Laughing at Cancer

Unidentified Funny Objects 2 [Amazon | B&N | UFO Pub], an anthology edited by Alex Shvartsman, is now available in e-book format. I believe the trade paperback is out as well (or will be any day now).

I’m not sure why we needed big chrome boobs on the cover, but Alex has put together some impressive names, such as Esther Friesner, Ken Liu, Tim Pratt, Robert Silverberg, and more.

My story in the anthology is called “Stranger vs. the Malevolent Malignancy,” and it’s all Jay Lake’s fault. Jay has been battling cancer for years, and as is his way, he’s talked openly and honestly about his experiences on his blog. Right around the time I was searching for an idea to write about for UFO2, Jay wrote a post talking about humor – even morbid humor – as a coping mechanism.

“Humor is incredibly subjective at the best of times. Humor in the face of mind-numbing adversity… If I couldn’t laugh at this at least some of the time, I’d have curled up and died of grief and fear a long time ago.”

His post stuck with me. It reinforced a lot of the things I believe about the power and value of humor. And so I decided to write a funny story about cancer.

As it turns out, it’s a bit of a challenge to make a story about terminal cancer funny. Especially when you’re trying very hard not to minimize or gloss over the reality of cancer, the unfairness and the indignity and the grief and the reality of it all.

I ended up writing about a superhero named The Stranger, whose powers include the ability to talk to objects. Including his own inoperable tumor.

While I was working on the story, Jay announced his terminal diagnosis. Since that time, the SF/F community lost author and advocate Ann Crispin to cancer. Several other people I know have revealed that they or their loved ones are fighting cancer. And I find myself more and more relating to one of the characters from the story, who says, “The point is, fuck cancer.”

I asked Jay if he was okay with me using some of the details he’d shared in his blog when I wrote the story. Jay was kind enough not only to say yes, but to offer to read it when I was done. (Which means if you read the story and hate it, it’s officially ALL JAY’S FAULT!) I might have also used him as the basis for a head-in-a-jar who used to be a superhero but is now a psychiatrist…

I’ve read the story in public several times now, and it was scary. Scary to talk bluntly about something we often try not to think about, and scary because while I know my intentions with the story, there was no guarantee I’d succeeded. If I screwed this one up, not only would I have a broken story, but I’d have written something that could potentially hurt and offend a lot of people.

So far, the reaction has been positive, which gives me hope that I got it right. No story works for everyone, of course. But humor is both a coping mechanism and a way to confront fear and ugliness. And I can think of few things more frightening and ugly than cancer.

A story can’t cure cancer. But maybe — hopefully — it can bring a little light to those in the midst of that battle.

ETA: Author J. W. Alden is giving away an autographed copy of the anthology on his blog. Just comment to enter.