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Arkdust coverAlex Smith’s debut collection Arkdust is a strong mix of nine science fiction, fantasy and horror stories with several robust standouts bursting with ideas and imagination. The pieces feature matter-of-factly Black and usually queer protagonists. Some of the stories are rather static and dense, while others soar, but all reflect his breathtaking imagination that seeps through his prose even in the most one-off references. Indeed, and much like Charles Payseur’s first collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, which stars LGBTQ1+ characters, Smith’s Arkdust begs the questions of bias: that is, why there aren’t more such tales starring Black LGBTQI+ heroes instead of ones involving white saviours or Caucasian ones.

Take the starter course, “The Final Flight of Unicorn Girl.” It’s sort of an after-story, a postscript to a larger epic about a dystopia in which dysfunctional superheroes co-exist with our reality. But “Unicorn Girl” is also a queer-trans love story. The protagonist, an avatar for Batman, narrates this first-person cautionary tale and has hunkered down in the seedy Club Leviticus after everything has crashed and burned for our heroes. The heroes, or “capes,” who haven’t been murdered already have switched to the government side, hunting down their former allies for “D.A.R.K. Patrol.” The list of the dead is a roll call worthy of Jack Kirby’s opus, including Silver Soul, Captain Starjack, Shells, and Sun Runner. Others, including Maximus, Vehenna and White Star, are on the hunt. As such, “Unicorn Girl” owes more than a light debt to Alan Moore’s 1984 comic-book Marvelman, reinventing the titular character (which the company altered afterwards to Miracleman to avoid copyright-law entanglements with Marvel Comics), and also of course Moore’s Watchmen (1986-7): both grandaddies of comic-book hero deconstruction. Clearly, with his gritty tone and despairing setting, Smith owes more of a blood sacrifice to them, perhaps even a firstborn.

One would think this premise a little outdated, then, especially given the recent wave of nihilistic deconstructions of superheroes proliferating on entertainment platforms. Yet, somehow Smith brings something new to the page, invigorating these now-familiar tropes, positing that Unicorn-Girl (then a different person in a different body) developed a relationship with the protagonist’s sunny sidekick, Scout, in a wonderful queering-up of the Robin character mythos. Still, despite being intoxicated with its own rich meta-comic book lore references, the story is gripping, entertaining and, surprisingly, heartbreaking. The gruff narrator gives the finger to his former allies-turned-government-lackeys. Not only does the story possess a breathless opener, making it a natural to fire the starting-gun and set the collection off in a headlong rush; many of its wondrous, borderline scriptural run-on sentences are marvelous to read, such as this sampler from page nine:

We jacked up men in suits, crashed through the skylight in the boardrooms of these shadow corporations; we hemmed mobsters fat with toxic nuclear steroid of the month to cement walls. Guidos jacked up on super-powered rugs and contaminants, they all flinched and fired aimlessly at our swift, gliding rainbow of dizzy confusion.

There’s an inkling of William S. Burroughs in that cadence and imagery as well. But while the prose is robust here, there are three stories I couldn’t completely connect with in the collection.

“What We Want, What We Believe” is a manifesto folded into two alternating storylines and times. The often dense shifts in perspectives between the characters of Regina and May crescendo with an appropriate pay-off at the end and all makes sense. On a first read, the tale proved tough to tap into because of these often dizzying shifts, but the pay-off is worth it. “These Are the Things Bad Men Hear At Night” features a menacing spectral figure, but this horror trope is a little shaggy and shopworn. Still, the piece zigs and zags in interesting directions, such as the discomfiting juxtaposition of pre-teen masturbation and an encounter with the supernatural. In “Galactic,” which contains terrific elements, protagonist Casper is trapped in an awkward excuse for a relationship with prat Malik, who is manipulative and callous from page one. Their contrast is not well served by the prose’s occasional confusion as to which “he” is the subject. Still, this is a charming story in which Casper is quite taken with Green Lantern Corps mythos, and more than ready to abandon his idiot lover. Here, Smith does what he does best in fleshing out characterization through a hero’s passion for pop culture (or, adversely, his lack thereof). Thus, Malik fervently believes something greater awaits him, just as he holds close his Green Lantern Corps action-figure collection. Whether he will get there—either away from Malik, or fighting for the forces of evil—is a question Smith poses and may or may not answer. Still, I like how, throughout Arkdust, the author spices his narratives with these sorts of pop-cultural references, predominantly comic-book lore, that convey something about the hero’s personality.

At first, then, I didn’t know why “What We Want, What We Believe,” “These Are the Things Bad Men Hear At Night,” and “Galactic” didn’t quite register with me: these were stories with flaws, but also some positives. But after reading “Optimum Body,” “The Ark Charted Prism That Promised Its Light,” and “Girls Who Look Through Glass,” I realised what I’d been missing: this second trio seemed so much better than the previous set, which I had read out of order. I was rather thrilled with their juiciness of imagination—which, while latent in the previously mentioned trio of stories, had seemed a little hampered. But these stories were very kinetic, loud, garishly imaginative, really. Certainly, there was no confusion of subject, modified subject, or clause. My best guess is that I found these three stories more compelling because they are newer, better developed pieces, a contrast in terms of maturity and progression of the writing. Single-author collections often exhibit this shift between earlier and later work. In the acknowledgements, Smith admits he first published “What We Want, What We Believe” as a 'zine. So, my theory about it being a younger story seems to track.

“Optimum Body” portrays antagonistic authorities who favour replacing any bodies of color (Hispanic, Black or presumably others) with white ones that are deemed superior. This, of course, is an overt and illogical rationale enacted as edicts by racist opposing forces. As such, it’s a brutal bit of body-horror storytelling that works. The whole underlying eugenics theme of anything-but-a-white-body-body stings perfectly, likely because it is patently untrue and yet in this case enforced with violence. My other favourite, “The Ark Charted Prism That Promised Its Light” is a call to arms, and predicts a future that posits Black characters as a shunted populace amidst an unorthodox apocalypse. This piece gets points for a throwaway mention of Alpha Flight, everyone’s favourite B-lister/underdog Canadian superhero team featuring sheepish embodiments of Canuck stereotypes. (For example, its leader, Vindicator, has a costume that is simply the Canadian flag, and another character is named Puck, a not-so-subtle reference to Shakespeare, but also to a national past-time. [1]) The story features a rambling, scriptural cadence, like Cormac McCarthy writing about the end of the world but instead of cowboys committing genocide, or dying characters trekking across burnt-out American highways, Smith stays in the now-obsolete big city and includes characters who are not only WASPs. The future is not looking bright, as evidenced by this passage:

Buildings—once towers that housed telemarketers and people eating salad on their lunch break and served as safe, comforting cocoons for lawmakers and bill collectors-rain sheets of glass. The windows slide off these wonders of architecture   in a glorious cascade.

Of the bill collectors themselves? Without their vast halls, there is nothing for them. They pirouette vulnerably in the city centre, kneeling on the stoops of the monuments they themselves once guarded—at least, ideologically—in more prosperous times that lacked uncertainty. Now they are led by their ties like chattel by masked women carrying shotguns and cattle prods, some adorned with the swaddled, breast-wrapped body of a baby.

Smith remains focused on critiquing urban situations, such as in the third stand-out, “Girls Who Look Through Glass,” an identity-switching blast. Like “Optimum” and “Ark,” this tale is far surer of itself, more mature, with wry social commentary. The heroine, natural-foods store employee Vonda, is armed only with her wits and a boxcutter blade. She is the single Black roommate housed alongside a group vapid, status-clinging white women. The heavy-set, all-business security-guard character Chet reminded me, surreptitiously, of Detective Williams (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) in Only Murders in the Building, in a weird sort of synchronistic character-dysmorphia coincidence. “Girls” shreds the whole hipster/hippie/organic/granola/left-lefty set, while also pitting unsuspecting Vonda against the forces of darkness. But for Vonda—adept with a boxcutter blade, and in possession of plenty of pluck and carrying a chip on her shoulder—moving through this landscape is a challenge she stands more than ready to meet, whether encountering a social-status-obsessed roommate, a would-be mugger or an interdimensional challenger. The story, simply put, rocks. Like “Galactic,” it makes a workaday Black protagonist a hero instead of a generic, white, action avatar. In a nice change of pace for the collection, too, Vonda is not a deeply entrenched pop-culture fan. In fact, she is clueless and without any pop-cultural touchstone references to fantasy fiction such as The Lord of the Rings (the trilogy of films or books). This is a refreshing change in the age of pop-culture super-fandom. In this case, Smith’s character demonstrates a lot about themselves by being unaware of widely popular fantasy lore, and still avails well of herself.

Arcane genre lore aside, Smith’s work is strongest showing his protagonists either in action, using box cutters against evil machinations or demonstrating how their passions—from an attachment to the Green Lantern Corps mythos to a desire for a better life entirely—all strengthen them or ready them to face adversity. His ideas, too, burst forth impressively fully formed, like Athena from the skull of Zeus: fast and furiously, and if not always fully developed then always—especially in his later work—adding texture.


[1] From these references to Alpha Flight comics, I suspect that Smith and I are of the same generation (that is, Generation X). The original Alpha Flight comic-book volume tapped out in 1994 with issue #133. However, because of faithful followers, at least four incarnations have appeared since to satiate niche fans, not including the most recent Gamma Flight, the motley crew assembled in the pages of Al Ewing’s fifty-issue run on The Immortal Hulk, warranting Gamma Flight a (surprisingly satisfying) five-issue limited series spin-off. In short, any author who can shoehorn in an Alpha Flight reference in a cadent apocalyptic story earns my begrudging respect, not to mention admiration. [return]

James K. Moran’s articles have appeared via Rue Morgue and Xtra Magazine, with speculative fiction in On Spec, Icarus, and Glitterwolf. Lethe Press published Town & Train, Moran’s debut horror novel. His short-story collection, Fear Itself, is forthcoming. Moran lives on the unceded Territory of the Anishinabe Algonquin Nation, now called Ottawa, a word derived from the Algonquin adawe, meaning “to trade.” Twitter: @jkmoran Instagram: jamestheballadeer
Current Issue
29 May 2023

We are touched and encouraged to see an overwhelming response from writers from the Sino diaspora as well as BIPOC creators in various parts of the world. And such diverse and daring takes of wuxia and xianxia, from contemporary to the far reaches of space!
By: L Chan
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Many eons ago, when the first dawn broke over the newborn mortal world, the children of the Heavenly Realm assembled at the Golden Sky Palace.
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Many trans and marginalised people in our world can do the exact same things that everyone else has done to overcome challenges and find happiness, only for others to come in and do what they want as Ren Woxing did, and probably, when asked why, they would simply say Xiang Wentian: to ask the heavens. And perhaps we the readers, who are told this story from Linghu Chong’s point of view, should do more to question the actions of people before blindly following along to cause harm.
Before the Occupation, righteousness might have meant taking overt stands against the distant invaders of their ancestral homelands through donating money, labour, or expertise to Chinese wartime efforts. Yet during the Occupation, such behaviour would get one killed or suspected of treason; one might find it better to remain discreet and fade into the background, or leave for safer shores. Could one uphold justice and righteousness quietly, subtly, and effectively within such a world of harshness and deprivation?
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