The Ad Astra Experience: A Reflection on Ad Astra 2015

By Derek Newman-Stille

As an educator who engages in fandom, I see fandom as a teaching space, by which I mean it is a space for developing new ways of looking at the world. Ad Astra is nominally a Canadian SF writer’s conference, but there is some magic in the slippages between writer and fan, and in my case between academic, writer, and fan. 

I wanted to be on as many panels as possible because I feel that as an academic I have a duty to share knowledge and experience wherever possible. So, being on panels allowed me the space to share some of my ideas and to learn from the ideas and perspectives of others. Having said this, many of the most informative and educational experiences happen between panels, in those random hallway conversations and in breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with fascinating people.

I was on 8 panels this year: “The Classics – In Space and Beyond!”, “The Beldam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture”, “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star”, “The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature”, “Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer”, “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World”, “Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen”, and “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”. I had the opportunity to talk to a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds and interests and was fortunate  enough to share the experience with brilliant, wonderful panelists who varied from performance artists to authors to academics and, of course, fans. I was impressed by the incredible amount of enthusiasm and passion from all of the people involved, and I think this is the particular magic that comes from a mingling of people who come from varied perspectives to bring their delight and sense of wonder to this collective space.

“The Classics – In Space in Beyond!” in addition to having an amazing title and an exclamation mark (letting us know that we were DEFINITELY in for excitement) allowed for an exciting place for exploring something that I love to explore: adaptation. Texts can shift and change with time and with the interests of people, and this panel explored the notion of a “classic” text and how these classics could become platforms for changes that allow them to shift to include new ideas while maintaining their core, or become spaces where under-represented people can insert their voice or ideas. I have probably talked about this before, but I see fan fiction as an exciting potential space for playing with texts, for shifting them, changing them and asserting new ways of looking at them (as well as allowing for fan agency) and I see a lot of the adaptations of the classics as forms of fan fiction, explorations of new elements of texts and creative engagements. As a panel made up of performance artists, authors, and instructors of literature, we were able to explore the possibilities of investing new energies and new insights into classical texts through adaptation and also the potential dangers in adaptation.

For me, the real magic of the panel “The Bedlam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture” was the exploration of the power of books that feature witchcraft for empowering young people. Often these books feature young people who begin in a situation of powerlessness and gradually are able to shift their circumstances through magic. The wonder of this is that it illustrates to young people that they DO have magic, that they have an ability to change their world by words – not spells, but another form of words, those on the page. They learn that by reading and writing there is a power to challenge assumptions and to change the way we view our world. This type of power results in things like the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that began as a fan group for Harry Potter and changed into a group that takes the Harry Potter texts and uses them to change the world by empowering young people, encouraging them to help get books to those who can’t afford them, and generally by challenging the cultural assumption that young people can’t change their world. This is a special kind of magic – that of empowerment.

The beauty of the “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star” panel was the excitement of the audience, and, particularly, their desire to engage in those communication spaces that allowed for their voices to be shared with the world around them. Many of the attendees were interested in sharing their perspectives, their interests, and their understanding of speculative genres. This excitement underscores why i began blogging, podcasting, and running my own radio show – to provide a space for people to share their voices and their perspectives about the genre that they feel so passionate about and to encourage people to think about and interrogate the works they are reading. 

“The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature” blended a critique of the embedded ‘traditional’ ways that literature is often taught (which are often assumed to be the only ways of engaging with the process of teaching) with new ideas for approaching the process of teaching students about literature. We examined the idea of ‘pedagogy’ (teaching) itself and looked at what this means for our engagements with literature: what do we consider ‘teaching’?, what does teaching inside the classroom look like?, and, of course, my favourite question – how do we extend teaching literature beyond the walls of the classroom. I think that this last question occupied a lot of our time and concentration because many of us engage in the idea of teaching in diverse ways: through providing a space for students to think about how literature and life outside of the book interact with one another, through looking at literature as a medium of empowerment, through encouraging students to think critically about the texts in their lives, and through making ourselves figures who look for learning opportunities outside the classroom.

“Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer” extended the idea of hauntings to encompass an idea of the haunted, spectral space itself. We looked at traditional ghost narratives and how they develop to express cultural issues, representing sort of a cultural icon of our particular cultural preoccupations. Ghosts tie in with the subconscious and represent those things that we deny in our culture, the things that haunt us. We looked at the relationship of ghosts to the texts that they are presented in, whether through the descriptive power of literature or the CGI of film and television, and explored the diversity of ghost narratives and the idea that ghosts are presented in diverse ways in our cultural media to present diverse issues and understandings. Ghosts, as figures who represent that barrier between life and death, become figures who are surrounded by questions and come to embody the idea of questioning ideas themselves. It turns out that the “boo” of the ghost is actually an existential question. 

Of course, right after the ghosts panel, I was able to stay in that space of the undead for “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World” and have a chance to explore the figure of the zombie with two authors of zombie fiction and a costumer. We looked at the changes in the zombie narrative and the current diversity of narratives, while being aware that the zombie narrative in recent years has tended to be inclined toward the infected zombie (the zombie virus). The zombie narrative has been able to shift and change to express the fears, anxieties, and even desires that we have as a society… though when I talked about Claude Lalumiere’s descriptions of wiggling maggots in zombie kisses there were gags around the room (it is always awkward to talk about zombie romance before lunch). We also took the zombie beyond the page and film by talking about how people have used the image of the zombie to make cultural commentaries – through dressing as zombies to protest educational reforms to the CDC’s use of the zombie narrative to create a pandemic preparedness guide. The panel’s exploration was staggering… or maybe shambling… 

“Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen” allowed panelists to explore the shifts and changes that are perpetually happening in the superhero genre as well as the potentials and dangers in the transition from comics to film. The superhero was exposed to the Kryptonite of critique and through that process, like Star Labs, we were able to look at the superhero through new lenses and then turn that lens on the society that creates and needs its superheroes. We looked at the social conditions that make superhero narratives desirable and the changing social conditions that mean that we need to shift and change our superheroes to become representative and dynamic figures. We looked at the different possibilities that the comic book or film media represent and the way that these different media change the figure of the superhero and, by necessity, focus on different issues, needs, and desires. At the end, we were even able to sneak in a little discussion about ‘the gutter’ (the white space between the panels of a comic book) and the incredible creative work and insights that happen in the comic book when the audience has to fill in the narrative between panels. 

One of the highlights of the con for me was the final panel I was on, “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”, because we explored a particular type of fantasy that is generally considered absolutely the most “real” thing possible, and that is “normalcy”. We looked at the potential that the speculative genres have for illustrating that “normalcy” is itself a fiction, something created to embed certain groups in power and to suggest that other groups don’t have worth or value. This clearly hit home for some of the audience members because one member expressed his issues with the notion of changing SF to be inclusive. He told us that we were too disparaging of past SF that portrayed a white, straight, able-bodied male hegemony and expressed his concerns that if SF and other social media changed that he and other straight, white, able-bodied men would “become a minority”. I think this itself illustrates the power of SF to challenge those power structures and to illustrate that the structures that keep groups like straight, white, able-bodied men in power are themselves quite weak and that questions posed by minority groups can destabilize those structures, open new possibilities and fundamentally point out the insecurity surrounding the structures that situate one group as “normal” and therefore naturalize their power when in fact it is as constructed as any fantasy story.

Ad Astra would not have been such an amazing experience if it weren’t for the incredible insights, passions, and interest of the fans. I am so thankful for all of you fans who asked brilliant questions and brought up new ways of looking at the material. I am also extremely thankful for brilliant co-panelists and the co-panelists for these panels included people like Kate Storey, David Lamb, James Bambury, Gail Z Martin, Karen Dales, Gregory Wilson, Kari Maaren, Robert Boyczuk, Douglas Cockell, Erik Buchanan, Alisse Lee Goldenberg, Chris Warrilow,  Peter Prellwitz Dennis Lee, Derek Kunsken, Max Turner, Adam Shaftoe, Cathy Hird, and Charlotte Ashley. Authors, academics, musicians, biologists, podcasters, costume designers, a Wiccan priestess, fans, and a whole lot of people who blended these roles… this complicated mix of panelists made for some amazing interactions and really incredible discussions. 

I want to particularly thank Angela Keeley for all of her hard work at Ad Astra this year. She was both a great resource to presenters and her enthusiasm and interest in the topics of the con really encouraged presenters to be similarly excited, energetic, and engaged in their panels. 

I have to say that my favourite overheard line from the con was “Watch out: things tend to get derailed by the Klingon in the room”. I would imagine that unlike “the elephant in the room”, the Klingon in the room makes him or herself heard.

To discover more about Ad Astra, visit their website at http://www.ad-astra.org 

The End is Only The Beginning

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s collection Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse (Exile Editions, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Fractured courtesy of Exile Editions

Cover photo of Fractured courtesy of Exile Editions

Flooding, ghosts, spreading oil sinkholes, whitenoise, bio weapons, nuclear bombs, sudden population disappearances, a strange rotting of the landscape, persistent sleep, the drying of the world’s lakes, alien invasion, shadows, plague, constant rain, technological crashes, ruptures into the abyss, fires… the visions of the apocalypse are multifaceted and Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse imagines new nuances of each potential end. But ultimately, this is not a collection about the end, not about the apocalypse itself, but the experience of the end and the way that the end can be a beginning of a changed world, a world that envisions a separation from the past but is still haunted by its memory. Fractured imagines what characters in the post-Apocalypse are feeling, how they are making meaning out of their experiences, how they are coping with severe changes to their world, and ultimately, the loneliness that comes from facing the end. This is a volume of endings that embody beginnings.

The term apocalypse means revelation, the revealing of things and ultimately this volume reveals the nuanced experience of endings and focuses on people coping with the notion of the end, the thought about the idea of endings itself. It is a volume of change, memory, isolation, and desire.

Fractured looks that the connection between human and landscape and how each mirrors and is influenced by the other, illustrating hoe we are shaped by each other – place and people. It is a collection of scavenging from the past and collecting the detritus and rubbish of our civilisation as treasures, reminding us of our privilege to be living in a pre-apocalyptic world.

The post-apocalypse is as much about meaning as it is about survival.

To discover more about Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse, visit Exile Editions’ website at exileeditions.com

You can find a review of some of the short stories in this collection at

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/11/28/ectoplasmopocalypse/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/04/09/hollow-signals/

 

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

Ectoplasmopocalypse

A review of Orrin Grey’s “Persistence of Vision” in Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post Apocalypse (Exile Editions, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Fractured courtesy of Exile Editions

Cover photo of Fractured courtesy of Exile Editions

Shaped by movie imagery with comparisons of the events of the story to a Hollywood film, Orrin Grey’s Persistence of Vision uses the unreality of film to contribute to the notion of an apocalypse that no one believes in. The notion of the end is difficult for anyone to conceive of, but Grey’s characters are especially confused because their end comes from the spectral presences of the past. People begin dying under odd inexplicable circumstances – pursued by shadows, picked up by spectral hands, scared to death.

After a scientific experiment with an old computer that was discovered beneath an asylum, the undead return to the earth… but not the expected undead that we have seen in post-apocalyptic survival film after survival film… instead Grey brings us a return not of the body but of the essence, a return of ghosts to the mortal realm. The world becomes crowded with the haunted presences of our past, the dead returned to wreck spectral violence on the living.

Grey creates an undead apocalypse far more frightening than the zombie apocalypse because these undead beings aren’t corporeal, their bodies can’t be destroyed. They are lingering presences that demand our attention by bringing us into their world.

Rather than a story of triumphant survivors challenging the odds and making a new world, Grey asks readers what sort of person would want to live in a post-apocalyptic world, particularly one where all one can do is hide, wait, and just survive. Although ghosts have returned from the otherworld, it is the living human population who are in limbo. They are the ones who wait in a meaningless stretch of time.

To find out more about the work of Orrin Grey, visit http://orringrey.com/

To find out more about Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post Apocalypse, visit Exile Editions’ website at http://www.exileeditions.com/

Binding Traditions

A review of Erin Bow’s Sorrow’s Knot (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

A great deal of fantasy is focused on the hero’s narrative, masculine figures in a masculine, patriarchal society. Erin Bow creates a female dominated society. Women have powers that males don’t – the power to bind spirits with string. In a place that is filled with the dead, shadowy globs of darkness who consume the living when given the chance, men aren’t safe. They don’t have the skills or the strength to protect themselves, so they leave the society of the women and head to safer areas. The women in this novel are figures of power, complex and diverse, but all possessing an inner strength that centralises them in the narrative. Unlike a lot of fantasy narratives that try to construct women as vulnerable, as damsels in distress who need rescue, these women are the figures of power in their society.

Instead of using the medieval world as an archetype of fantasy to modify for her story as occurs often in high fantasy, Bow creates a distinctly non-European society. Her society is one that is unique, with highly developed rituals that are distinct from the norms of fantasy. This society binds the dead in trees, has girls discover their possible careers at adulthood, organises women into households that are formed based on their career talents rather than their biological relationships (though these sometimes occur as well), doesn’t have marriage and in fact views monogamous pairings as unordinary and things that animals do rather than people, and, a society that is a matriarchy. The world she creates is whole and rich and this difference from the expected tropes of fantasy allows her to distinguish her world and create characters and cultural situations that would not often be found in medieval-like fantasy societies.

Cover photo of Erin Bow's Sorrow's Knot courtesy of Scholastic Canada http://www.scholastic.ca/books/view/sorrows-knot

Cover photo of Erin Bow’s Sorrow’s Knot courtesy of Scholastic Canada http://www.scholastic.ca/books/view/sorrows-knot

When discussing feminist fantasy, I have often heard male authors claim that they have to write women as weak because it is ‘historically accurate’ or ‘accurate for that society’, which is ridiculous since these stories are often not set in real historical periods, but rather other worlds. Bow is able to create a society that right away tells the reader: don’t expect this novel to be disempowering to women. She gets away from all of the baggage associated with the worlds fantasy authors often replicate by expressing this society’s difference.

However, her society is not a feminist utopia. It is set with problems that would face any society – issues of social taboos, the strength of traditions that alienate people who behave in non-traditional ways, and the loss of history. This society has classic human issues embedded in it like the battle between youth and the aged, acts of defiance and punishment, the desire to change social patterns, issues of power and the dangers of too much power, and questions about how the local relates to the wider world.

Carried on from the time of the mytho-historical figure Mad Spider, who first powerfully bound the dead, and first fought the most powerful form the dead can have, White Hands, the art of binding bodies and creating binding wards has been central to Westmost’s society. The village is surrounded by wards to keep out the dead, powerful knots of string that are created by the binders, specialists in the art of magical knot-making. Binders also bind the dead. Whenever anyone dies in Westmost, the binder takes them out of the village and ties them up at the top of trees, asking for the wind to take them away and therefore not have them visit the village with hungry mouths of shadow.

Willow, the most powerful binder since Mad Spider, raises her daughter, Otter, to be the next binder, recognising the same skill in the girl. But, when Willow’s mentor, who has been like a mother figure to her, dies, Willow begins to doubt the whole tradition of binding the dead and worries about the implications of this practice. She is unable to let go of her mentor and calls her back instead of wishing her to the winds. Willow sees that her power is too strong and that binding is a problem… and kicks her daughter out, telling her that she shouldn’t be a binder. Otter feels lost and as though her entire destiny and her family itself has been taken from her.

Skills in this society are kept secrets, only taught by those who have been chosen to be part of a specific career, which means that Otter, by being kicked out of the binder’s tradition, can’t discover this from others. Her friend Kestrel is receiving training as a ranger, and Cricket, one of the few males who decides to stay in the village, is learning to become a storyteller even though males are generally not taught skills, so Otter feels surrounded by those with clear paths while she has none.

Otter begins to notice something about the wards. They seem hungry like the dead. She realises that in keeping the dead out… they are also trapping the living within. The knots seem to pull at people. But, around her mother, all of the knots seem to be loosening, unbinding, and, like Mad Spider, Willow is also being called mad. When the village is attacked by the dead, who manage to get around the wards, Willow, rather than reinforcing the wards, goes out to meet her former mentor, who has become a White Hand. She gets touched by the White Hand, and, unlike other types of the dead who cause bodily harm, White Hands cause psychological harm – they replicate themselves in the body of human begins and eventually take over, dissolving individuality.

Otter is now the only choice for her society as a binder. She only has basic knowledge, but has inherent skills that could help her. Her mother tries to train her to take on the position in her last few days of life, all the while turning into something different. Willow begins to hunger, and Cricket discovers that she is appeased in small ways by the telling of tales. He tells her constant stories to try to help her hold on to her humanity, and then he tells her the one story that is a secret of the storyteller’s craft, a story that is forbidden to be revealed. He tells her that when Mad Spider bound her own mother, she bound her too tightly and Willow mentions that from that time forward, there has been something wrong with the binding of the dead.

Cricket is cast out of his society by the elders for telling secrets to others that are outside of his craft. When Kestrel and Otter follow him because they recognise that more knowledge and a greater breadth of knowledge from all of the other crafts could be helpful, they find him already preyed upon by the dead. The two young women continue on Cricket’s chosen path toward the great city that Mad Spider’s mythical roots began in, seeking to discover the depth of secrets and the reason why things seem wrong with the wards and with binding in general.

Questioning their place in their society now that taboos have led to Cricket’s death, the two begin to challenge all of the assumptions their society has, re-mapping their own history and trying to discover what has been lost to time and the origins of behaviours that their society has taken for granted as the only way to do things. This is a novel about he pushing of the bonds of society, the restrictive net that is cast around social groups, controlling and consuming them. It is only by violating traditions, by questioning them and refusing to follow the rules, that real, powerful change can be made.

 

Spectres of Homophobia

Review of Michael Rowe’s Ghosts (Postscripts to Darkness 2014, http://pstdarkness.com/2014/08/08/ghosts-by-michael-rowe/ )

Photo of the painting that was used for the cover for Michael Rowe's "Ghosts", courtesy of Postscripts to Darkness. Painting by Derek Newman-Stille

Photo of the painting that was used for the cover for Michael Rowe’s “Ghosts”, courtesy of Postscripts to Darkness. Painting by Derek Newman-Stille

LGBTQ2 populations are haunted by the spectre of violence. Our lives are inscribed with threat and many of us have been victims of multiple violent attacks. Stories like that of Matthew Shepard who was beaten and left to die in a field by homophobic groups haunt queer experience, even, in that case, entering into the artistic world and songs like Melissa Etheridge’s “Scarecrow”.

This experience of feeling haunted by the spectre of violence, of having one’s life marked by the potential of being the victim of homophobic attack marks the lives of LGBTQ2 people. Perhaps that is why it is so refreshing to see Michael Rowe’s story “Ghosts”, where in addition to queer populations being haunted by the spectre of violence, those who have allowed that violence and created a culture of permitting it are haunted by the ghosts of loss and regret.

“Ghosts” is a tale about a brother who hated his younger brother for being gay, seeing his brother’s homosexuality as a threat to his own masculinity and reputation. When friends of Robert, spurred on by his own homophobia beat his little brother Scott to death, Robert comes to realize the loss he has experienced and the absence left in his life at the loss of his brother. The pain is his to experience as someone who permitted anti-gay violence to occur. Robert sees the spectral presence of his younger brother everywhere, his life marked perpetually by what he allowed to occur.

Rowe’s story is so refreshing because it facilitates the idea that a life lost through homophobic violence is a loss for all of society, not just for the LGBTQ2 population and the loss should be sharpest and most haunting for those who let that violence occur, who stand by and do nothing, or who spur on that violence even if they are not directly perpetrating it.

Rowe reminds us that we, as a society, are haunted by the spectre of homophobic violence and that it should not be just LGBTQ2 populations that feel this loss and feel the presence of those killed or harmed by violence, but rather all of us as a society.

This is a painfully beautiful story about family, homophonic violence, and loss.

You can read this story online on Postscripts to Darkness’s website at http://pstdarkness.com/2014/08/08/ghosts-by-michael-rowe/

To find out more about the work of Michael Rowe, you can visit his website at http://www.michaelrowe.com