An Experiment in Gender

A review of James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour (Eos, 1998)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I was originally trained as an anthropologist (for my Bachelor’s Degree and my Master’s Degree), so I always find books that explore the notion of anthropological researchers fascinating. James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour centres on a story of a scientist and his assistant visiting a small town where all of the residents alternate gender identities (between male and female) every year until they reach their 21st birthday where they “commit” to a gender. Their gender options are male, female or “neut” (essentially intersex). Each person has a different look and different personality in each of their gender identities.

Yet, Gardner also points out the issues of the anthropological researcher since, although the researcher says he is committed to noninterference, he irrevocably changes the society he contacts, leading to murder, religious upheaval, and a fundamental change in how their society views gender.

Gardner’s narrative focuses on the perspective of a currently male member of this society who is about to commit to a gender identity. We are able to get insights from a believer in that society who views the researcher’s presence as an interference at best and a travesty at worst.

Using a researcher doing ethnographic research in a science fiction novel immediately evokes the work of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hanish Cycle of books, and having the story about gender and a society where people alternate genders immediately evokes Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, Le Guin’s parents were famous anthropologists Theodora and Alfred Louis Kroeber, which is perhaps why her explorations of culture are so powerful. Gardner’s work reads as a love letter to Le Guin, examining her ideas and giving another perspective to a gender-alternating culture.

Yet, Gardner’s exploration of gender takes a different path than Le Guin’s, and where Le Guin doesn’t explore the notion of taboos in society (something that people have critiqued The Left Hand of Darkness for because it ignores the treatment of LGBTQ2IA people as other in our own society), Gardner explores taboo and violence against sexual minorities by featuring a society that technically allows people to choose to be “neut”, but lynches them, kills them, or drives them out of their society violently. Where Le Guin takes a utopian view toward gender diversity, Gardner brings in the realities of human violence and bigotry.

Like Le Guin, Gardner’s Commitment Hour is about a gender experiment – partially his own use of Sci Fi as theory to rethink and critique gender, but also to examine what it would mean to have to choose gender.

As a nonbinary person, a person who exists outside of the binary of male/female, I found reading Commitment Hour fascinating. I was particularly fascinated by the “neut” option for gender identity. This third gender option is a reminder that notions of gender are not fixed or unchanging, but, rather, subject to change. Gardner experiments with ideas of gender and the aspects of gender that are constructed as “natural” and how societies reinforce these ideas.

Commitment Hour explored aspects of the gender binary and assumptions about what characteristics are feminine and which are masculine, while also examining a fluidity between these gendered characteristics. Gardner explores the way that social norms, expectations, and taboos reinforce the idea that there are only two ways of being in the world – male and female and explores the social punishment that people receive for being outside of that binary.

Although these are ideas that are discussed much more often now and although we have new language for exploring gender identity including pronouns other than “she”, “he”, and “it”, Gardner’s Commitment Hour was written in 1998 and challenged some of the entrenched ideas of the time. It is definitely a book that deserves to be looked at anew and that still has something to say about gender.

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

To discover more about Commitment Hour, go to https://openroadmedia.com/ebook/commitment-hour/9781497623491


Review by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Loa in Dreamland

Loa in Dreamland
A review of Nalo Hopkinson and Neil Gaiman’s House of Whispers Vol 1: The Power Divided (DC Vertigo, 2019) 

By Derek Newman-Stille

For those of you reading Speculating Canada over the past few years, you have probably noticed that I am a huge fan of Nalo Hopkinson’s work. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and of comics, so I was extremely excited to find out that the two collaborated on the comic series “House of Whispers vol 1: The Power Divided”, set in the Sandman Universe and to see their voices mingle in an exploration of the potential of that imagined universe. 

Hopkinson and Gaiman have always demonstrated a continuing fascination with border crossing and the implications of the collision of the physical and spiritual world and “House of Whispers” happens at that point of contact when the spiritual realm of the Loa (Afro-Caribbean deities) is partially pulled into the world of dreams and the goddess Erzulie finds herself outside of her space of worship and cut off from the world she knows and her ability to help her worshippers.

At the same time, a spiritual virus is released amongst the human population, making the infected feel as though they are dead, yet alive. Medical practitioners can’t see anything wrong with the infected people, but they are left without feeling or joy or connection to the physical world. Their spirits are sent to the world of dreams and they are left empty, wandering meaninglessly across the world. This virus is spread by words, through a phrase, and this instantly reminds me of the Canadian film Pontypool where a zombie virus is coded in language. It makes me wonder if there is a trend occurring where people are both recognizing the power of language and also questioning what language can do. Hopkinson has always demonstrated a fascination with the power of language in her novels and short fiction, linking words to magic, exploring the way that language shapes us, and playing with the sounds and taste of language. 

The description of the living death that Hopkinson describes not only evokes the idea of the zombie, but also evokes depression. Most of our society looks at depression as a form of sadness, but for those of us who experience clinical depression, we often feel a sense of emptiness, a disconnect, and a hollowness that strongly differentiates depression from sadness. The feelings of the characters in House of Whispers evoked this sense of depression. This depiction is as powerful as it is painful to read. I could feel myself resonating with the sense of loss and pain that the characters were experiencing. Hopkinson’s creative energy wound itself throughout this powerful narrative, giving it life.

As always in her work, Hopkinson highlights diverse bodies and identities. The majority of her characters are BIPOC, which is a fantastic change from the normally excess of white characters in comics. Moreover, her narrative focuses on diverse body sizes and Erzulie, for example, is represented as fat, which is an exciting shift that allows for the recognition that fat is beautiful (especially since Erzulie is the Loa of love, desire, and beauty. Hopkinson also features disabled people and LGBTQ2IA relationships including lesbian couples and nonbinary characters. This is a comic that engages the multiplicity of human experience, and it is so much stronger for that reason. Her characters are highly developed, relatable, and carry so many waiting to be told stories in their every sentence. This is a rich comic that is filled with the potential of narratives yet to come. 

Like most comics, House of Whispers: The Power Divided is a collaborative work, both with other writers such as Gaiman and later with Dan Waters, but also with artist Dominike Stanton, whose artistic talent brings Hopkinson’s words to visual life and adds to the power of the story she tells, particularly by emphasizing bodily diversity and evoking the beauty of the human (and magical) form. Set partially in a dream world, this comic is a form of dreaming given physical form.

To read more about House of Whispers Vol !: The Power Divided, go to https://www.dccomics.com/comics/house-of-whispers-2018/house-of-whispers-1

To find out more about Nalo Hopkinson, go to https://nalohopkinson.com/index.html

‘Twas The Night Before Krampus

‘Twas The Night Before Krampus
A review of Sam Beiko’s Krampus Is My Boyfriend
By Derek Newman-Stille 

As a folklorist, the figure of Krampus has fascinated me for years. Krampus is the devilish companion of St Nicholas and while the saint passes out gifts to good children, Krampus passes out beatings to the bad ones. He’s got a Pan-like look with goat legs and horns and he often is depicted carrying a switch for beating children and a bag or basket for carrying them away. 

Originally a figure from Austria and the Bavarian regions of Germany, Krampus has gained popularity in North America as the “anti-Santa”, and Sam Beiko’s Krampus from her comic “Krampus Is My Boyfriend” is inspired by that image of the creature. In fact, when the German exchange student at St. Gobnait’s Academy first mentions the demon, she is greeted with the response “he’s the anti-Santa Claus, right?” 

Beiko’s use of the graphic format is a powerful part of the narrative since Krampus is a visually stimulating figure. But, more than just the striking image of the demon himself, Beiko evokes the demon’s character through her comic pages, often featuring chains and vines binding one scene to the next and wrapping them all up in her image of Krampus as a pagan deity that pre-dates Christianity. Her motif of the natural world reinforces the pagan origins of Krampus, making him something connected to the forest even though he operates in an urban environment.

Beiko situates “Krampus Is My Boyfriend” in a tale of teen bullying, connecting the demon to ideas of childhood and youth, but also to ideas of punishment for bad behaviour. The demon is summoned by high school student Olga when she is bullied at her prestigious private high school by wealthier students. She is described as a “bursary kid”, denoting her poverty and is mocked for her weight. 

Beiko plays with the notion of importing a custom from Germanic tradition by having a German exchange student first mention the demon, but also plays with the notion of Krampus expressing something intrinsic to all youth by having Olga call out the Krampus ritual as if she knew it. Beiko explores the notion of traditions extending beyond their place of origin and moving to a new location, which mirrors what has occurred with Krampus as a folk entity. Krampus has begun to be a figure celebrated in American holiday traditions with people gathering at celebrations dressed as the demon, and even importing the tradition of the Krampuslauf (Krampus Run). Beiko explores the way that Krampus in North America occupies a strange space of both tradition and newness, being from another country’s traditions, but, also, new to this region. Beiko reinforces this collision of tradition and newness by having mythical creatures use technology to track Krampus while having this tech connected to trees. 

While drawing on the legend of Krampus, Beiko creates her own mythology – one intimately connected with aspects of science fiction – to create a fascinating new take on the Christmas devil.

To discover more about Krampus Is My Boyfriend, go to http://krampusismyboyfriend.com

Consider supporting Sam Beiko on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/smbeiko

Find out more about Sam Beiko and her work at https://www.smbeiko.com

A Disabled Body Is A Political Act

A Disabled Body is A Political Act

A review of Dorothy Palmer’s “Crutch, Cage, Sword, Kerfuffle” in Nothing Without Us (Renaissance Press, 2019).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Combining protests of the G20 summit, a sword from Roman Brittain, a disabled body, and the loss of a foetus, Dorothy Palmer’s “Crutch, Cage, Sword, Kerfuffle” examines the way that disabled women’s bodies are politicized and that disability itself is an act of protest. Using complex imagery of cages and walls, Palmer brings attention to the way that our lives are shaped by restrictions and controls.

Wrapping up the mythic from Arthurian legend into the complex stories around the G20 summit, Palmer brings attention to the nature of storytelling and the way that stories are complex, fluid, and ever-changing things. She explores the culture of surveillance and police violence around the G20 summit and the bodily impact of protest (as well as the need for protest), but this story revolves around the need to speak up and fight back.

To find out more about Nothing Without Us, visit https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sa=false&sbp=false&q=false&category_id=2

The Flow of Disability

The Flow of Disability

A review of Elliott Dunstan’s “Oliver Gutierrez and the Walking Stick of Destiny” from Nothing Without Us (Renaissance, 2019).

By Derek Newman-Stille

For folks like me, who are disabled, we develop a certain intimacy with our accessibility devices. They are both part of us… and not at the same time. They are extensions of our personhood, ways of challenging the idea of a singular, biological body and we engage with them in unique ways that often shift. One could say that we are in a conversation with our accessibility devices. For Elliot Dunstan’s character, Olivier Gutierrez, that conversation is literal. 

Gutierrez, who uses “xe/xem” pronouns, first discovered xe was in conversation with xyr accessibility devices when xe was given xyr first pair of hearing aids at 4 years old. Xe quickly discovered that xyr hearing aids would talk to xyr. 

Gutierrez feels that xyr life has been a series of steps away from the idea of normalcy and Xe asks at the beginning of the story “how many things could one person have wrong with them”. Xyr story has been one of being treated as abnormal, as Other. Xe experienced a life of labels, some avoiding words like “crazy” by calling xyr “imaginative” or “creative” or “odd”, but these words didn’t mask the intended meaning. Xe describes xyr self as “deaf. And crazy. And queer”, illustrating an intersection of different oppressed identities.

Gutierrez has an opportunity that few of us do, to enter into direct conversation with our accessibility devices and xe is able to learn how to negotiate xyr own identity through this conversation, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

In Oliver Gutierrez and the Walking Stick of Destiny”, Dunstan examines the multiple intersections of disabled identity, exploring the complex milieux of overlapping experiences and knowledges while also illustrating to the reader the complex oppressions and internalized ableisms that occur at that intersection.

To discover more about Elliot Dunstan, go to https://www.patreon.com/elliottdunstan

To find out more about Nothing Without Us, go to https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sa=false&sbp=false&q=false&category_id=2

More Than A Statistic

More Than A Statistic

A review of Tonya Liburd’s “Sometimes You…” in Nothing Without Us (Renaissance Press, 2019)

By Derek Newman-Stille

People with mental illness or those who identify themselves as part of the Mad Community are statistically more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators of violence. I think this is something that needs repeating, especially since so much media attention is focussed on making mentally ill people seem as though they are dangerous, threatening, and in need of police action. So, let me repeat – they are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

Before getting to my review, I want to also nod toward the work of activists in the Mad Community, who have created a space for the reclamation of terms like “mad” and have worked to critique oppressive psychiatric and medical systems that have done damage to the Mad population. In acknowledgement of their work, I will be using “Mad” throughout this review.

I bring up the violence against the Mad population because Tonya Liburd brings attention to this violence in her story “Sometimes You…”. Whereas many people don’t seem to retain the statistic that the Mad population is more likely to be victims of violence, Liburd provides a powerful story about that violence, exploring both the pain of violent abuse against a person in the Mad Community as well as the internalized damage that comes from abuse. Not only does Liburd give a recounting of a violent encounter, but she positions the reader as the person in the Mad Community who is being attacked, using the second person throughout the story.

Liburd illustrates the predatory nature of people who prey on the Mad Community, giving details about how they target people and how they make people in the Mad Community feel unsafe in public spaces. Liburd illustrates the lasting damage of these encounters and the fear and pain and feeling of not belonging that gravitates like a miasma around people after violent encounters like this. She points out that even spaces that are constructed as “safe” frequently still have gaps and can still allow damage and violence to happen.

Liburd examines the precarity that exists particularly for homeless Mad people and the systemic violence that they experience from a system that doesn’t provide them with resources they need. Yet, Liburd points to other communities that can be found and developed to create a support network.

“Sometimes You…” is a powerful story that speaks to the need for community and the need for safe spaces for people in the Mad Community. It is a story that invites the reader into the mind and experiences of a member of the Mad Community, allowing them to experience the real world violence that people in that community are subject to and the repercussions of that continued violence. Liburd uses her gift of storytelling to paint a picture that goes beyond simple statistics about the Mad Community and instead gives a realness and three dimensionality to the population and their experiences.

To discover more about Tonya Liburd’s work, go to https://www.patreon.com/TonyaLiburd

To find out more about Nothing Without Us, go to Renaissance Press’ website at https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sa=false&sbp=false&q=false&category_id=2

Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms

Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms 

A review of Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside (Angry Robot, 2019).

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

There aren’t enough narratives about autism by autistic people. This, and their powerful style of writing and brilliant science fiction, is why I keep coming back to the works of Ada Hoffmann with adoration. Hoffmann’sThe Outside, with its autistic, queer narrator, is precisely the narrative we need to challenge images of futurity that tend to be straight and neurotypical. Hoffmann challenges the traditional erasures of diversity in the future and populates their narrative with multiplicity, revealing that the future is dynamic and unlimited. 

 

Hoffmann’s narrative, like their narrators, is difficult to define along simple categories. The Outsideblends science fiction with Lovecraftian weird fiction, and mixes it all together into a philosophical discourse. I’m making it sound way less interesting than it is, but Hoffmann is able to bring theory and critical social questions to life in The Outside, while also creating an exciting, compelling narrative.

 

Hoffmann creates a world in which AI have become gods for a galaxy-spanning civilisation who those AI gods have decided is too erratic to have access to advanced technology. The gods make humanity rely on them for interplanetary travel and communication technology, but also require that humanity avoid heretical thoughts. People are downloaded upon death into the AI god that they most resonate with, but those who don’t fit the morals of society, those who are heretical end up being downloaded into a goddess of torture – Nemesis. The gods rely on this consumption of souls and the threat of Nemesis for those who don’t abide. 

 

In this tightly controlled AI controlled universe, one of the most dangerous things is The Outside, a phenomenon that can be summoned ritually or evoked through certain technology. Exposure to the outside is contaminating and causes a change in perception as well as changes to the physical world, distorting reality. It also allows for monstrous entities to enter into the protagonist’s world. Hoffmann evokes a Lovecraftian notion of cosmic horror and the fear of the ultimate other. Reality itself is disrupted by this exposure to the other and the laws of nature are no longer stable, but up to interpretation. 

 

However Hoffmann’s narrative doesn’t incorporate any of Lovecraft’s misogyny, racism, or ableism. Instead, it directly challenges this notion, while still presenting the idea of a cosmic horror, something beyond human conception. The one possible critique of Hoffmann’s tale that connects with Lovecraftian and other forms of horror is that contact with The Other, with the cosmic horror, causes a distortion of reality. Frequently in Lovecraftian narratives, the writer relies on the idea that the greatest horror of all is madness, and a simple reading of The Outsidemay lead a reader to believe that this is what Hoffmann is doing in their narrative. However, Hoffmann critiques the idea of madness itself in their tale, stating “’Madness’ isn’t a thing. It wasn’t even really a thing in the twentieth century. It’s not a real diagnostic category and it’s not a useful descriptor”. Hoffmann levels a critique of madness as a category, questioning the notion of madness as the ultimate horror and encouraging readers to re-assess their fear of mental illness.

 

Beyond this, Hoffmann critiques the idea of pathology by connecting it with religious notions of heresy, pointing out that simple diagnostic criteria form a type of religion that presents itself as truth and therefore not subject to debate. By doing so, Hoffmann invites critical questions about the ableism underlying our categories of normalcy and abnormalcy. Indeed, they present case files by a child psychologist who is also writing a religious treatise, evoking the history of medical practitioners being viewed as experts on every part of a society. The treatise involves lines about a child being analyzed with words like “Basic foundations of perceptual cognition, such as occlusion, perspective, scale, even causality are ignored. It is as though she sees everything at once, all the time. She likely does not yet even realize that such perceptions set her in opposition to the Gods, placing her on an inevitable path to the most perilous and destructive heresies. If treatment is unsuccessful, perhaps she never will.” Religious doctrine and psychological study are intertwined here, revealing the dangers of a psychological system that others certain neurologies. Indeed, the psychologist suggests that this child, Evianna, needs to be beaten to get rid of her heresy and make her more normative minded. Moreover, Hoffmann highlights the history and continuing practices of psychological abuse.

 

Despite this narrative taking place in the future, Hoffmann does not erase the ableism of this society, but highlights its continuance and the way that ableism shifts in order to present itself in new ways. They bring attention to the way that ableism already does this in contemporary society, shifting its characteristics, but always relying on the oppression of disabled people and the exultation of abled people. In this world, types of ableism vary from planet to planet with some being far more overt (such as the notedly ableist planet Anetaia) than others. 

 

In The Outside, Hoffmann recognises the power of Lovecraftian cosmic horror for its ability to estrange the reader, opening the reader to new possibilities and unlike Lovecraft and many others that followed in his mythos, Hoffmann uses the estrangement of cosmic horror to direct their readers to question taken for granted ideas in their society, opening notions constructed as “truth” to critical questions by providing a perspective from outside their normative beliefs.

To discover more about The Outside, go to https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/606753/the-outside-by-ada-hoffmann/9780857668134

To find out more about Ada Hoffmann, go to http://www.ada-hoffmann.com