Robo-religion

A review of Derwin Mak’s “Mecha-Jesus” in Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with the Gods (Edge, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Religion (particularly when represented in fantasy) is generally constructed as something that is bounded, something that has clear boundaries and belongs to one specific group who all believe the same thing. Derwin Mak’s “Mecha Jesus” blends categories, blending religious systems and getting away from the idea that a religious figure can be exclusively the property of one group. Mak sets his story in a Shinto temple of the future, but one in which Jesus is one of the Kami. The Kami are the spirits and gods of Japanese Shintoism, but the Kami are considered boundless and can encompass any entity that is a force of creation and has influence on our world. It is therefore understandable that Jesus, a figure from Christian belief, could be adopted into Shintoism one of the Kami.

It is always challenging to explore real-world religions in speculative fiction, but Mak shows an ability to question the boundaries of religion and explore universal human themes like the quest for the ‘truth’ (and the eventual discovery that ‘truth’ is subjective), battling against discrimination and oppression, the realisation that the universe is infinitely more complex than we can imagine, and the magic of self-discovery. Mak recognizes a similarity in aspects of Shintoism and Christianity such as the idea that a man can also be a god or have something divine in him and the connection between the Catholic notion of a relic, an object that relates to a particular saint that still holds some of their power and the Shinto notion that an object that belonged to or contains part of a Kami can still hold its power.

“Mecha Jesus” features a Shinto temple devoted to Jesus as one of the Kami and the principle characters in this short story are a Japanese Catholic priest who understands both the Christian context of Jesus and the Japanese cultural context of Shintoism, a fundamentalist Christian who spends most of the time at the temple trying to convince Shinto practitioners that they are worshiping Jesus wrong, and, of course, mecha Jesus himself – a robot who has taken from the principles of Shintoism that any object that holds a relic can become a shrine, making mecha Jesus himself a walking, operating shrine that holds the power of Jesus inside of it. And houses his spirit.

As much as this is a story about recognising the interconnections between religions and the need to see beyond the isolating potential of religion, it is also a story about discrimination and facing social oppression. In the future that Derwin Mak creates, groups are destroying robots, considering them to be a threat to human employability and an abomination. These hate groups attack robots and those who protect them because they believe they are working for humanity. These groups, seeing robots as soulless face a critical moment when they come into contact with a robot who seems to have a soul and a group of people who are willing to defend him from persecution.

To discover more about the work of Derwin Mak, visit his website at http://www.derwinmaksf.com/

To read more about Tesseracts Eighteen, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

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Transformative Art

A Review of OnSpec #91 Vol 24, No 4 (Winter 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of OnSpec (Art by Kenn Brown)

Cover photo courtesy of OnSpec (Art by Kenn Brown)

One of the key narrative threads running through Volume 24, number 4 of OnSpec is the transformative power of art and writing. This thread is most potent in Kevin Cockle’s Palimpsest, a short story about a man who learns how to transform the world and people around him through calligraphy, over-writing people’s personalities, histories, and selfhood with simple movements of pen and ink. The world becomes a transformative space, subject to authorial whims and transformative thoughts.

Gaie Sebold’s Sharali focuses on an artist who is resisting social pressures to devote his artistic energies toward capitalist means. In a society that is over-writing the natural world with the destructive industrialist enterprise, Charentin concentrates on painting natural scenes and scenes of natural beauty, capturing the numinous quality of the natural environment rather than scenes of industrial expansion and wealth. Through his artistic ability to overlay the natural, Charentin is capable of releasing himself and the prostitute Sharali from their lives of servitude and artificiality.

William B. Robinson’s poem Delta Theta Alpha Beta concentrates on the numinous quality of letters, the ability of letters to transcend the limits of simple meaning – the power of sigils to speak to more than their representative value but summon an eldritch quality that arises from beyond the mundane.

In Steven Popkes’ 10 Things I Know About Jesus, the transformation that occurs is on a mythical level, shifting the tales told from the past to illustrate how rumour leads to legend, leads to myth, and the mythical says very little about the original subject and speaks more to the ideologies of those creating the myth. Jesus in this story is far different from the character outlined in Christian belief. He plays poker with Satan and Lazarus, doesn’t attend a church, has little interest in performing miracles, and views the events leading up to his crucifixion as his last foray into the realm of politics. He resists the mythical structure that has been built around him.

David Gordon Buresh’s The Devil’s Eyes looks at the transformative power of consumption and hunger, the way that the act of eating can fundamentally shift something in the structure of human beings, pushing them into something Other, something mythical.

Leslie Claire Walker’s Ghost Ride explores the world of a driver for the dead, bringing the deceased to their new destinations (whether it be Heaven or Hell). Mack, the driver, seeks to change destiny, trying to find his wife (who committed suicide) a means of finding her way into Heaven, transforming the stigma and spiritual blight that was branded onto her soul by her act of suicide. The transformative quality of this story is huge, facilitated by the vehicle of travel (the car ride to the realms of the dead) and the transformative quality of death itself, moving between one state of being and another. The life (and afterlife) narrative of the passengers is in flux, determining what their next steps will be.

Kim Neville’s One Shoe Highway is a powerful transformative travel narrative. Like Ghost Ride, it is focused on the roadway as a place of transition and change. Women in this story disappear periodically from the road, leaving behind a symbol of their travel as well as of their previous lives – their shoes. These women have the option of giving up their previous lives (often marred by abuse) and separating themselves from the world that victimises them.  Bringing attention to the social issue of so many battered women disappearing, Kim Neville has her characters instantly be forgotten after they disappear (mirroring the social response to women who are victims of assault and abduction, which is often to forget about them and erase their memory). Instead of being abduction victims, however, the women in One Shoe Highway are given the option of changing their narrative future and instead of tolerating a future of spousal and societal abuse, they are allowed to move out of the world into a space primarily for battered women.

As a medium that brings the SF community short stories, SF artwork, interviews, and editorials in one volume, it was incredible to see OnSpec’s focus on the power of narrative and stories to shift and change and to alter the world around them. SF stories have the potential to bring social attention to issues in our world – they can shift our consciousness, help us see things that we ignore, and open our minds to new possibilities. Art and narrative really are transformative – they can change the world.

On a personal note, as a disability scholar, I was extremely excited to see the interview conducted with Kevin Cockle and his discussion of the influence of his own medical disability on his authorial work.

To find out more about OnSpec, you can visit their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ .

Interview with Timothy Carter

An Interview with Timothy Carter by Derek Newman-Stille

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

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

Author photo courtesy of Timothy Carter

Author photo courtesy of Timothy Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover photo of Evil? courtesy of Timothy Carter

Cover photo of Evil? courtesy of Timothy Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.

Postcolonial Vampirism – Consuming Resources

A review of Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night (ChiZine , 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Enter, Night, courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo of Enter, Night, courtesy of ChiZine Publications

In Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night, the true terror is not the vampires, but rather the spectre of the small town and its ability to suppress all forms of difference. Small towns are places of secrets because very few secrets can be kept in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Secrecy and hiding become particularly important in small towns for people that show any difference from the norm, and Rowe’s narrative focuses on two outcasts returning to the small town where they grew up: a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock and her gay brother-in-law who fled from the small town to avoid persecution and torture by groups that wanted to make him conform to a heterosexual image.

For them the town is a haunted, dark, and dangerous place, but there is more to the depths of the town’s horrifying history – a history of secrecy and suppression extending back to the moment of European colonialism. Small towns are haunted places and often haunt the imaginations of those who have left them to avoid persecution. This small town is literally contaminated by a history that it seeks to suppress and remake in a “more respectable” (i.e. suppressed and glossed over) image, much as if tries to make its residents conform to a homogenising notion of respectability and ‘normalcy’ that prevents any sort of individual difference.

This town was infected by a vampiric influence at the moment of European colonial contact, and that vampiric connection permeates the town from its early years both in the random acts of violence that the vampiric spirit evokes, but also in the consumptive character of the town itself. Michael Rowe uses his vampiric narrative to comment on some of the vampirisms of modernity: the consumptive quality of capitalism where the rich suck the life blood from the workers they exploit (this town is a mining town with one wealth family and a population in poverty) and in the image of conversion that permeated the early European settler narratives – much like early European settlers, the vampire seeks to make its victims in its own image. In Rowe’s narrative this vampiric colonialism is literal when an early priest who sought to convert the Indigenous Peoples of Northern Ontario brought his vampiric contamination with him and, much as the European settlers brought disease to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, he brought a vampiric virus the spread through the population bringing waste and destruction to the people as well as re-making them into his image. The vampire is a figure of exploitation and the exploitative narrative runs through this novel, exploring the destructive power of greed and conquest.

Rowe’s narrative is one that gives life to the suppressed aspects of history and modernity, the hidden corruptions and exploitations that are often understated in a society that does not want people to raise too much trouble or question things too deeply. Rowe also shows incredible skill in giving life to the victims of the vampiric attack. Many horror writers gloss over the life and history of their monster’s victims, portraying them as essentially statistics without individuality or depth, but Rowe creates every character as though he or she could be a central character, a character of significance and makes the reader feel a deep connection to the character before taking them away. He illustrates that no person is a statistic and that each death should effect us on a deeper level and be felt as a personal loss.  Horror is not about numbers, but about feeling loss as though it is our own, as though we have had some part of ourselves ripped from our chests and Rowe is able to make his reader feel every loss.  He illustrates that the real horrors of society are the repressions and suppressions of individuals: the transformation of people into statistics without substance, figures of consumption rather than unique and individual lives.

You can explore more about Michael Rowe at his website http://www.michaelrowe.com/ .  And you can get your own copy of Enter, Night at ChiZine Publications’ website http://chizinepub.com/ .

Bullying, Bodies, and Baddies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author photo courtesy of Timothy Carter

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

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