The Secret Guide to Keeping Supernatural Secrets

A review of Sierra Dean’s The Secret Guide to Dating Monsters (Samhain Publishing Ltd., 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Named “Secret” and a person at the crossroads of many secrets, Secret McQueen is a bounty hunter you will enjoy.  Secret is a hybridised half vampire, half werewolf and treated as a second class citizen by the vampires she works for due to only sharing half of her identity with them. She would be treated even worse if they knew that the other half was not human, but the creature that vampires view as totally loathsome – the werewolf. In a world where vampires and werewolves are hidden from the public, Secret stands at the bridge between two hidden groups, blanketed in human disbelief for the supernatural. In order to keep the existence of the supernatural from humanity, Secret has become a bounty hunter for the vampires, suppressing any risks of exposure. She is a guardian and gatekeeper of whispered supernatural truths.

Secret’s human friend Mercedes has been able to find out about her werewolf side, but has an intense hatred for vampires, whose existence she has discovered. Her intolerance forced Secret to repress and suppress her vampiric side around one of her few friends.

In The Secret Guide to Dating Monsters, Sierra Dean deals with issues of being an inter-racial person, abstracting the social pressures encountered by inter-racial people onto the inter-monstrous figure of Secret McQueen. Like many inter-racial people, she is trapped between her identities, suspended in a place of intolerance by both sides where she is forced to find her own identity, and often hide aspects of herself. If the racist vampire council knew about her werewolf side, she would experience further workplace discrimination (which she is already experiencing for being only half vampire). She is constantly forced to “pass”, to pretend to be fully something that she is not  – whether it be human, werewolf, or vampire. She is trapped in a constant need to pretend, to act, and to only express parts of her dual heritage.

Secret finds she has difficulty finding dates since she can never be totally honest with a lover, always having to hide some part of her identity from groups intolerant toward inter-racial people. She even notes at the start of the narrative “As a general rule, people don’t like to date monsters”, opening the story to the challenges involved in having to play something one is not.

The theme of playing identity, and performing identity is further expressed by the person Secret is sent to hunt, an actor who plays vampire roles in Hollywood movies… who happens to actually BE a vampire. Here is a character who is playing an actor playing himself, a lie trapped inside a truth. The actions of this vampire, abusing his power to control women and using his vampiric gaze to take away the decision-making abilities of the women he tries to seduce, he risks exposing the secrets of the vampiric world in addition to taking away the identity and selfhood of his victims. Secret has to suppress the risk of exposure posed by this vampire, but she takes a secret pleasure in doing so because slaying this vampire would do society as a whole a favour.

You can explore Sierra Dean’s work on her website at http://www.sierradean.com/ . You can purchase The Secret Guide to Dating Monsters in ebook format from Amazon, iTunes, or Kobo or by visiting the Samhain Publishing website at http://store.samhainpublishing.com/sierra-dean-pa-1639.html

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It’s the End Of The World As We Know It, and I Feel Speculative

A review of OnSpec #90, Vol 24, No. 3 Fall 2012 Apocalypse Special Issue.

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

By Derek Newman-Stille

On Spec, with their combination of SF stories and non-fiction SF essays and interviews, never fails to be entertaining, but the special issue on the apocalypse was even more fantastic than most. It was as thought-provoking as it was entertaining, reminding readers of their own culpability in creating the potential for a destroyed world as well as their responsibility for making the world a better place.

The layout of the volume was, itself, fascinating and had the ability to draw the reader in on multiple levels. This was most in evidence by the interweaving of Kevin Cockle’s “Timeline” (a recounting of some of the history of economic theory as well as a postulation on the future of economic policy and where this will lead) throughout various narratives – every few pages, elements of Cockle’s timeline would appear at the bottom of the page, threading itself through the overall narrative of the On Spec volume and tying stories together.

As a disability scholar who does work in fantastic fiction, I was particularly taken with Camille Alexa’s story “All Them Pretty Babies”, which challenged social ideas of beauty in the post-apocalyptic future. Unlike many authors who revel in the horror of the different body, who present the “deformed” body as something that should evoke shock and disgust, Camille Alexa puts the reader into the position of her narrator, Esme, who collects babies that have been mutated by bio weapons that have damaged the future. Esme is an incredible character, able to see the beauty of diversity, seeing disability and difference as markers of beautiful bodies. She defines beauty as difference from the mundane normalcy of the human body that is preferred by most of society – Esme sees beauty in extra eyes, legs, arms, and conjoined bodies. She is dismayed that she is so boring, with only two legs, two arms, and two eyes: “Bonita’s so pretty, she probably never walk. Not even walk like New Mama, who hunch over cane and hobble like on third leg – though she’s not that pretty, what with her having only two like most” (6).

Despite the human race suffering because there are too few human beings remaining after the bombing, the people of the future preserved cities are abandoning children that they view as deformed, trying to stick to an ideal of what the “normal” human being should be.  People in haz mat suits come out to the destroyed fields to leave babies to die because of their biological difference, while worrying about the future of human fertility. Esme and her group go through the fields to rescue these abandoned children of a humanity that fears biological difference, telling these children how beautiful they are for their diversity from bodily norms. Esme and her group of abandoned children are trying to make the world outside of the city livable again while the city-dwellers consistently deny the changes that they have wrought. The city dwellers waste human life because the life forms they encounter don’t conform to their notions of beauty.

Camille Alexa provides a commentary on the ableist (able-bodied centred) world that we currently live in. She creates an exaggerated ableist future to point to issues regarding biological diversity and disability in our current world. Disabilities are made more prevalent and occurring more often, and people with disabilities face even more discrimination – having their lives and rights taken away completely rather than facing the likelihood of facing a life of reduced rights, government control, and the medicalised body. Her future population tries to euthanize functioning human bodies because they differ from a socially determined norm and they justify these actions as humanitarian because they cannot imagine people living with diverse bodies. Rather than shifting their own notions of what is bodily acceptable, they eliminate difference and further regulate and control the body.

Ideas of the danger of birth continue into Daniel LeMoal’s short story “Destroyer”, where small elements of future populations have developed the ability to project dreams into the minds of others. When a child begins to show an increased ability to control the minds around him, he is seen as a biological threat. Like Camille Alexa’s story, this apocalyptic narrative focusses on the danger embodied in the future – represented by children. Apocalyptic narratives are fundamentally about the future, and, therefore tales about children and the potential embodied in future generations brings attention to the impact we have on the future of the world.

Karl Johanson’s “Frats and Cheers” is probably the most terrifying narrative in this volume for me since it shows a future population that is so inundated with media manipulation that it has lost the ability to think for itself. His population is terrifying because it shows a magnification of the modern disinterest in challenging and questioning messages. His future population enjoys reality T.V. more than the actual reality of the world around them, and actively avoids interest in world affairs, while being content to have their messages fed to them. This is a narrative of the dangers of apocalyptic stupidity – truly terrifying.

Timothy Gerwing plays with ideas of religious apocalypse narratives and portrays a future that is visited by an avenging angel in his “Hog-Killing Weather”. Gerwing turns religious apocalyptic narratives on their end by creating an angel who punishes religious zealots as much as any others who show a fundamental inhumanity.

Al Onia, also playing with religious narratives of the apocalypse, presents us with four horsemen who are gathered together to fight the four horsemen of the apocalypse in “Knights Exemplar”. Despite their desire to save the world around them, they are subject to the social fear and hatred of outsiders that becomes magnified in times of crisis.

Douglas Smith’s “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” creates a different kind of religious narrative of the apocalypse when he presents the embodiment of Chaos and Order and their child, the Walker, who is seeking balance between these forces. Reality is crumbling as Order and Chaos seek to maintain their old status quo and prevent new changes in the world. This is a tale of epic love when a mortal gets caught between a battle of the gods. Smith reminds us that we have the potential to change the world around us and that self-sacrifice can be a means of making the world around us better.

Leslie Brown’s “Mesa at the Edge of the World” portrays a future in which the government has provided a method of euthanasia for any who want to commit suicide. Rather than putting funding into health care and psychological care programmes, the government has shown a willingness to ship people who seek suicide out into the desert so that they can hurl themselves into a vortex. Brown illustrates the treatment of people with psychological disabilities as disposable objects and inconveniences.

The apocalyptic narratives in this On Spec issue are not ones of futility, hopelessness, or loss, but are rather reminders of the importance of continuing a battle for social justice and a reminder that we have the potential to change the world around us, to fight the apocalypses that we continually create around us.

You can explore On Spec at their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ and pick up a copy of this apocalyptic issue since the world didn’t end after all. Thank goodness you will have enough time to read this before the next apocalypse comes along.

Year in Review: Speculative Fiction Versus Realist Fiction – from the authors

Alien mountieWell, we have had an amazing year in 2012 on Speculating Canada…. one could even describe it as a fantastic year. Although Speculating Canada has only been around since July, it has been an incredible opportunity to explore Canadian Speculative Fiction and explore the incredible amounts of knowledge that authors bring into the world and lens that they place on exploring social issues.

Re-reading all of the interview posts, I am reminded of how incredible these interviews were and the gems of information and insight that writers have provided. I hope you enjoy being re-enlightened by our authors. Every interview I have done has been an incredible learning experience for me.

claudegeo

Author photo courtesy of Claude Lalumiere

Claude Lalumiere:

”So many authors who work within realism do not realize that they are operating within the confines of a genre with very specific rules and tropes. I’m not a fan of realism’s hegemonic stature in literature and culture in general. There’s nothing inferior about romance (in the classical sense) or escapism. All fiction is literature, all fiction is art. That doesn’t mean that all of it is good, but there’s good stuff and bad stuff in all genres, including realism.

“Fantastic fiction (as I like to call it) does have the quality of seeming to have no restrictions whatsoever. And that journey into the unknown can be thrilling, dangerous, intoxicating, wondrous – or, best of all, all of that at once.”

“My fiction tends to ask questions, not provide answers.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/interview-with-claude-lalumiere/

Steve Vernon:

Steve Vernon with a beaver... so Canadian!!

Author photo courtesy of Steve Vernon

“Monster stories help instill the belief that the human spirit can will out and triumph over the power of evil.”

“I’ve long been fascinated with seeing how ordinary people deal with the face of evil. That’s who my favorite characters are – just regular downhome kind of people. I like to imagine them brave and wild and romantic and full of life – because we all have that potential buried deep inside ourselves. So – when I sat down to write Sudden Death Overtime I just took the toughest people I had ever dreamed of and threw them up against the forces of darkness.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/interview-with-steve-vernon/

Ian Rogers:

Ian Rogers Author Photo, courtesy of the author.

Author photo courtesy of Ian Rogers

“I’ve always said that if people are only interested in my work purely as entertainment, then I’m cool with that. I think every story needs to keep the reader amused as the first goal. If your story is full of theme and depth, but it’s boring as all hell, then who cares how deep your work is, or how much inner meaning there is, because no one’s going to bother to read it anyway! And quite frankly, if you are consciously trying to pound a message or meaning into your story, I assure you it’s going to come across that way to the reader and they will be turned off. Guaranteed. The best stories with meaning or theme or depth are the ones that allow the readers to come to those conclusions naturally and on their own terms.”

“When I write a story I’m trying to come up with something that, while entertaining, also makes some sort of sense. It doesn’t mean I believe in ghosts or monsters, but it’s important that my characters do. Part of building a world where these things exist is to cement them in the world I know.”

“I’ve always felt that it’s the little things, and the little “real” things, that truly make a story. Sometimes it’s realistic dialogue, sometimes it’s a strange habit of one of the characters. Whatever it is, it’s usually a small touch, but it goes a long way toward making the reader feel more at home in the story, and consequently more accepting of the fantasy you’re trying to give them.”

“I think most people have an inherent attraction to the fantastical. Ironically, the spec fic stories I like best are the ones that are rooted in some semblance of reality. The ones that seem like they could actually happen. In terms of horror fiction, I find that sense of realism adds to the feeling of terror and dread.”

“I think there’s more to horror fiction that a monster or a supernatural element. Lots of things that may not seem horrific on the surface can be turned into a horror story. That’s one of the great things about horror. It’s insidious in the way it can sneak into a story — a story that might not be neatly slotted in the Horror section at the local bookstore.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/interview-with-ian-rogers/

Nancy Kilpatrick:

Photo courtesy of Nancy Kilpatrick

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Kilpatrick

“We’ve become politically correct, which isn’t always repression.  Sometimes it entails a true acceptance of ‘other’, the ‘other’ being someone or something that is not us and previously was suspect and/or frightening.  Because we no longer see strangers as monstrous, we no longer see monsters as strangers.”

“I’m focused on readers first.  My readers are not run-of-the-mill people.  They are smart and like my dark take on material.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/interview-with-nancy-kilpatrick/

Paul Marlowe:

Author Photo courtesy of Paul Marlowe

Author Photo courtesy of Paul Marlowe

“There was a time when it was considered normal to imagine the future of Canada, and to work towards building that future. Now, with it more important than ever to imagine alternative futures, we avoid it, because taking the future seriously would require making drastic changes right now in the lifestyle of affluence and luxury we enjoy, and would require terrible sacrifices – like driving our cars less, or not taking that flight to Florida. We’ve grown used to thinking of sacrifice as someone else’s job.

“Speculative fiction has as one of its goals the imagination of alternative futures. It also reconsiders the past. Not infrequently it raises big questions. By sidelining it, and focusing exclusively on fiction dealing either with the present and the narrowly personal, or resuscitating yesterday’s controversies, we’re avoiding some of the major problems – like global warming, population, distribution of wealth, mass extinction, the ethics of technology, the role of government in pursuing the common good, the increasing alienation of people from their own governments, the individual vs the group, and threats to individual privacy – that will dominate history in the coming generations. While speculative fiction doesn’t exist simply to prophesy or to provide political stimulus, it offers the opportunity for those kinds of explorations.”

“By looking past immediate present experience at possible worlds, good SF can offer what is so needed but so little found: intelligent thought about the world beyond our own little rut. The problem it faces is whether anyone is interested in hearing what SF writers have to say, and whether – in the welter of distraction that we’re immersed in – stories make any real difference.”

“If SF is to have an influence not only on where Canada is heading, but on where humanity is heading, it will have to do something other than shock us will apocalyptic visions, since those have become entertainment. It will have to make us think.”

“If the books contain thought-provoking ideas, too, so much the better. In that environment, SF is not at such a disadvantage.”

“The criticism often levelled at SF by Lit types and by more literal-minded readers – that it is “mere escapism” – has less sting when directed at YA books because adults sometimes condescend to allow children the opportunity to indulge in frivolous pass-times, such as imagination.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/an-interview-with-paul-marlowe-about-the-wellborn-conspiracy-series/

IMG_2426

Author photo courtesy of Douglas Smith

Douglas Smith:

“I don’t really differentiate between the human and non-human characters. Writing a story for me means understanding my characters and telling the story via their journeys through it. An alien may be completely different from us in physiology, intelligence, culture, spiritual beliefs, and moral code, but all sentient creatures will be motivated by something, both as a race and as individuals. It’s just a matter of understanding what is important to a character.”

“If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue. I really see no limits. Rather, I think that SF&F offer more options for doing so than within the restrictions of mainstream mimetic fiction.”

“Fantasy or SF can use other worlds–future or alternate–to focus on aspects of our real world, our shared beliefs, our conflicting beliefs, our humanity, our inhumanity, our potential, our failings, to let us view ourselves through a different lens, at a slightly different angle. Speculative fiction, by the very nature of its unreality, can make us see our reality in ways that mimetic fiction cannot. How we relate to those views, which messages resonate with us as individual readers, can then tell us something about ourselves.”

“I think that the [Speculative Fiction] genre’s greatest power as a literature is, to paraphrase the great SF anthologist Damon Knight, to hold up a distorted mirror to our current reality, to focus on some aspect of our world which needs to change (in the writer’s opinion). It’s that “if this goes on…” type of story that allows SF to provide a social commentary in a way that mimetic fiction cannot.

“That’s the power of SF and fantasy (and I’d put SF as a specific subset of fantasy)–there are fewer (no?) limitations to the types of stories that I can tell. The stories still need an internal logic and consistency, but I’m not bound by any concerns of matching current reality. That is wonderfully freeing for a writer.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/interview-with-douglas-smith/

Kelley Armstrong:

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University's Alumni House

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University’s Alumni House

“The supernatural can be a way of showing people dealing with issues in a larger-than-life fashion. I often have issues of identity in mine—finding one’s true self, accepting the self, finding one’s place in society. Having a character deal with being, for example, a werewolf lets me do that in a fun and entertaining way.”

“Speculative fiction helps expand the world of possibilities. Readers—and students—see new possibilities for new ways of thinking and living. The fact that it takes place in a fantastical world often makes it easier to consider those challenges and issues, divorced from the emotional baggage of a reader’s own world or experience. For example, science fiction novels often include elements of racism—how does one alien race treat another—and that allows readers to consider the issues in an abstract way and then transfer those ideas over to the realm of their own world and experience.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/interview-with-kelley-armstrong/

Chadwick Ginther:

Author photo courtesy of Chadwick Ginther

Author photo courtesy of Chadwick Ginther

“People call speculative fiction “escapist,” as if that is a bad thing. I live a realistic life. Why would I want to spend my time writing about only the drudgery of everyday. I want things to happen. Things that couldn’t happen to me. But that doesn’t mean good prose has to be sacrificed for plot. With mythic fiction, and really all of speculative fiction, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can have an exploration of deep philosophical issues or the nature of humanity side by side with big, bold ideas and an action-packed read. I can’t think of another art form that blends the two sensibilities better than speculative fiction does. Besides which, all fiction is fantasy. Even if a writer is basing a story on real events or real people, they are inventing thoughts and feelings and the little details. Fiction by definition isn’t true, but it can hold truth—even when you’re writing about the god of lies.”

“I don’t think Mythology will ever stop being relevant. It was our ancestors’ way of trying to explain what they couldn’t understand. At their core, people have the same basic desires, faults and virtues as we ever have, some of us are kind, some jealous; we’ll always be able to see something of ourselves in these stories from the past. Otherwise the myths would have faded with their original tellers.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/chadwick-ginther-interview/

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Author photo courtesy of Karen Dudley

Karen Dudley:

“[Writing Speculative Fiction] can liberate you! I’ve written four contemporary mystery novels, and when I started to write Food for the Gods, it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to be limited by reality. Gods crashing dinner parties? No problem. Furies attacking the Athenian marketplace? Why not? It was incredibly freeing. As a writer, speculative fiction allows you to take your characters that much further. They’re still human, of course (well, most of them are), but you’re taking them beyond the normal human experience and seeing how they deal with it. It’s a lot of fun!

“At the same time, of course, speculative fiction has always been used to reflect or comment on contemporary issues and society through the creation of worlds that are different from our own, but still recognizable. While Food for the Gods isn’t intended to be political in any way, it still allowed me to address some timeless themes—including the trials of being an outsider in a foreign land; the need to escape the “sins of the father”; and the complex and sometimes treacherous relationship between people and their gods.”

“The truth is that mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes. These are not timeworn tales with nothing to say to us, because our fears and desires really haven’t changed since these stories were born. They illuminate us, they transform us. That’s why ‘old’ myths still resonate.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/interview-with-karen-dudley-about-food-for-the-gods/

Liz Strange:

Photo of Liz Strange (Courtesy of Liz Strange)

Author photo courtesy of Liz Strange

“The monster is romantic and sympathetic, because it lives in all of us. Human beings are complicated, challenging, frustrating, wondrous beings, capable of many things both inspiring and horrifying.”

“I like my readers to be entertained, first and foremost, but I also like to spark some interest in things they may never have thought of before. I like to intrigue, incite curiosity and challenge people to think outside their comfort zone. The world is a big place, full of wonder, mystery, beauty and misery.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/interview-with-liz-strange/

Helen Marshall:

Author Photo Courtesy of Helen Marshall

Author Photo Courtesy of Helen Marshall

“Weird fiction, at its best, unsettles us. Realist fiction can also do that, but that isn’t necessarily its goal. I love the idea of a kind of writing designed deliberately to shock, to surprise, to unbalance and unnerve. It has a kind of intensity to it, and it makes us consider ourselves from oblique angles rather than head-on.”

“For me ghosts are terrifying because they are us. What I see when I look at a ghost is myself. And so if the ghost is really just an image of your own future—that is, you when you are dead, the you that you can’t comprehend or imagine—then in some way you are also the ghost of your own future self. We leave things behind, and mostly those things are former versions of ourselves. It seems natural, then, that ghosts are also a figure for something that wants to be remembered, even if we want desperately to forget it.”

“What I try to do is find a bizarre premise and use it as a way into something that is deeply emotional: every new oddity ought to feel like a natural extension of the rules of the world. It feels like it fits. For me, the process of writing strange fiction is falling into a world where each new revelation comes with a shock—but also with a sense of recognition.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/interview-with-helen-marshall/

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Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu:

“The literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”

“Curiosity is a wonderful trait to cultivate. When you’re curious you step outside of yourself into a wonderful world. One of the things I re-learned from my son was how to stop and look. Really look, as in bend down on hands and knees and peer close, get dirty. Curiosity feeds our souls. It slows us down so we can pay attention. It teaches us to be interested in our world, to observe and feel. It helps us crawl outside the box, peer around corners into dark alleys where thrilling adventure lurks.”

“The science fiction genre is the pre-eminent literature of allegory and metaphor. By describing “the other” (what does not yet exist, what might never exist) science fiction writers describe “us”. Through our POV characters and their world’s reactions to the unknown.

“Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/interview-with-nina-munteanu/

Nancy Baker:

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Baker

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Baker

“At its best, horror and fantastic literature can show us the darkness that humans are capable of and to reveal that the reader shares that potential.  It can also show us that the “other” is sometimes as deserving of compassion as we hope that we are.”

“Vampire fiction has been used to look at issues of addiction, oppression, disease, predation, and sexuality.  It’s also been used just to scare the hell out of us.  Every new generation of readers and writers has the advantage of looking at what came before (from the classics such as Carmilla and Dracula to Salem’s Lot and Interview with the Vampire to Twilight and The Passage) and reacting to it, either by emulating it or turning it on its head.

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/interview-with-nancy-baker/

Gemma Files:

Author photo courtesy of Gemma Files

Author photo courtesy of Gemma Files

“Because I work primarily in the field of horror, the idea of the Alien—the Other—is a really integral one, one which underlies an amazing amount of human psychology. You see it all through history, and it’s not like it’s gone away: This impulse to say some people are different and therefore lesser, undeserving of sympathy, actively malign—people we can call animals, monsters, and feel perfectly fine about routinely trying to contain, police, punish or even exterminate. But the flip-side of this impulse is the realization that “monsters”, Others, Aliens are almost never as different from you as they seem. That you, in fact, are most often a monster’s “monster”.

“This is a hard lesson, but a useful one, and Speculative Fiction explores it constantly, over and over. And it does that, I believe, because people both know in their gut that it’s true yet hope against hope that it’s not. This tension drives almost everything, and it’s testing this tension which is Speculative Fiction’s most useful quality, potentially: Our ability to tell and re-tell ourselves metaphorical fables about the things that are happening all around us, set in some pleasantly distant future, past or alternative universe, which may possibly help us to make good decisions about the here and now.”

“Magic is a fantasy of ultimate power in a mainly-powerless world, but our own self-knowledge quotient means that we know the shadow lurks underneath everything—that whatever good we do by magic means is bound to sour, especially if improperly paid for. We’ve all read most of the same fairytales, so the principles always seem familiar: Horror is fluid, and just like in folklore, the general principle of horror is not only that things can always change, but that if—when—they do, it’ll probably be something that you did which is the cause of that change. Which is sort of positive, in a way…therapeutic, almost. Monstrosity is not a permanent state, or doesn’t have to be, so long as one understands but doesn’t excuse one’s own nature and takes responsibility for one’s own actions.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/interview-with-gemma-files/

Jerome Stueart:

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

“Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale societal consequences.  I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.  Silent Spring is a “speculative novel” written as nonfiction by Rachel Carson with such an apocalyptic vision of the dangers of DDT and other chemicals we were putting on crops and in the air—with real evidence– that it scared people into regulation.  Carson used speculative tools to give reason to turn the boat around.

“Unfortunately, speculation in the wrong hands can just be fear-mongering.  Recent commercials against Obama speculated a world four years from now full of apocalypse!  Without any evidence.  It was cheap scare tactics, but they worked on some people who couldn’t extrapolate from evidence, or who couldn’t question the premises or the evidence.  I saw that in both political parties.  If we don’t “produce” thinking minds—in every place in society—fear mongering will work, evidence won’t count.  That scares me.

“Climate Change has to find a way to alert people to change without becoming alarmist—but we have a society less-inclined to think for themselves now, and less-inclined to value knowledge and preventative measures.  We’re all about reacting now.  We’re all about consuming.  We’re living like it’s the last days on Earth and we want our feast.  Anyone who says we have to “cut back” which is the message of climate change—restraint—is taking away “our fun.”  We are such a Mine Culture, not a Mind Culture.  We may live together, but we don’t think together.

“I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom starting with Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change series, Science in the Capital—or his Three Californias. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like.  What do they WANT society to be like?  And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us?  Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely. “

“I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable.  We get in our ruts.  If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it.  LOL.  But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.

“The danger of SF, though, is that it inherently likes NOT so positive paths.  They present more of what readers desire: conflict, danger, suspense.  So we get much more apocalyptic SF which shows us what NOT to do, but rarely shows us HOW to get to the change.

“The challenge for SF writers is to imagine us a path to get to the change and show it as a positive one.  And that I think is the most fun.  Star Trek cheated a bit by shooting so far in the future that all those things like poverty, greed, violence, were all gone by the 24th century.  We’ve been spending the last 45 years trying to figure out how Gene thought that might happen!  But at least it modeled diversity for us.  I recall Nichelle Nichols’ wonderful story of her encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. just before she was about to quit the show.  He encourages her to stay on because he too believes that SF is the literature of change.  He saw her presence on the bridge as a model for behavior and hope for a positive future beyond Race.  So in this way, SF is a model for change—it models good behavior, even if it doesn’t have all the answers.”

“Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens.  SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems.  Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society.  It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.

“But again, it also has a chance to be more society-scaled prescriptive—and model societal behavior and model change that realistic fiction can’t.  SF is the quantum reality of realistic fiction.  While realistic fiction might concentrate on individuals and their changes, SF goes wide to take the choices and changes of a large group.“

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/interview-with-jerome-stueart/

Noah Chinn:

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

“You’re not constrained by reality to get your message across. You could write a story about banning books in a realistic fiction story set in modern day, sure.  But what if you wanted to take it further to get your point across? It would be of hard to write something with the impact of Fahrenheit 451 without creating a society in which all books are banned.  You need to think not only of why, but what form that world would take, how people live their lives, the consequences of that culture on people’s behavior, and so on.  You need to create a world that doesn’t exist, but you can believe could – even if only for the duration of the story.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/interview-with-noah-chinn/

Haunting Lullabies

A review of Holly Bennett’s Redwing (Orca Book Publishers, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In her novel Redwing Holly Bennett follows the life of two young musicians who have both been the victims of loss. Rowan has lost his entire family to the plague and has survived. At age 15, he has been forced to search for employment, busking as a musician in small cities. Without even knowing it, he is haunted by the ghost of his sister, a lingering presence that seeks to lend a spectral comfort to his lonely existence.  Her voice is hidden to his own internal silence, the depths of loneliness within him, until he meets a young competitor for his musical busking, a boy named Samik.

Samik has also been the victim of loss, having to move away from his family when he defends his brother from a warlord who is trying to kill the boy and accidentally wounds the warlord. In order to escape his inevitable fate, Samik travelled to a new land, Prosper, a place that he considers backward.

These two boys, brought together by their love of music and by their experience of loss overcome cultural differences and the snobberies built into them by the cultural void between them. They find a common place, forging a family from a friendship. Bennett explores the ability of people to create a common voice through music, creating a sense of family and learning to move past the horrors of the past by exploring other possibilities of family, united by the musical voice. Rowan’s sister haunts the background of this narrative, her voice only given form through Samik (who has the gift of the Sight and can see spirits) who communicates the existence of Rowan’s sister’s ghost to him, and in times of peril when Rowan hears the spectral voice of his sister helping him to save his own life or that of his new family. The ghost of the past serves as a link to forge old family with new, playing with the notion that we create new relationships from the spirits of past relationships that haunt and comfort us.

Rowan learns that loss is not absolute, but that there can be a sweetness mixed with sorrow, a laughter and love within loss. This fantastic Young Adult novel allows the reader to really delve into the idea of loss and the comforts that we are able to find in loss – that combination of the music that becomes our voice for expressing sorrow and for self discovery and the new friendships and family that we create even when we are not intending to move on and connect with others. Bennett reveals to readers that grief can form a sort of language and that it can tie people together into new relationships.

The music of this narrative becomes a haunting lullaby weaving new and old, one place and another, and diverse people together.

You can find out more about Redwing on the Orca Book Publisher’s website at http://www.orcabook.com/productdetails.cfm?PC=1016 . You can explore more of Holly Bennett’s work on her website at http://www.hollybennett.net/ .

Interview with Noah Chinn

An Interview with Noah Chinn by Derek Newman-Stille

Noah Chinn is the author of Bleeding Heart Yard (about werewolves, witches, and

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

romantic curses) and Trooper # 4 (a post-apocalyptic adventure). Noah Chinn tends to play with ideas of comedy and humour while dealing with issues of disaster and destruction… and he brings some of that humour to this interview. I hope you enjoy laughing in the apocalypse with Noah Chinn as much as I did. If you have not already read my review of Bleeding Heart Yard, you can check it out at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/bewitched-beloved-and-between-worlds/ 

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Noah Chinn: Hmmm… I could just give you a boring standard mini bio, or I could give you some interesting highlights that make me sound like a rock star. What to do, what to do?  Yeah, let’s go with the latter.

I’ve bicycled across Canada and eight other countries (including Japan, England, France and Germany). I’ve hiked a few mountains, including Fuji and Snowden, as well as a few in B.C.  I lived in Japan for three years teaching English, and England for five years running a bookstore. I proposed to my wife on the stage of the Lord of the Rings musical (with an Elvish ring no less). I had a long running comic strip online and in print, and now have two novels published with a third on the way.  I got caught up in the middle of a riot once.  Sometimes I babysit a ferret.

Spec Can: Your story Trooper # 4 is a post-apocalyptic narrative. What got you interested in writing about apocalyptic themes?

Noah Chinn: I wonder if the appeal of post-apocalypse is an urban-centric phenomenon.  How many people raised on prairie farms are fans of Mad Max?  Some of us daydream about how we could survive in such a world, while others just like being taken out of their comfort zone.  It’s not just the threat of death, after all. It’s all the things you take for granted being taken away.

They also say that there are only three types of stories: man versus nature, man versus man, man versus himself.  Facing a post apocalypse usually means dealing with all three.

But really my attraction to those stories is the personal challenge.  The idea that if you keep your wits about you and learn the rules, you can adapt and survive any imagined hell.  The real question is, do you keep your humanity in the process?

Spec Can: People often suggest that those who read apocalyptic narratives are negative in some way. What do you think are some of the characteristics of those who read and write apocalyptic narratives?

Noah Chinn: I’m not sure people who read apocalyptic narratives are necessarily negative. Granted there are a lot of stories where the prospect is bleak once the story ends.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – holy hell.  Great book, but you don’t exactly expect the human race to survive long afterwards. We’re pretty much doomed.

But sometimes the stories are about overcoming, surviving, and the possibility of rebuilding.  And sometimes it’s about the world changing. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, is a good example.  Homo Sapiens might be at an end, but we’ve also become something else.

And then there’s World War Z by Max Brooks, probably my favorite of the Zombie genre.  In that case it’s not only about the end of the world, but fighting to take the world back, and dealing with the new reality in a rational way.  In that sense it’s quite positive.

Spec Can: What is the apocalyptic theme that fascinates you most and what is so interesting and exciting about it?

Noah Chinn: I think some people (especially in film) mistake fatalism and hopelessness with being exciting. To me it sucks the tension away.

Where’s the fun in being thrown into a hell you CAN’T possibly survive or fight back against?  Where the enemy is unstoppable and invincible?  That was always my problem with the War of the Worlds movies and films like Independence Day – they always had the aliens utterly invincible (baring a convenient fluke that allows us to learn more about them) until the germs get to them (or in Independence Day, a virus, heh).  If the story was aboutescaping, that could work, but it’s not.

What made HG Wells’ novel superior, in my opinion, was that the Martians were vastly superior to us, but NOT invincible.  The scene where the HMS Thunder Child destroys two Tripods makes you realize the Martians aren’t invulnerable, but we are still so vastly outmatched that the end result is still the same.

That tiny bit of hope adds to the hopelessness of the situation, which has far more tension than constant failure.  And it keeps the reader thinking about “but what if they try this” instead of just giving up and waiting for the characters to keep running away.  I think the movie Aliens succeeds in a similar way.  Sure, you can shoot them, but they can be anywhere, they’re smart, and there’s always more of them.

So to me what fascinates me most is trying to find the solution to the problem – whether it’s the survival of the species or just the main character.  If it’s just about counting down the minutes till you kiss your ass goodbye and praying for a deus ex machina type miracle, then it’s just not as interesting to me.

Spec Can: How can apocalyptic themed novels raise social awareness about current social issues? What can readers learn by reading apocalyptic narratives?

Noah Chinn: It depends on who is handling it and what kind of story they’re trying to tell.   Some stories are big into metaphors and symbolism, and sometimes have the fall of civilization tied in with various social elements.  Sometimes a story has the survivors represent different facets of humanity, and the story is a microcosm of society.

To bring up some of the books mentioned earlier, World War Z does a very good job of dealing with a lot of contemporary social, cultural, political, medical and even military ideas to explain not only how the end comes about, but how different countries cope with what’s next.  But it’s not doing it through symbolism.

I Am Legend essentially shows how the last man on earth ends up becoming the boogeyman of the next civilization.  In many ways the story reflects the nature of revolutions in the real world, and how the old regimes are vilified.

My own take on it in Trooper #4 is of a far more personal and internalized nature.  I’d rather not say more than that.  Spoilers, y’know.

Spec Can: What role does curiosity play in creating a better future?

Noah Chinn: Curiosity is one of the reasons we are who we are.  We ask ourselves questions and we try to find answers.  Sometimes we make things better, sometimes we make things worse – but even when we make things worse that same curiosity gives us the capacity to try and fix it.

The other reason we are who we are, I believe, is storytelling because we’re the only species that can imagine a different reality than what we’re in, and not only communicate it, but get others interested in it as well.  And at some point someone might try to make it happen. Nobody would have bothered going to the moon if nobody was curious about it, or told stories about how to get there or what we might find.

Spec Can: Trooper # 4 features a woman who has lost her memory. Why is memory loss such a popular topic in fiction at the moment? What fascinates us so much about losing one’s memory?

Noah Chinn: Is it?  I must have forgotten that….

On the one hand it’s an easy gimmick.  Few writers if any have their characters fleshed out before they start writing them.  The process of writing is in part the process of finding out who your characters are.  And if they have no memory then everything’s as much a surprise to them as it is to you.  It also conveniently locks away information that the character might otherwise have that you don’t want them to know until a later time.  But that’s me being half heartedly cynical about the writer’s stake in the game.

From the reader’s angle there is genuine curiosity about solving a puzzle.  Memory loss on its own isn’t that interesting except from a scientific standpoint.  But in a story the memory loss is almost always somehow connected to the story.  Why they lost their memory might be central to the plot, or what they forgot is key to unlocking a mystery or saving the day.  It also makes anyone and everyone involved in the story unreliable – especially the person who lost their memory.

Spec Can: Your novel Bleeding Heart Yard is partially about a man who discovers his “true love” but is cursed to be unable to communicate with her apart from swearing. Why are supernatural narratives such great places to explore ideas of love and relationships?

Noah Chinn: Probably because it gives the characters something unusual to overcome, and can be metaphors for something else entirely. Twilight is supposed to be about abstinence, for example.  And I think most people can relate to the idea of putting your foot in your mouth when trying to talk to a boy/girl you like, so a curse like this lets you ramp up that effect in every possible way.

Spec Can: Why is the theme of the curse popular? How does it speak to modern readers?

Cover photo of Bleeding Heart Yard, courtesy of the author

Cover photo of Bleeding Heart Yard, courtesy of the author

Noah Chinn: A curse is something imposed on you, something out of your control.  You can point a finger at who did it, but you can’t really do anything about it.  I think we all feel cursed now and then – bad stuff happens and we think “What did I do to deserve this?” as if we actually DID do something, instead of just the random nature of the universe.  It taps into our paranoia of someone or something that has it in for us. But it also gives us a target for our attention, rather than a vague sense of bad things happening, you have something specific and defined.  In an odd way, it brings order to that chaos, which means there’s a chance to do something about it, instead of just swinging at shadows.

Spec Can: What myths of the monstrous and magical do you draw on when you write?

Noah Chinn: Whatever is handy.  Whether you’re using something that’s existed for millennia or inventing something new, the truly important thing is consistency.  Monsters , magic, and myth all have to follow rules. They can be broad rules, but they need to be there so you know what the limits are and work within them (or, if you break them, come up with a reason explaining how and why).

Spec Can: What is different about Canadian stories of the supernatural from those of other nations?

Noah Chinn: I honestly can’t say. We apologize more?

Spec Can: What werewolf myths do you create and how are they different from the werewolves of other authors?

Noah Chinn: In Bleeding Heart Yard I wanted to have a creature that wasn’t exactly a werewolf, but something that werewolves could have been based on – as well as a number of other mythical creatures.  The species in the book has a couple of key powers and vulnerabilities that make it broadly applicable to everything from werewolves and vampires to rakshasa and wendigos. But in actuality they are simians that simply evolved along different lines from humans in a parallel world where magic is strong.

Cute little coincidence: the year after Bleeding Heart Yard came out Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter published The Long Earth, which has a similar idea (tying the creatures to elves and trolls instead) as well as the notion of parallel worlds one can jump to one at a time (which is also in BHY). In my case the ideas are simply touched upon, whereas in The Long Earth they are the full focus of the story.    

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realistic” fiction can’t?

Noah Chinn: Depends who you ask, but the most obvious answer is you’re not constrained by reality to get your message across. You could write a story about banning books in a realistic fiction story set in modern day, sure.  But what if you wanted to take it further to get your point across? It would be of hard to write something with the impact of Fahrenheit 451 without creating a society in which all books are banned.  You need to think not only of why, but what form that world would take, how people live their lives, the consequences of that culture on people’s behavior, and so on.  You need to create a world that doesn’t exist, but you can believe could – even if only for the duration of the story.

Spec Can: Are there any other ideas or thoughts that you would be interested in sharing with your readers?

Noah Chinn: Eat your Wheaties and drink your Ovaltine.  Don’t do drugs.

I want to thank Noah Chinn for this insightful and humourous interview. There is nothing quite like a talk about apocalyptic themes where you spend most of the time chuckling. 

Thank you to Chadwick Ginther (author of Thunder Road) for this fantastic and Sanguine Christmas Story…. This Santa has Claws

Chadwick Ginther

A few years ago, I extended a challenge to my writing group for our December meeting: write a 500 word Christmas-themed fantasy story. That meeting was mostly going to be a potluck anyway, so we agreed to read the stories aloud rather than critiquing them. Most of us played along, and it was a lot of fun (if you like stories about Christmas slashers and wishes gone wrong–apparently we had some issues with The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.).

So here is my contribution, which remains the first (and only) piece of flash fiction that I’ve written:

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Nicholas stepped nimbly over the coals, still smoldering, within the fireplace. He had years of practice, and nary an ash clung to his polished, gleaming black boot.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall. He smiled at the old joke. Practice.

But in all those years…

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Postcolonial Vampirism – Consuming Resources

A review of Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night (ChiZine , 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Enter, Night, courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo of Enter, Night, courtesy of ChiZine Publications

In Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night, the true terror is not the vampires, but rather the spectre of the small town and its ability to suppress all forms of difference. Small towns are places of secrets because very few secrets can be kept in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Secrecy and hiding become particularly important in small towns for people that show any difference from the norm, and Rowe’s narrative focuses on two outcasts returning to the small town where they grew up: a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock and her gay brother-in-law who fled from the small town to avoid persecution and torture by groups that wanted to make him conform to a heterosexual image.

For them the town is a haunted, dark, and dangerous place, but there is more to the depths of the town’s horrifying history – a history of secrecy and suppression extending back to the moment of European colonialism. Small towns are haunted places and often haunt the imaginations of those who have left them to avoid persecution. This small town is literally contaminated by a history that it seeks to suppress and remake in a “more respectable” (i.e. suppressed and glossed over) image, much as if tries to make its residents conform to a homogenising notion of respectability and ‘normalcy’ that prevents any sort of individual difference.

This town was infected by a vampiric influence at the moment of European colonial contact, and that vampiric connection permeates the town from its early years both in the random acts of violence that the vampiric spirit evokes, but also in the consumptive character of the town itself. Michael Rowe uses his vampiric narrative to comment on some of the vampirisms of modernity: the consumptive quality of capitalism where the rich suck the life blood from the workers they exploit (this town is a mining town with one wealth family and a population in poverty) and in the image of conversion that permeated the early European settler narratives – much like early European settlers, the vampire seeks to make its victims in its own image. In Rowe’s narrative this vampiric colonialism is literal when an early priest who sought to convert the Indigenous Peoples of Northern Ontario brought his vampiric contamination with him and, much as the European settlers brought disease to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, he brought a vampiric virus the spread through the population bringing waste and destruction to the people as well as re-making them into his image. The vampire is a figure of exploitation and the exploitative narrative runs through this novel, exploring the destructive power of greed and conquest.

Rowe’s narrative is one that gives life to the suppressed aspects of history and modernity, the hidden corruptions and exploitations that are often understated in a society that does not want people to raise too much trouble or question things too deeply. Rowe also shows incredible skill in giving life to the victims of the vampiric attack. Many horror writers gloss over the life and history of their monster’s victims, portraying them as essentially statistics without individuality or depth, but Rowe creates every character as though he or she could be a central character, a character of significance and makes the reader feel a deep connection to the character before taking them away. He illustrates that no person is a statistic and that each death should effect us on a deeper level and be felt as a personal loss.  Horror is not about numbers, but about feeling loss as though it is our own, as though we have had some part of ourselves ripped from our chests and Rowe is able to make his reader feel every loss.  He illustrates that the real horrors of society are the repressions and suppressions of individuals: the transformation of people into statistics without substance, figures of consumption rather than unique and individual lives.

You can explore more about Michael Rowe at his website http://www.michaelrowe.com/ .  And you can get your own copy of Enter, Night at ChiZine Publications’ website http://chizinepub.com/ .