Rabbi Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Excessive Greenery

A review of Kim Goldberg’s “Neither Slumber Nor Sleep” in Urban Green Man (Edge, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

A rabbi loses his position at the Beth Shalom Congregation when he becomes interested in a new supernatural phenomenon that appears in Nanaimo. Called in to investigate a series of strange events regarding the sighting of a huge Green Goddess figure and sudden surges of greenery over the urban space, the rabbi’s faith is challenged and questioned when he sees a bizarre series of events that defy his beliefs in the logical universe and that seem to reflect a pagan belief system more than they do a Jewish one. But, it is his belief in logic and the undeniable facts of the Green Goddess’ appearance in the city that cause him to eventually believe that she is appearing in the city.

He investigates the situation with logic and deduction, looking at these strange tales and gradually piecing together undeniable evidence that convinces him of the accuracy of these unusual reports – as Sherlock Holmes would say “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

Much like the bumbling police in a Sherlock Holmes tale, the RCMP in this story grasp for simple answers instead of investigating the case, blaming the sudden appearance of vinery overgrowing buildings on student pranks and acts of protest. Goldberg critiques the RCMP’s too easy assumptions in recent years that youth culture is linked to acts of rebellion, and their desire to suppress instances of protest as though they are symbols of a decaying society. Her vision of the RCMP reflects the issues of police violence against protestors who are advocating for environmental issues in Canada.

As the Green Goddess’ acts of environmental re-assurgency continue, environmental advocates join her in their pledge to “assist the Green Goddess in her mission to refoliate Nanaimo by whatever means necessary”. Although originally the police had assumed protest, eventually protestors join this environmental cause, seeing the Green Goddess’ actions of refoliation as beneficial for urban spaces.

Despite his assertion that “I am a man of both Talmud and science, neither of which places much store by pagan rituals”, the rabbi begins to see that there is not so much difference between the religious ideologies expressed in the Talmud, the principles of scientific investigation, and the likelihood that the Green Goddess represents a real change rather than an urban legend (particularly when it is reported that the Green Goddess has a series of Hebrew letters inscribed across her forehead that are the same as those that are used in evoking a golem). Moreover, he begins to wonder if the behaviours of this golem are threatening or if the world needs further acts of refoliation.

Goldberg examines the role of faith in modernity, and the interaction between notions of logic and belief. She creates a character whose observation of facts has isolated him from his community and resulted in his expulsion from his own congregation. Using the combination of environmentalism and the discourse of faith and logic, Goldberg explores the idea that modernity leaves many things unquestioned, particularly our assertion that an urban space and notions of progress have ascendency over green spaces and the significance of natural growth. By situating police powers in opposition to assumed (and then eventually real) environmental groups, she calls attention to the need to question government and media images of environmental protestors as violent people and instead suggests that we, as a culture, need protest – we need to question social messages and interrogate how our actions impact the environment.

Although, of course, not named Sherlock Holmes, the rabbinical protagonist of this story shows many similarities to the canonic character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales. By leading her readers through a similar analysis of the evidence, deep detective work, and psychological insights, Goldberg evokes this figure from literary history and questions the foundations of the idea of logic, reminding her readers of the importance of looking deeper into what appears to be “evidence” rather than accepting the assumptions that are presented.

To find out more about Kim Goldberg, visit http://pigsquash.wordpress.com/ .

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Rouge Noir

A review of Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues (Ace, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Once again Robert J. Sawyer b(l)ends genres, adding a touch of detective noire and paleontology to science fiction. Set on Mars of the future, where gold and other precious minerals are easily replicable, Red Planet Blues portrays a human society that has invested their interest in Martian fossils, the new markers of wealth. Rare and unable to be replicated, these fossils are valued not only for their uniqueness but also for the underlying fact that they prove that we are not alone in the universe… even though indigenous Martian life has expired.

The town of New Klondike, Mars, has become a frontier town like those inspired by the gold rush on Earth, and like many frontier towns, New Klondike has an element of lawlessness and corruption. Alex Lomax walks these mean, red streets in classic gumshoe style, seeking out secrets for his clients and exposing the criminal underbelly of the city and the little seeds of corruption in those around him.

Identity is not an easy thing in this future world – with the invention of technology for “transferring”, moving one’s consciousness into a simulated body, the personal is flexible and unrelated to the body. Traditional biometric means of determining identity are obsolete for those wealthy enough to transfer. Like the society of the present, identity issues have become a huge issue for the future and people rely on complex passphrases instead of simple passwords. Genetic forensic techniques are obsolete when it comes to bodies that aren’t biological and therefore leave no biological traces behind, no DNA to analyse. Finding out “whodunnit” requires a lot more legwork and a deep grasp of the human consciousness and human greed… something Lomax shares to a degree with the people he pursues. Without a DNA magic bullet, psychology becomes a greater key to finding out the root of the criminal mind.

Our modern society’s fear of identity theft is magnified in this novel, where, it is discovered, transfer bodies can be hacked and one’s innermost thoughts can be revealed. Transfers can even be made in the image of other people – copying their facial features, body, and tone of voice. So appearance is no longer a means of distinguishing a person. Biometrics can’t be used to determine identity because the transfers are non-biological. They can’t be finger-printed, retina-scanned, or DNA tested. Identity has become flexible and something that can easily be taken. And passphrases don’t work if a copy can be made of one’s cognition when they are transferred to a new body.

Sawyer also plays with the modern fascination with identity and appearance. People who decide to become transfers feel an almost compulsive need to “upgrade” their bodies, changing aspects of their appearance to fit with society’s ideals around bodily perfection. Characteristics are smoothed out to get rid of all of those self-perceived bodily flaws. This is plastic surgery taken to the extreme, where the entire body becomes molded and changed under the hands of societal ideas of attractiveness.

Identity itself is flexible and transfers can not only change superficial aspects of their appearance, but aspects of appearance that we attach tremendous ideas of identity-formation to such as gender, and race, illustrating how illusory these categories are. With synthetic human beings around, even the nature of humanity itself becomes a debatable category, questioned, interrogated… and ultimately legally defined. A court case has ruled transfers to be human and therefore they are strictly identified as individuals.

Unlike the detective in Red Planet Blues, Robert J. Sawyer uses his novel as a means to open questions, rather than answering them, challenging his audience to debate and speculate on issues of identity and human experience rather than forcing readers to accept his conclusions. Sawyer calls on readers to open their minds to new possibilities of what it means to be human and what it means to be a human separated from our Earthen home.

You can explore Robert J. Sawyer’s website at http://www.sfwriter.com/ and see what upcoming projects he is working on. To find out more about Red Planet Blues, visit http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781101622216,00.html?Red_Planet_Blues_Robert_J._Sawyer

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night…

A Review of Ian Rogers’ SuperNOIRtural Tales (Burning Effigy Press, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for SuperNOIRtural Tales courtesy of the author

Cover photo for SuperNOIRtural Tales courtesy of the author

I was so excited to see that Ian Rogers had collected a number of his Felix Renn Black Lands novellas into one volume and published it as SuperNOIRtural Tales. I had reviewed his novellas Temporary Monsters (https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/performing-the-monster/), The Ash Angels (https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/spectres-spooks-and-supernatural-s-a-d/ ), and Black-Eyed Kids (https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/when-death-is-better-than-continuing-fear/) and was happy to see that they were brought together with extensive new materials on the Black Lands and a new story titled The Brick into this fantastic volume that blends the supernatural with a detective noir novel.

Ian Rogers twists and warps the natural world in his Black Lands stories, taking normal experience, normal reactions, and normal people and placing them into contexts where they are forced to face trickles of the weird drifting in from otherworldly portals from the monstrous Black Lands. This is a world where children, for generations told that the monsters that they imagined under their beds are now real and are taught how to cope with the monstrous in their school. A world with governments like ours who are coping with a populace afraid of invisible, sudden, and unexpected threats and are coping (much like ours) by keeping details secret and doing horrible things in their belief that they are preserving the public interest. Where in our world, government secrets, the policing of people, and militarism are focussed on issues like ideas of global threats like nuclear militarisation, the spread of viruses, environmental degradation, and ideas of border security, the borders of Ian Rogers’ world are that of the Black Lands, a realm of the monstrous where everything is potentially a predator, where secret agencies cover up public dangers, where disappearances could be related to the supernatural or to those who might be considered a public threat, where military groups are sent into the ‘enemy territory’ of the Black Lands, and where the Black Land portals can be considered a spreading taint that can appear without warning. Like in our world where the permanent, nascent fear of catastrophe has permeated aspects of social and political life, the Black Lands is highly politicised and represents the anxious currents of the world surrounding unknowable threats.

But, like in our world, the nascent anxiety of potential danger becomes a background noise, fearful whisperings in the dark, and people in the world of the Black Lands novels learn to ignore the reality of the monstrous threat that stands a thin reality line away in order to cope and live normal lives. They know that the world as they know it can change at a moment’s notice, that constant interruptions to the world that they view as normal are possible, likely, and increasing, but they cope with the low-level anxiety in order to maintain their thin conceptions of a normal world.

Rogers plays with the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary, illustrating how ordinary people can learn to cope with the introduction of the Weird into their everyday lives.

In the newest Black Lands story in this volume, The Brick, Ian Rogers focusses the idea of disruptions interrupting the norm on a place that most of us most associate with safety, security, and normal existence: The Home. Felix Renn is brought into a case involving a girl who disappears suddenly from her home, and, in his search to find her, encounters a real estate agent friend who specialises in buying and selling haunted houses. The house becomes an unsafe space, its insecurity and lack of safety exposed: Ian Rogers ‘Weirds’ the home, disrupting the safe blanket of domesticity that has become the foundation for Western modernity. Houses become things that can attack people, that can kill, that can be possessed… and even the bricks of the home itself can become infused with the ‘Weird’. They can be tainted spaces, infused with the miasma of the Black Lands.

Even people in The Brick can become tainted, contaminated by exposure to the Black Lands in a syndrome that has been labelled by society as “The Influence” and dubbed by Health Officials “Black Lands Syndrome”. The body, the most fundamental particle of our identity structure, can be changed, touched by darkness, and can become unfamiliar…. and more frightening…. the monsters can sense this taint and some like to keep their privacy enough to hunt the people who have contaminated THEIR world…

You can explore more about SuperNOIRtural Tales at Burning Effigy Press’ website at http://www.burningeffigy.com/ . To find out more about Ian Rogers and his other books, check out his website: http://www.ian-rogers.com/ . And, to feed your love of the Black Lands, there is even a Black Lands website at http://theblacklands.com/

Cruising for Blood

A Review of Tanya Huff’s Blood Price
By Derek Newman-Stille

Tanya Huff’s books never disappoint me. I am always impressed with her ability to work in multiple genres of Speculative Fiction from hard Science Fiction to High Fantasy, to Urban Dark Fantasy and Horror.

Blood Price, the first of Huff’s Blood Books is perhaps one of my favorite books of all time, so it took a long time for me to develop the courage to review it. One of Huff’s protagonists in the series, Vicki Nelson, is a strong female detective character, willing to take risks to get the job done. She doesn’t rely on preternatural strength or dark magic but instead counters these in her opponents with her own gift at detective work. Huff uses this character to undo the notion of ‘female intuition’ that often pervades urban fantasies featuring female protagonists. Instead, Vicki’s intuition often leads her away from the truth, and it is only through solid detective work and a mind that is open to far-fetched possibilities that she is able to uncover the root of crimes.

Vicki is also a character who is going blind due to retinitis pigmentosa and has already lost much of her night vision. Unlike the disabled characters in many novels, this does not create a sense of vulnerability in the representation of Vicki. If anything, Vicki feels the need to take greater risks and be stronger and more self-reliant than all of those around her to compensate for her own issues with her reduced vision. Vicki is a figure at the intersection between her identity as a former female police officer (who therefore has to prove that she is more ‘ballsy’ than the male cops around her), and her new identity as a disabled person (which she frequently sees as a personal vulnerability that she needs to compensate for by being confrontational with the forces of darkness around her).

Huff’s other protagonist, Henry Fitzroy, is the vampire bastard (i.e. illegitimate) son of Henry VIII. He has become a romance author in the series because of the ability for romance authors to pass as eccentric and therefore explain his late-night hours, his unpredictable personality, and the frequent male and female visitors to his apartment (all for research, of course). Henry shows a sexual interest in both men and women, and, unlike the portrayal of many bisexual characters, his sexuality is not formative to his identity, it is merely another part of his character along with his authorship, his vampirism, and his advanced years (none of which show on his frozen-in-time face). He is arrogant, self-assured, but also incredibly likeable and human, and willing to accept diversity.

My favorite Henry scene involves him waiting for unspeakable evil in the park and getting distracted when he is cruised by a man who assumes that he waiting for something else in the dark. This scene aptly captures Huff’s sense of humour and the need for interjections of joy in the depths of the darkness of her plot.

This first of the Blood Books series primarily focuses on misunderstandings and misinterpretation of the facts. Characters are led to make assumptions about the nature of crimes that have been occurring in Toronto and have to face both their own limited ideas about the nature of the world, while similarly battling a dark force that relies on this misunderstanding and confusion to achieve its goals. It is only through challenging assumptions and developing a more complex and diverse understanding of the world that Vicki is able to approach an incomprehensible darkness that is spreading through the city.

Huff’s Blood Books were made into the Lifetime series BloodTies, and the television drama was not able to capture the richness of Huff’s characters or the depth of her storylines. Unlike the TV series, which often perpetuated rather than deconstructed stereotypes, Huff’s characters defy stereotypical or limited portrayals. The Lifetime series actually got rid of my favorite character, the homeless, gay friend of Vicki and later lover of Henry, Tony. Tony’s potency as a character was that he was able to show the reality of queer existence for many men – he was forced to be homeless (there is an inference that this may be due to homophobia he experienced), had to engage in risky activities due to his homelessness, but is ultimately a good person who wants to have a long term, positive relationship and get off the streets.  Huff illustrates that understanding and giving someone a chance can be formative in their identity and provide a chance for them to contribute to the world around them.

My only desire for a change with this book series… is that I wish I had purchased the books now with their new, impressive covers instead of years ago when they had the terrible “TV tie in” covers. Huff’s characters and narrative style create a direct line to my heart…

To explore more about Tanya Huff, visit her site at http://andpuff.livejournal.com/ .