Geek Girl Magic

A Review of Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life (First Second, 2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

in real life

 

Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life explores the complexity of geek girl life. Focusing on Anda, a high school student who finally finds her place in the MMORPG game Coursegold Online, Doctorow and Wang examine the flexibility of identities in an MMORPG-enabled world. Anda is a young woman who is able to explore her identity and knowledge of herself and her world through her online identity, creating an online persona that she sees as full of potential to go where her physical form can not. Over time, Anda starts to modify her own looks to reflect her online avatar more, exploring the critical question of what is “real” and whether there can be a “real” any more.

 

In Real Life explores aspects of MMORPGS like the uncritical racism involved in gamers assuming that anyone who is a non-English speaker is a ‘gold farmer’ (those who level up characters and then sell them to gamers for real money) and therefore not a “real” gamer. Anda has to confront her own racism about those believed to be gold farmers and has to deal with online bullying as a result. Anda discovers the power of the online world for developing community, but she also discovers the potential of online communities for developing factions and fracturing groups of people.

 

In Real Life is a graphic novel that questions ideas of reality and points out that we create our realities out of the texts we have been given – whether these are online fora or whether they are social assumptions that have been provided to us as texts for interpreting our world. Doctorow and Wang illustrate that reality is a fluid concept and one that is constantly being reshaped and changed as new understandings and ways of interpreting the world become available. They point out the reality-questioning potential of online gaming.

 

To discover more about In Real Life, visit http://www.firstsecondbooks.com/

Stigma is Sticky

Stigma is StickyA review of Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos (Margaret McElderry Books, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

As she frequently does, Nalo Hopkinson uses her novel The Chaos to disrupt hegemonic ideas of normalcy, questioning what is ‘normal’ and using the supernatural and magical to point out the way that the norms we create are equally strange. The Chaos takes elements of fantasy, magical realism, and Lovecraftian weird fiction and blends them with a surreal sense of a world where anything can happen. 

When a volcano suddenly appears out of Lake Ontario, the world becomes populated with creatures of myth and magic that disrupt the categories we use to impose a sense of order on our world – the rolling calf, tar babies, fish who swim upstream through lava, Horseless Head Men, and an archaeopteryx that may also be a phoenix. Story and place intermix in a way that illustrates the way that we already impose stories on our landscape to limit it. Hopkinson illustrates that we are always in a world of stories and that we create our own stories to understand ourselves and others. 

The Chaos presents a world where the thoughts and stories we tell ourselves enter into our world, shaping us physically like they do mentally and socially. When people in Hopkinson’s world are able to see the mythic, it changes their relationships to each other, and their relationship to themselves. The Chaos is as much about identity as it is about magic. The altered space of the Toronto landscape disrupts a sense of ‘home’, allowing characters to question their notions of belonging and how they fit into their world and communities.

The name of Hopkinson’s protagonist, Sojourner, literally ‘a stranger in a strange land’ highlights the sense of powerful estrangement that shapes her tale. She is a teen who has experienced stigma all of her life, being bullied and slut-shamed as a younger teen, and being perceived as constantly other than she is – seen as too white to fit in with black peers and too black to fit in with white peers. She has created her group of outsiders that have created their own brand of belonging. Yet, her body is under change as a sticky, black tar like substance begins spreading across her skin, changing her and her relationship to her body. She is becoming different and uncertain to herself, and yet her uncertainty about herself may serve to give her further self knowledge about the stories she uses to narrate her own life.

Hopkinson illustrates the way that change is resisted by those in hegemonic power as mobs of people begin targeting people with disabilities, those who are non-white, and those who identify as queer, seeing them as part of the “chaotic changes” happening in their world. In particular, she examines the role of police causing more damage in their attempts to control the change they see happening around them. Hopkinson points out the way that ableism, homophobia, and racism show themselves more blatantly when “normalcy” is disrupted. When bodies and minds are disrupted.

In The Chaos, the boundaries of categories that seek to separate things are broken down and the world’s complexities cease to be able to be ignored as individual perceptions because they have become physical. Hopkinson’s surrealist word painting of the world, despite its strangeness, only serves to underscore the strangeness of normalcy. Reading this tale allows us all to become Sojourners as we return to our own strange world, questioning it.
To discover more about The Chaos, visit http://www.simonandschuster.ca/books/The-Chaos/Nalo-Hopkinson/9781442459267 

To find out more about the work of Nalo Hopkinson, visit http://nalohopkinson.com/

Multiple Faces of Identity

A Review of Kate Story’s “Show and Tell” In Playground of Lost Toys (Exile Editions, 2015)by Derek Newman-Stille

School can be a horror story. It is a space where identity is controlled and regulated and where normalcy and conformity rein. Anyone who doesn’t belong is firmly aware that they are the school’s monster and those who enforce that normalcy treat those who don’t belong monstrously. In “Show and Tell”, Kate Story’s narrator was punished constantly as a child for daydreaming and was treated regularly as a social outsider. She was subjected to gendered expectations for women about “attractiveness”, having her facial features policed and told that certain facial features were unattractive and therefore inappropriate. 

When Story’s narrator has to return to her school as an adult before the building is demolished, she collides with her own identity and the multiplicity of options her life could have taken. She finds her old school cubby hole still intact with her old Saucy Doll shoved away at the back of the cubby. The doll has the capacity to shift through different expressions as her arm is pumped and as the narrator takes the doll through the different facial features, she sees a world of different possibilities, underlying the different masks that people wear at different times of their lives. The Saucy Doll underscores the idea of roads not taken, possibilities missed, and opportunities taken differently by the narrator – the different worlds that she could have inhabited if she had made different choices. 

Story’s use of the multi-faced Saucy doll underscores the social perception of childhood as a time of multiple potentials, a world open to possibilities and choices and the idea of adulthood as an experience of choices already taken and options limited. “Show and Tell” is a narrative about memory and the discovery of different aspects of selfhood. In the multiple faces of the doll, we can see the multiple masks that we, ourselves, wear throughout our lives, shifting expressions to express different aspects of ourselves. 

Story plays with the notion of the uncanny valley, the idea that as something approaches looking human it looks cute until it gets too close to human appearance and then it causes discomfort. In this case, the Saucy Doll embodies ideas of attractiveness and prescriptive femininity, attempting to shape the way that women are allowed to BE in this world. The Saucy Doll and its presence in the school embodies ideas of memory, trauma, and the passage of time. The narrator finds herself mimicking the expressions of her doll, shaped by her doll, illustrating the way that dolls shape the identities of young girls and the expectations about how they are able to present themselves in the world. Dolls are normally things that mirror us as we project on them, instead she is mirroring her doll and being projected upon by the doll. 

To find out more about the work of Kate Story, visit her website at http://www.katestory.com

To discover more about Playground of Lost Toys visit Exile’s website at http://www.theexilewriters.com 

Interview with Timothy Carter

An Interview with Timothy Carter by Derek Newman-Stille

As you have probably noticed from a lot of the reviews that I have conducted as well as the questions that I ask authors, I have a strong interest in the power of SF to ask powerful social questions and challenge prejudices. I was incredibly happy that Timothy Carter agreed to do an interview here and talk about the power of YA fiction to challenge preconceptions and present new ways of thinking about the world.

Spec Can: Could you tell readers a little bit about yourself to start this interview?

Author photo courtesy of Timothy Carter

Author photo courtesy of Timothy Carter

Timothy Carter: I am Timothy Carter – author, cat servant, and lover of a good cup of tea. And Transformers. I’m such a fanatic for those guys. And Doctor Who. Big genre fanboy, that’s me. I love it, and I create it. My main output could be called humorous young adult fantasy. I call it far-fetched fiction. I hope and plan to entertain young minds with my stories for as long as I live, and hopefully well beyond that.

Spec Can: A lot of your work features the image of the bully. What is the importance of the bully to current Canadian society and how can authors like yourself help people to think about the bullying phenomenon?

Timothy Carter: A lot of my protagonists/heroes are kids who are the victims of bullying, yes. One of the oldest bits of writing advice is to write what you know, and I know a lot about bullies. My characters overcome their tormentors the way I never could.

I don’t write about bullies or bullying, however. There isn’t a story I’ve written that I could point to and say, “That one’s about bullying.” I may do, one day, but for now I’ve simply presented bullying as something my characters put up with. As an unfortunate aspect of life. Something wrong, but normal.

And I rarely present resolution to those situations. My bully characters do not often face the consequences for their actions (the obvious exception being Barnaby from Epoch, who well and truly got what was coming to him), which for me is a truthful way of depicting bullying in general. School officials can brag about their zero-tolerance policies all they want, but that won’t change very much. You can’t just wipe something like bullying out with a hastily-concocted policy; you need to understand why it happens. Why is it so much fun to cause another person pain? And why do we secretly despise the victim? We reward strength and look down on those who are weak, an attitude that encourages (and rewards) bullying. Changing an attitude that’s been with humankind long before we called ourselves civilized… well, I can plant the idea in readers’ heads, but it will take a lot more to get society to act on it.

Spec Can: A  lot of your work features images of magic and people who use magic. Why is magic of so much interest to readers?

Timothy Carter: Why is magic of such interest? Because we don’t have any. Did you notice how that last sentence began with ‘because?’ I did that just to annoy my English teachers.

Getting back to the topic at hand, people love to read about stuff they don’t have. We love spy novels because secret agents have cool skills, nifty gadgets, and interesting lives. We read about knights because they’re all noble and heroic and they hack people up with swords. Science fiction stories have space ships and ray guns (unless they are written by Real, Serious Hard SF authors, who will insist on calling such things Starships and Level Seventeen Phase Disruptors).

And fantasy stories often have magic. And we don’t. But wouldn’t it be cool if we did?

Spec Can: Your novel Evil?  features a boy who has recently come out of the closet as gay. What is the importance of teen readers reading about a gay-oriented character?

Cover photo of Evil? courtesy of Timothy Carter

Cover photo of Evil? courtesy of Timothy Carter

Timothy Carter: When I was in my early teens, I thought the idea of someone being gay was funny and wrong: funny, because everyone would tell jokes about them; and wrong, because that’s what my church youth group leaders told me I was supposed to believe. I started to question these notions in my late teens, and concluded there was nothing strange or wrong with gay people by the time I reached adulthood. I really regret that it took me so long. It really should not have done. If I’d had a book like Evil to read back in my teen years, it might have helped me see beyond the stupidity and hate a lot sooner.

When I wrote Evil, I needed a gay character for the sake of the plot. I did not, however, consider Evil to be a ‘gay’ novel. It was important to me that Evil be a YA fantasy that happened to feature a gay character, so I could show readers that being gay was no big deal. Stuart’s sexual orientation was an aspect of his character, but it wasn’t his defining characteristic.

The more YA books there are with gay characters, the more young readers will see that being gay is just as acceptable as being straight.

Spec Can: A lot of your work features the figure of the monster, and often challenges the people good / monsters bad dichotomy. What is the importance of monsters in teen fiction and why are morally ambiguous monsters so significant?

Timothy Carter: Monsters aren’t normal, and neither am I! And by normal I mean average and everyday. I like to play around with people’s expectations, suggest one thing and present the exact opposite. People expect monsters to be evil, pure and simple. Especially demons. People also assume that angels are always good. I love writing villainous angels! And I enjoy playing with the notion of what a demon is. Fon Pyre from Evil was a fun character to write.

In teen fiction, monsters are useful as metaphors. Anyone who has seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has seen this done extremely well. It’s fairly simple to replace a brooding loner with a vampire, the football team with a pack of trolls, the cheerleaders with elves or fairies, or puberty with lycanthropy. A monster gives you the opportunity to write about Issues without being so obvious about it.

Spec Can: What are some of the most important questions that you hope your work will open up in readers’ minds?

Timothy Carter: I hope to encourage readers to question the world around them. Especially authority. People don’t get to tell you what to do ‘just cuz.’

I hope to get readers to look at the world differently. Things aren’t always what they seem, or mean what we think they mean. An angel could be your greatest enemy, the loser you pick on your bravest hero. Popular opinion doesn’t have to be your opinion, and your point of view matters just as much as anyone else’s.

I also try and point out that the world should not be taken very seriously. Have a laugh, have some fun, and try not to get all worked up about things because most of it won’t matter in a year or so.

Spec Can: How much do your own spiritual or religious beliefs influence your writing?

Timothy Carter: Completely. I don’t think there is a story I’ve written that wasn’t influenced by my spiritual side. I have a lot of strong feelings about religion, and a great interest in metaphysics. I love to use religious and spiritual concepts (like Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, the soul and karma) in my fiction. The subject matter is inspirational, and I still have a lot to say about it.

Spec Can: Your novel Evil? deals with issues of prejudice and the spread of hatred. How can writing about hate crimes help society to prevent hate crimes and become more accepting of diversity?

Timothy Carter: Writing about hate crimes will get them further into the public eye, for sure. There is a danger, however, in writing a “hate crime book.” You never want to go into the writing process thinking “I’m going to write a novel about (insert Issue here).” Young readers are savvy and know when they are being preached to. I like to have morals and lessons come about on their own, rather than saying “In chapter 12, Dylan will learn a valuable lesson about sharing!”

Of course, if you want certain subjects to come up in your story, you can increase the chances of that happening naturally by putting the right characters in there. I wanted to have a go at homophobia when I was writing Evil, so I introduced Reverend Feltless into the mix. He did exactly what it was in his nature to do, and the story dealt with homophobia without that issue interfering in a ‘lesson’ sort of way.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you plan your book to be a “Johnny Learns About Hate Crimes” story, the message will likely feel forced. If one of your characters has a penchant for prejudice, their interaction with the others should bring it out of them in a more subtle, organic way.

Spec Can: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?

Timothy Carter: After all that, you want more? Gee wizz, man. I got a home to go to! 😉 There is one thing I’d like to ask of your readers – if you like an author’s work, don’t keep it to yourself. A lot of writers are struggling, and desperate for some attention. Give it to them! Like their Facebook pages. Follow their Twitter feeds. Leave comments on their blog posts. I say this not just for my own benefit (but BTW, my website is www.timothycarterworld.com ), but for a lot of author friends I have who work so very hard to get their words out. No writer wants to get that letter that tells them their book is going out of print due to lack of sales (I have. Evil & Epoch are toast, and The Cupid War is limping). Tell your friends and family about your favourite authors. Write reviews of their work on Goodreads. And please keep asking them to do interviews! Which reminds me, thanks for this one.

 

I want to thank Timothy Carter for this fantastic interview and his many insights on the ability of SF to challenge taken-for-granted notions of the way the world “has to be”. If you haven’t had a chance to check out Timothy Carter’s website yet, you can explore it at http://timothycarterworld.com/ .

And I second Mr. Carter’s sentiment at the end of this interview. You can do a great service to authors by reviewing their books, checking out their websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. Authors are an incredible resource, and it is great to show them our support. 

Upcoming interview with Timothy Carter on Thursday, February 7th

I met Timothy Carter in October during Can Con, an Ottawa-based Speculative Fiction Conference (http://www.can-con.org/). Timothy gave a fantastic talk and I knew that I wanted to share some of his insights with all of you on Speculating Canada. He, fortunately, agreed to do an interview and share some brilliant insights with all of you.

Timothy Carter author, cat servant, and lover of tea shares his insights on humorous YA fantasy, the bullying phenomenon, writing Queer or LGBTQ2 characters, creating ambiguous characters, writing monsters, religion and supernatural fiction, the power of humour to question the taken-for-granted, the ability of fiction to challenge authority, writing good YA without being preachy, and writing about hate crimes.

Here are a few teasers from the upcoming interview on Thursday Febdurary 7th:

Timothy Carter: “A lot of my protagonists/heroes are kids who are the victims of bullying. One of the oldest bits of writing advice is to write what you know, and I know a lot about bullies. My characters overcome their tormentors the way I never could.”

Timothy Carter: “School officials can brag about their zero-tolerance policies all they want, but that won’t change very much. You can’t just wipe something like bullying out with a hastily-concocted policy; you need to understand why it happens. Why is it so much fun to cause another person pain? And why do we secretly despise the victim? We reward strength and look down on those who are weak, an attitude that encourages (and rewards) bullying.”

Timothy Carter: “The more YA books there are with gay characters, the more young readers will see that being gay is just as acceptable as being straight.”

Timothy Carter: “Monsters aren’t normal, and neither am I! And by normal I mean average and everyday. I like to play around with people’s expectations, suggest one thing and present the exact opposite. People expect monsters to be evil, pure and simple. Especially demons. People also assume that angels are always good. I love writing villainous angels!”

Timothy Carter: “A monster gives you the opportunity to write about Issues without being so obvious about it.”

Timothy Carter: “I hope to encourage readers to question the world around them. Especially authority.”

Timothy Carter: “I like to have morals and lessons come about on their own, rather than saying ‘In chapter 12, Dylan will learn a valuable lesson about sharing!’”

Timothy Carter: “I guess what I’m saying is, if you plan your book to be a “Johnny Learns About Hate Crimes” story, the message will likely feel forced. If one of your characters has a penchant for prejudice, their interaction with the others should bring it out of them in a more subtle, organic way.”

I hope that you get a chance to check out this interview and that you enjoy Mr. Carter’s insights as much as I did. If you haven’t had a chance to read my review of Timothy Carter’s YA novel Evil, you can check it out at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/bullying-bodies-and-baddies/ . You may also want to check out Timothy Carter’s website at http://timothycarterworld.com/

Bullying, Bodies, and Baddies

A Review of Timothy Carter’s Evil? (Flux, 2009)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Fitting perfectly with the current interest in the bullying phenomenon and finding ways to stop bullying, Timothy Carter’s Teen Fiction novel Evil? features a queer-oriented teen growing up in a small town in Northern Canada. His town is highly Christian and even teens in this town admonish people for “taking the Lord’s name in vain”.

Stuart is a teen who is unsure of his religious beliefs, feeling excluded from certain aspects of Christianity because of his queer orientation. He does what anyone who wants to find out the truth about religion does… he consults with the source, a reliable figure…. a demon. In his ritual patterns, Stuart weaves a spell requiring the demon to speak only the truth and asks him questions about Christian belief. He finds out that despite what others suggest, there is nothing evil about homosexuality: “God doesn’t care who you kiss” (30). As an outsider, this demon who hates him and only wants free is one of the closest things that Stuart has to a friend… the other is the local priest who similarly explains that homosexuality is not a sin.

Timothy Carter disrupts the notion of the small town as a haven and location of rural safety when he illustrates what can happen in a small town to a queer teen. Although Stuart’s mother moved to the small town to keep his family safe from the dangers of urban regions, Stuart finds himself without friends and fundamentally abject (made an outsider) – his classmates will use homophobic comments with the words “no offense” as a means of disarming the implied hatred their words embody.

Eventually, Stuart faces mob violence, but, oddly enough it is not for his homosexuality, but because he is caught masturbating in the shower. The town begins a religious crusade against the crime of “spilling”, the Sin of Onan. He is subjected to bullying by schoolmates, teachers, humiliated publically and the victim of violence. Surprised that masturbation is the thing that causes religious mob violence against him instead of his homosexuality, Stuart starts to inquire about the motivation for hate crimes and discovers that a supernatural being is behind the sudden surge in hatred. It is only through gathering together a small band of outsiders, a priest, a demon, and a general attitude of acceptance that Stuart can begin to fight the tide of evil that has submerged his town.

Although masturbation is used by Timothy Carter as the vehicle for discussing issues of violence against social outsiders, and although he attributes a supernatural cause to the bullying, he is pointing to an overall issue of violence in the schools against students who are treated as social outcasts: queer-identified students, racialised students, students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Carter brings our attention to the wider issues of violence that occurs in the schools and how embedded it is in our behaviours. He uses the supernatural as a mechanism for pointing out the absurdity of the bullying phenomenon and the need for real social change to prevent the issues the underlay bullying.

Evil? displays Timothy Carter’s incredible sense of humour while dealing with deep issues like the entrenched nature of homophobia, body shame, fear of sexual expression, and bullying. It is a fundamentally deep teen fiction book that calls the reader to question the origin of ideas of hatred and their impact on teen lives. It asks the reader to question everything and to determine their own belief systems. Carter expresses the importance of teens deciding their own truths and finding their own path.

Despite the religious questions evoked by the story, ultimately it has a pro-Christian, or at least pro-belief-in-something-like-the-Christian-God message. Despite not wanting to be like biased, dogmatic Christians, Stuart is forced to engage in questions of faith and debate about whether he is being dogmatic in his own rejection of the notion of a higher power. Despite the religious message, as a non-Christian reading this book, I found it entertaining, hilarious, and great at asking tough questions.

Author photo courtesy of Timothy Carter

This book would be an excellent one to suggest to a teen struggling with questions of identity, religion, bullying, or concerns about the body. It would be a great addition to a school or public library so that teens can peruse it in privacy if they are worried about attracting attention from bullies.  Adult readers will find this book interesting for the depth of the story, the questions it evokes, the development of the characters, and the general humour that animates the text.

You can find out more about Timothy Carter at http://timothycarterworld.com/ and read more about Evil? and his other novels.