Only More Death on the Horizon

A review of Tony Burgess’ The n-Body Problem (ChiZine Publications, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The n-Body Problem courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo of The n-Body Problem courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Tony Burgess’ The n-Body Problem is a pharmacological journey through the zombie apocalypse, and a discourse on the collective social habit of avoiding one’s problems. The n-Body Problem explores a world where people keep moving after death, not threateningly or aggressively, but moving nonetheless evoking the question of whether they are alive, what constitutes death, and the bigger problem of what to do with so many moving bodies. WasteCorp, a waste disposal company proposes the idea of launching the living dead into orbit, suspending them in the atmosphere until they burn off as layers of fire, and they are able to do good enough PR work to convince people that this is an almost romantic way to go. The only problem is that the sky is greyed by the network of dead bodies around the Earth and it is creating health issues for the people alive on the planet – both from lack of exposure to the sunlight and from the depression that comes from seeing a network of the dead around their planet every time they raise their eyes. It is a zombie apocalypse filled with threat, but not from the zombies… at least not directly, but rather from the “solution” to the living dead and the horror that ensues.

In order to cope, the population is advised to avoid looking up and to regularly take SSRIs to deal with the perpetual depression and anxiety evoked by this permanently altered world. However, the SSRIs are not benevolent either, causing a Syndrome from the quantities they need to be used in, fundamentally changing the people who use them.

The characters have their moral compass set to grey from the beginning of The n-Body Problem but a dark, dirty grey that gets more ashy over time as layers of dust from bodies burned in orbit rains down on them… a zombie grey that exists in the perpetual twilight of a world that no longer has hope of change.

Playing with ideas of speech and silence, the notion that some people are best left in a devoiced state because when they speak it may only be a diatribe of horrors, Burgess explores the power of voice for propaganda, and the way the silenced are used for religious, corporate, and political causes. Whether corporate propaganda tells the people about the beauty of their dead loved ones floating in silence in orbit close to the stars, or religious leaders use the dead and the dismembered to bring on religious fervour born of fear and a need for some form of change, silence is made to speak loudly.

Burgess experiments with the idea of a social shift from the military-industrial complex and its profit from death through war to a new system of profit based around the pharmaceutical-waste-disposal-religious complex, intertwined in a system of making capital through the disposal of bodies and inciting people to suicide.

To say this is a bleak book is to downplay the significance of the melancholy it evokes – within this novel, the only thing on the horizon is more dead bodies… literally. It is a stream of consciousness narrative that reads like a hallucinatory voyage between pathologies and syndromes, a work that makes the body and the world around it a perpetual uncertainty, a slippery, threatened and threatening thing.

To find out more about The n-Body Problem, visit ChiZine Publications’ site at http://chizinepub.com/books/n-body-problem

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Interview with Scott Fotheringham

An Interview with Scott Fotheringham

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringha

By Derek Newman-Stille

This was a great interview to follow up with our interview of Julie Czerneda since Scott Fotheringham also has a background in biology and has experienced both the worlds of science and Canadian fiction authorship. I have been pondering the relationship between speculative fiction writing and science for some time, and have enjoyed this opportunity to talk with authors whose fiction broaches the speculative.

Spec Can: You were a molecular biologist before becoming an SF author. What was the transition like? How do you straddle the worlds between academia and fiction authorship?

Scott Fotheringham: It seems like such a long time ago that I was a research scientist. I’ve done a lot of things since then that had little to do with science. I have learned to cook at restaurants and for large groups, I worked as an organic gardener, I spent five years working in the mental health field in Halifax, and now I do PR for arts and technology companies.

The transition was clunky at the beginning because I went straight from a career path in academia to working as a short-order cook in a vegetarian restaurant. Because so much of how I self-identify is through my work, it wasn’t always easy. I’m glad I left research science, but I do miss aspects of it. It’s so interesting and stimulating.

I don’t really straddle those two worlds. It was more of having both feet in academia years ago and now having one foot in fiction writing and the other devoted to everything else.

Spec Can: What inspired you to change careers from being a scientist to being an author of fiction?

Scott Fotheringham: I left science for reasons that are still not completely clear to me. I think it’s a tricky business to look backward and analyze how we made decisions in our lives. All I know is that I wasn’t happy spending most of my time in a lab and that I didn’t see what I was doing as socially relevant. It was interesting, to be sure. That, and I wanted to live closer to the ground, possibly near a lot of trees.

Spec Can: In what ways can biology inform Science Fiction?

Scott Fotheringham: I wanted to use what I had learned of biology to perform a thought experiment: What would happen if plastic began to disappear? Because that probably won’t happen because we choose to make it happen, I wondered if organisms could digest plastic. I went looking in the literature for references to bacteria and fungi that ate plastic and found them. From there it was a matter of perfecting the process, setting it loose, and watching what happened.

I loved reading Frankenstein because of how contemporary it feels. Shelley could have written that today about a genetically engineered organism. All the details and philosophical passages in that book are relevant to questions we have today about the worth of genetic engineering.

Spec Can: As a scientist yourself, you do an excellent job of bringing critical attention to some issues in scientific discourse. What were some questions about science that you hoped to raise for readers when you wrote The Rest is Silence?

Scott Fotheringham:  The research scientists I admired most were those who were doing it because they loved to discover the mysteries of life. That was one reason to do science. It is quite a thrill to discover something about the world that nobody else has ever seen.

Then, there are scientists who are trying to solve a problem. Cure or find treatments for disease, develop a cheaper water pump for developing nations, or breed a drought-resistant crop.

However, much of science is goal-driven or product-driven. Scientists create things that are worth a lot of money but have little social value or actually harm us.

The questions I’d like to see asked – particularly by the scientists themselves – are, What value does the work I’m doing have to society? How will this be used and, if it has potential for harm, should we pursue the research at all? So often scientists shrug their shoulders and say it’s not up to them how their inventions and discoveries are employed. This is a grievous abdication of their responsibility.

Spec Can: In The Rest is Silence you bring a lot of attention to society’s need for easy categories and particularly binaries like male/female that limit our

Cover photo of The Rest is Silence courtesy of the publisher

Cover photo of The Rest is Silence courtesy of the publisher

understanding of the world. Why are limited categories so damaging and how can SF help us to resist applying outmoded and limited categories?

Scott Fotheringham: Lao Tzu says, “In naming is the origin of all particular things.” Once we’ve named something, we can feel that we understand it and can ignore it. Often, for example, I can see a bird, identify it, and not pay any more attention to it. Imagine the world of wonder if we don’t do that, if we follow that nuthatch and see how it forages, where it lives, how it flies.

The same can be said for something like gender. It’s too easy to divide the world into male and female and ignore the wealth of experience that comes from seeing that gender is fluid and expansive. Realizing that allows me to explore who I am more deeply. A wonderful example is Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Here’s a book that lets you think about a world in which the gender binary doesn’t exist. What does that say about love?

Spec Can: Obsession plays a large role in the Rest is Silence. How did ideas about obsession inspire you and shape your novel?

Scott Fotheringham: I have a somewhat obsessive personality. In small ways and in large ones. Unfortunately, one of my obsessions is with getting this life thing right. Like Benny, I strive to improve, I strive to make things better. Of course, this is fallacious thinking as the world is perfect as it is and doesn’t need me to fix it. But that’s a hard lesson to incorporate. I hope to accept that by the time I’m eighty.

Spec Can: The Rest is Silence tackles the issue of social versus technological means of dealing with pollution. Which do you think is going to have a more significant impact?

Scott Fotheringham: Can I say both? Only once we agree that the pollution problem  needs to be addressed and that the natural world is our primary concern – more than economic growth, more than standard of living, more than our comfort – will we see a change. Then, we can safely apply both social and technological means because our intention will be clear. Right now our intention is to use technology to make money. Only if that changes will we able to work to heal what we’ve wrought.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write about an intersexed person?

Scott Fotheringham: I don’t know. Partly it comes from caring about underdogs.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write about a world without plastic?

Scott Fotheringham: I thought it would be fun to imagine such a world, and it was.

Spec Can: In what ways can SF and fiction writing in general change social perceptions and ideas? How can SF help readers to think outside the box and question things?

Scott Fotheringham: Reading gives us insight into how other people view the world. If all I had was my experience, and that didn’t include reading, my view of how the world works would be narrower than it is.

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

Scott Fotheringham: I’m thinking about the tar sands a lot these days. They are a good example of how our goals are primarily economic and comfort-related. If our children and grandchildren look at pictures of the tar sands fifty years from now are they going to thank us for digging up all that bitumen? Will their quality of life be better because we are destroying a large part of Alberta?

I want to thank Scott Fotheringham for this great discussion and for raising a lot of questions in our minds about science and the current devastating effects that economic ideas are having on the environment. You can explore his website at http://scottfotheringham.blogspot.ca/ to find out more about him and his current projects. 

Upcoming Interview with Scott Fotheringham on Friday March 8

This is a great interview to follow the interview with Julie Czerneda. Join Speculating Canada on Friday March 8 to hear another scientist who has turned to fiction writing discuss their ideas, thoughts, and inspirations.

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

Scott Fotheringham is a former molecular biologist who is currently a fiction author. Although he does not identify as an author of SF, much of his fiction work has speculative elements in it that should excite you. Scott discusses ways that science can change to be more understanding of the impact of scientific endeavors, breaking down binary gender categories, the moral implications of science, developing fiction from thought experiments, and  the importance of protecting our environment.

Here are some teasers for our upcoming interview:

Scott Fotheringham: “I left science for reasons that are still not completely clear to me.”

Scott Fotheringham: “I wanted to use what I had learned of biology to perform a thought experiment: What would happen if plastic began to disappear? Because that probably won’t happen because we choose to make it happen, I wondered if organisms could digest plastic. I went looking in the literature for references to bacteria and fungi that ate plastic and found them. From there it was a matter of perfecting the process, setting it loose, and watching what happened.”

Scott Fotheringham: “The questions I’d like to see asked – particularly by the scientists themselves – are, What value does the work I’m doing have to society? How will this be used and, if it has potential for harm, should we pursue the research at all? So often scientists shrug their shoulders and say it’s not up to them how their inventions and discoveries are employed. This is a grievous abdication of their responsibility.”

Scott Fotheringham: “It’s too easy to divide the world into male and female and ignore the wealth of experience that comes from seeing that gender is fluid and expansive.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Only once we agree that the pollution problem  needs to be addressed and that the natural world is our primary concern – more than economic growth, more than standard of living, more than our comfort – will we see a change.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Reading gives us insight into how other people view the world.”

Like many Canadian authors who write about speculative topics, Scott Fotheringham raises questions for readers to ponder and consider. If you haven’t had a chance yet, you can read my review of Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/loss-and-changes/ .

It’s the End Of The World As We Know It, and I Feel Speculative

A review of OnSpec #90, Vol 24, No. 3 Fall 2012 Apocalypse Special Issue.

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

By Derek Newman-Stille

On Spec, with their combination of SF stories and non-fiction SF essays and interviews, never fails to be entertaining, but the special issue on the apocalypse was even more fantastic than most. It was as thought-provoking as it was entertaining, reminding readers of their own culpability in creating the potential for a destroyed world as well as their responsibility for making the world a better place.

The layout of the volume was, itself, fascinating and had the ability to draw the reader in on multiple levels. This was most in evidence by the interweaving of Kevin Cockle’s “Timeline” (a recounting of some of the history of economic theory as well as a postulation on the future of economic policy and where this will lead) throughout various narratives – every few pages, elements of Cockle’s timeline would appear at the bottom of the page, threading itself through the overall narrative of the On Spec volume and tying stories together.

As a disability scholar who does work in fantastic fiction, I was particularly taken with Camille Alexa’s story “All Them Pretty Babies”, which challenged social ideas of beauty in the post-apocalyptic future. Unlike many authors who revel in the horror of the different body, who present the “deformed” body as something that should evoke shock and disgust, Camille Alexa puts the reader into the position of her narrator, Esme, who collects babies that have been mutated by bio weapons that have damaged the future. Esme is an incredible character, able to see the beauty of diversity, seeing disability and difference as markers of beautiful bodies. She defines beauty as difference from the mundane normalcy of the human body that is preferred by most of society – Esme sees beauty in extra eyes, legs, arms, and conjoined bodies. She is dismayed that she is so boring, with only two legs, two arms, and two eyes: “Bonita’s so pretty, she probably never walk. Not even walk like New Mama, who hunch over cane and hobble like on third leg – though she’s not that pretty, what with her having only two like most” (6).

Despite the human race suffering because there are too few human beings remaining after the bombing, the people of the future preserved cities are abandoning children that they view as deformed, trying to stick to an ideal of what the “normal” human being should be.  People in haz mat suits come out to the destroyed fields to leave babies to die because of their biological difference, while worrying about the future of human fertility. Esme and her group go through the fields to rescue these abandoned children of a humanity that fears biological difference, telling these children how beautiful they are for their diversity from bodily norms. Esme and her group of abandoned children are trying to make the world outside of the city livable again while the city-dwellers consistently deny the changes that they have wrought. The city dwellers waste human life because the life forms they encounter don’t conform to their notions of beauty.

Camille Alexa provides a commentary on the ableist (able-bodied centred) world that we currently live in. She creates an exaggerated ableist future to point to issues regarding biological diversity and disability in our current world. Disabilities are made more prevalent and occurring more often, and people with disabilities face even more discrimination – having their lives and rights taken away completely rather than facing the likelihood of facing a life of reduced rights, government control, and the medicalised body. Her future population tries to euthanize functioning human bodies because they differ from a socially determined norm and they justify these actions as humanitarian because they cannot imagine people living with diverse bodies. Rather than shifting their own notions of what is bodily acceptable, they eliminate difference and further regulate and control the body.

Ideas of the danger of birth continue into Daniel LeMoal’s short story “Destroyer”, where small elements of future populations have developed the ability to project dreams into the minds of others. When a child begins to show an increased ability to control the minds around him, he is seen as a biological threat. Like Camille Alexa’s story, this apocalyptic narrative focusses on the danger embodied in the future – represented by children. Apocalyptic narratives are fundamentally about the future, and, therefore tales about children and the potential embodied in future generations brings attention to the impact we have on the future of the world.

Karl Johanson’s “Frats and Cheers” is probably the most terrifying narrative in this volume for me since it shows a future population that is so inundated with media manipulation that it has lost the ability to think for itself. His population is terrifying because it shows a magnification of the modern disinterest in challenging and questioning messages. His future population enjoys reality T.V. more than the actual reality of the world around them, and actively avoids interest in world affairs, while being content to have their messages fed to them. This is a narrative of the dangers of apocalyptic stupidity – truly terrifying.

Timothy Gerwing plays with ideas of religious apocalypse narratives and portrays a future that is visited by an avenging angel in his “Hog-Killing Weather”. Gerwing turns religious apocalyptic narratives on their end by creating an angel who punishes religious zealots as much as any others who show a fundamental inhumanity.

Al Onia, also playing with religious narratives of the apocalypse, presents us with four horsemen who are gathered together to fight the four horsemen of the apocalypse in “Knights Exemplar”. Despite their desire to save the world around them, they are subject to the social fear and hatred of outsiders that becomes magnified in times of crisis.

Douglas Smith’s “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” creates a different kind of religious narrative of the apocalypse when he presents the embodiment of Chaos and Order and their child, the Walker, who is seeking balance between these forces. Reality is crumbling as Order and Chaos seek to maintain their old status quo and prevent new changes in the world. This is a tale of epic love when a mortal gets caught between a battle of the gods. Smith reminds us that we have the potential to change the world around us and that self-sacrifice can be a means of making the world around us better.

Leslie Brown’s “Mesa at the Edge of the World” portrays a future in which the government has provided a method of euthanasia for any who want to commit suicide. Rather than putting funding into health care and psychological care programmes, the government has shown a willingness to ship people who seek suicide out into the desert so that they can hurl themselves into a vortex. Brown illustrates the treatment of people with psychological disabilities as disposable objects and inconveniences.

The apocalyptic narratives in this On Spec issue are not ones of futility, hopelessness, or loss, but are rather reminders of the importance of continuing a battle for social justice and a reminder that we have the potential to change the world around us, to fight the apocalypses that we continually create around us.

You can explore On Spec at their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ and pick up a copy of this apocalyptic issue since the world didn’t end after all. Thank goodness you will have enough time to read this before the next apocalypse comes along.