The world of SF publication is a well-established pyramid. There are the little magazines that pay in copies or pennies. There are the pro magazines like Asimov’s (and, for that matter, AE). There are the small specialty publishing houses like Chi Zine Publications. There are the large SF imprints like Del Rey. And then, there are the Big Five: Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon and Schuster.
For most authors it is a slow climb, with many building long successful careers without ever reaching the summit. Jim Munroe, on the other hand, landed a contract with HarperCollins for his debut novel and then, for his subsequent books, opted out.
For the last fifteen years, Munroe has self-published, and helped and encouraged others to do the same. A veteran of the zine years, Munroe has latched on to the DIY ethic and embraced the fringe culture of indie publishing, proving, to everyone’s surprise but his, that from that freedom and chaos can come some of the most beautiful, polished, and moving works of art.
In some ways, this is an article written ten years too late. We live today in a world where it’s taken almost as given that indie video games will outshine AAA titles, with Minecraft selling 54 million copies. We live in a world where Amanda Hocking can become an overnight millionaire selling self-published teen vampire e-books. But this, readers, was 1999.
Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, Munroe’s first novel, was an early forerunner of the hyperrealist superhero genre. Ryan is a 22-year old virgin who can turn into a fly. He hooks up with a punk rock single mom who can will things out of existence, but not back. As, apparently, the only two people in the world with superpowers, they shoulder their moral burden and set out to fight crime, as they define it. In truth though, Flyboy is more than anything a love poem to late 90’s underground Toronto. Anyone who lived through the days of Who’s Emma, the Anarchist Bookstore, Planet Kensington, and OCAP’s pre-9/11 direct action will find Flyboy a delightful time warp.
After Flyboy, Munroe soured on working with a major publisher, particularly one owned by Rupert Murdoch. So for his next novel, Angry Young Spaceman, he formed an independent label, No Media Kings, and published the thing himself. In my opinion, Spaceman is the best of Munroe’s four novels, and all are quite good. Spaceman is a hilarious parable about exoticism, multiculturalism, and white kids teaching English in Asia, all told through a pre-Golden Age rockets-and-blasters science fiction lens. Any of the Big Five would have been thrilled to publish this book, but Munroe was dead-set on showing that the indie publishing model could play in the big leagues. And he was absolutely right.
Munroe followed Spaceman in 2002 with Everyone in Silico, a sort of down-to-earth repartee to the cyberpunk diaspora. In many ways, Silico is Munroe’s most problematic novel as it suffers from a bit of what TV Tropes calls “Seinfeld is Unfunny” syndrome. Though it would be hard to claim that it was a major influencer, Silico came out just ahead of a spate of similar novels. Key concepts from the book, like reality being subsumed into the Internet and advertising becoming so ubiquitous that it the world is practically constructed from it, were perhaps already extant in SF, but they were not nearly as well-trodden as they are today. I mean, one of the main characters in Silico is a coolhunter, this a full year in advance of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. And so, the problem with Everyone in Silico is that it can be difficult to read it today without feeling, paradoxically, that it is derivative of things that came after. I recommend you do what you can to get past that though, as the story is fantastic.
Munroe’s fourth, and so far final, novel is An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil. It’s a bit of a strange creature. This novel was written after Munroe had cemented his reputation as a Canadian indie culture magnate, and you can see that it is an exploration of his experiences in that role. Throughout the early 00s Munroe managed the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, an ongoing reading and performance tour with a rotating cast of independent artists and writers travelling North America reading at independent bookstores and sleeping in punk rock flophouses. Full disclosure, I was at one point a participant myself. And it was magical. An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil, for me, is a high-fidelity window back into that experience, and so I love it. But I feel like that might be its fatal flaw: that is written to appeal almost exclusively to the sort of people who might think quitting their job to bum around the States selling zines seems like a good career move. Fortunately, I have a feeling there might be more than a few of those among AE’s readership.
In the last ten years, Munroe has widened his web beyond novels to encompass nearly the full range of indie arts. His graphic novels Therefore Repent! and Sword of My Mouth are international hits. His feature length film Ghosts with Shit Jobs was a festival favourite, playing as far away as the Beijing International Film Festival. And his videogames, like the criminally good Everybody Dies, have won accolades and awards.
More importantly, Munroe has dedicated himself to helping a generation of Canadian creatives find their voice and their platform apart from the traditional gatekeepers and arbiters of worth. No Media Kings continues to go strong, and Munroe acts as Executive Director for The Hand-Eye Society, a not-for-profit which supports independent artistic video game development. Even if you have never heard of Jim Munroe, I can virtually guarantee that you have heard of someone else who wouldn’t be where they are today without him.
When asked to suggest an entry point to his oeuvre, Munroe offered AE this: “I generally suggest the comic books for fans of comic books, [Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask] for those who like the idea of anti-corporate superheroes in love, [Angry Young Spaceman] for fans of Doug Adams-esque sf comedy, [Everyone in Silico] for Dickheads, and [An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil] for folks who like epistolary & demonic stuff.”
Personally, I’d probably advise almost anyone to start with Angry Young Spaceman or Everybody Dies and then go on to consume every damn thing he has created. It is all available for sale or for free on his website.
D.F. McCourt is the Editor of AE.