The Queer Sci-Fi Experience
By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
Although Michael G. Williams enjoys his day job in internet security, it is in writing his true passion lies. In fact, Michael is an accomplished horror and sci-fi author, and he has several titles already published. Peach spoke to the author about his new book – A Fall in Autumn – which falls into the category queer sci-fi.
Tell us a little bit about your new book A Fall in Autumn?
It’s about Valerius Bakhoum, a gay detective in the far, far, far future, whose identity and career make him enjoyably disreputable in ways many of us might recognize from our own lives. A Fall in Autumn is set in a future in which almost everyone is genetically engineered, either to perform a specific task or to enjoy permanent perfection. Valerius, the main character and narrator, has the “honor” of being an “artisanal human,” meaning his parents made him the old-fashioned way. He grew up on a sort of genetic wildlife preserve, and by the time of the novel, he’s escaped that life to find himself simultaneously fetishized and reviled as he lives out in the larger world.
How does the book relate to our own experience as a gay man?
I wanted to dig deep into my own experience as a gay man, both in my isolated childhood and the modern day. We’re at this very surreal cultural crossroads as queer people: so many of us grew up under an explicitly homophobic regime of evangelism and conservatism only to wind up in a future in which straights obsess over RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye. State legislatures pass hate-fueled “bathroom bills,” but a record number of queer persons were elected to office in 2018, including the first openly bisexual member of the US Senate. Writing this book was a chance to explore both sides of that exceptionally weird coin in current queer experience: we fought to survive our youth, to go somewhere else and make a life for ourselves, and we got there to find people are just dying to ask us for fashion advice. I think it’s a wonder we don’t all have collective whiplash.
How does this book fit into your authorship?
My publisher calls this a “level up” novel, and I certainly felt that when writing it. I’ve mostly written horror novels up to this point, but they’ve all also had a strong element of comedy, or at least of irony. This novel certainly has its share of irony and a few chuckles along the way, like any good detective story, but it’s also deeply personal and intimately emotional. Valerius knows he probably won’t make it out of this situation in one piece, but he isn’t melancholy about that. Instead, he’s reflective, contemplative. He knows his situation is not a good one, but he also hasn’t given up on finding the moments of pleasure and of joy that lift him above that situation now and then. That’s not something I get to explore much as a horror writer.
Science fiction invites optimism or at least the hope of something new tomorrow in a way horror often does not: horror is about surviving right now with little or no consideration for what happens if you make it through the night. And detective novels implicitly contain the possibility of closure in the resolution of a mystery. Getting to explore a character who has those in mind has been so refreshing.
You describe the book as a queer science fiction novel – tell us a little bit about that concept/genre?
Science fiction gave me a unique set of tools to talk about a variety of queer experiences, some directly and some through metaphor, and I was able to weave a lot of what I experience as gay culture into Valerius’ story. In terms of literal queerness, Valerius is gay and spent his younger years turning tricks to get by. He meets his client on a cruising trail in a public park. He meets contacts and makes connections at a bar catering to adventurous sexualities. But beyond that, a lot of his place and position in society is meant to mirror what I think our places and positions in society often are as queer people: that we have to be scrappy, that we’re survivors, and that we have been closer to the edge of human experience than the vast majority of random straight people around us.
How do you see the need for queer literature and authors right now?
I think we’re more needed than ever. Queer people of all stripes need to be telling our stories and imagining and sharing new ones. They’re our best possible chance to build and strengthen and support our communities and walk together towards a better future. Speculative fiction – whether it’s horror, science fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, you name it – all give us powerful opportunities to weave our unique experiences into a larger narrative of how things could be, or how they should be: of finding hope or love or camaraderie in dark times, of surviving the night to see another daybreak, of finding the people we need when we most need them, of getting revenge on those who would hurt us. When a queer person reads a queer writer, the two of them are exchanging a handshake, a clasped shoulder, a friendly nod, across immense chasms of time and culture and experience. That is absolutely vital, especially when we’re in the low places in our lives.
How does the world of science fiction relate to the LGBTQ community?
I think science fiction is so queer and I love it for that! I mean, seriously, don’t you know a queer person who is a huge Star Trek fan? You do, I do, we all do. I think that’s because science fiction beckons us to imagine something better: a world with greater equality, or a world in which the good guys jump in their spaceships and fight back when they’re being oppressed. We have plenty of reasons to wish the world were a better, fairer place, and sci-fi is such a wonderful way to imagine that. Science fiction is also one of the few ways we can reliably find fellow outsiders who might be “safe.” They’re already open to new ideas and different ways of being. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t get very far in sci fi!
If you ever go to DragonCon, the Trek Track and the American Sci-Fi Classics Track are very queer, in the best possible ways. Seriously, the best gay dance club I’ve ever been to is the DragonCon Spectrum Party. Buy a day pass and go. You will find a million queer geeks who are ready to love that comic or show or movie or book you’re secretly super into, right alongside you.
What other authors are an inspiration to you?
Oh, gosh, there are so many! Let’s see. In terms of authors I’ve read and loved, let’s start with Octavia Butler: an African American lesbian and probably the best science fiction author of the last 50 years. She was intensely creative, and her “voice” as a writer is starkly and hauntingly beautiful while being brutally realistic and practical. My queer book club read Parable of the Sower, a sci-fi novel set in a near future in which society has collapsed from economic and environmental causes but hasn’t quite figured it out yet, so people are still trying to pretend there’s a “normal” left, and I spent half the book digging my nails into the nearest cushioned surface. She wrote novels and tons of short stories. Find her and read her.
And as for writers that made me want to write, I have to bow down to Anne Rice. Interview with the Vampire was exactly the queer fiction I needed as an introverted and awkward college freshman in 1992. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is phenomenal and inspiring and funny and fun, and I say that despite generally not being a big reader of fantasy. Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been my favorite novel of all time since reading it in 7th grade. It’s gorgeous and fun and weird and problematic, and also, it’s about proto-hippies, and a sort of Victorian-era Scooby gang and I love it for that. And anyone who loves imaginative science fiction should read Jack McDevitt’s Polaris.
Are you working on anything new right now – and when can we expect it?
Later this year Falstaff Books will be releasing Through the Doors of Oblivion, the first in my new novella series set in San Francisco and featuring genderqueer witches, time travel, the very real historical figure of Emperor Norton, and demons obsessed with real estate scams. They’ll also be publishing Nobody Gets Out Alive, the fifth and final novel in The Withrow Chronicles, which is my series about a gay bear vampire lord who lives in suburbia and is only saving the world because he’d like to get back to watching TV.
I’m also working on four more books set in Autumn, and I have a couple of other books I’d like to pitch and see if I get any bites. My dance card is delightfully full.
When and how will your book be available?
It’s out now, both in paper and ebook form. You can buy it on Amazon, and if your local bookstore has Ingram as a distributor, you can order it from that store!