. In college, I was hit with a heavy dose of Latin American and Eastern European Magical Realism and I struggled to articulate why, say, Kafka's Metamorphosis wasn't a horror story. Or why Garcia Marquez's story about a fallen angel wasn't fantasy.
Fairy tales and fabulism entered into my own work, yet I struggled to explain why a story I wrote about a tour guide cassette that speaks directly to a family, guiding them to their demise, wasn't science fiction. I mean, from a distance it looked a lot like a Twilight Zone episode. And why was my story about a kid who gets a jetpack for his birthday (and dies after flying too high) not considered science fiction either? I knew it wasn't but it was difficult to say why.
When I decided to write a novel, after years of writing short stories and working a variety of jobs, I didn't have any particular genre in mind—just a story. I started with a single chapter that worked as a standalone story. It was about a couple dealing with an insomnia epidemic. The man could sleep; the woman could not. This mirrored a personal situation of mine, minus the epidemic aspect. So I found my way into this story by trying to imagine what such a thing would do to relationships, and how alone sleepers would feel in a sleepless world; how lost the sleepless would be in a storm of dreams and hallucinations.
With Black Moon, I knew I was genre-blending, but at some point I simply decided to embrace my old professor's claim that genre didn't exist, except as an organizing principle for booksellers and publishers. Grappling with such distinctions isn't a writer's concern, I decided. So I had no genre other than literature in mind when writing Black Moon. Certainly the high concept epidemic set the story in motion, but the narrative focuses more on the characters and their relationships, less on solving the central problem of societal collapse.
Pushing me ever further away from familiar science fiction elements, was my desire to side-step standard dystopian set pieces. I quickly realized that there are a number of tired tropes that stories of apocalypse and dystopia practically insist upon and it was my mission to avoid them as much as possible.
I did not want to write scenes showing the government in action, the military mobilized. I was loath to have the usual arming of the surviving citizenry and the predictable, gun-centric plot sandpits. I even tried hard not to write extensive descriptions of looted shops and abandoned cars—though they are there, archetypal fixtures populating shared dreams of our doom.
In Black Moon, there are no unrealistic gadgets or devices, no specific villains, no explanations for why some people can sleep and others can't. There is a chapter filled with schools of red herrings, just to make the point that solving this thing isn't the central concern of the book. There are characters that abruptly emerge from the maelstrom, command the stage for a chapter, then disappear forever.
Yet, there is a medical facility where scientists struggle to find a cure. There are zombie-like hordes of insomniacs who will snap into a rage if they witness someone sleeping. There is the unstoppable epidemic and the end of life as we know it.
These are certainly familiar, maybe even oddly comforting, signposts of science fiction. However, I don't believe they are the most science fiction attributes of the science fiction book I didn't know I was writing. Something else makes the book science fiction at the soul level. Something that goes beyond structure and tropes. To me Black Moon is science fiction because, at least in some readers, it seems to produce that same beautiful ache of cosmic loneliness found in those books and films I loved so much, so long ago, in the future of my past.