Blurring the Boundaries

A review of Greg Bechtel’s Boundary Problems (Freehand Books, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

We tend to think of boundaries as stable, fixed, unchangeable, but boundaries are inherently permeable, and any boundary that is created is created because someone or something is able to slip trough it. Greg Bechtel writes on these borderlands whether they be of genre (realism, science fiction, fantasy), gender (male, female, intersexed, trans, genderqueer) temporal (past, present, future), he shows a fascination with those luminal spaces and situations, heightened periods of intensity when things are shifting, because the reality is that everything is constantly in flux and stability is a fiction. And fiction, the stories that create us, constitute us, and shape our experience of the world, can be very much real.

Boundary Problems delves into a polyphonic mix of characters speaking themselves into the world from the margins, announcing their complexity and unwillingness to be captured in a single voice. Bechtel recognizes the inherent slipperiness of stories, the sense that writing a story down attempts to, but will never succeed in, fixing a story in one voice. Every reader will inherently read a story with their own voice, their own set of expectations and symbolic understandings. His characters fluctuate throughout the story, in some cases fluidly moving between gendered, racial, and sexual identities. He recognizes the permeability of story and personhood – that each filters into the other and that we are constituted by stories, tales that shape our identities. The uncertainty of his story endings speaks to this idea that he is only capturing a snapshot of a wider story and that the character has an existence separate from and larger than the story. He speaks to the continuity of all stories and that the stories that we write are fragments building a feeling, a state of being and an aesthetic for the reader but that no story is ever complete or done, but perpetually in progress. He reminds readers that writing endings is an artificial process, and that it limits the complexity of the notion of The Story itself.

Boundary Problems provides snapshots of the human experience, moments of people trying to make sense of the world around them. Bechtel shows an interest in going voice to people who have been expelled from the hegemony of “The Normal”, inserting those pushed to the fringes into a position of centrality. He reminds readers that those stories pushed to the fringes and devoiced are often the most complex, fascinating, and thought-provoking.

Bechtel’s collection explores that permeable place between speculative fiction and realist fiction, not shying away from either, but interweaving them – because reality IS speculative, and good speculative fiction should evoke questions and speculations about reality. Bechtel deals with real world issues like violence against women, place and selfhood, the policing and control of sexuality, surveillance and losses of freedoms, and the danger of hegemonic power structures silencing the voices of dissent, the voices who speak up against systemic violence and the erasure of their stories, their histories. Boundary Problems delves equally into quantum physics, magic, and the everyday experience of a coffee shop book reading… but all of these stories evoke something of the human experience, tell us about our relationships to each other, to our perceptions of ourselves, and to the world around us.

To read some reviews of individual short stories in this collection, see:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/sexy-shiftings-and-stirrings/

and

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/interweaving-worlds-of-possibility/

To discover more about the work of Greg Bechtel, visit his website athttp://gregbechtel.ca/ .

To read more about Boundary Problems, visit Freehand Books athttp://www.freehand-books.com/authors/greg-bechtel

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Upcoming Interview with Ursula Pflug on Tuesday, October 29th

It is great to have a chance to interview another local Peterborough area author, and this time, one of Science Fiction. I have admired Ursula Pflug’s use of poetic language in her SF for some time and marveled at her brilliant way with words. I was very excited that she could take time to do this interview so close to the launch of her new novel The Alphabet Stones. You can check out my review of The Alphabet Stones at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/a-brush-with-mythical-madness/ .

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Ursula Pflug has been involved in art and authorship in various capacities over the years: as art critic, graphic designer, comedy, and, of course science fiction writing. She is an activist both in her writing and out of the literary space. In our interview, we have the opportunity to discuss the changes that technology can bring to society, green energy an environmentalism, the genesis of powerful stories from observations about the world, the potential for ideas but also the conservativism of the genre of SF. Ms. Pflug reveals her extensive knowledge of Canadian SF and SF criticism, and her decision to engage in a dialogue with questions raised in SF and by the society that creates it. She provides tips on how you can support Canadian SF authors through reviews, applying for grants to house author readings.

Plus, in this interview Pflug even outlines a short story idea that came from her experiences in Japan.

Here are a few teasers for our upcoming interview:

Ursula Pflug: “Eastern Ontario has seeped into my bones something fierce and been a big influence on my work.”

Ursula Pflug: “While history has always been written by the winners the web allows each of us to have our say.”

Ursula Pflug: “I’m a writing teacher, so that is where I begin, is with the elements of story. Anything can happen, and at the beginning of telling the story we have no idea what that anything will be. No matter how detailed our preliminary outline is, as writers we may still deviate—our characters often turn out to have minds of their own. So—for me, any story can encourage readers to think in new ways.”

Ursula Pflug: “At its best, speculative fiction, whether it’s science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream or anything else, allows us, both as readers and writers, a larger canvas. We can draw outside the lines.”

Ursula Pflug: “One way we can help our fellow authors is by writing reviews of their work. Since the big dailies aren’t reviewing much we tend as authors to post reviews on GoodReads or LibraryThing.”

Ursula Pflug: “I want people to be given more tools for breaking down the ways in which they define reality. I keep going back to your tagline, Derek, but I do think you’ve nailed it so nicely.”

Ursula Pflug: “The moments we are most moved by as readers stay with us and influence us as writers, even though most often we’re not aware of the influence when we write. “

Derek Newman-Stille, Ursula Pflug, and Leah Bobet (left to right) at The Cat Sass Reading Series

Derek Newman-Stille, Ursula Pflug, and Leah Bobet (left to right) at The Cat Sass Reading Series

Ursula Pflug: “When we read about magic are we escaping or are we expanding our notions of what is possible?”

Ursula Pflug: “If naturalistic fiction takes place in two dimensions, the moment we add a reality bending element we’re adding an extra dimension. There is more room to play as an author and more room to play as a thinker and reader. This is true of science fiction as well and I think whether we like magic or extrapolated science is largely a matter of  taste.”

Ursula Pflug: “Reading about magic can open our minds.”

In this interview, as with her artistic work, Pflug illustrates that we can find powerful stories in little sketches of narrative, the little bits of our experience that contain science fictional potential – the potential to question and change the world. Check out our full interview on Tuesday, October 29th and find some new techniques for challenging, questioning, and changing the world.

Quote – Life Continues Past Story’s End

“They didn’t understand that life continues past the story’s end. They never wondered whether the stories were strong enough to sustain those happily-ever-afters once the clock struck midnight.”

-Lindsey Carmichael – The Prince and the Hedgewitch (Canadian Tales of the Fantastic)

Sometimes Research Bites…

A review of Kelley Armstrong’s The List in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing (ChiZine Publications, 2012) and Evolve Two (Edge, 2011).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University’s Alumni House

In The List Kelley Armstrong re-introduces Toronto vampire Zoe Takano (from Broken, “Zen & the Art of Vampirism,” and “Learning Curve”) with her characteristic wit and sarcasm. Zoe finds herself (fortunately) absent from a researcher’s list of ‘vampires’ in the Toronto area. When Zoe discovers that the anthropologist who wrote the paper (a combination of anthropological studies on vampirism and a study of the disease porphyria) is giving a lecture in Toronto, she decides to take her friend and former attempted murderer/vampire slayer  Brittany (yes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is certainly lurking in this character’s formation) to the lecture to help to stir her interest in higher education.

Armstrong explores what happens when real vampires meet ‘wannabes’, youth who have taken on the identity of the vampire to form their notions of selfhood and create themselves from creative fiction. This particular story focuses on the idea of identity formation and its importance for youth both with Zoe trying to help Brittany find a path for the future, and with the general desire of the attendees to the lecture (mostly young adults) to find their identity in the fiction of the vampire.

With Ms. Armstrong’s classic Joss-Whedonesque humour, she intertextually mocks Twilight when one of the characters asks Zoe “Can you sparkle?… I hear that’s what real vampires do these days.” This itself is a commentary on youth culture and the role of fiction in identity formation, interacting with the main plot of the story around Brittany’s quest for identity and a future. Unlike those around her, Brittany is not interested (any longer, since she used to want to be a Vampire Slayer) in constructing her identity based on fictional archetypes like Buffy, but is rather interested in finding her own role in the world and exploring the truth of the fantastical world around her.

The role of identity in this tale is not limited to Brittany’s experience. Zoe also engages in a dialogue of identity when she discusses the role of heritage in the lecture. She mentions that this lecture on the vampire (her people) reminds her of hearing samurai stories in her youth as her grandfather explained her heritage:  “Vampire folklore is the same – thrilling, vaguely accurate accounts of my race’s history”. Armstrong illustrates that notions of identity from heritage are significant, but are always going to be partially idealised and laced with fiction.

The context of the story around an academic lecture is significant itself as university has become, in many senses, Canadian society’s ‘coming of age ceremony’ and the quest for self-discovery that youth engage in to become considered adults. But this story also explores another role of academics: the role of academics in shaping and creating notions of heritage through their research into history (and in this case folklore). She reminds academics of the role that they play in identity formation and notions of selfhood, but she makes that risk a real threat on the body of the professor by having him encounter a student who is violent in their assertion of a vampiric identity. Armstrong reminds us that identity is a big issue for youth and that our discussions of identity questions can have harmful effects.

This story reminded me of an encounter after a lecture I gave on the topic of the werewolf, where, following the lecture I was asked by a biology student “So, how do you conduct your research… Do you set up a blind and go into the field like a biologist would.” I replied “Well, since werewolves are fictional, I suppose I do a lot of fieldwork in books. They sort of serve as a blind because the characters can’t actually see me…” I realised after this encounter that it was basically a plot starter for a horror film – where the researcher says “I don’t believe in monsters” and almost inevitably the monster proves their existence.” From that moment on, I started introducing my lectures with “I don’t believe in monsters, but if there are any monsters in the audience, please accept my apologies for this statement and understand that I am willing to re-assess my opinion without needing to be bitten”.

Note to other researchers: beware of putting yourselves into plot lines for horror movies by accident.