Do Emperors Dream of Electronic Nightingales?

Do Emperors Dream of Electronic Nightingales?
A review of Michelle West’s ‘The Nightingale’ in Once Upon a Galaxy Edited by Wil McCarthy, Martin H. Greenberg, and John Helfers (Daw, 2002).
By Derek Newman-Stille

image

Michelle Sagara West (here writing as Michelle West) takes Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” from once upon a time into the (un)Happily Ever After, transforming myth into science fiction. Andersen’s tale is one of nature versus artificiality, pitting the natural songs of a living nightingale against the regularity of a clockwork nightingale. Both are able to produce music, but the variety and passion of the biological Nightingale surpasses that of the artificial.

Michelle Sagara West plays with this contrast between the natural and artificial by setting her tale In the future. West introduces the nightingale to the audience first, narrating from her perspective. She is constructed entirely as an object of the Emperor, an extension of his power and a symbol of his absolute control. She lives for the Emperor, uncertain even of her own selfhood.

West plays with the Orientalism of Andersen – his portrayal of China as autocratic, distant, wealthy, and violent – by instead situating her Emperor in a galactic setting, a setting that can comment on Andersen’s racism while also allowing her tale to play with themes of autocracy, wealth, and violence without replicating Andersen’s racism. The Emperor in West’s tale has literally distanced himself from human experience by altering his body, becoming something distant and quasi-mechanical. His obsession with music arises from the power that music has to make him feel some tinge of his humanity. This is an Emperor who desires control over all things, so the power music has to present diversity, uncertainty, and fluctuation has been regulated in the form of his android songbird who has been imbued with all of the galaxy’s latest musical trends without the chaotic uncertainty of music.

West’s songbird, just like Andersen’s nightingale, submits to the Emperor, making herself an object of his pleasure and desire and an extension of his will. She is caged just as Andersen’s nightingale is, but West’s songbird is a combination of images of escape and reminders of captivity. She is trapped in a castle on a planet where flight is forbidden and, moreover, she is given wings, but forbidden to ever use them. Creating them as a symbolic reminder of her captivity. She is forbidden contact with anyone other than the Emperor, secreting a poison that is fatal to anyone but him and is programmed to only love him.

Yet, unlike the mechanical nightingale from Andersen’s tale, West’s songbird is able to hear and experience the music of a human singer, hearing her voice and opening herself to learning from this singer and therefore experiencing the intwined nature of emotion and song, the human ability to express feeling through voice. In order to learn this interweaving of song and feeling, West’s songbird has to find something inside of herself that is fundamentally foreign to her.

West plays with ideas of permanence versus ageing and mortality. West contrasts the rigidity and stagnancy that comes with permanence against the changeability that comes with mortality, allowing her artificial songbird to be emotionally awakened by a love that is born through music. West illustrates that myth or fairy tale, like song, is an expression of human mortality and is a flexible and open to fluctuations as song, allowing The Nightingale to drift from a mid 1800s tale to a tale of futurity and speculative fiction.

You can discover more about Michelle Sagara West at http://michellesagara.com

Advertisements

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 55: Canadian Arthurian-themed Music

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I explore Canadian musicians who have been inspired by the myth of King Arthur and incorporate his stories into their music. I examine the way that music adds to the power of the myths being retold and the interest in mythic re-tellings. I focus on the work of Heather Dale and Loreena McKennitt, and particularly examine the way that both artists work a spell-like melody into their music.

Because of copyright laws, I only share a sample of each of the works I discuss. You can explore the full songs on the websites of Heather Dale and Loreena McKennitt (listed below).

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

img_0564-2

 

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 discover more about the work of Heather Dale at her website https://heatherdale.com/

You can discover more about the work of Loreena McKennitt at her website http:loreenamckennitt.com

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 27: Speculative Fiction in the Music of Rush

On this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I had a chance to talk a bit about the influence of science fiction and fantasy literature on the music of the Canadian band Rush. Rush is one of my favourite bands and I am, of course, in love with their use of speculative themes in their music. Inspired by various speculative fiction works, Rush blends the metaphors that come out of fantasy with their exploration of issues in the world around us.

The works that I explore in this episode, particularly Rivendell and The Necromancer have inspiration from Tolkein. By-Tor and the Snowdog, the last piece that I play, is particularly inspired by Greek mythology and imagery of the underworld.

Rush is currently celebrating their 40th anniversary, so I thought it would be a good time to explore their speculative music on my show.

Due to copyright laws, I am only able to include 10% of each song on this show (the original airing on Trent Radio permitted the full songs because of their radio license). In order to give you the chance to explore the full songs, I have included here some links to Rush’s website where you can stream some of the songs I refer to:

Rivendell (from Fly by Night): http://www.rush.com/albums/fly-by-night/

The Necromancer (from Caress of Steel): http://www.rush.com/albums/caress-of-steel/

By-Tor and the Snowdog (from Fly by Night): http://www.rush.com/albums/fly-by-night/

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.

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 13: An Interview with Sean Moreland

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I interview Ottawa author, editor, and academic Dr. Sean Moreland. Dr. Moreland teaches various courses at Ottawa University, including courses on horror. He is also one of the co-editors of Postscripts to Darkness (which you can explore at http://pstdarkness.com/). He has published short fiction in several collections of speculative fiction such as Pavor Nocturnus: Dark Fiction Anthology, and Allusions of Innocence.

Dr. Moreland and I discuss teaching speculative fiction, illustrating horror, notions of the “literary” and exclusions of genre fiction from the literary, the ability for horror to push boundaries, horror as a mechanism for exploring and experimenting with identity, epics and nation building… and in addition to the more intellectual materials, we also talk about heavy metal themed spec fic, Kaiju and other giant monsters, revisiting horrific themes from youth and youth as a formative theme for ideas of horror… Needless to say, there is at least a week worth of conversation built into this one, short programme.

For this, the thirteenth episode, things get spooky.

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.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

A review of Randy McCharles’ “The Awakening of Master March” in The Puzzle Box (Edge, 2013).

Cover Photo of The Puzzle Box courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

Cover Photo of The Puzzle Box courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

By Derek Newman-Stille

Warlock wants to be a musician. He has been a roadie for 5 years and he feels like he should step up his game and start his own band… the problem is – he has never learned to play music. Warlock has always searched for the easy path, emboldened by a sense of entitlement and unwilling to take the steps that would move toward achieving success. He feels that the world should be making itself open for him and creating his dreams out of nothingness.

When Warlock encounters a coven of witches through his desire to sleep with one of them, his perspective shifts. When they try to initiate him, he finds out that initiation is a process of self discovery, a difficult road for someone who doesn’t normally like to reflect on things. Things get difficult when he is asked to solve a riddle, and, in his attempt to cheat, ends up finding himself within a larger enigma, the puzzle box and the sphinx within that calls on him to shift and change and solve himself just as the puzzle box shifts and changes itself to reveal a mysterious inner core.

The surface nature of his identity, his unreflective desire for everything to solve itself for him is challenged when he is confronted with metaphors of his own subconscious. The witches around him base their beliefs on the metaphorical writing of Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the 60s television show Bewitched. The devil appears to him as various characters from television. Warlock comes to realise that the life that he creates for himself is one of surfaces, of appearances, but that there are deeper meanings below these surfaces, self-revelatory experiences beneath the seeming of things.

In “The Awakening of Master March”, Randy McCharles draws the reader’s attention to the nature of reality, to the delusions that arise when one is selfish and chooses to find easy solutions to the world around them. Easy answers, surface answers, like metaphorical devils appearing as television characters, are without substance, but if one looks deeper, if one takes them as a puzzle and mystery, one can discover more about the Self and challenge the easy, unreflective answers.

Sometimes it takes an encounter with a metaphorical devil to shift someone from selfish ease to selfless reflection.

To find out more about The Puzzle Box, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/puzzlebox/pzbox-catalog.html . To find out more about the work of Randy McCharles, you can visit his website at http://www.randymccharles.com/ .

Interview with Holly Bennett

An interview with Holly Bennett by Derek Newman-Stille

It is always exciting to meet an author who lives in the same town as I do, so I was really pleased to come across Holly Bennett’s name when I was searching for new authors on Kobo, and then to find out that she also lives in Peterborough. I was very pleased that she was willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada. If you have an interest in Teen Fiction, music, Peterborough, the role of fantasy writing to open up new ideas, ghosts, character development, or myth, I think you will enjoy hearing Holly Bennett’s insights.

HollyBennett-13944_2

Author photo courtesy of Holly Bennett

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Holly Bennett: Oh dear. I’m sort of embarrassingly average, really. I grew up in Montreal, came to Peterborough to go to Trent, and turned into one of those Trent alumni who stay — we are legion. I did live in Toronto for a while after graduating, but came back to Peterborough in search of a cheaper, saner lifestyle, mainly so we could afford to have kids.

Career-wise, I started out in non-profit work, doing research and program development with various Aboriginal organizations (my undergrad degree’s in Native Studies, and I studied Adult Education at OISE). Then a couple of years after moving back to Peterborough I lucked into a home-based job as an assistant editor at Today’s Parent. I loved the work, and discovered I am pretty damn good at it, and have made my living as an editor and non-fiction writer ever since.

I didn’t turn my hand to fiction until I was past 40. Don’t ask me why I waited so long, or what suddenly put it into my head to try. It seems like I transformed over the course of about a year from being sure I didn’t have the imagination to write fiction to being completely addicted to it.

Spec Can: Why is the supernatural so popular in Young Adult fiction at the moment? What is the appeal of the supernatural for teens?

Holly Bennett: I think it’s the same appeal as for adults, really. The supernatural — or let’s broaden that out to fantasy in general — it’s the appeal of what lurks at the edges of things, I suppose. The yearning for the expansive possibilities of the supernatural and the fear of its dark face are very primal, I think. It allows us to play with the idea, “What if the rules and constraints we think we operate under didn’t apply?”  At the same time, fantasy stories allow us to grapple with huge issues— questions of good and evil, oppression and freedom, terror and courage—in a kind of “safe” way. We know it’s not real, so that frees us to dive into things that might be too painful or threatening in ‘real life.’

I do think the ‘quest’ nature of many fantasy stories is very well-suited to this age group. It’s the mythic journey of the young adult, really. So it resonates with kids who are starting to imagine and test themselves as young adults.

Spec Can: What are some of the key differences in writing characters for YA than for adult fiction?

Holly Bennett:  Well, publishers will tell you the main characters in YA must be young people themselves. I’ve broken that rule fairly often myself, and so have many others. I think it’s a rule that’s easier to break in the fantasy genre, but I do think you need to create characters that teens can identify with and/or think about how to draw them into the world you have created. Another way to look at it is, are your characters dealing with issues that teens can relate to? The classic mytho-fantasy themes are pretty ageless: readers of any age (if they like the genre) can relate to them, even if the character is older. But if that character is feeling bored and depressed by his retirement, or trying to come to terms with a marriage gone stale, then no, that’s not going to captivate many young readers.

For audiences of any age, the characters have to feel authentic, real, rounded. Teens aren’t drawn to cardboard stereotypes anymore than adults are.  What is often different is the pace of the writing. You don’t have a lot of room for descriptions of anything, including characters, so the characters have to unfold, to a large extent,  through their actions and the plot.

Spec Can: What myths of the magical do you draw on when you write?

Holly Bennett: I’ve been especially drawn to the Irish Celtic myths — two of my novels are retelling/embellishments of old Irish stories that date back to the Iron Age, which I found really resonated richly for me. But I find I also borrow quite a bit from some of the spiritual ideas and practices I learned back in Native Studies at Trent — in the Warrior’s Daughter for example Luaine attends a kind of sweat lodge ceremony, and she also does a version of a dream fast. The Celts did have some kind of sauna or sweat lodge, and they did have the “bed of dreams” I described in the book, but we don’t have much knowledge about their ceremonies or practices. I drew on aboriginal ceremonies I’ve attended when imagining what actually happened.

Spec Can: What is the role of the outsider in your work? How do you bring ideas of diversity into your work?

Cover photo of Shapeshifter courtesy of Holly Bennett

Cover photo of Shapeshifter courtesy of Holly Bennett

Holly Bennett: It’s funny, I’ve never set out to write about outsiders but I see I very often do bring in characters who are “outside” in some way, and I seem to become quite attached to them too! Dirk, in The Bonemende, was my first outsider character, and he started out as a simple plot device. Then Gabrielle brought him home, and the second book was really spurred on by my need to explore his experience.

Outsiders do play a special role, don’t they? They bring a different perspective, a way of looking at the dominant culture and people that helps the readers see more complexity and shades of grey. In The Bonemender, the Greffaires are just “the bad guys” until we meet Dirk.

I think another form of the Outsider is the Outcast. That was a really dominant theme in Shapeshifter, where Sive is forced to leave not only her world but her human form. Thinking about the loneliness of that experience, the struggle to adapt and yet still hold on to who you are, was very moving for me. And there are so many real, contemporary human experiences that would be in some way like Sive’s. I think of the experience of refugees, of the homeless, so many others.

Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places that you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Holly Bennett: Oh yes. I think this is my very favourite part of writing, and also sometimes the scariest. At a certain point, if you’ve really gotten to know your characters and developed them adequately, they do seem to take on a life of their own. And now you can’t just make them do what you want them to do; they have to do what they would do, given who you’ve turned them into.

This happened with my very first novel, The Bonemender. I looked down at my computer screen and saw that Féolan had just decided to travel over the mountains into Greffaire territory, and I had not planned that at all. My first thought was, “Oh crap. Now I have to come up with a whole new country, and a whole new subplot.” But it was absolutely the right thing, both for Féolan and in terms of keeping the story interesting.

I don’t mean to suggest that as a writer you end up at the mercy of your characters.  It’s more that as the characters develop and change, the story has to kind of adjust itself around them.

Spec Can: Your novel Redwing follows the lives of musicians. What role can music play  in literature? What appealed to you about writing about musicians?

Holly Bennett: Some of my favourite books are infused with music. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is so full of music Tim O’Brien made an album of it.  It’s tricky, because music is not going to speak to everyone, especially described in print! But music can give a strong sensory, emotional context, and it can also evoke a certain culture, history or personality.

It’s amazing, really, that I haven’t written about musicians earlier, considering I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t play. At a certain period of our family life, it wasn’t unheard of to have four instruments going at once, and not together—from traditional Irish fiddle to black metal guitar. So it’s been an important backdrop to my life for a long time.

Spec Can: In Redwing the ghost of Rowan’s sister forms an ever present voice, preserving him from danger the same as she did while she was alive. How do ideas about ghosts and haunting add to the human experience? What do haunting narratives teach us?

Cover photo of Redwing courtesy of Holly Bennett

Cover photo of Redwing courtesy of Holly Bennett

Holly Bennett: I think we have a real yearning for ghosts, along with the fear. Somehow even people who firmly reject the notion of an afterlife are attracted to the thought that the people we love could still exist in some form, or even communicate with us. It’s a very seductive thought.

I think because of that shared desire — who hasn’t thought, “if only my Dad could see this” or “I wish I could talk to Grandma now”?— the idea of ghosts can seem more “possible” than some fantasy elements.  I’m attracted to these supernatural or fantasy elements that seem like they could be possible; we know there are many things about our natural world that we still don’t understand or perhaps even know about, so why couldn’t there be the Second Sight or a genetic mutation that enhances telepathy or a spirit energy that remains after death? To me, these ideas are more intriguing than magic swords or invisibility cloaks.

Spec Can: As a Peterborough author, how have you found this area as a place to create a writing community, and how has this place influenced your writing?

Holly Bennett: I confess I’m kind of a solitary writer. I tell myself from time to time that I should join a writing group, that it would be fun and make me a better writer, but the fact is I don’t like to share writing-in-progress. I just don’t.  I do have some people I consider my “writing buddies” and at least one of them is here in Peterborough but they tend to be scattered about.

However, I do believe living in Peterborough has helped me write. First, the thriving arts community here is simply encouraging — all kinds of people I know, of all ages, are making different kinds of art. Second, living here gives me more time and mental space to do the writing. Because we could live cheaper here, I was able to work four days a week instead of 100% full-time and that was a fantastic gift.

I want to thank Holly Bennett for being willing to share some of her insights here on Speculating Canada and hope that we get a chance to hear from her again. If you haven’t yet had a chance to explore Ms. Bennett’s work, you can check out her website at http://www.hollybennett.net/ . There is also a review of her novel Redwing on Speculating Canada at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/haunting-lullabies/

Upcoming interview with Holly Bennett on Wednesday, January 30th

Holly Bennett is a fantasy author living in the same city as I, Peterborough Ontario, and I was excited to find another author in the same area. She is primarily an author of Young Adult fiction, and it is great to get the perspective of a Canadian YA author since many of the authors I have interviewed write primarily adult fiction.

In a very typically Peterborough way, I first encountered Holly through her books and only later discovered that we knew many of the same people. Peterborough is one of those strange towns where even if you think you may not know someone, odds are that you have a connection to them – the perfect space to inspire fantasy writing because the unusual just seems to happen here.

In our upcoming interview on Wednesday January 30th, Holly Bennett discusses her transformation from being a non-fiction writer to suddenly developing the confidence to write fiction, the appeal of fantasy to our society, the difference in writing fantasy for teens versus fantasy for adults, the ability of fantasy to deal with social issues, the role of the mythic,  the power of music, hauntings from the past, and the strength of characters to wrestle the plot away from author and make their story their own.

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Holly Bennett: “I didn’t turn my hand to fiction until I was past 40. Don’t ask me why I waited so long, or what suddenly put it into my head to try. It seems like I transformed over the course of about a year from being sure I didn’t have the imagination to write fiction to being completely addicted to it.”

Holly Bennett: “The yearning for the expansive possibilities of the supernatural and the fear of its dark face are very primal, I think. It allows us to play with the idea, ‘What if the rules and constraints we think we operate under didn’t apply?’”

Holly Bennett: “For audiences of any age, the characters have to feel authentic, real, rounded. Teens aren’t drawn to cardboard stereotypes anymore than adults are.”

Holly Bennett: “It’s funny, I’ve never set out to write about outsiders but I see I very often do bring in characters who are “outside” in some way, and I seem to become quite attached to them too!”

Holly Bennett: “Outsiders do play a special role, don’t they? They bring a different perspective, a way of looking at the dominant culture and people that helps the readers see more complexity and shades of grey.”

Holly Bennett: “At a certain point, if you’ve really gotten to know your characters and developed them adequately, they do seem to take on a life of their own. And now you can’t just make them do what you want them to do; they have to do what they would do, given who you’ve turned them into.”

Holly Bennett: “Music can give a strong sensory, emotional context, and it can also evoke a certain culture, history or personality.”

Holly Bennett: “I think we have a real yearning for ghosts, along with the fear.”

Check out Speculating Canada on Wednesday January 30 to see the full interview with Holly Bennett. You can check out my review of her book Redwing at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/haunting-lullabies/ if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet. You can also explore her website to find out more about her at http://www.hollybennett.net/ .