Utilising classic dystopian, sci-fi and fantastical tropes, Nottingham’s Giselle Leeb has just published her first short story collection, Mammals, I Think We Are Called. Musing on what it means to be human in a modern age, it’s a weird, wonderful and often ambiguous anthology. We catch up with the author to talk about environmental themes, genre bending and her philosophy as an author…
Some people think that good fiction should make you reflect. Others think that a great story should transport you into another world. But what if it could do both? Well, that’s exactly what you’ll find in this new short story collection. Thoughtful, bizarre and fantastical, Mammals, I Think We Are Called is an anthology of true dystopian merit, which leads the reader through a series of stories ranging from the ecological to the technological. Written by Nottingham-based author Giselle Leeb, and published by Salt Publishing, it’s a triumph.
In Leeb’s own words, a collection about “living in the 21st century and how change also changes us”, it’s an anthology split up into eighteen stories, all of which are informed by the author’s interest in the changing world. Difficult to pin down to one single genre, Leeb explains that she’s most comfortable without a hard definition. “I relate to genres like Weird Fiction, New Weird and maybe Literary Fantasticism, but genre-bending is the best way to describe my book,” she says, adding that she also likes Slipstream as a genre.
A term that this LeftLion writer certainly hadn’t heard of, Slipstream can roughly be described as ‘the fiction of strangeness’. Popularised by American author James Patrick Kelly in his work The Slipstream Anthology, it’s a genre that uses dystopian and sci-fi tropes to explore the oddness of being a person in the present age. And this theme certainly comes through in Leeb’s work - whether through her stories focusing on the climate crisis, which she admits is “worrying her a lot”, or the rise of AI, which she spends a lot of time reading about.
Mammals, I Think We Are Called is an anthology of true dystopian merit, which leads the reader through a series of stories ranging from the ecological to the technological
Leeb’s work achieves this uncanny Slipstream effect by playing with contrast, and she has a knack for taking the familiar and turning it in on itself, leading the reader into a darker and twisted, but still recognisable, reality. The weatherman who looks for hope in flooding London. The lightning ball that falls onto a coffee shop. The robo-human who is studying ancient history. Throughout the anthology, Leeb succeeds by taking the comfortable things we know, and following them to uncanny and strange ends.
While reading, you may be reminded of classic dystopian writers like Aldous Huxley, Yevgeny Zamyatin or J. G. Ballard, but it’s authors like George Saunders who Leeb credits as inspiration, alongside non-fiction authors like Yuval Noah Harari. An American writer of novels and short stories, Leeb finds the nuance in Saunders’ writing the most inspiring factor of his work. “He’s amazing at writing bizarre stories and he’s very political but he never shoves a message down your throat,” she explains. “Instead, he just writes the stories and his interests come out.”
Using this as a guideline, Leeb’s stories are likewise often political but also subtle. Assistant Editor of the environmental journal Reckoning, it’s no surprise that many of the stories do have a climate theme to them - however, they aren’t moralistic or lecturing. The tales, including the likes of The Edge of Seasons, Grow Your Gorilla and The Goldfinch is Fine, engage with complex themes like global warming and overconsumption, but they do so with a keen eye to character, plot and pleasure. In short, they’re still enjoyable to read.
Leeb has a knack for taking the familial and turning it in on itself, leading the reader into a darker and twisted, but still recognisable, reality
In fact, this can be said about Leeb’s writing as a whole. It is both thought-provoking and also entertaining, perhaps because of the author’s constant focus on building a sense of atmosphere. “The atmosphere was very important to me,” Leeb muses. “I spent a lot of time in the stories building atmosphere and trying to capture that sense of the uncanny which we all feel.” An aim which is absolutely actualised, the stories read as thick with ambience, despite each only being a few pages long.
Likewise, the collection is great when it comes to variety and experimentation with form. Some stories follow a more traditional structure while others take more unique angles. “I think the structure and style changed depending on the type of story, which I liked,” Leeb says, “and that’s the great thing about the short story - that you can do what you want. So, all the stories in the collection could be different styles while still being linked by that fantastical element and a couple of themes.”
A collection that manages to balance heavy topics, while also leaving the reader with a sense of hope, Leeb hits a balance. “I’m really interested in writing about both the dark and light because we walk in both those spaces, and everything in between,” she asserts, commenting that overall, she just “hopes people enjoy it”. An excellent piece of work (in my humble opinion), it’s safe to say that this hope has been achieved. Skillfully ambiguous, dark and also optimistic, Mammals, I Think We Are Called is a wonderful contribution to the local literary world.
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