Persistence of Memory

A Review of M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia (Anchor Canada, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

vassanji nostalgia

Memory is powerful and it can be fleeting, but M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia is a tale of memory’s ability to persist. Vassanji writes a near future fiction story in which immortality has been achieved, but in this future, everyone who undergoes rejuvination (the age reversal process) simultaneously has the memories of their past life erased for the new life as a younger person. But, memories are hard to erase and occasionally these memories resurface. These memories are pathologized in this world and are considered a medical disease colloquially called “nostalgia”. Vassanji creates a world that fears its past, that tries for an eternal present.

 

Vassanji invites us into the political questions raised by technology. He invites us to explore what would happen in a world that had a “cure” for ageing. Rejuvenation creates a series of social divides: between the aged and the young, the rich and the poor, and between medical ideas and religious. The young feel as though they are not able to make their place in the world because of the proliferance of older people being returned to youth. They engage in protests with slogans like “Let them go! The Earth for the Young! Let the Fogeys Die!”, viewing the aged as getting in the way of young people. Only the most wealthy can afford rejuvenation and those who undergo it keep generating further wealth, creating a greater wealth disparity bet the rich and the poor. The poor are often also the disenfranchised young, who are unable to get jobs in a world where all of the best positions are already occupied. They perceive of the older generation as needing to make way for the new generations. Yet the young are not the only ones to feel detached from their lives. Many of the ‘rejuvies’ feel a sense of disconnect in their lives, a sense of detachment and not fitting in.

 

Memory in Nostalgia is shaped by medical discourse, constructed as a danger to people’s current identities, which are authored by medical doctors who give people a new background for their new lives after rejuvenation, lives changed from the ones they are seeking to forget. The lives of the rejuvies are authored, constructed, and artificial, a veneer over a personality that has been suppressed to create the new rejuvenated self. These past lives are a threat in this medical discourse, dangerously causing a collision of personalities in the rejuvenated person. They call it “Leaked Memory Syndrome” (LMS). Yet, religious systems also engage with ideas of past lives, and religious groups have perspectives on what happens after death. They protest the damage being done spiritually through the proliferation of rejuvenated people.

 

Vassanji brings critical attention to these clashes between groups by putting us into the perspective of a doctor who deals with constructing identities for people undergoing rejuvenation, with a specialty in treating case of LMS or nostalgia, Dr. Frank Sina. Sina’s beliefs are deeply embedded in him, making him a firm believer in the mastry afforded by science, an almost zealous believer in the power of the medicine to cure the world’s ills. But even Sina’s beliefs can be challenged and they shift when he meets a man, Presley Smith, whose LMD memories seem to resonate with him and lead to his obsession with this man’s past.

 

This is a world divided not just by rejuvenation, but also by other political systems, where the wealthy parts of the world are walled off from the poorer parts of the world. This is a world where the memory constructing ability of rejuvination provides the perfect systems of assimilation for those from other countries, rewriting people’s pasts – their politics, their ideologies, and their belief systems to turn them into ‘perfect citizens’. Vissanji writes a narrative of totalitarian power and the power of memory in a political system for preventing erasure.

 

To discover more about Nostalgia, visit http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/183221/nostalgia#9780385667173

To discover more about the works of M.G. Vassanji, visit http://www.mgvassanji.com/

Putting the Punk Back in Steampunk

Putting the Punk Back in Steampunk
A review of Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction Edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

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Steampunk has often struck me as a genre that has tended toward overly rosey views of the Edwardian and Victorian Eras. The steampunk tales I have read have often uncritically represented colonialism as adventure, portrayed technology divorced from the horrible conditions of the factories, ignored massive wealth disparity and troubling social conditions. It is a genre that is ripe with neo-futurist possibilities to invite critical engagements with ideas of historicity and presentness, but often forgets the “punk” aspect of itself, the part that invites critical questions and instead pulls down the goggles of nostalgia.

Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction does that critical questioning, inviting a history filled with possibility. The stories in this collection invite critical questions about the way that we view history and the relationship we have to the past. While inspiring an interest in local histories and tales, it also reminds the reader of all of those stories that get stuck in the cogs of the machines of nation-building and invites us to oil the machines and seek out new stories and new ways of viewing the past.

The regionalism of Clockwork Canada, its setting within a national boundary, invites readers to question canonical tales of history and our founding origin myths by asking who benefits from the history that we tell ourselves and what erasures have been part of the construction of this thing we call “Canada”. These tales question the stories we tell ourselves by providing alternative stories, stories that highlight people and groups that are under-represented in our national myths.

Rather than representing the historical tales that we see in Heritage Minutes or CBC specials, the stories in Clockwork Canada highlight the oppression of indigenous peoples in Canada, border conflicts, representations of disabled people, labour conflicts, the exploitation of Chinese labourers on the railroad, Canada’s head-taxes and borders closed to immigration … all of the narratives we erase in constructing ourselves as a Just Nation. These are tales that speak back to erasures and the editing of Canadian history to include only canonical narratives that focus on Canada as a place of tolerance, acceptance, and openness.

Clockwork Canada reminds readers that the idea of “nation” is itself a story that we tell ourselves to hold us together and that that story, that history, can be divisive, damaging, and harmful. The multiplicity of stories in Clockwork Canada invite readers to think of our nation as a storied space, filled with a multiplicity of voices. These steampunk stories punk canonical narratives and invite readers to question the history they encounter. This isn’t nostalgia fiction, these stories are all about gearing up for a critical take on history.

To read reviews of individual stories in Clockwork Canada, explore the links below:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/05/06/putting-monsters-on-the-map/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/28/signing-the-electric/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/26/disability-and-immigration/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/24/working-in-the-industrial-revolution/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/21/steampunk-multiculturalism/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/20/of-maps-andmonsters/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/05/04/a-seance-evoking-future-horrors/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/05/02/frozen-wooden-with-steampunk-horror/

To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology/
OR http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html

To discover more about Dominik Parisien, visit his website at: https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com

Upcoming Interview with Kathryn Allan About Accessing the Future on September 17

Kathryn Allan is an academic editor, an independent scholar of science fiction and disability studies, and has just launched an indigogo campaign to create a collection of science fiction featuring disability and people with disabilities titled Accessing the Future. As you can imagine, Kathryn Allan and I share a tonne of interests and I feel very fortunate to be able to interview her here on Speculating Canada.

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Kathryn Allan: “I’ve always had an interest in the relationship between technology and the human body.”

Kathryn Allan: “SF was not only a comfort to me when I was too tired and unwell to do much of anything other than read cyberpunk novels or watch Star Trek episodes, it also spoke to my curiosity about technology’s ability to transform, modify, and adapt the human body to new environments and events.”

Kathryn Allan: “We want stories that think about how humanity will modify the future world, ask what kinds of new spaces and technologies we will create, and, above all, answer the question: What does an accessible future look like?”

Kathryn Allan: “As much as I love SF, it’s tiring and upsetting to see people with disabilities being vilified, “cured,” or simply erased from the future (through things like genetic engineering).”

Kathryn Allan: “if a writer imagines a future world where disability is erased before birth, then that sends a terrible message to people with disabilities today (i.e., “you shouldn’t exist”).”

Kathryn Allan: “I want representations of disability to be realistic and dynamic.”

Kathryn Allan: “More voices and more awareness means the better future(s) we can work towards!”

Check out our full interview on September 17th and check out the Accessing the Future campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/accessing-the-future

 

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

 

The Abduction of Women’s Voices

A review of Nancy Johnston’s “The Rendez-Vous: The True Story of Jeanetta (Netty) Wilcox” in Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction (The Overlook Press, 1999)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Nancy Johnston’s “The Rendez-Vous: The True Story of Jeanetta (Netty) Wilcox” is a wonderful feminist discourse on the tendency of men to overwrite the narrative and words of women. This is a story about erasure and the abduction of the female voice and the uncertainty of historical or narrative “truth”, particularly highlighting the way that narrative “truths” are often constructed in a gendered landscape.

Coached as a story that is nominally about abduction, Nancy Johnston’s science fiction short story points to the fiction of science and its constructed nature. The story is written as a report about the UFO abduction of Jeanetta (Netty) Wilcox. This report structure to the abduction narrative highlights the way that women’s words are mediated through others. The narrative is constructed as a “truthful” account, requiring the reader to read the obvious markers of assumption in the reporting of events in order to find Jeanetta’s actual narrative and her alternative vision of the occurrences that took place.

Jeanetta’s story is shaped through the perspective of her now ex husband Willard as he attempts to discern why she disappears every night and seems to be lethargic about all of the domestic duties that he thinks she should be conducting happily as his wife. He assumes initially that her concerns may be due to menopause, illustrating his own sexist reading of her body. Later, when he can’t find a method of making her less lethargic and disengaged, he seeks medical support and the doctors, supporting the notion that women should be happy to be relegated by patriarchal control to the domestic sphere, assume that they must be missing a medical problem with her and prescribe mild sedatives… which similarly do not stop her feelings of disengagement.

Never questioning the assumptions of patriarchy, Willard then latches on to the story of a UFO enthusiast that there have been alien visits to the area and tells his wife that she must be regularly getting abducted by aliens and forgetting her own experiences. The male voice here overrides her own and he and other males (doctors, journalists) seek to tell her what she “actually” experiences even over top of her own very direct denial of this. Her own observations are erased by people telling her that she has thrown up blocks to her own subconscious.

Although nominally an alien abduction narrative, “The Rendez-Vous” Johnston’s story is about the tendency of men exercising patriarchal power to override the voices of women and the likelihood that by ignoring women’s experiences and voices, they are going to miss the obvious and construct fallacies that reinforce their own power structures.

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