Fitting In

Fitting In

A review of Lisi Harrison’s Monster High (Hachette Book Group, 2011)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Lisi Harrison’s Monster High is a series adapted from the doll brand by Mattel of the same name. Her novel adaptation, aimed at a teen rather than pre-teen audience as the dolls would suggest illustrates the adaptability of narratives around dolls and toys. Although Mattel is an American company, Harrison is Canadian. Harrison’s narrative takes a very different approach and storyline than Mattel’s other Monster High narratives such as the webbisodes and films of the same name. Yet, Harrison still explores some of the issues that are central to the rest of Mattel’s Monster High brand.

Rather than setting her story in a high school just for monsters as the Mattel brand does, Harrison sets her story in a high school predominantly filled with non-monster students. Monsters are a minority in this school and in the town surrounding it and have to pass as human to avoid discovery and discrimination by the much larger non-monster population. Harrison’s narrative follows Frankie Stein, the child of other Frankensteinian creations as she navigates a society with the optimism of someone who was only created 16 days before the novel begins. Frankie believes that humans are far more accepting and open than she discovers they actually are and when she attempts to go out in public without the makeup that makes her look human, she is met with discrimination for her green skin, stitches, and neck bolts.

Harrison provides a second narrator for her story, Melody, a girl whose parents reinforce certain notions of beauty through their role as plastic surgeons. In fact, Melody reluctantly had a nose job after her parents told her (falsely) that it would help her breathe better. Melody is worried that any friends she finds only like her because she now upholds the normative standards of beauty instead of looking different than the norm. She is drawn in to the world of monsters when her boyfriend turns out to be far different than what she expected.

Harrison uses the two characters, Frankie and Melody – the girl who is told to fit in because she is a monster and the girl who is worried that she only fits in because she is ‘normal’ – to explore difference in an environment that is the epitome of enforced normalcy – the high school. High schools are spaces where people are policed for any difference from norms and where most kids just want to fit in, and Harrison’s Monster High exaggerates that enforced fitting in by adding the ultimate outsiders – Monsters.

Harrison explores ideas of internalized isms by having Frankie constantly hide her heritage and bodily difference and instead to conform and try to blend in to her society. They force her to wear conservative clothing that allows her to blend into the background, to become unnoticed and become essentially invisible (though not as invisible as the school’s literal invisible boy Billy).

Despite her attempts to conform, the school and surrounding town of Salem still has an intense fear of outsiders and even has school drills for “what to do in case there is a monster sighting” with its own special alarm system.

Harrison’s Monster High is a tale of conformity, challenging expectations, and finding one’s place with friends who support diversity

To find out more about Lisi Harrison, visit https://lisiharrison.com

To discover more about Monster High, go to https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/lisi-harrison/monster-high/9780316176217/

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Quote – Shrinking Envelope of Normal

“Each of us has felt alone, mechanized and constricted by – or forcibly expelled from – the shrinking envelope of normal, the hegemony of real.”

-Greg Bechtel – “Junk Mail” in Boundary Problems (Freehand Books, 2014)

Transformation, Secrets, and a World in Flux

A review of Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light (Daw, 2013).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light is a transformative text on multiple levels. It is about Jenn Nalynn, a girl on the cusp of womanhood who is confronted with her own changing nature and the need to understand her own place and what has shaped her into who she is. Not only is her situation changing, but her understanding of herself has shifted and she is left with questions about where she has come from and what has shaped her, and what she is becoming. She is coming to realise that her world is shaped in secrets, things kept from her, and truths that are buried seemingly for her own protection. But, innocence can be dangerous, secrets can cause pain, and not-knowing often means actions taken in ignorance that can be harmful because they lack an understanding of the context in which they occur.

Jenn is in a place of magic, Marrowdell, a place that she has grown up with and seen as normal because it is the world that has shaped who she is. But, it is a place where people eat toad eggs, where toads guard houses, where trees move of their own volition, where water appears when needed, and where dragons play in the meadows invisible in the light but revealed in their majesty as the world turns to twilight. Only through a stranger’s eyes, by hearing about what wonders surround him, does Jenn see that the place she lives in is not “normal”, that it is wondrous. As a truth-seer, Bannan sees more than others – he sees that roads run as silver, that the house toads wear armour, that moths are able to write down what they observe. He sees what Jenn is incapable of seeing, notices what she doesn’t notice.

Jenn is met with the need to understand herself and her place in her world better, to see truths that have been hidden from her for her own protection. She is changing, and with those changes, she grows in connection to her home of Marrowdell (a place which she cannot leave without death to herself and the landscape) and also in her own magical ability. Yet, without being taught about her magic, with it constantly being buried and kept secret from her, she acts out of ignorance, causes damage to the people, places, and things around her. Cushioned in a world that doesn’t want her to experience hurt, she hurts others by accident. When power and ignorance are paired, damage is bound to happen.

Jenn, desiring companionship, transforms her childhood friend, Wisp, a creature who plays with magic, invisible, and ever-present, into a human being. He loses his dragon nature, trapped within a man’s shape and limited by it. He becomes something different, changed against his will by Jenn’s wish. Wisp has become Wyll, a stranger to Marrowdell, and a source of interest and fascination to a village that is accustomed to knowing everyone. He questions things, challenges ideas that are entrenched, and provides a foil for human actions, showing that what is assumed to be natural is only natural for human beings.

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Czerneda creates a world in which everything and everyone is in flux, challenging and questioning themselves and the nature of the world around them while trying to uncover mysteries that have been left hidden in the desire to protect secrets. She reveals that worlds are always steeped in the mysterious and that everyone is always searching for their place in the world while only knowing a fraction of it, of themselves, and of those around them. There is a danger in ignorance, and a need to learn and reveal even painful truths to others to prevent harm.

To discover more about Julie Czerneda and her current projects, visit her website at http://www.czerneda.com/ . To discover more about A Turn of Light, visit http://www.czerneda.com/fantasy/turn.html .

An Interview with James Alan Gardner

An Interview with James Alan Gardner
By Derek Newman-Stille

I have been very lucky to get in touch with James Alan Gardner. As a disability scholar and someone who is interested in portrayals in Science Fiction of people who are Othered, I was extremely pleased that Mr. Gardner agreed to do an interview with me. I hope that readers enjoy our conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it. 

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

James Alan Gardner: I grew up in small-town Ontario, then went to the University of Waterloo to take math. Eventually I got my B.Math and M.Math in Applied Math, writing my master’s thesis on black holes. Just recently, I’ve gone back to UW part-time to study Earth Sciences. In my spare time, I meditate and do kung fu.

Spec Can: What role can Science Fiction have to push boundaries and help people to question the status quo?

James Alan Gardner: Science Fiction is always based on the question, “What would happen if things were different?” The differences can be technological, sociological, or even historical as in alternate history stories, but one way or another, SF deals with worlds that are not exactly like our own. The whole premise of SF is that the status quo is impermanent: it hasn’t always been what it is today, and it won’t be the same in future.

Spec Can: Your novels set in the League of Peoples universe question a lot of the traditions of human society and presents a future that both defies current assumptions about what is “normal” as well as presenting future worlds that continue with our assumptions. What interested you in questioning ideas of “normal” and traditions?

James Alan Gardner: I’m a straight white middle-class male, so the world has never hassled me about “normality”. Maybe that puts me in too privileged a position to say this, but I’ve never understood the concern about what is and isn’t normal. I meet people who are afraid that they’re weird or who brag about being weird, and my reaction is, “Who cares?” (Well, usually, my first reaction is, “You have no idea what weird really is.” Caring about weirdness is pretty darned mainstream.)

So I never deliberately set out to confront tradition or normality. Stuff like that just never occurs to me. Instead, I ask, “What would be interesting? What wouldn’t be cliché?” That may take me to non-traditional places, but not in the spirit of questioning tradition or addressing it at all. It’s just more interesting to do something that hasn’t been done to death.

For example, the whole idea of the League of Peoples comes out of a desire not to do warring interstellar societies. War in space is so old hat. How could I do space adventure stories without war? So I invented a universe where interstellar war was absolutely impossible. Then I followed all the implications to see what would happen.

Spec Can: As a disability scholar, I was fascinated by your novel Expendable and the concept of a universe in the future where people who are disabled or disfigured are treated as an expendable class because they are considered less aesthetically appealing. What inspired this novel? What are some of the issues around appearance and the body that you were hoping to attract attention to?Expendable

James Alan Gardner: For any Star Trek fan, it’s obvious that Expendable was inspired by the redshirts: the characters who got killed instead of the show’s stars. One night, I was writing impromptu—just improvising to see what came up—and Festina’s voice erupted with the first ten pages of the novel, pretty much exactly as they appear in the finished book. I had no prior ideas for any of that material; I don’t know why it was sitting in my subconscious. But once it was on the page, I had to deal with it and make a story around it.

A lot of what eventually appeared in Expendable was informed by issues of privilege. Except for the Explorer Corps, everyone else in the Technocracy navy is shallow and pampered. Later on in the series, I let the “pretty people” have more depth—they’re human, so they have their private pains, despite being born “lucky”—but Expendable was filtered through the eyes of Festina Ramos, and at that time, Festina had a huge chip on her shoulder.

Recently, John Scalzi has come up with a great way of expressing something I was talking about in Expendable. Scalzi said that being a straight white (non-disabled) male is like playing video games on the easiest setting. It’s not that life is problem-free, but that the bar you have to clear is lower. An ongoing issue in the League of Peoples stories is that Explorers are better prepared to deal with the unknown because they’ve faced more adversity than most of the other people in their time.

Spec Can: Commitment Hour presents people who change sex every year until they reach the age of 21. What was it like to conceive of an annual shift in sex for your characters? How did this question the rigidity of gender roles and gendered identities for you?

James Alan Gardner: I really like the alternating-sex set-up of Commitment Hour, but in retrospect I don’t think I used it as well as I could have.

The action was narrated by a character named Fullin who was male during the action of the novel, but who had occasional flashbacks to years when he was female. For the purpose of the story, Fullin’s culture had to differentiate between male and female gender roles—otherwise, there’s no drama when characters have to choose one sex over the other. So male Fullin had to have a different identity than female Fullin. But I went too far in making male Fullin a full-out sexist. If I could do the book over, I’d make Fullin’s male and female personalities different in some other way. That would have allowed me to address issues of gender with more nuance.

I might note that this highlights an important point about writing: the restrictions imposed by your viewpoint character. Writers aren’t 100% confined by the character’s viewpoint—there are tricks you can use to sneak past the character’s limitations—but you can only go so far. Every character is a collection of blind-spots, and that stops them from being able to tell certain types of stories.

Spec Can: In Vigilant, you examine what a society would be like where polygamous (group) marriages are traditional. What fascinated you with the idea of questioning the assumption that all relationships should be monogamous?

James Alan Gardner: I went into Vigilant wanting to write about a democracy. Too often, SF shows future societies that are monarchies or oligarchies; I wanted to write about a real democracy with institutions designed to keep it working well. This led to an interest in the relationship of individuals to groups…so it was a short step to making group marriage the standard family form. It’s more social, less claustrophobic.

The group marriage also gave the narrator Faye a social connection—she’s not a loner, like so many SF protagonists—while giving her more rope to play with, sexually. There are things she does in the novel which would be objectionable in a normal two-person marriage, but which are less so in a loose group marriage.

Spec Can: What is something that you hope that readers will take away from reading your novels?

James Alan Gardner: I hope my readers enjoy spending time with the characters. I also hope I’ve given people things to think about that they haven’t seen before. Finally, I hope that readers have had a few laughs; comedy matters a lot to me.

Spec Can: As an educator as well as science fiction author, in what ways do you see SF as being something that can be pedagogical?

James Alan Gardner: Science fiction and fantasy can deal with the world being changed to an extent that doesn’t happen in other branches of literature. I don’t just mean depicting different kinds of worlds; I mean the process of people actually changing the world. In other forms of literature, characters may make a difference on a small scale, but they can’t be world-changers.

For example, what would a literary novel about Einstein look like? It would be about his childhood, his home life, his psychology, and so on. It wouldn’t be about his big public accomplishments. SF can talk about the big stuff because SF worlds are always subject to change. That’s what we write about: different worlds. So it’s very easy for SF to show entire worlds being changed by the actions of people. That’s a lesson readers should learn.

Spec Can: What do you see as particularly Canadian about the SF you produce? Does your Canadian identity influence your work, and, if so, in what ways?

James Alan Gardner: Being Canadian affects everything I write, though seldom in any obvious way. For example, I think it makes me more quietly optimistic than American or British writers. Canada is far from perfect, but we have experience with peaceful coexistence between different types of people. In a lot of American SF, there’s a subtext that culture war is inevitable unless everyone melts together into the same pot. In Canada, we don’t see that as necessary—individuals can be very different, yet still get along.

Spec Can: Where do you see Canadian SF going from here? What is the future of Canadian SF?

James Alan Gardner: There are plenty of good Canadian SF writers, and more appearing each year. Just to name a few whom I make sure to follow: Robert J. Sawyer, Karl Schroeder, Julie Czerneda, Guy Gavriel Kay, Nalo Hopkinson, Tanya Huff, Peter Watts, and no doubt others who slip my mind at this moment. (You’ll notice that I don’t distinguish between science fiction and fantasy. To me, the family resemblances between science fiction and fantasy are more important than the differences.)

Spec Can: How can the figure of “the Alien” make us think more about ourselves and question the things that we do?

James Alan Gardner: In science fiction, aliens typically fall into one of three categories: totally alien, so we really can’t understand anything they do; pretty much human, in which case they’re mostly like us, except for cosmetic touches; and human reflections, where the aliens are like humans in many ways, but have some substantial difference (e.g. Star Trek Vulcans with their devotion to logic and attempted erasure of emotion).

Often, authors use the third category to make some point about the human condition by exaggerating or eliminating some ordinary human trait. When it’s done well, it can make us think about that trait’s role in our lives and society. Since I’ve already mentioned Vulcans, a great many Star Trek episodes played on the place of emotion in human existence. When is it good? When it is bad? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Spock’s presence made it possible to explore such questions. In fact, Spock’s presence almost forced the writers to keep coming back to the questions, and to make them a central part of the series. The writers had to keep digging, and to keep thinking about the role of emotion in our lives.

Spec Can: As a pacifist, I was fascinated by the idea of murderers being defined as “Dangerous Non-Sentients” by the League of Peoples in your novels – the idea that people who killed were considered not sentient by the League and unable to therefore travel from their solar system. What inspired this idea of the “Dangerous Non-Sentient”?

James Alan Gardner: I’ve already mentioned my desire to write books without interstellar wars, just as a way to avoid doing the same old same-old. The other thing that the League’s influence did was separate humanity into two camps: those who left Earth were those who accepted the League’s version of pacifism; those who remained on Earth were essentially the people who couldn’t bear to put down their guns. As a result, those left on Earth went through a very turbulent time, and order was only restored when one group came out on top (with help from alien partners). This gave me a cake-and-eat-it arrangement: League-imposed pacifism in space, and a much more violent situation for those who stayed on Earth. I could play around with both strands of human culture, and eventually show what might happen if they were artificially separated.

Spec Can: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?

James Alan Gardner: Thanks for asking me to participate!

I want to thank James Alan Gardner for this incredible interview and for all of the insights that he has raised. If you are interested in reading more of his work, you can explore his website at http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim/english/index.shtml

Blood on the Starscape

A review of Peter Watts’ Blindsight (Tor, 2006)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Life itself is strange, odd, and unordinary. We try to create ideas of normalcy to impose order on the world around us and end up limiting our perception and understanding of that world. We categorise, we cut things that we don’t think should belong, and we butcher reality to make it somehow easier for us to understand. In Blindsight, Peter Watts challenges ideas of normalcy, warps our understanding and questions the privilege we give to certain bodies, certain modes of interpreting and thinking, and the limitations we impose on categories around us.

Watts presents us with truly alien aliens, not stereotypes of Earth civilisations with miniscule differences in behaviour and appearance. He explores what a diverse universe could be like – so different from human understanding that their biology defies our understanding and the aliens themselves see our cultural modes of behaviour as almost viral, as so foreign that we can’t be anything but a threat. He questions our privileging of self awareness, consciousness, and our assumption that this is necessary for intelligent thought.

Instead of presenting the dichotomy of “normal” people facing the “abnormal” alien, Watts assembles a group of human outsiders, because who is better suited to understand the alien than those who have been alienated on our world? People embedded in and performing ideas of normalcy would be too invested in seeing that normalcy to really understand the experience of the “other”. The crew of the exploratory ship Theseus is made up of a man who has been partially lobotomised as a way of “correcting” his seizures and has lost the ability to really empathise, a woman with compartmentalised consciousnesses, a group mind that we would have labelled “Multiple Personality Disorder” (but is recognised in the future as a form of multiple intelligences), two men who are spliced with technological prosthetics allowing them an expanded view of the world and an interrelationship with a mechanical sensory network, and… a vampire, a figure from human history who was extinct but was brought back to existence through bio-technology and has a sensory and interpretive framework so different that he sees things that human beings could not, and yet is harmed by images like the cross because of the intersection of 90 degree angles. These characters are so completely different than the human “base norm” that they require interpreters to relay the complexity of their speech and behavioural patterns to the general public, a majority that cannot understand them and is content in their lack of understanding.

Siri, the interpreter, trained to be separate from the events occurring and to present a non-biased interpretation/translation of the behaviour of his colleagues for the majority back on Earth, is himself an outsider, and this leads to his ability to interpret since he sees all of humanity (including those who would consider themselves “normal”) to be foreign and difficult to understand. He serves as the gateway between his crew of outsiders and the people back at home, waiting from some insights into the aliens that the crew is seeking to encounter. His sociopathic characteristics mean that he is able to look at the people around him with an outsider’s understanding, lacking empathy and the ability to collude or feel akin to those around him. He sees himself as a vessel of translation facilitating communication between his crew of outsiders that seem foreign to him and a foreign and odd humanity that although considering themselves “normal” are equally odd to him.

The crew of the Theseus has been sent to find out about a new alien life form that has disrupted the human notion that we are probably alone in the universe. These beings, encountered for the first time when they showed up in our atmosphere and photographed the Earth, present a puzzle to humanity, and, of course, are considered a potential threat. When the Theseus first encounters the alien ship, it calls itself Rorschach, reminding the reader of Rorschach blots used in psychological procedures to allow the patient to project their understanding onto the image in order to get at a greater understanding of the patient, their motivations, and their understanding of the world. Watts points out that this is precisely what we do with the image of the alien, we project our own understandings onto it, our own insecurities, our own ideas, and ultimately shape aliens in ways that reveal more about us, the viewers, than they do about the alien itself. Rorschach becomes a vessel for all of the projections of the crew’s understanding of the world.  It’s foreignness, and the foreignness of the “Scramblers” that occupy the inside of Rorschach become a way for the crew to debate the nature of human consciousness, ideas of normalcy, and the privilege we place on our modes of interpretation.

You can explore more of Peter Watt’s work at his website http://www.rifters.com/real/author.htm . To find out more about Blindsight, visit Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/blindsight/PeterWatts

Rejected by Magic

A Review of Erin Bow’s Plain Kate (Scholastic Inc., 2012)

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

By Derek Newman-Stille

In a world where magic is real and witches are hunted, Erin Bow’s Plain Kate explores society’s trend of scapegoating people who are different, making villains out of people who don’t fit the ideas of normal behaviour. Plain Kate is a woman whose appearance is plain, but who has two different coloured eyes, marking her as a social target. She is made even more of a target because she is clever and talented. Others can’t accept that her skills are natural or due to incredible effort on her part, they automatically attribute her skills to witchcraft and persecute her, driving her out of her home and away from her community.

In her desire to find a place for herself, and escape from the hate around her, Plain Kate makes a deal with a witch who has come to town: she trades her own shadow for a way to survive on her own… and in the process unintentionally expresses her secret wish for a companion. Her cat is suddenly gifted with the ability to speak and becomes something in-between human and cat as Plain Kate becomes something between living and dead, a woman without a shadow who feels herself fading away.

Kate takes on the name “Plain Kate”, trying to mark herself as plain in appearance, not noticeable and easily missed. Giftedness is dangerous in her community, so Plain Kate finds other social outcasts, outsiders and those who have been expelled from their societies. Plain Kate finds a group of people called Roamers, other people who are persecuted who live on the fringes. She learns their customs and finds a new place for herself, a family.

Plain Kate is not left alone with her new community, she is followed by a sleeping sickness, a monster in the fog, and a witch bent of vengeance for his sister’s death.  Plain Kate’s shadow has been shared with a rusalka, a figure from myth: a drowned woman who haunts the edges of life. Kate’s compassion compels her to sacrifice herself for the very community that had rejected and outcast her.

Plain Kate is a novel steeped in magic, where the mysteries flow off of the page and into your imagination.

To find out more about Erin Bow, you can explore her website at http://www.erinbow.com/ . To find out more about Plain Kate, you can check out Scholastic’s website at http://www.scholastic.ca/titles/plainkate/

Different Way of Seeing

A review of Just Dance by Erika Holt (in Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales, Edge, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Marie-Lunie is a girl who has one eye in one world and one in another. Erika Holt’s teen fiction steam-punky supernatural story Just Dance explores a girl who has discovered that her father has been keeping research secrets. Marie-Lunie has one natural eye and one artificial one, made of a crimson glass orb she found on her father’s desk. The eye allows her to see into the spiritual world and opening her spiritual eye allows her to travel into the Otherrealm.

Marie is an outsider, a social outcast from her school and escapes from the taunting of the other students into her own independent world. Her worldview is challenged when one of the popular girls comes to her house needing help finding her father and Marie has to lead her into a world of the supernatural in order to help a popular girl who treats her and her friends with disgust.

Holt takes a ride into the outsider realm, a place of the Otherrealm where things can be seen that are ignored by the ‘normal’ parts of society, the popular people. It is only through a girl who is born with one eye missing who lives on the fringes that is able to see through the fictions of the world, and question society’s popular assumptions.

Holt takes her readers on a quest through their own assumptions and their own limits, opening her teen readers to the idea that the popular and the unpopular aren’t really that different. When there are monsters in the world, are people really that different from each other? And, really, are the monsters so different after all? Holt’s Just Dance isn’t limited to a teen audience and any reader will enjoy her creative, comic exploration.

To read more about Erika Holt, go to http://www.inkpunks.com/about/erika-holt/ . You can explore this story and others in Tesseracts Fifteen, available from Edge and Tesseracts Books at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess15/t15-catalog.html.