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Interview: Charlie Jane Anders on “Palm Strike’s Last Case”

- “Palm Strike’s Last Case” is about a vigilante superhero fighting crime in a grim city… until he gets selected for a space colonization mission. By shifting context partway through the story, the character learns important things about himself and solves a problem he could never have solved on Earth. At the same time, the juxtaposition of the two narrative types allows them to comment on each other. What inspired you to do a mash-up of these very different genres?

The thing I love most about superheroes is how adaptable they are, and how many different kinds of stories you can tell about them. And the notion of taking a dark urban vigilante and plunking him down on another planet, where he has to deal with a very different set of challenges, really appealed to me.

Sometimes I come up with a story idea, or the first scene of a story, and then spend weeks or months noodling and trying to figure out where the story should go. But this was one that came out pretty much fully formed — I had the beginning, middle, and end in my head all at once, when I was actually trying to finish some other story. I had to write down the whole outline, in detail, before I could get it out of my head and get back to the story I was supposed to be writing.

Looking back at that original outline now, it’s missing some stuff, and the final resolution is a little vague — but the thing that comes through is the notion of telling a superhero story in which the hero does actually make things better through heroism, but where the challenges are way different.

 

- What was the biggest challenge in combining a superhero story with a space colony story?

Tone was a big challenge — I reallly wanted to have a gritty noirish tone, a bit like Mickey Spillane, Richard Kadrey or Greg Rucka, without ever falling into pastiche. And also, a huge part of the appeal of the Palm Strike character is that he’s obsessed, with the death of his son and with getting justice. When he gets to Newfoundland and discovers that his cryo-capsule failed and there are drug dealers here, he starts falling into a narrative where his arch-enemy set a trap for him and maybe is behind the drug dealers. I wasn’t sure how far to push that — because the more Palm Strike obsesses about drug dealers and hypothetical supervillain plots, the less attention he’s paying to the massive starvation around him. At a certain point, a hero who doesn’t care that everybody is starving to death isn’t much of a hero. I also had to acknowledge the horror of the starving, possibly doomed colony, without breaking the superhero vibe too much.

 

- How is this idea of mixing genres reflected in your other work?

I love the notion of genre mash-ups, partly because I think genres get stronger when they get an injection of “new blood” from other types of stories. And partly because genres tend to get bogged down with tropes, which often consist of unquestioned assumptions, and these assumptions get challenged when new ideas are brought in.

I have a story going up at Tor.com in September, called “As Good As New,” that combines post-apocalyptic fiction and fantasy in a way that I hope will seem new and different. And my novel, coming in late 2015 or 2016, is about the relationship between a mad scientist and a witch, allowing for some really fun genre intersections.

The key with genre mash-ups, again, is avoiding pastiche. Or, really, any sense of throwing tropes into a blender — instead of thinking of it as “Tiffany Aching meets Luke Skywalker,” I try to think of it as two discreet sets of rules and frames on reality, which overlap in some places and stick out in others. If you just think of a genre mash-up as different cliches stuck together, or a conjoined spoof, then you can’t really get at what makes those genres work, or what they’re really saying about the world.

 

- Where can people find more of your writing?

There are some links on my website, charliejane.com.

 

- Wow, that flowchart should win awards for one of the best author website ideas of all time.

Thanks! I need to update that listing soon. Also, I have a bunch of stories at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Flurb, Apex, the Apocalypse Triptych, Tin House and McSweeney’s, plus in print in Asimov’s, ZYZZYVA, and various Year’s Best anthologies.

 

- “Palm Strike’s Last Case” appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.

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