Superhero Complex(ity)

A review of Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa, Tyche Books LTD, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Masked Mosaic courtesy of Tyche Books

Cover photo of Masked Mosaic courtesy of Tyche Books

There has been a recent increase in the public interest in the superhero genre with increasing numbers of superhero movies, increasing numbers of people wearing superhero related merchandise and increasingly larger population groups getting excited about the figure of the superhero. Yet superheroes that are being represented often embody American ideals of the self-made man, the perfect body, and dichotomous views of good and evil. It is therefore timely that Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa released Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories.

Masked Mosaic seeks to push the boundaries of the superhero genre: to include complexities and issues that were often ignored in the Golden Age of comics and continue to be ignored in our culture’s nostalgia over comic figures of the past. The stories in this volume often play with Golden Age themes and complicate them. Rather than replicating hegemonies, the characters are diverse: aged, not ideals of bodily perfection, queer/ LGBTQ2, and culturally diverse. They represent a more inclusive reality of Canadian culture. It is a combination of pastiche and resistance to the past hegemonies that were embedded and encoded in Golden Age comics.

The binary image of superheroes with a universal idea of good and evil is disrupted in this volume, blurring the boundaries between hero and villain. The authors of these short stories recognise that heroes often support causes that are unjust and that heroism is often tied to political beliefs of the time and are not, in fact, universal concepts. Heroism is tied to ideologies of the ruling elite, enforcing power structures. Yesterday’s heroes may be considered today’s villains or vice versa. This volume is a reminder that heroes can fall.

Superheroes as mythic and iconic symbols are explored as well as exploring the complexities and problematic nature of symbols.

Featuring the work of E.L. Chen, Kristi Charish, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Jonathan Olfert, Kevin Cockle, David Nickle, Derryl Murphy, D.K. Latta, Emma Faraday, Mike Rimar, Emma Vossen, Patrick T. Goddard, A.C. Wise, Rhea Rose, David Perlmutter, Lisa Poh, Marie Bilodeau, Rhonda and Jonathan Parrish, Chantal Boudreau, Michael S. Chong, Jason Sharp, Alyxandra Harvey, Michael Matheson, and Jason S. Ridler this volume contains a diversity of voices in Canadian SF – both new and established. The stories involve everything from supervillains in a relationship with heroes, superheroes made out of dreams, Mexican wrestlers, aliens, seamstresses, archaeologists playing with possession, and figures from the Canadian mythic past and from history.

In an era of obsession with origin stories, Lalumiere and Alexa collect stories that represent every part of the superhero’s life from origin to retirement.

You can find out more about the Masked Mosaic collection at Tyche Books’ website http://tychebooks.com/ . You can check out a review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Iron Justice Versus the Fiends of Evil” from this volume at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/unmasked

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Science and Speculative Fiction

An editorial on Science and Speculative Fiction By Derek Newman-StilleCanada Day

Although as a society, we often create an impenetrable barrier between the arts and sciences, seeing each as separate and distinct from one another, these barriers are historically created and are social inventions. The origin of science is through philosophy, remember. Science Fiction (or more widely, Speculative Fiction) is one of the arenas where there are still obvious bridges between the arts and sciences – being a production of artistic endeavor, but also dealing with ideas coming out of technology and sciences.

Several Canadian SF authors including Julie Czerneda, Scott Fotheringham, and Nina Munteanu have operated in the field of science, noticing the opportunity that SF provides to explore critical questions around science. Czerneda has even used science fiction as a mechanism for teaching students about science, allowing them to play out scientific ideas in a science fictional setting.

SF allows authors to explore the social implications of science, the social contexts and ideological underpinnings that accompany scientific endeavors. SF explores the social ramifications of scientific ideas and developments, exploring what could happen, where things could go, what social issues could develop in correspondence with technological invention, seeing the sociocultural aspect of science rather than viewing scientific ideology as separate from the social sphere and divorced from its ideological implications. SF can provide a critical lens to scientific pursuits, providing writers and readers the opportunity to insert the deeper questions into scientific explorations: asking “Why?”, “What happens if…?”, and “What could come from this?”.

So often, scientists are wrapped up in the act of invention, in the process of discovery, that they ignore what the implications of their research could be, how it could be used (and for whom), and how it could be made to serve purposes for which it was not intended. The research for research’s sake mentality sometimes cultivates an ideology that ignores social implications. SF can provide social warnings about where things could go, bringing ideas back into the world and seeing how they could play out within a political, societal sphere.

SF often displays scientific ideas magnified, extremified, exaggerated to illustrate possible implications, highlighting the dangers as well as the potentialities that could be embodied in the process of discovery, and the hazardous places that society could take scientific invention to. SF can be a place to explore moral issues in relation to technology – what are the implications of invention? How will inventions shift our consciousness and the way we view the world? Will we still capture what is fundamentally human if we switch our basic behaviours, our patterns of thought, or even our bodies themselves?

Writers can use SF as a medium for exploring whether the social or the technological will be a greater mechanism of change. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence explores whether social change or technological change will be the thing that will deter the destruction of our natural environment and deal with the development of pollutants. Will we be able to shift our way of thinking about the world to be more ecologically safe, or will we once again try to rely on a technological invention to solve our problems?

SF can illustrate the limits of science to repair our social problems. We tend, as a society, to put a lot of faith in the idea that science will solve our problems, whether they be environmental (as illustrated by our trend to introduce new species into ecosystems as an attempt to control those ecosystems) or medical (believing that the medical profession can solve our bodily ills).We often take science as a given solution, as an ideology founded in concepts of “Truth”, rather than a set of theories that is open to challenge and is historically contingent (formed from a specific line of thought that has developed over time). SF provides a space to question the unquestioned authority of science and our social belief that science can solve our world’s ills.

One of the fora of scientific exploration that SF has been doing a great job of critiquing is the field of medicine, and, particularly, the ideologies that are created from viewing the body mechanically (as something that can be fixed through forced normalisation). One of the areas that is most affected by the medicalised ‘normalcy’ forced on bodies is the area of diverse bodies, and people with disabilities, who are often subjected to painful procedures in an attempt to normalise their bodies rather than shifting social ideologies to allow for more diversity and more accessible spaces for diverse bodies. Leah Bobet does a great job of critiquing the medicalised body in her YA novel Above, where she presents readers with a group of individuals who are mutated or bodily different in certain ways (either with crab arms, the ability to transform into a bee, lion feet, or the ability to speak to ghosts) who have escaped from medical facilities that broke their feet, cut off their arms, and subjected them to harsh medical drugs in order to force their bodies to resemble the human ‘norms’. These people created a community called “Safe”, a place of safety away from the “Whitecoats” (doctors, scientists, psychiatrists, and other medical practitioners). The ideas of healing used by the Whitecoats were shaped by the idea that only certain bodies are normal, and any others are threatening and would be changed (even in painful and destructive ways) to represent that norm.

Camille Alexa, in her short story “All Them Pretty Babies” (from OnSpec Vol 24, No 3) takes this idea even further, presenting a future in which the population is limited, and yet, the society that is fighting for its own survival is still willing to cast out those who are bodily different, those mutations that threaten ideas of the normal. Scientists cast bodies out into areas of intense radiation while they try to preserve their ideas of what is and should be human, allowing anyone who deviates from that idea of humanity to rot in radioactive woods.

In Sparkle Hayter’s naked brunch, a doctor tries to medicalise the werewolf. Rather than accepting it as a figure of legend, he ascribes a disease to this different body: “Lycanthropoic Metamorphic Disorder”. He treats these medically diverse bodies as threatening, trying to force the werewolves to pass as human, subjecting them to harsh treatments that lead to chemical addictions and often death in an attempt to have them be more like ‘normal’, ‘regular’ human beings. He and his society deny the possibility that diverse bodies are useful and even necessary in a social system, that this diversity can be healthy.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake illustrates the extremes of danger that could be involved in the economicisation of medical technology. Her future is one in which pharmaceutical companies have solved all of the medical problems, but periodically release viral epidemics to spur the social need to buy more advanced cures and spend more money on medical advances to fuel the pharmaceutical industry. She shadows the issues we see in our society now where a great deal is medically possible, but the access to that medical technology is often restricted by wealth, and where often research is focussed on treatment (which is a greater long term investment) than on cures.

Canadian SF can also point out our reliance on technology. Joseph Macchiusi’s The Betelgeuse Oracle shows a world after the release of a massive EM pulse and the challenges of a world without technology. Urban spaces become deserts cut off from the modes of production, and characters have to adapt to a world that is different from the one that suffused their existence since birth. One character is so dependent on his connection to technology and particularly to communications technology and the need to be connected that he carries his dead cell phone everywhere with him and spends precious moments alternating batteries to try to re-activate it. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence illustrates the world’s reliance on plastic and the social breakdowns that occur when plastic is removed from our society.

One of the issues with science is that it often limits things into easy (and uncritical) categories (such as binary notions of gender), and good Canadian SF complicates these theories, disrupts this boundaries and categories and shows the complexity of the issues involved. It questions the foundations of categorization altogether.

SF doesn’t just critique scientific endeavours, SF also provides the opportunity for creative thought. So often people become limited in their outlook, navel-gazing within their own field and looking only at what is currently possible instead of what is impossible. Often it is in the sphere of the impossible where new ideas are found, new visions of things, and new ways of considering things outside of what is ‘normal’. Reading and writing SF allows for the development of insights into the impossible, the places of new innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.

SF explores the “what ifs” that are the foundation of scientific hypothesis building.

Science and SF can provide a powerful conversation with each other, changing, questioning, and challenging each other.

Here are some points that SF authors have raised about Science in their Interviews on Speculating Canada:

SCOTT FOTHERINGHAM

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/interview-with-scott-fotheringham/ )

Scott Fotheringham: I wanted to use what I had learned of biology to perform a thought experiment: What would happen if plastic began to disappear? Because

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

that probably won’t happen because we choose to make it happen, I wondered if organisms could digest plastic.

Scott Fotheringham: “much of science is goal-driven or product-driven. Scientists create things that are worth a lot of money but have little social value or actually harm us.”

Scott Fothertingham: “The questions I’d like to see asked – particularly by the scientists themselves – are, What value does the work I’m doing have to society? How will this be used and, if it has potential for harm, should we pursue the research at all? So often scientists shrug their shoulders and say it’s not up to them how their inventions and discoveries are employed. This is a grievous abdication of their responsibility.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Right now our intention is to use technology to make money. Only if that changes will we able to work to heal what we’ve wrought.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Reading gives us insight into how other people view the world. If all I had was my experience, and that didn’t include reading, my view of how the world works would be narrower than it is.“

JULIE CZERNEDA

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/interview-with-julie-czerneda/ )

Julie Czerneda: “From the beginning, to me, biology and science fiction differed in degree, not substance. Biology filled me with wonder and curiosity.  All science

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

does. The universe does. Reading science fiction did that. Writing it? Ah, there was the legal, moral, and fun way to answer my own questions.”

Julie Czerneda: “what I write, the stories I tell, come from what interests me. So there are cool real bits of biology everywhere in my stuff. I couldn’t make up the weirdness of real life.”

Julie Czerneda: “Because nothing lives in isolation, an ecological approach gives a writer the opportunity to fit the puzzle together. To have alternative points of view and unintended consequences. All the intricate and messy ways things happen.”

Julie Czerneda: “The more the merrier! Or, in the case of living things, the more stable and resilient the community. It’s interactions that interest me. The interface between any two or more creatures is full of change and adaptation and lovely icky bits. In storytelling — and real life — I’d rather toss a problem at a group of people (or whatever I have in mind at the moment) who’ll each have a different approach to a solution, if they see it as a problem at all.”

Julie Czerneda: “I believe, passionately, that science fictional thinking is a crucial survival skill. We all need to ask questions, to speculate about possible consequences in an imaginative, yet as close to real fashion as possible, and to become able to assess incoming  information in a critical, not cynical manner. Imagination is of immense use, too often undervalued. We who live and breath SF rarely appreciate what a strong and active muscle our minds have developed. I’d like everyone to have the same advantage. To ride society’s changes, rather than be swept away. To decide where and how technology best fits our needs, before it’s in our homes.”

Julie Czerneda: “I’ve had success using science fiction with students to get them “talking science.” SF provides useful vocabulary, presented in context.  Story dialogue gives examples of conversations centred about science as something immediately important to the characters.“

Julie Czerneda: “I’ve also worked with a professor who, for many years now, has used science fiction as an integral part of his first year astronomy course. Students take what they’ve learned about the science and apply it to alien world-building as an SF writer would do it. I’m proud to say this class has been using Beholder’s Eye (my second novel) as part of this process.”

Julie Czerneda: “We need people who can bring science to life, who can clearly express complex ideas in meaningful ways to a varied audience. SF? Does it all the time.”

Julie Czerneda: “What we can’t imagine, we can’t create, so there’s one. What we can’t imagine, we can’t prepare against or for, so that’s another. Imagination is essential to our survival, as individuals and as a species, and has been for eons. The sad thing is that it can atrophy from lack of use or be stunted by those who’ve lost their own. The best? The more it’s used, the stronger it becomes.”

Julie Czerneda: “What technology is to science, I suspect curiosity is to imagination.”

Julie Czerneda: “I take pleasure and pride in what makes science fiction a speculation about the real world, by asking that one “what if …” then building a story framework that lets me play with an answer, while keeping as much of what we know factual and true to life. I’ve no problem inviting a reader to play along with FTL and aliens, but I won’t mess with anything more and there’s always a science question at the heart of my plot. What if life evolved this way or that? How might biological imperatives affect technological civilizations? Who might we become in the future? What cost is too high or risk too great, when manipulating genetics? I love how science fiction gives me insight into these and any other questions I might have.

KARL SCHROEDER

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/interview-with-karl-schroeder/ )

Karl Schroeder: “We spend much of our lives programming ourselves to react automatically rather than to think. It’s faster, costs less energy. Part of that process involves the ossification of our basic categories: man/woman, human/nonhuman. SF deliberately blurs these categories in order to almost literally wake us up. It’s strangemaking, which is a very valuable capacity, especially in the present situation when the world needs innovative new solutions to some pretty dire problems. It’s not that SF presents, or even can present, the solutions to big issues like global warming or global poverty; it’s that it helps educate us in the kind of thinking that can lead to them.”

Karl Schroeder: “Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator.  It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories… They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking.”

Karl Schroeder:  “There’s lots of technologies that are flashy, or might have this or that big effect on the world. Nuclear fusion, augmented reality, nanotech… yeah, they’re all great. But we don’t need them. There’s only one development that we need at this point in our history: better methods and systems for decision-making, both individual and collective.”

Karl Schroeder: “We have all the technologies—all the tools and capabilities and understandings—to create a Utopia on Earth now. We can absolutely solve the problem of global warming, for instance; we even know how to reverse it with technologies we currently possess. What’s become abundantly clear in the past couple of decades is that the only thing we lack is the ability to make, and follow-through on, the right decisions. So much of my work right now is dedicated to asking what we need to do to get to such capabilities.”

Karl Schroeder: “Do you imagine or write a future where anything is possible except the invention of prostheses to compensate for the inadequacies of human decision-making? Does your worldbuilding encompass universes with star flight, robots and nanotech—yet accept royalty, corporations and bureaucracies as inevitable?”

NINA MUNTEANU

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/interview-with-nina-munteanu/ )

Nina Munteanu: “The literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”

Nina Munteanu: “Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”

Nina Munteanu: “Both ecology and science fiction explore consequence in a big way.”

Nina Munteanu: “My ecological interests and experiences have influenced my writing in every way: in providing me with ideas, in world-building, and in the interactive fractal nature of plot, theme, character and premise. For me, the two are intertwined. Writing science fiction has opened the doors of creative problem solving in my scientific pursuits; and my science has opened windows of possibilities in my writing. It’s a win-win situation, really.”

Nina Munteanu: “Most science and technology presents itself in literature through premise or plot, which influence various characters in their life journeys. Ecology—like setting—manifests and integrates itself more in theme. This is because, while most of the hard sciences study the nature and behavior of “phenomena”, ecology studies the consequences of the relationship of these phenomena and the impact of their behaviors on each other and the rest of the “world”.”

Nina Munteanu: “Environmental issues are largely a global phenomenon—concerns like water quality and quantity, air pollution, resource acquisition, allocation and sharing, wildlife extinction, etc. Science fiction is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind; it can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity….The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premise based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”) to dystopias (e.g., Huxley’s “Brave New World”).

JEROME STUEART

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/interview-with-jerome-stueart/ )

Jerome Stueart: “Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

societal consequences.  I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.”

Jerome Stueart: ““I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom…. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like.  What do they WANT society to be like?  And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us?  Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely. “

Jerome Stueart: “I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable.  We get in our ruts.  If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it.  LOL.  But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.

Jerome Stueart: “Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens.  SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems.  Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society.  It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.”

Jerome Stueart: “I think the current problems with getting the world to understand climate change is directly related to an inability to speculate—or see the future from the evidence you have.  Society has equipped scientists to extrapolate from their research, but we don’t take their recommendations because we don’t trust science anymore, or intelligence.  Unless the majority of the population respects knowledge, has a healthy speculative mind, they can’t see consequences.”

DOUGLAS SMITH

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/interview-with-douglas-smith/ )

Douglas Smith: “That’s the power of SF and fantasy (and I’d put SF as a specific subset of fantasy)–there are fewer (no?) limitations to the types of stories that I Douglas Smith with Impossibiliacan tell.”

Douglas Smith: “If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue.”

Interview with Camille Alexa

Camille Alexa has dual Canadian and American citizenship. She is the co-editor of the Canadian Superhero collection Masked Mosaic as well as the author of the short fiction collection Push of the Sky. She wrote the winning story for OnSpec’s Apocalypse issue (#90 Vol 24, no 3) and has published in magazines and anthologies such as Subversion, Space & Time Magazine, Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, Blood and Water, and Chilling Tales 2: In Words, Alas, Drown I.

Author photo courtesy of Camille Alexa

Author photo courtesy of Camille Alexa

You can explore my review of her story  “All Them Pretty Babies”  at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-i-feel-speculative/ and “Children of the Device” at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/doomed-to-repeat/ . From the amount of times I have reviewed her work, you can probably tell that I am a fan, so I was quite excited when Ms. Alexa agreed to do an interview with me. I hope you enjoy the following interview as much as I did. Reading her work, you can really tell that, as she says below “My primary aim in fiction is to have a blast writing.” Her love of writing and joy at playing with literary work comes through in the interview below as well as in her fiction writing.

Spec Can: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about yourself to start off this interview?

Camille Alexa: I’m a dual Canadian/ American writer currently riding the rails back and forth between Vancouver, BC and Portland, Oregon.  I’ve been told I’m a bit of a contrarian.  My hair is not always the same color it was the previous year and a professor once remarked that while my clothes might not make a fashion statement, they certainly raised some fashion questions.  I like yams.

Spec Can: Several of your short stories have featured an apocalyptic theme. What is the appeal of writing about apocalyptic themes?

Camille Alexa: I’ve been pondering this myself.  My so-amazing literary agent [Jennifer Weltz of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency] recently asked me to compile a list of my published stories for the agency database, each followed by a one- or two-sentence description.  There were a few – seventy or eighty – so it took a while, and I was shocked at the kinds of words and phrases popping up again and again:  ragtag band of surviving children. . . on the eve of apocalypse . . . land devastated by ecological and biological warfare . . .

Some stories hold more conscious humour (“Four Jerks of the Apocalypse,” “A Pretty Lucky Day”), but others tilt toward the raw end of things.  I’m not sure why my fiction mind turns to apocalypse so easily, but disaster literature is just so appealing, so rife with opportunity for growth and heroism.  New beginnings.  Dire endings.  That sort of thing.

Also, maybe I live in constant fear for the state of the planet?  Humans are pretty rough with their toys.

Spec Can: What is your favorite apocalyptic theme and why does it interest you so much?

Camille Alexa: I’m much less interested in – or for that matter cognizant of – exact themes than I am in characters and the ways in which they react to extreme scenarios.  Hey!  There’s apocalypse in a nutshell:  extreme scenario.  About as extreme as you can get, frankly — at least from a human perspective. . . .

Now my fiction brain wants to go off and write stories about the beneficiaries of an apocalypse, those life-forms that’ll thrive and flourish once the rest of us are swept away.  Hello, slime mold and cockroaches! Hello, genetically-modified invasive flora!

Spec Can: What social issues can apocalyptic themes deal with or raise awareness of? What is useful/worthwhile/important about pondering potential apocalypses?

Camille Alexa:  My primary aim in fiction is to have a blast writing [author’s note: because writing is awesome!].  My secondary aim is to tell a good story.  I’m not trying to teach or preach; if people see something of themselves or their world in a story, recognize something moving or disturbing, then that’s in keeping with the effects of art in general.  Cinema, theatre, music, literature — art expands us, makes our private worlds larger rather than smaller, adds to what we’ve felt or seen or experienced up to that point.

Spec Can: In your short story Children of the Device (In Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth: Issue Seven, 2012) you deal with a group of human beings who have escaped from the Earth’s destruction and later generations of humanity end up repeating the same self destructive behaviour – over-consumption, mass violence, a focus on the “now”. Where do you see our current social focus on over-consumption and instant culture going?

Camille Alexa: Hah!  See my answer about the appeal of writing apocalypses.  Overconsumption, violence, lack of compassion or fairness, shortsightedness about the future . . . I’ll repeat:  humans are rough with their toys.  Of course, you could write a perfectly non-apocalyptic story addressing all these themes — it just might not be as much fun.

Spec Can: In your short story All Them Pretty Babies (On Spec, Fall issue, 2012), you deal with a post-apocalyptic world in which people with biological differences are only able to thrive in the wastelands outside of the protected city. Could you expand on your commentary about the control and normalising effects of society? What can we learn from your character Esmè, who considers biological difference to be beautiful?

Camille Alexa:  I’m certainly not anti-society!  I think of myself as fairly civic-minded.  I recycle and ride a bike and support use of renewable resources.  I want society – or should we call it Society, capital S? – to be the best version of itself, honest and just and mighty.

Of course, that other stuff you mention – control and normalizing effects – those things sound pretty crummy.  Esmè’s story is cool because you get to see the world through her eyes, but also through yours, the reader’s.  The intersections of those viewpoints, where they’re dissonant and where they harmonize, is where things get interesting.

Spec Can: You currently live in a 2 author house. The creative energy in that house must be amazing. What is it like to live with another author? 

Camille Alexa: Yes!  Though Claude [Lalumière] and I are very careful to give each other space for writing, which is a mostly private endeavour.  We’re huge fans of each other’s work, but we do not critique or proof or even read each other’s stories until contributor copies arrive at the house.  It can be quite excruciating, waiting on the mail.  We love egging each other on, though.  Love seeing each other succeed and be read.  But it can get emotional.  We just received the On Spec all-apocalypse issue with “All them Pretty Babies.”  When he told me he liked it, I burst into tears.  It’s very powerful thing, knowing someone you respect so much respects you in return.

Spec Can: What mythologies influence your work and why do they speak to you?

Camille Alexa: My father’s a folklorist, so I’ve always been fascinated with myth and lore.  My heritage is Caribbean on my father’s side, Irish and Scandinavian on my mother’s.  Since I lived in Denmark for a time, I’d say the Scandinavian history and mythologies speak to me the most, though I love it all.  Urban legends and schoolyard lore have always held particular fascination for me, too.

Myth taps into things we can’t always justify or explain, moves us or scares us or elates us.

Cover photo of Push of the Sky by Camille Alexa

Cover photo of Push of the Sky by Camille Alexa

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that ‘realist’ fiction can’t?

Camille Alexa: What CAN’T speculative fiction do?  I think that’s its appeal.  You can go anywhere when you untether a story from the probable.  With luck, you can get others to follow you to those places you pull from the aether, meet the strange creatures there and tread those weird and unlikely paths.

Not all my fiction is speculative.  And there are certainly tropes and modes that appeal to me more than others; I’d write a genetically-modified supervirus zombie over a magically animated corpse any day of the week – and it would more likely be tragic than terrifying.  Because I’m continually moved and astounded by the natural world, I tend to find inspiration in flora, fauna, specialized ecosystems, early hominids, pterosaurs. . . .

That said, I have absolutely no trouble writing about unicorn shapeshifters or the moon being an enormous wedge of green cheese.  I simply treat those things, within the parameters of their own universes, as factual rather than magical.

Spec Can: What is distinctive about Canadian Speculative Fiction?

Camille Alexa: The Canadian scene feels very exciting right now.  The speculative fiction scene in the US seems to have gotten bogged down with a distressing focus on awards and “approved” hierarchies and paths to writerdom.  There is no single path to writing, or to loving to write, or to living to write – any more than there is a single path to reading or loving to read.

There’s real excitement and energy to Canadian spec fic writing. I was utterly blown away by the incredible stories Claude and I received for our MASKED MOSAIC: CANADIAN SUPER STORIES anthology.  As Flash Fiction Editor at Abyss & Apex, I read hundreds of stories from around the world.  But that slush pile didn’t hold a candle to the overall quality and inventiveness and sheer excitement of what I read for MM.  Not even close.

Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places that you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Camille Alexa: Absolutely!  I usually start a story with just a spark.  It might be a hint of a character, or a vague idea – even an opening line or a sequence of words.  With “All Them Pretty Babies” it was a voice; I simply woke up one day with Esmè’s voice in my head, the way she’d speak and think if she were raised by a mountain woman in a postapocalyptic world with no formal schooling, no society of peers to dictate how and what her grammar or her word choices would be.  The voice of the POV character in “After the Pipers” (Triangulation: The Morning After anthology) comes from a similar place, though it’s not got the same cadence or grammatical roots or even plot reasons as Esmè’s.

My father the folklorist was an English professor most of my life.  Maybe I like disaster stories because they can let me wreak deliberate havoc on grammar as well as on the wider world.

Author photo courtesy of Camille Alexa

Author photo courtesy of Camille Alexa

 

I want to thank Camille Alexa for this fantastic interview and for her incredible insights. However, I was really hoping that her hair colour would actually change during the course of our interview 😉 It has been a pleasure talking with her and I really appreciate that she was willing to share insights with readers here on Speculating Canada. 

Upcoming Interview with Camille Alexa on Friday January 11th

Check out Speculating Canada on Friday January 11th for a fantastic interview with Canadian-American author Camille Alexa. If you have been following Speculating Canada for a while, you probably know that I am a fan of her work and have reviewed her short stories a few times. You can check out my review of “All Them Pretty Babies”  at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-i-feel-speculative/ and “Children of the Device” at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/doomed-to-repeat/ .

On Friday January 11th, Camille Alexa discusses apocalyptic literature, writing the human spirit in extreme scenarios, the role of SF in allowing the reader to see from a different and maybe dissonant viewpoint, insights into living in a two author house, the role of mythology in her work, and the genesis of stories (which can start as a character voice).

Here are a few teasers from the interview to get you excited:

Camille Alexa: “I’m not sure why my fiction mind turns to apocalypse so easily, but disaster literature is just so appealing, so rife with opportunity for growth and heroism.  New beginnings.  Dire endings.  That sort of thing. Also, maybe I live in constant fear for the state of the planet?  Humans are pretty rough with their toys.”

Camille Alexa: “I’m much less interested in – or for that matter cognizant of – exact themes than I am in characters and the ways in which they react to extreme scenarios.  Hey!  There’s apocalypse in a nutshell:  extreme scenario.”

Camille Alexa: “My primary aim in fiction is to have a blast writing.”

Camille Alexa: “Myth taps into things we can’t always justify or explain, moves us or scares us or elates us.”

Camille Alexa: “What CAN’T speculative fiction do?  I think that’s its appeal.  You can go anywhere when you untether a story from the probable.  With luck, you can get others to follow you to those places you pull from the aether, meet the strange creatures there and tread those weird and unlikely paths.”

Camille Alexa: “Because I’m continually moved and astounded by the natural world, I tend to find inspiration in flora, fauna, specialized ecosystems, early hominids, pterosaurs. . . .”

Camille Alexa: “The Canadian scene feels very exciting right now.  The speculative fiction scene in the US seems to have gotten bogged down with a distressing focus on awards and “approved” hierarchies and paths to writerdom.  There is no single path to writing, or to loving to write, or to living to write – any more than there is a path to reading or loving to read.”

I hope you will tune in to Speculating Canada on January 11th to read Camille Alexa’s interview. If you haven’t yet read her work, you can check out her website at http://camillealexa.com/ which has links to some of her fiction available through online magazines.

It’s the End Of The World As We Know It, and I Feel Speculative

A review of OnSpec #90, Vol 24, No. 3 Fall 2012 Apocalypse Special Issue.

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

By Derek Newman-Stille

On Spec, with their combination of SF stories and non-fiction SF essays and interviews, never fails to be entertaining, but the special issue on the apocalypse was even more fantastic than most. It was as thought-provoking as it was entertaining, reminding readers of their own culpability in creating the potential for a destroyed world as well as their responsibility for making the world a better place.

The layout of the volume was, itself, fascinating and had the ability to draw the reader in on multiple levels. This was most in evidence by the interweaving of Kevin Cockle’s “Timeline” (a recounting of some of the history of economic theory as well as a postulation on the future of economic policy and where this will lead) throughout various narratives – every few pages, elements of Cockle’s timeline would appear at the bottom of the page, threading itself through the overall narrative of the On Spec volume and tying stories together.

As a disability scholar who does work in fantastic fiction, I was particularly taken with Camille Alexa’s story “All Them Pretty Babies”, which challenged social ideas of beauty in the post-apocalyptic future. Unlike many authors who revel in the horror of the different body, who present the “deformed” body as something that should evoke shock and disgust, Camille Alexa puts the reader into the position of her narrator, Esme, who collects babies that have been mutated by bio weapons that have damaged the future. Esme is an incredible character, able to see the beauty of diversity, seeing disability and difference as markers of beautiful bodies. She defines beauty as difference from the mundane normalcy of the human body that is preferred by most of society – Esme sees beauty in extra eyes, legs, arms, and conjoined bodies. She is dismayed that she is so boring, with only two legs, two arms, and two eyes: “Bonita’s so pretty, she probably never walk. Not even walk like New Mama, who hunch over cane and hobble like on third leg – though she’s not that pretty, what with her having only two like most” (6).

Despite the human race suffering because there are too few human beings remaining after the bombing, the people of the future preserved cities are abandoning children that they view as deformed, trying to stick to an ideal of what the “normal” human being should be.  People in haz mat suits come out to the destroyed fields to leave babies to die because of their biological difference, while worrying about the future of human fertility. Esme and her group go through the fields to rescue these abandoned children of a humanity that fears biological difference, telling these children how beautiful they are for their diversity from bodily norms. Esme and her group of abandoned children are trying to make the world outside of the city livable again while the city-dwellers consistently deny the changes that they have wrought. The city dwellers waste human life because the life forms they encounter don’t conform to their notions of beauty.

Camille Alexa provides a commentary on the ableist (able-bodied centred) world that we currently live in. She creates an exaggerated ableist future to point to issues regarding biological diversity and disability in our current world. Disabilities are made more prevalent and occurring more often, and people with disabilities face even more discrimination – having their lives and rights taken away completely rather than facing the likelihood of facing a life of reduced rights, government control, and the medicalised body. Her future population tries to euthanize functioning human bodies because they differ from a socially determined norm and they justify these actions as humanitarian because they cannot imagine people living with diverse bodies. Rather than shifting their own notions of what is bodily acceptable, they eliminate difference and further regulate and control the body.

Ideas of the danger of birth continue into Daniel LeMoal’s short story “Destroyer”, where small elements of future populations have developed the ability to project dreams into the minds of others. When a child begins to show an increased ability to control the minds around him, he is seen as a biological threat. Like Camille Alexa’s story, this apocalyptic narrative focusses on the danger embodied in the future – represented by children. Apocalyptic narratives are fundamentally about the future, and, therefore tales about children and the potential embodied in future generations brings attention to the impact we have on the future of the world.

Karl Johanson’s “Frats and Cheers” is probably the most terrifying narrative in this volume for me since it shows a future population that is so inundated with media manipulation that it has lost the ability to think for itself. His population is terrifying because it shows a magnification of the modern disinterest in challenging and questioning messages. His future population enjoys reality T.V. more than the actual reality of the world around them, and actively avoids interest in world affairs, while being content to have their messages fed to them. This is a narrative of the dangers of apocalyptic stupidity – truly terrifying.

Timothy Gerwing plays with ideas of religious apocalypse narratives and portrays a future that is visited by an avenging angel in his “Hog-Killing Weather”. Gerwing turns religious apocalyptic narratives on their end by creating an angel who punishes religious zealots as much as any others who show a fundamental inhumanity.

Al Onia, also playing with religious narratives of the apocalypse, presents us with four horsemen who are gathered together to fight the four horsemen of the apocalypse in “Knights Exemplar”. Despite their desire to save the world around them, they are subject to the social fear and hatred of outsiders that becomes magnified in times of crisis.

Douglas Smith’s “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” creates a different kind of religious narrative of the apocalypse when he presents the embodiment of Chaos and Order and their child, the Walker, who is seeking balance between these forces. Reality is crumbling as Order and Chaos seek to maintain their old status quo and prevent new changes in the world. This is a tale of epic love when a mortal gets caught between a battle of the gods. Smith reminds us that we have the potential to change the world around us and that self-sacrifice can be a means of making the world around us better.

Leslie Brown’s “Mesa at the Edge of the World” portrays a future in which the government has provided a method of euthanasia for any who want to commit suicide. Rather than putting funding into health care and psychological care programmes, the government has shown a willingness to ship people who seek suicide out into the desert so that they can hurl themselves into a vortex. Brown illustrates the treatment of people with psychological disabilities as disposable objects and inconveniences.

The apocalyptic narratives in this On Spec issue are not ones of futility, hopelessness, or loss, but are rather reminders of the importance of continuing a battle for social justice and a reminder that we have the potential to change the world around us, to fight the apocalypses that we continually create around us.

You can explore On Spec at their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ and pick up a copy of this apocalyptic issue since the world didn’t end after all. Thank goodness you will have enough time to read this before the next apocalypse comes along.

Doomed to Repeat

A Review of Camille Alexa’s Children of the Device (In Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth: Issue Seven, 2012)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Here Be Monsters courtesy of the publisher.

Since the world is supposed to end at the end of this month according to the Mayan Calendar, I thought I would begin the month with an apocalyptic story by Camille Alexa. Nothing better prepares us for the holidays than a reminder of the dangers of human greed.

Only one ship carrying thousands escaped the destruction of the Earth in Camille Alexa’s Children of the Device and five generations into the ship’s voyage, Earth’s traditions linger – from New Year’s resolutions to our perpensity for overpopulation and selfish greed.

Plagues have spread through the colony ship, erasing much of the access to historical records, and, Alexa gives the reader a reminder that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it as humanity cycles through the destructive behaviours that led to the destruction of their own world.  Instead of learning from each previous generation, the human colonists repeat the horrors of human history, desiring more for themselves than their fellow human beings, privileging present desires over the needs of future generations, and solving debates with deadly battles. The pervasive attitudes that lead to Earth’s destruction continue to surface as the fundamental selfishness of the human animal surfaces even far from home.

A lot of space narratives begin with the image of escaping a destroyed Earth and see this as a moment of freeing ourselves from our past and from the gravitational shackles of home that kept us back from the universe, but Camille Alexa reminds us that a change in environment does not facilitate a change in attitude and escaping from our roots does not prevent us from growing back like weeds to infect new environments with our selfish intentions. Alexa warns readers about the dangers of  presentist thinking, and the belief that an accumulation of more things now wards off the dangers of loneliness and sorrow.

Explore more about this volume at http://herebemonstersanthology.blogspot.ca/ and find out more about Camille Alexa and her current projects on her website at http://camillealexa.com/

Eldritch Summonings from the World of the Unconventional

A Review of Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth Edited by Duane Burry, Vincent Mackay, and Alexander Newcombe (Here be Monsters Speculative Fiction issue seven, September, 2012)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth is the first of the Here Be Monsters anthologies that I have read, and I am extremely impressed with the quality of work in this volume. It is great to see that an epic battle for which stories should be included in the volume, that, according to the editors involved “fighting with tooth, tentacle and claw… eldritch summonings [and] chaos magic” still proves its effectiveness in producing an incredible volume of speculative fiction – the old methods still produce incredible results.

The magical and monstrous suffuses every page of this volume, summoning the reader’s attention and passions. The stories in this volume question reader pre-conceptions, encouraging them on their own adventure into the darkness of their own subconscious to find the root of their social confinement and dig it up.

The volume itself becomes like a body of text or a textual body, laying out each section with a depiction of the body, illustrating that horrors come not from without, but from within.

Claude Lalumiere’s short story The Ministry of Sacred Affairs evokes the threat of a society that demonises others, a society where fear prevents any form of inquiry or debate and supporting the supernatural is viewed as a terrorist threat. Goblins and golems become figures that question the status-quo and shake up a society that has become complacent in its fear of others.

Numbered by Duane Burry continues the theme of questioning social fears. When communication technology is discovered that allows for interplanetary conversations and connections with aliens from other worlds, instead of viewing it as a method of discovery, it is perceived as a militaristic threat. Humans, unable to travel to the stars, are able to speak to other civilisations, talk to people from distant worlds who have foreign experiences and knowledge to share, but in a universe of fear, all they share are threats of war and questions about possible dangers. It is not the silent vastness of space that cuts off interplanetary voices, but the vast terror of the sentient mind and the secrecy that terror imposes.

Karl Johanson’s The Airlock Scene illustrates a different danger with encountering new worlds: beauraucracy and the need to perform for an audience at the expense of the adventure of exploring a new environment. Johanson portrays the need of scientific minds to mediocritise the fantastic through their pedantic ego battles. Like Burry’s story, Johanson’s is about political issues interfering with the sense of wonder the pervades exploration.

Universal questions are turned domestic in Amy Bright’s Private Transit where the monstrosity of domestic assault is displayed and one can see that abuse is as alienating as any landscape from space, causing the victim to lose all pieces of themselves to feed the monstrous abuser.

Pickle’s Story by Alexander Newcombe reveals the power of myth and legend as well as the bond that can develop between the human and the animal. Newcombe shows the power that gossip and tales can have in creating a reputation, and the power of a thief who wields lies to create his own mythology.

Tarquin Steiner evokes nostalgia in his story Cobbled by modeling it after a text-based computer game.

Camille Alexa casts us back into space in her Children of the Device where, despite being the fifth generation of inhabitants on a colony ship escaping from a doomed Earth, our traditions continue from New Year’s resolutions to war and greed.

Tyler MacFarlane brings the search for identity and the inescapability of ourselves back to the Earth in his Antennae. MacFarlane illustrates that despite the desire for a distraction, the next new thing, we always are brought back to ourselves.

We are reminded that we can’t escape from ourselves again in Carl Roloff’s If Not the Moon, Then the Exquisite Sun where humanity faces the destruction of the Earth by our own sun, and, in an attempt to save something about the human experience, decides to transmute the remaining human beings into crystals – converting individual human thoughts and experience into art that will reflect the burst of the sun into the universe. But Roloff reminds readers that eternity is an experience that is alien to humanity and transcendence is a form of loss itself.

Where Carl Roloff presents the mind as a form of escape and transcendence, Vincent Mackay’s Brain Freeze warns readers of the dangers of technologies of the mind. The mind becomes something that can be used for terrorism and war, converted into supermindbombs that can only be decoded through a process that seems equal parts psychology and computer programming. The Earth’s surface has been made uninhabitable by a field that requires inhabitants to control their own thoughts to the point at which they become insane. Thought becomes a weapon.

Thought is further explored as a vehicle for terror in Sterrennacht by Cat McDonald as art itself becomes a place where kidnap victims and stolen items can be stored. McDonald explores the idea of a world where people can enter into paintings and the terrifying effects of experiencing impressionist art from the inside. Van Gogh has never been so absorbing as McDonald explores the physical, auditory, and other sensory experiences of being totally enmeshed in the world of art. But art has an effect on those who experience it, and the danger of art is that it can consume you.

Ann Ewan explores the loss of humanity in a different way, through literal consumption by an ogre. In Ogre Baby, human beings are infected with ogreness (through ogre mud placed in the body of dead human beings) as a means for the ogres to reproduce. They depend on human beings as an infusion into their own tribe, as a way of expanding their numbers. The familiarity and difference of the human being and the ogre horrifies both species and, in the ogre, excites a deep hunger that may stem from their need to be partially human, to incorporate humanity into their monstrous form.

The body further fascinates Rich Larson in his Strings. The body becomes a marketable commodity, and re-shaped for sexuality. It is divorced of its thoughts so it can become a vessel for sexual pleasure, conveying the notion that as a society we tend to look at bodies in isolation, separate from their fundamental humanity.

Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth is as much a voyage into the self as it is a voyage into the realm of the Other. Like the monster itself, the pages of this volume are dark mirrors reflecting all of the hidden things we like to forget. It is a volume that is fundamentally about the search for a deifining feature of our humanity, the fear of a loss of our humanity, and the dangers that are presented in the human spirit.

To find out more about this volume of Here Be Monsters and other volumes in the series, visit their website at http://herebemonstersanthology.blogspot.ca/