Unsettled in Utopia

Unsettled in Utopia

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber” (Warner, 2000).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Nalo Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber” is a narrative about home, memory, and communication. The planet Toussaint is settled by Caribbean people from earth who honour their history through events like Carnival and who remember the history of slavery in their tales. The travel to Toussaint is celebrated as a different type of crossing – crossing the stars by choice instead of being forced to cross the ocean by slavery and the tales of the people of Toussaint explore the interconnections between these two types of travel that brought them to where they are now. Nalo Hopkinson explores the dangers of travel and the issues that travel creates regarding ideas of home and belonging. She intwines ideas of exile and colonialism, exploring the way that these ideas can intertwine – being removed from one place without choice and displacing people from another. The people of Toussaint send those they view as criminals through a gateway to another world called New Half-Way Tree where their exiled lives interfere with the indigenous population of the planet and displace them. Most of the exiles arrive onto New Half-Way Tree with an assumption that they are better than the indigenous inhabitants, treating them as people who are in the way at best or wanting to eliminate them. When Tan Tan arrives from Toussaint to New Half-Way Tree, she wants to treat the indigenous inhabitants of the planet with respect since Toussaint culture is focused on the idea that there should be no masters and everyone should be treated with respect. Yet, her attempts to interact with the indigenous population mark her as an outsider to both populations.

Although Hopkinson situates Toussaint as a Utopia in many ways, creating a society that is based on notions of equality, that is open to different types of relationships, and is a place where people are not subjected to back-breaking labour, she creatively questions the utopia she writes. In order to make way for the human inhabitants of Toussaint, the nanite system the planet uses eliminated indigenous fauna that it viewed as threats to the new inhabitants, causing mass extinctions. Although the nanite system allows people to communicate more readily and have access to information, it also interferes with ideas of privacy and everything on Toussaint is surveilled. Further, when the society views someone as subversive or dangerous, they are sent to New Half-Way Tree, where the egalitarian notions of Toussaint only apply to human beings, not the indigenous population, the Douen and the Hinte.

Hopkinson illustrates that the notion of home – especially the notion of home for people in exile – is always complicated.

Midnight Robber is a tale about tales, delving into the fuzzy border between reality and myth and the way that memory and who we are always becomes partially mythologized. TanTan becomes partially mythologized as stories about her circulate amongst the populations of New Half-Way Tree and she is integrated with the tale of the Midnight Robber. She hears tales about her that have been turned into myth and story and she both finds herself in these tales and simultaneously discovers that she is uncertain who she is. As people stop believing that she is real, something about her sense of selfhood is also made etherial and unclear. TanTan, like the community of New Half-Way Tree, is unsettled.

To discover more about Nalo Hopkinson, visit her website at http://nalohopkinson.com.

To find out more about Midnight Robber, visit http://nalohopkinson.com/writing/fiction/books/midnight_robber

Dangerous Diplomacies

A Review of J.A. McLachlan’s “The Occasional Diamond Thief” (Edge, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

The Occasional Diamond Thief is a tale of things lost and things returned, all within the complex political world of interplanetary trade and cultural conflicts. Kia’s father has been haunted by a past that he has been rapidly forgetting in his dementia. So strongly is his dementia linked to his past that even words spoken in the Malemese language, a language used by a world he visited long ago, can trigger health issues. As his dementia progresses, he lapses into Malemese, unable to speak his own language and only Kia, with her incredible linguistic gifts, is able to speak to him. She does so, at the risk of losing him completely instead of losing him to the slow progression of his disease. Referring to her by a Malemese name she hasn’t heard of before, her father gives her a Malemese diamond, believing he is returning this to its owner and ridding himself of something that has plagued his soul, allowing him to move on. Because she seeks communication with him and speaks Malemese, Kia is rejected from her family, losing all connection to her roots and the system of support she had in place. 

Yet, despite the fact that language is connected to the loss of her father, Kia still sees the potential of language as a place of connection, an opportunity to build bridges between people and develop complex forms of understanding. The only problem is that the language school is expensive, and Kia, believing she is connecting with her father’s secret, criminal profession, a secret suppressed by her family, begins her career as a diamond thief.  

Her career as a diamond thief gets her in trouble with the interplanetary religious authorities, the OUB, who force her to visit the planet that she saw as the catalyst of her father’s destruction and eventual death, Malem.

J.A. McLachlan explores the power of suppression and recovery on an interplanetary scale, a community scale, and on a personal scale for Kia and the people around her. Kia’s linguistic gift is related to the issues of communication that shape the interactions between people in McLachlan’s world, the separations and miscommunications that have meant that planets and people have viewed each other with suspicion and distrust. In Kia’s desire to understand language and its cultural connections, she becomes a figure who collapses distances and allows people to communicate. 

Unlike many intergalactic, interplanetary tales, McLachlan’s story is a highly personal one, shaped fundamentally by character and the character’s exploration of selfhood and interaction on a microcosmic level which has implications for the macrocosmic level. Sometimes even small interactions between people are enough to shape and change universe-spanning political issues. 

Communication means that secrets lose their powers, things lost are returned, and healing happens through the barred gateways opened by the desire to talk and share.

To discover more about The Occasional Diamond Thief, visit Edge’s website at http://edgewebsite.com/books/occasionaldiamonthief/occasionaldiamonthief-catalog.html

To discover more about the work of J.A. McLachlan, visit her website at http://www.janeannmclachlan.com

Hollow Signals

A review of Geoff Gander’s “White Noise” in AEscifi: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.
By Derek Newman-Stille

Our world is permeated with signals – radio waves, satellite transmissions… we are surrounded by sounds that only our electronic devices can hear. Geoff Gander’s “White Noise” pushes us into an electronic blackout, a loss of communication. After three days without radio or satellite, rumours have begun: an EM disturbance, sunspots, a terrorist attack… a myriad of possible reasons why the signals have all gone dead. But, there is a noise, a noise that empties people out, erases them.

Gander explores our dependence on communication, our need for the worldwide net and the feeling of connection that it creates. Told through a conversation, Gander’s microfiction distances the reader from their connection to communication technology, pushes the reader through this snapshot of text to question the dependence we have on information and our need to feel connected. What do we do with dead air?

Gander asks the reader how permeable we have become to sound, to information. How as a society of listeners, do we cope with silence, with not knowing?

You can access “White Noise” online at AEscifi http://aescifi.ca/index.php/fiction/35-short-stories/1998-white-noise

Check out the weblink… I can ALMOST promise you that Geoff Gander’s story won’t hollow you out with whitenoise.

You can explore Geoff Gander’s website at geoffgander.wordpress.com.

“People are losing touch with themselves and with each other. They need stories because they really are the only thing that brings us together. Gossip, anecdotes, jokes, stories – these are the things that we used to exchange with each other. It kept the lines of communication open, let us touch each other on a regular basis.”

            -Charles de Lint – The Conjure Man In The Very Best of Charles de Lint.

Quote – Need Collective Stories

The In-Between Space

A Review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince (Edge, 2005).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

The Reetions and the Gelacks, two branches of the human race that were separated from Earth due to temporary losses of space travel. The Reetions developed from the first group of people to leave Earth and settle in a colony. Connections to Earth were lost, and they developed into a divergent civilisation. They developed an egalitarian system of government with open policies, public access to information, and general public engagement in decision-making processes.

The Gelacks developed from a second wave of human space travel. They too lost contact with Earth. The Gelacks were a civilisation that had been changed by the intervention of genetic technology, technology that changed certain people to better sustain the biologically damaging effects of space travel. This group became stronger, smarter, and better at healing than the regular human population. Because Gelack population had both genetically modified humans and unmodified humans (as well as interbred populations), a class system developed along feudal lines. The genetically modified populations attained positions of superiority and hegemonic control.

The Reetions and Gelacks had met before, and the results were devastating, with misunderstandings and miscommunications on both sides. Now, both sides have discovered that traders are making jumps between their civilisations and it has become clear that they may need to make formal contact again. In The Courtesan Prince, Lynda Williams explores the diversity of cultures and the misunderstandings that can come from cultural difference. She illustrates to readers that a large part of conflict comes from misunderstandings and the more diverse the populations are, the more effort needs to be put into understanding the cultural gap and communicating effectively with others.

The Courtesan Prince follows the life of Von, a courtesan who seems to be more than he appears to be. Von’s life and understanding of the world is challenged when he encounters the Reetions, and, in particular Ann, who encourages him to understand her on a deeper level and get rid of some of his xenophobic fears and beliefs that human social relations can only be understood through a Gelack lens.

Simultaneously Ranar, a Reetion anthropologist is left among his research subjects, the Gelacks, and is forced to understand their way of life, even if it is both fundamentally different and even hostile to his own. The Gelacks are a fundamentally homophobic people, with a deep and violent hatred for queer-oriented people. Often this homophobia erupts into public torture of gays and lesbians, followed by their murder and the murder of any children they may have had. Ranar, a gay man, is left in a vulnerable position, having to hide his sexuality for the first time in his life. Among the Reetions, sexual diversity is respected and people are encouraged to accept themselves and there is never a question of sexual interest being either bad or problematic in any way. It is simply another form of relationship. With this openness of sexuality, Ranar has to quickly shift his own openness about his sexuality in order to keep himself safe. When one of the Gelack leaders Di Mon develops an attraction for him (an attraction that he hates in himself and that encourages violence from him), Ranar is confronted with the idea that his own sexuality could be harmful to a lover who is part of a system that systemically oppresses queer-oriented people. He has to keep his sexuality hidden not only for his own protection but to preserve the life of his lover, Di Mon.

Unlike many SF authors, Lynda Williams does not just stick to heteronormative SF, but presents homophobia as something that is socially created and that can be resisted. By contrasting two cultures with different treatments of queer-oriented people, she illustrates that our own homophobic culture has been created by our own social issues and is not something that is taken-for-granted (as it is often portrayed by people who espouse homophobic beliefs). By having one culture that has a healthy, open approach to sexual diversity, and another that has a deep-seated hatred of queer people, she illustrates that homophobia is a choice, not homosexuality.

Lynda Williams is willing to do deep cultural critiques, exploring the development of different cultural ideas and contrasting them in societies that essentially descended from the same roots. She is willing to interrogate politics, ideas of social equality, the complexity of sexuality, ideas of privacy, biological change, and technology. And she is unwilling to give the readers simple answers, but encourages them to interrogate these issues, think for themselves, and develop their own ideas. The Courtesan Prince is a pedagogical text in the best sense of the word, not because it gives answers (as many think that teaching does), but because it asks questions, opens things to debate, and encourages readers to be uncomfortable with any easy answers.

Gelacks and Reetions are contrasted with one another in a way that pushes readers into an uncomfortable intergalactic, in-between space, stuck in the limbo between different ideologies. And this is a hugely powerful creative space where readers are made aware of how much their ideas and thoughts are socially defined and they are encouraged to get rid of cultural trappings and question things freely. The Reetions focus on the idea of honesty, and everything being public… but with that comes the limitations on privacy and the sense of living in a panopticon where everything can be easily seen. The Gelacks are more private, but lying is culturally entrenched to maintain secrets. The Gelacks have a population with bodies that are stronger, heal faster, and survive better… but the power of these bodies have meant tight restrictions on mating practices and the social control of “common” people by a small minority of physically stronger people. The Reetions don’t genetically modify people to be stronger, which means they are able to attain an egalitarian civilisation… but because of this their pilots often have short careers, damaged by the ravages of space travel which destroys normal human bodies. The Reetions are more comfortable with technology… but this means that they are also willing to modify people’s minds through psychotherapy. Whereas the Galecks consider certain forms of technology taboo, which prevents healing adaptions… but they are able to reduce the construction of any weapons of mass destruction. Nothing is easy in The Courtesan Prince and neither civilisation is portrayed as the model of perfect human society. Both have flaws, and these challenges make Lynda Williams’ novel more complex, more rich in substance, and portray the idea that the struggle for perfection is culturally defined and that one person’s ideal may be another’s horror.

The Courtesan Prince is book 1 in Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel Saga, to find out more about it and other books in the series, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/index.html . To find out more about Lynda Williams and the Okal Rel universe, visit her site at http://okalrel.org/ .

‘That’s what art’s all about too… they’re all lines of communication. But they’re harder to keep open now because it’s so much easier for most people to relate to a TV set than it is to another person. They get all this data fed into them, but they don’t know what to do with it anymore. When they talk to people, it’s all surface. How ya doing, what about the weather. The only opinions they have are those that they’ve gotten from people on TV shows. They think they’re informed, but all they’re doing is repeating the views of talk show hosts and news commentators. They don’t know how to listen to real people anymore.”

-Charles de Lint – The Conjure Man In The Very Best of Charles de Lint.

 

Quote – Art About Opening Lines of Communication and Resisting Uncritical Media

Creating Community in Isolation

A Review of Julie Czerneda’s Riders of the Storm (Daw, 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille riderss

Displacement is a factor that is prevalent in the lives of many people who have had to leave home for whatever reason. The finding of “home” is a nebulous, complex, and constantly changeable phenomena. Julie Czerneda explores the search for home in a foreign and confusing space in Riders of the Storm. On a planet with three self-aware and hugely biologically different species (the Om’ray, Oud, and Tikitik), agreements exist to keep the balance between these three peoples from shifting. Czerneda focusses on one group, a small band of travellers from the Om’ray who defy social customs by their biological differences. They threaten the balance that the Om’ray seek to maintain by the fact that they are different, that they represent change in a society that resists change and prefers to conceive of existance only in the form of living people (ignoring notions of the past). This small group of travellers are manifesting new abilities beyond the natural abilities of the Om’ray, which include telepathy, healing, collective dreaming.

The telepathy of the Om’ray has created a notion of fundamental racism. Since they are only able to telepathically sense each other, they cast all other non-Om’ray groups as “not real”. They see themselves as the centre of the world and believe that the world only exists where they are. They have created an isolated society both from other races, but also from other periods of time. They see their society as always having been the same, that history does not exist and isn’t worth exploring because it would suggest that things were capable of changing.

Aryl Sarc has been forced to become the leader for her small band of Om’ray, leading them on a journey that they believe to be impossible because it represents the possibility of change, something her society resists, and the necessity of shifting the status quo. Aryl doesn’t seek leadership, but she is a figure who represents change by her very body – she has abilities that are far beyond other Om’ray and the uncertainty within her body makes her more willing to accept uncertainties and therefore willing to confront challenges.

In a society that focusses on static notions of culture (the idea that things don’t change) and has an interest in keeping secrets, Aryl tries to make everything open to her people. She is interested in opening questions in a society that largely accepts things unquestioningly. She and her group of exiles finds an abandoned Om’ray village, one that presents the inevitability that things do, in fact, change. It represents a place for a new start and one that embodies history, opened secrets, and the challenge and potentialities of a new future that is different from the now. The uncertainty of this village, Sona, makes it an ideal place for a changeable people.

The group of exiles have to create a new sense of home in a place that is embodied by history, a history that speaks to them (literally through dreams about the past and figuratively through their need to interpret objects that have remained). Those who have been exiled out of a fear of change, now have to live with change and the flexibility, fluidity, and the general flux that is represented by an uncertain future. They seek to create an idea of belonging in a place that is different, that has history, and that keeps reminding them that things can and do change. They are haunted by the reminder that the land they are on predates them.

Aryl becomes more comfortable with ideas of change and with notions that would have been considered threats to her society. She is able to help her society to accept and be comfortable with ideas of chance. Aryl’s comfort with change makes her an ideal person to speak to people of other races – she is willing to speak to the Oud, the Tikitik, and even a human visitor to her planet. She is not restrained to notions of the Om’ray’s singularity and superior significance. She learns to be willing to accept that those who are “not real”, may in fact just be different and that intercultural communication, although uncertain and potentially confusing, is worth approaching. When trying to approach the Oud and Tikitik, she learns from the human visitor to her world, Marcus, that she will need to take into account both cultural differences and also biological differences since what is biologically normal for the Oud would be threatening for the more vulnerable Om’ray.

As outsiders wherever they end up going, Aryl’s group of exiles create community through their willingness to accept change, to create community through difference and to cooperate with others who their society traditionally resists or views as insignificant.

You can explore Riders of the Storm and other books of the Clan Chronicles series through Julie Czerneda’s website at http://www.czerneda.com/sf/clan.html .