The Religion of Mystery Literature

The Religion Of Mystery Literature
By Derek Newman-Stille

Like many people, I have a distinct love of mystery stories. I like the act of figuring out who did the crime. I like following the clues. I like believing that I can solve crimes before the investigators do.

One thing that always frustrates me is the finality of a mystery tale, especially when it is on television. There is generally little ambiguity left, little debate about guilt or innocence. So often mysteries (especially when they are tied to a police procedural show) are about reifying the idea that police always catch their criminal and that they are always right. This moral absolutism has always bothered me, as has the lack of questions about guilt or innocence.

One of the ways that mysteries tie up moral ambiguities is through the confession. What is odd is that actual murderers, thieves and other criminals rarely admit to their crimes unless they have worked out a deal with the prosecution for a reduced sentence because they admit to the crime.

Yet, the vast majority of mystery narratives (especially on television) have the killer confess to their crimes and admit guilt. Frequently, mystery narratives on television don’t even bother to wrap up the story, ending right at the point of confession. This highlights the importance of the confession narrative to mystery narratives by considering this the penultimate moment and the ending of the story.

So why are confessions so important to mystery narratives?

I made a connection when watching the television series Father Brown, a tale about a priest who solves crimes in his spare time. As I was watching, I noticed that Father Brown always sought to get a confession from the criminal, linking the confession of crimes to the confessions of the confessional. It occurred to me that this speaks beyond Father Brown and that there was a tint of Judeo-Christian moralizing in many mystery narratives.

Like religions, mystery narratives frequently portray a simple moral system: good/bad. Like religion, mystery narratives provide us with an image of punishment for crime/sin. Like religion, mystery narratives tend to focus on the confession as a key moment in the guilty person’s life.

I started to wonder – have we been primed to like aspects of mystery narratives because of centuries of Judeo-Christian influence on idea of crime? Do we write our mystery narratives along these lines because of the weight of Judeo-Christian ideologies in our society?

Since Judeo-Christian texts are treated as so important in our society, we often replicate aspects of those religious texts as ways of understanding the world even if we don’t prescribe to those religious beliefs. The tremendous impact of Judeo-Christian texts on other texts in our society mean that they often filter through into texts that are not related to religion.

So what is it that we like about mystery tales? What speaks to us about them? Is it the fact that they provide a tidy, easy moralism? Is it the fact that they present us with a world where crime is stopped? Is it the fact that criminals are punished? Or is it the power of the confession that gives us a sense that people can admit guilt and be rehabilitated or redeemed?

Although there are more complex mystery narratives out there and I have read them, there is something about simple mystery stories that appeals to me like Father BrownMurder She Wrote, and Sherlock Holmes.

* As a disclaimer, I am writing about this narrative connection to Judeo-Christian beliefs as someone who is not part of those belief systems,

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Canada Day Complexities and Questioning the 150

By Derek Newman-Stille

Art by “Chippewar”

Like many marginalized Canadians, Canada Day can evoke some complicated feelings. We are often very aware of the oppressions that have been carried out in the name of “Canada”: residential schools for aboriginal people, asylums that perpetuated the torture of people with disabilities, the Pink scare, bathhouse raids, and other attacks on queer Canadians, the razing of Africville and so many other acts of violence that seek to position white, straight, able-bodied, Anglophone Canadians as the only “true” Canadians. 

Canada 150 has been constructed as a celebration of Canadian history, and yet, in the nation’s attempt to construct itself as a country of justice and benevolence, it has erased large parts of its past, trying to make itself seem as though it is a country of constant justice, rather than a country that needs to acknowledge that it has carried our horrible abuses of people in the past and continues to do so. Even the title “Canada 150” carries a problematic assumption, erasing the thousands of years of aboriginal presence on this landscape in trying to make it seem as though Canada was born from nothing 150 years ago. Canada’s acts 150 years ago were a theft of land, an oppression of people who have lived on this landscape and who have continued to be robbed of land and have been oppressed for the length of those 150 years. 

Canada has supported arts for its 150, but only if those arts celebrate the message that it is trying to evoke, and the arts council positions artists within its “cultural mosaic”, but only if one fits into the mosaic in the right way, only if one performs identity the way that the arts council wants to see. 

As writers, researchers, and fans of speculative fiction, we have an opportunity to ask big questions (the speculative part means being inquisitive). We can ask these questions of our past through historical fiction, inviting questions about what could have happened in Canadian history if things had gone differently and invite readers to learn about Canadian history beyond the canonical history we are often taught in our schools (the sanitized version that constructs this nation as heroic). We can invite questions about where we are going from here, ask questions of our future, and interrogate possibilities and alternatives that we are told are impossible or improbable. With our creative energy we can invite those impossibilities to the table and see how they play out. We can write dystopian fiction that invites critical questions about how things can go wrong if we continue on our current path. We can write utopian fiction that imagines a radically new nation of justice and inclusion. We can write horror that showcases the horrors that constantly take place behind closed doors in our nation, imagine fantasies where Canada can be transformed through a different relationship to our environment, superhero fiction that doesn’t end up just being nationalistic tripe, and science fiction that imagines different ways of understanding the sciences that we use to justify our actions. 

Speculative Fiction, like all fiction, is an act of imagination, and, as such, it is about the potentials that we can dream up. It is a genre of our imagination, our thoughts, our perspectives, our aspirations, our anxieties, our fears, our dreams and our nightmares. It is a genre of ideas, and we need to remember that ideas are powerful, transformative, and, yes, dangerous. A nation is a boundary – one that is placed on geographies and people and that uses techniques to try to bind those disparate people and geographies together. But we aren’t defined by our boundaries. Canada’s boundaries have separated people, sought to erase aboriginal territories and nations, and the process of drawing that boundary was as much about exclusions as it was about inclusions. It is up to us to redraw boundaries, or, better yet, to imagine beyond boundaries and conceive of new types of definitions and new ways of understanding ourselves and the places we access. We need to remember our history, and that means all parts of it, including (or possibly especially) the ugly parts of it. We need to question the way that borders have been drawn around what is appropriate Canadian history and what is not. We need to invite questions of our government when it tells us that it has given people enough and as it why, ask it to give access to fresh water to aboriginal people, ask it to make spaces actually accessible for disabled people, ask it to stop pathologising queer people and trying to portray only one type of queer person (normally the most normative behaving) and actually open things up for areas of radical expression and radical inclusion. 

We can imagine new possibilities in our arts and our critiques and we have a responsibility to imagine better.
To find out more about the art by Chippewar above, visit http://www.chippewar.com/product/free-150-years-of-colonization 

Speculating Fantasy

Speculating FantasyBy Derek Newman-Stille
Fantasy fiction is frequently viewed as an escapist form of fiction, one whose sole purpose is to provide a retreat from reality. Even people who advocate for the importance of fantasy tend to treat it as being important solely for its ability to provide an escape from reality. However, fantasy, like any genre fiction, is produced and created through the social lens of the author who writes it. Authors draw on the events, anxieties, uncertainties, ideas, developments, and issues of the world that they belong to when writing fantasy, converting these contemporary thoughts into symbolic form and writing them onto the canvas of a different world. 
Fantasy is unselfcritically defined in opposition to realism, not seeking to pretend to be based on the real world and therefore it has leeway for addressing issues that are “too real” for realist fiction by converting them into symbolic media, transforming them from issues into ideas. By defining itself as “untruth” – as fantasy – the genre does not lay claim to any single truth or single interpretation, but, instead presents a series of dream-like images. Dreams have symbolic power and blend images together in a way that requires the mind to be actively involved in translating them. 
Fantasy provides a lens for us to examine our own world in abstraction, slightly removed from reality. It is as much a journey as it is a genre, pulling the reader between the pages with an intensity that makes him/her come back to the everyday with a form of culture shock, suddenly viewing the “normal” anew and asking questions about the taken-for-granted qualities of the “real” world. 
In saying that fantasy has the power of reflection (though a distorted mirror) embedded into itself, I am not suggesting that fantasy is without problems. The genre has been based on extreme ethnocentrism, colonial ideologies, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. But, fantasy still contains that seed of change, that embedded potential that allows for engagement with mythic themes, fairy tale ideas, and the power of imaginative new possibilities. Fantasy could invite questions about the normative gaze, that socially embedded structure that reifies the world into Us and Them, Self and Other by providing a more distant Other, an Otherworldly set of encounters that invite questions about the Self, about what we consider the easy-to-define norms. 
Fantasy operates through the power of estrangement, inviting readers to accept unfamiliar universal rules (planes where magic exists alongside technology, where orcs and elves and goblins are possible, and where it is possible to confront the monsters that lurk in the shadows) and through this process of exploring the unfamiliar, fantasy has the ability to question the familiar, to invite questions about why we accept certain ‘rules’ as universal and instead open the world up to the question “what could be true?” and “what is possible?” 
We return from the adventure of fantasy with quest items that are really questions, speculations that invite us to wonder at the world we return to like our epic heroes/heroines, who once they return, discover that they have been permanently changed by their experience.

What Makes Fairy Tales So Brilliant?

What Makes Fairy Tales So Brilliant?

By Derek Newman-Stille

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Fairy tales always exist in multiplicity, in versions. There is never one TRUE version, but rather a fluid polyphonic group with multiple voices sharing different takes on the same tale. Fairy tales possess the magic of changeability. Born in oral narratives, they have the power to shift and change with each telling, adapting to new tellers and new audiences. They resist the idea that there can be only one truth and illustrate that there are always multiple truths, each with different messages that speak to different people.

 

Fairy tales are delightfully slippery and whenever people seek to pin them down, they adapt, change, and modify themselves to speak to a new generation and a new group of people.

 

We create our fairy tales to tell us about ourselves, to learn from our own imaginative words and explore our boundaries. Fairy tales let us walk out into the darkening woods of our own subconscious and see more of ourselves, the selves that we tell into existence when we sit around a camp fire.

 

In our fairy tales, we encounter strange beings – beasts and otherworldly entities and animals that act far too much like we do – but these encounters are always with ourselves, always about us colliding with murky mirror images of ourselves, and those mirror selves always have something to share, something to teach to us.

 

Our fairy tales shift from generation to generation to capture our new ideas, interests, perspectives, and our anxieties. But what fairy tales do we need for this age? What should we be telling ourselves to learn and change?

 

Now when we venture into the woods, it is not the wolves that Red Riding Hood should fear, but they should fear us because of the damage we have done to our animal neighbours. Tales of commoners who become princesses have reinforced the oppression of women and made sure that we don’t critique wealth because so many people believe they can go from commoner to royalty, so how do we change that tale? We have told tales of desiring youth and fearing old age, so how do we switch it so that we can desire our own aging? How do we tell tales of enchanted apples when they are sprayed with chemicals and waxed?

 

We are storied animals, composed by the stories we hear, the stories we tell, and, most importantly, the stories we tell ourselves to get us through each day.

The Speculating Canada Website and the Speculating Canada Radio Show on Trent Radio BOTH Won Aurora Awards

Thanks to the support and encouragement of fans, followers, friends, and interviewees, BOTH the Speculating Canada website and the radio show Speculating Canada on Trent Radio won Aurora Awards. These awards wouldn’t have been possible if all of you weren’t willing to go on this adventure into speculation with me, creating a space where we can all ask powerful questions, explore the deep ideas that SF literature evokes, and imagine possibilities. 

Speculating Canada (whether in its web form or over the airwaves) is ultimately a teaching forum. Now, when I say that, I don’t mean that it is sharing facts (as some people assume teaching is), but instead that it recognizes that fans and authors are brilliant people, more than capable of thinking of the deeper ideas and messages in their literature and interrogating those deeper ideas. We as fans and authors know that little secrets – that even though we say our literature is “just a fun read”, it is always so much more because we understand ourselves and our world through stories, and speculative literature always has deeper questions in it. After all, the term Speculative Fiction says it all – it tells us that we are reading a literature of speculation, of questions, and we all know that we learn best by ASKING questions, not by just giving answers to them (because no answer covers everything). So, Speculating Canada is a forum for questions, for pondering, and for learning TOGETHER. I am honoured to be on that journey with each of you.

Many of you already know this, but the Speculating Canada website originated from a couple of factors that tied together. The first of this factors was my experience of my own disability. I have always had learning disabilities relating to memory, but a few years ago, an unrelated health disability began to create further memory issues and in order to keep up with my own research, I started to write larger notes for myself about each of the works I was reading. I have always made notes about what I read to remind myself of ideas I have had while reading fiction, but I started to take more detailled and longer notes… and it occurred to me that these were very much like reviews (well, reviews with a bit of analysis). When I realized that I was essentially already writing reviews, I allied this with my consistent desire to make teaching accessible to those outside of the university classroom. I am able to discuss issues and ideas in literature with the university students in my classroom, but I am also aware that not everyone has the privilege to be in university AND many people want to carry on the types of questions they explored in university long after they graduate. So, Speculating Canada became a place for me to put ideas out there for all of you brilliant people who read this website to participate in. 

When friends of mine and fans of the Speculating Canada website started asking me about different formats for my editorials and interviews, I finally took up Alissa Paxton’s suggestion that I turn Sepculating Canada into a radio show. Alissa was already a long-time participant in Trent Radio and she convinced me to create the show over time by gradulally interviewing me on the air for different special topics and through that she convinced me that the radio wasn’t too scary. The people who run and have shows on Trent Radio 92.7 FM made the experience of having a radio show one that was consistently filled with excitement. 
I went with a “coffee shop chat” style for the radio show because I was tired of hearing interviews of authors that were highly edited to the point that their ideas were reduced to robotic sound clips. I wanted my show to be one where the audience feels like they are right at the table with myself and the authors I interviewed – to let the listener feel like they are part of the conversation, because, dear listeners, you are always in the studio with us conceptionally even if you are listening from a distance. I don’t edit out the “ums”, “wait whats” and “likes” because they allow us to experience the author as an actual human being and allows us to realise that autors say brilliant things even when they are having to think on the fly. The fabulous people I have interviewed have been wonderful at going along with the “coffee shop chat” style of the show, letting themselves have a natural conversation… and, of course, for letting their inner geeks loose and allowing us to be fans together. I want to thank the interviewees for letting me push the interview boundaries by asking them deep questions and inviting them to interrogate and explore the deep questions of their work.

Speculating Canada has always been an opportunity to share my love of Canadian speculative fiction with others but it became so much more than that. It became another forum to teach outside of academia (and when I say “teach” I mean share questions and ideas with other brilliant people and let them know that they are able to interrogate what they are reading). It was a forum for reviews (my little love letters to the authors I adore). It provided me with a space to interview authors and share their brilliance with others – the incredible insights that go into speculative fiction writing. But the most important thing that Speculating Canada became was a community. It allowed me to meet others who are passionate about their SF, who love it and love to think about it. I met some of my most treasured friends through Speculating Canada and I want to thank everyone who has supported it. We are lucky to be part of such an amazing fan community and I feel fortunate that I have found a community to connect with and share with. Thank you to all of you who supported speculating Canada in diverse ways. 

 
 

Photo of the 2015 Aurora Award Winnder courtesy of Do-Ming Lum

 
For those unaware of the Prix Aurora Awards, these awards are Canada’s equivalent of the Hugo Awards. They honour all of the top voted creators of Canadian Speculative Fiction. To find out more about the Aurora Awards, visit their website at http://www.prixaurorawards.ca .

Here is the full list of 2015 Prix Aurora Award winners. I am so pleased to be part of such a distinguished list of brilliant people. 

Best English Novel: A Play of Shadow by Julie E. Czerneda, DAW Books

Best English YA Novel: TIE:

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder, Tor Books

Out of This World by Charles de Lint, Razorbill Canada

Best English Short Fiction: “Crimson Sky” by Eric Choi, Analog, July/August

Best English Poem/Song: “A Hex, With Bees” by Tony Pi, Wrestling With Gods: Tesseracts Eighteen, EDGE

Best English Graphic Novel: It Never Rains by Kari Maaren, Webcomic

Best English Related Work: On Spec published by the Copper Pig Writers’ Society

Best Artist: Dan O’ Driscoll, covers for Bundoran Press and On Spec magazine

Best Fan Publication: Speculating Canada edited by Derek Newman-Stille

Best Fan Music: Kari Maaren, YouTube Channel

Best Fan Organizational: Sandra Kasturi, Chair, Chiaroscuro Reading Series: Toronto

Best Fan Related Work: Derek Newman-Stille, Speculating, Canada on Trent Radio 92.7 FM

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.

Sexist Con: Geek Gatekeeping and the Convention

By Derek Newman-Stille

The topic of geek gatekeeping has been discussed a lot recently, and I have previously discussed it in my post “My Cane is Not a Costume” https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/04/07/my-cane-is-not-a-costume-convention-exclusions-and-ways-to-think-about-oppression-at-cons/ , but I wanted to talk a bit about how the structures of fan conventions can sometimes add to the specific incidents of sexism that are perpetuated by fans.

Much as I did in my post “My Cane is Not a Costume”, I am not going to refer to the specific Convention that I am using as the case study for this experience because I believe that many of these issues can apply to numerous genre conventions and that we should look at geek gatekeeping as a whole, rather than direct attention at one specific con.

When I refer to “structures at fan convention”, I am referring to the overall planned events and actions of those representing the con. These set the tone by which fans react to others at the convention.

As in previous years at this convention, and as others have mentioned about fan conventions in general, there were the typical issues of sexual oppression. Women were leered at by men, propositioned by men, and quizzed by men about their knowledge about particular fandoms, creating an atmosphere of discomfort for women and issues that women had to deal with that men did not. Male fans showed a sense of entitlement to stare at, touch, and proposition women.

One of the structural issues I observed in microcosm was a “professional interviewer” on a panel for a television series that featured a post-apocalyptic world. The questions were divided along gender lines to reify ideas that women and men occupy different skills sets and try to suggest that women’s concerns are largely domestic. Male actors wee asked about their acting experience, about whether they are good with weapons and whether they shoot them in their lives off screen. Female actors were asked about romantic relationships in the show and about whether their characters are going to be having babies. Women were further asked about how emotionally harrowing it was to be on set all day and to deal with the charged emotional nature of the show. Despite the fact that one of the women questioned played a character who was an excellent sword-wielder, she was told by the interviewer “obviously you don’t use a weapon in real life”, inferring that it is more likely for a male actor to be interested in weapons use outside of the show than it is for a woman to do so. This dichotomous questioning first of all relegates women and men to different worlds and assumes that they cannot cross interests or experiences. Secondly, the types of questions asked of the actresses were focused on an assumed domesticity, vulnerability, and emotional nature, whereas the male actors were asked about questions of skill.

These types of questions shape a dichotomous view of gender that casts women in a peripheral role, even when they are, themselves, the people that fans are coming to see. When fans see this occurring at the official level, it reinforces the types of gender divisions and alienating of women that occurs at the fan level.

A strong example of geek gatekeeping being structurally created can be seen in the Cosplay shows, where identity is on display for all of those who are watching people perform in the costumes of their chosen characters. For this particular Cosplay show, an announcer was chosen who has reinforced the characterizing of women as sexual objects. Whenever women were on stage with little clothing, the announcer would leer at them and say in a sexual voice “I love my job.” This was not a singular event, but rather occurred every time a women was on stage with a costume that revealed her body shape. He at times would comically chase women across the stage as though stalking them… at least he and much of the audience seemed to consider it comical. But what concerns me is that this is not comical, and expressing laughter at his behavious entrenches the notion of considering women as sexual objects as a taken-for-granted norm and something to be laughed at, which is why fans assume that leering at women is both acceptable and comical and why several fans expressed the notion that “if they dress like that, I should have the right to stare”, “those costumes are distracting”, and “she could have taken more off than that”.

The announcer created a place where these characteristics are considered normative and not problematic. At times he also said things like “she had a nice bum”, “I love my job. All the pretty girls”, and “I am an old man and I get to be a creepy old man.” His entitlement to view women as sexual objects abstracts to the overall culture of viewing women as sexual objects and not as fans themselves.

Although I have only referred to a few select events, I hope to point to overall issues whereby fan conventions create or at least to reinforce a cultural environment of gendered oppression. Fan conventions are not solely responsible for geek gatekeeping or the oppression of women, but it is important for us as fans, as geeks, to be looking at the way that certain sexisms are reinforced and given cultural value.