Friday, February 7, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller is certainly one of the most exciting writers to appear in the field this past decade. Today is his birthday, so here's a collection of my reviews of his work from Locus.

Locus, February 2014

I was woefully neglectful of Electric Velocipede this year, and alas I must report that John Klima has decided to close the 'zine down after 27 issues, print and online. This was one of the most successful small 'zines in the field, winner of a 2009 Hugo for Best Fanzine. The final issue, Winter 2013, features “The Beasts We Want to Be”, by Sam J. Miller, a strong SF horror story set in an alternate post-Revolution Russia, told by a “Broken” soldier, who has been conditioned in a “Pavlov's Box” to serve the goals of the Revolution, as he commandeers the artwork of an aristocratic family, then finds himself drawn to save a woman of that family from reconditioning, and then to save a painting of her husband. Very dark stuff.

Locus, September 2016

Sam J. Miller’s “Things With Beards” (Clarkesworld, June) riffs on a rather scarier story about a form of alien contact, a story that has been successfully riffed on before, in both movies and an excellent recent Peter Watts tale. So the title tells you which story, right? And hints at what Miller is doing, quite ambitiously, as his protagonist, back from the Antarctic, a somewhat closeted gay man in the early ‘80s, at the onset of the AIDS crisis, also engages with a protest movement against police violence, and wonders what is happening to him when he forgets hours at a time. It’s interesting to see Miller using the metaphor of a shape-changing alien monster so bravely –  a worthwhile new take on a classic.

Locus, December 2017’s two October originals are both pretty strong stories. “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter” by Sam J. Miller is told in two sections by Otto, a gay man in near future New York, who lives with his boyfriend Trevor, who rescued him from drug addiction and who keeps him (so to speak) straight. At a party Otto falls in lust with a friend’s brother, Aarav, as the guests discuss what they are doing with programmable matter. The second part is set not too long later, in a much-changed world – it seems that programmable matter has run amok and destroyed much of the world. Trevor is dead, and Otto is in a refugee camp. There he encounters Aarav again, now blinded, and he contemplates how to deal with him – after their encounter, which it turns out went horribly wrong for Otto, but does that matter now? The story is absolutely convincing in portraying Otto, and his relationship with Trevor and his abortive connection with Aarav – but the SF side, the programmable matter and the disaster it causes, seems thin and unconvincing.

Locus, July 2018

Sam J. Miller makes his first appearance in Analog with a moving story, “My Base Pair”, about Thatch, who is trying to reconnect with his long-lost childhood friend, Kenji. Kenji is a “hacksperm”: born with the stolen genes of a celebrity (Tom Cruise), and in an environment where vicious prejudice against such children is rife, he has disappeared. Thatch has become an investigator into the criminal aspects of that practice, perhaps not realizing how his work might actually increase the oppression the innocent children of stolen genetic material face. He has tracked down an illegal fight between another “cruise” and someone he hopes is Kenji, and he tries to finagle information about Kenji’s location from this other man. The story intertwines Thatch’s memories of his childhood times with his friend, and his more recent painful memories of an affair with a journalist investigation the whole issue. It’s very strong on the personal aspects of Thatch’s life, and very interesting on some of the scientific and social ramifications of the “hacksperm” tech, but perhaps doesn’t quite convince on the truly vicious legal and societal reaction to the (innocent) children.

Locus, November 2019

Sam J. Miller’s “Shucked” (F&SF, November-December) is a first-rate horror story. Adney and her boyfriend Teek are on vacation in Italy, and she’s wondering if their relationship is real besides the sex. Then a somewhat creepy older men approaches them with an offer – he’ll pay her for an hour of Teek’s time. Somehow Adney convinces herself to accept the offer – Teek apparently doesn’t mind … but this can’t end well, can it? This is an example of a writer using a fairly familiar idea (which I won’t spoil) so artfully that it becomes newly effective. Strong work.

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