The Big Idea: Seanan McGuire
Two years ago, Seanan McGuire found herself crowned with the Campbell Award as the best new writer in science fiction and fantasy; a year after that, writing as Mira Grant, she found herself nominated for the Hugo for Feed. That’s a steep and impressive climb for a new writer. The secret? In my opinion, it’s that McGuire is having fun with her writing, which makes it a kick to read. McGuire is having even more fun now with Discount Armageddon, a book that features lizard-men and other creepy-crawlies, ancient monster-fighting religious orders and a ballroom dancing heroine putting herself between both groups. But beneath the fun of this book there’s some serious thought involved, about women, choice, and whether or not superpowers are a crutch. McGuire explains more.
The first horror movie I remember in any detail* was Night of the Comet, a 1980s-era epic about two girls who manage to survive the return of the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. They face loneliness, mysterious red dust, killer zombies, evil scientists, and eczema, all in the name of reestablishing the human race. It would be charitable to say that I was influenced by this movie. Really, I was warped by this movie, which featured, among other things, a fluffy-haired blonde cheerleader who complained when she couldn’t have an Uzi. As in, “Daddy would’ve gotten us Uzis.”
(*Important distinction, since the first thing I can remember watching on a TV screen was the original Alien, when I was three. I liked the pretty flowers that hugged people…)
I was pretty much unsupervised in my television choices, since I didn’t have nightmares or set things on fire, so what was the harm in letting me watch whatever I wanted to? Consequentially, Night of the Comet was allowed to set the tone of my entire childhood. It was an endless stream of monster movies, science fiction shows, and reruns of my three favorite shows: The Addams Family, The Twilight Zone, and most especially of all, The Munsters. They had things in common, but the most important—to me—wasn’t immediately obvious.
They all had female characters who were important to the story, who did things, who made choices, but who had no superpowers whatsoever. Marilyn could have left 1313 Mockingbird Lane at any time. She could have had a totally normal life, far away from her monstrous relatives. And she chose to stay, because that was her family, and woe betide anyone who messed with Marilyn’s family.
As I got older, I really clung to that ideal, the woman choosing to live amongst the monsters because that was where she was happy. And lots of other things got into my head, including several years spent trying to figure out whether there was a baby lake monster living in my local creek, and several more spent studying folklore at a college level. It was a good life.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, things shifted. It stopped being okay to be a girl and make a choice: not only were the choices made for the female characters in most of the media I had access to, but they all had superpowers now, like it was totally impossible to believe that they could kick ass without a magical boost. This made me sad. I stewed on it for several years, because I am like a slow cooker of annoyance.
My friend Kate has another term for me. She calls me the cat toy.
We were watching So You Think You Can Dance on Fox—a reality show based around ballroom and modern dance styles—and there was this little blonde named Chelsea who could kick higher than her head without even trying. I liked her a lot. I opined that someone who could kick higher than her head was not someone you wanted to meet in a dark alley. And Kate, who enjoys nothing more than watching me start putting together a new series, said, “Prove it.”
I’d had this setting in my head for a while, something that was sort of half-ecological conservation of things that aren’t supposed to exist, half-my response to the sudden evolution of the Final Girl into a combination victim/McGuffin. (“Can she fly or kick your ass with her brain? Then she’s dead.”) It was built around a family who used to hunt monsters, and now took care of them.
A footnote: if you look at history, humanity has always been fond of monsters, and of girls and monsters. Dragons and princesses, virgins and unicorns, the occasional sea-monster sacrifice or temple maiden who ticked off the Greek gods. That’s not all that’s in the historical record. For instance, did you know that the first recorded cholera outbreaks came shortly after the last recorded instance of a monarch (the King of France, to be specific) receiving the gift of a unicorn’s head?
Unicorns supposedly use their horns to purify water, you know. And cholera is a waterborne disease. On that foundation was the ecology of a world based: everything exists, or did once, and nothing exists in a vacuum. Kill the siren that sinks a ship every generation, free the Colossal squid that eats your entire village. It was a setting I loved. What it didn’t have was a way for me to get inside and start strewing shit around.
Enter Verity Price, latest in a long line of cryptozoologists. That whole “ex-monster hunter” thing gave me the excuse to make her a ballroom dancer, and her brother a medieval recreationist, and a bunch of other things, because naturally, the people who stayed monster hunters aren’t too thrilled with them. To the monster hunters, Verity and her family are traitors, not just to their cause, but to the entire human race. So that means learning how to do your job as stealthily as possible, and turning ordinary, harmless-looking things—like ballroom dance—into a mechanism for kicking a lot of ass.
The other big component of this world was the mythology. I have my October Daye series, and I love them, but they’re limited to one primary mythology, the European conception of Faerie. I can take aspects of other mythologies, but it’s all still narrow. That’s good for the story I’m telling there, which needs borders. I wanted a story without borders, or at least with very few…and I got it. In this world, in Verity’s world, every urban legend and cryptid story is true, to one degree or another. Yeti and waheela and tanuki and Madhura and everything. It’s like having a huge toy box full of wonderful things, and I get to play with all of them, as often as I want. It’s amazing.
So it’s about family and about girls who choose and about monsters and people who love them and finding true things disguised as stories. And it’s about ballroom dance. Because who doesn’t love ballroom dance.
Discount Armageddon is about all of the above. Verity Price is away from home for the first time, she’s trying to find her place in the world, she’s trying to make her choice an informed one—and she’s trying to do her job. She wants to take care of the monsters, like a modern-day Marilyn with a much larger 1313 Mockingbird Lane under her care. And there’s ass-kicking and snark and all the other components of a madcap romp across the rooftops and through the sewers of Manhattan, but really, it’s about a girl, and a family, and a world full of monsters, and a choice. I want to see more choice in fiction. I want the chance to choose.
Also there are talking pantheistic demon mice who view absolutely everything as an excuse for a massive religious holiday culminating in a cheese and cake buffet. There was no way I could pass that up.