Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms

Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms 

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

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Power Dynamics

Power Dynamics

A review of James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (Tor, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, James Alan Gardner creates a world of heroes and monsters to explore ideas of identity. In this world, the wealthy have bought the magical ability to become Darklings through a pact with otherworldly entities. They have become vampires, demons, ghosts, werewolves, and other things that haunt the magical imaginations. But, this world also touches on the heroic realm and therefore there are Sparks – beings that are created (at least to some degree) through “science” (or some semblance of it). Many of these Sparks become heroes, acquiring powers… but also acquiring the need for secret identities and costumes.

Superheroes are the perfect space to explore the fluidity of identity, especially since the idea of the costume and the secret identity are so intrinsic to the superhero mythos. In Gardner’s world, characters who gain powers need to take on a superhero identity and keep their ‘normal’ identity a secret as part of the complicated rules of the world. And when they use an superheroic name and wear a costume, they BECOME different, adopting new personality traits and radiating an aura of respectability. Yet, there are characters who are already accustomed to switches in identity like Kim Lam, who, in her search to find herself, has used multiple different names and personality characteristics. In fact, Kim refers to her previous identities as being dead like her identity as Kimmi, the goth girl who had a fascination with Darklings, her childhood name of Kimberly, or the name her father chose for her: Kimberlite (after the igneous rock). Kim is a genderqueer person (using she/her pronouns), existing in a nonbinary space, and Gardner is influenced in this idea of the death of identities by the Trans population and the use of the term “deadname”, referring to a previous identity that no longer reflects the person using it. Kim has had fluidity in her own identity, exploring different aspects of herself until she became Kim. Gardner makes a connection in his novel between gender fluidity and the superhero narrative, exploring the spaces of multiplicity of identity and the generative potential of this multiplicity. Identity and secret identity are interwoven in a way that allows for character complexity.

Transitions become an important factor in All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault not just because of Kim’s transition to a genderqueer identity, but also because this world is made up of transitions – the change from wealthy to Darkling (which is marked by a ritual) and the transformation into a Spark (which is marked by an origin story). Transformation is part of a living story in Gardner’s world, something invested with power. In fact, even the powers of the Sparks need to be narrated and characters need to create a story to explain their powers in order to increase the likelihood that the universe will grant them those powers. In this way, the author plays with the idea of stories within stories and the importance of tales for creating new possibilities.

In addition to exploring identity and fluidity, Gardner offers a critique of the logic of wealthy people, literally turning the rich into vampires. In fact, the wealthy still suggest that there is a “trickle down economy”, but instead of just buying businesses and claiming that hiring people will allow their wealth to trickle down, the Darklings use “trickle down” to refer to the money that they give to others when they take their blood. There is a literal feeding off of the labour and bodies of the poor by the wealthy in this world. Gardner uses literal consumption (of blood) to comment on capitalist consumption of resources. He borrows from right wing pundits who try to justify hoarding of wealth by the 1% when creating speeches by the wealthy who use rhetoric like “”We manage sources of prosperity to maximize their return” and “We bought our powers legitimately through a mutually beneficial, clearly defined argument”, and “I didn’t just fluke my way into undeserved privilege. I paid”.

Gardner uses speculative fiction in order to bring up critical questions, inviting readers to interrogate the status quo and think about the way that power and exclusion work in our society, while also illustrating to the reader that change is possible.

In addition to being a fun superhero versus monsters narrative, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is a social text, exploring possibilities through storytelling.

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

To discover more about All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, visit https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780765392657

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 47: An Interview with Kelsi Morris

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I interview Kelsi Morris, editor, comic book fan, and genre fan. Kelsi and I talk about monsters, comics (and Canadian comics in particular), fan culture, cosplay, and feminism. Kelsi brings in her own experience of comics as a comic book editor and her current work editing an anthology on Canadian myths and monsters titled “Those Who Make Us”.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

You can find more information about Kelsi Morris’ anthology Those Who Make Us at https://thosewhomakeus.wordpress.com/

Greek Gossip

A review of Karen Dudley’s Kraken Bake (Ravenstone, 2014).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Kraken Bake courtesy of RavenStone books

Cover photo for Kraken Bake courtesy of RavenStone books

Reputation and rumour – they are incredibly interlinked, especially in ancient Athens, and particularly for a celebrity chef whose entire reputation and business depends on being the current talk of the town. Karen Dudley’s Kraken Bake follows Pelops, first introduced as Athens’ newest mythological prince turned celebrity chef in Dudley’s first book, Food for the Gods. Pelops is now even more seasoned and his attitude is perhaps a bit more spicy than it was in the first book.

Kraken Bake explores the notion of gossip, the idea that people are created in the public arena and their identity is partially based on the way they are talked about, particularly when their business life depends on the public’s view. Pelops encounters another figure dependent on celebrity status, but one that is perhaps more attached to the role of the classical world: Perseus, a hero who has just returned from slaying the Kraken. Perseus entered the Athenian Agora (marketplace) long before he arrived in the form of rumours, tales of his exploits, and the arena of public opinion. When he arrives atop Pegasus, a winged horse, public opinion is confirmed: this is what Athens has been looking for, a genuine hero who they can wine and dine and gain status by showing connections to.

But this hero and Pelops have something in common: a connection to the god Zeus (Perseus is his son and Pelops his grandson), and both have a mixed relationship with the Kraken: Perseus’ slaying of the Kraken may not have happened quite as society has imagined… and Pelops has discovered that although he can cook anything else into a delectable treat tasty enough to make the gods weep, he can’t cook Kraken. Perseus’ conquest of the Kraken has already passed, but Pelops heroic quest has just begun, particularly when he discovers that the Athenians want to have a very public cook off, the Bronze Chef competition, and he is fairly certain that the secret ingredient will be Kraken meat.

Karen Dudley playfully blends Greek history and Greek myth together, not particularly concerned with veracity or timelines, and this adds to the sense of whimsy of her work, but also serves to undercut the notion that history itself is a story, a tale made up of rumour, myth, legend, and assumptions. Anyone who has read their Herodotus (the father of history) should know this from the gossipy and creative way he discusses Greek lives. But there is a magic in telling tales, whether they are mythic tales or general discussions of public figures and Dudley reminds us that we are all myths and legends being constantly formed through public discussions: gossip, rumour, debate, and reputation.

To find out more about Karen Dudley, visit her website at http://www.karendudley.com/ .

To find out more about Kraken Bake and other great Ravenstone books, visit their website at http://www.ravenstonebooks.com/authors/Karen-Dudley.html

Feeding the Homeless

A review of Trevor Shikaze’s “The Harbour Bears” in Lackington’s issue 4 ( http://lackingtons.com/2014/10/28/the-harbour-bears-by-trevor-shikaze/ )
By Derek Newman-Stille
Homeless people are treated as human refuse, ignored when possible, and when not possible, treated as a social problem that requires police intervention and forced removal. Homeless people evoke a sense of horror partially because they remind society that the price for our own economic success is the exploitation of others. Trevor Shikaze’s “The Harbour Bears” magnifies this exploration of the dislike of the homeless and the disconnect that exists between seeing the homeless as a problem TO society rather than a problem CREATED BY society.
The narrator refers to individual homeless people as “a homeless”, making their identity solely about their living situation and de-humanizing them, almost using “homeless” as a species indicator. When homeless people turn up ripped to pieces, no one is moved or upset by this and the narrator’s first concern is about whether this will jeopardize tourism, placing the economic before the human.
The narrator, Luke, lives in a comfortable economic situation without a job that he is aware of and ignorant of where his pay check comes from. He is disconnected from the economy and unaware of how it relates to the homeless population and makes these populations vulnerable and under threat. He is the epitome of the modern capitalist subject, able to be totally unaware of the impact of his actions as long as he is perpetually entertained. In fact, when he starts to ponder where his money comes from, he quickly tells himself that “it is better not to ask”, mirroring the wider issue in our society of the dissociation from the labour process and our population not wanting to really look into how money does harm in the process of coming to us. He is fundamentally disconnected from suffering, able to distance himself by viewing the homeless as almost a different order of being.
But, things become complicated when Luke stops medicating himself at night and realizes that the homeless population may be literal prey for a government that wants to get rid of them in the most expedient way possible. Luke is forced to see the direct impact of the system on the population it feeds on.
To read this story online, visit Lackington’s at http://lackingtons.com/2014/10/28/the-harbour-bears-by-trevor-shikaze/

In Darkest Memory Submerged

A Review of Nick Cutter’s The Deep (forthcoming January 2015, Gallery Books).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Deep courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada.

Cover photo for The Deep courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada.

There are unexplored places in our world, places of darkness, places of depth, places that are so hostile to human life that we can barely explore them. They are places whose contemplation itself inspires a reassessment of our fundamental understanding of our world. In The Deep, Nick Cutter asks what is submerged in that murky darkness where light can’t reach, what hidden, forgotten, lost, and suppressed things dwell in the pressures of the deep.

As much as The Deep is about the deep ocean and the strange, haunting landscape beneath the waves, it is also about other things suppressed, the mindscapes that we deny, submerge, and work to forget. The Deep begins with a disease that has spread across our world, the ‘Gets, a disease that causes us to forget, to lose our memories and identity in waves of illness. The population tries to hold on to normalcy and rituals as a way to feel normal, but nothing has ever been normal and Cutter’s exploration of humanity’s desire to forget about the ‘Gets reflects the suppression we enact in everyday life, refusing to ask the questions that we don’t or can’t have answers for.

Luke’s own existence is shaped by the interplay of suppression of memories and the simultaneous draw that those memories represent. Having lost his son, a mystery that was never solved, he lives in a place of absented presence, coping both with the possibility that his son may be somewhere in the world and the awareness that he is likely gone. Luke’s family life has always been shaped by a desire to forget – from the abuse and torment he faced at the hands of his mother, to his coping with the likelihood that his brother, a scientist, is likely sociopathic, with no capacity for guilt, sympathy, or emotional connection.

When Luke is called to a deep sea research station where his brother is conducting experiments on a life form that could cure the ‘Gets, he is forced to submerge both into the watery darkness of the deep ocean and simultaneously into the depths of his own memory, imagination, horrors, and fears… and to confront those fears that he has suppressed but that nevertheless have shaped his awareness of the world around him. The deep sea station itself and the research team are shaped by a dualistic desire to discover and a desire to suppress. The research team has ceased communicating with the surface world, ceased filing psych reports that were deemed necessary for ensuring their psychological health in the depths of a foreign and forbidding terrain. Yet, they are obsessed with the notion of discovery, of uncovering secrets that the universe has veiled in layers of sea water, darkness, and geological history. Scientific curiosity has met science’s suppression of likelihoods that are impossible for science to grasp. Luke’s brother Clay seeks to understand the odd and unusual but can’t comprehend it as this new substance at the sea floor called ambrosia consistently slips from his grasp, opening new possibilities as he systemically closes them out of his belief that they are impossible.

Cover photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada

Cover photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada

When Luke arrives at the station, he is physically confronted with the sea pressure of the ocean depths, the darkness that prevails, and the unimaginable foreignness of the sea floor, which contains creatures so odd that they slip from our understanding of life on this planet. These physical sensations are paired with the psychological as he faces the pressures of the unknowable, the darkness of buried and suppressed memories and the haunted things that have shaped his imagination, and the sense of the unfamiliar that enters his mind at the moment of entry into the station. Luke is forced to confront the threat that curiosity and the desire to know represent… particularly when knowing itself can be a trap for mind and body.

To discover more about the work of Nick Cutter, visit his website at http://www.craigdavidson.net/

To discover more about The Deep, visit Simon & Schuster’s website at http://books.simonandschuster.ca/The-Deep/Nick-Cutter/9781501101519

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 8: An Interview with Marie Bilodeau and Karen Dudley About Myth and Canadian SF

In this interview, SF authors Marie Bilodeau, Karen Dudley, and I explore the mythic underpinnings of modern Canadian SF. Prepare for us to open up mythic worlds within all of those little corners of reality.

Marie Bilodeau is an award-winning, Ottawa-based Science Fiction and Fantasy author and a professional storyteller. A modern mythographer, Marie creates worlds of wonder with pen and voice. Marie is the author of the Destiny and Heirs of a Broken Land series of novels.

Karen Dudley is a Winnipeg-based author of environmental mysteries and historical fantasy. Evoking the wonder of the past and the mysteries of the present, Karen blends humour with the paranormal. Karen is the award-winning author of the novels Kraken Bake, Food for the Gods, Hoot to Kill, Macaws of Death, and multiple others.

Together, we examine the continuity and changes of myth, moral grey areas in Canadian SF, the development of the figure of the hero, the villain, and the monster… and, of course, the ultimate villain: Winter!

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

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.

This interview was taped in preparation for the event – A Mythic Night: An Author Reading by Karen Dudley and Marie Bilodeau at Sadleir House (751 George Street North in Peterborough) taking place on Thursday June 19th at 7:00 PM.

A Mythic Night poster 2 revised