It’s the End Of The World As We Know It, and I Feel Speculative

A review of OnSpec #90, Vol 24, No. 3 Fall 2012 Apocalypse Special Issue.

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

By Derek Newman-Stille

On Spec, with their combination of SF stories and non-fiction SF essays and interviews, never fails to be entertaining, but the special issue on the apocalypse was even more fantastic than most. It was as thought-provoking as it was entertaining, reminding readers of their own culpability in creating the potential for a destroyed world as well as their responsibility for making the world a better place.

The layout of the volume was, itself, fascinating and had the ability to draw the reader in on multiple levels. This was most in evidence by the interweaving of Kevin Cockle’s “Timeline” (a recounting of some of the history of economic theory as well as a postulation on the future of economic policy and where this will lead) throughout various narratives – every few pages, elements of Cockle’s timeline would appear at the bottom of the page, threading itself through the overall narrative of the On Spec volume and tying stories together.

As a disability scholar who does work in fantastic fiction, I was particularly taken with Camille Alexa’s story “All Them Pretty Babies”, which challenged social ideas of beauty in the post-apocalyptic future. Unlike many authors who revel in the horror of the different body, who present the “deformed” body as something that should evoke shock and disgust, Camille Alexa puts the reader into the position of her narrator, Esme, who collects babies that have been mutated by bio weapons that have damaged the future. Esme is an incredible character, able to see the beauty of diversity, seeing disability and difference as markers of beautiful bodies. She defines beauty as difference from the mundane normalcy of the human body that is preferred by most of society – Esme sees beauty in extra eyes, legs, arms, and conjoined bodies. She is dismayed that she is so boring, with only two legs, two arms, and two eyes: “Bonita’s so pretty, she probably never walk. Not even walk like New Mama, who hunch over cane and hobble like on third leg – though she’s not that pretty, what with her having only two like most” (6).

Despite the human race suffering because there are too few human beings remaining after the bombing, the people of the future preserved cities are abandoning children that they view as deformed, trying to stick to an ideal of what the “normal” human being should be.  People in haz mat suits come out to the destroyed fields to leave babies to die because of their biological difference, while worrying about the future of human fertility. Esme and her group go through the fields to rescue these abandoned children of a humanity that fears biological difference, telling these children how beautiful they are for their diversity from bodily norms. Esme and her group of abandoned children are trying to make the world outside of the city livable again while the city-dwellers consistently deny the changes that they have wrought. The city dwellers waste human life because the life forms they encounter don’t conform to their notions of beauty.

Camille Alexa provides a commentary on the ableist (able-bodied centred) world that we currently live in. She creates an exaggerated ableist future to point to issues regarding biological diversity and disability in our current world. Disabilities are made more prevalent and occurring more often, and people with disabilities face even more discrimination – having their lives and rights taken away completely rather than facing the likelihood of facing a life of reduced rights, government control, and the medicalised body. Her future population tries to euthanize functioning human bodies because they differ from a socially determined norm and they justify these actions as humanitarian because they cannot imagine people living with diverse bodies. Rather than shifting their own notions of what is bodily acceptable, they eliminate difference and further regulate and control the body.

Ideas of the danger of birth continue into Daniel LeMoal’s short story “Destroyer”, where small elements of future populations have developed the ability to project dreams into the minds of others. When a child begins to show an increased ability to control the minds around him, he is seen as a biological threat. Like Camille Alexa’s story, this apocalyptic narrative focusses on the danger embodied in the future – represented by children. Apocalyptic narratives are fundamentally about the future, and, therefore tales about children and the potential embodied in future generations brings attention to the impact we have on the future of the world.

Karl Johanson’s “Frats and Cheers” is probably the most terrifying narrative in this volume for me since it shows a future population that is so inundated with media manipulation that it has lost the ability to think for itself. His population is terrifying because it shows a magnification of the modern disinterest in challenging and questioning messages. His future population enjoys reality T.V. more than the actual reality of the world around them, and actively avoids interest in world affairs, while being content to have their messages fed to them. This is a narrative of the dangers of apocalyptic stupidity – truly terrifying.

Timothy Gerwing plays with ideas of religious apocalypse narratives and portrays a future that is visited by an avenging angel in his “Hog-Killing Weather”. Gerwing turns religious apocalyptic narratives on their end by creating an angel who punishes religious zealots as much as any others who show a fundamental inhumanity.

Al Onia, also playing with religious narratives of the apocalypse, presents us with four horsemen who are gathered together to fight the four horsemen of the apocalypse in “Knights Exemplar”. Despite their desire to save the world around them, they are subject to the social fear and hatred of outsiders that becomes magnified in times of crisis.

Douglas Smith’s “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” creates a different kind of religious narrative of the apocalypse when he presents the embodiment of Chaos and Order and their child, the Walker, who is seeking balance between these forces. Reality is crumbling as Order and Chaos seek to maintain their old status quo and prevent new changes in the world. This is a tale of epic love when a mortal gets caught between a battle of the gods. Smith reminds us that we have the potential to change the world around us and that self-sacrifice can be a means of making the world around us better.

Leslie Brown’s “Mesa at the Edge of the World” portrays a future in which the government has provided a method of euthanasia for any who want to commit suicide. Rather than putting funding into health care and psychological care programmes, the government has shown a willingness to ship people who seek suicide out into the desert so that they can hurl themselves into a vortex. Brown illustrates the treatment of people with psychological disabilities as disposable objects and inconveniences.

The apocalyptic narratives in this On Spec issue are not ones of futility, hopelessness, or loss, but are rather reminders of the importance of continuing a battle for social justice and a reminder that we have the potential to change the world around us, to fight the apocalypses that we continually create around us.

You can explore On Spec at their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ and pick up a copy of this apocalyptic issue since the world didn’t end after all. Thank goodness you will have enough time to read this before the next apocalypse comes along.

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Eldritch Summonings from the World of the Unconventional

A Review of Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth Edited by Duane Burry, Vincent Mackay, and Alexander Newcombe (Here be Monsters Speculative Fiction issue seven, September, 2012)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth is the first of the Here Be Monsters anthologies that I have read, and I am extremely impressed with the quality of work in this volume. It is great to see that an epic battle for which stories should be included in the volume, that, according to the editors involved “fighting with tooth, tentacle and claw… eldritch summonings [and] chaos magic” still proves its effectiveness in producing an incredible volume of speculative fiction – the old methods still produce incredible results.

The magical and monstrous suffuses every page of this volume, summoning the reader’s attention and passions. The stories in this volume question reader pre-conceptions, encouraging them on their own adventure into the darkness of their own subconscious to find the root of their social confinement and dig it up.

The volume itself becomes like a body of text or a textual body, laying out each section with a depiction of the body, illustrating that horrors come not from without, but from within.

Claude Lalumiere’s short story The Ministry of Sacred Affairs evokes the threat of a society that demonises others, a society where fear prevents any form of inquiry or debate and supporting the supernatural is viewed as a terrorist threat. Goblins and golems become figures that question the status-quo and shake up a society that has become complacent in its fear of others.

Numbered by Duane Burry continues the theme of questioning social fears. When communication technology is discovered that allows for interplanetary conversations and connections with aliens from other worlds, instead of viewing it as a method of discovery, it is perceived as a militaristic threat. Humans, unable to travel to the stars, are able to speak to other civilisations, talk to people from distant worlds who have foreign experiences and knowledge to share, but in a universe of fear, all they share are threats of war and questions about possible dangers. It is not the silent vastness of space that cuts off interplanetary voices, but the vast terror of the sentient mind and the secrecy that terror imposes.

Karl Johanson’s The Airlock Scene illustrates a different danger with encountering new worlds: beauraucracy and the need to perform for an audience at the expense of the adventure of exploring a new environment. Johanson portrays the need of scientific minds to mediocritise the fantastic through their pedantic ego battles. Like Burry’s story, Johanson’s is about political issues interfering with the sense of wonder the pervades exploration.

Universal questions are turned domestic in Amy Bright’s Private Transit where the monstrosity of domestic assault is displayed and one can see that abuse is as alienating as any landscape from space, causing the victim to lose all pieces of themselves to feed the monstrous abuser.

Pickle’s Story by Alexander Newcombe reveals the power of myth and legend as well as the bond that can develop between the human and the animal. Newcombe shows the power that gossip and tales can have in creating a reputation, and the power of a thief who wields lies to create his own mythology.

Tarquin Steiner evokes nostalgia in his story Cobbled by modeling it after a text-based computer game.

Camille Alexa casts us back into space in her Children of the Device where, despite being the fifth generation of inhabitants on a colony ship escaping from a doomed Earth, our traditions continue from New Year’s resolutions to war and greed.

Tyler MacFarlane brings the search for identity and the inescapability of ourselves back to the Earth in his Antennae. MacFarlane illustrates that despite the desire for a distraction, the next new thing, we always are brought back to ourselves.

We are reminded that we can’t escape from ourselves again in Carl Roloff’s If Not the Moon, Then the Exquisite Sun where humanity faces the destruction of the Earth by our own sun, and, in an attempt to save something about the human experience, decides to transmute the remaining human beings into crystals – converting individual human thoughts and experience into art that will reflect the burst of the sun into the universe. But Roloff reminds readers that eternity is an experience that is alien to humanity and transcendence is a form of loss itself.

Where Carl Roloff presents the mind as a form of escape and transcendence, Vincent Mackay’s Brain Freeze warns readers of the dangers of technologies of the mind. The mind becomes something that can be used for terrorism and war, converted into supermindbombs that can only be decoded through a process that seems equal parts psychology and computer programming. The Earth’s surface has been made uninhabitable by a field that requires inhabitants to control their own thoughts to the point at which they become insane. Thought becomes a weapon.

Thought is further explored as a vehicle for terror in Sterrennacht by Cat McDonald as art itself becomes a place where kidnap victims and stolen items can be stored. McDonald explores the idea of a world where people can enter into paintings and the terrifying effects of experiencing impressionist art from the inside. Van Gogh has never been so absorbing as McDonald explores the physical, auditory, and other sensory experiences of being totally enmeshed in the world of art. But art has an effect on those who experience it, and the danger of art is that it can consume you.

Ann Ewan explores the loss of humanity in a different way, through literal consumption by an ogre. In Ogre Baby, human beings are infected with ogreness (through ogre mud placed in the body of dead human beings) as a means for the ogres to reproduce. They depend on human beings as an infusion into their own tribe, as a way of expanding their numbers. The familiarity and difference of the human being and the ogre horrifies both species and, in the ogre, excites a deep hunger that may stem from their need to be partially human, to incorporate humanity into their monstrous form.

The body further fascinates Rich Larson in his Strings. The body becomes a marketable commodity, and re-shaped for sexuality. It is divorced of its thoughts so it can become a vessel for sexual pleasure, conveying the notion that as a society we tend to look at bodies in isolation, separate from their fundamental humanity.

Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth is as much a voyage into the self as it is a voyage into the realm of the Other. Like the monster itself, the pages of this volume are dark mirrors reflecting all of the hidden things we like to forget. It is a volume that is fundamentally about the search for a deifining feature of our humanity, the fear of a loss of our humanity, and the dangers that are presented in the human spirit.

To find out more about this volume of Here Be Monsters and other volumes in the series, visit their website at http://herebemonstersanthology.blogspot.ca/