How did this story begin? Was there an initial image or prompt?
ADH: Years ago I spent an afternoon with a Bay Area collaborator of mine, Adam Flynn, coming up with a long list of story prompts, and Superfund remediation of old advertisements lingering in the collective psyche was one of them. The idea gnawed at me for a long time, and when CYB and I wanted to try to write something together, it spilled out.
CYB: As ADH and I started talking about where we might want the story to go, I was thinking about the spaces that characters and advertising mascots occupy in our dreams. They’re recurring figures alongside our friends and relatives. I don’t believe that we’ve lost something or whatever because Luke Skywalker shows up instead of a Jungian hermit. That’s what happens when we tell stories in visual media (and when certain companies figure out the best way to your wallet is through your imagination). But I think it’s easy for our brains to grab these characters and mascots and throw them in the mix as a mentor or an enemy, because they’re designed to be seen often and recognized. What happens when something so polished ends up in our dreams? When dreams get weird, how are we affected by all that extra marketing stuff that comes along with the design and the narrative? And I think that’s when I shifted to the question of how it would all get cleaned up.
ADH: We were somewhat reacting against the movie Inception (2010), which has such a self-serious take on the dreamscape. (The title of this story parodies a tagline from the poster for that movie, “your mind is the scene of the crime.”) In Inception, dreams are so bland, filled with nothing freakier than ex-lovers and faceless gunmen and Escher architecture. Where were all the TV and video game characters we stuff into our brains every day? Where was the synesthetic nonsense? Obviously, there’s a lot about the irrational emotional register of dreams that is hard to capture in a movie, but fiction can take a different approach. I think one of the first things we wrote was the bit about turning the tables on the back-in-high school stress dream, something that I started experiencing in my own dreams once I was a few years out of school.
CYB: I fluctuate within several stages of lucid and nonlucid dreaming, so many of my high school stress dreams are me thinking, Are we really still doing this? and explaining to my band director that I appreciate him but I’m thirty and I no longer care that I haven’t prepared for region auditions. Once ADH and I talked through the differences between those stages, we had our own version of Inception’s “levels of dreaming.” This was how Tracey and Alleyah’s clean-up operation took shape.
How did you manage the collaboration?
ADH & CYB: Badly.
As a Catholic (and we invented Christmas!) I have to say the commercialization of the holiday and the shift to it being a nuclear-family centered event is very irritating. So I appreciated this story a lot, though probably not from the angle you were expecting! But people do need celebrations, and as you indicate, it seems like the only way to escape commercializing them is to escape the control of capitalism entirely, which, with how distant that possibility seems, is a depressing thought. What are your favorite holidays or annual rituals? What do you do to keep them special?
ADH: I’ve ended up quite bad at keeping holidays in my adulthood. It’s nice to get days off or share a meal with family, but the cultural content has either lost its appeal for me or feels tainted by problematic history or capitalism. I keep a copy of the French Revolutionary Calendar, which includes a week of end-of-year fall feast days celebrating various concepts important to civilization: virtue, talent, labor, convictions, revolution. I like that idea much more than our existing holiday season, and I like the idea of celebrating solstices and equinoxes. But yes, I think there’s no getting our seasonal festivals out from under the many layers of consumerism and bourgeois culture without getting the boot of capitalism off our neck first—which is why this story had to be set after a revolution.
CYB: By the time this is published, we’ll be in the final stretch of the holiday season gauntlet. And while I think of myself as being bad at celebrating holidays, I actually mean that in recent years I’ve run out of endurance for holiday seasons. Which is probably why New Year’s Eve somehow ended up being a favorite holiday of mine. It doesn’t get the chance to drag itself out, it’s easier to make of it what you will, and there’s only so many ways you can sell champagne.
When I relocated to Arizona a few years ago, I discovered that I find a lot of quieter pleasure in taking the time to celebrate what deserves celebrating, and the opportunities that each season brings. Though in Arizona, fall means you get to go outside again, so this might have happened under slight duress. In fact, we wrote this story in the heat of July while dog sitting, unable to get out of Phoenix at its worst.
There are so many cool elements in this story, both around Boston and in the cultural/commercial imagery. Is there anything you’re particularly happy with that you wanted to make sure readers noticed?
CYB: Alleyah mentions seeing a parade of mascots a few weeks before the events of the story. We were vague about it, but our thinking was that would be Black Friday. We realized that for years we both thought “Black Friday” was a nickname given because it was so hellish to be out shopping, but then learned that in fact the name is totally earnest. It’s the day in the fiscal year when many businesses get enough sales to tip over from running in the red to running in the black, making a profit. It’s very mask-off consumerism in a way that even Christmas isn’t, and so it seemed important for us to make that the inciting event.
ADH: The other thing I’d love people to pay attention to is the post-capitalist political economy in the background. The parks and public transit, the way the characters are liberated to make choices based on how they want to live and what they want to contribute, not forced to sell their labor to get the bare necessities of survival. We often come at this world-building obliquely: people complaining about the housing council or about being up early in the free cafeteria, because of course a world freed from capitalism would still have plenty of daily annoyances to gripe about. But hopefully these details help stir the political imagination. I’m big on moody utopias. Once I saw a review of one of my stories that said, “I found it rather boring but it allowed me to dream new dreams.”
What are you working on lately? Is there anything new or forthcoming you can share with our readers?
CYB: I’m finishing up a science fiction novel about a war criminal’s attempts to make amends while she struggles against the mythologization of her legacy, set in the Colorado River watershed mid-geoengineering. So if you liked this story and want something else with weird Superfund sites and how the familiar distorts as it moves through our shared minds (but you’re somehow inexplicably tapped out on beating up mascots), please tell your favorite agents and publishers to call me!
ADH: I’m mostly throwing myself into writing my first proper novel—a gritty, alternate history, socialist utopia detective novel with talking elephants. But I have another story coming out in Lightspeed sometime next year that I hope readers will keep an eye out for. I also have a couple of recent stories in other publications. One is in a free ebook of solar futures called Cities of Light, a collaboration between Arizona State University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that I worked on quite a bit. (The book also includes great stories from Paolo Bacigalupi, S.B. Divya, and Deji Bryce Olukotun.) The other story is another collaboration, this one with my friend Jay Springett, and is a too-close-to-home tale of ecofascism in Idaho, published in an climate fiction ebook out of Australia called And Lately, The Sun. Lastly, this isn’t new stuff, but if readers liked this story I recommend they go back and check out my last story in Lightspeed, “Voice of Their Generation” (Lightspeed, April 2020) which is about spending all night in Starbucks trying to perfect a screenplay for Detective Pikachu Vs. Predator. In my humble opinion it contends with this story as about the funniest thing I’ve ever written.
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