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

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Magical Autobio

Magical Autobio

A review of Ronnie Ritchie’s “Star Kid” in We’re Still Here: An All Trans Comic Anthology (Stacked Deck Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In the comic “Star Kid”, Ronnie Ritchie intertwines autobiography and ideas of magic. They use ideas of astology to understand themself, sharing their early fascination with sun and moon symbolism and the relationship between these celestial symbols and gender (since the sun and moon are gendered in many European cultures).

Ritchie explores their love of stars from an early age as a symbol that is often seen alongside the sun and moon, but also the power of the star to separate them from the gendered characteristics of the sun and moon. Despite their love of astrology and stars, they describe the challenge of growing up in an Evangelical home where astrology was considered evil, and their subversive claiming of the star symbol. They use the artistic medium of the comic to illustrate their love of illustrations, showing the way they combined sun, moon, and star symbols together in their early art.

Stars, suns, and moons became metaphors for gender for them in their exploration of their own gendered identity and they frequently drew characteristics of gender and characteristics of the sun and moon together, realizing that these descriptions were too limited to capture the complexity of their identity. Being a nonbinary person, they discovered the potential of being outside the orbit of the gendered sun and moon in a space they created – The Star. They illustrate that the symbol of the star allowed them to find a symbol of joy, happiness, and cuteness (they make sure to distinguish the marshmellowy stars in their art from the actual huge balls of nuclear fire).

Ritchie cleverly combines autobiography with hints of the speculative and the magical, pointing out that we often explore complex ideas through symbols. People have been exploring their identities through astrology for a long period of time, and Ritchie’s use of astrological symbolism in understanding their gendered identity takes the astrological into a new sphere of contemplation. They illustrate that the symbolic is still an important realm for contemplating identity, particularly since so many of our social symbols are gendered.

To find out more about We’re Still Here: An All Trans Comic Anthology, visit Stacked Deck Press at https://stackeddeckpress.com/product/were-still-here-an-all-trans-comics-anthology/

To find out more about Ronnie Ritchie, visit their website at https://www.rritchiearts.com