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 .

Empowering the Freak

A Review of Leah Bobet’s Above (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)

Cover photo of Above courtesy of

Cover photo of Above courtesy of

By Derek Newman-Stille

Leah Bobet’s novel Above focusses on a group of people who have taken up residence in the sewers. Chased from society above the ground and called “Freak”, “Monster”, “Sick”, and “Cursed”, they retreated beneath the city to create their own society, free of discrimination. Their most feared opponents are the true monsters of this world, the Whitecoats, medical practitioners and scientists who are focussed on controlling, managing, and normalising their bodies. They capture those who have different bodies and force them into their own ideas of what normal bodies should be like, cutting them, medicating them, breaking their bones, and locking them up until their bodies start to look more like what society considers to be the “normal” body shape.

Characters with crab arms have them cut off and prosthetic human limbs forced uncomfortably into their stumps until they regain their shape. Characters with lion feet have them broken and re-shaped into a human-like foot shape, forcing them to walk in an uncomfortable and painful manner. But, a group of people escaped from the medical facilities above and created a community called Safe that was built on the foundation that no one should ever stare, no one should humiliate others, and everyone should have a safe place to be themselves.

One of the cornerstones of their community is the shared trauma they endured and the importance of sharing community stories. A central figure in the community is the “Teller” (who narrates this novel), a person who gathers the collective history of the people who form the community, hears their stories, and observes the events of the community, saving the stories that have brought them together and continue to shape them. The Teller functions as a mixture of a historian and counsellor, creating a safe space for people to share the stories that brought them trauma. By telling stories, the people of Safe create their own community narrative, separate from the normalising narrative of Above, and the medical documents that try to write their story for them. They become masters of their own stories, taking words away from others who would use them to oppress them.

But, part of every community is the stories that are not told, the stories that are edited out, considered taboo, and Matthew, the Teller, is forced to keep certain stories hidden and secret. These stories, like anything that is repressed, begins to haunt them, resurfaces from the collective unconscious of the group and harms the community, disrupting it. A community member who was removed and edited out of the collective history returns, bringing shadows of the past that haunt the sewers, snippets of memory that attach themselves to others, forcibly reminding them of what they have tried to forget.

Characters are forced out of Safe and into Above, the city that was the site of their truama. They are forced to see the world around them again and see things from the city above with new light… and new shadows.

You can find out more about Leah Bobet at her website . To explore this book and more by Arthur A. Levine Books, you can check out their website at

Interview with David Nickle

An interview with David Nickle by Derek Newman-Stille

I was pleased that David Nickle was willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada and particularly that he shows such a strong interest in the ability of Speculative Fiction to open social questions, challenge taken-for-granted notions, and encourage readers to think for themselves. 

Author photo courtesy of David Nickle

Author photo courtesy of David Nickle

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

David Nickle: Well let’s see. I’m the son of a landscape painter and a highschool teacher, have grown up in central Ontario and near Toronto, and I make my living as a political reporter in Toronto.  It’s fair to say that some of this influences my fiction, although I would only get myself into trouble trying to explain precisely how.

Spec Can: How much do you feel your Canadian identity influences your writing?

David Nickle: It doesn’t, a great deal. I’m not a big reader of Canadian literature, at least as its defined under the CanLit Protocol. I certainly pay attention to my environment—a lot of my fiction, particularly my contemporary horror fiction, hinges on a sense of place—but really, the canon that I’ve followed has been the usual mix of British and let’s say North American influences in the general sweep of fantastic fiction. So the H.P. Lovecraft-Richard Matheson-Robert Bloch-Stephen King lineage is something that shows up in my work. I also have paid heed to mainstream writers like John Irving and George Orwell and Timothy Findlay.

Really, my Canadian identity has for many years as a writer, contributed rightly or wrongly to my sense of being an outlier.  Coming of age as a writer, I was constantly faced with the notion that as a Canadian speculative fiction writer, my fiction either ought to deal with humanity cast against a hostile environment—Susanna Moody in Space as it were—or preach non-violent, anti-individualist solutions to problems that an American writer might just shoot full of holes with a space blaster. Canadian specfic writers of a certain age either embraced or bore the weight of that particular critical conceit.

In general, though, I don’t think that I’ve been particularly preoccupied with those themes. I like to think that my writing, like my identity, is fundamentally my own.

Spec Can: What do you see as distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction?

David Nickle: That’s a big question, in that I think that Canadian speculative fiction has come over the decades to occupy a vast range of subject matter and theme.  To that end, I think that it might be too big a question.

What really makes Canadian speculative fiction distinct, I think, is that its writers are all covered by universal health care such that they can practise their craft and their art without fear of an unexpected blood clot or cancer diagnosis bankrupting their families.  And so there are a lot of us at work here, many of us able to do that work full time, because of that.

Spec Can: What are some of the questions that you hope your work will evoke in the minds of readers?

David Nickle: I’d like readers to question themselves, I guess, and the reality that they believe they inhabit. One of my cherished memories from childhood came at around five years old, when I recall considering the fact of my existence. I had, as all little kids do, experienced myself as being at the center of the universe: without me, there was nothing. But I remember slowly working it through, using all the existentialist tools that my Montessori education had provided me: that in fact, I was finite. I had been conceived in 1963, and born in early ’64. Prior to that, although the world had chugged along, I had had nothing to do with it. When I died, as I understood that people did, it would chug along further, once again, without me.  As I considered this, I didn’t cry, or become angry, or turn to religion. I just became very quiet, and thoughtful, with the realization that there was more to things than I would ever, fully, be able to know. And if there was a real centre of the universe, it sure as shit wasn’t me.

That’s what I want to evoke in my work—the quiet and terrifying wonder of the unknowable void.

If I can evoke that in a five-year-old, all the better.

Spec Can: Your work deals with a lot of diverse bodies. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in the body and in diversity?

David Nickle: Hmm. There are a number of ways to parse that question.  In terms of ethnic/gender diversity, I like to think that my work is as diverse as the best of them, but it’s not a conscious choice. I’ve grown up and lived for the most part in and around Toronto—and the city contains a pantheon to diversity. You can’t take two steps in this town without encountering people from all parts of the world and from across the gender/sexuality map. Toward that end, you’ve got a choice: either engage, or hunker down in your own ethnic/sexual/gender enclave. I’ve never been for the latter.

Cover photo of Eutopia courtesy of

Cover photo of Eutopia courtesy of

So far as the body goes, now: I’m going to parse the question such that we’re talking about some of the body horror that I’ve dealt with in some of my fiction (my first solo novel Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism comes to mind as particularly squicky in that regard). I like body horror as a writer (less so as a reader) because it is a pretty literal and direct route to getting under a reader’s skin.  From the time we hit puberty, the spectacle of our changing bodies is a constant preoccupation, and I think a universal. So when we talk about change, and that mysterious and unknowable void I was talking about earlier, depicting a gestating parasite or an eyelid that opens unexpectedly in a lover’s forearm… well, it’s an attention-getter.

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

David Nickle: There’s a troubling premise embedded in that question for a writer like myself—which is to say, one who tries to write contemporary horror fiction: namely, that speculative fiction and realistic fiction exist in separate silos.

For my purposes, they don’t. I can’t write about the incursion of the strange and supernatural into a world, without that world functioning for the most part according to realistic rules.  So realism is an invaluable tool for me, and I wouldn’t be able to get to the speculative elements in my fiction without it.

That said, I think that the injection of the speculative into the firmament of the real enables us to transcend the moment-to-moment realities of life on Earth.  I like to think of most of my speculative elements as the metaphor in a story made real. But it also allows the reader to feel a moment of scary transcendence that while possible in realistic fiction, is much more difficult to attain.

Spec Can: You collaborated with Karl Schroeder in writing The Claus Effect. What is it like to collaborate with another author? What were some of the benefits and drawbacks?

David Nickle: I’ve collaborated twice with Karl, and once with Edo Van Belkom (on our Stoker-winning short story Rat Food). Each project was a little different. Karl and I wrote two Santa Claus stories together—The Toy Mill, which won us an Aurora Award, and The Claus Effect. Edo and I did one nasty little short story that got a fair bit of attention back in the day and, I like to think, created the genre of epicurean rodent stories that culminated in Ratatouille.

In all three cases, the biggest benefit was that it was just a lot of fun. We riffed off each other,  and tried to find middle ground between our individual styles, and so in an effortless and enjoyable way, stretched as writers. 

The drawback is, I guess, the drawback of any attempt at sharing in a project: the end result isn’t your own, entirely, and you have to recognize the fact that at least half of the good bits, you had nothing to do with.

And really, egos aside, that’s not much of a drawback at all.

Spec Can: In The Claus Effect, you tackle the issue of over-consumption around the holidays. What inspired you to write about the figure of Santa Claus and, in particular, the concept of greed surrounding the holidays?

Cover photo courtesy of the authors

Cover photo courtesy of the authors

David Nickle: That theme—over-consumption around the holidays—wasn’t, weirdly, what got us into the character. It was really the image of Santa Claus, as this great figure of corruption hiding behind a red suit and a funny beard; the notion of malevolence hiding, not very well, in the most benevolent of places. We also both really enjoyed the idea of taking hold of this treacly  and corrupt Victorian notion and, well, turning up the volume.

Spec Can: What mythologies or ideas of the mythic influence your writing?

David Nickle: I’m influenced by a lot of things: the Bible, Greek and Norse and Central American mythology. The Cthulhu Mythos.

Probably the mythology that most influences me, though, is the collection of ideas, conceits and dreams that come together in the 1970s New Age movement. There are some who might scoff at the idea of New Age crystals and Transcendendal meditation and astral projection and aura-reading as a mythology—both people who think it’s hokum, and people who’ve built their lives around it. So be it.  Having grown up with that as  a big part of my household, I find that when I’m looking at supernatural/paranormal explanations and premises, I go there first. At least for now.

Spec Can: What role does the figure of the outsider play in your work? Why do outsider figures work so well in speculative fiction?

David Nickle: I’ll deal with the second part first. I think outsiders are useful in spec fic for entirely technical reasons: they provide a viewpoint that allows readers to enter a strange and complicated world, and learn about it from the ground up. Outsiders can function variously as students, as critics, and as disruptive elements.  They make the story go around.

In my own work? I’m not consciously aware of the outsider as a particular trope in my stories, other than for the aforementioned reasons.

Spec Can: Many of your stories deal with the idea of love turned monstrous or distorted (i.e. The Sloan Men, The Inevitability of Earth). What can horror fiction tell us about ideas of love?

David Nickle: Well first off, I don’t want to be down on love. It is the sweetest thing, and getting it right is akin to getting your life right.

When it’s going right. I think that because of the potential payoff—a life of happiness and fulfillment—we sometimes dive at things that look a lot like love but are really nothing more than traps. That is where horror fiction comes in—because horror fiction is, on its most basic level, all about the trap.

Spec Can: Your short story Janie and the Wind deals with issues of domestic abuse. What can Speculative Fiction do to call attention to issues of domestic abuse?

David Nickle: I think that speculative fiction can do a lot to illuminate domestic abuse issues—although I’m not sure that I really did, in Janie in the Wind. In that story, the truly abusive relationships come about when the Wendigo enters a fellow. And that is a bullshit excuse that has been around for far too long: that the “devil made me do it” or some variation.

I think speculative fiction does what any good fiction does when dealing with hard, real issues like domestic abuse: it establishes a sense of empathy and understanding that journalism or other methods of inquiry cannot.

Spec Can: Your work has a dream-like quality. How do dreams influence your work?

David Nickle: Dreams themselves don’t influence my work very much; I’m not the kind of writer who wakes up from a fitful night and writes down the odd dream I had, as source material for a story. But I think that all fiction, all stories, follow a dream-logic. Because fundamentally, they’re waking dreams, and just as sleeping dreams are a kind of cognitive narrative that we impose on thoughts and memories, so are the waking dreams that are fiction.

Spec Can: Are there any other thoughts or idea that you would be interested in sharing with readers?

Cover photo for The 'Geisters courtesy of

Cover photo for The ‘Geisters courtesy of

David Nickle: Oh, ask a writer with a  book coming out for parting thoughts, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to sit through a plug for the next book.

In this case, my next book is coming out this spring/summer from ChiZine Publications. It’s called The ‘Geisters, and in brief, it looks at some of the socio-sexual implications of active poltergeists in an age of internet kink, while doing its best to scare the nose off readers. It’s also another Fenlan story (Fenlan being my little south-western Ontario answer to Stephen King’s Castlerock and H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham).  Like many of the stories I’ve set there, it’s all about love gone monstrously wrong.

I want to thank David Nickle for this fantastic interview and his incredible insights and keen observations about horror, love, the figure of the outsider, coming of age as a writer in Canada, and Canadian Spec Fic in general. I am excited about reading his new book The ‘Geisters when it comes out this summer. You can explore more about David Nickle by visiting his website at .

Upcoming Interview with David Nickle on Friday February 15th

In our upcoming interview, David Nickle discusses coming of age as a writer of Canadian Speculative Fiction, particularly non-violent, anti-individualist storylines and a general sense of outsider identity that permeates the lives of many Canadian Spec Fic authors. He wants readers to question themselves and their reality, challenge their preconceptions, and experience those moments of “scary transcendence” that are embodied in Speculative Fiction.

Author photo courtesy of David Nickle

Author photo courtesy of David Nickle

David Nickle shares aspects of his personal life, insights into Speculative Fiction, society, love,  horror, and collaborative writing.

Here are some teasers for our upcoming interview:

David Nickle: “A lot of my fiction, particularly my contemporary horror fiction, hinges on a sense of place”

David Nickle: “My Canadian identity has for many years as a writer, contributed rightly or wrongly to my sense of being an outlier. Coming of age as a writer, I was constantly faced with the notion that as a Canadian speculative fiction writer, my fiction either ought to or possibly does deal with humanity cast against a hostile environment—Susanna Moody in Space as it were—or in preaching non-violent, anti-individualist solutions to problems that an American writer might just shoot full of holes with a space blaster.”

David Nickle: “That’s what I want to evoke in my work—the quiet and terrifying wonderful of the unknowable void.”

David Nickle: “I like body horror as a writer (less so as a reader) because it is a pretty literal and direct route to getting under a reader’s skin.  From the time we hit puberty, the spectacle of our changing bodies is a constant preoccupation, and I think a universal.”

David Nickle: “I can’t write about the incursion of the strange and supernatural into a world, without that world functioning for the most part according to realistic rules.”

David Nickle: “Probably the mythology that most influences me, though, is the collection of ideas, conceits and dreams that come together in the 1970s New Age movement.”

David Nickle: “I think outsiders are useful in spec fic for entirely technical reasons: they provide a viewpoint that allows readers to enter a strange and complicated world, and learn about it from the ground up. Outsiders can function variously as students, as critics, and as disruptive elements.  They make the story go around.”

David Nickle: “But I think that all fiction, all stories, follow a dream-logic. Because fundamentally, they’re waking dreams, and just as sleeping dreams are a kind of cognitive narrative that we impose on thoughts and memories, so are the waking dreams that are fiction.”

Check out our interview on Friday, February 15th.

If you are not yet familiar with David Nickle’s work, check out my review of The Claus Effect at and explore David Nickle’s website at .

Characters in Books Become Real in the Otherworld

A Review of Charles de Lint’s Spirits in the Wires
By Derek Newman-Stille

In his Spirits in the Wires, Charles de Lint expresses something that I have wished to be true since I was a child: that the characters that we read in books become real through our collective imagination. De Lint’s Otherworld and the In-Between, standing between our world and the Otherworld is made up of the spirits and beings of myth, legend, and religion in addition to discarded parts of the human imagination and manifestations of belief. Within this realm are fairies, manitou, gnomes, dwarves, characters from novels that human beings have read, and even the discarded shadow of the self (the part of ourselves that we cast off as we develop ideas about what we want ourselves to be and what we don’t).  There is something absolutely comforting about the idea that your belief in the characters you read about in books makes them manifest and real in another realm – that warm feeling that by reading about them, you are sustaining these characters, feeding them with imagination and that there are hundreds of lives inside of you being created and maintained by your love of literature.

Spirits in the Wires focusses around a wide group of characters both human and otherworldly, including a woman who was created by a website as a way of learning about the world outside of the web, and the discarded shadow self of an author and preserver of urban myth. The internet itself has become a place that creates spirits from the imaginings of human beings, creating worlds between the wires, between computer systems. De Lint focusses on the Wordwood, an internet site that has been featured in several of de Lint’s books that was a repository for books and information which eventually gained sentience through the volume of stories running through it. The hodgepodge of stories, myths, and tales running through the Wordwood had a capacity to breathe life into it, grant it consciousness and personality as well as magic, which courses through the site.

Charles de Lint has often described the place of magic as a place in-between, to the corner, at the edge, and the internet is a logical place of magic, existing between computers in an ether of signals and wires. He disrupts the binary that often separates the magical from the technological, creating a story where the two interact, reinforce each other, and in doing so creates a new mythology for the cyber age.

Despite their separation from the human experience, there is something fundamentally human about the spirits that de Lint creates. They are figures in constant identity crises, trying to find out who they are and how their pasts have been formative in creating them. Saskia is a woman who suddenly appears with no tangible background, knowing things only as facts and not as direct experience. She is a creation of the Wordwood site, and has to face whether she is a simulacrum of humanity or if there is something intrinsically her about her existence. She is simultaneously self and stranger on the cusp between knowing herself and finding every experience new and challenging to her identity. Christianna, the discarded shadow self of urban fantasy author Christy, cast away in his youth, is forced to come to terms with her identity as a distinct being, trying to find herself while surrounded by the baggage of being a cast-off, abandoned. She explores whether there is something about her that is separate from Christy and whether there is value in her own existence. Even characters from books who have gained sentience and lives of their own separate from the novel that created them have identity issues, experiencing a grudge toward the authorial parents that created them from their imaginations. De Lint questions the nature of personhood and asks readers to look at whether origin is as significant in identity formation as we tend to think – whether we are created from the discarded parts of another person, manifest through a website’s desire to experience the world, a character from someone else’s imagination does that origin define us, or are we defined by what we do after we are conceived of?

De Lint asks the fundamental question that underlies a great deal of human experience: who am I? And, as a good author does, he doesn’t provide readers with an answer, but allows them to ponder what defined us, how we create ourselves, and what creates identity.

Spirits in the Wires is a novel about identity and self discovery, and particularly the power of a community to help in the process of identity development. Characters in this novel help each other to discover what is fundamentally separate and unique about them, and characters find some keys to their identity (though not an answer to this question that cannot be answered) in the process of a mythic quest. He reminds us that it often takes those around us to show us that we are unique and that we are fundamentally different from the primordial ooze that manifested us.

You can explore more about Charles de Lint and Spirits in the Wires at


A review of Charles de Lint’s The Painted Boy (Viking, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of

Charles de Lint often takes his readers into the hidden parts of the world and brings attention to the things that people ignore in the world around them, whether that be the fantastic side of the world and the potential for a magical viewpoint or attention to those within our society that are often ignored such as the homeless, or those on the social fringes. In The Painted Boy, de Lint takes on gangs, a part of our society that most people prefer to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist outside of the media excitement over violent attacks (and then they are only noted at a distance). De Lint reminds readers that they do exist and that kids in gangs have a reason for being in them that can’t be gotten rid of just by punitive actions – rather, we need to look at the social issues that give rise to gangs: poverty, feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, racism, exclusion, social ideas of masculinity, a society that celebrates violence.

James Li is a Chinese-American teen who, at the age of 11 had a tattoo suddenly appear on his back; a tattoo of a dragon that meant that his life had changed and that the weight of traditions that he knew nothing about had come down on him. He is sent out into the world at age 17 to discover himself and find the dragon within him (literally since he is a dragon shape shifter). When he arrives in Santo del Vado Viejo, he is instantly pursued by gangs who think that he is part of a rival gang infringing on their territory. But he is the fundamental opposite of the gang mentality, though bears enough similarities to contain a social commentary on gangs.

Like gang members, James Li’s body is marked with his particular group affiliation (the dragon), he has had a strict regimen of control, loyalty has been bred into him as an essential part of his being, he could be killed by those in charge if he disobeys the authorities in place, dragons are territorial so he embodies a sense of place much as gang turf does, his body contains a potential for rage and violence. But his role shows the fallacy of the claims that the gangs make. They are not actually loyal as the dragon is, they are afraid of those in control. The gang leaders will kill those under them from a sociopathic whim, whereas the dragons will only kill of one of their members becomes a threat to others. The gangs aren’t actually part of their turf, they don’t respect it or the people on it – they control it with fear. James holds a distorted mirror up to the gangs, illustrating that they are hollow and that all of the values and ideas of belonging that they claim are shallow and without substance. Gangs don’t protect or guard anything despite their claims to protect their members, where James as a dragon is the literal embodiment of protection. De Lint evokes the history of the dragon in China as a protector of emperors, but notes that over the years as empires have fallen, dragons have become guardians of places, linked to the spirit of the place and guarding over locations. They protect spaces, but aren’t lords over a territory.

De Lint’s interest in place is common to many of his stories; featuring various genius loci (spirits of place) and focussing on the distinctiveness of landscapes (even urban landscapes) as having both distinctive physical but also spiritual features. By creating a figure who is a shape-shifting dragon, de Lint brings extra attention to ideas of space and place. James Li has to connect with the embodiment of the spirit of his new town in order to drive the gangs and drug lords out and protect his new home. But he also has to acknowledge the distinctiveness of his new home and learn about how to deal with the social issues that have become embedded in this place such as fear, poverty, threatening notions of masculinity, general disrespect for others, and the realities of a community in threat. De Lint doesn’t create a magical cure that fixes the society, but rather requires James to find himself within his new community and acknowledge and work on notions of changing social issues gradually. James is required to create friends, acknowledge the community around him (both human and supernatural) in order to prevent him from becoming like the previous gang leaders of the place, who weren’t really attached to it or its communities but viewed it instead as a territory to be controlled. When his dragon threatens to consume him and destroy the city he is supposed to protect, it is only through the collective efforts of the community of friends he has made getting together to have a concert and the rhythmic beat of the music that holds the collective heartbeat of the community that brings him back to himself. He learns that he cannot guard a place from a distance, but rather has to be part of it, to have connections to the people around him and to care for them. Here de Lint once again contrasts James to the gangs – whereas the gangs have a false community based on fear, James is able to establish a community based on mutual respect, cooperation and the desire for collective well-being.

Key figures in this change in society are the lesser cousins – shape-shifting supernatural beings who are generally seen as weaker. Despite being self depreciating, the weaker spiritual powers are the ones who gather people together, who create connections and open pathways of communication. The Painted Boy acknowledges the importance of all members of a community in creating a society and that the under-represented often have a key role that is ignored by a society that focusses on the ‘big’ powers.

Despite being one of those big powers because of his dragon heritage and supernatural abilities, James considers himself a social outsider, a kid who wants to learn and above all else wants to belong. He faces the struggle of wanting to fit in and be normal, while simultaneously wanting to be unique and special. He is in a war with himself both through his desire to lead a normal human life and his need to fulfill a destiny that has been inscribed onto him.

To read more about Charles de Lint, you can visit his website at  and can read more about The Painted Boy at .

Interview With Karl Schroeder

An Interview With Karl Schroeder
by Derek Newman-Stille

Karl Schroeder is the author of several novels including “The Claus Effect”, “Ventus”, “Permanence”, and The Virga Series. In the following interview, much as in his fiction writing, Mr. Schroeder asks his readers the tough questions, calling on them to question their limited views of reality and helping readers realise that they have a role in making the world a better place. He calls on us to think about a possible future in which humanity develops better decision-making capacities. I hope that you find this interview as enlightening as I did.

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Karl Schroeder:  I’m an author and futurist based in Toronto, though I was born and raised in the prairies. My family comes from the same southern Manitoba Mennonite community that A.E. van Vogt came from. In 2011 I acquired a Master’s degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation; as well as writing SF, I consult about technology and social futures for clients such as the provincial and federal governments, and the military.

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

Karl Schroeder: No, and yes within limits. If you’re writing novels of character, then letting your heroes and villains take on lives of their own is good. If you’re writing any other kind of story, character, like setting, plot and style, is subordinate to what you’re trying to communicate. Characters should seem real to the reader, just as the settings and situations you write about should seem real; but there’s no advantage in them seeming real to you.

As with everything else to do with writing fiction, you must remember that it’s not a sign of success if you get swept away by your own storytelling; that’s actually a sign of poor discipline. If your characters are taking on lives of their own, you’re too close to them and need to step back to objectively assess whether they’re properly serving the story you’re trying to tell. If they are, then great. If they’re not, then you probably need to rein them in.

This probably sounds cold and heartless to beginning writers who feel that there’s something romantic about writing. The fact is, you want your readers to feel the romance of storytelling, but it’s utterly unnecessary—and often counterproductive—if you do.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write Speculative Fiction?

Karl Schroeder:  No one thing; there was no Damascus Road moment that made me a writer. Above all, it was my family, and specific incidents when I was growing up.

My mother published a couple of novels when I was very young, so I grew up with these in the bookshelf. Becoming a writer was obviously a viable option. My brothers and sister also inspired me at different times with their creativity and the possibilities of storytelling.

To give just one example of the many small events that pushed me into being a writer: when I was about eleven my dad brought home a big roll of brown wrapping paper from work. My brother and I unrolled this on the basement floor and began covering it with doodles, art—and cartoons. From there I started filling notebooks with short graphic novels, and after a couple of years of that, began writing in prose. I started my first novel when I was fourteen, and I finished my first one when I was seventeen.

Spec Can: In what ways does your Canadian identity influence your writing?

Karl Schroeder: I’m sure there’s lots of ways that being a Canadian influences me, but somehow the question seems odd. Do we ask American authors how being American influences their writing? Or British authors how being English influences them?

One clear discovery I’ve made is that I was never influenced by certain key authors who loom large in the reminiscences of some American SF writers that I know. I never read Heinlein, for instance. –I tried. His attitudes and politics were too alien to me, even at age fifteen, for me to feel comfortable in his stories. On the other hand, I was avidly reading Stanislaw Lem at that time, so I never missed Heinlein.

Nowadays, my Canadian identity—like my Mennonite background—probably shines through most in my attitudes toward violence as a valid political tool. I.e., it isn’t one. I do write ripping pirate yarns, such as the Virga books, but those are cartoonish in their depictions of war. When I’m serious—as in books such as Lady of Mazes or the forthcoming Lockstep—I am careful to present nonviolent paths to resolving conflict as the superior option.

Spec Can: What do you see as distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction?

Karl Schroeder: The fact that it asks itself what makes it distinct.

Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in changing the way people think about the world around them?

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

It’s important to know that the style of thinking SF promotes isn’t limited to science fiction. If you read current thinkers such as Timothy Morton, for instance, you’ll encounter the same strangemaking process, but highly honed for specific purposes and politically and socially pertinent.

Spec Can: Your work alternates between various Speculative genres. Is it tough to alternate between genres? Are these genre categories that separate?

Karl Schroeder: Genre is a marketing tool. I don’t think in terms of genre, only about what ideas I want to communicate (or strange-make). This determines the kind of story it’s going to be. I’d say the only reason that my novels have, to date, all been science fiction, is that I’ve had particular things to say that SF is optimized for.

I could simultaneously write a hard SF novel and a fantasy epic, without the stories interfering in any way with one another.

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

Karl Schroeder: Describe the real world.

Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator.  It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories: it’s not actually that they lack some magical gene or other that wizards have (like the midichlorians in Star Wars); it’s that they literally can’t see the magical in the world around them. They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking. (And by the way, having the Force be created by midichlorians makes the Star Wars universe a very muggle place.)

In contrast, there’s some very interesting philosophy these days that goes way beyond realism to engage with both science and society in new ways. Bruno Latour is a good one to read for this: his Irreductions presents the idea that everything, from atoms to Santa Claus, is equally real: nothing can be reduced to anything else… and, anything can be reduced to anything else (if you’re willing to put in the work to connect them). As an artist, that’s much more like the world I live in than any realist world.

Spec Can: You collaborated with David Nickle in writing The Claus Effect. What is it like to collaborate with another author? What were some of the benefits and drawbacks?

Karl Schroeder: Collaboration is easy, with the right person. Also, attitude is everything. David and I wrote The Claus Effect for fun and we weren’t under contract. The deadline was tight, though: three days, because we were doing it for the Three-Day Novel Contest, which was held over labour day weekend. That explains some of the zany energy in the book, because parts of it were written at 3:00 a.m. on some very questionable formulas of caffeine and sugar.

Spec Can: In The Claus Effect, you tackle the issue of over-consumption around the holidays. What inspired you to write about the figure of Santa Claus and, in particular, the concept of greed surrounding the holidays?

Karl Schroeder: Oh, Lord, there was no cunning calculation to this! We were just both sick and tired of the overcommercialization of the holidays, and Santa is the perfect symbol. Anyway, anything precious gets distorted when filtered through David’s mix-master of an imagination; it didn’t take us long to come up with our present vision of Santa once we turned our attention to him. Maybe a minute.

Spec Can: What ideas of the mythic do you bring into your work? And what role can the mythic have for the modern Canadian audience?

Karl Schroeder: What we lack today is a mythic dimension of the real. There’s plenty of sense-of-wonder available from fantasy, but why should we have to escape reality in order to experience the mythic? Much of my work consists of examples of things that are perfectly possible, but as magical as anything you can find in fantasy. My world of Virga is an example: it’s a steampunk, gaslight environment complete with pirates and conspiracies, ancient monsters hiding in the forgotten corners of the world… and it’s a zero-gravity world where the hero rides around on a wingless jet engine with handlebars and a saddle on it. All perfectly possible.

Spec Can: What is the importance of imagination and a sense of wonder for our world?

Karl Schroeder: Everyone in the world today is caught between what they believe to be true, and what they know to be real. We’ve been taught that the real is not the realm of magic or of the imaginative. In fact, most of us are utterly incapable of reconciling what we believe to be true and what we know to be real. But if I said that for the most part, what I believe is true is also what know to be real; that for me, reality is the realm of the imaginative, and that magic and wonder dwell here with us and not in some separate realm… well, would you believe me?

Return again to Virga, and to the picture of Hayden Griffin arrowing through lemon-coloured skies on a wingless jet—or to Spire, a thousand-year-old, open-ended cylinder twelve miles wide rotating to provide gravity on its interior surface. Ancient, bits falling of it, holes in its surface known as airfalls, and strange isolated estates where ancient families enact eccentric rituals and shoot anyone who strays onto their decaying little patches of real estate… In the Virga books, the mythic dimension is explored by strictly obeying the rules of Newtonian physics. Spire is entirely at the mercy of Newton’s laws, which is what makes it so strange a place.

I wrote the Virga books to illustrate just how much novelty and wonder were still possible within science fiction with just what we knew a hundred years ago. The so-called ‘ordinary’ is an inexhaustible wellspring of wonder. To know that is to be comfortable living in this world.

Spec Can: What new technological advances most interest and excite (or frighten) you as an author of Speculative Fiction?

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

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

It’s ironic and sad that people within the science fiction community can imagine any future—ones where robots run amok, where nanotech eats the planet or biotech creates new species or aliens arrive… any future, except one in which humanity redesigns and improves its ability to govern itself. This is a ridiculous blind-spot, a very telling prejudice toward what we think is possible; it’s a remarkable and disappointing failure of our collective imagination. So that’s what I want to address in my new work.

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to our interview, any ideas or thoughts to close our discussion?

Karl Schroeder: Let me deploy that old, inflammatory question: are you part of the solution, or part of the problem? Do you imagine or write a future where anything is possible except the invention of prostheses to compensate for the inadequacies of human decision-making? Does your worldbuilding encompass universes with star flight, robots and nanotech—yet accept royalty, corporations and bureaucracies as inevitable? Is Terminator your only model for computer-assisted decision making? Or are you tracking developments like dotmocracy, statistical demarchy, decision support software and the iPhone SuperPAC app? Because to those of us following such developments, the future looks entirely different than it does to mainstream SF—even, dare I say it, any SF of the present generation.

I’ll retract that statement when I’ve read a novel that shows how new governance systems and methods solve global warming.

I want to thank Karl Schroeder for being willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada and for asking readers tough questions, and questions that need to be asked.

As an educator who uses Speculative Fiction as a way of helping students to question taken-for-granted notions, I, personally, really appreciated Mr. Schroeder’s interest and incredible ability to evoke questions in the minds of readers and help us to expand our worldview.