Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Sam J. Miller

What moment from “Ghosts of Home” would you say is the pivotal moment — both the one you feel represents the theme, and/or the one that you feel started the story in your mind?

I was comparing the different mythologies of household spirits — this very common belief, among wildly different cultures all over the world, that homes have souls, or spirits, or gods. Not ghosts — not entities that were once human, haunting a space they loved — but embodiments of the home itself. It’s such a fascinating global response to the profound material and spiritual importance of the home in our lives. At the same time, I’m watching the foreclosure crisis unfold, watching people losing their homes at an astonishing rate, watching banks keep these homes empty rather than offer those families principal reductions, debt forgiveness, any of the very easy legal mechanisms by which they could let people stay in their homes. There’s an estimated eighteen million empty homes in this country — and an estimated three million homeless households. (That means every homeless family could have six homes!) Because property rights trump human rights in this country — they always have, going back to when human beings were property. But the banks aren’t dumb, and they’ll put a lot of resources into keeping their buildings in good shape — I just started thinking about what that would look like in a more magical world, where homes did have “household spirits,” and how just like the banks now pay security firms to check periodically for squatters, they’d pay somebody a crummy wage to leave offerings to placate hostile spirits. And then I was in Chinatown, around Lunar New Year, and saw so many stores and restaurants where little altars had been set up with offerings of oranges and incense — and the story fell into place around those oranges.

The emotion and feeling of this story is very raw. What about the emotions of loneliness do you think makes stories like these so compelling in the atmosphere of science fiction?

Loneliness is universal, and of course universal emotions have deep resonance across all genres. For me, with this story, I wanted to make the forlorn heart-rending sadness of displacement real to readers who’ve never experienced it directly . . . but do it in a different way. Lots of people hear about the foreclosure crisis, families evicted by banks, and have a hard time feeling sympathy for them — there’s this dominant narrative in the media that these people made bad decisions, got greedy, or were stupid and signed papers they shouldn’t have. So I wanted to flip it — this is a story about the loneliness of a house, of a spirit, and I wanted to make it raw and painful enough that people can feel sorry for a fictional spirit even if they can’t feel sorry for actual people. And then hopefully see how that’s super fucked up.

Which character did you most connect with when writing, and which scene do you feel may exemplify that?

The house, of course! Anyone who’s ever lost a home or had to move out in a hurry knows how painful that can be, when you stand in the doorway to this place that meant so much to you, which you’ll never see again, and smell it, and see the sun on the floor of an empty room. We project ourselves onto the spaces where we live. They’re extensions of ourselves. That’s why displacement, foreclosure, eviction, gentrification — those are far more violent crimes than any random mugging. For me, if our justice system actually had any true justice, every bank executive who okayed these mass evictions and foreclosures would spend their lives in prison.

What do you most identify with in “Ghosts of Home”?

I think I might be the mom here, alas. Angry, and over it. To me the morality here is so clear-cut, and I sometimes find myself with precious little patience for people who parrot the bullshit “if you’re poor it’s your fault and you deserve every bad thing that happens” ethos of capitalism . . . so I often don’t have the energy for the conversation. And then sometimes I do — and so I write stories like this.

What can we expect from you in the future?

Working on a young adult science fiction novel entitled “The Art of Starving,” about a bullied small-town gay teenager with an eating disorder. You know, a light-hearted romp. And just generally hard at work Destroying Science Fiction, all the time, in whatever way I can. Short stories. Maybe a webcomic. Something constructive I can do with all the hot buff guys and dinosaurs I find myself drawing.

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Patrick J Stephens

Patrick J Stephens recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh and, after spending the entire year writing speculative fiction, came back with a Master’s in Social Science. His first collection (Aurichrome and Other Stories) can be found on Kindle and Nook.