You can't call yourself a bona fide science-fiction fan and not have seen the 1982 action classic Blade Runner. If Alex London had spearheaded the screenplay, Harrison Ford might have been less ladies' man and more lavender. "As someone who loves sci-fi, I always wished there had been a hero who wasn't straight," London says. "Whom I could identify with. Who wasn't moping or had issues. Who just happened to be gay but was still a kick-ass, awesome hero." In his latest book and first YA novel, Proxy, London has done just that. He has created Syd, who isn't moping, who isn't there just to offer nance-era wit or be the well-groomed BFF of an unlucky-in-love female protagonist. Syd is a gay, sci-fi action hero with a tumultuous, futuristic backdrop that rockets from grit to luxury to desert to jungle.
Proxy begins in Mountain City, a staunchly divided dystopian settlement. The privileged few live in the Upper City, ensconced in tony mansions with all the requisite luxuries. Beyond their security gates lies the Lower City, where water is a scarcity and mutant rats are a surplus. Syd lives in the volatile grime of the Lower City, careful to stay under the radar and avoid unnecessary debt. In a society saturated with advertising, Syd alleviates any debt he accrues by being the proxy to a patron, an upper-echelon boy he has never met named Knox. As an homage to Sid Fleischman's The Whipping Boy, whenever Knox screws up, it's Syd who gets punished. Knox might break a vase or curfew, but it's Syd who gets battered with forced labor or electric shocks. When the authorities collect Syd to deliver an ungodly amount of shocks and sentence him to 16 years of hard labor, he learns that Knox has done something far more heinous than destroy home décor: Knox has killed someone. With this sentencing, Syd is beyond fed up with the proxy way of life and manages to escape. An electrifying obstacle course of kidnapping, conspiracy, revolution, horseback bandits and one nasty polar bear ensues.
Entertainment has come a long way since it felt groundbreaking for Grace to have Will as her gay best friend in prime time. Still, it takes a certain courage to simultaneously write a gay character and hope for commercial success. And it takes strength of purpose to ensure you're not just writing a gay character because he's gay, you're writing a character to be good. Syd is gay, but he's not in your face with his sexual orientation; he also doesn't go to great lengths to closet himself either. In other words, his character isn't defined by his sexuality, his sexuality is just part of his character. A kiss from a guy would be nice, but not getting shocked to the point of convulsing for someone else's wrongdoings is way better.
Syd isn't just not heterosexual, he's not white either. "I knew Syd wasn't white before anything; that was a conscious choice," London says. "I was just tired of every one of these big commercial action books about a white girl….That's not the world I live in, that's not the world most teenagers live in. So I knew I wanted to tell a story with a character who looked more like the world that I inhabit, that teens inhabit. He surprised me by being gay. I hadn't done that on purpose. I thought, ‘Can I really do this?' And then I thought, ‘Well, yes.' "
I ask London why he thinks there is such a bevy of pretty Caucasian girls in love-glazed action stories. "I think part of it is who works in publishing and who buys a lot of the books that get bought," London says. "I think we're getting to the point where you can have diversity and commercial success combined. I think editors are hungry for these stories [of diversity]. I think readers are hungry for these stories….There's so much hunger for stories that reflect the complex world of identities that we live in."
Eventually, Syd realizes that he is the ultimate key to a revolution, and selfish needs must be put aside in order to annihilate a system that should have already self-destructed. "One of the central struggles of the book is all of the characters figuring out how to go from being completely self-centered," London says. "To me, the heart of the book is all of these kids trying to figure out how to get out of themselves and think about something bigger and connect with each other." After we discuss a few of the nightmares the main characters endure (like flash floods, shotguns and wicked parents), London laughs and says, "It's a thriller—something horrible has to happen every few pages! I put those kids through hell. I felt really bad for them." What's bad for the characters is good for the reader, though: The raw tension, abominable conflicts and realistic class clashes keep the pages turning.
So did London meet with any obstacles in proposing a brown-skinned gay teen as his main character? "No one at the publisher ever said: Make it straight," he quickly responds. Writing a gay character wasn't the motivation behind his book though, a point made evident by several other prominent issues swirling around Syd and his friends. "There are a lot of big ideas in Proxy that I was playing with, but I really did write it because I love action thriller page-turners," London says. "I really hope that's what people take away from it. Looking back now, I realize, were I 16 and struggling and got to read a book with an action hero who kicked ass but was gay, then I could see that I could be an action hero. This aspect of my identity doesn't limit the kind of stories I get to be a part of. That would have been awesome! Hopefully this book gets to play that role for some young people."
Just before London and I start our second round of coffee, I ask what any self-respecting sleuth would ask the author of a to-be-continued novel. What's next for Syd? London laughs, seeing right through my question. "There will be romance," he says. Romance and, undoubtedly, a lot more freaky, sci-fi, page-turning rumbles.
Gordon West is a writer, illustrator and, sometimes, photographer living in Brooklyn. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and French macarons.