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.

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 66:

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I have a chance to do an audio interview with Julie Czerneda. I have previously interviewed Julie in text format, but wanted a chance to share her spoken words with you.

Julie and I discuss the boundary between science fiction and fantasy, the power of SF to teach, developing fantasy worlds, ecosystems, and magical creatures.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

img_0564-2

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Bronze Age Magic

IMG_0216

Bronze Age MagicA review of Caitlin Sweet’s The Door in the Mountain (ChiZine Publications, 2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Caitlin Sweet’s The Door in the Mountain is a mytho-archaeological story of wonder, blending the mythology of the Ancient Greek world with archaeological settings from the even earlier society of Minoan Crete and populating this world with deep, complex characters. Sweet follows authors like Mary Renault who in works like The King Must Die and Bull From The Sea play with the meeting of myth and archaeology and use this blend to evoke characters whose lives are similarly stretched between the fantastic (through the elements of magic) and the realistic (through their engagement with the very real issues of family, the struggle for a place of belonging, and misinterpretation, which fuels so many conflicts). 

My masters’ research was in Aegean Bronze Age archaeology, examining the civilizations Caitlin Sweet explores in her novel, and I was moved by the way she brought these artifacts that I had spent so many years examining to life, mingling them with complex characters who brought a sense of mythic nearness to this ancient world. Sweet was able to animate these artifacts, let them shape the characters she populated her novel with, and express the sort of magic these artifacts inspire in our minds by giving them associations with magical powers. Using fantasy, Sweet was able to get at different truths than archaeology would be able to find, an imaginative truth that these artificers can inspire. 

Archaeology is speculative, imagining the lives of people long dead from the refuse they left behind and the places they eventually abandoned, and perhaps it is this speculative quality that led Sweet to imagine a speculative fictional world around these artifacts, to put them into a framework of magic and fantasy and allow them to evoke wonder. 

As much as The Door in the Mountain is a tale of wonders, it is also a tale of human experience, focussing at its root on family conflicts. This is a tale of the toxicity of envy in a family, of rejection and the desire for belonging, of power and the loss of control. It is, at its roots, a tale of those everyday conflicts that shape the lives of people and turn them into who they will become. The power of transformation in this novel is not just one of characters who can turn into Bulls or birds (although, of course, they do) of even of characters growing into their magical powers as they discover how they are god-marked, but is also about the way that simple actions, misunderstandings, interpretations, and ideas can change a character, shaping them from childhood to adulthood and determining who they will be and what will continue to motivate, hurt, inspire, and influence them.  

To discover more about The Door in the Mountain, visit ChiZine Publications’ website at http://chizinepub.com/books/door-in-the-mountain

To find out more about Caitlin Sweet, visit her website at http://www.caitlinsweet.com/

Robo-religion

Cover Art for Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with the Gods courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

A review of Derwin Mak’s “Mecha-Jesus” in Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with the Gods (Edge, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Religion (particularly when represented in fantasy) is generally constructed as something that is bounded, something that has clear boundaries and belongs to one specific group who all believe the same thing. Derwin Mak’s “Mecha Jesus” blends categories, blending religious systems and getting away from the idea that a religious figure can be exclusively the property of one group. Mak sets his story in a Shinto temple of the future, but one in which Jesus is one of the Kami. The Kami are the spirits and gods of Japanese Shintoism, but the Kami are considered boundless and can encompass any entity that is a force of creation and has influence on our world. It is therefore understandable that Jesus, a figure from Christian belief, could be adopted into Shintoism one of the Kami.

It is always challenging to explore real-world religions in speculative fiction, but Mak shows an ability to question the boundaries of religion and explore universal human themes like the quest for the ‘truth’ (and the eventual discovery that ‘truth’ is subjective), battling against discrimination and oppression, the realisation that the universe is infinitely more complex than we can imagine, and the magic of self-discovery. Mak recognizes a similarity in aspects of Shintoism and Christianity such as the idea that a man can also be a god or have something divine in him and the connection between the Catholic notion of a relic, an object that relates to a particular saint that still holds some of their power and the Shinto notion that an object that belonged to or contains part of a Kami can still hold its power.

“Mecha Jesus” features a Shinto temple devoted to Jesus as one of the Kami and the principle characters in this short story are a Japanese Catholic priest who understands both the Christian context of Jesus and the Japanese cultural context of Shintoism, a fundamentalist Christian who spends most of the time at the temple trying to convince Shinto practitioners that they are worshiping Jesus wrong, and, of course, mecha Jesus himself – a robot who has taken from the principles of Shintoism that any object that holds a relic can become a shrine, making mecha Jesus himself a walking, operating shrine that holds the power of Jesus inside of it. And houses his spirit.

As much as this is a story about recognising the interconnections between religions and the need to see beyond the isolating potential of religion, it is also a story about discrimination and facing social oppression. In the future that Derwin Mak creates, groups are destroying robots, considering them to be a threat to human employability and an abomination. These hate groups attack robots and those who protect them because they believe they are working for humanity. These groups, seeing robots as soulless face a critical moment when they come into contact with a robot who seems to have a soul and a group of people who are willing to defend him from persecution.

To discover more about the work of Derwin Mak, visit his website at http://www.derwinmaksf.com/

To read more about Tesseracts Eighteen, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 27: Speculative Fiction in the Music of Rush

On this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I had a chance to talk a bit about the influence of science fiction and fantasy literature on the music of the Canadian band Rush. Rush is one of my favourite bands and I am, of course, in love with their use of speculative themes in their music. Inspired by various speculative fiction works, Rush blends the metaphors that come out of fantasy with their exploration of issues in the world around us.

The works that I explore in this episode, particularly Rivendell and The Necromancer have inspiration from Tolkein. By-Tor and the Snowdog, the last piece that I play, is particularly inspired by Greek mythology and imagery of the underworld.

Rush is currently celebrating their 40th anniversary, so I thought it would be a good time to explore their speculative music on my show.

Due to copyright laws, I am only able to include 10% of each song on this show (the original airing on Trent Radio permitted the full songs because of their radio license). In order to give you the chance to explore the full songs, I have included here some links to Rush’s website where you can stream some of the songs I refer to:

Rivendell (from Fly by Night): http://www.rush.com/albums/fly-by-night/

The Necromancer (from Caress of Steel): http://www.rush.com/albums/caress-of-steel/

By-Tor and the Snowdog (from Fly by Night): http://www.rush.com/albums/fly-by-night/

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

A Mosaic of Stories

A review of Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson’s Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast (Edge 2013)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

It is very exciting to see one of the prestigious Tesseracts books sharing a name with this website. I was quite honoured to see that they had chosen a name that matched the name I created for my website. Tesseracts has been a Canadian SF institution since Judith Merril edited the first collection in 1985, recognising that there was a need for a Canadian collection of SF and that there was something distinct about Canadian spec fic that could only come out by bringing works of Canadian SF together in a collection instead of the random inclusions of Canadian SF in American and British anthologies.

Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast is an exciting addition to this historic institution and rather than focusing on a single theme or idea, this collection sought to bring together Canadians from around Canada in order to capture some of the distinct flavours of Canadian SF from our diverse regions. Canada is a huge country and this collection was a huge endeavor. While reading this collection, I found myself flipping back to the author descriptions to constantly find out where authors were from to get a sense of that regional flavour, an idea of whether Canadian SF ‘tastes’ differently in different parts of our country. Tesseracts Seventeen provided a chance to travel across this country, but also into the minds of Canadians: their visions of the future, their travels across the universe, and their ventures into the unknown. Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson were able to capture a tiny bit of Canadian diversity, a few wondrous tiles of the mosaic of thoughts and perspectives that creates the overall picture of Canada.

The tales in this collection bring together ideas about family, memory, privacy, religious fanaticism, dreams, isolation, the history of residential schools, aging, stigma and identity, issues of conformity, poverty and the exploitation of workers, … namely, issues relevant to Canada today and our constant pondering of Northrop Frye’s question “where is here?”, speculating about what Canada is and how to define our identity. Despite most stories being set in the future, on other worlds, in other realities, Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast speaks very much to Canadian realities, questions of today, and issues relevant to this world.

From a church devoted to Star Trek’s Spock to imaginary friends to ageing ghosts to sacred kitchen recipes to a galactic civilization that forces conformity to living graffeti … this is a book of Canadian magic, a passport to the Canadian beyond.

You can read reviews of individual short stories on this site at:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/19/life-drained-by-residential-schools/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/15/haunting-disability/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/chilly-renewal/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/cityscapes/

You can explore Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast at Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess0/about-tesseracts.html

Mute Ghost in a World of Words

A review of S.M. Beiko’s The Lake and the Library (ECW Press, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo for The Lake and the Library courtesy of ECW press

Cover Photo for The Lake and the Library courtesy of ECW press

S.M. Beiko’s The Lake and the Library is nominally a story about growing up, and the feeling of nostalgia for things lost and things changing. It is about the discovery of a library filled with books that are gateways to fantastic worlds, pages that become birds, clouds, and wings to lift her to new highs of fantasy. The library is a shifting space, becoming other worlds as walls are expanded by the great breadth of adventure and fantasy within the covers of the books it houses, literally shifting to become fantastic spaces from beloved classics. And the library holds a boy, unable to speak aloud, but able to speak volumes in the universal language of fantasy with Ash as his co-creator of worlds of adventure.

The first part of the novel evokes the highs of an escape, new experiences, exiting distortions of reality, and only in the latter half of the novel does it become clear that this is an addict’s tale. Ash begins to experience the dangers and draws of being in a continual state of escape. Reality begins to wear thin for her and she begins to distance herself from anyone who doesn’t enable her habit, anyone who pulls her back to reality. Friends, family, all begin to be sacrificed to her need, her desire to get away from herself, her world, and all that feels too mundane, too real to matter.

The world outside of the library begins to shift, become unstable for Ash, losing its substance as something grows within her, thorns that tear into her skin, holding her, consuming her from the inside and pulling her back to the library. Fantasy begins to eat into reality, making the real a pale and lifeless substitute for the highs of the fantastic. And when reality gets to be too much, a sound like rushing water surges through her, enveloping her in its wash of abstraction, removing her from a world that seems too harsh, too sharp, too real for her to touch. The water cushions her while it draws her deeper, washing away signification and everything that made her who she was.

The library is haunted by memory, nostalgia, the dreams of things lost and forgotten, and yet it has power, a deep hold like thorns in the veins of those who seek to escape, those willing to uproot themselves and lose the ground that feels like it is only holding them in place.

Libraries are beautiful places, deep places, charged with a depth made of the weight of tales, and this depth can both add to one’s story, but can also consume and obscure one’s story. Ash finds herself suspended in a depth of tales that renders her as a drop in a lake, her story washed away by the weight of other worlds more alluring to her than her own life.

To find out more about the work of S.M. Beiko, visit her website at http://www.smbeiko.com/ .

To read more about The Lake and the Library, visit ECW’s website at https://www.ecwpress.com/lake