Is it Literary if it has Social Commentary?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can discover more about OnSpec at onspec.ca .

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Blood on the Starscape

A review of Peter Watts’ Blindsight (Tor, 2006)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Life itself is strange, odd, and unordinary. We try to create ideas of normalcy to impose order on the world around us and end up limiting our perception and understanding of that world. We categorise, we cut things that we don’t think should belong, and we butcher reality to make it somehow easier for us to understand. In Blindsight, Peter Watts challenges ideas of normalcy, warps our understanding and questions the privilege we give to certain bodies, certain modes of interpreting and thinking, and the limitations we impose on categories around us.

Watts presents us with truly alien aliens, not stereotypes of Earth civilisations with miniscule differences in behaviour and appearance. He explores what a diverse universe could be like – so different from human understanding that their biology defies our understanding and the aliens themselves see our cultural modes of behaviour as almost viral, as so foreign that we can’t be anything but a threat. He questions our privileging of self awareness, consciousness, and our assumption that this is necessary for intelligent thought.

Instead of presenting the dichotomy of “normal” people facing the “abnormal” alien, Watts assembles a group of human outsiders, because who is better suited to understand the alien than those who have been alienated on our world? People embedded in and performing ideas of normalcy would be too invested in seeing that normalcy to really understand the experience of the “other”. The crew of the exploratory ship Theseus is made up of a man who has been partially lobotomised as a way of “correcting” his seizures and has lost the ability to really empathise, a woman with compartmentalised consciousnesses, a group mind that we would have labelled “Multiple Personality Disorder” (but is recognised in the future as a form of multiple intelligences), two men who are spliced with technological prosthetics allowing them an expanded view of the world and an interrelationship with a mechanical sensory network, and… a vampire, a figure from human history who was extinct but was brought back to existence through bio-technology and has a sensory and interpretive framework so different that he sees things that human beings could not, and yet is harmed by images like the cross because of the intersection of 90 degree angles. These characters are so completely different than the human “base norm” that they require interpreters to relay the complexity of their speech and behavioural patterns to the general public, a majority that cannot understand them and is content in their lack of understanding.

Siri, the interpreter, trained to be separate from the events occurring and to present a non-biased interpretation/translation of the behaviour of his colleagues for the majority back on Earth, is himself an outsider, and this leads to his ability to interpret since he sees all of humanity (including those who would consider themselves “normal”) to be foreign and difficult to understand. He serves as the gateway between his crew of outsiders and the people back at home, waiting from some insights into the aliens that the crew is seeking to encounter. His sociopathic characteristics mean that he is able to look at the people around him with an outsider’s understanding, lacking empathy and the ability to collude or feel akin to those around him. He sees himself as a vessel of translation facilitating communication between his crew of outsiders that seem foreign to him and a foreign and odd humanity that although considering themselves “normal” are equally odd to him.

The crew of the Theseus has been sent to find out about a new alien life form that has disrupted the human notion that we are probably alone in the universe. These beings, encountered for the first time when they showed up in our atmosphere and photographed the Earth, present a puzzle to humanity, and, of course, are considered a potential threat. When the Theseus first encounters the alien ship, it calls itself Rorschach, reminding the reader of Rorschach blots used in psychological procedures to allow the patient to project their understanding onto the image in order to get at a greater understanding of the patient, their motivations, and their understanding of the world. Watts points out that this is precisely what we do with the image of the alien, we project our own understandings onto it, our own insecurities, our own ideas, and ultimately shape aliens in ways that reveal more about us, the viewers, than they do about the alien itself. Rorschach becomes a vessel for all of the projections of the crew’s understanding of the world.  It’s foreignness, and the foreignness of the “Scramblers” that occupy the inside of Rorschach become a way for the crew to debate the nature of human consciousness, ideas of normalcy, and the privilege we place on our modes of interpretation.

You can explore more of Peter Watt’s work at his website http://www.rifters.com/real/author.htm . To find out more about Blindsight, visit Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/blindsight/PeterWatts