Here Be Monsters

Here Be MonstersA review of Michal Wojcik’s “A New Bestiary” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (Exile, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Michal Wojcik’s “A New Bestiary” is a posthuman tale about body modification. In this near future fiction piece, Mojcik presents a world where people are remaking themselves into monsters as a way to claim a new, non-human identity for themselves. Ranging from Centaurs to Satyrs to Merpeople to Cyclopes, these monsters are not merely evincing biological change, they are building new, resistant identities. 

However, these identities surpass medical modification and the changing of the biological start to change the world, shifting the world to a new space of monsters, a new cartography and vision for the functioning of the world. Islands begin to appear in the ocean that hadn’t existed before and the world seems to be altering itself to medieval settings in a form of vast restoration. Bodies are no longer scarred through their transformations and medical modifications, but are reborn as monsters. The medical is undone and replaced by the miraculous.

Wojcik offers a transhuman tale that questions the idea of the simple boundaries of human existence, inviting the reader to imagine the role of the monster as the ultimate outsider to challenge the simple boundaries policing human definition.

Wojcik’s narrator, Melanie, originally biologically modifies herself as a way of speaking back against resistant classifications and to gain confidence. She embraces a chimera image of assembled animal and insect parts, not wanting to limit herself to existing monster imagery, but instead to construct a new identity. But her identity isn’t just a challenge for others, it is an internalized question, an invitation for her to redefine herself and her place in a world that values normalcy even when there are possibilities for transhuman bodies. 

Wojcik’s “A New Bestiary” collides against normativity in our world, inviting us to reimagine our world and rankle at our restrictions. This is a story of home that asks how we define “home” and “belonging”. 

To discover more about Those Who Make Us, visit https://thosewhomakeus.wordpress.com

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Slavic Myths and Human Monsters

A review of David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother (ChiZine, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother brings together snippets of strange lives into a tale that hints at connections between these individual stories and provides shadows of a larger narrative tying them together. Each of Demchuk’s tales ties in with a snapshot shown at the beginning of the story and diverts into the mythical, magical, mysterious, and monstrous. These images of the normal are interrupted by tales that Other them, transforming them into something complex and uncertain. The unexpected is a stream that runs through Demchuk’s narratives, complicating them to illustrate the way that stories always hold complex truths that are always part fiction.

The Bone Mother features fairy tales turned dark and infused with the mechanical, featuring an ever present factory standing as a symbol of industry intersecting with myth to create a landscape of smoke and shadow. Demchuk tells tales that connect the mythic to industry, proving that the mechanical can’t fully succeed in chasing the creatures of the human imagination back into the dark, and may, in fact, give them a space to thrive. The Bone Mother brings together Rusalka, ghosts, golem, mirror monsters, Baba Yaga figures, and other manifestations of Slavic myth and makes these figures into family secrets, hidden differences that dwell in the blood rather than the imagination. He ties these fairy tale figures in with circus freaks and those who defy social and biological norms, bringing out the diversity of the human form. The most dangerous quality of this mythical world is normalcy, which tries to turn everyone into simple, uncomplicated forms, denying diversity. All of these figures who could be called monsters only serve to show a mirror to humanity, illustrating that we are the monsters for trying to enforce conformity. 

To find out more about The Bone Mother, visit ChiZine Publications at http://chizinepub.com/the-bone-mother/
To discover more about David Demchuk, visit http://daviddemchuk.com/ .

An Interview with A.C. Wise

By Derek Newman-Stille.

After reading A.C. Wise’s “The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again”, I could see that she had some great insights that would make for a fascinating interview. I hope that your enjoy our interview and all of A.C. Wise’s brilliant points.

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

A.C. Wise: Sure! I’m a transplanted Canadian currently living in the Philadelphia area. Among the members of my household are two very adorable corgis (a chaos of corgis) whose pictures frequently grace my twitter stream. I’ve had short stories in Clarkesworld, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, among other places. The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again is my first collection. It was released by Lethe Press in October 2015, and there’s an audiobook version on the way. I also co-edit Unlikely Story, which started life as the Journal of Unlikely Entomology, and has since morphed to include other unlikely themes. Our first print anthology, Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix came out in January 2016. I also write a monthly Women to Read: Where to Start column for SF Signal.

Spec Can: What interested you about pop sci fi for you to play with ideas from pop sci fi and sci fi of the past in your fiction? Why the sea monsters, aliens, and hand-wringing evil scientists?

A.C. Wise: I have great affection for old movies, and movies so bad they’re good. In the ideal world, there would be a movie version of Glitter Squadron with Vincent Price in all his scenery- chewing glory playing Doctor Blood. I also kind of dig the monsters from those old movies, the guys in rubber suits, the Ray Harryheusen creatures. The Glitter Squadron is a little bit camp, so they should be facing off against suitably camp villains, not slick CGI monsters or every day baddies. Nothing less than mythology and evil science will do!

Spec Can: What interested you about writing about drag culture in “The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again”?

A.C. Wise: Aside from drag being fierce and fabulous and brave in its own right, one of the things I wanted to do with the Glitter Squadron is show different ways of being strong. There’s a certain model of Strong Female Character we see over and over in media. Even though they’re female, they’re ‘just one of the guys’. They’re tough. They wear dark colors. They’re angry. They punch things. If they wear make-up, it tends to be understated. Their hair is artfully messy to show they don’t care about looks. When they get hit, they might get one scratch on the side of their face, or a little bit of blood on their mouth to show they’re not afraid to get dirty. And above all, they are not – god forbid – girly. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that kind of character, but it’s not the only way to be strong. I wanted heroines who didn’t have to shed the trappings of femininity to be strong. Most of the Glitter Squadron embrace femininity in the most extreme way possible – big hair, big boots, big makeup, and glitter everywhere. Of course, there are also characters like M, CeCe, and the G-String Men, because there is a spectrum. Strength comes in all shapes and forms, and it was important to me to try to showcase that.

Spec Can: Why is it important to show empowered cis-gendered women as well as empowered trans women?

A.C. Wise: It plays into the idea of showing a spectrum of strength, and a spectrum of femininity. I hate the Lone Woman model. Black Widow is a prime example of that in the Marvel movies. Being the only woman on an all-male team, she has to stand in for every woman (something male characters are very rarely asked to do). She can’t be too strong, too weak, too anything, because when she does, she is, by default, making a statement about all women. It’s impossible for her to win in this scenario. However, if there’s a whole team full of women – and that includes women of various types, cis women, trans women, fat women, black women, Latina women – they can all be variously strong and weak at different times. They can lean on each other, and none of them are asked to speak for all of femininity and carry the entire weight of their gender alone.

Spec Can: Queer people are often portrayed as passive, suffering people in traditional fiction. You have written some very empowered and powerful queer people. What is important about portraying strong queer characters?

A.C. Wise: Well, in real life, queer people do amazing things and there are more stories to tell than just the sad ones. Unfortunately, a lot of media hasn’t caught up with that reality yet. One of the major problems with this is, there are few enough stories putting queer characters front and center, and if all of those stories are queer tragedy, queer abuse, queer death, that’s not only depressing, it’s actively damaging. Those narratives get repeated, and they become the narrative. They become internalized and normalized. Queer people and straight people alike start to expect that tragic stories are what queer stories are supposed to look like. Queer kids looking to find themselves in fiction don’t see hope, they see that they can expect the world to shit on them. At best their suffering will help inspire a straight person and uplift them, but there’s no place for them in the world. That is a truly terrible message to put out in the world. That’s why it’s important to me that the Glitter Squadron are no one’s sidekicks. They are the heroines of their own stories. They face challenges, but most of those challenges aren’t related to their queerness, and regardless of the cause, when they do suffer, they always fight back. They are self-rescuing princesses.

Spec Can: What are some important things to keep in mind when writing about queerness?

A.C. Wise: Like writing about any identity, it’s important to remember there isn’t one single way to express it. There’s no one ‘right’ way to be queer. Related to that, every reader is different, and they bring their own life experience with them when they read. Authors writing about any identity that isn’t their own need to be prepared to listen. This is especially true for traditionally marginalized identities like queer identities. If a queer (or otherwise marginalized) reader points out something you got wrong as an author, listen to them. Don’t immediately get defensive or fall back on, ‘but my queer/black/female/etc.’ friend said it was okay. Your friend’s experience may be very different from the person your work hurt or offended. As I said above, there are few enough stories that put queer folks front and center, which means each one carries extra weight and has extra potential to do damage. It’s the same problem as the Lone Female Character. The solution to these problems is more characters and more stories spreading out the weight each story has to carry, and of course more stories from traditionally marginalized authors. Obviously those stories should also be approached respectfully, and characters should be written first and foremost as human beings.

Spec Can: “The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again” highlights the importance among the queer community of finding our own family and making our families from those who are important to us. Why was family such a central focus of this narrative and why is it important to show alternative, chosen family structures?

A.C. Wise: A lot of queer kids sadly do face rejection from the families they are born into, and sometimes, as a result of that, homelessness. For some people, the family they make is the only one they have, and I wanted some of the stories in the collection to highlight the idea that there is a community out there where people can be accepted and loved and find a place they can call home. At the same time, I didn’t want all the blood-family relationships to be negative either. Starlight has a fantastic relationship with her mother. Esmeralda’s story is all about reconnecting with the family she was born into. I wanted to show a variety of families, queer families, found families, adoptive families, children being raised by their grandparents. Just like there’s no one right way to be a woman, or no one right way to be queer, there’s no one right way to be a family.

Spec Can: What are some key things that we can be doing in our queer fiction to write narratives that interest and empower queer people?

A.C. Wise: Probably the most important thing is make sure there are spaces for queer people to tell their own stories. Projects like Queers Destroy SF/F/H from Lightspeed, presses like Lethe Press, podcasts like Glittership, and publications like Scigentasy which focuses on stories exploring the gender spectrum are crucial. It’s also important that those spaces aren’t seen as niche or one-off – all publications and publishing houses should strive to showcase a wide variety of voices and make room for stories that reflect the world as it is, not just a narrow segment of it.

Spec Can: What is so fascinating about superhero narratives? Why do we keep returning to them in our cultural interest?

A.C.Wise: Superheroes are like mythology and fairy tales. They are foundational stories upon which we build our culture. They give authors and creators archetypes to play with, reinterpret, re-imagine, and subvert. Many classic super hero stories also give us regular folks a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy. Spider-Man and the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel are nerdy kids who get amazing super powers and save the world. If it can happen to them, maybe it can happen to us, too.

Spec Can: Why do you feel the secret identity motif is so important in superhero fiction?

A.C. Wise: Superhero secret identities are kind of fascinating. From an author/creator perspective, they allow for the exploration of several themes that are fundamental to the human experience. Trust – who do you let into your inner circle, who do you allow to see you without your mask on? Identity – at the core of your being, who are you, are you the hero, or the mild- mannered person going about their day? How do you protect the ones you love when you take on the responsibility of being a hero, or when you have it thrust upon you? What truths can you speak while wearing a mask that you can’t with your every day face?

Spec Can: One of your interests is in writing Lovecraftian-inspired or Weird fiction. What can Weird fiction do? What is its power as a genre?

A.C. Wise: I’ve always found the cosmic horror aspects of Lovecraftian fiction, or on a more Earth-bound scale, the natural world horror of Blackwood, appealing. Obviously, it’s not a cheerful thought, but the idea that humanity is small, and there are implacable things out there that aren’t out to destroy us because they’re evil, but may accidentally destroy us because they don’t even recognize our existence, is an attractive one in fiction. Stories where humanity meets alien life, and the human way is automatically assumed to be superior have always annoyed me. On the whole, the creeping oddness of Weird fiction is fun to read and to write about – that sense of dread, that something is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it. Weird fiction has a way of slipping between the cracks, fitting itself into various genres. It’s flexible, and I like that.

Spec Can: What are some of the issues that come up in SF regarding the misogynistic portrayal of women?

A.C. Wise: One of the problems I see is that of the received narrative, or the perpetuated narrative. It’s like what you mentioned earlier about queer tragedy. There’s a danger of negative stories becoming the only stories we tell, and that negativity becoming the message we carry into the future. Raped women. Fridged women. Sidelined women. Erased women. Women who exist only to further the narrative of men, or women who aren’t there at all. This should not be the accepted norm. When we see it in our fiction, we should question it, challenge it, push back. If we don’t, people will continue to write and read these stories and think nothing of it, because that’s the way it’s always been.

Spec Can: What can SF do to promote a feminist message? How can SF empower women?

A.C. Wise: Some of the same things SF can do to empower queer stories – make sure there are spaces for women to tell their own stories. Make sure those stories aren’t separated out as ‘special interest’ or relevant only to women. Women’s stories are as universal as men’s stories. The idea that men and boys can’t/won’t/shouldn’t be asked to identify with female characters is ridiculous, and the marketers and decision makers at major publishers, movie studios, and television networks need to let it go.

Spec Can: Your fiction crosses a lot of genre boundaries. What are some of the challenges of cross-boundary writing?

A.C. Wise: I don’t specifically set out to cross boundaries. The stories I write just seem to turn out that way. One of the challenges, I suppose, can be finding an audience. I think that may be more of a problem when it comes to novels. Editors, publishers, and marketers need to know where a book will sit on the shelves in order help readers find it. Labels are useful for building an audience, but not so useful from the writing side of things. With short stories, there’s a bit more room for things that aren’t as easy to pin down to a single genre. Short fiction readers may follow an author or a publication and find new stories that way, as opposed to going to a specific shelf/category in a bookstore or online retailer.

Spec Can: What are some of the rewards of cross-boundary writing?

A.C. Wise: It’s fun! It doesn’t limit you to one particular sandbox, but lets you play in all of them.

Spec Can: What do you see as some of the social activist potentials of SF? What kinds of things can the speculative genres do to evoke new ways of thinking about the world?

A.C. Wise: Ideally art and literature of any kind can serve as a mirror to show humanity its best self. One argument people make for including rape in fiction is that it’s realistic. To that I say, so is two or more women talking about something other than their relationships with the men in their lives. So are pasts, presents, and futures that include queer people and people of color and people with disabilities. So why not tell those stories? Why not show the positive possibilities rather than perpetuating the same negative stories? That’s what SFF can and should do.

Spec Can: Are there any further ideas you would like to discuss?

A.C. Wise: Oh my. I think I’ve probably rambled on enough, but I sincerely appreciate you giving me the opportunity to do so. You asked wonderful questions, and I love Speculating Canada, so thank you for hosting me!

Spec Can: How can readers find out more about you and the work you are doing?

A.C. Wise: I maintain a sporadic blog at http://www.acwise.net, and tweet as @ac_wise. On the editorial side of things, Unlikely Story can be found at http://www.unlikely-story.com, and as @grumpsjournal on twitter.

Author photo for A.C. Wise

Author photo for A.C. Wise

 

 

I want to thank A.C. Wise for taking the time to do this interview. This has been a wonderful interview full of new and exciting insights.

Golden Age Superheroes in Modernity

Golden Age Superheroes in ModernityA Review of Epic Canadiana Volume 1 by Cloudscape Comics, edited by Bevan Thomas.

By Derek Newman-Stille
Epic Canadiana volume 1 delightfully connects the golden age of Canadian comics (the origin of the Canadian superhero comic) with modernity, creating a link through Canadian comic book history. Epic Canadiana re-introduces readers to an aged Johnny Canuck, modelled after Leo Bachle’s WWII era Canadian golden age comic hero, creating a parallel between these two ages of comics by imagining that the character was part of Canadian history and art of an early age of superheroes who withdrew from the superhero business. Possibly drawing inspiration from Darwyn Cooke’s DC New Frontier comic which envisioned a McCarthyist witch hunt on superheroes, Epic Canadiana imagines a period if time when the population became suspicious of superheroes and turned away from them. Superheroes in Canada are now called upon to return to the business and begin fighting against villainy in the nation. 
Epic Canadiana is told as though it is a persuasive argument to Johnny Canuck to encourage him to return to superheroism and is structured as a series of mini comics (each with different authors and writers) that each showcase a certain hero’s tale. These tales are historically diverse, with comics set at various periods in Canadian history, and serve to create his link between Canadian comic book history and the present by featuring characters scattered across that time frame. Several of the characters also pay homage to golden age comic characters. The character Ikniqpalagaq, for example, is a modern-day re-envisioning of the Golden Age comic character Nelvana of the Northern Lights, maintaining her connection to the Northern Landscape, her Inuit heritage and her role as a demi-goddess. Yet this homage also allows for adaptation and Ikniqpalagaq more closely connects with Inuit cultural imagery than Nelvana (who was often assumed by onlookers to be white). Ikniqpalagaq provides the character with an Inuit name, a costume inspired by inuit regalia, and Inuit facial tattoos, more closely identifying her with her cultural location. Similarly, the golden age comic character The Penguin (not to be confused with the DC comics villain of the same name) is re-envisioned as The Loon, a character who still has the bird-like mask of The Penguin, but instead identifies with the loon, a bird that has a Canadian connection (where penguins do not). The Loon also becomes a mantle that people at various points in history assume, taking on the character’s identity to battle crime and this use of the figure of The Loon at different points in history similarly expresses the idea that Epic Canadiana is creating a thread of the superhero myth through Canadian history, reminding readers that the concept of the Canadian superhero is not a new one and underscoring the importance of being aware that the Canadian superhero has been part of the Canadian imagination since WWII. 
At the same time that there is a connection to these historical figures, there is also an acknowledgement that these early imaginings were products of their time and were texts that erased a diversity of Canadian experiences (particularly those of Canadians from groups who were not in positions of privilege). Some of the stories in the collection try to provide some further cultural diversity to their character by, for example, re-imagining Canadian historical figures like Canada Jack as a closeted gay man and the inspiration for a new LGBTQ superhero Jacque de Canada, who takes on an activist role as well as superheroism by battling against the forces of homophobia. 
The use of different authors and artists for each of the superhero tales in the collection lends it an eclectic feel, letting the reader feel as though they are experiencing each superhero’s narrative with a distinct voice and expression. 
Epic Canadiana represents an elaborate historical and expressive tapestry of Canadian comic imagination, winding a thread of history through diverse imaginings of what a Canadian superhero could be. The heroes in these pages are born of magic, mutation, a call to action… but more importantly, they are born of a Canadian imagining of what it means to be heroic and speculation about what a Canadian superhero would consider worthy of battle.
To discover more about Cloudscape Comics and Epic Canadiana Volume 1, visit their website at http://www.cloudscapecomics.com/comics/ .

A Love Leter to Can Con

A Love Letter to Can ConBy Derek Newman-Stille

One of the things being talked about in academic circles currently is the issue of the “all male panel”, which happens far too often. I often expect academic conferences to be ahead of a lot of public conferences, but was increadibly excited when I heard Can Con planners talking about the issue of the all male panel earlier this year and was even more excited when I arrived and saw that it was already in practice. In all of the panels I attended and presented in there were panelists who identified as male and female. This is yet another reminder of the welcoming environment that Can Con strives each year to create. 
For those of you who don’t know, Can Con is an annual speculative fiction conference held in the Ottawa region with a particular focus on literary SF. I have attended Can Con for a number of years and have seen it grow in numbers. A growth in numbers always evokes an anxious response from me because I worry that the sense of camaraderie and family will be lost as the numbers increase, but Can Con consistently excites me because even as the numbers grow, the welcoming environment grows with those numbers as more people are invited into this familial environment. There is no ubiquity that comes with the growth, but rather Can Con makes sure to invite the individual to express themselves in diverse ways. 
I think part of what makes Can Con so welcoming (especially of diversity) is the excitement by the organizers to create panels that explore the diversity of people creating Canadian Spec Fic, reading it, and being represented in its pages. Can Con organizers make sure to have exciting panels on representations of disability, neurodiversity, sexuality, gender diversity, ethnicity, and a range of identities as part of their planning and they consistently are able to attract exciting panelists who are writing these SF representations of identities, are people who identify with these identities, and people who are invested in exploring what these identities mean. But the really exciting part is the reactions of the audience to the panels on identities because these panels are consistently packed and the audience questions are insightful…. and I think this is part of that culture of diversity inspired by the Can Con organizers. It filters through into the audience and whereas at other conferences where there is the one token “here are the people who aren’t talking about the white, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, male” panel the audience is often not as geared toward excitement about the exploration of identities, because of the plethora of panels on diverse identities at Can Con and because of the welcoming and encouraging support of the organizers, Can Con tends to have more positive and excited audience responses to diversity. 
Why do I write a love letter to Can Con? Because there is a certain environment to the conference that allows me to feel refreshed, inspired, and excited after every conference. I often throw myself on as many panels as possible because I love to participate in Can Con, but I don’t feel exhausted after the conference as one would expect from all the work put into it. Instead, I feel energized, excited, and inspired to do some writing, reading, and (most importantly) fan boying about Speculative Fiction. I have been watching the various love letters to Can Con come rolling in through Facebook, Twitter, and through my email inbox and I think that I can say that this sense of camaraderie is shared by others who attend the conference and that they are experiencing the bittersweet combination of excitement and mourning that comes with having a great time and realising that we all have to wait another year for this exciting experience.

If you haven’t checked out Can Con, you can find out more about it by visiting http://www.can-con.org and I hope to see you all there.

The Ad Astra Experience: A Reflection on Ad Astra 2015

By Derek Newman-Stille

As an educator who engages in fandom, I see fandom as a teaching space, by which I mean it is a space for developing new ways of looking at the world. Ad Astra is nominally a Canadian SF writer’s conference, but there is some magic in the slippages between writer and fan, and in my case between academic, writer, and fan. 

I wanted to be on as many panels as possible because I feel that as an academic I have a duty to share knowledge and experience wherever possible. So, being on panels allowed me the space to share some of my ideas and to learn from the ideas and perspectives of others. Having said this, many of the most informative and educational experiences happen between panels, in those random hallway conversations and in breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with fascinating people.

I was on 8 panels this year: “The Classics – In Space and Beyond!”, “The Beldam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture”, “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star”, “The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature”, “Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer”, “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World”, “Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen”, and “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”. I had the opportunity to talk to a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds and interests and was fortunate  enough to share the experience with brilliant, wonderful panelists who varied from performance artists to authors to academics and, of course, fans. I was impressed by the incredible amount of enthusiasm and passion from all of the people involved, and I think this is the particular magic that comes from a mingling of people who come from varied perspectives to bring their delight and sense of wonder to this collective space.

“The Classics – In Space in Beyond!” in addition to having an amazing title and an exclamation mark (letting us know that we were DEFINITELY in for excitement) allowed for an exciting place for exploring something that I love to explore: adaptation. Texts can shift and change with time and with the interests of people, and this panel explored the notion of a “classic” text and how these classics could become platforms for changes that allow them to shift to include new ideas while maintaining their core, or become spaces where under-represented people can insert their voice or ideas. I have probably talked about this before, but I see fan fiction as an exciting potential space for playing with texts, for shifting them, changing them and asserting new ways of looking at them (as well as allowing for fan agency) and I see a lot of the adaptations of the classics as forms of fan fiction, explorations of new elements of texts and creative engagements. As a panel made up of performance artists, authors, and instructors of literature, we were able to explore the possibilities of investing new energies and new insights into classical texts through adaptation and also the potential dangers in adaptation.

For me, the real magic of the panel “The Bedlam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture” was the exploration of the power of books that feature witchcraft for empowering young people. Often these books feature young people who begin in a situation of powerlessness and gradually are able to shift their circumstances through magic. The wonder of this is that it illustrates to young people that they DO have magic, that they have an ability to change their world by words – not spells, but another form of words, those on the page. They learn that by reading and writing there is a power to challenge assumptions and to change the way we view our world. This type of power results in things like the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that began as a fan group for Harry Potter and changed into a group that takes the Harry Potter texts and uses them to change the world by empowering young people, encouraging them to help get books to those who can’t afford them, and generally by challenging the cultural assumption that young people can’t change their world. This is a special kind of magic – that of empowerment.

The beauty of the “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star” panel was the excitement of the audience, and, particularly, their desire to engage in those communication spaces that allowed for their voices to be shared with the world around them. Many of the attendees were interested in sharing their perspectives, their interests, and their understanding of speculative genres. This excitement underscores why i began blogging, podcasting, and running my own radio show – to provide a space for people to share their voices and their perspectives about the genre that they feel so passionate about and to encourage people to think about and interrogate the works they are reading. 

“The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature” blended a critique of the embedded ‘traditional’ ways that literature is often taught (which are often assumed to be the only ways of engaging with the process of teaching) with new ideas for approaching the process of teaching students about literature. We examined the idea of ‘pedagogy’ (teaching) itself and looked at what this means for our engagements with literature: what do we consider ‘teaching’?, what does teaching inside the classroom look like?, and, of course, my favourite question – how do we extend teaching literature beyond the walls of the classroom. I think that this last question occupied a lot of our time and concentration because many of us engage in the idea of teaching in diverse ways: through providing a space for students to think about how literature and life outside of the book interact with one another, through looking at literature as a medium of empowerment, through encouraging students to think critically about the texts in their lives, and through making ourselves figures who look for learning opportunities outside the classroom.

“Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer” extended the idea of hauntings to encompass an idea of the haunted, spectral space itself. We looked at traditional ghost narratives and how they develop to express cultural issues, representing sort of a cultural icon of our particular cultural preoccupations. Ghosts tie in with the subconscious and represent those things that we deny in our culture, the things that haunt us. We looked at the relationship of ghosts to the texts that they are presented in, whether through the descriptive power of literature or the CGI of film and television, and explored the diversity of ghost narratives and the idea that ghosts are presented in diverse ways in our cultural media to present diverse issues and understandings. Ghosts, as figures who represent that barrier between life and death, become figures who are surrounded by questions and come to embody the idea of questioning ideas themselves. It turns out that the “boo” of the ghost is actually an existential question. 

Of course, right after the ghosts panel, I was able to stay in that space of the undead for “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World” and have a chance to explore the figure of the zombie with two authors of zombie fiction and a costumer. We looked at the changes in the zombie narrative and the current diversity of narratives, while being aware that the zombie narrative in recent years has tended to be inclined toward the infected zombie (the zombie virus). The zombie narrative has been able to shift and change to express the fears, anxieties, and even desires that we have as a society… though when I talked about Claude Lalumiere’s descriptions of wiggling maggots in zombie kisses there were gags around the room (it is always awkward to talk about zombie romance before lunch). We also took the zombie beyond the page and film by talking about how people have used the image of the zombie to make cultural commentaries – through dressing as zombies to protest educational reforms to the CDC’s use of the zombie narrative to create a pandemic preparedness guide. The panel’s exploration was staggering… or maybe shambling… 

“Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen” allowed panelists to explore the shifts and changes that are perpetually happening in the superhero genre as well as the potentials and dangers in the transition from comics to film. The superhero was exposed to the Kryptonite of critique and through that process, like Star Labs, we were able to look at the superhero through new lenses and then turn that lens on the society that creates and needs its superheroes. We looked at the social conditions that make superhero narratives desirable and the changing social conditions that mean that we need to shift and change our superheroes to become representative and dynamic figures. We looked at the different possibilities that the comic book or film media represent and the way that these different media change the figure of the superhero and, by necessity, focus on different issues, needs, and desires. At the end, we were even able to sneak in a little discussion about ‘the gutter’ (the white space between the panels of a comic book) and the incredible creative work and insights that happen in the comic book when the audience has to fill in the narrative between panels. 

One of the highlights of the con for me was the final panel I was on, “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”, because we explored a particular type of fantasy that is generally considered absolutely the most “real” thing possible, and that is “normalcy”. We looked at the potential that the speculative genres have for illustrating that “normalcy” is itself a fiction, something created to embed certain groups in power and to suggest that other groups don’t have worth or value. This clearly hit home for some of the audience members because one member expressed his issues with the notion of changing SF to be inclusive. He told us that we were too disparaging of past SF that portrayed a white, straight, able-bodied male hegemony and expressed his concerns that if SF and other social media changed that he and other straight, white, able-bodied men would “become a minority”. I think this itself illustrates the power of SF to challenge those power structures and to illustrate that the structures that keep groups like straight, white, able-bodied men in power are themselves quite weak and that questions posed by minority groups can destabilize those structures, open new possibilities and fundamentally point out the insecurity surrounding the structures that situate one group as “normal” and therefore naturalize their power when in fact it is as constructed as any fantasy story.

Ad Astra would not have been such an amazing experience if it weren’t for the incredible insights, passions, and interest of the fans. I am so thankful for all of you fans who asked brilliant questions and brought up new ways of looking at the material. I am also extremely thankful for brilliant co-panelists and the co-panelists for these panels included people like Kate Storey, David Lamb, James Bambury, Gail Z Martin, Karen Dales, Gregory Wilson, Kari Maaren, Robert Boyczuk, Douglas Cockell, Erik Buchanan, Alisse Lee Goldenberg, Chris Warrilow,  Peter Prellwitz Dennis Lee, Derek Kunsken, Max Turner, Adam Shaftoe, Cathy Hird, and Charlotte Ashley. Authors, academics, musicians, biologists, podcasters, costume designers, a Wiccan priestess, fans, and a whole lot of people who blended these roles… this complicated mix of panelists made for some amazing interactions and really incredible discussions. 

I want to particularly thank Angela Keeley for all of her hard work at Ad Astra this year. She was both a great resource to presenters and her enthusiasm and interest in the topics of the con really encouraged presenters to be similarly excited, energetic, and engaged in their panels. 

I have to say that my favourite overheard line from the con was “Watch out: things tend to get derailed by the Klingon in the room”. I would imagine that unlike “the elephant in the room”, the Klingon in the room makes him or herself heard.

To discover more about Ad Astra, visit their website at http://www.ad-astra.org 

Mojo Disabled

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine (Grand Central Publishing, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille06a88f39f94401a3f86871d46c3bf5f5

There is a beauty in complexity, an ethereal quality to the display of Otherness and the richness of diversity. Sister Mine evokes the complexity of reality, the beatuty and power evoked by the richness of the human experience. Nalo Hopkinson’s characters are diverse in cultural background, ability, and engagement with the body, as well as multifaceted in their engagement with the magical, the mythical, and the otherworldly.

Sister Mine is rich with characters who often are cast to the fringes, to the Other Worlds within our world, and it is appropriate that she sees these characters as full of potential, as full of the Otherworld, the complexly spiritual. Conjoined twins, people with mobility disabilities, characters of diverse ages, sexualities, psychologies, economic backgrounds, and ethnicities are pulled into the novel in unique ways as she gives voice to those who are often rendered voiceless in a society that is focused on normativity and de-voicing those who don’t fit into its narrow definition of normalcy. Hopkinson evokes the complex engagement between identity and the body, diverse ways of knowing ourselves and how we relate to our physicality – our world and the physical parameters of our bodies.

Makeda, born a conjoined twin with her sister Abby, the “crippled deity half breed” of a human and a celestial deity that is evocative of the vodoun Loa, has always craved the mojo that her sister possesses. Undergoing surgery to separate their bodies, Abby ended up with something that Makeda felt she lacked, a certain spiritual power and ability to render her power into the world in the form of her singing voice. Makeda is called the “donkey” of the relationship by her celestial family, seemingly without any power that would render her other than human. She feels herself incomplete, less than her sister and merely a vessel that carried her sister who others seem to view as superior to herself. Physically separated, she feels tied to her sister intimately, unable to find herself and her identity as something different from her family (a place that she feels has been made clear to her by her family’s rejection of her). She leaves her sister’s house in an attempt to make her way in the human “claypicken” world, as one of them since she feels that she has more in common with a humanity without mojo than with celestials whose mojo can at times make her feel disoriented and woozy.

Yet, even among a humanity that she feels she can relate to bodily, there is still distance. She is still the child of a father who is a deity (though transformed by his fellow deities into a human being that now is experiencing Alzheimer’s) and a mother who was transformed into a sea monster and has been distanced from her from birth… and she still receives regular visits from an uncle who is death personified and a family of deities that feel that they can interfere with her life because she is family and less than them because she doesn’t have any of the mojo of a celestial. Out of place everywhere she goes, Makeda is able to see more than others, notice things that others would disengage with in their attempt to render things ‘normal’ according to their own status quo and predictable patterns of behaviour. She is a body seeking identity and discovering that nothing about identity is certain or fixed, but rather exists in a flux and flow of changeability that doesn’t entirely relate to her bodily ontology. She is caught in a system where others feel that they can change things for the good of those whom they believe are less than themselves, and sees that intentions based in superiority are often built on shaky ground.

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