A collection of 15 short stories, inspired by right-wing conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, is a nod to pulpy sci-fi magazines of the early to mid-20th century.
“The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir”
edited by Gary Phillips
Three Rooms Press, 312 pp., paperback, $19.95
Resistance takes many forms, particularly in the present political climate. Few methods of protest are as cheerfully strange and purposefully bizarre as “The Obama Inheritance.”
This collection of 15 short stories, inspired by right-wing conspiracy theories about the 44th president, take aim at the freak-show realities of the 45th. Talents such as Walter Mosley, Robert Silverberg and Kate Flora start with the right-wing delusions that Barack Obama was a closet Muslim, a Kenyan, a socialist or just the creator of death panels — and spin them out to their (illogical) conclusions.
Edited by the crime novelist Gary Phillips, this science-fiction literary act of resistance aims to be a “thrill ride of weirdo, noirish, pulpy goodness.” You’ve got talking dogs, Obama as a space alien and a floating biomedical freak named Balthazar.
The big idea is a nod to the pulpy sci-fi mags of the early to mid-20th century. For pennies to the pound, sweaty-palmed readers could indulge their paranoia in tales of the weird, the fantastic, the alien and the just plain disturbing. Magazines such as Argosy, Weird Tales and Amazing Stories did this in ways good, bad and truly awful.
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The covers usually featured scantily clad babes in wardrobe (if not mortal) peril from creepy space freaks. The stories inside were just as garish. The rats were always in the walls, the monsters were always due on Maple Street, and something wicked always came this way.
The diamonds in the dreck were writers such as horror master H.P. Lovecraft and science-fiction guru Isaac Asimov (whose first published story was in Amazing Stories). These magazines would prove to be the cultural grist for everything from “The Twilight Zone” to the entire career of Stephen King.
The subtext of horror today is not the Red Menace or the Atomic Age, but racism, Islamophobia and ham-fisted greed. Some stories in “The Obama Inheritance” feel like they are one degree from reality; others are a good pole-vault from it.
Thriller writer Kate Flora gets things started with a story set in the recent past, “Michelle in Hot Water.” The first lady joins a group of vigilante-minded women who camouflage their meetings as the Tall Girls Book Club. Working in disguise, the crew kidnaps big-pharma execs, injecting them with a solution that renders them impotent, incontinent and bald. The profit-hungry honchos can get the antidote when they lower drug prices for critically ill children to a “reasonable” level.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is cloning herself in Nisi Shawl’s “Evens.” Flesh-eating lizard people terrorize a right-wing radio host in Eric Beetner’s “True Skin,” which might be my favorite.
“Mr. Obama, I want to see your real skin!” roars Russ, the one-named host, into his microphone one afternoon. “Your lizard skin. You and all your liberal, lizard-people cronies in Washington, in Wall Street, in Hollywood. One day, as God is my witness and with one hand on the Holy Bible and the other on the Constitution, I will unmask you and your kind.”
Russ probably was not expecting the resulting visit from, well, lizard people. Flesh-eating chaos ensues.
In “I Know They’re in There,” Travis Richardson takes us into the mind of gun-toting Lloyd, who just knows the Affordable Care Act has “death panels,” because Sean Hannity said it on TV, Rush Limbaugh said it on the radio and Breitbart wrote web stories about it. (Yes, I know; this hardly qualifies as “fiction.”)
Walter Mosley kicks in with “A Different Frame of Reference,” which follows an unusual member of a Klan-like group in Ohio, Whiter than White, Sons of the Light. And in Anthony Neil Smith’s “I Will Haunt You,” rogue fishing boats roam the decimated Gulf of Mexico after the new administration kills regulations of the trade. The unnamed president who set this into play “died of a massive heart attack on the golf course (so we were told. No one ever saw the body), before his son-in-law executed the vice president for treason and took over the Oval Office himself.” One of the few good captains out there is Joe, who pilots the Great White.
One of the purposes of fiction is to address reality in a slightly reflected light, like a fun-house mirror, in which we see ourselves in a new way. These tales finish as an entertaining, if uneven, look at the world we live in. Phillips worries that the collection might not be weird enough, given that the sitting president “tweets out mind-numbing pronouncements derived from alt-fact sources and [puts] people in charge of federal agencies who are the antitheses of what those agencies are supposed to do.”
He may be right.