Beyond the Pale (Vampire)

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

One type of vampire story tend to flood the market – the sexy male vampire who is iridescently pale, wealthy, and feeds on women in an erotic embrace. Silvia Moreno-Garcia has again and again demonstrated her love for horror, but also her desire to shift the tired old narratives, dust off the layers of racism and sexism to find new narratives. Certain Dark Things is a revitalization of the vampire narrative, allowing it to kick off the detritus of the past to tell some new stories. 

Moreno-Garcia sets her story in Mexico City in contrast to the vast number of vampire narratives set in the United States or the United Kingdom. Her vampires are not the pale, white European figures of vampire romances, or, at least not all of them are. Her narrative focuses on Atl, a Tlahuihpochtli, an indigenous vampire of the Mexico region who can trace her lineage back to the Aztecs. Moreno-Garcia’s vampires have multiple different subsets, each with different characteristics and hailing from different geographies, and often the only thing they share in common is their hunger for blood. There are European vampires in her narrative, calling themselves Necros and fitting most of the characteristics of the vampires that generally populate the pages of paranormal romance novels, but these vampires are not sexy, otherworldly beings. They control human beings through their bite, which can turn human beings into slaves, without any will. 

Moreno-Garcia explores displacement narratives in her interactions between the Tlahuihpochtli and the Necros, exploring the way that the European Necros brought diseases with them when they came to Mexico and have been trying to push the Tlahuihpochtli out of their native landscapes. She makes connection between this displacement by Europeans and historical displacements of human indigenous populations by Europeans. The Necros brought pathogens with them that made the blood of many humans intolerable to the Tlahuihpochtli, and with the rise of a new disease Croneng’s disease, the government has decided to create sanitation groups whose goals seem to be as much about harassing the homeless population and institutionalizing people with disabilities as they are about dealing with the spread of a pathogen. 

Health is a huge part of Moreno-Garcia’s narrative. Uniting the vampire with ideas of health is powerful since the vampire is often a figure of excessive health, and yet, in most vampire narratives, vampirism spreads like a pathogen. In Certain Dark Things vampirism is an ethnicity, a genetic group and cannot be passed from one person to another, but that doesn’t eliminate the health narrative Moreno-Garcia explores. She examines the role of institutionalization and its impact on populations in poverty, exploring the way that health and wealth often go hand in hand. The bite of the Necros vampires, although not able to turn someone into a vampire, does take away all of their agency, turning them into a slave through a viral contagion in their saliva that will eventually kill the human host. All vampire species are hard to kill and long-lived, but one of the other vampire species is especially known for its interaction with health – the Revenant. The Revenant subspecies is exceptionally long-lived, and can feed on both blood and the life force of others. These Revenants seem to de-age when they are infused with enough life force, appearing younger, and in creating them, Moreno-Garcia plays with the traditional narrative of the person who gains eternal youth by becoming a vampire. These vampires always look somewhat disabled no matter how young they become, still having a hunched appearance, complicating ideas of the excessive ability of the vampire and the ableism that often comes along with this portrayal of the vampire. Many of the governments in the world of Certain Dark Things perceive of vampires as a plague even though they are a racial group, and this complicated relationship between ideas of health, illness and race bring attention to the way that in our own world there is often an assumption that illnesses come from outside, which affects travel, immigration, and often means that any pathogens that arise are eventually believed to come from other regions. 

Certain Dark Things doesn’t create a romantic story of wealth, but rather explores poverty. Her central human character, Domingo, is a street teen who has made his living collecting and purposing garbage. Domingo relishes his invisibility, the way people work to ignore him and pretend that he isn’t there because it is easier to do so than to admit that there are homeless young people. Yet, in pointing out the invisibility of homeless Youth, Moreno-Garcia brings it to the reader’s attention, reminding us of how hard we work to ignore social inequalities. This is a story of drug cartels, poverty, government and police abuses of power, and the monstrousness of corruption itself, which is a far more dangerous monster than Atl or her vampire cousins. But, she does use the figure of one Necros vampire, Nick, to point out the excesses of privilege that come with wealth and whiteness, having Nick frequently prioritize himself over anyone else, having him eat in excess, and showing the ease with which he exercises his power over women around him, particularly marginalized women. 

Certain Dark Things disrupts the Eurocentrism of vampire tales, providing an under-represented tale that needed to be told. 

To discover more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, visit her website at http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ 

Valuing Care

A review of Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As a society, we undervalue care and undervalue care workers. We tend to assume that people who do care work are doing it because they like helping people and we assume that the job is compensation enough. Even in the home, we de-value family members who provide care, viewing their care work as something that doesn’t need compensation. Care work is consistently treated as though it is not real labour and isn’t valued or compensated for. 

Part of this lack of value for care work stems from patriarchal beliefs that position care work as a feminine labour and therefore de-value it the same way that patriarchy de-values anything viewed as feminine. 

Care work has been in need to reimagining for some time. It has needed a fundamental disruption of social assumptions and a re-evaluating of the meaning of this labour. Using the medium of speculative fiction, a genre devoted to asking questions, Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound brings together stories that critically interrogate the way that we imagine care and care-giving. These stories take a broad exploration of what care can mean, looking at parental care, long term care homes, social responsibilities for care, foster care, maternal care, elder care, medical care by doctors and nurses, the care relationships of pets, and even the care roles of insectile species’ (since care isn’t just a human trait). These stories examine complexities of care that are critical to this culture moment such as what is the value of care?, what difference does quality care make?, what is quality of life?, is care the role of home or the state?, what are the gendered dynamics of care-giving?, why do we de-value care-givers?, how much responsibility should parents have in the care of their children?, and what is the role of robotics in care? These are all critical questions that are in need of complex and creative answers and The Sum of Us invites readers to think critically about them. It doesn’t introduce easy answers about care-giving, but instead invites readers to explore often contrary ideas about care, asking readers to come up with their own critical questions and creative answers to the meaning of care.

These are tales of robots, aliens, insects, future wars, supervillains, nanites, other worlds, plagues, and mutants, but at their core, these are all tales about what caring means, and these are real, human questions. They may be explored through the lens of the alien, but they are fundamentally about human values and what care means to us. Sometimes the only way to get us to ask critical questions about the way that we value (or de-value) caring labour is to project our modes of care onto another, onto the future, onto another society, onto the inhuman so that we ask ourselves “if this makes us upset when we see an alien doing it, what does it mean that we are doing the same thing?”

To read some of the reviews of individual stories in this collection, see my review of:

Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/25/skating-on-the-thin-ice-of-sports-masculinity/

Juliet Marillier’s “The Gatekeeper”

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/the-reaper-cat/

Edward Willett’s “The Mother’s Keeper”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/08/insectile-intimacies/

Sandra Kasturi’s “The Beautiful Gears of Dying”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/06/exposing-the-caregiver-within-the-human-suit/

A.M. Dellamonica’s “Bottleneck” 

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/06/10/caregiving-at-war/

Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Dreams as Fragile as Glass” 

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/breakable/ 

Kate Story’s “Am I Not A Proud Outlier”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/28/what-is-means-to-be-an-outsider/
To find out more about The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/ 

What is Means to Be An Outsider

A review of Kate Story’s “Am I Not A Proud Outlier” in Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In a hive, dance is crucial. Dance is the way that decisions are made, but dance is also a way of expressing dissent. Kate Story’s “Am I Not A Proud Outlier” is a tale of a space hive with typical bee like characteristics. This hive is moving from planet to planet, and colonizing as they move, but something has gone wrong in the hive. A space that is supposed to be unified has become disrupted and violence has broken out between different factions leaving a Queen without support. This hive has a caste system like most bee hives do, with certain members specialized to fulfill certain roles like building, nursing, and cleaning. But, this hive also has a role that is meant to present alternatives, the Outlier caste, a small group of isolated people who bring up ideas and perspectives that the harmony of the hive hasn’t considered. They are built to be contrarians and to be introverts.

Outlier 31’s role is to resist that sense of security and safety that comes with belonging, to counter the uniformity of the rest of the hive to open up questions about the status quo and challenge unilateral thinking. In Outlier 31, Kate Story creates the quintessential image of the artist. She points out that the role of the artist is to live in a state of intellectual curiosity and uncertainty, always willing to push boundaries into alternatives that others may not think of. She reminds the audience that art has an important role to disrupt easy answers and ask new, more potent questions. But, perhaps more importantly, Story connects art to the act of care-giving, the focus of the “Sum of Us” anthology, pointing out that artists provide an important caring role in their acts of critical questioning. 

Outlier 31 thinks of words that have not been used before, brining the power of language to the task of re-assessing meaning in her hive, she dances histories that the hive prefers to keep secret in their desire to present one unified historical narrative. Outlier 31 is an essential part of a community, but is forever kept separate from it. Yet, things change in times of crisis. Outlier 31 must simultaneously take on care-giving roles (roles that are suited for other members of the hive like the Nurses), changing her fundamental make-up, while still being true to her need to be contrarian. 

To find out more about the work of Kate Story, visit http://www.katestory.com

To discover more about Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2

Radical Acts of Beauty

A review of Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” in Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2” (Edited by Hope Nicholson, Alternative History Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is a comic about resilience and transformation, highlighting the desire of a two-spirit boy to change the world around him through acts of beauty. Despite homophobia, environmental degradation, and all forms of hate against each other, Strange Boy seeks to heal others by bringing beauty into the world. Like many people who seek to bring healing and beauty into the world, especially if they are marginalized, Strange Boy experiences violence. He discovers that a lot of the violence from the people around him is an externalized form of self loathing, their hatred of themselves projected outward toward anything beautiful, anything that represents a reminder of joy that they can’t imagine themselves having.

“The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is an act of beauty in a harsh and close-minded world, it is Daniel Heath Justice’s act of transformative magic, sharing a story of transformation with a world that needs beauty. It is a tale that reminds us that no matter how much violence the world inflicts on us, we can speak back by bringing beauty into the world. Our acts of art can be transformative, remaking the world and opening up others to express their beauty. 

Beautifully illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre, “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is filled with images of movement and light. It is a comic that can show the interiors of bodies and make even our bleeding, organic insides things that can be filled with a certain magnificence and wonder. Alvitre is able to capture the etherial quality of hummingbirds, their darting magnificence.

The intwined arts of Daniel Heath Justice and Weshoyot Alvitre add to the message of the story, emphasising the focus of the story on collaborative arts and the ability of one form of art, one story, to resonate in another.

To discover more about Daniel Heath Justice, visit http://imagineotherwise.ca

To discover more about Weshoyot Alvitre, visit https://www.facebook.com/Weshoyot/

To find out more about Moonshot Vol 2, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1350078939/moonshot-the-indigenous-comics-collection-volume-2

Skating on the Thin Ice of Sports Masculinity

A review of Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick” in The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Speculative Fiction stories about hockey are relatively rare in English Canada, although Amy Ransom has illustrated that they are a popular motif in Quebecois SF. That makes Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick” a rare treat, particularly since it deals with the complexities of hockey culture and its complex relationship to gender and disability. 

Humphrey’s story explores hockey culture from the outside, examining it from the perspective of a care-giver who is providing support to a hockey player with a disability. Reshma is the trainer for a service dog named Zuzu, whose specialization is sensing the onset of seizures. In this near-future fiction story, Zuzu’s abilities are augmented by a collar that assists her in monitoring the health of her human. 

Sports masculinity tends to be hostile to the idea of disability, viewing athletes with disabilities as less capable, and often as somewhat feminized, particularly when the require the use of care-givers. Sports masculinity is about hyper ability. Although a team sport, hockey, like many sports, relies on the idea that athleticism is a product of individualism, an independence that pretends that the star athlete has accomplished everything on their own. The idea of needing care and support can disrupt this illusion. Humphrey explores this in her story by examining the complex secrecy around hockey star Ty’s disability. The hockey association wants to keep Ty’s disability a secret, projecting him as a star that doesn’t need support, and even his team engages in the complex veil of secrecy, pretending that they don’t know about Ty’s seizures even when they have witnessed them. Secrecy is part of the cohesiveness of the team and the maintenance of the team’s sense of sports masculinity, willfully ignoring anything that doesn’t match their ideas of ability.

“Number One Draft Pick” simultaneously places women in nurturing and supporting roles and men in active sports roles while also pointing out that this dichotomy is totally artificial and that the gendered reactions around sports are social constructs, created by the team and their supports to model the idea of the independent athletic hero. Humphrey uses science fiction and disability to complicate sports masculinity, pointing out the complexities in the construction of athleticism and its relationship to the body. 

To discover more about Clare Humphrey’s work, visit http://www.clairehumphrey.ca

To find out more about The Sum of Us, visit the Laksa Media Group website at http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/

Insectile Intimacies

A review of Edward Willett’s “The Mother’s Keeper” in The Sum of Us by Susan Forest and Lucas Law (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Edward Willett takes a different perspective than many of the authors in the collection “The Sum of Us”, a collection about caregiving, and, instead LITERALLY dehumanizes caregiving. Instead of focusing on caregiving among humans, Willett focuses on the idea of insectile care, specifically that of a sentient alien race that has insectile characteristics. 

Care is an important part of most colony insects that have a queen. In these colonies, various insects specialize in certain duties to ensure that the queen is able to continue reproducing and providing new members for the hive. These roles can be varied from protecting the hive from intruders, bringing food, removing waste, carrying larvae, cooling eggs, and maintaining the queen’s needs. 

Willett’s “The Mother’s Keeper” centres around the growth of a young member of a hive society named Praella, whose caring role changes as she ages, but centres around the care she needs to provide for the Mother (who takes on an insect queen role). The Mother of this hive has a body that extends throughout all parts of the colony, and is needed for all aspects of life in the colony. The only problem is that Praella is witnessing the end of the Mother’s long life, something that her hive is unprepared to deal with. The Mother is gradually rotting throughout the city and the hive begins to dissipate, but Praella maintains her adherence to the Mother, staying with her through all of her changes even though she does not speak to Praella. 

Although “The Mother’s Keeper” focusses on an insectile relationship, an adherence and total dependency on the hive queen and her total dependence on her children, Willett explores very human relationships, examining the way that our relationship to caregiving changes as we age, and the complexities involved in caring and, particularly, in being a sole caregiver. His narrative involves more than a civic duty to offer care, but, rather, a biological impulse, a fundamental NEED to offer care, which allows the reader to interrogate ideologies of caregiving in our society and contemplate what care could mean. 

To discover more about Edward Willett, visit http://edwardwillett.com/
To discover more about The Sum of Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/

Exposing the Caregiver within the Human Suit

A review of Sandra Kasturi’s “The Beautiful Gears of Dying” in The Sum of Us (Laksa Media group, 2017, edited by Lucas Law and Susan Forest).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Using second person, Sandra Kasturi positions the reader as a caregiver AI caring for an ageing woman in her story “The Beautiful Gears of Dying”. Kasturi explores the relationship between human beings and artificial intelligence (AI), which is significant since robotic assistants are currently being developed around the world with the idea that they may be able to help out in elder care. 

Rather than following what most authors exploring the relationship between human ageing and robots are doing, Kasturi examines ideas of intimacy and beauty between these two figures. Kastrui examines an ageing woman who is angry at the need to have a caregiver and hostile toward that caregiver, something that is normally not covered in tales about caregiving. She tells her caregiver that it can’t understand fundamental aspects of human experience and can only emulate ideas of beauty. 

Kasturi explores ideas of intimacy in caregiving, pointing out the relationship between trust, vulnerability and care when the unnamed elderly woman says to her robotic caregiver “You know my body better than any lover, better than any doctor, maybe better than my future embalmer”. There is something uncomfortably intimate about that statement, revealing to the reader that they will encounter this intimacy if they need a caregiver and will likely have to be exposed to someone who they don’t know. 

In order to reverse some of that vulnerable intimacy, the woman asks her caregiver to take off its artificial skin, to expose its mechanical realness under the human suit it is wearing. Yet, Kasturi illustrates that there is a comfort in that shared intimacy, a safety in seeing one’s caregiver revealed under all of the artificiality, even if all that is underneath the caregiver persona is wires and gears. 

To find out more about Sandra Kasturi, visit http://www.sandrakasturi.com

To discover more about The Sum of Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/