SFF Reappraisals is a new column on WISB which discusses under-appreciated or lesser known writers in an attempt to explain why they deserve greater recognition.
Though a winner of the Philip K. Dick Award in 2012, Brian Francis Slattery’s literary science fiction has thus far been “under the radar” within wider SF circles. I think this is a mistake, if not because Slattery is an exceptional writer, then certainly because Slattery’s work speaks to our present in a way that so few writers today have shown (or the other way around). For this reason, I’ve selected Slattery as the first author in my SFF Reappraisals feature.
Slattery is primarily known for his novel writing, one of which, Lost Everything (2012; Tor), won the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award. His other novels include Spaceman Blues: A Love Song (2007; Tor), Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America (2008; Tor), and the forthcoming The Family Hightower (Seven Stories Press).*
As a literary stylist, Slattery is perhaps best thought of as SFF’s Cormac McCarthy, though even that is a limited comparison. There’s a distinctly “southern” feel to some of his work, which either comes from personal history or literary allusion. Lost Everything, for example, bears the traces of Faulkner in its examination of a post-climate change America, and may even have the characteristic dark wit for which Faulkner seems to have been divested of as generations of students become increasingly removed from the Great Depression. One might also see parallels to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, though not so much in plot as in its allusions, which are, at times, clearly reminiscent of Civil War Era literature.
This “feeling” certainly reminds one of a literary modality — in the sense that Slattery appears to borrow from literary forms to tell otherwise speculative stories which speak about our present either directly — as in the case of Lost Everything — or more abstractly. Spaceman Blues, for example, is an urban retelling of the classic myth of Orpheus, yet bears resemblance to the postmodern stylings of Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick and the literary traditions of the Pulps. Yet Spaceman Blues, whose protagonist is homosexual, has the (mis)fortune of having been published during a remarkably bigoted period of American history, wherein the vast majority of States had some form of same sex marriage ban on the books. That this mythic retelling features a homosexual man, then, is not insignificant at all: the great mythic romance is not just a hetero romance.
The appearance of literary mimicry gives Slattery’s work a certain gravitas that I find compelling. What on the surface appears to be a simple narrative canvas quickly becomes a complicated foray into the lives of very real, sometimes very strange or unique people. Spaceman Blues is, on the surface, a simple mythic retelling, but it is also a love story which revels in and interrogates SFF’s narrative traditions; Lost Everything is another climate change dystopia, but it is also mythic in scope and so closely focused on the everyday lives of those trying to survive that it transcends — even reduces to mythic monstrosity — its dystopian setting: it is about people, not the end of the world.
Slattery is an interesting case because his work is undoubtedly of the literary vein, yet it is published by a major SFF publisher who is largely recognized for its backlist of straight SFF — much like metafictionalist Paul Park. But he is also a writer that deserves greater attention. If you haven’t read a Slattery novel, you should.
If you’re a fan of Cormac McCarthy, Paul Park, or William Faulkner, you’ll certainly enjoy Brian Francis Slattery’s work.
Further Reading and Listening
I have written two reviews of Slattery’s work (Spaceman Blues and Lost Everything), and he has made one appearance on The Skiffy and Fanty Show. Slattery also writes short fiction, most of which is available via online venues. They are linked on his website.
*Which I have not read.