For more than 15 years Brooklyn’s Akashic Books have presented great noir stories from around the world in their geographic City Noir anthologies: Brooklyn Noir, Tel Aviv Noir, Nairobi Noir, and so on. Now they’re potentially launching a similar series for science fiction with Speculative Los Angeles (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, writer and Speculative Los Angeles editor Denise Hamilton discusses what’s included in this inaugural collection, and how it — and this possible series — mirrors its Noir cousins.
Photo Credit: Blake Little
For people who don’t know what “speculative fiction” means, how do you define it?
There’s no umbrella term to describe fiction that is not based on reality, which is what this collection spans: Weird fiction, strange fiction, supernatural, surreal, sci-fi, fantasy, dystopia, fairy tales. These are all parts of it. So Akashic and I, after batting around numerous catch-phrases, settled upon “speculative fiction’ as the best imperfect title.
Aside from having to fit the theme, what other criteria did you have for these stories?
I was looking for a diverse array of voices that would reflect the multicultural energy of Los Angeles and reimagine the classic speculative canon — whether it was urban fantasy, fairy tales, or the supernatural — for our 21st century city. The stories had to be new and written especially for the collection. In fact, I very sadly had to drop one story by the multi-talented L.A. poet Sesshu Foster because he was turning it into a novel that was supposed to come out last fall, before Speculative Los Angeles came out. It was an Eastside cyberpunk alternative history called ELADATL: A History Of The East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines published by City Lights (R.I.P. Lawrence Ferlinghetti). It was really a travesty of bad timing because we learned too late that the book was delayed to April 2021.
As for other criteria, I asked each contributor to pick a neighborhood to (loosely) set their story in, with the understanding that L.A. is very spread out and the action could move around. But I wanted the stories to have local color and a vivid sense of whatever neighborhood they chose. I suggested they aim for a ballpark of 5,000 words, but that we could work with shorter and longer stories if that’s where the plot took them. The Wall Street Journal, in its review, said that some of the stories in Speculative Los Angeles seem animated by the humanistic spirit of Ray Bradbury and that’s very perceptive because it’s what I was hoping for, too; that the stories, even if they were about robot caretakers or tree spirits, would make you wonder about what it means to be human.
Did the writers have to live in Los Angeles, either now or at some point in the past?
Yes, all the contributors had to live in Los Angeles. This adds an authenticity and sense of place to the writing that you just cannot get otherwise. I wanted the writing to have that secret “insider” feel, I wanted writers who could take you to little-known and explored parts of the city as well as write penetratingly about subcultures, ethnic enclaves, cultural mash-ups, far suburbs, and also writers who could pierce the illusory tropes of L.A. — Hollywood movie palaces, canyons, the Spanish Missions, jacaranda trees, NASA/JPL — because it’s not glamorous to them, it’s their own backyard. There are so many outlandishly gifted writers here that the least I could do was limit it to L.A. people.
I did consider Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote the screenplays to both Blade Runner movies. He’s in his 80s now, and lives in Brooklyn, but he grew up in East L.A. and had a storied acting career here, much of it in TV, before convincing Phillip K. Dick to let him option Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which became Blade Runner. We had a very long correspondence about him writing a story, but he was under tremendous deadlines for Hollywood projects so alas it never happened. But he lived in L.A. for much of his life and knows its ghosts and illusions better than most.
Was it hard to not have every story be about Hollywood and the movie industry?
Hollywood has been done to death in fiction, and all of us who live here realize that, so I think that coming at it from a speculative angle is one of the only fresh ways to approach it these days. Duane Swierczynski pulled that off deftly by both lampooning celebrity culture and writing a touching father-daughter tale. Plus, don’t we all, in some wizened black pointy hearted way, want to imagine the arrogant Goliath of Hollywood reduced to smoking ruins and rubble, deserted, boarded up, a cautionary tale to all. This is the flip side of Hollywood’s glamor, and Duane skirted that razor’s edge impeccably in “Walk Of Fame.”
But to answer your question, Duane was the only one who asked specifically for Hollywood, so it was all his. I think that when you live here, there are many other stories and places and ideas that tug at your literary heartstrings. When S. Qiouyi Lu said they wanted to set their story [“Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too”] in a landfill in La Puente, a far-off suburb, I was delighted. No one else was going to stake out that territory, and they did so brilliantly. Charles Yu, who just won the National Book Award, picked the suburb of Torrance for his black hole story [“West Torrance 2BR 2BA w/Pool And Black Hole”], which was also perfect. Way better than Hollywood or the beach or the corporate spires of Downtown L.A. I picked Los Encinos, a park / historic landmark in Encino in the Valley. The subject of the stories determined the locales, really. And I think that’s what led to the richness and diversity of the material — that we weren’t seeing the familiar tropes of Hollywood.
contributors Qiouyi Lu and Charles Yu
Speculative Los Angeles is organized into four parts, and the parts are thematic, not geographic. Why did you decide to organize Speculative Los Angeles this way, and how did you decide what the sub-themes would be?
Once I got and read all the stories and thought about the plots and characters and themes, it kind of organized itself. It was like taking the stories like dice in my hand, shaking them, and throwing them to see what configurations came up. The stories fell into thematic chunks almost naturally.
In the press materials, it not only says who wrote what story and what section it’s in, but it also says what neighborhood these stories are set in. Is this geographic information also including in the table of contents and/or the title page for each story?
Yes, that’s all correct.
The format for Speculative Los Angeles follows the format of the City Noir series that Akashic has published very successfully throughout the world. I think the geographic specificity is part of the appeal.
So we all agreed that it made sense to structure this anthology in a similar way. It is a winning formula that grounds each story in place, with local color and details and landmarks and descriptions that do not overpower the story itself, but add layers of authenticity and verisimilitude that appeals to readers. You might not know Van Nuys, But Francesca Lia Block will take you there and show you the dark fairy tale that dwells there.
Speaking of the City Noir series, prior to Speculative Los Angeles, you edited two volumes of that series: Los Angeles Noir and Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics. How did working on those collections influence Speculative Los Angeles?
L.A. has a wealth of talented writers so I was very lucky to have a wide range of voices to choose from. In fact, it was so hard to narrow it down to 14 stories. I loved working on the Los Angeles Noir books with Akashic, they are a smart, dynamic creative team — who can resist their logo: “reverse gentrification of the literary world”? — so I was thrilled to have an opportunity to do it again.
And did you look at any other speculative or sci-fi anthologies to get an idea of what to do with Speculative Los Angeles…and what not to do?
Oh yes, I read many anthologies. I read the annual “Year’s Best” in sci fi and fantasy/horror from St. Martin’s Press going back several years. I read collections about robots, dark fairy tales, cyberpunk. I e-stalked speculative writers whose work I liked to see if they lived in L.A. (Most did not.) I looked for fresh diverse voices by reading online sci-fi and fantasy websites. That’s how I found S. Qiouyi Lu — I read their marvelous short story “Mother Tongues.” The Tor collection A People’s Future Of The United States was especially wonderful and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Along with editing Speculative Los Angeles, you’re also a contributor. What is your story, “Pass The Mission,” about, and when and where does it take place?
“Past The Mission” is about a woman who tracks down someone who wronged her a long time ago. It involves Southern California archetypes and an ancient bar, old as time itself, tucked off a remote trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. It takes place today, but it isn’t quite our today.
Where did you get the idea for it?
It is an idea that I’ve been noodling around with for a long time, and fits into the world-building that I’m doing for a speculative novel set in Los Angeles. So it definitely belonged in that world. I played around with the point of view for a while before settling upon the voice for the story.
contributors Alex Espinoza and Ben Winters
Now, if all goes well, Speculative Los Angeles will the first in a series. Given that, did you go through a lot of back and forth with Akashic on certain aspects of Speculative Los Angeles, given that it would serve as the template for future installments?
No, and that’s one of the things I love so much about working with Akashic. It’s a mind-meld. I proposed the collection as a next conceptual step after the City Noir series. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time. They loved the idea and suggested that I follow the same format as the City Noir books, I thought that made a lot of sense and would give it a good organizing and thematic structure. We didn’t have much to hash out. Akashic gives its editors a lot of creative leeway. They are always there if I want to run something by them or get input, but I had complete freedom to pick the contributors and the stories and create the table of contents and sequence the stories.
Though we did go back and forth a bit on the cover. L.A. doesn’t have a super-distinctive skyline, in my opinion, and certainly not one that people outside L.A. would obviously recognize (unlike Manhattan, let’s say). Perhaps the Hollywood Sign, or a palm tree or a movie marquee, scream L.A. or Hollywood the loudest, but those are also clichés, and that they don’t really introduce a speculative or sci fi/fantasy element. I was so pleased when the artist they work with came up with the cover and the colors and gave it that futuristic mirrored feel. I think it works well and can also be a template for future books in the series if/when this expands.
And will you be editing Speculative Los Angeles 2: Electric Car Boogaloo?
Ha! Speculative fiction seems to be having quite a heyday, not sure if it’s readers fleeing from the grim reality of lockdown and the pandemic or what. It is also great to see the increasing diversity in speculative fiction from authors who have not traditionally been represented in the genre — which was long dominated by white men. There are certainly way more than 14 speculative stories that can be set in L.A., so maybe a second volume of contemporary stories makes sense, or a volume of the classics, as many prominent sci-fi and fantasy writers lived and worked here. However, it’s just too early to tell.
We talked early about how Duane Swierczynski’s “Walk Of Fame” is about the film industry…
…and Ben Winters’ story “Peak TV” features a Culver City studio.
Cool. So do you think any of the stories in Speculative Los Angeles would work as the basis of a movie? Or maybe a TV show?
I think all of them would work — in different ways. I would love to see the entirety of Speculative Los Angeles adapted into an episodic TV series along the lines of a 21st century Twilight Zone. The series could tackle a different story each week.
As to which jump out at me, Alex Espinoza’s “Detention” is very Black Mirror-y to me. It’s a 21st century changeling tale about a traumatized toddler who has just returned to his mother from ICE detention camps…and the Central American immigrant mother now living in El Sereno, just east of downtown L.A., swears that the child is not her son, even though he looks just like the child taken from her at the border. This story is heartbreaking and creepy and setting this “torn from the headlines” tale of a family reunification gone awry in the genre of speculative fiction opens up all sorts of creative and narrative possibilities for the screen.
Qiouyi Lu’s “Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too” also jumps out at me as a super-fresh idea that could be live action or animation. I mean, come on, giant mecha robots piloted by humans battling to the death on a smoldering suburban landfill? A love triangle? A dystopia where the Chinese Exclusion Act has been reinstated? This is made for film. I can practically smell the churros and birria and stir fry from the vendors, hear the roars from the crowd, etc.
Touting my own story is a bit shabby, so I won’t do it, other than to say that it has dramatic possibilities, too.
What about Ben Winters’?
Ben jokes that Hollywood might not want to pursue his tale about a shady showrunner who gets his just karmic desserts. I tend to disagree. Black Mirror, after all, was a pointed critique at modern society, culture, and media.
Lastly, if someone enjoys Speculative Los Angeles, what other anthology of speculative fiction would you recommend they read next?
A People’s Future Of The United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams springs immediately to mind for its excellence. The editors asked 25 authors for stories that “explore new forms of freedom, love, and justice, challenge oppressive American myths, release us from the chokehold of our history, and give us new futures to believe in.” Many of these stories haunt me. Why that collection in particular? Because it collects diverse voices that have not traditionally been present in the white male pantheon of science fiction. I know that is changing, which is very overdue. But here you will find authors whose novels you can track down after reading their brilliant stories.
And if fans of Speculative Los Angeles especially enjoyed your story, which of your novels would you suggest they check out?
I’d recommend Damage Control which, like my short story in Speculative Los Angeles, features a strong female protagonist determined to confront and understand a traumatic and life-changing event from her past.