The characters in Sam J. Miller’s debut short story collection Boys, Beasts, & Men, often LGBTQIA but not always, are yearning for connection: sometimes direct connection to another human being (occasionally, but not always, romantic), sometimes to a community, sometimes to an ideal. How they surmount the barriers to making those connections is at the heart of stories that cross the spectrum of speculative fiction, from hard science fiction to fantasy to stories that blur the lines between genres. Throughout the collection, Miller’s incredible ability to combine heightened emotional stakes with current social issues is on keen display.
In the collection’s lead story, “Allosaurus Burgers,” a farmer in Hudson Falls, NY (the setting for many of Miller’s stories) finds a live allosaurus on his property. While waiting for the government to take it away, he opens his farm up for photos ops and reporters. The story’s narrator is a young boy, whose single mother is an alcoholic whose very physical job at a slaughterhouse has taken a toll on her. The boy’s hero-worship of his mother, and strained relationships with his older sister and absent father, are what the story is really all about: the ways in which adults, especially parents, condescend to children, underestimating how much they are capable of understanding about the interpersonal dynamics around them. The SFnal element by contrast is lightly worn, but does provide the impetus for the boy to confront his connections with family and neighbors—and address his own inability to communicate what he really wants.
“Calved” offers a more hard-SF treatment of its concept. This post-climate-change tale takes place on the floating city that is also the setting of Miller’s novel Blackfish City (2018), and also focuses on an absent father. But this time the father is the narrator, and he’s trying extremely hard to reconnect with the son he only sees a few times a year thanks to his job on ice ships—the only work he can get because he is an American immigrant to this ocean-bound city. In an effort to reconnect, the father gives the son a keepsake band T-shirt from the father’s own teenage years. When the shirt goes missing, the father thinks he understands what his son isn’t saying, and the story moves towards its emotional and brutal climax. The awkwardness of the strained father-son relationship is palpable, the father’s attempts to get to know his son honest and relatable. But so is the weight of the “tables turned” that characterize the way immigrants from a devastated United States are treated by the city’s inhabitants—in exactly the way many in the current-day US treat immigrants from the Middle East and Central/South America.
“When Your Child Strays from God” continues to make an argument for the collection’s theme: it, too, is the story of a parent who doesn’t understand her son, or how to communicate with him. In the story, the wife of a conservative Christian minister explains, via her newsletter to her husband’s congregation, how she has chosen to connect with the son, who is pulling away from her and from her religion. She has decided, she writes, to take the same drug, “spiderweb,” that she knows he’s been taking, because the drug connects its users in a higher mental state. The journey she goes on, and the truth behind her son’s increasing distance, is interspersed with her commentary on the hypocrisy of certain members of the congregation—and the blind eye everyone (including herself) has been willing to turn towards the abuses of her husband. I can’t say I came to like the narrator, but I did feel pity towards her.
Parents and children are not the only ones seeking to understand or be understood in this collection, however. In several of Miller’s stories that tie, obviously or obliquely, to classic horror films, broken people want to be recognized by other broken people. We’ve already seen a hint of this in “Allosaurus Burgers,” which has a very Jurassic Park feel, but often the referents are even more explicit. “Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart,” for example, features a gay Jewish cabdriver giving a ride to the actress Anne Darrow, years after they both witnessed, from different vantages, King Kong’s fall from the Empire State Building. They bond over Kong’s treatment as “exotic” (the experience of immigrants) and as property (the experience of women). “Things With Beards,” meanwhile, answers the question about what happened to MacReady (of John Carpenter’s The Thing ) after his return from Antarctica, as he tries to reconnect with family, community, and a former lover while hiding how broken he really is. Elsewhere, “Angel, Monster, Man” feels like a modern riff on Frankenstein (1818): at the height of the AIDS epidemic, three gay men cobble together a “deceased” writer/artist from fragments of the work and personalities of the multitude of gay creatives whose projects were thrown away by their families—who buried them without acknowledging their sexual orientation or their work. Of course, the trio’s creation takes on a life of his own that threatens to destroy his creators.
“Angel, Monster, Man” is also one of several stories set against the backdrop of real social upheaval in our nation’s history, with SFnal or fantasy tweaks. “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” centers on the Stonewall Riots, in which the connection between an aggrieved and marginalized community creates a heat that incinerates people. Told from the hindsight of years later and by people who were there but don’t agree on how it all happened, the story is a wonderful treatise on community versus individual memory—and on how different a story looks depending on which side of the events you were on. Likewise, “The Beasts We Want to Be” takes place during an alternate Russian Revolution during which young men—intentionally broken by the government in order to make them better soldiers—seek connection with each other and in which past wrongs lead to bad ends.
Other settings are more contemporary. “Ghost of Home” sets our ongoing housing and banking crises for a connection that is part romantic and part revolutionary, and exemplifies both how quickly one can become unhoused and how easily the poverty-stricken can be manipulated by the rich and powerful. “We Are the Cloud” also features a romantic connection, this time between two young men caught up in the foster care system in a very-near-future New York City. The boy at the center of the story has been tossed from group home to group home, abused by the very system that is supposed to support and uplift him. He thinks he’s finally found love with another boy—but things are not as they seem. Finally, “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” builds on the epidemics of anti-LGBTQIA and misogynistic rhetoric and action of our current society, told in the “listicle” format that is so popular in online newspapers and blogs, and is easily the most brutal story of the collection. Miller ratchets up the tension expertly as the reader realizes exactly what the main character has done.
It is the collection’s closing story, “Sun in an Empty Room,” which most clearly exemplifies the theme of seeking connection that permeates this collection, though. Narrated by a sentient couch that has been moved from home to home between stints at the Salvation Army, the story comments on how ineffective communication can hamper relationships as well as how some barriers to connection turn out to be insurmountable. Also? It has unrequited love and a sentient couch.
Whether we want to admit it or not, all humans (and, indeed, all sentient creatures) need connection: to other individuals, to communities, to objects and places; across social strata, across national borders, across species. Sam J. Miller highlights that need in order to draw our attention to the flaws in our society—and also to demonstrate how good we can be if we find a way to work together.