Coming of Age in the End of Days

A review of Brent Hayward’s Head Full of Mountains (ChiZine Publications, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Head Full of Mountains courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover Photo of Head Full of Mountains courtesy of ChiZine Publications

The end is a concept that brings hyper attention onto ideas of the body, memory, and the notion of permanence versus change, and Brent Hayward’s Head Full of Mountains constructs a society who, in trying to fend off the end, to preserve humanity, ends up creating a post-human world. Through the figure of Crospinal, raised on distorted memories of the ‘old world’ and confused perceptions of the new, the reader is cast into a realm of confusion and change, uncertain about the various ‘truths’ being given through Crospinal’s encounters with various human and mechanical groups, each staking their own claim on interpreting the world around them.

Crospinal experiences the world in a mix of dreams, experiences, and haptics (computerised learning programmes) which blend together in a distorted reality that allows him to live in ambiguity, perpetually a stranger in a strange land. Despite being born into this new world, Crospinal’s isolation with his father means that the world outside of his father’s realm is one of inconstancy, and a series of challenges to his beliefs about the world around him.

Environment, body, and belief system are all in flux in Head Full of Mountains as the ship that the last remnants of humanity are travelling through space on constantly changes configuration, recycling old parts while building new ones. Crospinal’s body alters from a disabled body in a space suit that recycles his nutrients, to a gradually stripped body exposed to all of the biological contaminants and biological wonders around him, and constantly rebuilt by machines to match an able-bodied expected norm. Crospinal and others are constantly haunted by a past that they can’t recall, erased from the minds of the passengers who came from old Earth and not taught to the new human beings who are born on the ship from embryos.

A father and son text, Head Full of Mountains manifests the uncertainty and confusion following the death of a parent and the re-shaping of one’s understanding of the world as one realises that their parent’s viewpoint is singular and does not encompass the range of potential ‘truths’ about interpreting the world. This is a coming-of-age text wrapped in the end of days, a coming of the end.

To discover more about Brent Hayward, visit his website at http://www.brenthayward.com/

To find out more about Head Full of Mountains and other ChiZine Publications books, visit their website at http://chizinepub.com/books/head-full-of-mountains

Only More Death on the Horizon

A review of Tony Burgess’ The n-Body Problem (ChiZine Publications, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The n-Body Problem courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo of The n-Body Problem courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Tony Burgess’ The n-Body Problem is a pharmacological journey through the zombie apocalypse, and a discourse on the collective social habit of avoiding one’s problems. The n-Body Problem explores a world where people keep moving after death, not threateningly or aggressively, but moving nonetheless evoking the question of whether they are alive, what constitutes death, and the bigger problem of what to do with so many moving bodies. WasteCorp, a waste disposal company proposes the idea of launching the living dead into orbit, suspending them in the atmosphere until they burn off as layers of fire, and they are able to do good enough PR work to convince people that this is an almost romantic way to go. The only problem is that the sky is greyed by the network of dead bodies around the Earth and it is creating health issues for the people alive on the planet – both from lack of exposure to the sunlight and from the depression that comes from seeing a network of the dead around their planet every time they raise their eyes. It is a zombie apocalypse filled with threat, but not from the zombies… at least not directly, but rather from the “solution” to the living dead and the horror that ensues.

In order to cope, the population is advised to avoid looking up and to regularly take SSRIs to deal with the perpetual depression and anxiety evoked by this permanently altered world. However, the SSRIs are not benevolent either, causing a Syndrome from the quantities they need to be used in, fundamentally changing the people who use them.

The characters have their moral compass set to grey from the beginning of The n-Body Problem but a dark, dirty grey that gets more ashy over time as layers of dust from bodies burned in orbit rains down on them… a zombie grey that exists in the perpetual twilight of a world that no longer has hope of change.

Playing with ideas of speech and silence, the notion that some people are best left in a devoiced state because when they speak it may only be a diatribe of horrors, Burgess explores the power of voice for propaganda, and the way the silenced are used for religious, corporate, and political causes. Whether corporate propaganda tells the people about the beauty of their dead loved ones floating in silence in orbit close to the stars, or religious leaders use the dead and the dismembered to bring on religious fervour born of fear and a need for some form of change, silence is made to speak loudly.

Burgess experiments with the idea of a social shift from the military-industrial complex and its profit from death through war to a new system of profit based around the pharmaceutical-waste-disposal-religious complex, intertwined in a system of making capital through the disposal of bodies and inciting people to suicide.

To say this is a bleak book is to downplay the significance of the melancholy it evokes – within this novel, the only thing on the horizon is more dead bodies… literally. It is a stream of consciousness narrative that reads like a hallucinatory voyage between pathologies and syndromes, a work that makes the body and the world around it a perpetual uncertainty, a slippery, threatened and threatening thing.

To find out more about The n-Body Problem, visit ChiZine Publications’ site at http://chizinepub.com/books/n-body-problem

An interview with Kathryn Allan about “Accessing the Future”

An interview with Kathryn Allan about “Accessing the Future” by Derek Newman-Stille

I had a great opportunity to interview friend and colleague Kathryn Allan, who shares my love of exploring representations of disability in Speculative Fiction. Kathryn and I have presented at several conferences together and I am excited to be able to share her insights with you today. Kathryn and her co-editor Djibril al-Ayad are currently running an indiegogo campaign to create a new collection of disability themed science fiction called Accessing the Future, which you can explore at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/accessing-the-future .

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

Kathryn Allan: I wear a bunch of hats—all of which are really flattering. I operate an academic copyediting and coaching business, Academic Editing Canada, and I’m an independent scholar of science fiction and disability studies. Since I left university at the completion of my PhD in 2010, I’ve been following my love of science fiction into interesting places: I’m the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow (2013-14) and the editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). As of this year, I’m also an Associate Editor and Reader of The Future Fire. I write for both scholarly and fan venues, and you can find me blogging and tweeting as Bleeding Chrome.

Speculating Canada: What inspired your interest in disability in science fiction?

Kathryn Allan: I’ve always had an interest in the relationship between technology and the human body. When I was in my second year of my PhD studies, two significant things happened: one, I discovered a deep love of science fiction (I’m a late bloomer), and two, I became quite ill. SF was not only a comfort to me when I was too tired and unwell to do much of anything other than read cyberpunk novels or watch Star Trek episodes, it also spoke to my curiosity about technology’s ability to transform, modify, and adapt the human body to new environments and events. I became acutely interested in reading feminist and disability study theories of the body (by wonderful scholars like Margrit Shildrick, Susan Wendell, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson), and so I ended up writing my dissertation on technology and the vulnerable body in feminist post-cyberpunk. I recognized that there was a huge gap in science fiction studies: very few scholars were addressing disability in SF. I wanted to—and still strive to—contribute to the necessary conversation about how disability is taken up in science fiction.

Speculating Canada: You are currently working on an anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction with Djibril al-Ayad titled Accessing the Future. Could you tell us a little bit about this anthology?

Kathryn Allan: The anthology is an intersectional one, focusing on disability, but also considering race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class in SF stories that explore the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future. One of our pitch lines for Accessing the Future is: “We want people of all abilities to see themselves, as they are now and as they want to be, in our collective human future.” We want stories that think about how humanity will modify the future world, ask what kinds of new spaces and technologies we will create, and, above all, answer the question: What does an accessible future look like? Both my co-editor (and publisher) Djibril and I love cyberpunk and feminist SF, so we’re hoping to see some stories that are inspired by those SF traditions. We’re currently running an crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, which ends on September 17th. The call for stories will open immediately after this fundraising campaign ends.

Speculating Canada: What inspired this collection?

Kathryn Allan: My desire to see SF stories where people with disabilities are represented as people and not as props or lessons! As much as I love SF, it’s tiring and upsetting to see people with disabilities being vilified, “cured,” or simply erased from the future (through things like genetic engineering). The community I live in is not homogenous; the friends and family I love are not all able-bodied. I want to read stories that express my reality and the reality of my chosen community. By editing a anthology of disability-themed stories, I hope that we can provide a space to as many voices as possible.

Speculating Canada: What are some of the problems that you have seen in the representation of disability in speculative fiction of the past?

Kathryn Allan: Ah! There are so many problems! Most of the representations of disability out there in SF are not good. As I mentioned above, people with disabilities are constantly being “cured” through medical interventions (whether they want it or not, rarely does the character in question have a choice in the matter). Prosthetics are idealized as a way to become super human…and then turn the person with a disability into an even greater threat to “normal” people. Visions of genetic engineering in SF are particularly awful: if a writer imagines a future world where disability is erased before birth, then that sends a terrible message to people with disabilities today (i.e., “you shouldn’t exist”). These kinds of representations are not only rampant in SF of the past, they continue to be proliferated today, which is why I feel so strongly in making sure that we encourage writers to create and engage with realistic depictions of disability.

Speculating Canada: What are some examples of science fiction that has done a good job of representing disability?

Kathryn Allan: The old standby answer is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, but I try to direct readers to more recent novels that they might not think of as being about disability. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a guest post on Pornokitsch [link: http://www.pornokitsch.com/2014/08/friday-five-5-positive-representations-of-disability-in-sf.html%5D “Five Positive Representations of Disability in Science Fiction,” where I talked about the Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl, Laura J. Mixon’s Up Against It, Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ancension, James Patrick Kelly’s “The Promise of Space,” and Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine. All of these stories take up disability in a way that does not reduce a character to their disability, their characters are both interesting and flawed (not just one-dimensional “inspirations” or villains), and they situate disability as a social construction (not as a personal “flaw”).

Speculating Canada: What do you hope to see more of in the representation of disability?

Kathryn Allan: Basically, I just want to see characters who have disabilities being awesome, boring, kickass, thoughtful, arrogant, funny, sexy, stubborn, clever, etc. I think you can see where I’m going here: I want representations of disability to be realistic and dynamic. Like, please, SF writers, stop curing everyone!

Speculating Canada: Disability Studies tends to focus a lot on realist fiction. What are some of the important things that can come out of looking at the representation of disability in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative genres?

Kathryn Allan: SF is a like testing ground for viable visions of the future. Writers get to try out new ideas in SF, as well as imagine possible futures that might come to be from the politics and events of the current day. Since so many people read speculative genres, I think it’s really important that the representations of disability in our “pretend” worlds have positive, realistic roles in them for everyone to identify with–and it’s also easier, in a way, to notice when those realistic roles aren’t present. When a writer creates a monstrous character, for example, what features are they using for monstrosity? When we start to read for and with disability in SF, all of the cultural assumptions about what makes a “good” worthwhile person comes to the foreground.

Speculating Canada: What things have really gotten you excited so far about the Accessing the Future volume you are working on?

Kathryn Allan: We’re still in the crowdfunding stage, but I’m excited about the level of interest we’ve had from both people with disabilities and able-bodied allies: stories are already being prepared for submission! As well, I’m quite happy that we’ve helped boost the level of conversation about disability in SF. Several able-bodied people have told me that they never thought about disability before at all, and are now reflecting on what they are writing and reading in terms of disability representation. More voices and more awareness means the better future(s) we can work towards!

Speculating Canada: Is there anything further you are interested in adding at the end of this interview?

Kathryn Allan: Signal boosts of all kinds are welcome. The more tweets, Facebook shares, and blog posts that people put out there, the greater visibility our campaign receives. We’ve done a solid job of speaking to the “diverse SF” community so far, but we need to the signal to be going out every day in creative ways, and to other genre communities as well. One of the ways that people can also participate is through our blog hop—you reflect on a short series of questions about disability and power in a current/recent story that you’re writing (or reading). You can find out more information about the blog hop here: http://djibrilalayad.blogspot.ca/2014/08/blog-hop-accessing-future-fiction.html

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

I want to thank Kathryn Allan for this brilliant interview and for all of her work looking at representations of disability in science fiction. I particularly want to give thanks to her for running an indiegogo campaign to fund Accessing the Future.

Upcoming Interview with Kathryn Allan About Accessing the Future on September 17

Kathryn Allan is an academic editor, an independent scholar of science fiction and disability studies, and has just launched an indigogo campaign to create a collection of science fiction featuring disability and people with disabilities titled Accessing the Future. As you can imagine, Kathryn Allan and I share a tonne of interests and I feel very fortunate to be able to interview her here on Speculating Canada.

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Kathryn Allan: “I’ve always had an interest in the relationship between technology and the human body.”

Kathryn Allan: “SF was not only a comfort to me when I was too tired and unwell to do much of anything other than read cyberpunk novels or watch Star Trek episodes, it also spoke to my curiosity about technology’s ability to transform, modify, and adapt the human body to new environments and events.”

Kathryn Allan: “We want stories that think about how humanity will modify the future world, ask what kinds of new spaces and technologies we will create, and, above all, answer the question: What does an accessible future look like?”

Kathryn Allan: “As much as I love SF, it’s tiring and upsetting to see people with disabilities being vilified, “cured,” or simply erased from the future (through things like genetic engineering).”

Kathryn Allan: “if a writer imagines a future world where disability is erased before birth, then that sends a terrible message to people with disabilities today (i.e., “you shouldn’t exist”).”

Kathryn Allan: “I want representations of disability to be realistic and dynamic.”

Kathryn Allan: “More voices and more awareness means the better future(s) we can work towards!”

Check out our full interview on September 17th and check out the Accessing the Future campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/accessing-the-future

 

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

 

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 5: Disability in Canadian SF

How many spaceships are wheelchair accessible? Do office buildings create light shielding for the undead who might be singed by solar exposure? Can my guide dog be a werewolf? Does one need to simply WALK into Mordor… or can one wheel in instead? SF has an interest in the body, whether it is the augmented body of sci fi, the body horror of the gothic, or the magically altered body of fantasy, and it is worth looking at the way disabilities are portrayed in Canadian SF.

Speculative fiction often explores the figure of the outsider, particularly the body that differs from the norm, and people with disabilities are often the subject of interest by SF authors. SF readings of the disabled body often speak to the way that disabled people are ‘read’ in our world and our time. This episode examines the interest in bodily difference and in treatments of the disabled body that can be either empowering or intensely problematic.

Among the positive portrayals of disability in Canadian SF that are discussed, we take a look at

Tanya Huff’s Blood Books

James Alan Gardner’s Expendable

Leah Bobet’s Above

Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy

and

Sparkle Hayter’s Naked Brunch

Click on the icon below to hear the full radio programme.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Cripping the Light Fantastic: Disability and Speculative Fiction

A Brief Exploration of Disability in Speculative Fiction
By Derek Newman-Stille

This post will explore some of the notions we examined in my panel at Can Con on Disability in Canadian SF. The panel went extremely well, and I hope to be able to share some insights with Speculating Canada readers who were unable to make it to Can Con.

The various speculative genres of fiction can engage with notions of the disabled body in a variety of different ways: through the notion of the medical cure or the augmented body of Science Fiction, the magically changed body of Fantasy, body horror and notions of disfigurement in Horror. Speculative Fictional engagements with the body are often problematic and disabling, much as the superstructure of our society is disabling in its construction of certain bodies as “problematic”. Through the absense of disabled bodies, or the treatment of the disabled as people who “need to be fixed”, SF can disable.

Disability is a socially constructed phenomenon, casting certain bodies as “unable” when the social structure itself is unwilling to accommodate bodily diversity. Texts (books, films, televisions, and other items of culture) can disable in the way they present certain bodies, re-affirming societal biases or reinforcing power dynamics. BUT, they can also disrupt these power dynamics. Literature has the power to change the way people think. It can reinforce or change social conditions. Speculative fiction, in particular, can SPECULATE. It can ask questions, encourage its readers to ask questions, and these questions can challenge social notions that are largely unchallenged and taken as unquestioned truths in our society.

Speculative Fiction has the power to present a different world of possibility where ideas about disability can be questioned, where disability is treated as a social issue, not an issue with the bodies of specific individuals. However, this requires a deep awareness of the issues and a desire to see social change on the part of SF authors.

As readers we can ask questions like:

-How is disability presented in this novel?

-Does this portrayal empower people with disabilities or does it disempower them?

-Is disability treated as a convenient plot device or is it a part of a wider narrative?

-Is disability portrayed accurately?

-What questions is the author asking about disability?

-Do I feel like the portrayal of people with disabilities is stereotypical.

Remember, as a reader, you can (and should) pose critical questions about what you read – interrogate it, challenge it, and question it. That is part of the enjoyment of reading and being an engaged reader.

As authors we can ask questions like:

-Have I consulted with the disabled community about this?

-What questions about disability does my work bring attention to?

-Do I construct disability as a “problem body” or as an issue of a society that is unwilling to accommodate bodily diversity?

-Have I made my character with disabilities a complete character or a walking symbol and plot device?

-Does my work challenge stereotypes or does it reinforce them?

-Have I considered how disability would relate to all situations or am I only applying issues of disability when it is convenient to my plot?

-What common tropes about disability do I want to avoid?

One of the most important things to consider is the axiom “Nothing About Us Without Us”. If you are an able-bodied author writing about disability, you should make sure to talk to members of the disability community about your characters. In the same way as you may research ideas of physics for your starships or the history of portrayals of the werewolf for your horror novel, consult with the experts about disability. This is even more important research than physics or mythology because it pertains to real people, and real readers that you may alienate or disempower through your writing.

 

Here are a few common tropes of disability that I observed when reading and watching portrayals of disability in Speculative Fiction novels, comics, movies, and television. I used these to create a disability trope bingo for the panel on disability at Can Con, and I thought I would replicate it here for you to explore:

 

Disability Trope Bingo

Mark your bingo card whenever you see a disability trope appearing on the slide. Feel free to mark multiple spaces if there are multiple categories that apply.

Here are the questions for each of the categories:
B1: My disability is a superpower
B2: “Better dead than disabled”
B3: The magical / technological cure
B4: Other senses magnified to “cope” with “deficit”
B5: Disabled person as inconvenience to others
I1: Disabled person as inspirational
I2: People helping disabled people as heroic
I3: Disability as burden on the social system
I4: Disabled person as perpetual victim
I5: Disabled in Distress (always needing to be saved by the Able-bodied)
N1: Exclusively plot relevant disability that is forgotten at other times
N2: The “Who is at fault for this person being disabled” trope
N3: The token disabled character
N4: Assuming disability means ubiquitously unable
N5: Disability as ugliness
G1: Disability only as contrast with perfection or to highlight the perfection of another character as the opposite
G2: Disability as moral weakness of character or villainy
G3: Assuming every emotional state of the disabled person relates to his/her disability
G4: Character angry at world because of their disability – defined by frustration
G5: “Heroic Disabled” able to “overcome disability”
O1: “Tragically damaged” former hero – often a person who is disabled in an act of heroism and is now unable to accomplish heroic feats
O2: Disability as only a state of mind – the idea that a person can overcome disability with enough willpower
O3: Cursed Disabled – victim of magic
O4: Disabled as mentor for hero
O5: Disability hiding other difference

 

 

 

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Regarding the title of this post, as a disabled person, I am reclaiming (like many scholars of disability and people with disabilities) the term “crip” that has often been used to oppress and disempower people with disabilities.

This is only an initial exploration of the topic of disability in SF and should not be considered complete. It is used here only to open dialogue about disability in SF.

Perfect Bodies

A Review of Don Bassingthwaite’s “Too Much is Never Enough” in Imaginarium 2013: The Best Canadian Speculative Fiction (ChiZine Publications, 2013)

Cover image of Imaginarium 2013 courtesy of ChiZine Publications. Cover art by GMB Chomichuk

Cover image of Imaginarium 2013 courtesy of ChiZine Publications. Cover art by GMB Chomichuk

By Derek Newman-Stille

We live in a society in which bodily perfection is considered a major goal. Our society privileges its ideas of beauty, its entrenched notions of health, and able-bodiedness. People medically modify their bodies, cosmetically alter them to appear more like the norms and desires of our society, altering their essential selves. Don Bassingthwaite’s “Too Much is Never Enough” allies this desire for bodily perfection with athleticism. Marco Cole finds himself modified, altered, his body more attractive than before… so much so that he can’t stop looking at himself. He becomes stronger, faster, and more dangerous. The danger from him is not just from his bodily abilities, but from the modifications that have been done to his mind. Whenever he suffers, whenever he has a conflict of morality or fear, his body triggers a Dopamine switch to make him learn to enjoy fear, and pain and to get rid of any concern

Like his body, Marco finds that his will is controlled. He is forged into a fighter for a championship match, but the main objective he has had forced onto him is to assassinate a man. He becomes the perfect killing doll, modified into a military Barbie, posed and perfected until he is nothing but plastic, a play thing of his owners.

Bassingthwaite explores the dangers of a system that is based on a desire for modification and the loss that occurs when bodies are changed, altered, and modified for a social purpose. Modifications and the social pressure to enhance the body and conform it to social notions of beauty and control are difficult to battle against, and it is hard to wrestle control away from the desires that are written onto our bodies.

To discover more about Imaginarium 2013, visit ChiZine Publications’ website at http://chizinepub.com/books/imaginarium/imaginarium_2013.php . To find out more about Don Bassingthwaite, you can visit his website at http://dbassingthwaite.com/ .