Books In Conversation
DESIRINA BOSKOVICH with Nancy Hightower
Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy
As someone who teaches science fiction at the college level, I am always excited to see new anthologies which blend and bend our idea of genre. I’ve used sections from Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) (with the most comprehensive introduction to the field I’ve ever seen), along with Gigantic Worlds, a compilation of flash speculative fiction edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto. Now Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Desirina Boskovich, fills in gaps that I didn’t realize existed before. This multi-genre anthology explores the interstitial nature of science fiction and fantasy as it slips in and out of music, fashion, pop culture, design, film, and architecture. In his foreword, Jeff VanderMeer says there is a “sense of wonder” in books like these, “a kind of secret eccentricity, cataloging misfits and ne’er-do-wells possessed of astonishing imaginations.” I think back to the ghost stories of Henry James, which apart from The Turn of the Screw (1898) and “The Jolly Corner” (1908)rarely get any playtime in classrooms or critiques compared to his longer works. This compilation acts as a kind of Tardis zooming in and out of hidden worlds, rendering the invisible and forgotten all of their gritty glory.
Nancy Hightower (Rail):What was the impetus for embarking on this project, especially if we remixed the title to play with the ideas of “lost history” and “secret transmissions”?
Desirina Boskovich: Science fiction and fantasy have pretty much always been my jam. In my childhood, The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956) were my most beloved books. They pushed my reading tastes in the speculative direction, and I read a lot of Sci-Fi Fantasy growing up. As I got older and began to engage in different ways with the genre, I found that what often spoke to me most deeply was often at the margins. You know, that indefinable kind of literature that hovers in a weird liminal space where no one knows exactly what it is, strange mishmash stuff that no one’s really quite eager to claim. Books that are ahead of—or perhaps outside of—their particular times. (Moderan  by David R. Bunch is one such work, and one of my most delightful discoveries in Lost Transmissions.)
We often call the writers who pen these stories “writers’ writers.” They’re the kind of storytellers whose work never really seemed to catch on with a broad (or lucrative) audience, but who seem to have been read by all the next generation of writers, and influenced them deeply. And so despite being little known by the reading populace, they drastically shape the direction the genre takes in the future. Popular histories of the genre typically focus on books that have reached the widest range of readers. Of course, that makes sense. But it also means that these more conventional histories don’t necessarily surface those subterranean yet titanic influences. Lost Transmissions takes those works, and primarily those works, as its main subject matter. It is fascinating the extent to which a work, particularly an older work, can be on the margins, and yet major.
Many of these works are my own personal favorites, such as the novels of George MacDonald, whoI also loved as a child (and who influenced other massively important children’s fantasy authors such as Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis), and as a more contemporary example, M. John Harrison, who has been incredibly influential on me in my own work as a fiction writer, and I believe has had the same effect on many of the most inventive fantasy and weird writers working today; his brilliant Viriconium (1971-1982) trilogy is discussed in a reprint essay by Neil Gaiman.
The thing about “lost history” is that it almost never gets lost purely on accident; much of the lost history that we surface in this book is, or was, lost for a reason. Quite often that reason is because it didn’t fit the dominant narrative of the time—the mainstream understanding of what science fiction and fantasy is, or who it’s for, or who it’s by. One example is Afrofuturism, which is explored in various eras and contexts by several authors in Lost Transmissions. Afrofuturism is an inventive, exploratory, and decidedly speculative form of storytelling that has been going on for over a century, particularly in music as well as in literature, but only recently has it really been embraced as a type of science fiction by the dominant narrative. Now, it’s being pulled into the genre’s fold. So we see a movie like Black Panther (2018) become a blockbuster hit and demonstrate Afrofuturism’s massive appeal, and suddenly that kind of storytelling has “always” been a part of science fiction. But the history that led to that point, the ideas and influences that have been percolating in and out of and around genre, shared and preserved by Black storytellers and creators… that history has not been recorded in the dominant narrative of the genre.
Conversely, the thing I find interesting about “secret transmissions” is that a lot of the transmissions we talk about in the book are happening right out in the open—the music; the fashion; the architecture. And yet like any transmission, you have to be tuned into the right frequency to pick it up. So one of our hopes for this book is that it will hone the reader’s ability to tune into those frequencies and expand their understanding of what speculative storytelling really is. I want someone who reads this book to find that they are better able to receive and enjoy those secret transmissions that have been hiding in plain sight.
Rail: I found many of these mini essays to be especially poignant, given their brevity. For instance, after reading John Jennings’s essay on Henry Dumas, I immediately went online to research him. Are these short snippets meant to incite our curiosity about the science fiction and fantasy canon or act more as a kind of encyclopedia entry for beginners?
Boskovich: The first, most definitely. Encyclopedias are best when written by committee and rigorously reviewed; conversely, each of these entries are written based on the idiosyncratic interests, passions, and curiosities of a single author, myself included, and so I consider them windows into broader discovery rather than any kind of an authoritative word. And as I mention in the introduction, it is far from a complete or exhaustive survey; at least another entire book could be written about the things I myself overlooked, or that couldn’t fit into these limited pages.
For instance, if I’d had more time and more space, I would have also liked to include Hope Mirrlees’s seminal work of fantasy Lud-in-the-Mist, which was published in 1926 before fantasy as we currently understand and appreciate it was really even established as a literary subgenre. Her book deserves far more credit as a founding text. The novel draws heavily on folkloric traditions of the fey, paints a picture of a second-world city that is both staid and mundane and yet charged with magical energy because of its liminal location too near the border of another world, and plays with the idea of “fairy fruit” as an allegory for a destructive yet ever seductive addiction.
I would have also included a section on Edith Nesbit , whose funny, irreverent and down-to-earth fantasy stories for children were totally innovative and absolutely at odds with the sanctimonious and moralizing tone of most children’s literature of the day. As a child myself, I adored her book Five Children and It (1902), in which a group of siblings discovers a magical but also very grumpy wish-granting creature who proceeds to make all their wildest fantasies come true in the most unpleasant and absurd ways possible. As an adult, and a reader and writer of fantastic literature, I almost never hear her name, and I never see her on lists of the most influential fantasy writers, even though I believe there is a thread of cheeky fabulism in the genre today that whether it knows it or not, owes its existence almost fully to her.
Returning to the idea of “lost history,” and to what degree those losses happen accidentally or intentionally, I do not think it is an accident that both of these influential but forgotten fantasy writers are women. Unfortunately, the science fiction and fantasy genre as well as literature as a whole has always had a tendency to minimize the contributions and influences of female authors (see Joanna Russ’s blistering mock guidebook How to Suppress Women’s Writing, published in 1983, which is sadly still quite relevant). I’d really like the opportunity to write about both Mirrlees and Nesbit with the length and detail they deserve.
Likewise, space constraints led us to cut potential sections on Mark Leyner, whose postmodern gonzo literary novella My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (1990) rubs shoulders with cyberpunk; the Illuminatus! (1975) trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, a strange and somewhat deranged work of conspiracy and alternate history that in slipstream fashion also shares some qualities of the Weird; and Stepan Chapman’s The Troika (1997)—a masterpiece of Surrealism in which a brontosaurus, an old woman, and a Jeep travel endlessly across an interminable alien desert beneath three purple suns. Swapping bodies by day, dreaming their histories by night, these characters slowly assemble their fragmented and chaotic memories into a painful but ultimately cathartic picture of who they are, where they’ve been, and where they might be going. It is utterly mesmerizing and totally one-of-a-kind.
And that’s just literature. Entire volumes could also be written about the secret history of speculative storytelling in gaming, both interactive and tabletop; about all the many, many attempted and ambitious science fiction and fantasy films that never quite made it to the big screen; and so on and so forth. Lost Transmissions is really one little toe in a very deep pool.
My biggest hope is that the reader of Lost Transmission would come away from the book with a very long list of new and exciting things to read, watch, and listen to, and will follow those threads to even more new and exciting stuff.
Rail: I have not seen any work that encompasses such a wide perspective of science fiction and fantasy in the arts and sciences. You bring in architecture, music, film, television, fashion, as well as art and design. What were you hoping to accomplish with such an eclectic, one might even say, interdisciplinary, arrangement?
Boskovich: So obviously literature, film, and TV are the best-known modes of storytelling in science fiction and fantasy (in any genre, really). Visual arts also get some respect, especially in Sci-Fi Fantasy, where art and illustration have played such a huge role in magazines and book covers. That role continues to be celebrated today with stuff like the art show at WorldCon, or the artists’ awards that are part of the Hugos or the Nebula. I’d still like to see visual artists be more widely celebrated in Sci-Fi Fantasy, by the way, as they tend to work in obscurity for the most part, but do a huge amount of work in developing visions of future and alternate worlds that tend to get people so excited about Sci-Fi Fantasy's storytelling potential.
Then you have music. Which most Sci-Fy Fantasy fans don’t really think about as being part of the genre, per se. There is no Nebula or Hugo for best speculative album of the year! (Would that be cool though? I think it could be cool.) But nevertheless, Sci-Fy Fantasy music is being made. Consider Janelle Monae’s absolutely groundbreaking and stunning early albums which border on performance art, as she takes on the role of an android and uses familiar Sci-Fy Fantasy tropes to analyze social issues. Or the other examples explored in the book: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips, and the hip-hop trio Deltron3030. The Sci-Fy Fantasy music that is being made both influences, and is influenced by, other forms of storytelling. It sparks imagination. It’s all part of this big conversation.
And I think that fashion and architecture are the same. I saved them for last—both in this answer and in the book—because I know including them was the most controversial choice. But I hope the book makes the case that these imaginative disciplines are also, in their ways, forms of storytelling. And they enable us to imagine alternate ways of living, to envision different kinds of futures. Which to me is basically the point of science fiction and fantasy, at a foundational level—a way of imagining, what if everything was different?
Consider the arcology, which Paolo Soleri made it his life’s work to promote—a self-contained city that blends architecture and ecology to be carbon-neutral and self sustaining. This is a form of visioning with massive potential and it has shown up again and again in science fiction work—and fantasy work, too. Soleri’s sketches and prototypes are a kind of storytelling. The participatory building project to create this thing in the desert is also a kind of storytelling. Rumor is, George Lucas got inspired on his visit there to create the design of a desert planet called Tatooine… another example of the interplay between disciplines.
And take fashion. Cosplay is the obvious example—a way of engaging or participating in a speculative narrative, or undermining it, or recreating it, or all of the above. It’s the kind of storytelling that harkens back to an oral tradition like folktales and folk songs, where by telling and retelling stories in our own ways, turning the main characters to people more like our audience or more like ourselves, tweaking the details to hold their attention once again, we are building this massive story that’s both vaster and more inclusive than the original could ever be. Costuming is also fascinating, and honestly could have gotten more attention in Lost Transmissions than it did (there is still so much more secret history I want to talk about!), because it plays such a huge role in bringing a visual medium like film or television to life. It’s a huge part of realizing another world, of imagining a wholly different way of living through its sartorial details. Yet costuming is for the most part an unsung role, occurring behind the scenes; only the most hardcore of nerds can typically name the costume designers who work on their favorite Sci-Fy Fantasy shows.
But I am perhaps most interested in high fashion, which most people would never imagine could intersect with a low-brow pursuit like science fiction and fantasy at all, and the way in its more fanciful, provocative and dreamlike incarnations it ventures into speculative storytelling. We see ensembles on the runway that are actually pieces of fantasy because we know the world where an individual could manage to wear that clothing as everyday attire is a very different world from our own. And it’s actually quite thrilling to imagine what that world might look like. Alexander McQueen is one of the most famous examples of this, and in her essay in Lost Transmissions, Genevieve Valentine explores the way his work was influenced by fairytales and the “Gothic monstrous” and became in its own way a kind of storytelling in that same gothic and monstrous vein. Meanwhile, Ekaterina Sedia wrote about Fashion Futurism and how fashion designers such as Elizabeth Hawes and Rudi Gernreich created garments that represented and advanced certain visions of the future. They were designing for a world that had not quite come to pass (and perhaps never would), and in so doing they also helped bring that world into being. To me, this is the essence of science fiction storytelling.
I am also interested in highlighting pursuits such as fashion and fandom as meaningful and influential modes of storytelling because though people of all genders are involved in these interests, traditionally they have been viewed as feminine ones, and therefore devalued. They are seen as unmasculine, and therefore as less worthy of attention. They have been demoted in a genre hierarchy that privileges both conflict and individuality, like most other hierarchies in our society. And yet their influence is ongoing and undeniable.
Finally, on a practical level, I believe I was primed to recognize speculative storytelling in a wide range of media because of my work on The Steampunk User’s Manual (2014), which I co-authored with Jeff VanderMeer, as well as my knowledge of The Steampunk Bible (2010) by Jeff VanderMeer and Serena Chambers, to which I also contributed. Steampunk is an incredibly fandom-driven subgenre that has always really encouraged the creative expression of makers and artists at any level of ability and experience (that’s basically what The Steampunk User’s Manual is about!). And as such there are incredibly active steampunk scenes in music and fashion particularly. Perhaps there is not as much steampunk architecture, but there is certainly an interesting thread of steampunk-influenced interior design, which that book also explores (for example, with some utterly stunning images of a steampunk coffee shop). So having delved into steampunk music, fashion and design at that level of detail, it was natural to pull back and begin thinking about science fiction in those media more generally.
Rail: Few anthologies such as this look at the role of fandom communities and often are till talked about pejoratively by other communities. These essays, though, opened my eyes to how empowering they can be for marginalized groups, if not instrumental in a kind of cultural critique about how often those blockbuster titles, whether in books, film, or television, fail us. What do you hope people new to fandom might get out of this section?
Boskovich: I have never been terribly active in fandoms myself, so I found the contributor essays on fandoms particularly fascinating. What I was very drawn to was this idea of “remixing”—which is of course always present in the concept of “shipping,” but also goes beyond that, and is a wonderful thread to a secret history, as it speaks to the way that fans are excavating, or creating, their own secret histories within their most treasured works. Or perhaps not even their most treasured works. Often, works that missed the mark for a particular audience are also really ripe for this kind of reinterpretation. Sometimes the best way to get revenge on a story that disappoints you is to retell it, and make it your own.
I loved the way these essays from contributors pointed out that fandom can also be a kind of storytelling, sometimes literally, as in the case of the epic, one-million-word work of Lord of the Rings (1954–1955) fan fiction that Sylas K. Barrett describes in his essay “The Time of the Mellon Chronicles.” Mellon means friend in Elvish, and this long-running fan fiction imagined the history that might have defined Aragorn and Legolas’s friendship, the many adventures that could have brought them closer together. “Since Tolkien gave absolutely no background on Legolas—aside from him being the son of that mean old elf king from The Hobbit (1937)—fans had plenty of room for invention, and many chose to weave his story in with Aragorn’s,” writes Barrett.
As to what I’d hope people who are new to fandom get out of this section— the idea that there is a fandom for everyone, that you don’t have to be all-in or 100 percent positive about a work to participate in its fandom, that critical engagement and even straight-up criticism are valid and actually vitally important ways of engaging with the works that impact us. In other words, it’s okay to have problematic faves.
Rail: In her interview, Karen Joy Fowler states, “One of the things speculative fiction is especially suited for is destabilizing a narrative.” What kinds of stories and narrative voices do you hope to see in the coming years in regards to her statement? We’re living in such an unstable time, so how can destabilizing the narrative actually become a kind of anchor when political and cultural rhetoric is constantly being shifted and manipulated?
Boskovich: That’s a fascinating question. One thing that springs to mind is what I consider essentially the biggest issue, challenge and existential question of our time—how we live in an era of devastating climate change, ecological destruction, and loss of biological diversity. I am not particularly interested in the type of science fiction that uses climate apocalypse as the backdrop for survival and adventure. To me, these kinds of stories reify and even ossify the narrative rather than destabilize it; they imply an inevitableness and mundanity to it all. I am much more interested in fiction that uses speculative techniques – science fiction, fantasy, fabulism, surrealism, the weird, even horror—to really grapple and engage with the idea of what it means to live in a time of such uncertainty, chaos, mortality, and loss. I find that in my own storytelling, that is often what I am most interested in exploring, perhaps somewhat indirectly—how do we manage to go on living when everything around us is changing and transforming so violently? How do we hold onto our own identities with any kind of certainty when the world that backgrounds and supports us seems to be losing its own? I want to see meditations on grief and loss that acknowledge that what we are losing, and have already lost, is vaster and deeper and more permanent than any single generation should be able to bear.
My sense is that speculative storytelling modes have become especially resurgent in the recent decade because the “real” world seems to increasingly be mired in unreality. The question of what is fantastic and what is mimetic becomes ever more powerfully irrelevant as the experiences in which we find ourselves seem to become stranger by the day. It’s one of those jokes-but-not-really I see on Twitter a lot; that perhaps we’ve entered the wrong timeline (there are ongoing debates about when exactly this shift in the timeline occurred), or reality has in some other kind of essential way gone haywire. That things have become too odd, bizarre, and unlikely to be real. That 2019 is weirder than any year that has come before it and that yet, somehow, 2020 will be weirder still. Is weird fiction even weird anymore, or is it just telling the truth? And now that I think about it, this sort of participatory storytelling via Twitter is functioning exactly as you suggest in your question. By engaging in a mass interpretation and retelling of the chaotic world around us, a retelling that revels in its unbelievable strangeness, we find a certain comfort. We find an anchor.