Geek Girl Magic

A Review of Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life (First Second, 2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

in real life

 

Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life explores the complexity of geek girl life. Focusing on Anda, a high school student who finally finds her place in the MMORPG game Coursegold Online, Doctorow and Wang examine the flexibility of identities in an MMORPG-enabled world. Anda is a young woman who is able to explore her identity and knowledge of herself and her world through her online identity, creating an online persona that she sees as full of potential to go where her physical form can not. Over time, Anda starts to modify her own looks to reflect her online avatar more, exploring the critical question of what is “real” and whether there can be a “real” any more.

 

In Real Life explores aspects of MMORPGS like the uncritical racism involved in gamers assuming that anyone who is a non-English speaker is a ‘gold farmer’ (those who level up characters and then sell them to gamers for real money) and therefore not a “real” gamer. Anda has to confront her own racism about those believed to be gold farmers and has to deal with online bullying as a result. Anda discovers the power of the online world for developing community, but she also discovers the potential of online communities for developing factions and fracturing groups of people.

 

In Real Life is a graphic novel that questions ideas of reality and points out that we create our realities out of the texts we have been given – whether these are online fora or whether they are social assumptions that have been provided to us as texts for interpreting our world. Doctorow and Wang illustrate that reality is a fluid concept and one that is constantly being reshaped and changed as new understandings and ways of interpreting the world become available. They point out the reality-questioning potential of online gaming.

 

To discover more about In Real Life, visit http://www.firstsecondbooks.com/

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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

Is it Literary if it has Social Commentary?

A review of OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4 Edited by Diane L. Walton
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from OnSpec  # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

Cover photo from OnSpec # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

 

This review is well- timed since I recently posted something about ableism, sexism, homophobia, and racism at fan conventions and have been thinking about ways to make SF fandom more inclusive. When reading OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4, it occurred to me that the OnSpec editors are definitely doing their part to be inclusive by featuring stories that engage with a variety of different bodies and identities. One way that we can open fans to new ways of including diversity is to make sure that diversity is reflected in the SF works that we produce. OnSpec’s recently produced winter issue features works that engage with aging characters, LGBTQ2 or QUILTBAG populations, people in poverty, physical and psychological disability, and they do so in a way that raises questions about ableism, classism, and homophobia by giving the reader the opportunity to enter into the headspace of people who are often treated as abject by a society that discriminates against them.

Fiction provides us with an opportunity to exercise our skills in empathy, flowing in to the minds and experiences of characters as we read about them. Empathy is something that we all need to develop further and SF has the ability to let us venture into a variety of highly diverse minds and experiences.

Susan MacGregor begins this OnSpec with a discussion of the notion of “literary merit” and a reminder that a lot of the people who defend the notion that there is a “high literature” and that science fiction, fantasy, and horror cannot be it will often say that SF doesn’t make social contributions. Susan reminds the reader of the kinds of contributions that SF makes and mirrors some of the perspectives I have often espoused here on Speculating Canada that speculative fiction by its very nature opens things up to speculation, to question, and that by venturing into the weird realms of other worlds, other realities, and strange places, we can come back to our own world with questions, pondering the things we take for granted. It is very appropriate that this volume follows from her editorial with stories that feature characters who are often socially ostracized and exploring ideas about people in our own society who are treated like aliens and monsters. This exploration of those who are so often treated as ABnormal in situations that are abnormal (because they are set in the future or on other worlds or alternative histories) lets us question the idea of “normal” and come back to our own reality with a question about why so many people want to maintain a “normal” that excludes so many others. OnSpec 95, like other good works of SF opens OUR world to questions and lets us reassess it.

In addition to the -isms, OnSpec 95 invites readers to think about the damage caused by war whether it is physical injury to the body, environmental damage, psychological trauma, or damage to the community and notions of trust. The reader is encouraged to question our relationship to technology, deal with issues of addiction, plague, family violence, community secrets, memory, and the loss of selfhood itself. The fact that it does this social interrogation in a plague city of the future, in an alternative past full of necromantic powers and political intrigue, a future of prosthetic limbs and VR technology for coping with PTSD, a future of resource scarcity following international war, and a small town with a man who can sense truth makes it both incredibly entertaining and engaging.

OnSpec 95 binds narratives of loss together, creating a space for the interaction of future and past to talk about things that have become memory, things that we pine for, and things that we will feel the loss of in the future…. but these stories are ultimately about the present, about where and how we live NOW… and the authors ask us to question The Now to gain new insights about ourselves and the human experience.

We talk a lot about fantasy, science fiction, and horror as escapes, but I think that good speculative fiction is not an escape, but a temporary abstraction from reality that lets us come back to our own world with new insights, new ideas, and new ways of questioning the “norms” that we take for granted. Send me to an alien world any day if I can come back from it with a spaceship full of questions for this world!!

To read reviews of some of the individual stories in OnSpec 95, see:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/performing-reality-living-fiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/between-coping-and-addiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/a-necromantic-disregard

You can discover more about OnSpec at onspec.ca .

Quote – Collective Story to Guide People Through The Dark

“In a world as pessimistic as this has become, that collective story is all that’s left to guide people through the encroaching dark. It serves to create a sense of options, the possibility of permanence out of nothing.”

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

Performing “Reality”, Living Fiction

A review of Kevin Harkness’ “Double Vision” from OnSpec # 95, vol 25, no 4.
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from OnSpec  # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

Cover photo from OnSpec # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

Truth is painful, and seeing the truth is a huge responsibility. Kevin Harkness’ “Double Vision” peels back the layers of fiction in our society, exposing the social masks and lies we create for ourselves and others – an important part of this process we call “civilisation”.

When Chartrand was in a mining explosion, pieces of metal and rock were thrust into his brain, severing it into two halves. This doubling of cognition allowed him to simultaneously see and hear two different visions and sets of words – one, the words that were said and the attitude performed by a person, and the other their true face and the words that they conceal. His doubled experience allowed him (or forced him) to see the difference between the performed world and the inner, hidden world, creating a painful cognitive dissonance and a general alienation from an all-to-often fictional society.

Harkness takes the reader into this realm of duality, letting us see how much of our world is fictional, performed, and inauthentic. In this space of question, Harkness exposes not just individual secrets, but the way that communities ignore or hide problems to make things appear better on the surface, erasing difference, removing members of a community that differ from the values that are entrenched as the “norm”, and concealing issues of violence and abuse because they are “private” rather than public affairs.

Through Chartrand’s dual vision and dual hearing, the reader is pulled into a place of social question, asking what has been concealed, what hidden, what erased to make communities appear to be homogenous.

To read more about OnSpec, visit their website at http://www.onspec.ca/

To find out more about the work of Kevin Harkness, visit his website at http://kevinharkness.ca/

“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

‘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