Only Work is Perpetual

A review of Suzanne Church’s “Lost Flesh” in Lazarus Risen (Bundoran, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

The right to die is a complicated issue that brings with it questions of whether people want to die because our society makes it impossible for a disabled person or an aged person to survive comfortably in our society. With the right to die, people in the disabled community have asked “Is it really a right to die when our society provides no ability for disabled people to live within it?”. Suzanne Church takes on the complicated issue of the right to die in “Lost Flesh”, a tale about immortality and the desire by immortal characters to die once their lives become monotonous and unstimulating.

Church brings up an issue that people often ignore in tales of immortality: what does it mean to be immortal in a capitalist society. She explores the idea that every extension of life brings with it a contract for prolonged work, highlighting the issues of ageing in a capitalist society. As characters age endlessly, the only constant in their lives is work and the monotony that comes with perpetual work means that life quickly loses its joie, its vigour, its value. Characters lose their sense of wonder and life begins to feel like an eternity of repetition. 

“Lost Flesh” is a story that explores the horrors of immortality within a capitalist system, where unageing bodies become only vessels of labour, machines of production. Church asks what the right to die means in a society where living means exploitation. 
To discover more about the work of Suzanne Church, visit her website at http://suzannechurch.com/wordpress/
To find out more about Lazarus Risen, visit Bundoran’s website at http://www.bundoranpress.com/product/1/Lazarus-Risen 

Feeding the Homeless

A review of Trevor Shikaze’s “The Harbour Bears” in Lackington’s issue 4 ( http://lackingtons.com/2014/10/28/the-harbour-bears-by-trevor-shikaze/ )
By Derek Newman-Stille
Homeless people are treated as human refuse, ignored when possible, and when not possible, treated as a social problem that requires police intervention and forced removal. Homeless people evoke a sense of horror partially because they remind society that the price for our own economic success is the exploitation of others. Trevor Shikaze’s “The Harbour Bears” magnifies this exploration of the dislike of the homeless and the disconnect that exists between seeing the homeless as a problem TO society rather than a problem CREATED BY society.
The narrator refers to individual homeless people as “a homeless”, making their identity solely about their living situation and de-humanizing them, almost using “homeless” as a species indicator. When homeless people turn up ripped to pieces, no one is moved or upset by this and the narrator’s first concern is about whether this will jeopardize tourism, placing the economic before the human.
The narrator, Luke, lives in a comfortable economic situation without a job that he is aware of and ignorant of where his pay check comes from. He is disconnected from the economy and unaware of how it relates to the homeless population and makes these populations vulnerable and under threat. He is the epitome of the modern capitalist subject, able to be totally unaware of the impact of his actions as long as he is perpetually entertained. In fact, when he starts to ponder where his money comes from, he quickly tells himself that “it is better not to ask”, mirroring the wider issue in our society of the dissociation from the labour process and our population not wanting to really look into how money does harm in the process of coming to us. He is fundamentally disconnected from suffering, able to distance himself by viewing the homeless as almost a different order of being.
But, things become complicated when Luke stops medicating himself at night and realizes that the homeless population may be literal prey for a government that wants to get rid of them in the most expedient way possible. Luke is forced to see the direct impact of the system on the population it feeds on.
To read this story online, visit Lackington’s at http://lackingtons.com/2014/10/28/the-harbour-bears-by-trevor-shikaze/

Superheroic Questions

A review of Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny by Mark Shainblum and Garbriel Morrissette (Caliber Press, 1989)

Comic books are often treated as a lower form of culture and considered to be pure pleasure reading without intellectual interest, but comic books, like any other form of text, offer a vision of the world around us and the speculative nature of the format offers us a series of questions to ask about normalcy. The superhero genre, in particular, evokes questions about what constitutes heroism, what makes someone special or different, and comments on the way we look at ideas of justice and moral rightness, which are entirely subjective.

Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette’s Northguard is a figure that offers a critical lens to the superhero genre. He is not the moral guardian who is sure of his rightness and always saving the day, but rather is insecure, uncertain, and cautious in his approach. He does not seek to impose his idea of rightness, but rather dwells in a space of moral question, critiquing himself and his choices. All of this contrasts nicely with the key enemy in the collection Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny, the organizsation ManDes, an American religious fundamentalist group who sees Canada as an embodiment of weakness to the North, too passive, too diverse, and sinful in our allowance of diversity. ManDes is a group that embodies patriarchal misogyny, religious intolerance, capitalist monopolism, and white supremacy.

P.A.C.T. (Progressive Allied Canadian Technologies) has formed in Montreal to stop organizations like ManDes from imposing their corporate control over people and doing social harm. They form a system to keep multinationals in check. In their attempt to provide a set of balances against other corporate powers, they created a device called the uniband, which has the power to reverse the laws of thermodynamics and operate beyond the restrictions of physics… and it can be integrated into the human body. When the person who has originally worked with the uniband and attuned it to his biorhythms is killed, P.A.C.T. ends up finding an unlikely candidate to wear this personal arsenal: Philip Wise, a comic book fan. Philip only asks for one thing: that he be allowed to design his own suit to operate the machine, one modeled after his own superhero fantasies and featuring the prominence of the Canadian flag.

Philip’s uneasy relationship with the flag represents a microcosm of the Canadian uncertainty around embodying ourselves in a patriotic symbol. Unlike American figures like Captain America, that easily wear the flag and represent a certain brand of American patriotism, Canadians on the whole have been a little less certain about a figure that wears his or her patriotism on the outside and Northguard is the perfect character to embody that uncertainty. Before he decides to model his costume after the maple leaf and dress in red and white, he throws the flag down on the ground yelling at it “mean something”, bringing to his own experience of uncertainty to his garb as well as his conflicting need to have the flag mean something for him. In this simple act, Northguard is able to take up an aspect of Canadian identity: the perpetual search for what Canadian identity can mean.

His own interaction with Canadianness also embodies a particular Canadian notion of dualistic identity and the potential for a multicultural reading. Philip is a Jewish Canadian living in Montreal – his identity is powerfully shaped by his ability to simultaneously represent Canadianness and Jewishness, and living in a city that is bilingual and multicultural. The power of his duality is marked nicely in the comic when the maple leaf on Northguard’s mask and chest are both overlaid by the Star of David, allowing the costume to simultaneously speak to Canadian identity and how that identity is made up of a multiplicity of cultures and cultural symbols.

Yet, ManDes sees Canada as weak because of this multiplicity and attempts to play into the perceived insecurity caused by a collective of cultural interests by purposely trying to play Francophone and Anglophone Canadians against each other, perpetrating violence and attributing it to one language group or the other. Northguard resists these attempts both by foiling these plots by also by trying to become bilingual himself, creating a French name for himself “Le Protecteur” and working with a French Canadian superhero named Fleur de Lys, who wears the symbols of Quebecois identity.

Northguard is able to embody the potential of the superhero to be a figure who evokes questions, both in his own morality and in the way Canadians see ourselves. Shainblum and Morrissette turn the Canadian question about “who are we?” into a suit of red and white, featuring a maple leaf that asks readers to keep questioning and to recognise the superpower that exists in the act of constantly questioning our identity and what we can and do represent.

Unfortunately, this collection is hard to come by and I hope that Shainblum and Morrissette are able to revive Northguard in the future.

To find out more about Mark Shainblum, visit his website at http://www.shainblum.com/

 

 

Blind Vision Quest

A Review of Douglas Smith’s The Wolf at the End of the World (Forthcoming)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Wolf at the End of the World courtesy of Douglas Smith

Cover photo for The Wolf at the End of the World courtesy of Douglas Smith

The Wolf at the End of the World is a tale that would resonate with the spirit of any environmentalist – the struggle of diverse species to survive, the conflict with human greed and capitalism, the invasiveness of the human presence on animal life, and also the potential for a shift in human consciousness toward a connection with the animal world, an acknowledgement of our dependency on our environment and eco diversity. As he often does, Douglas wields myth as a tool for pedagogy, much like myth-tellers have been doing throughout history. He taps into that vital essence of the story to reveal truths that we ignore in our mundane world and teaches complexity through the poetics of language and potentials of symbols.

Smith’s work, as always, is full of potent ambiguities, the moral questions that fill us with the potential to interrogate our world and challenge the assumptions that have become part of living our lives. He does this through beautiful prose and an exciting and powerful story. Smith tackles issues of huge importance for our understanding of modernity such as the relationship of the human to our environment, the power of greed, the emptiness that comes from loneliness, the danger of secrecy (particularly government initiated secrets), ideas of ability and disability, the relationship of indigenous people to the state, and the general issue of bodily and identity difference. He recognises that accepting difference is a complex process, even for the person who is fundamentally ostracised and cast socially as different.

The Wolf at the End of the World is a text of loss and hunger, the pining for that which is missing, absent, taken away, or desired, and Smith embodies this in the figure of the Windigo, a being from Indigenous cosmologies that is the embodiment of hunger with a heart of ice, an insatiable appetite. It is the perfect symbol of modernity, with all of our greed, our loneliness, our desire for something we have lost or not yet obtained… it reminds us of our absences. The Windigo, despite being the villain in this novel, becomes a form of teacher, espousing a pedagogy about the dangers of desire, the dangers of creating a heart of ice and always wanting and losing ourselves to greed as a way of trying to fill the spot in ourselves that has become empty (or icy) because of our feeling of loss. The Windigo is a great expression of the modern condition.

In contrast to the Windigo are the Heroka, figures who are shape-shifters, able to speak to and connect on a spiritual level to animals, and a boy, Zach, who is sorting through his difference – as a blind person, as someone who is half Cree and who does not know about his father. His mother, who is Cree, has been running from her heritage, trying to ignore her past, and she fears her son’s difference, and also the secrets that she has kept from him about his father’s heritage and the potential differences that are inherent in it. But, Zach’s differences are his strengths, things that have shaped him and he is put into the position of accepting his differences and becoming even further different from the socially-defined norms or of passing as “normal” and missing something of himself.

Ancient gods reenact mythic roles, renewing and changing the world around them to play out what it means to be human and what it means to be spirit and animal. Trickster spirits play with human lives, challenging them to change, learn, and grow, and to question everything they have been taught and the world that has shaped them. The reader is carried along on this mythic tale, taught the potential of stories to challenge us and make us more aware.

To find out more about Douglas Smith and The Wolf at the End of the World, visit his website at http://www.smithwriter.com/the_wolf_at_the_end_of_the_world . This novel will be coming out soon and you can link through the website above to pre-order a copy.

Penning the Subtle Murmur of Death and Splash of Blood

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying (Forthcoming 2013, Exile Editions)

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

By Derek Newman-Stille

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying is just one step abstracted from reality, with one foot in The Weird. Populated with monsters, magic, and folklore, her work is fundamentally about the human outsider experience, the deeper engagement with the world that comes from being on the fringe, looking in at the oddity that is “The Normal”. From this outsider position, her characters navigate a world that is simultaneously familiar and odd to them. The city in Moreno-Garcia’s work, is a place of wonder and misery. She engages with the estrangement of the urban environment and the isolating and abject quality of living in modernity.

Setting most of her stories in Mexico, and exploring Mexican legends and Mexican urban environments, Moreno-Garcia uses the power of being a person between spaces (both Mexican and Canadian) to navigate the duality of her identity, presenting Mexican themes for a primarily Canadian reading audience. Her stories revel in the creative space of between-ness.

Moreno-Garcia provides the deep and intelligent critiques of “The Normal” that can best be expressed through outsider characters and their ability to have a dual vision of society both from the fringes and from within, questioning and interrogating the norms that are constantly being imposed on them. While engaging with monsters, monstrous changes within, and the touch of magic and death on their lives, her characters explore their relationship to the environment, to mortality, critique capitalist disparity, war and violence, and explore their estrangement from others. Her stories swirl around a critique of people who are obsessed with the mundane while ignoring the violence, disparity, and death around them. The glimpses she provides into the dark don’t allow the reader to escape from the reality of horrors embedded in our world.

Penning shadows that soak and stain the page with midnight ponderings, Moreno-Garcia creates worlds of dark wonder that pull the mind of the reader into a dream-like-state of pondering. Courting death and violence as her muses, and breathing them out onto the page, whispering little deaths onto the paper, she evokes the horror that exists around us, constantly being pushed to the shadows by our own desires to ignore it.

Much like the god of the woods in her story Shade of the Ceiba Tree, her voice is joy and love, yet the reader discovers that beneath the layers of beauty in her words is the subtle murmur of death and the splash of blood on the earth. She, too, wields a double-ended blade of fear and desire.

You can explore some of my reviews of individual stories from this volume at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/coyotes-in-urban-turf-wars/ and https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/commodifying-extinction/ .

To find out more about This Strange Way of Dying and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, visit http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/This Strange Way of Dying will be available on September 1, 2013.

Commodifying Extinction

A Review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Maquech” (This Strange Way of Dying, Exile Editions, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s short story “Maquech” is a narrative of wealth disparity and the value attached to animal life. Set in the near future, rare animals that are going extinct have become commodities for the rich, purchased as fashion items, status signifiers, and indicators of wealth. Animals are not valued unless they serve a capitalist end, providing an economic advantage.

In a world of wealth disparity, where the poor are struggling to survive, animals are endangered, seen as competitive resource consumers, and de-valued. Rather than balancing wealth and making clean water and food available to all (instead of just to the wealthy), the poor starve and live with thirst and come to see animals as only competition for resources rather than valuable contributors to the world around them. Rather than viewing the wealthy as the competing consumer, the cultural messages of this near future world construct animals as the competing organism, and a draw on resources, much as, in our own time period, the wealthy tend to blame others for the disparity in availability of resources.

Mario is the grandson of a man who makes rare animals, reconstructing them before they are extinct. He wants to travel to Canada to see the polar bears before they become extinct and sells a rare maquech (an insect) to Gerardo in order to get the funds to witness animal life flourishing before it disappears. Gerardo sees the maquech as an economic advantage, a saleable item for the wealthy to consume since the rich use these live insects as clothing items, a living broach on their clothes. Animals have been reduced to trade items, methods for people to make money and survive in a competitive future.

Ignoring the ecological and mythical significance of the animal, its life has been reduced to a dollar value. It is the very nature of extinction that attributes value to these animals, their rarity constructs them as something to be used as status symbols: “he likes real things and real things are scarce”. Life itself has been rendered as part of the capitalist economy, but the real wealth of animals, their deeper significance is lost in the trade for money as Gerardo discovers when he finds a loss in himself at the loss of his maquech.

To find out more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, you can visit her website at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ . To read this story and others from This Strange Way of Dying, you can explore it at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/ . This collection will be available in the fall.