Fever Dream

Fever Dream

A review of Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu is a fever dream on paper, vivid and fantastical, and full of nightmares, which is perfect for a pandemic narrative. It is a surreal story, but it comments on issues of relevance to the real world. Set in a world where a pandemic has affected men more than women, Lai’s narrative explores the power struggles of a population that fears its own erasure, but is also willing to take others along with them as their population dwindles. The Tiger Flu has been brought into the world because of cloning technology which allows extinct animals to be revitalized, primarily for consumptive purposes. It has spread quickly and decimated large parts of the population, leaving people in desperation for resources, for a sense of belonging, for a belief in something that will allow them to last and make an impact on the world. 

The Tiger Flu is a necessary critique on capitalism’s consumptive force and its rendering of everything into resources to be exploited. Even the religion of the people in Lai’s book is based around capitalism, with the population literally worshipping an industrialist and the two constructed satallites that orbit the planet – Chang and Eng (named after the famous conjoined twins from the Freak Shows of the early 1800s). The two satellites represent opposing corporate forces, but also become spaces for downloading the consciousness of individuals from the population. Despite representing opposing companies, the name of the two satellites suggests a conjoined nature, pointing out that underlying these two opposing forces is still one system – in this case capitalist exploitation. 

Even people become resources to be exploited in this world and a small group of people who have created a community living off of the land are seen as consumable resources to be captured and used by the factories they once escaped from. Lai illustrates the dangerous over-consumptive quality of capitalist systems and that every resource, including people in that capitalist system become grist for the mill. In fact, she literally names this community of people living off the land Grist Sisters.

Fearing destruction, people try to hold onto power by creating factions and borders, arming themselves out of fear of others. Lai illustrates the way that people who are accustomed to power fear its loss and make war with each other as a means of externalizing their fear. Her corporate communities arm themselves, ignoring the needs of citizens (like access to food and safety) in their own private war to hold onto a past power structure that can no longer sustain itself. 

Yet Lai also opens up other questions of production beyond capitalism, exploring notions of alternative reproduction. Lai explores queer potentials in a world whose men are dying faster than women. She queers reproduction by having women in the Grist tribes give birth through parthenogenesis (reproduction from an ovum without fertilization by sperm). The Grist sisters give birth by “doubling”, creating duplicates of themselves and birthing groups of identical sisters.

As much as it is an apocalyptic viral narrative, The Tiger Flu is also a narrative captured in the middle. It isn’t an outbreak narrative as many apocalyptic virus stories tend to be, and, as much as it is concerned with the future, it is also about characters uncovering their own past, seeking out the stories about how things came to be the way they are and about the character’s’ own histories. It is a book ultimately about complicating narrative and history because while the two primary characters Kirilow and Kora seek their own pasts, they also encounter other narratives about the past, intersecting and often complicating their own. Characters use memory scales that they plug directly into their brains to gain access to knowledge and constantly find snippets of their world’s history, but these histories conflict with the stories that they have formed their lives around. While corporate characters are trying to hold onto a power they fear losing and their own role in history, characters like Kirilow and Kora are dismantling that history for themselves, seeing different truths that reveal the pettiness of the corporate leaders they have worshipped.

To discover more about The Tiger Flu, go to https://arsenalpulp.com/Books/T/The-Tiger-Flu

To find out more about Larissa Lai, visit https://www.larissalai.com

Orangutan Voices

A review of Wendy Bone’s “Abdul” in Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change (Exile Editions, 2017)By Derek Newman-Stille

Wendy Bone’s “Abdul” intertwines two narratives: one of an urban Canadian woman, and one of a Orangutan from Indonesia. Bone complicates ideas of humanity and the constant privileging of human wants over animal needs by providing a voice to a young Orangutan named Abdul. She examines human encroachments onto animal habitats and the power of capitalism to justify the treatment of animals as pests. 

Orangutan lives are sacrificed as the desire for palm oil causes people to push further into Organutan habitats, pushing them out of their homes and frequently killing them or abducting them to sell as pets. Abdul is a constant victim of human capitalism, having his home, his body, and his death monetized. Adbul is taught by his gaolers to participate in an elaborate set of performances to be considered valuable, including acting out his own death when people make shooting motions at him, a disturbing reminder of the way that people with guns engage in real slaughter of Orangutans.

Bone gives voice to the Orangutan, inviting human readers to question if their amenities are worth the devastation of animal lives. She reminds us that animals are not voiceless, but that we devoice them by ignoring their presence on the landscape and not looking at the fact that our creation of spaces of human industry mean homelessness and death for animals. 

To discover more about Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change, visit http://www.exileeditions.com 

 

Water is Magic

A review of Nina Munteanu’s “The Way of Water” in Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Fiction (Exile Editions, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

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In “The Way of Water”, Nina Munteanu pens her love letter to water, exulting it as a liquid that has semi-magical properties. Munteanu recognizes the chimerical quality of water, its unique ability to shift and change, to purify and taint, and the incredible way that it makes up most of our body mass and therefore shapes us as well.

A limnologist (lake ecosystem biologist) by trade, Munteanu recognizes the incredible way that water shapes life and brings attention to the fact that water connects us to each other just as water connects with other water, forming bonds. She evokes in the reader a sense of reverence for water and an awareness that the same water that flows through our bodies have flowed through the bodies of our ancestors, cycling through life since the first life forms coalesced.

In recognizing the preciousness of water, she also recognizes its precarity and the danger that capitalist systems pose when they lay claim to water and seek to own it. “The Way of Water” evokes a sense of awareness about issues of access to water and about the dangers of imbalances in that access.

You can discover more about Nina Munteanu’s work at http://www.ninamunteanu.ca/

To find out more about Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Fiction, visit Exile’s website at http://www.exileeditions.com/

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/