We’ve witnessed amazing work in fantasy and science fiction arena as of late, stories that push the boundaries of what genre can do. Unique and diverse voices are nothing new, but a broader appetite for them has brought these storytellers to a wider and more receptive audience. Hopefully many will find and fall for Passing Strange, the new novella by Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award-winner Ellen Klages, a time-traveling story of fantasy magic, love, and revenge set against the backdrop of queer San Francisco in the 1940s.
In an opening that feels like the setup for a very different type of book, Klages is clearly having fun building textual sleight-of-hand into a story in which magic is a very real, if often understated, presence. An elderly woman, near death, spends the last of her time on earth on a mysterious mission: she retrieves an impossibly fragile work of art from her own collection and teases it before a shady art dealer. The chalk piece (represented on the cover of Passing Strange itself) is reputed to be the last, undistributed work of an artist named Haskell, whose eerie, gory works covered pulp magazines in the golden age of weird fiction.
Pulp art is coveted in certain quarters, but was entirely disposable in its time, making modern originals exceedingly rare and, hence, valuable. Given the novella’s branding as a fantasy tale, we’re quick (or, at least, I’m quick) to imagine Lovecraftian horrors springing from Haskell’s page, perhaps primed to punish the unscrupulous collector. But Klages is attempting something much more subtle, and makes a virtue of misdirection by telling a story about misdirection: not just in the magical sense, but about the ways in which we can hide our truest natures in plain sight, and even make a virtue of the secret worlds we’re called upon to create. In doing so, she doesn’t shy away from the constant fear of the moment when it will all coming crashing down.
We then travel back to San Francisco in the 1940s, to the introduction of Emily (also known as Spike) and Loretta Haskel (just Haskel will do), the bisexual artist creating gruesome magazine cover art to pay the bills. Emily is a torch singer at the legendary Mona’s, a real lesbian bar of the era (one of Klages’ many nods to queer history). Haskell’s circle includes an ethnically diverse group of reefer-smoking lesbians with inclinations, variously, toward the arts, science, and witchcraft—alongside, of course, booze and witty repartee. (I’m pretty sure that covers a large swath of the things that mother is supposed to warn you about.)
Klages spends a lot of time building the relationship between the tough painter and the more naive singer, even as she excels at creating a picture of a time and place: San Francisco, in the run-up to World War II, was a city in which gays and lesbians thrived in semi-secret, but lived with the constant knowledge that the hammer could come down on them at any time. It was a city in which social norms evolved to suit a developing confidence in culture and identity, but that confidence only carried so far. Early in the story, one of the more butch girls is arrested following an insignificant tussle: she’s not wearing the requisite three articles of women’s clothing, thus violating laws about gender-appropriate attire. Men’s clothing could often be a potent, not to mention useful, signifier of female gay sexuality (the opposite being true for gay men), but could also land you in jail. Social norms suggest that relationships require a man and a woman, but dressing for the roles was (and is) dangerous. There’s a sense of code-switching outside of the gender spectrum, as well: the most significant bit of magic in the story is a spell passed down as a means of escaping the pogroms. One of their circle is a woman of Chinese descent, though a New Yorker through and through. To get work, she puts on a pantomime and stereotypical Chinese facade, pretending not only to be straight, but to be a white American’s idea of a generic asian woman. It pays the bills, and it’s to Klages’ credit that she invites us to observe these women without judging their means of survival.
The relationship between Haskel and Emily builds as we follow them on a tour of the city, and it all goes rather well (including the inevitable move-in) until Haskel’s drunken, very much estranged husband returns, leading to tragic complications. It’s at that point we’re reminded magic is a force in this city, and there in power in women coming together to protect friends at a critical moment. It all ties together rather beautifully, and unexpectedly, with the story of the Haskel’s final lost painting. This novella is ultimately as charming as it is playful, with moments of heartbreaking drama. She pulls off a neat trick in building an urban fantasy world suffused with real queer history, using the magical elements in parallel to the lives of the women at the center of the story. The author is one of the voices expanding ideas of what sci-fi and fantasy can be, and the genre is so much better for it.