An Experiment in Gender

A review of James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour (Eos, 1998)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I was originally trained as an anthropologist (for my Bachelor’s Degree and my Master’s Degree), so I always find books that explore the notion of anthropological researchers fascinating. James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour centres on a story of a scientist and his assistant visiting a small town where all of the residents alternate gender identities (between male and female) every year until they reach their 21st birthday where they “commit” to a gender. Their gender options are male, female or “neut” (essentially intersex). Each person has a different look and different personality in each of their gender identities.

Yet, Gardner also points out the issues of the anthropological researcher since, although the researcher says he is committed to noninterference, he irrevocably changes the society he contacts, leading to murder, religious upheaval, and a fundamental change in how their society views gender.

Gardner’s narrative focuses on the perspective of a currently male member of this society who is about to commit to a gender identity. We are able to get insights from a believer in that society who views the researcher’s presence as an interference at best and a travesty at worst.

Using a researcher doing ethnographic research in a science fiction novel immediately evokes the work of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hanish Cycle of books, and having the story about gender and a society where people alternate genders immediately evokes Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, Le Guin’s parents were famous anthropologists Theodora and Alfred Louis Kroeber, which is perhaps why her explorations of culture are so powerful. Gardner’s work reads as a love letter to Le Guin, examining her ideas and giving another perspective to a gender-alternating culture.

Yet, Gardner’s exploration of gender takes a different path than Le Guin’s, and where Le Guin doesn’t explore the notion of taboos in society (something that people have critiqued The Left Hand of Darkness for because it ignores the treatment of LGBTQ2IA people as other in our own society), Gardner explores taboo and violence against sexual minorities by featuring a society that technically allows people to choose to be “neut”, but lynches them, kills them, or drives them out of their society violently. Where Le Guin takes a utopian view toward gender diversity, Gardner brings in the realities of human violence and bigotry.

Like Le Guin, Gardner’s Commitment Hour is about a gender experiment – partially his own use of Sci Fi as theory to rethink and critique gender, but also to examine what it would mean to have to choose gender.

As a nonbinary person, a person who exists outside of the binary of male/female, I found reading Commitment Hour fascinating. I was particularly fascinated by the “neut” option for gender identity. This third gender option is a reminder that notions of gender are not fixed or unchanging, but, rather, subject to change. Gardner experiments with ideas of gender and the aspects of gender that are constructed as “natural” and how societies reinforce these ideas.

Commitment Hour explored aspects of the gender binary and assumptions about what characteristics are feminine and which are masculine, while also examining a fluidity between these gendered characteristics. Gardner explores the way that social norms, expectations, and taboos reinforce the idea that there are only two ways of being in the world – male and female and explores the social punishment that people receive for being outside of that binary.

Although these are ideas that are discussed much more often now and although we have new language for exploring gender identity including pronouns other than “she”, “he”, and “it”, Gardner’s Commitment Hour was written in 1998 and challenged some of the entrenched ideas of the time. It is definitely a book that deserves to be looked at anew and that still has something to say about gender.

To find out more about James Alan Gardner, go to https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To discover more about Commitment Hour, go to https://openroadmedia.com/ebook/commitment-hour/9781497623491


Review by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Authors in Quarantine – Kate Heartfield

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Kate Heartfield: The priority has been distance learning for my 10-year-old son, and I’ve also carried on with my regular freelance editing and online teaching jobs, in addition to trying to keep up with writing.

Even though I haven’t really had any extra time, I have been starting all kinds of new creative projects, because it helps my mental health. Projects help to remind me that today is different from yesterday and tomorrow will be different again, that change will happen. And I’ve always used work as a coping mechanism, rightly or wrongly! So in addition to everything else, I’ve been painting and assembling a hurdy-gurdy from a kit, baking a lot, and trying to get my garden in decent shape. I’ve signed up for an online course in Old Norse, because I figure, if not now, when? A lot of my projects (such as baking bread and making masks) also serve to help our household cope with the pandemic.

I’ve also been allowing myself the time to do a fair bit of relaxation activity, such as playing Civilization VI (my comfort game!) and watching TV with my partner and son. We just finished Tales from the Loop and are currently finishing up the last season of Clone Wars together.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Kate Heartfield: Our household is pretty fortunate, all things considered. My partner, my son and I are all introvert homebodies at the best of times, so on a day to day basis it doesn’t feel that strange. But the uncertainty about the future, the stress of distance learning and the inability to see people I love is wearing, for sure. I feel like my heart is a rubber band that’s been stretched into the same position for two months and is weakening at the edges.

I’ve been using Zoom and other online platforms to keep in touch as much as I can with my writing community, although I miss all my writer pals terribly and nothing can make up for their physical presence. I’m taking part in two virtual conventions this month, including the Nebula awards weekend at the end of May, and that helps to keep me in touch too.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Kate Heartfield: My creative brain is my coping mechanism, so I’m enjoying dreaming and plotting out my current novel. But when it comes time to sit down and write, I frequently struggle these days with a kind of brain freeze — I can’t execute and get the words down very well. An effect of long-term low-level stress, I think, and I’m sure a lot of us are feeling the same way. Also, I’ve lost a lot of the options I used to have to get into a fresh headspace by going to work at the library or my favourite coffee shop, which sounds trivial but was a bigger part of my working life than I realized.

So it’s slower than I’d like, but I’m getting work done. Soon, my editor will send some edits for my next novel, The Embroidered Book, which is coming out next year. When that happens, that will become my writing priority. In the meantime, I’m working on a novel that isn’t sold yet, so I don’t have a deadline, which is a blessing in some ways as it means there’s less stress, but it also makes it hard to keep at it, because writing a novel on spec is an implicit act of faith in the future and that’s hard right now. I really love the book, so that’s helping. I also wrote a story for The New Decameron Project, which was great, because it gave me a reason to take out an old half-finished concept and finish it up. The result was a story called “In a Hansom Cab at the Liberty Street Ferry Terminal” and it gave me great joy to write.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille MA, PhD ABD

Speculating Canada Online Writing Workshop: Speculative Futurisms

Sign up  for the first of Speculating Canada’s writing workshop series taught by Trent University instructor Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD. Our workshop series allows us connect and write together and maybe to collapse some of the social distance by coming together online as a community. 

This workshop is free. 

Date: Friday, May 8 at 2:00 PM EST

Location: Online on Zoom

Our first topic will be:

Speculative Futurisms

Workshop Participants will have a chance to look at a new technology that either has been developed or is being considered for development. We ponder how that technology may change humanity’s engagement with the world around them. We will have a chance to consider techniques for creating powerful speculative fiction, imagining different worlds and the social changes that come about through changes in technology.

Derek Newman-Stille (they/them) teaches multiple courses at Trent University including continuing education courses in creative writing. Derek’s background is in classics and archaeology, and they will draw on that knowledge when exploring the mythic with you. Derek traditionally teaches feminist disability studies. They are the 9 time Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada www.speculatingcanada.ca and has edited the collections We Shall Be Monsters (Renaissance Press) and Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile).

There are limited spaces available, so sign up at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/speculating-canada-writing-workshop-speculative-futurisms-tickets-104217711982

Remember, although this workshop is free, please don’t take a space if you are unable to attend since this will prevent others from accessing it.

Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms

Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms 

A review of Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside (Angry Robot, 2019).

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

There aren’t enough narratives about autism by autistic people. This, and their powerful style of writing and brilliant science fiction, is why I keep coming back to the works of Ada Hoffmann with adoration. Hoffmann’sThe Outside, with its autistic, queer narrator, is precisely the narrative we need to challenge images of futurity that tend to be straight and neurotypical. Hoffmann challenges the traditional erasures of diversity in the future and populates their narrative with multiplicity, revealing that the future is dynamic and unlimited. 

 

Hoffmann’s narrative, like their narrators, is difficult to define along simple categories. The Outsideblends science fiction with Lovecraftian weird fiction, and mixes it all together into a philosophical discourse. I’m making it sound way less interesting than it is, but Hoffmann is able to bring theory and critical social questions to life in The Outside, while also creating an exciting, compelling narrative.

 

Hoffmann creates a world in which AI have become gods for a galaxy-spanning civilisation who those AI gods have decided is too erratic to have access to advanced technology. The gods make humanity rely on them for interplanetary travel and communication technology, but also require that humanity avoid heretical thoughts. People are downloaded upon death into the AI god that they most resonate with, but those who don’t fit the morals of society, those who are heretical end up being downloaded into a goddess of torture – Nemesis. The gods rely on this consumption of souls and the threat of Nemesis for those who don’t abide. 

 

In this tightly controlled AI controlled universe, one of the most dangerous things is The Outside, a phenomenon that can be summoned ritually or evoked through certain technology. Exposure to the outside is contaminating and causes a change in perception as well as changes to the physical world, distorting reality. It also allows for monstrous entities to enter into the protagonist’s world. Hoffmann evokes a Lovecraftian notion of cosmic horror and the fear of the ultimate other. Reality itself is disrupted by this exposure to the other and the laws of nature are no longer stable, but up to interpretation. 

 

However Hoffmann’s narrative doesn’t incorporate any of Lovecraft’s misogyny, racism, or ableism. Instead, it directly challenges this notion, while still presenting the idea of a cosmic horror, something beyond human conception. The one possible critique of Hoffmann’s tale that connects with Lovecraftian and other forms of horror is that contact with The Other, with the cosmic horror, causes a distortion of reality. Frequently in Lovecraftian narratives, the writer relies on the idea that the greatest horror of all is madness, and a simple reading of The Outsidemay lead a reader to believe that this is what Hoffmann is doing in their narrative. However, Hoffmann critiques the idea of madness itself in their tale, stating “’Madness’ isn’t a thing. It wasn’t even really a thing in the twentieth century. It’s not a real diagnostic category and it’s not a useful descriptor”. Hoffmann levels a critique of madness as a category, questioning the notion of madness as the ultimate horror and encouraging readers to re-assess their fear of mental illness.

 

Beyond this, Hoffmann critiques the idea of pathology by connecting it with religious notions of heresy, pointing out that simple diagnostic criteria form a type of religion that presents itself as truth and therefore not subject to debate. By doing so, Hoffmann invites critical questions about the ableism underlying our categories of normalcy and abnormalcy. Indeed, they present case files by a child psychologist who is also writing a religious treatise, evoking the history of medical practitioners being viewed as experts on every part of a society. The treatise involves lines about a child being analyzed with words like “Basic foundations of perceptual cognition, such as occlusion, perspective, scale, even causality are ignored. It is as though she sees everything at once, all the time. She likely does not yet even realize that such perceptions set her in opposition to the Gods, placing her on an inevitable path to the most perilous and destructive heresies. If treatment is unsuccessful, perhaps she never will.” Religious doctrine and psychological study are intertwined here, revealing the dangers of a psychological system that others certain neurologies. Indeed, the psychologist suggests that this child, Evianna, needs to be beaten to get rid of her heresy and make her more normative minded. Moreover, Hoffmann highlights the history and continuing practices of psychological abuse.

 

Despite this narrative taking place in the future, Hoffmann does not erase the ableism of this society, but highlights its continuance and the way that ableism shifts in order to present itself in new ways. They bring attention to the way that ableism already does this in contemporary society, shifting its characteristics, but always relying on the oppression of disabled people and the exultation of abled people. In this world, types of ableism vary from planet to planet with some being far more overt (such as the notedly ableist planet Anetaia) than others. 

 

In The Outside, Hoffmann recognises the power of Lovecraftian cosmic horror for its ability to estrange the reader, opening the reader to new possibilities and unlike Lovecraft and many others that followed in his mythos, Hoffmann uses the estrangement of cosmic horror to direct their readers to question taken for granted ideas in their society, opening notions constructed as “truth” to critical questions by providing a perspective from outside their normative beliefs.

To discover more about The Outside, go to https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/606753/the-outside-by-ada-hoffmann/9780857668134

To find out more about Ada Hoffmann, go to http://www.ada-hoffmann.com

 

Truths in Fiction

Truths in FictionA review of Kate Story’s “Where Will The Seas Roll Up Their Thunder” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (Exile, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Where Will the Seas Roll Up Their Thunder”, Kate Story speaks through a voice that is underused in fiction in generally, and especially in monster stories – the voice of an older woman who lives in a long term care home. This woman is having a conversation with a student about a topic that is generally unrepresented in fiction featuring older adults – the future. Story still explores ideas of the past and nostalgia, which are firmly connected to the representation of older adults, but she connects these not to the woman’s age, but to her status as a Newfoundlander, interested in Newfoundland history.

Story captures the rambling quality of a good storyteller, willing to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas and willing to go into tangents and rants. She captures the magic of storytelling and links it to exploring the truth behind narratives. She interacts with key features of narrative like the feeling of being chosen (a theme that is over-represented in fantasy narratives) and the problematic quality of this theme and how it stems from a life that seeks significance when being underrepresented as a woman in canonical stories. Her unnamed older woman wants to have made an impact on the world around her, a significant change and not to be easily erased. She interacts with notions of truth and fiction and the assumption that older adults are indulging in fantasy if they mention the strange and unnatural rather than representing truths. Her narrator has access to truths that others ignore. She points out the interweaving of landscape and story by presenting her narrator uncovering truths located beneath the surface of the Newfoundland landscape and things hidden in plain sight.

Story blends science and fantasy in her narrative, giving a new origin story for the tales of dragons and connecting past and future in a cycle of death and rebirth. 

Story connects the skepticism of the student researcher to the possibility of truth in a narrative inside of what seems to be a folkloric story. She highlights the multiplicity of truths and points out that “truth” itself is a story, always subject to revisions and changes.

To discover more about Kate Story’s work, visit http://www.katestory.com

To discover more about Those Who Make Us, visit http://www.exileeditions.com/shop/those-who-make-us-the-exile-book-of-anthology-series-number-thirteen/

Old Enough to be Hurt

A review of Jeff Lemire’s “Old Man Logan: The Last Ronin” (Marvel Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

With the “Old Man Logan” series, Jeff Lemire has been playing with ideas of ageing, displacement, and the changes in identity that occur with the passage of time. This is a Wolverine who has been displaced from time from an apocalyptic future to a present he isn’t quite ready to face.

In “Old Man Logan: The Last Ronin”, Lemire explores the connection between the passage of time and regrets and Logan has had a long enough life to have a plethora of regrets. Logan finds himself back in Japan, a place he visited when he lived in the future and where he encountered a cult called The Silent Order that sought to claim Japan for its own and had envisioned him as simultaneously a foreign threat and a prophesized figure. Logan encounters The Silent Order again in the present with his memories of killing people in the future and seeks to divorce himself from the person he was in the future. In the present, he is filled with the regrets of his future life and tries to resolve things peacefully with The Silent Order, but the Order has a prophet who has seen what Logan will do in the future and is angry at the loss of his friends. This young, but powerful boy is plagued by the fear of his encounter with Logan in the future and tries to stop Logan before he destroys everything he cares about.

Lemire explores the way that fear, longing, and regret shape us, and the way that these accumulate over a lifetime in a way that transforms instincts into mirrors of the pain and suffering of a lifetime. Logan is a figure defined by pain, pierced as much by his guilt and regret as he is by his claws as they extend to deal with threats he feels to old to cope with. Logan is a man displaced, with nowhere to call home, and yet every place he visits is one he has already been to and already left enemies in. His long life means that he develops all of the conflicts of home, but doesn’t ever get to experience any of its comforts or connections.

To discover more about “Old Man Logan: The Last Ronin”, visit http://marvel.com/comics/series/20617/old_man_logan_2016_-_present

Do Emperors Dream of Electronic Nightingales?

Do Emperors Dream of Electronic Nightingales?
A review of Michelle West’s ‘The Nightingale’ in Once Upon a Galaxy Edited by Wil McCarthy, Martin H. Greenberg, and John Helfers (Daw, 2002).
By Derek Newman-Stille

image

Michelle Sagara West (here writing as Michelle West) takes Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” from once upon a time into the (un)Happily Ever After, transforming myth into science fiction. Andersen’s tale is one of nature versus artificiality, pitting the natural songs of a living nightingale against the regularity of a clockwork nightingale. Both are able to produce music, but the variety and passion of the biological Nightingale surpasses that of the artificial.

Michelle Sagara West plays with this contrast between the natural and artificial by setting her tale In the future. West introduces the nightingale to the audience first, narrating from her perspective. She is constructed entirely as an object of the Emperor, an extension of his power and a symbol of his absolute control. She lives for the Emperor, uncertain even of her own selfhood.

West plays with the Orientalism of Andersen – his portrayal of China as autocratic, distant, wealthy, and violent – by instead situating her Emperor in a galactic setting, a setting that can comment on Andersen’s racism while also allowing her tale to play with themes of autocracy, wealth, and violence without replicating Andersen’s racism. The Emperor in West’s tale has literally distanced himself from human experience by altering his body, becoming something distant and quasi-mechanical. His obsession with music arises from the power that music has to make him feel some tinge of his humanity. This is an Emperor who desires control over all things, so the power music has to present diversity, uncertainty, and fluctuation has been regulated in the form of his android songbird who has been imbued with all of the galaxy’s latest musical trends without the chaotic uncertainty of music.

West’s songbird, just like Andersen’s nightingale, submits to the Emperor, making herself an object of his pleasure and desire and an extension of his will. She is caged just as Andersen’s nightingale is, but West’s songbird is a combination of images of escape and reminders of captivity. She is trapped in a castle on a planet where flight is forbidden and, moreover, she is given wings, but forbidden to ever use them. Creating them as a symbolic reminder of her captivity. She is forbidden contact with anyone other than the Emperor, secreting a poison that is fatal to anyone but him and is programmed to only love him.

Yet, unlike the mechanical nightingale from Andersen’s tale, West’s songbird is able to hear and experience the music of a human singer, hearing her voice and opening herself to learning from this singer and therefore experiencing the intwined nature of emotion and song, the human ability to express feeling through voice. In order to learn this interweaving of song and feeling, West’s songbird has to find something inside of herself that is fundamentally foreign to her.

West plays with ideas of permanence versus ageing and mortality. West contrasts the rigidity and stagnancy that comes with permanence against the changeability that comes with mortality, allowing her artificial songbird to be emotionally awakened by a love that is born through music. West illustrates that myth or fairy tale, like song, is an expression of human mortality and is a flexible and open to fluctuations as song, allowing The Nightingale to drift from a mid 1800s tale to a tale of futurity and speculative fiction.

You can discover more about Michelle Sagara West at http://michellesagara.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.

 

Between Coping and Addiction

A review of Brandon Crilly’s “Remembrance” from OnSpec # 95, vol 25, no 4

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

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


By Derek Newman-Stille

Set in the future, Brandon Crilly’s “Remembrance” is a venture into the results of war, not on nations, but on one family. Since returning from war, Anna’s father has used an assemblage of assistive technology including a bionic prosthetic leg, but more importantly, a new technology that is purported to help soldiers cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This technology allows a soldier to visit friends lost in war by simulating them in a virtual world.

Anna fears that the assistive tech her father is using is causing him to lose touch with reality and become addicted to his technology. She feels him slipping away from her as he engages more and more with his virtual world. She ponders whether the technology is helping or hindering his metal health.

It is only when Anna is able to think about her own experience of loss, the trauma that she suffered when her mother died, that she is able to understand her father. This common experience of loss lets her enter into a shared space of longing and constant coping.

Crilly provides no easy answers or simple resolutions, but rather shows that trauma and loss are always negotiated, ongoing processes for families to work out.

To read more about OnSpec, visit their website at
http://www.onspec.ca/

To find out more about the work of Brandon Crilly, visit his website at brandoncrilly@wordpress.com