On the Power of Language

Words have power.

There is a reason why in fantasy narratives (and in many actual cultures), words are believed to have the ability to shape and change the world – words can become spells. Yet, we, as authors, already know this. They shape the worlds we create in our heads, those realms of the imagination that can have the power to shape the minds of others. 

Words are in the perpetual act of becoming.

We add meaning to words as we speak them, as we use them. Words shift and change and take on new contexts and associations. They grow. Words are not flat, stable things, but rather they are chimerical, transformative creatures, changing over time and in new contexts. Words are perpetually on the cusp of becoming something, and that process of becoming is shaped by they history and experience (just like a character).

Words are acts as well, evocations to that history, that chimerical process that shaped them. When we use words, we call up the ghosts of their past and apply them to new settings, to new ideas, and they absorb and consume these new ideas. Yet words are also things that are felt, that have bodily resonance – when we speak them, our mouths shape them, resonate with them; when we sign them (for sign language users), our bodies move with them, shaping them through our dance; even when we read them, we shape the words with our eyes. 

One of the activities that I do with my writing students is to introduce them to words that they aren’t familiar with, words that are new to them, and then invite them to explore the resonance of words in their bodies, examine how the words make them feel, what they are associated with in their minds. I use English words that are no longer used, words from other languages that don’t have adequate English translations, and ASL signed words to get them to feel words in different ways and to see the narratives that can come from word play. I then ask them to look at English words in a way that defamiliarizes them, looking at their sounds, their interplay, and the feel of them. 

Words become stories.

My writing students quickly discover that there are whole stories within words and that stories can spring from a particular word. Certain words can be touchstones for a character, aptly describing them in a single utterance. Certain words can be environmental, shaping a setting by their resonance with place. Certain words can contain an entire narrative because words have entire worlds inside of them. 

I frequently ask students to explore how words can create a character, looking at the meaning in a word and how it shapes a personality, a thought pattern, or way of being. 

Words have the power to shape the way we think – language patterns shape our process of thinking and the way we codify information. Words can be played with to inspire new ways of thinking, new ways of viewing and understanding the world around us. I often suggest that people play with words, play with their sounds and the ideas that they evoke in order to create narrative, to build new ideas. 

Consider the words that you use every day. Think about what ideas they embed in your consciousness, how they reflect you. Think about the way that the language you use shapes certain codes of thinking and understanding. Think about how words create you. 

When we write and when we read, words bounce around inside, bringing up images, patterns. Words change us. Consider the extra dimension a consideration of words brings to your reading process and think about how words can inspire a new way of writing. Consider the poetry of words and the magic that they evoke in us.

Old, But Not Obsolete

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Old Man Logan Vol 1: Berserker (Marvel, 2017).
By Derek Newman-Stille

So many narratives of ageing feature memory and reflection, an exploration of a life lived rather than a life in the process of being experienced. Like many representations of ageing, Lemire’s aged Logan finds himself in a world that isn’t the way it should be… but instead of this narrative being another story of an old man who has lost touch with the passage of the world, this is a tale of a man from the future visiting his past, a world that isn’t as it should be because it will all be destroyed. Logan experiences a dissociation from his world not because it has moved on without him, but because he moved on without it.

Logan has to relive his past, see friends and family that have died in his future and find his way in a world that no longer suits him. Logan has escaped from a post-apocalyptic future world, but one that has left its stain on him, changed him fundamentally and coloured the way he engages with this world from his own past.

Wolverine (Logan) has been defined by his ability to resist age, to resist health issues, and to resist ageing, but this Logan is one who feels the aches in his adamantium bones, who doesn’t heal as quickly, and who has now experienced ageing. This Wolverine’s life has been shaped by regrets and he now finds himself inexplicably in the past and able to do something about those regrets. His healing factor may be slowed down, but this is a Wolverine who needs to do a lot of healing.

To find out more about Old Man Logan Vol 1: Berserker, visit http://marvel.com/comics/series/20617/old_man_logan_2016_-_present

Old Enough to be Hurt

A review of Jeff Lemire’s “Old Man Logan: The Last Ronin” (Marvel Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

With the “Old Man Logan” series, Jeff Lemire has been playing with ideas of ageing, displacement, and the changes in identity that occur with the passage of time. This is a Wolverine who has been displaced from time from an apocalyptic future to a present he isn’t quite ready to face.

In “Old Man Logan: The Last Ronin”, Lemire explores the connection between the passage of time and regrets and Logan has had a long enough life to have a plethora of regrets. Logan finds himself back in Japan, a place he visited when he lived in the future and where he encountered a cult called The Silent Order that sought to claim Japan for its own and had envisioned him as simultaneously a foreign threat and a prophesized figure. Logan encounters The Silent Order again in the present with his memories of killing people in the future and seeks to divorce himself from the person he was in the future. In the present, he is filled with the regrets of his future life and tries to resolve things peacefully with The Silent Order, but the Order has a prophet who has seen what Logan will do in the future and is angry at the loss of his friends. This young, but powerful boy is plagued by the fear of his encounter with Logan in the future and tries to stop Logan before he destroys everything he cares about.

Lemire explores the way that fear, longing, and regret shape us, and the way that these accumulate over a lifetime in a way that transforms instincts into mirrors of the pain and suffering of a lifetime. Logan is a figure defined by pain, pierced as much by his guilt and regret as he is by his claws as they extend to deal with threats he feels to old to cope with. Logan is a man displaced, with nowhere to call home, and yet every place he visits is one he has already been to and already left enemies in. His long life means that he develops all of the conflicts of home, but doesn’t ever get to experience any of its comforts or connections.

To discover more about “Old Man Logan: The Last Ronin”, visit http://marvel.com/comics/series/20617/old_man_logan_2016_-_present

Persistence of Memory

A Review of M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia (Anchor Canada, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

vassanji nostalgia

Memory is powerful and it can be fleeting, but M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia is a tale of memory’s ability to persist. Vassanji writes a near future fiction story in which immortality has been achieved, but in this future, everyone who undergoes rejuvination (the age reversal process) simultaneously has the memories of their past life erased for the new life as a younger person. But, memories are hard to erase and occasionally these memories resurface. These memories are pathologized in this world and are considered a medical disease colloquially called “nostalgia”. Vassanji creates a world that fears its past, that tries for an eternal present.

 

Vassanji invites us into the political questions raised by technology. He invites us to explore what would happen in a world that had a “cure” for ageing. Rejuvenation creates a series of social divides: between the aged and the young, the rich and the poor, and between medical ideas and religious. The young feel as though they are not able to make their place in the world because of the proliferance of older people being returned to youth. They engage in protests with slogans like “Let them go! The Earth for the Young! Let the Fogeys Die!”, viewing the aged as getting in the way of young people. Only the most wealthy can afford rejuvenation and those who undergo it keep generating further wealth, creating a greater wealth disparity bet the rich and the poor. The poor are often also the disenfranchised young, who are unable to get jobs in a world where all of the best positions are already occupied. They perceive of the older generation as needing to make way for the new generations. Yet the young are not the only ones to feel detached from their lives. Many of the ‘rejuvies’ feel a sense of disconnect in their lives, a sense of detachment and not fitting in.

 

Memory in Nostalgia is shaped by medical discourse, constructed as a danger to people’s current identities, which are authored by medical doctors who give people a new background for their new lives after rejuvenation, lives changed from the ones they are seeking to forget. The lives of the rejuvies are authored, constructed, and artificial, a veneer over a personality that has been suppressed to create the new rejuvenated self. These past lives are a threat in this medical discourse, dangerously causing a collision of personalities in the rejuvenated person. They call it “Leaked Memory Syndrome” (LMS). Yet, religious systems also engage with ideas of past lives, and religious groups have perspectives on what happens after death. They protest the damage being done spiritually through the proliferation of rejuvenated people.

 

Vassanji brings critical attention to these clashes between groups by putting us into the perspective of a doctor who deals with constructing identities for people undergoing rejuvenation, with a specialty in treating case of LMS or nostalgia, Dr. Frank Sina. Sina’s beliefs are deeply embedded in him, making him a firm believer in the mastry afforded by science, an almost zealous believer in the power of the medicine to cure the world’s ills. But even Sina’s beliefs can be challenged and they shift when he meets a man, Presley Smith, whose LMD memories seem to resonate with him and lead to his obsession with this man’s past.

 

This is a world divided not just by rejuvenation, but also by other political systems, where the wealthy parts of the world are walled off from the poorer parts of the world. This is a world where the memory constructing ability of rejuvination provides the perfect systems of assimilation for those from other countries, rewriting people’s pasts – their politics, their ideologies, and their belief systems to turn them into ‘perfect citizens’. Vissanji writes a narrative of totalitarian power and the power of memory in a political system for preventing erasure.

 

To discover more about Nostalgia, visit http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/183221/nostalgia#9780385667173

To discover more about the works of M.G. Vassanji, visit http://www.mgvassanji.com/

Geek Girl Magic

A Review of Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life (First Second, 2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

in real life

 

Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life explores the complexity of geek girl life. Focusing on Anda, a high school student who finally finds her place in the MMORPG game Coursegold Online, Doctorow and Wang examine the flexibility of identities in an MMORPG-enabled world. Anda is a young woman who is able to explore her identity and knowledge of herself and her world through her online identity, creating an online persona that she sees as full of potential to go where her physical form can not. Over time, Anda starts to modify her own looks to reflect her online avatar more, exploring the critical question of what is “real” and whether there can be a “real” any more.

 

In Real Life explores aspects of MMORPGS like the uncritical racism involved in gamers assuming that anyone who is a non-English speaker is a ‘gold farmer’ (those who level up characters and then sell them to gamers for real money) and therefore not a “real” gamer. Anda has to confront her own racism about those believed to be gold farmers and has to deal with online bullying as a result. Anda discovers the power of the online world for developing community, but she also discovers the potential of online communities for developing factions and fracturing groups of people.

 

In Real Life is a graphic novel that questions ideas of reality and points out that we create our realities out of the texts we have been given – whether these are online fora or whether they are social assumptions that have been provided to us as texts for interpreting our world. Doctorow and Wang illustrate that reality is a fluid concept and one that is constantly being reshaped and changed as new understandings and ways of interpreting the world become available. They point out the reality-questioning potential of online gaming.

 

To discover more about In Real Life, visit http://www.firstsecondbooks.com/

Ageing Into The Future

A review of Lazarus Risen edited by Hayden Trenholm and Michael Rimar (Bundoran, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Hayden Trenholm and Michael Rimar’s collection of fiction Lazarus Risen constructs itself as a collection of stories about the biological singularity, exploring “dreams of immortality and eternal youth”, yet most of the stories in the collection bring attention to that spectre that always haunts ideas of youth – old age. This is an anthology that is well-timed and extremely important as ageing gets codified in political policies and ideologies that largely examine ageing as a social burden. These stories provide a challenge to easy ascriptions of ageing and interrogate assumptions about ‘old age’. They provide a foundation for a genre of Ageing Futurisms, which is a genre we desperately need as our societal views of old age continue to be narrow. Lazarus Risen explores the complexities of ageing and the potentials that exist within ageing bodies and identities. 

Most of the tales that we encounter, whether through speculative fictional lenses or through realist genres, tend to focus on youth, constructing 20-somethings as the harbingers of “relateable experiences”. Our social favouritism toward youth feeds our social obsession with staying young, holding all of the negative implications for those who don’t fit this social mould of youth. Ageing people tend to be constructed as, at best, inconveniences, and at worst, are erased because they are seen as being non-contributors. We create social ideas that the aged have been erased from our society by virtue of not contributing in the economic ways that we construct as normative, ignoring all of the ways that ageing people contribute to society and add to our social growth.

It is fascinating that so many speculative fiction texts erase ageing people from their narratives (or cast them in stereotypical roles such as the role of the mentor or the burden to the narrator) because age is something that is fundamentally connected to a major theme in speculative fiction – change… and age is powerfully connected to the idea of the future and the passage of time, which SF frequently interacts with.

We pretend in our society that “coming of age” happens only once – in the transition between childhood and adulthood, yet we are ALWAYS coming of age, always moving from one age category to the other and shifting and changing to accommodate those movements. Lazarus Risen provides a space for examining the way that we keep coming of age, that people keep shifting and changing over the course of their lifespan. 

Like any SF collection, Lazarus Risen deals with the social changes that come with technological changes, but the tales in this collection centre the human (or inhuman) experiences that come with these changes, exploring how “what it means to be human” is something that always has to run after our technological imagination, constantly redefining itself. It is the focus on the human experience that makes this collection a powerful one, and it is the focus on age that makes it one that is both timely and necessary. Lazarus Risen makes readers confront their insecurities about the spectre of ageing, makes us examine that biological clock that keeps ticking away, reminding us that change is inevitable and that change comes with constant new wonders, excitements, and, yes, challenges.

To read reviews of some of the short stories in this collection, visit:
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/03/19/a-plague-of-immortality/
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/03/16/mecha-care/
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/03/07/ageing-usefully/
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/03/02/a-wilde-ride-through-time/
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/02/27/split-apart-for-new-perspectives/

To find out more about Lazarus Risen, visit Bundoran Press’ page at http://www.bundoranpress.com/product/1/Lazarus-Risen

The Cost of Living

A review of Holly Schofield’s “Generation Gap” in Lazarus Risen (Bundoran, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Increasingly age is being associated in our society with an economic threat. We are hearing more and more uses of terms like “the grey tide” to illustrate the perceived threat that an ageing population represents. Age is constructed in ideas of cost and ageing bodies are assumed to be unproductive bodies. The focus of a lot of the rhetoric of threat is the perceived cost of health care for ageing people, and the assumed impact this will have on the overall economy.

Holly Schofield’s “Generation Gap” begins with a character who is threatened by health care debt. We are told by Brendan’s medi-bot that “Personal health care debt exceeds five hundred thousand dollar maximum. Re Federal Act #AJ4448802-Mar 2060. Confirmation #28495488988. Euthenasia approved.” The medi-bot prepares to end Brendan’s life because he is now deemed to be too expensive to keep alive. Schofield explores the interaction between the perception of aged bodies as unproductive, the notion of health care for the elderly as expensive, and the danger of the right to die. In the world Schofield imagines, current issues around the construction of ageing as unproductive and economically threatening have exacerbated to the point where aged people are viewed as disposable. Schofield opens up a dark window into our future if we continue to construct ageing as an economic waste.

Schofield challenges other features that popular culture tends to associate with ageing, like the assumption that aged people have issues with memory and Brendan is able to save himself from involuntary euthenasia by giving him a job providing information about the past to a young person named Jonno, who is trying to recover his family’s past. Schofield challenges the stereotype of aged people not wanting to participate in society by illustrating Brendan’s joy at having a job and feeling like he can contribute to the next generation. He is ecstatic about having a job that he is capable of doing well and that caters to his abilities.

But in addition to the questions and cautions that Schofield raises about the social construction of ageing, she also creates a story about family divisions and intergenerational differences, pointing out the complexities of different relationships to identity and the body between generations.
To discover more about Holly Schofield’s work, visit https://hollyschofield.wordpress.com/
To find out more about Lazarus Risen, visit Bundoran’s site at http://www.bundoranpress.com/product/1/Lazarus-Risen