Boys, Beasts, & Men is a collection of Sam J. Miller’s finest sci-fi short fiction to date. The author is perhaps best known for his novels Blackfish City and The Art of Starving and this collection brings together fourteen widely acclaimed pieces which have been published in the likes of Clarkesworld, Asimov’s Science Fiction and Lightspeed.
Collections of short fiction can often divide opinion and can feel patched together when strung as one along a loose theme. Boys, Beasts, & Men has the feel of a carefully crafted, coherent piece. It didn’t read at all like an-anthology-for-the-sake-of-an-anthology. This is mostly down to the fact that Miller’s sheer talent shines through in abundance. The harmony is also helped by the short scenes-between-the-scenes which are interspersed amongst the stories and depict a spontaneous sexual encounter. I grew to think of these as the titular narrative, one which oozes pure carnal lust: “Flesh mingles, merges. Boy, beast, man: we are one thing.”
This synergy is also bolstered by the fact that Miller has said that much of his fiction takes place in a shared universe. ‘Calved’ is a moving tale of an immigrant father desperate to stop the adoration of his teenage son slipping through his fingers. The setting is the intriguing melting pot of Qaanaaq which will be familiar territory to anyone who loved Blackfish City. Equally heart-wrenching is ‘Conspicuous Plumage,’ the story of a grieving brother who taps into the supernaturally gifted Hiram as he embarks on a quest for answers to a tragedy which still tears at the fabric of his family life.
Yet the true quality of Boys, Beasts, & Men (indeed of Miller’s work as a whole) is in its variety and originality. ‘Allosaurus Burgers’ is a worthy opener. It sets the tones which will reverberate throughout the book and introduces some of its core themes – it is an anthem on parental relationships. This is a writer who refuses to be pigeonholed, an artist who can seamlessly explore the interplay between scientific possibilities, homosexuality, class, and familial tension. The stories speak via their own quality and give voice to a range of remarkable characters and varied cultural references. I particularly enjoyed the use of Kong in ‘Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart’.
I also found that little hidden gems of Boys, Beasts, & Men stayed with me whilst I had this book in progress. Ideas, characters, and moments squatted in my head making me ponder and chuckle as I got on with mundane everyday life. ‘We Are the Cloud’ was definitely a classic case of an idea that I wish I had myself. This tale stood out in its originality. It is set in an age where the downtrodden lower classes get by through selling their headspace as computing power via the dangerous business of cloudporting. Yet the piece develops into a telling exploration of issues such as gender, sexuality, and race whilst also being a moving love story.
Boys, Beasts, & Men is an outrageous journey which skilfully blends genres and will haunt you with its original, poetic voices as much as its victims, villains, and treasure trove of leading actors. My personal favourites would have to be, firstly, the redolent supernatural love story ‘Ghosts of Home.’ This encapsulates the sheer inventiveness of Miller’s writing and his use of glorious surreal moments. I think that I will always keep hold of the glorious notion that we can pacify spectres with oranges as gifts! My other takeaway will be ’57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides’ as a masterclass in original, innovative style which will leave you smiling as yet another well-crafted protagonist fights their way towards supernatural vengeance.