In the animal kingdom, all mammals eat, sleep, mate, and fight to defend themselves. (This, of course, applies to non-mammalian animals as well.) But human beings are the only type of mammal that also questions their own existence and identity. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do with the limited time allotted to us?
Evolutionarily speaking, intuitively, this is exceedingly odd. On the face of it, wondering what you want to be when you grow up should actually interfere with, rather than aid with, your continued survival; debating the merits of becoming a fireman versus an astronaut is not entirely helpful if a lion is chewing through your stomach. But this strange and constant questioning has actually done the opposite, and led to human beings, as comedian Louis CK famously pointed out, successfully pulling ourselves out of the food chain. We have survived as a species not in spite of this preoccupation, but because of it.
These questions have spurred on both miraculous innovation and horrific atrocities, but regardless of the results, they are at the fundamental heart of humanity. Literature is one of the few avenues so thoroughly equipped to examine these questions, and speculative fiction is particularly keen, through its slanted focus, on transcending mere fact and approaching truth. (Although anyone with a definitive answer is selling something.)
My very first story was published ten years ago, but I was writing with the active goal of publication for the decade before that, and writing because it was a joyful and fulfilling activity for the decade before that. In all of that time, my fiction has approached these fundamental questions in various ways, lightly or heavily, obliquely or head-on. It is a life-long project, what Zoran Zivkovic calls “the noble art of fiction writing”.
Take the title story of my new collection, Strange Mammals (published this month in paperback and ebook formats by Infinity Plus). The central animals that the protagonist encounters over the course of the narrative—a wombat, an ocelot, a fictional Borgesian catoblepas—can be seen as various aspects of the narrator’s psyche, but the wonderful (and, yes, noble) thing about this kind of story is the ambiguity that allows for all these bizarre animals, and others besides, to exist independent of mere mental projection. This dual existence, which is only possible within the arena of the fantastic, opens up those fundamental questions to scrutiny. If an alcoholic talking wombat with a penchant for Greek food can take over our lives so completely with its forceful personality, where does that then place us on the food chain? Can we still think of ourselves as existentially superior in the face of such a creature? Or else, if it only exists as a hallucination, what does its presence mean for human consciousness itself?
This may elevate literature (and my own in particular) to too lofty a height. After all, stories have to entertain, right? (And, in all honesty, “Strange Mammals” is probably the funniest story I have ever written; it’s difficult for me to read it even silently without bursting into laughter.) One must be engaged with the story or else it becomes discarded in favor of an endless number of diversions and distractions. But this entertainment factor is what makes the fiction so profoundly lasting, that viral insistence which leads to the injection of higher considerations.
What could be stranger than that?
“Jason Erik Lundberg’s stories, launched from the real world on a trajectory to the surreal, fuse the idle daydream with the desperate heart. You should read them.”
—John Kessel, author of The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories