Paranoia, Power, Politics, Police, and Protest

A Review of Cory Doctorow’s Homeland (Tor Teen, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Marcus was known as m1k3y when he was younger, a web protestor and advocate of human rights who exposed government corruption. In Homeland, Marcus is a young adult, just beginning life outside of university. He has all of the regular issues facing a young person – searching for a job, dealing with student loans, new relationships… but he also has had a new set of responsibilities placed on him. When two of his friends are kidnapped, they leave him with a huge document listing and proving a remarkable variety of government and corporate abuses of power, criminal activities, and general corruption. He has to think about his own safety and the safety of his friends and family when he decides whether to release this information to the public.

The world Cory Doctorow creates in Homeland is one of corruption by people in positions of power (the 1%), government control, surveillance, invasions of privacy, and the general disinclination of the public to challenge these systems of control and abuse…. in other words, our world. Homeland, as well as being a brilliant story, is a call to activism, a demand that readers open their eyes and see the world around them with all of its flaws and to do something about the horrors that are being perpetrated in their name (in the name of the public, in public security, or ‘our best interest’).

With the rise of protests against the abuses of power by the 1%, the occupy movement, and Anonymous, Homeland is written at the perfect time to empower young adults to take an active interest in their world and in the collective power that they can wield against a corrupt system. Our society is one in which protests, activism, and even general consciousness about injustices is discouraged… indeed one in which many of the groups who bring awareness about inequalities are criminalised and portrayed as social problems. Doctorow reminds us that we cannot allow the criminalisation of social protestors and people standing up for collective rights, and that we need to ask questions, inquire about things, be aware, and actually DO SOMETHING about the corruption in our world rather than assuming that this is the natural way of things.

Doctorow’s character Marcus is a hacker, but not someone who puts malicious software on computers (as many hackers are portrayed to be), he is someone who is intensely interested in governmental and business corruption and the abuses that occur to the public in the name of “public safety” and “betterment”. He sees the Orwellian doublespeak that is used to put layers of control on the public. Marcus faces moral dilemmas when hackers break into his own computer and begin surveilling him – the same kind of surveillance and violations of privacy that corporations and the government have done to control society. Despite what they have done to him personally, they provide him with information that could help to ensure his freedom from the corporations that stalk him and endanger his friends  – BUT if he uses it, he is endorsing the kind of malicious use of technology that he has been fighting against (attacks on his own privacy). His ‘saviours’ are very much like the corporations that have endangered him in the first place. Doctorow ensures that his novel has no easy morals – no ‘hackers good, corporations bad’ dichotomies, but rather relies on his readers to determine their own morals and question the diversity of individuals who are conducting actions rather than trying to paint entire groups with one moral brush.

Doctorow doesn’t limit his ideas of moral ambiguity to personalities in the novel, he also explores the dualistic role of technology – no technology is, in itself, either good or bad, and technology that was used to support the 1% and their abuse of power can be reworked, changed, and re-purposed to help to expose those abuses of power. UAVs, although used to spy on protestors and reveal their positions to police can also be used to take areal photos of the group to expose police bullying and abuses of power as well as to show ways for protestors to escape from police blockades. Doctorow illustrates that protestors have to be as willing and able to adapt, change, and modify their strategies as those in charge of the systems of oppression around them.

Homeland reminds readers that we can’t blame the system and give up our agency over what is happening in the world around us. Acts are being committed in our names, in the name of the public that we would not approve of. We have to take responsibility and do something.

To find out more about Cory Doctorow, you can visit his website at http://craphound.com/ . To find out more about Homeland, visit Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/homeland-1/CoryDoctorow .

“They need people to do the job… To stand apart from the mentality that says, ‘It’s someone else’s problem,’ and to do the thing that needs doing.”

-James Alan Gardner – Expendable (Avon, 1997)

Quote – Need People Not To Say It’s Someone Else’s Problem

The Disabled and Disfigured Have Become the “Red Shirt” Class

A review of James Alan Gardner’s Expendable (Avon Books, 1997)Expendable
By Derek Newman-Stille

Fans of Star Trek will recognise the term “Red Shirt”, but for those who haven’t seen Star Trek, “Red Shirt” is the term for people on away missions who die to provide plot fodder for the main characters to grow and develop. Generally these plot victims are garbed in red uniforms. I thought it was apt for the title of this review.

In James Alan Gardner’s Expendable, he presents a future in which the admiralty has decided that the only people that should be allowed onto planets on dangerous missions are those who society “won’t miss”. In a society that is hyper-focussed on beauty, the admiralty discovered that people are less inclined to miss those that don’t fit into the social norms of aesthetics for the human body. Even though medical technology has been created that can ‘heal’ any disability and modify any appearance to fit with social body aesthetics, doctors are discouraged from performing surgery to modify appearance as long as the person can appear ‘unbeautiful’ but is still capable of performing duties.

The disabled and disfigured have become a disposable class, put into danger because the admiralty has recognised that people are less distraught by the deaths of those who they consider ugly.

When Festina Ramos, a member of the Explorers (or, as they call themselves, the Expendables) who has a large birth mark on the right side of her face, is sent down to a planet well known for killing everyone who arrives on it, she comes into contact with a species that is obsessed with aesthetics – beauty and perfection. This world, Melaquin, is populated with people who, through genetic manipulation, have developed bodies of glass, transparent, but idealised and impervious to harm or aging.  Their bodies are so perfect that they have lost their motivations, their desires, and passions. These “alien” Melaquin people believe that it is a moral imperative to be perfect (with an almost religious fervor). They ask the Explorers who visit them why they would maintain the appearance they have since it makes people “sad” to look at them, hating the involuntary shared suffering that they experience when they contemplate the loneliness that aesthetic difference must cause to people who are made outsiders.

Gardner questions ideas of beauty and perfection in Expendable, presenting a future in which bodily difference is discouraged and those who look different are considered to be less worthy of survival. The alien world and beings in it are not so different from us, trapped in the same patterns of fear of difference and desire for conformity to bodily norms and ideals. Purposely made of glass, this world’s “aliens” are transparent in their fear of difference, in their dislike of diversity, and in their ability to represent our own society’s distaste at bodily difference and imposition of social “norms” of perfection.

Gardner explores images of colonialism in his novel, looking at a society in which “expendable” people are sent down to planets to explore them for the potential for human occupation. Like many who deal with ideas of colonialism in SF, he explores the sexual imagery associated with colonialism – the image of “penetrating” a new environment and “seeding” a new world, however, he makes this imagery explicit. The space drive that he creates uses a field generator for interstellar travel that the travellers have colloquially called the “sperm field” – it creates a white, milky bubble around the ship with a trailing tail that whips back and forth(flagellating) like spermatozoa. This tail is also used as a transporter system to deposit crew members on planets – literally whipping down to the planet and then ejaculating crew members onto the surface. He explores this image of colonialism as a form of forced penetration and impregnation. It is fascinating that Festina Ramos, the crew member who questions the damaging impact of human beings placed on the planet Melaquin, is also someone who saves and rescues eggs from various planets since they are the female equivalent of the sperm, situating her as a figure who is rescuing the feminine from contamination by exploration.

You can explore James Alan Gardner’s website at http://www.jamesalangardner.com/Welcome.html . Expendable is now available in ebook formats, and you can explore it and other Gardner books at http://www.jamesalangardner.com/novels.html .

Thank you to Alissa Paxton for recommending this novel to me.

Quote – Any Evil that Entered the World Contaminated the World

“No cure was worth torturing cats and mice. It was like arguing that inventing, then using, the atom bomb was justified because it ended the war and diminished suffering. Any evil that entered the world contaminated the world.”

-Scott Fotheringham – The Rest is Silence (Goose Lane Editions, 2012)

300th Post and The Story of Speculating Canada

Dear readers,

Today will be Speculating Canada’s 300th post!! Thank you for all of your support. I thought I would publish a bit about the story of Speculating Canada itself and reveal some of my hopes and dreams about where Speculating Canada is going.

Speculating Canada grew out of my current research for my PhD in Canadian Studies at Trent University. My research is focussed on exploring the representation of disability in Canadian speculative fiction, and, in particular, looks at the way monstrous protagonists in Canadian urban dark fantasy are often written in a way that suggests the experience of people with disabilities in Canada. For example, monstrous protagonists, like people with disabilities, are often described in urban dark fantasy as experiencing barriers to employment, the need to pass as normative bodied, differences in senses, dealing with bodily difference, the medicalised body, etc.

Speculating Canada is sort of a combination of a number of different things that were important to me like making Canadian speculative fiction (SF) more known, showing my love of the genre, discussing Canadian speculative fiction as a tool for learning and opening up new questions and ideas, and making scholarly work accessible to the public. Often academic work is written in a way that excludes the public and makes it inaccessible. So, on Speculating Canada, I try to combine reviews of Canadian SF with a little bit of literary analysis. I do this to recognise the intelligence and depth that readers of SF have, and to allow them to critically think about the work they are reading and experiencing.

Art by Derek Newman-Stille - www.dereknewmanstille.ca

Art by Derek Newman-Stille – http://www.dereknewmanstille.ca

I also try to show the ability of SF to question things, to open different social norms up to speculation. SF has an incredible ability to push boundaries, help people move out of their comfort zone, and challenge pre-conceptions that our society doesn’t often challenge. SF has a fantastic capacity to link up with higher education in its ability to open everything to discussion and constantly ask the question “why?”.

I do regular author interviews on Speculating Canada, and I think I do something a little different with my interviews. I see a lot of websites that ask authors questions about writing: Why did you get into writing? What is it like to be an author? etc. So, I thought I would do something a little different and ask authors about what kinds of questions they are hoping to raise with their literature and give them a forum for discussing the big issues of today and how they manifest themselves in literature. Authors are often really keenly aware people who have an incredible grasp of social situations and issues around them and SF authors, focussed on the future, on the darker side of things, or on other worlds of possibility, often are looking into things that the majority of our society ignores or leaves unquestioned. I like to allow authors to really express these insights and show the ability of SF to question “the normal” (an invented category, itself).

I see speculative fiction as a medium that can bring attention to social issues around us, and possibly give voice to people and ideas that are often under-represented. SF is often referred to as the “literature of change”, and it has a lot of potential to become this, but a lot of people who are writing SF are still recycling current stereotypes and treating them as though they are inherently natural rather than socially created. One can see this in the stereotypical treatment of people of colour, people with disabilities, and in the treatment of gender and sexuality. A lot of things still remain unchallenged and I see SF as playing a huge role in opening up some new ideas and challenging some things that have been unchallenged for too long. Canadian SF is already starting to bring attention to social issues and social questions and I hope to see more of those questions being asked as time goes on.

Several fantastic Canadian authors are bringing attention to and challenging social issues like Claude Lalumiere, Michael Rowe, Gemma Files, Karl Schroeder, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia (a small sampling of the numerous authors who are using SF as a medium of change). When interviewing authors for Speculating Canada, I have really seen how keenly aware and interested they are in social issues and in promoting ideas of diversity, social and environmental justice, and challenging ideas that limit us as a society. SF can really become a medium of change and help society to ask itself the tough questions that will lead to deeper awareness and hopefully help us promote a more diverse, inclusive, society.

Speculating Canada came out of many of the interests I mentioned above, but it also came from an unusual personal circumstance. I have been experiencing health issues for the past few years that have, among other things, affected my memory. I began taking more extensive notes on the Canadian SF that I was reading (for me, there is no such thing as JUST reading for fun – reading for fun and reading for research happen together and I always have a bit of a critical analytical perspective when I read). It occurred to me that I could take those notes and share them with people to try to encourage people to read more Canadian SF and to make people aware that they can be doing critical analyses of Canadian SF on their own.  So, my recent memory disability was an inspiration for the creation of Speculating Canada.

My hope is that this website opens up opportunities for people to think about Canadian SF, challenge conventional ways of thinking, and open up new opportunities for thought and growth.

Transformative Art

A Review of OnSpec #91 Vol 24, No 4 (Winter 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of OnSpec (Art by Kenn Brown)

Cover photo courtesy of OnSpec (Art by Kenn Brown)

One of the key narrative threads running through Volume 24, number 4 of OnSpec is the transformative power of art and writing. This thread is most potent in Kevin Cockle’s Palimpsest, a short story about a man who learns how to transform the world and people around him through calligraphy, over-writing people’s personalities, histories, and selfhood with simple movements of pen and ink. The world becomes a transformative space, subject to authorial whims and transformative thoughts.

Gaie Sebold’s Sharali focuses on an artist who is resisting social pressures to devote his artistic energies toward capitalist means. In a society that is over-writing the natural world with the destructive industrialist enterprise, Charentin concentrates on painting natural scenes and scenes of natural beauty, capturing the numinous quality of the natural environment rather than scenes of industrial expansion and wealth. Through his artistic ability to overlay the natural, Charentin is capable of releasing himself and the prostitute Sharali from their lives of servitude and artificiality.

William B. Robinson’s poem Delta Theta Alpha Beta concentrates on the numinous quality of letters, the ability of letters to transcend the limits of simple meaning – the power of sigils to speak to more than their representative value but summon an eldritch quality that arises from beyond the mundane.

In Steven Popkes’ 10 Things I Know About Jesus, the transformation that occurs is on a mythical level, shifting the tales told from the past to illustrate how rumour leads to legend, leads to myth, and the mythical says very little about the original subject and speaks more to the ideologies of those creating the myth. Jesus in this story is far different from the character outlined in Christian belief. He plays poker with Satan and Lazarus, doesn’t attend a church, has little interest in performing miracles, and views the events leading up to his crucifixion as his last foray into the realm of politics. He resists the mythical structure that has been built around him.

David Gordon Buresh’s The Devil’s Eyes looks at the transformative power of consumption and hunger, the way that the act of eating can fundamentally shift something in the structure of human beings, pushing them into something Other, something mythical.

Leslie Claire Walker’s Ghost Ride explores the world of a driver for the dead, bringing the deceased to their new destinations (whether it be Heaven or Hell). Mack, the driver, seeks to change destiny, trying to find his wife (who committed suicide) a means of finding her way into Heaven, transforming the stigma and spiritual blight that was branded onto her soul by her act of suicide. The transformative quality of this story is huge, facilitated by the vehicle of travel (the car ride to the realms of the dead) and the transformative quality of death itself, moving between one state of being and another. The life (and afterlife) narrative of the passengers is in flux, determining what their next steps will be.

Kim Neville’s One Shoe Highway is a powerful transformative travel narrative. Like Ghost Ride, it is focused on the roadway as a place of transition and change. Women in this story disappear periodically from the road, leaving behind a symbol of their travel as well as of their previous lives – their shoes. These women have the option of giving up their previous lives (often marred by abuse) and separating themselves from the world that victimises them.  Bringing attention to the social issue of so many battered women disappearing, Kim Neville has her characters instantly be forgotten after they disappear (mirroring the social response to women who are victims of assault and abduction, which is often to forget about them and erase their memory). Instead of being abduction victims, however, the women in One Shoe Highway are given the option of changing their narrative future and instead of tolerating a future of spousal and societal abuse, they are allowed to move out of the world into a space primarily for battered women.

As a medium that brings the SF community short stories, SF artwork, interviews, and editorials in one volume, it was incredible to see OnSpec’s focus on the power of narrative and stories to shift and change and to alter the world around them. SF stories have the potential to bring social attention to issues in our world – they can shift our consciousness, help us see things that we ignore, and open our minds to new possibilities. Art and narrative really are transformative – they can change the world.

On a personal note, as a disability scholar, I was extremely excited to see the interview conducted with Kevin Cockle and his discussion of the influence of his own medical disability on his authorial work.

To find out more about OnSpec, you can visit their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ .

“It was science fiction, future fiction, SF, that taught us how to think about death and despoilation by radiation, chemical waste devastation, Big Brother, Star Wars and Nculear Winter. So what’s “unthinkable” now?”

-Judith Merril – Afterward (Tesseracts)

Quote – SF Taught Us How to Think About the Unthinkable