CyberSexualities

A review of Don Bassingthwaite’s “Who Plays with Sin” in Bending the Landscape: Original Gay and Lesbian Writing: Science Fiction (The Overlook Press, 1999).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cyberpunk, with its attraction to marginalized characters who live on the edge, has needed to be queered for some time, so it is refreshing to encounter a fantastic queering of the genre by Don Bassingthwaite. “Who Plays With Sin” is timely in its exploration of the ways that data can be manipulated and the ways that surveillance invades every aspect of our online presence…. and the ways that those online presences can be employed to either shore up or destroy reputations.

Thunder doesn’t conform to the typical assumptions about internet specialists, nor does he conform to assumptions about gay men. He is burly, strong, and tall, which works well for him in his position as a spider, a web master who uses the internet to seek out truths. His ability to resist stereotypes allows him to throw off those who see him, not conforming to their expectations and therefore giving him an edge in their dealings… particularly since Thunder’s world is one of rampant homophobia, where queerness has been made illegal and LGBTQ people are frequently imprisoned for their sexuality.

Thunder is a figure of resistance, resisting the passification and disempowerment of queer people. Even Thunder’s reaction to the pathologized, passivising term “homosexual” evokes a strong reaction from him: “Say ‘faggot’, say ‘queer’, say ‘gay-boy’. Even as insults, they had a raw power. Primal, street-level, animal-level. There was sex in the words. Say ‘faggot’ and there was a cock in your mouth – whether you enjoyed it or despised it, it was there. ‘Homosexual’ was cold. Clinical. Dead. Desexed, but with implications of perversity and mental illness. It was a safe word for straights, no more dangerous than a sterile tongue depressor.” Thunder illustrates the way that words can be re-appropriated for empowerment and that any image of queer people can be complicated by techniques of resistance.

This is perhaps why when he is approached by a man named Carter, who claims to be the victim of a corporate blackmail to make him seem as though he is gay and therefore subject to the potential loss of position and exile, Thunder tries to assist him to uncover the roots of this manipulation. But, Don Bassingthwaite doesn’t provide easy answers for his characters and this is a tale of convoluted messages and systems of resistance and oppression. There are no simple answers, and every message is complicated. In a world of surveillance and manipulation, nothing is easy and Bassingthwaite reminds readers that the web is always full of spiders.

To read more about the work of Don Bassingthwaite, visit his website at http://dbassingthwaite.com/ .

You can find out more about Bending the Landscape at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bending_the_Landscape .

 

Speculative SEXtember

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The Absurd Undercurrent to Rationality.

A review of Cory Doctorow’s Shannon’s Law (in Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands Ed. Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, Random House, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Borderland is a place that exists between the Elfland and mundane reality. It is a strange blend of the fantastic and the urban, a city that is invested and embodied with the oddities and absurdities of magic. Elfland is a place where secrets are kept. It is a place that is so different from our own realm that humans can’t comprehend it and the elves that come across to Borderland can’t explain the differences. It is this oddity, this confusion and difference that attracts the attention of Shannon Klod. When the Way from the human world into Bordertown opens after having been closed for years, he packs up every bit of technology and crosses over with the intention of ridding Bordertown of what he sees as chaos, that uncontrolled oddity that makes Bordertown so fascinating and simultaneously confusing. Shannon brings the internet to Bordertown, seeking to create a connection between the worlds, one that is technological, run by rational processes and anchored in reality.

Of course, in order to get the internet to work in Bordertown, he has to incorporate the magical, the absurd into his specifications. It requires the use of carrier pigeons, mirrors atop buildings, and other oddities that are uncommon to the work of techies. Shannon and his techies see these as inelegant solutions to problems, wishing to streamline the process and make it make sense. But, chaos naturally resists order.

Borderland, much like the fairy world, Elfland, runs according to a creative paradigm rather than a sense of order and simplicity. The Elfin lands run on ideas of aesthetics, dramatic situations, and things that are interesting. Information can pass between the realms, but only if it is interesting. Shannon claims to be anti-aesthetic, to not understand the artistic and to exist in a state of pure rationality. When Shannon tries to expand his internet connection beyond Borderland into Elfland, he has to paint binary code into the frame of a painting and write numbers into a poem in order to make it fascinating, interesting and therefore of sufficient quality to pass between the realms. A man who does not like to believe he has any aesthetic sense has to rely on the artistic ideas of others and himself in order to get materials to pass between the realms. He has already allowed the creative to slip into his consciousness, changing him and illustrating on an unconscious level that there is room for movement away from a purely rational outlook to one that includes the epic, the magical, and the passionate. He falls in love with a half Elf, half human woman, a blending of the absurdity of the Elfin realms and the rationality of the human realm. She is a techie, interested in Shannon’s project, but also enjoying acts of epic beauty, fascinated by jumping from rooftop to rooftop and the rush of excitement that comes from risk.

What Shannon ignores is that aspects of the internet are magical themselves, they resist easy laws and easy understandings and defy attempts at control. Control systems are constantly updated to try to regulate the internet, but it is always altering as people interact.

“They’ve got their epic magicks and their enchanted swords and their fey lands where a single frozen moment of deepest sorrow and sweetest joy hands in a perpetual balance that you could contemplate for a thousand lifetimes without getting the whole of it. But… we invented a machine that allows anyone, anywhere, to say anthing, in any way, to anyone, anywhere.”

To find out more about Cory Doctorow’s current projects, visit his website at http://craphound.com/bio.php

Paranoia, Power, Politics, Police, and Protest

A Review of Cory Doctorow’s Homeland (Tor Teen, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Marcus was known as m1k3y when he was younger, a web protestor and advocate of human rights who exposed government corruption. In Homeland, Marcus is a young adult, just beginning life outside of university. He has all of the regular issues facing a young person – searching for a job, dealing with student loans, new relationships… but he also has had a new set of responsibilities placed on him. When two of his friends are kidnapped, they leave him with a huge document listing and proving a remarkable variety of government and corporate abuses of power, criminal activities, and general corruption. He has to think about his own safety and the safety of his friends and family when he decides whether to release this information to the public.

The world Cory Doctorow creates in Homeland is one of corruption by people in positions of power (the 1%), government control, surveillance, invasions of privacy, and the general disinclination of the public to challenge these systems of control and abuse…. in other words, our world. Homeland, as well as being a brilliant story, is a call to activism, a demand that readers open their eyes and see the world around them with all of its flaws and to do something about the horrors that are being perpetrated in their name (in the name of the public, in public security, or ‘our best interest’).

With the rise of protests against the abuses of power by the 1%, the occupy movement, and Anonymous, Homeland is written at the perfect time to empower young adults to take an active interest in their world and in the collective power that they can wield against a corrupt system. Our society is one in which protests, activism, and even general consciousness about injustices is discouraged… indeed one in which many of the groups who bring awareness about inequalities are criminalised and portrayed as social problems. Doctorow reminds us that we cannot allow the criminalisation of social protestors and people standing up for collective rights, and that we need to ask questions, inquire about things, be aware, and actually DO SOMETHING about the corruption in our world rather than assuming that this is the natural way of things.

Doctorow’s character Marcus is a hacker, but not someone who puts malicious software on computers (as many hackers are portrayed to be), he is someone who is intensely interested in governmental and business corruption and the abuses that occur to the public in the name of “public safety” and “betterment”. He sees the Orwellian doublespeak that is used to put layers of control on the public. Marcus faces moral dilemmas when hackers break into his own computer and begin surveilling him – the same kind of surveillance and violations of privacy that corporations and the government have done to control society. Despite what they have done to him personally, they provide him with information that could help to ensure his freedom from the corporations that stalk him and endanger his friends  – BUT if he uses it, he is endorsing the kind of malicious use of technology that he has been fighting against (attacks on his own privacy). His ‘saviours’ are very much like the corporations that have endangered him in the first place. Doctorow ensures that his novel has no easy morals – no ‘hackers good, corporations bad’ dichotomies, but rather relies on his readers to determine their own morals and question the diversity of individuals who are conducting actions rather than trying to paint entire groups with one moral brush.

Doctorow doesn’t limit his ideas of moral ambiguity to personalities in the novel, he also explores the dualistic role of technology – no technology is, in itself, either good or bad, and technology that was used to support the 1% and their abuse of power can be reworked, changed, and re-purposed to help to expose those abuses of power. UAVs, although used to spy on protestors and reveal their positions to police can also be used to take areal photos of the group to expose police bullying and abuses of power as well as to show ways for protestors to escape from police blockades. Doctorow illustrates that protestors have to be as willing and able to adapt, change, and modify their strategies as those in charge of the systems of oppression around them.

Homeland reminds readers that we can’t blame the system and give up our agency over what is happening in the world around us. Acts are being committed in our names, in the name of the public that we would not approve of. We have to take responsibility and do something.

To find out more about Cory Doctorow, you can visit his website at http://craphound.com/ . To find out more about Homeland, visit Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/homeland-1/CoryDoctorow .

Characters in Books Become Real in the Otherworld

A Review of Charles de Lint’s Spirits in the Wires
By Derek Newman-Stille

In his Spirits in the Wires, Charles de Lint expresses something that I have wished to be true since I was a child: that the characters that we read in books become real through our collective imagination. De Lint’s Otherworld and the In-Between, standing between our world and the Otherworld is made up of the spirits and beings of myth, legend, and religion in addition to discarded parts of the human imagination and manifestations of belief. Within this realm are fairies, manitou, gnomes, dwarves, characters from novels that human beings have read, and even the discarded shadow of the self (the part of ourselves that we cast off as we develop ideas about what we want ourselves to be and what we don’t).  There is something absolutely comforting about the idea that your belief in the characters you read about in books makes them manifest and real in another realm – that warm feeling that by reading about them, you are sustaining these characters, feeding them with imagination and that there are hundreds of lives inside of you being created and maintained by your love of literature.

Spirits in the Wires focusses around a wide group of characters both human and otherworldly, including a woman who was created by a website as a way of learning about the world outside of the web, and the discarded shadow self of an author and preserver of urban myth. The internet itself has become a place that creates spirits from the imaginings of human beings, creating worlds between the wires, between computer systems. De Lint focusses on the Wordwood, an internet site that has been featured in several of de Lint’s books that was a repository for books and information which eventually gained sentience through the volume of stories running through it. The hodgepodge of stories, myths, and tales running through the Wordwood had a capacity to breathe life into it, grant it consciousness and personality as well as magic, which courses through the site.

Charles de Lint has often described the place of magic as a place in-between, to the corner, at the edge, and the internet is a logical place of magic, existing between computers in an ether of signals and wires. He disrupts the binary that often separates the magical from the technological, creating a story where the two interact, reinforce each other, and in doing so creates a new mythology for the cyber age.

Despite their separation from the human experience, there is something fundamentally human about the spirits that de Lint creates. They are figures in constant identity crises, trying to find out who they are and how their pasts have been formative in creating them. Saskia is a woman who suddenly appears with no tangible background, knowing things only as facts and not as direct experience. She is a creation of the Wordwood site, and has to face whether she is a simulacrum of humanity or if there is something intrinsically her about her existence. She is simultaneously self and stranger on the cusp between knowing herself and finding every experience new and challenging to her identity. Christianna, the discarded shadow self of urban fantasy author Christy, cast away in his youth, is forced to come to terms with her identity as a distinct being, trying to find herself while surrounded by the baggage of being a cast-off, abandoned. She explores whether there is something about her that is separate from Christy and whether there is value in her own existence. Even characters from books who have gained sentience and lives of their own separate from the novel that created them have identity issues, experiencing a grudge toward the authorial parents that created them from their imaginations. De Lint questions the nature of personhood and asks readers to look at whether origin is as significant in identity formation as we tend to think – whether we are created from the discarded parts of another person, manifest through a website’s desire to experience the world, a character from someone else’s imagination does that origin define us, or are we defined by what we do after we are conceived of?

De Lint asks the fundamental question that underlies a great deal of human experience: who am I? And, as a good author does, he doesn’t provide readers with an answer, but allows them to ponder what defined us, how we create ourselves, and what creates identity.

Spirits in the Wires is a novel about identity and self discovery, and particularly the power of a community to help in the process of identity development. Characters in this novel help each other to discover what is fundamentally separate and unique about them, and characters find some keys to their identity (though not an answer to this question that cannot be answered) in the process of a mythic quest. He reminds us that it often takes those around us to show us that we are unique and that we are fundamentally different from the primordial ooze that manifested us.

You can explore more about Charles de Lint and Spirits in the Wires at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/