“He liked to read the ones that nobody came for; he didn’t understand all of what they said, but he read them just in case. He liked the way they made the world tilt different ways in his vision.”
-Leah Bobet – Above (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)
“He liked to read the ones that nobody came for; he didn’t understand all of what they said, but he read them just in case. He liked the way they made the world tilt different ways in his vision.”
-Leah Bobet – Above (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)
How many spaceships are wheelchair accessible? Do office buildings create light shielding for the undead who might be singed by solar exposure? Can my guide dog be a werewolf? Does one need to simply WALK into Mordor… or can one wheel in instead? SF has an interest in the body, whether it is the augmented body of sci fi, the body horror of the gothic, or the magically altered body of fantasy, and it is worth looking at the way disabilities are portrayed in Canadian SF.
Speculative fiction often explores the figure of the outsider, particularly the body that differs from the norm, and people with disabilities are often the subject of interest by SF authors. SF readings of the disabled body often speak to the way that disabled people are ‘read’ in our world and our time. This episode examines the interest in bodily difference and in treatments of the disabled body that can be either empowering or intensely problematic.
Among the positive portrayals of disability in Canadian SF that are discussed, we take a look at
Tanya Huff’s Blood Books
James Alan Gardner’s Expendable
Leah Bobet’s Above
Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy
Sparkle Hayter’s Naked Brunch
Click on the icon below to hear the full radio programme.
This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.
Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.
I have exciting news – Speculating Canada has made the short list for the Prix Aurora Awards. I am excited to see that Speculating Canada has made such an impact and that people are excited about the unique way that Spec Can explores Canadian SF.
I want to thank everyone who has participated in various ways in shaping Speculating Canada into what it is today. Speculating Canada has been very collaborative, growing out of the support, encouragement, and suggestions of readers. I have been very lucky to have very incredible Canadian SF authors and publishers take interest in Spec Can and am fortunate that so many of them have sent me books to review that I would not have otherwise encountered. I also want to thank all of those who I have interviewed for their incredible insights, general brilliance, and for giving me the exciting experience of chatting with them about things that I am really passionate about.
Here is the Short List for the Prix Aurora Awards:
I am excited to say that a few of the authors on the short list are people that I consider to be friends and that there are several works that Speculating Canada has reviewed this year that have made the short list. Here are a few links to reviews of items on the Prix Aurora Awards short list:
Karen Dudley’s Food For The Gods
Chadwick Ginther’s Thunder Road
Leah Bobet’s Above
Douglas Smith’s The Walker of the Shifting Borderland
Sandra Kasturi and Halli Villegas’ Imaginarium 2012
Helen Marhsall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side
Thank you all for your continued support. I am so pleased that Speculating Canada has allowed me to connect with so many amazing and brilliant people.
Although as a society, we often create an impenetrable barrier between the arts and sciences, seeing each as separate and distinct from one another, these barriers are historically created and are social inventions. The origin of science is through philosophy, remember. Science Fiction (or more widely, Speculative Fiction) is one of the arenas where there are still obvious bridges between the arts and sciences – being a production of artistic endeavor, but also dealing with ideas coming out of technology and sciences.
Several Canadian SF authors including Julie Czerneda, Scott Fotheringham, and Nina Munteanu have operated in the field of science, noticing the opportunity that SF provides to explore critical questions around science. Czerneda has even used science fiction as a mechanism for teaching students about science, allowing them to play out scientific ideas in a science fictional setting.
SF allows authors to explore the social implications of science, the social contexts and ideological underpinnings that accompany scientific endeavors. SF explores the social ramifications of scientific ideas and developments, exploring what could happen, where things could go, what social issues could develop in correspondence with technological invention, seeing the sociocultural aspect of science rather than viewing scientific ideology as separate from the social sphere and divorced from its ideological implications. SF can provide a critical lens to scientific pursuits, providing writers and readers the opportunity to insert the deeper questions into scientific explorations: asking “Why?”, “What happens if…?”, and “What could come from this?”.
So often, scientists are wrapped up in the act of invention, in the process of discovery, that they ignore what the implications of their research could be, how it could be used (and for whom), and how it could be made to serve purposes for which it was not intended. The research for research’s sake mentality sometimes cultivates an ideology that ignores social implications. SF can provide social warnings about where things could go, bringing ideas back into the world and seeing how they could play out within a political, societal sphere.
SF often displays scientific ideas magnified, extremified, exaggerated to illustrate possible implications, highlighting the dangers as well as the potentialities that could be embodied in the process of discovery, and the hazardous places that society could take scientific invention to. SF can be a place to explore moral issues in relation to technology – what are the implications of invention? How will inventions shift our consciousness and the way we view the world? Will we still capture what is fundamentally human if we switch our basic behaviours, our patterns of thought, or even our bodies themselves?
Writers can use SF as a medium for exploring whether the social or the technological will be a greater mechanism of change. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence explores whether social change or technological change will be the thing that will deter the destruction of our natural environment and deal with the development of pollutants. Will we be able to shift our way of thinking about the world to be more ecologically safe, or will we once again try to rely on a technological invention to solve our problems?
SF can illustrate the limits of science to repair our social problems. We tend, as a society, to put a lot of faith in the idea that science will solve our problems, whether they be environmental (as illustrated by our trend to introduce new species into ecosystems as an attempt to control those ecosystems) or medical (believing that the medical profession can solve our bodily ills).We often take science as a given solution, as an ideology founded in concepts of “Truth”, rather than a set of theories that is open to challenge and is historically contingent (formed from a specific line of thought that has developed over time). SF provides a space to question the unquestioned authority of science and our social belief that science can solve our world’s ills.
One of the fora of scientific exploration that SF has been doing a great job of critiquing is the field of medicine, and, particularly, the ideologies that are created from viewing the body mechanically (as something that can be fixed through forced normalisation). One of the areas that is most affected by the medicalised ‘normalcy’ forced on bodies is the area of diverse bodies, and people with disabilities, who are often subjected to painful procedures in an attempt to normalise their bodies rather than shifting social ideologies to allow for more diversity and more accessible spaces for diverse bodies. Leah Bobet does a great job of critiquing the medicalised body in her YA novel Above, where she presents readers with a group of individuals who are mutated or bodily different in certain ways (either with crab arms, the ability to transform into a bee, lion feet, or the ability to speak to ghosts) who have escaped from medical facilities that broke their feet, cut off their arms, and subjected them to harsh medical drugs in order to force their bodies to resemble the human ‘norms’. These people created a community called “Safe”, a place of safety away from the “Whitecoats” (doctors, scientists, psychiatrists, and other medical practitioners). The ideas of healing used by the Whitecoats were shaped by the idea that only certain bodies are normal, and any others are threatening and would be changed (even in painful and destructive ways) to represent that norm.
Camille Alexa, in her short story “All Them Pretty Babies” (from OnSpec Vol 24, No 3) takes this idea even further, presenting a future in which the population is limited, and yet, the society that is fighting for its own survival is still willing to cast out those who are bodily different, those mutations that threaten ideas of the normal. Scientists cast bodies out into areas of intense radiation while they try to preserve their ideas of what is and should be human, allowing anyone who deviates from that idea of humanity to rot in radioactive woods.
In Sparkle Hayter’s naked brunch, a doctor tries to medicalise the werewolf. Rather than accepting it as a figure of legend, he ascribes a disease to this different body: “Lycanthropoic Metamorphic Disorder”. He treats these medically diverse bodies as threatening, trying to force the werewolves to pass as human, subjecting them to harsh treatments that lead to chemical addictions and often death in an attempt to have them be more like ‘normal’, ‘regular’ human beings. He and his society deny the possibility that diverse bodies are useful and even necessary in a social system, that this diversity can be healthy.
Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake illustrates the extremes of danger that could be involved in the economicisation of medical technology. Her future is one in which pharmaceutical companies have solved all of the medical problems, but periodically release viral epidemics to spur the social need to buy more advanced cures and spend more money on medical advances to fuel the pharmaceutical industry. She shadows the issues we see in our society now where a great deal is medically possible, but the access to that medical technology is often restricted by wealth, and where often research is focussed on treatment (which is a greater long term investment) than on cures.
Canadian SF can also point out our reliance on technology. Joseph Macchiusi’s The Betelgeuse Oracle shows a world after the release of a massive EM pulse and the challenges of a world without technology. Urban spaces become deserts cut off from the modes of production, and characters have to adapt to a world that is different from the one that suffused their existence since birth. One character is so dependent on his connection to technology and particularly to communications technology and the need to be connected that he carries his dead cell phone everywhere with him and spends precious moments alternating batteries to try to re-activate it. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence illustrates the world’s reliance on plastic and the social breakdowns that occur when plastic is removed from our society.
One of the issues with science is that it often limits things into easy (and uncritical) categories (such as binary notions of gender), and good Canadian SF complicates these theories, disrupts this boundaries and categories and shows the complexity of the issues involved. It questions the foundations of categorization altogether.
SF doesn’t just critique scientific endeavours, SF also provides the opportunity for creative thought. So often people become limited in their outlook, navel-gazing within their own field and looking only at what is currently possible instead of what is impossible. Often it is in the sphere of the impossible where new ideas are found, new visions of things, and new ways of considering things outside of what is ‘normal’. Reading and writing SF allows for the development of insights into the impossible, the places of new innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.
SF explores the “what ifs” that are the foundation of scientific hypothesis building.
Science and SF can provide a powerful conversation with each other, changing, questioning, and challenging each other.
Here are some points that SF authors have raised about Science in their Interviews on Speculating Canada:
Scott Fotheringham: I wanted to use what I had learned of biology to perform a thought experiment: What would happen if plastic began to disappear? Because
that probably won’t happen because we choose to make it happen, I wondered if organisms could digest plastic.
Scott Fotheringham: “much of science is goal-driven or product-driven. Scientists create things that are worth a lot of money but have little social value or actually harm us.”
Scott Fothertingham: “The questions I’d like to see asked – particularly by the scientists themselves – are, What value does the work I’m doing have to society? How will this be used and, if it has potential for harm, should we pursue the research at all? So often scientists shrug their shoulders and say it’s not up to them how their inventions and discoveries are employed. This is a grievous abdication of their responsibility.”
Scott Fotheringham: “Right now our intention is to use technology to make money. Only if that changes will we able to work to heal what we’ve wrought.”
Scott Fotheringham: “Reading gives us insight into how other people view the world. If all I had was my experience, and that didn’t include reading, my view of how the world works would be narrower than it is.“
Julie Czerneda: “From the beginning, to me, biology and science fiction differed in degree, not substance. Biology filled me with wonder and curiosity. All science
does. The universe does. Reading science fiction did that. Writing it? Ah, there was the legal, moral, and fun way to answer my own questions.”
Julie Czerneda: “what I write, the stories I tell, come from what interests me. So there are cool real bits of biology everywhere in my stuff. I couldn’t make up the weirdness of real life.”
Julie Czerneda: “Because nothing lives in isolation, an ecological approach gives a writer the opportunity to fit the puzzle together. To have alternative points of view and unintended consequences. All the intricate and messy ways things happen.”
Julie Czerneda: “The more the merrier! Or, in the case of living things, the more stable and resilient the community. It’s interactions that interest me. The interface between any two or more creatures is full of change and adaptation and lovely icky bits. In storytelling — and real life — I’d rather toss a problem at a group of people (or whatever I have in mind at the moment) who’ll each have a different approach to a solution, if they see it as a problem at all.”
Julie Czerneda: “I believe, passionately, that science fictional thinking is a crucial survival skill. We all need to ask questions, to speculate about possible consequences in an imaginative, yet as close to real fashion as possible, and to become able to assess incoming information in a critical, not cynical manner. Imagination is of immense use, too often undervalued. We who live and breath SF rarely appreciate what a strong and active muscle our minds have developed. I’d like everyone to have the same advantage. To ride society’s changes, rather than be swept away. To decide where and how technology best fits our needs, before it’s in our homes.”
Julie Czerneda: “I’ve had success using science fiction with students to get them “talking science.” SF provides useful vocabulary, presented in context. Story dialogue gives examples of conversations centred about science as something immediately important to the characters.“
Julie Czerneda: “I’ve also worked with a professor who, for many years now, has used science fiction as an integral part of his first year astronomy course. Students take what they’ve learned about the science and apply it to alien world-building as an SF writer would do it. I’m proud to say this class has been using Beholder’s Eye (my second novel) as part of this process.”
Julie Czerneda: “We need people who can bring science to life, who can clearly express complex ideas in meaningful ways to a varied audience. SF? Does it all the time.”
Julie Czerneda: “What we can’t imagine, we can’t create, so there’s one. What we can’t imagine, we can’t prepare against or for, so that’s another. Imagination is essential to our survival, as individuals and as a species, and has been for eons. The sad thing is that it can atrophy from lack of use or be stunted by those who’ve lost their own. The best? The more it’s used, the stronger it becomes.”
Julie Czerneda: “What technology is to science, I suspect curiosity is to imagination.”
Julie Czerneda: “I take pleasure and pride in what makes science fiction a speculation about the real world, by asking that one “what if …” then building a story framework that lets me play with an answer, while keeping as much of what we know factual and true to life. I’ve no problem inviting a reader to play along with FTL and aliens, but I won’t mess with anything more and there’s always a science question at the heart of my plot. What if life evolved this way or that? How might biological imperatives affect technological civilizations? Who might we become in the future? What cost is too high or risk too great, when manipulating genetics? I love how science fiction gives me insight into these and any other questions I might have.
Karl Schroeder: “We spend much of our lives programming ourselves to react automatically rather than to think. It’s faster, costs less energy. Part of that process involves the ossification of our basic categories: man/woman, human/nonhuman. SF deliberately blurs these categories in order to almost literally wake us up. It’s strangemaking, which is a very valuable capacity, especially in the present situation when the world needs innovative new solutions to some pretty dire problems. It’s not that SF presents, or even can present, the solutions to big issues like global warming or global poverty; it’s that it helps educate us in the kind of thinking that can lead to them.”
Karl Schroeder: “Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator. It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories… They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking.”
Karl Schroeder: “There’s lots of technologies that are flashy, or might have this or that big effect on the world. Nuclear fusion, augmented reality, nanotech… yeah, they’re all great. But we don’t need them. There’s only one development that we need at this point in our history: better methods and systems for decision-making, both individual and collective.”
Karl Schroeder: “We have all the technologies—all the tools and capabilities and understandings—to create a Utopia on Earth now. We can absolutely solve the problem of global warming, for instance; we even know how to reverse it with technologies we currently possess. What’s become abundantly clear in the past couple of decades is that the only thing we lack is the ability to make, and follow-through on, the right decisions. So much of my work right now is dedicated to asking what we need to do to get to such capabilities.”
Karl Schroeder: “Do you imagine or write a future where anything is possible except the invention of prostheses to compensate for the inadequacies of human decision-making? Does your worldbuilding encompass universes with star flight, robots and nanotech—yet accept royalty, corporations and bureaucracies as inevitable?”
Nina Munteanu: “The literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and
imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”
Nina Munteanu: “Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”: “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”
Nina Munteanu: “Both ecology and science fiction explore consequence in a big way.”
Nina Munteanu: “My ecological interests and experiences have influenced my writing in every way: in providing me with ideas, in world-building, and in the interactive fractal nature of plot, theme, character and premise. For me, the two are intertwined. Writing science fiction has opened the doors of creative problem solving in my scientific pursuits; and my science has opened windows of possibilities in my writing. It’s a win-win situation, really.”
Nina Munteanu: “Most science and technology presents itself in literature through premise or plot, which influence various characters in their life journeys. Ecology—like setting—manifests and integrates itself more in theme. This is because, while most of the hard sciences study the nature and behavior of “phenomena”, ecology studies the consequences of the relationship of these phenomena and the impact of their behaviors on each other and the rest of the “world”.”
Nina Munteanu: “Environmental issues are largely a global phenomenon—concerns like water quality and quantity, air pollution, resource acquisition, allocation and sharing, wildlife extinction, etc. Science fiction is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind; it can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity….The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premise based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”) to dystopias (e.g., Huxley’s “Brave New World”).
Jerome Stueart: “Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale
societal consequences. I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.”
Jerome Stueart: ““I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom…. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like. What do they WANT society to be like? And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us? Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely. “
Jerome Stueart: “I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable. We get in our ruts. If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it. LOL. But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.
Jerome Stueart: “Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens. SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems. Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society. It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.”
Jerome Stueart: “I think the current problems with getting the world to understand climate change is directly related to an inability to speculate—or see the future from the evidence you have. Society has equipped scientists to extrapolate from their research, but we don’t take their recommendations because we don’t trust science anymore, or intelligence. Unless the majority of the population respects knowledge, has a healthy speculative mind, they can’t see consequences.”
Douglas Smith: “If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue.”
“People unite against things. People fight when they’re scared and threatened, not to change, not for the future. They get it wrong in the other Tales. People don’t fight for heroes: They fight for the monsters. For fear of the monsters in the dark.”
-Leah Bobet – Above (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)
An interview with Leah Bobet by Derek Newman-Stille
I was fortunate enough to meet Leah Bobet at CAN CON: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature in Ottawa this past year. We had a brief chat about SF and inclusivity, and I got back in touch with her again after reading her novel Above, which I was excited about because it dealt with disability (the focus of my research). I was very excited when Leah Bobet agreed to do an interview here on Speculating Canada so I could share some of her insights with readers.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
Leah Bobet: Hmm. It’s always a tricky thing to decide what’s interesting about oneself.
I’m a writer and editor, and also work as a bookseller at Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s oldest speculative fiction bookstore. I run Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a quarterly webzine, and write for Shadow Unit, a project that’s best described as fanfic for a TV show that never existed, alongside Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Amanda Downum, Holly Black, and Chelsea Polk.
Before going to full-time writing, though, I worked as a non-partisan staffer at Queen’s Park, and so local politics – and local activism — are something of a passion: I’m on the board of Women in Toronto Politics, a tiny brand-new non-profit that works to help more women access City Hall and build the communities they want to live in, and I’m going to be working on Toronto’s brand new pedestrian advocacy organization. I’m also deeply into urban agriculture and supporting local food, and spend a lot of my summer working with groups that glean downtown fruit trees or plant gardens in public spaces.
Otherwise, I do a lot of reading; I see a lot of small indie bands in smaller spaces; take wandering, exploratory walks; look for the perfect Eggs Benedict; and make bad puns about Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Spec Can: Above was a novel about discrimination. What types of discrimination were you thinking of when writing this? What social plights influenced this story’s discourse on discrimination?
Leah Bobet: I was thinking, mostly, about intersectionality: How we can be legitimately marginalized because of one aspect of who we are, and legitimately marginalizing someone else because of another facet. Every single character in the book has that dual role, because that’s life; that’s how people are and can be.
Some of that comes out of my own background. I grew up in a minority culture, PTSD everyone-will-genocide-you tics and all, but in such a homogenous neighbourhood that I never really felt that social difference until I was an adult with a strong sense of my own power. It was a slightly weird way to grow up, and made cultural politics both complicated and fascinating: People I cared about acted in ways that to my mind were horrifying, racist, and amoral, but to them were self-defense, because having been victimized so badly meant whatever steps you took were justified. And there was no communicating one side to the other. The context gap was just too great.
So I wanted to talk about that: the damage that our damage does, and how on earth one strikes a balance between recognizing what one’s suffered and perpetuating it on someone else.
One of the other focuses was disability: both physical disability and mental illness. And that came about partially because of my own dissatisfaction with the official line on mental illness, and because of a friend, who’s mobility-impaired, speaking about how stories about kids in wheelchairs always had them sidelined as assistants to the nice, smiling, able heroes. So one of the goals I had for Above was to write a story where disabled people were the heroes and the able people got to die tragically for their cause. It felt like a thing worth doing, and it turned out that it was.
Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in helping people to question their biases?
Leah Bobet: There is a stock reply to this question: about metaphor, and removing present concerns from their context to sneakily teach people lessons from other angles. Rocketship angles! With space morals! But it’s not an answer I tend to believe in, and not one I can really give.
I think the role of speculative fiction in confronting bias depends very strongly on the reader, the book, and whether they’re ready for each other on the day they meet.
Books have made me question my biases and move past them, or never develop certain noxious ones. In fact, the best reviews I’ve heard for Above were the ones where people said, “This made me want to do something.” But that doesn’t fool me into thinking speculative fiction has some sort of special magic that readers of other genres – or TV-watchers, or gamers – will never access. That’s, ironically, a bias that speculative fiction readers have – one that feeds into our ideas of ourselves as more enlightened, better, and smarter, and misses the fact that of course speculative work will reach readers like us better than other kinds. Because otherwise we wouldn’t be reading speculative fiction in the first place. We’d be face-first into a detective book and never pick up SFF to start with – and we’d be having conversations about our biases in the tropes of detective fiction.
Reading, to me, is a dialogue. It’s a conversation between the ideas in the book and the ideas in the reader’s head, and then you see how well they meet in the middle. Sometimes the reader’s not in a place where they’re ready to be receptive to a book’s point. Sometimes what the book’s saying is just old news to that reader (good example: I tend to appreciate early feminist SFF, but a lot of it feels like someone trying to convince me the sky is blue. Generational context. Go figure.) Sometimes book and reader just legitimately disagree. And that’s true of all novels, all genres, and all forms of telling people a story – speculative or not. The only thing we can really do, as readers, is read widely and with open minds.
Spec Can: Your novel Above brings critical attention to scientists and, particularly to medical practitioners (the Whitecoats in the novel). What questions were you hoping your readers would ask about medical practices and the cultural ideas underlying them?
Leah Bobet: Actually, in terms of the Whitecoats and Dr. Marybeth’s balancing role, I was hoping people would treat that question of medical practices thoughtfully – just like everything else in Above – and consider what our treatment of mental illness and disability mean in terms that aren’t black and white.
Like anyone else, the medical practitioners in Above are people: a mixture of good and bad personalities and ideas. And like everything else, who’s good or bad depends on who’s telling the story. The type of person who would prefer to live in a roughed-out underground cavern rather than in bad circumstances that still include heating and flush toilets just…they didn’t seem like they’d have kind things to say about the medical profession. And so Safe has the concept of Whitecoats. And that’s less about me getting a particular message across than trying to create those characters logically, and build a culture that was true to how they’d feel – and then explore the consequences of that culture on their children.
Spec Can: Above focusses on the narration of Matthew, the Teller for the community called “Safe”. His role is primarily to tell stories of the community. What role do you see stories having in creating a community? How can the telling of the past form a sense of shared history?
Leah Bobet: I think stories basically are the defining factor of a community. Identity’s a funny thing: We tell stories about ourselves (and others, and that’s where we get stereotyping), and when we compare those stories and they come up the same, we decide we’re the same. Community is shared stories. Community splinters when our worldviews – the stories we tell about the world – get too far apart.
There are about a trillion examples of how giving people a narrative binds them together – the most obvious one being the US, where the patriotism story is so frequently hammered home and so prominent because (I think, sometimes) it’s so big and full of people who have nothing in common, period. That’s looking back to shared history every day: We did something together, we shared experience and values, and so we must be the same. It’s functionally a social hack. And it can really work to smooth out the tensions caused by present differences, until it doesn’t.
This is, in some ways, a very academic-linguistic perspective on communities, and how and why we form them (sorry; I trained as a linguist, and it’s in everything I do). The warmer, more optimistic side of that, though: It gives us the option of making our own communities. We can get together, with our shared experiences, and be social and understood and not be alone. And that’s kind of a wonderful gift for those of us who don’t fit well into the places we were born, and need to make new places; who need to make Safe.
Spec Can: In Above, the characters also raise the issue of history that is edited out, stories that are deleted and not spoken of. Canada has a bad history of removing people’s stories to benefit its own image. What stories do you feel we, as a society, are ignoring?
Leah Bobet: The stories I was thinking of when I wrote Above were First Nations stories; the loss of language, poverty, colonial barriers, high suicide rates, and general slow genocide going on in our cozy little first-world country. I was taking some classes that threw light onto those issues at the time: one on First Nations languages and language revitalization, and one on First Nations women’s modern literature. The Idle No More movement has brought a lot more attention to those stories in the last few months, and I’m really hoping it doesn’t die in the next news cycle. It’s too wrong, and it needs too much discussion, action, and righting.
But I was thinking about revisionist history in general: in relationships, in families as well as in nations. Many people have stories they just don’t tell, even to themselves. It’s always worth asking why.
As for stories we’re currently ignoring: I’m afraid I’m not the best person to ask. I’m aware that I live with a certain amount of advantages in my life, and that all kinds of things go on – experiences, injustices, needs, fears, loves – that I don’t see because of where and how I live. It’d be a better thing, I think, if we all talked to each other a little bit more; talked to people who are living poverty, disability, mental illness, racism, sexism, transphobia, and everything else – instead of asking the people who write about them. We don’t and shouldn’t need spokespeople that way. We should respect each other’s voices.
Spec Can: Trauma plays an important part in Above in the background of your characters and is important in forming their identities. Why is trauma such an essential part of this book?
Leah Bobet: Trauma’s a big player in Above mostly because of what I was interested in exploring: What we do to each other out of our own trauma, and where the limits of making room for trauma bump up against treating other people terribly. The discourse on trauma in North American society is…well, it’s reasonably new, and so maybe a bit awful. There’s not a lot of room between Walk it off! and treating trauma as a debilitating, central tragedy of one’s life; one that excuses everything after. And like most binaries, there’s a lot of discussion to be had about the experiences that live in the middle.
Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “Realist” fiction can’t?
Leah Bobet: Nothing. What a work of fiction can do depends on the author, the ideas, and how they use their tools.
Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian SF?
Leah Bobet: That’s, again, quite hard for me to say. Each individual author’s such a unique mix of their own influences, interests, and passions that I don’t know if the idea of national literatures can stay as it traditionally has: some notion of a geographical “character” that influences the stories we tell. Or some trait, like a genetic marker, that everyone we label as Canadian SF will have.
A few questions up, we talked about stories as community, and forming communities of choice instead of birth or geography. I think this might be an outgrowth of that ability: My friend who really identifies with Japanese shoujo tropes can write her Japanese-influenced near-future literary fiction. I can write my magical realist social justice and urban planning stories, with bonus! ruins and city gardening. We live in the same city. We’ve just gravitated to the stories that resonate with who we are, instead of telling stories and using tropes that are bounded by the place we were born.
Spec Can: Is there anything distinctly Canadian about the characters and settings you create?
Leah Bobet: Well, they are Canadian. That’s pretty much it: anything I consider a marker of Canadian literature in my own work – multicultural casts, quieter and smaller stories, that fixation with landscape as character – I’ve seen in works from other countries too, and it’s a somewhat narrow view of what Canadian fiction is and can do.
I’ve written characters and settings that were American, but I prefer to keep my stories above the border, just because this is home; it’s where my heart is.
Spec Can: What was it like to write about an intersexed character? What inspired you to write about an intersexed person?
Leah Bobet: It was on one level an intensely tricky experience – checking one’s assumptions and shorthands every step of the way, and I’m certain I still failed hir in a number of respects. But on another level, it was like writing any other character, because sie’s…just a person: one who lives, loves, hates, chooses, and makes some intensely bad decisions for reasons that are not entirely hir own fault. I made sure I wasn’t writing An Intersex Character™; that I was writing that person instead, at all times.
As for the inspiration: A friend of mine is a doctor, and back in her residency blogged privately about that experience, including delivering and dealing with the system around intersex children. It stuck as something intensely painful and unfair, to the children and families both. And so when I went to write a story about discrimination, the stories my friend told – and the issues around sex assignment within a week of birth – were at the top of my list to include.
Spec Can: What drew you to write Young Adult books? What can Speculative Fiction do for young people?
Leah Bobet: Me writing young adult books actually happened entirely by accident! When I wrote Above, it was in my mind an adult novel. It was only in having my agent point out that there was a coming-of-age arc, as well as a young protagonist, in Above that I even entertained the notion that it could be published as YA. I’m writing young adult deliberately now, on my current project, and it’s been a learning curve.
As for speculative fiction aimed at young adults, I don’t really feel like that concept needs to be sold to the public. Most of what young adults read – and always have – has been speculative fiction, for the cold business reason that there have not been, until recently, genre shelves in the YA section of the bookstore. Parents are generally content that young readers are reading, so YA books have always had a little more freedom to remix, blend, and use whatever genres they feel like. It’s only when we reach the adult sections of the bookstore that anyone cares to get into slapfights about whose genre can beat up whose.
Spec Can: How can Speculative Fiction authors bring more diversity into their work?
Leah Bobet: It’s a funny thing, that: Just do it.
Look at the characters you have in your work and ask how diverse they are. If the answer doesn’t satisfy you, well, think of all the ways people can be diverse in real life, and start getting that in there. Read fiction and non-fiction stories from and about diverse people: people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, people whose religion is different from yours. Think critically about them, and do some informed imagining of what the world’s like from their perspective. When you get evidence that your informed imagining isn’t all there yet, don’t get mad and give up; revise the model to be better and clearer. And then use that model as part of your storytelling kit.
But mostly? Just do it. Because a lot of hand-wringing goes on from writers who don’t feel themselves to be diverse about how on earth they will possibly write diverse fiction. And that hand-wringing can ultimately be a way of putting off the job: of deciding it’s too hard, the same way someone can be “researching” a novel for years and never write a word.
So do it. Commit yourself to thinking and learning. And then do it better next time.
Spec Can: How do ideas of the mythic influence your work? What mythologies speak to you?
Leah Bobet: Subtly, I think. I was a little nuts for the mythic when I was a kid – mostly Greek, Roman, and Inuit stories – because my childhood culture didn’t have a great sense of magic, and I wanted magic very badly. These days, though, there’s no separating the stories from the people; I’m a little too aware that “myth” is a word we use to describe dead cultural stories we’ve decided aren’t true, and I’m leery of it. It’s a little too much like talking smack about someone else’s family.
I’m most interested – and probably because of that unbreakable association of mythic stories with the people whose stories those are, to whom they’re precious – in writing work that explores how people interface with those stories. What do they mean to someone? What’s the interaction this person has between their here-and-now concerns and the ineffable, and how can those things be made to balance, if at all? Because they’re living stories, which means people live with them. I’m most curious as to how.
I want to thank Leah Bobet for her incredible insights and for her discussion of the importance of narratives in the development of community. It is always great to interview an author that also works in the realm of advocacy.
You can find out more about Leah Bobet and her current projects on her website at http://leahbobet.com/ .
I met Leah Bobet at CAN CON: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature in Ottawa this past year. After chatting with her about her work, I wanted to share some of her insights with readers. You will have a chance to hear from her about her involvement in politics, studies of intersectionality, advocacy, supporting local food initiatives, disability, and the need for self-narrativisation on Wednesday, March 20 . It is great to see an author who is also involved in advocacy work, and her SF writing has a role in advocating for further diversity.
In our interview, Leah Bobet discusses narratives of community, the dialogue between reader and writer and how this is influenced by their own experiences, trauma, writing people and not making characters into representatives of groups,
Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:
Leah Bobet: “Stories about kids in wheelchairs always had them sidelined as assistants to the nice, smiling, able heroes. So one of the goals I had for Above was to write a story where disabled people were the heroes and the able people got to die tragically for their cause.”
Leah Bobet: “I think the role of speculative fiction in confronting bias depends very strongly on the reader, the book, and whether they’re ready for each other on the day they meet.”
Leah Bobet: “Books have made me question my biases and move past them.”
Leah Bobet: “Reading, to me, is a dialogue. It’s a conversation between the ideas in the book and the ideas in the reader’s head, and then you see how well they meet in the middle.”
Leah Bobet: “I think stories basically are the defining factor of a community. Identity’s a funny thing: We tell stories about ourselves (and others, and that’s where we get stereotyping), and when we compare those stories and they come up the same, we decide we’re the same. Community is shared stories. Community splinters when our worldviews – the stories we tell about the world – get too far apart.”
Leah Bobet: “The stories I was thinking of when I wrote Above were First Nations stories; the loss of language, poverty, colonial barriers, high suicide rates, and general slow genocide going on in our cozy little first-world country….The Idle No More movement has brought a lot more attention to those stories in the last few months, and I’m really hoping it doesn’t die in the next news cycle. It’s too wrong, and it needs too much discussion, action, and righting.”
Leah Bobet: “Many people have stories they just don’t tell, even to themselves. It’s always worth asking why.”
Leah Bobet: “Each individual author’s such a unique mix of their own influences, interests, and passions that I don’t know if the idea of national literatures can stay as it traditionally has: some notion of a geographical “character” that influences the stories we tell.”
Leah Bobet: “We’ve just gravitated to the stories that resonate with who we are, instead of telling stories and using tropes that are bounded by the place we were born.”
Leah Bobet: “Me writing young adult books actually happened entirely by accident! When I wrote Above, it was in my mind an adult novel. It was only in having my agent point out that there was a coming-of-age arc, as well as a young protagonist, in Above that I even entertained the notion that it could be published as YA.”
Leah Bobet: “Read fiction and non-fiction stories from and about diverse people: people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, people whose religion is different from yours. Think critically about them, and do some informed imagining of what the world’s like from their perspective.”
Leah Bobet: “I was a little nuts for the mythic when I was a kid – mostly Greek, Roman, and Inuit stories – because my childhood culture didn’t have a great sense of magic, and I wanted magic very badly.”
If you have not had a chance to read Leah Bobet’s work, you can check out my review of her novel “Above” at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/empowering-the-freak/ and can explore her website at http://leahbobet.com/
“I wanted a place that was iridescent, that lit without burning. Being in love is sort of like that, when it’s real. When it’s true.”
-Leah Bobet – Above (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)
Some Book Club Discussion Questions for Leah Bobet’s “Above”
The “Monster”, “Sick”, “Freak”, and “Cursed” people in this book experience severe discrimination. How might their experiences relate to or reflect those of other groups in our society that are stigmatised or discriminated against?
Matthew or Teller is a story teller. Why are stories so important in this novel and how to they help a group of outcast people to find themselves and build a community?
This novel was full of smaller stories about each character. Which one appealed to you most? Why was it so appealing?
The characters in Safe were able to choose their own names. Why is this important and what do their chosen names say about them?
Trauma is an important factor in this novel. How are the characters shaped by their traumatic experiences?
Matthew or Teller’s experience of “home” is a space that is cramped, rank, and unexposed to the sky. How does our upbringing influence our ideas of homeliness?
Why is the telling of stories so important? How do Tales relate to ideas of secrecy and trust?
What did you think of the Whitecoats? Why might scientists and doctors be frightening for some people?
What ideas of “normal” did you question by the end of this book?
How has this book changed the way you view the medical profession?
A Review of Leah Bobet’s Above (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Leah Bobet’s novel Above focusses on a group of people who have taken up residence in the sewers. Chased from society above the ground and called “Freak”, “Monster”, “Sick”, and “Cursed”, they retreated beneath the city to create their own society, free of discrimination. Their most feared opponents are the true monsters of this world, the Whitecoats, medical practitioners and scientists who are focussed on controlling, managing, and normalising their bodies. They capture those who have different bodies and force them into their own ideas of what normal bodies should be like, cutting them, medicating them, breaking their bones, and locking them up until their bodies start to look more like what society considers to be the “normal” body shape.
Characters with crab arms have them cut off and prosthetic human limbs forced uncomfortably into their stumps until they regain their shape. Characters with lion feet have them broken and re-shaped into a human-like foot shape, forcing them to walk in an uncomfortable and painful manner. But, a group of people escaped from the medical facilities above and created a community called Safe that was built on the foundation that no one should ever stare, no one should humiliate others, and everyone should have a safe place to be themselves.
One of the cornerstones of their community is the shared trauma they endured and the importance of sharing community stories. A central figure in the community is the “Teller” (who narrates this novel), a person who gathers the collective history of the people who form the community, hears their stories, and observes the events of the community, saving the stories that have brought them together and continue to shape them. The Teller functions as a mixture of a historian and counsellor, creating a safe space for people to share the stories that brought them trauma. By telling stories, the people of Safe create their own community narrative, separate from the normalising narrative of Above, and the medical documents that try to write their story for them. They become masters of their own stories, taking words away from others who would use them to oppress them.
But, part of every community is the stories that are not told, the stories that are edited out, considered taboo, and Matthew, the Teller, is forced to keep certain stories hidden and secret. These stories, like anything that is repressed, begins to haunt them, resurfaces from the collective unconscious of the group and harms the community, disrupting it. A community member who was removed and edited out of the collective history returns, bringing shadows of the past that haunt the sewers, snippets of memory that attach themselves to others, forcibly reminding them of what they have tried to forget.
Characters are forced out of Safe and into Above, the city that was the site of their truama. They are forced to see the world around them again and see things from the city above with new light… and new shadows.
You can find out more about Leah Bobet at her website http://leahbobet.com/ . To explore this book and more by Arthur A. Levine Books, you can check out their website at http://www.arthuralevinebooks.com/