Secret Identities

Secret Identities

A review of James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded (Tor, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, continues his exploration of the superhero. Gardner focusses his narrative on the perspective of another of his superheroes, Jools, whose superhero identity is 99, an homage to Wayne Gretzky. 99 has the ability to be the best in the world at any given profession and has access to all of the knowledge of wikipedia, which she calls her WikiJools ability. Yet Gardner’s heroes are never so simple, and Jools’ incredible ability also contains the potential for her to fall into the mad genius role.

In Gardner’s superhero universe, characters are constrained by story and by superhero tropes. The universe literally shapes people into comic book tropes. Gardner uses this method to examine tropes of superheroes and to complicate them, but, like in most of his narratives, Gardner is most interested in the power of story and the way that stories shape the characters and people that come into contact with them. In having his characters resist the roles their world tries to force on them, Gardner uses these characters to illustrate and complicate those tropes, playing with what it means to be a superhero, a supervillain… or someone who doesn’t want to be either. Characters recognize that certain things will work in their universe primarily because they make a good story.

As much as Gardner is fascinated by the mechanics of the superhero universe, his primary focus is on character and his characters are complex, often coming into conflict with what they think they should or shouldn’t be. Gardner has always been a strong writer of character-centred narratives, and the superhero narrative provides him with a space to examine characters because of the comic narrative of the secret and dual identity. Superheroes already have complicated engagements with identities and made the perfect space to explore the multiplicity of identities people express throughout the day. Jools, a character with self confidence issues, is able to further highlight character complexity as she searches for the real her, the TRUE identity. In They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded Jools not only takes on her role as the superhero 99, but also takes on another superhero identity, joining a second superhero group temporarily in order to ponder who she is. Not only does Jools’ identity change with her costumes, she also sees others who exemplify who she could be, watching heroes who are entirely hijacked by their superhero identity and losing themselves in them, and watching a mad scientist at work, exemplifying Jools’ greatest fear about her abilities. Indeed, one character tells her that being a Spark, a superhero, is like an infection and that it changes who one is and overrides their personality in order for them to fit the narrative.

Gardner tells a story of the struggle for identity amidst a changing world, examining the way that people shift and change for different needs. But on an authorial level, he also explores the struggle between character-driven narratives and world-building-focussed narratives. Not only is Gardner telling a powerful story, he is highlighting the nuances of story itself.

To discover more about James Alan Gardner, go to https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To find out more about They Promised Me The Ray Gun Wasn’t Loaded, go to https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780765398789

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Fever Dream

Fever Dream

A review of Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu is a fever dream on paper, vivid and fantastical, and full of nightmares, which is perfect for a pandemic narrative. It is a surreal story, but it comments on issues of relevance to the real world. Set in a world where a pandemic has affected men more than women, Lai’s narrative explores the power struggles of a population that fears its own erasure, but is also willing to take others along with them as their population dwindles. The Tiger Flu has been brought into the world because of cloning technology which allows extinct animals to be revitalized, primarily for consumptive purposes. It has spread quickly and decimated large parts of the population, leaving people in desperation for resources, for a sense of belonging, for a belief in something that will allow them to last and make an impact on the world. 

The Tiger Flu is a necessary critique on capitalism’s consumptive force and its rendering of everything into resources to be exploited. Even the religion of the people in Lai’s book is based around capitalism, with the population literally worshipping an industrialist and the two constructed satallites that orbit the planet – Chang and Eng (named after the famous conjoined twins from the Freak Shows of the early 1800s). The two satellites represent opposing corporate forces, but also become spaces for downloading the consciousness of individuals from the population. Despite representing opposing companies, the name of the two satellites suggests a conjoined nature, pointing out that underlying these two opposing forces is still one system – in this case capitalist exploitation. 

Even people become resources to be exploited in this world and a small group of people who have created a community living off of the land are seen as consumable resources to be captured and used by the factories they once escaped from. Lai illustrates the dangerous over-consumptive quality of capitalist systems and that every resource, including people in that capitalist system become grist for the mill. In fact, she literally names this community of people living off the land Grist Sisters.

Fearing destruction, people try to hold onto power by creating factions and borders, arming themselves out of fear of others. Lai illustrates the way that people who are accustomed to power fear its loss and make war with each other as a means of externalizing their fear. Her corporate communities arm themselves, ignoring the needs of citizens (like access to food and safety) in their own private war to hold onto a past power structure that can no longer sustain itself. 

Yet Lai also opens up other questions of production beyond capitalism, exploring notions of alternative reproduction. Lai explores queer potentials in a world whose men are dying faster than women. She queers reproduction by having women in the Grist tribes give birth through parthenogenesis (reproduction from an ovum without fertilization by sperm). The Grist sisters give birth by “doubling”, creating duplicates of themselves and birthing groups of identical sisters.

As much as it is an apocalyptic viral narrative, The Tiger Flu is also a narrative captured in the middle. It isn’t an outbreak narrative as many apocalyptic virus stories tend to be, and, as much as it is concerned with the future, it is also about characters uncovering their own past, seeking out the stories about how things came to be the way they are and about the character’s’ own histories. It is a book ultimately about complicating narrative and history because while the two primary characters Kirilow and Kora seek their own pasts, they also encounter other narratives about the past, intersecting and often complicating their own. Characters use memory scales that they plug directly into their brains to gain access to knowledge and constantly find snippets of their world’s history, but these histories conflict with the stories that they have formed their lives around. While corporate characters are trying to hold onto a power they fear losing and their own role in history, characters like Kirilow and Kora are dismantling that history for themselves, seeing different truths that reveal the pettiness of the corporate leaders they have worshipped.

To discover more about The Tiger Flu, go to https://arsenalpulp.com/Books/T/The-Tiger-Flu

To find out more about Larissa Lai, visit https://www.larissalai.com