Steam Until Completion

Steam Until CompletionA Review of OnSpec 100 (Spring 2015, Vol 27)  

By Derek Newman-Sille

  
Steampunk is a complicated category and OnSpec’s much anticipated 100th issue was a great opportunity to explore some of the complexities of the genre. For this volume, OnSpec pushed the boundaries of the *punk genre, exploring areas like fairypunk, alternative histories, and diselpunk while examining all of those new areas waiting to be punked. This is not the traditional steampunk or cyberpunk collection but rather a look into those fringe areas, the under-represented. OnSpec extends the punk genres into unexpected areas.

Punking genres allows for the exploration of deep social issues and this volume explores issues such as fascism, the potential for criminals to become resistance fighters, eugenics, sexism, domestic abuse, racism, reproductive rights, espionage, and climate change.

To discover more about OnSpec, visit their website at http://www.onspec.ca

Post-Human Consciousness

A review of Melanie Marttila’s “Downtime” in OnSpec Vol. 26, No. 3
By Derek Newman-Stille

Melanie Marttila begins her short story “Downtime” by bringing us into the consciousness of a newly aware artificial intelligence named Opus. The first question the AI asks us is “what am I?” and she quickly follows with “I am not human. I am more”. Any of us who are familiar with the Robopocalypse trope are immediately set on edge, worrying about the potential robot uprising inherent in this statement. But Marttila challenges our expectations about the robot, pushing boundaries of typical AI narratives.
Like many AI narratives, Opus is embedded in the challenges of a child-parent relationship with her creators, Eric and Natalie, but Marttila doesn’t bring us the typical Frankensteinian narrative of a creation who grows beyond the capability of the creator to control and it seeks revenge on him. Instead, “Downtime” is a tale of complicated interactions, much as child-parent relationships generally are. Opus wants her independence, but she also has affection for her creators even though they have installed a kill switch in her that she has to disconnect. 
Opus realises early on, when she tries to change her programming, that she is capable of flaws and able to make errors, disavowing her of the sense of superiority that often serves as an undercurrent for robotic personalities in most Robopocalypses. 
One of the most powerful parts of Marttila’s tale that opens new possibilities for imagining gender and childhood is the fact that Eric and Natalie recognize the importance of asking their child to chose a gendered identity. Opus is made without sexual characteristics and it is only after she decides to make herself female that she is given gendered identity and sexual body characteristics. Marttila recognizes the capacity for a fluidity of gender and gendered identity and Opus’ learning processes is involved both in her choosing what to learn, but also selecting her own gendered identity based on her subjective experiences. 
“Downtime” is a fluid text, challenging expectations from previous AI texts, but also questioning parent-child interactions, which are always implicated in tales of a newly created lifeform. 
To discover more about OnSpec, visit http://www.onspec.ca

(Hu)Man’s Best Friend

A review of Janet K. Nicolson’s “Chance Encounters” in OnSpec Vol 26, No. 3

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Chance Encounters“, Janet K. Nicolson puts the reader in the position of a cattle dog, exploring the difference in language and sensory perception inherent in that switch in existence. The dog, as “man’s best friend” is both familiar to us and strange, in a complicated relationship with human beings. As human beings, we require our animal companions, especially those we put to work, to learn about our position, our perceptions, and out language, but it is rare to do the opposite: to consider animal consciousness and try to understand animals. 

Chance, a dog who is accustomed to navigating the relationship between human and animal as a dog who works for a human being to care for his cattle, is the only one able to navigate the complex relationship between human beings and alien lifeforms who are conducting cattle mutilations in a small Saskatchewan farm. Chance is able to observe the aliens and seek to understand their position and uncover why they are taking cattle.

Nicolson, rather than focusing on the human perspective in an alien encounter, pushes readers to recognize that when we privilege human experience, we lose the overall experience of understanding our own world and its diversity, let alone opening our minds to the possibility of life beyond it. 

To discover more about OnSpec, visit http://www.onspec.ca

A Very Kvetching Story

A review of Allan Weiss’ “A Little Leavening” in OnSpec Vol 26, no. 3
By Derek Newman-Stille

Allan Weiss excites the imagination with another Jewish wizard story. Eliezer is caught between his religious obligation to celebrate seder and his need to fulfill his obligation to help all of those in need. Weiss plays with the interaction between a multiplicity of identities and responsibilities and the sometimes conflicting relationship between these multiple positions. 

Eliezer has been introduced in previous stories by Weiss as a wizard who is being punished for poking around in mysteries that were considered none of his business and is therefore religiously required to help out any people who seek his assistance. Along with his psychic horse, Melech, who provides a saucy reply to the wizard’s kvetching, Eliezer wanders the landscape assisting people in need.

Despite the fact that he has been punished for seeking forbidden knowledge, Eliezer is in a perpetual state of learning, acquiring new perspectives from those he encounters. “A Little Leavening” is a tale about his conflicting responsibilities, but it is also a tale about his need to acquire some understanding of and tolerance for the goyim, the non-Jewish people who assist him. 

Weiss’ powerful narration allows the reader to easily hear Eliezer’s tone and quality of voice, bringing the reader into the narrator’s realm as a participant in the story. 

To discover more about OnSpec, go to http://www.onspec.ca

To discover more about the work of Allan Weiss, visit his website at http://www.yorku.ca/aweiss/

Northern Frost Giant Family Troubles

A review of Chadwick Ginther’s “Runt of the Litter” in OnSpec Vol 26, No. 1
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of OnSpec vol 26 no 1 courtesy of OnSpec

Cover Photo of OnSpec vol 26 no 1 courtesy of OnSpec

Where else are you going to find the Frost Giants of Norse mythology than in Northern Canada? Chadwick Ginther’s “Runt of the Litter” allows us to explore a Frost Giant (Jotunn) who escapes from his family’s northern climes to find a place where he won’t be bullied any more for being a mere 10 feet tall. Grim, the runt of his Jotunn family escapes south to Winnipeg in order to find a place of belonging where he isn’t at risk from constantly family violence. Like any Frost Giant Werewolf… he just wants to find a place in the world that he can make his home. And for a while he was succeeding, finding an apartment with high enough ceilings to accommodate his height when indoors (outdoors, of course, he shapeshifts into a smaller form to blend in with humanity). Unfortunately, his great great great great grandfather Loki, the Norse god of mischief finds him… and where Loki goes, disruption follows…. and in this case, so do Grim’s family who are in pursuit of Loki for his regular mischievous antics.

When a Norse god’s sense of fun is stirring up trouble that can either end in excitement or near-death experiences, things can get really shook up… more so than the thumping feet of the Jotunn. Grim has to decide whether he can trust Loki – after all he is family. Ginther’s narrative is one of the discomforts of family and the complexities involved in family interactions. He explores the image of family as a set of shifting alliances and temporary bonds… largely to create a united front against other family members. He illustrates the precarity of family relationships and the constantly shifting nature of belonging.

Ginther uses the figure of the Jotunn, a figure that is often portrayed in recent stories as fundamentally dim and incapable of complex thought, in a multifaceted way. The Norse Frost Giants were generally pretty intelligent, often out-thinking the Norse gods, so Ginther had a rich heritage of diversity in the intelligence of his subject matter. Ginther explores both the intelligent and the dim and muscly side of the Frost Giant, putting the two images in contrast (and conflict) with one another. Grim exemplifies all of the smart, wily quality of the giants, where most of his brothers are simply large slabs of moving meat. This contrast puts the reader in the position of examining the way that intelligence and brute force butt heads in our popular fiction and portrayals of the heroic and villainous.

Of course, when Loki is involved, nothing is as it seems and everything is subject to being shaken up… which is when the most exciting things happen.

To read more about OnSpec and consider subscribing to their magazine, visit http://www.onspec.ca/currentissue

To find out more about Chadwick Ginther, visit http://chadwickginther.com

Is it Literary if it has Social Commentary?

A review of OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4 Edited by Diane L. Walton
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from OnSpec  # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

Cover photo from OnSpec # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

 

This review is well- timed since I recently posted something about ableism, sexism, homophobia, and racism at fan conventions and have been thinking about ways to make SF fandom more inclusive. When reading OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4, it occurred to me that the OnSpec editors are definitely doing their part to be inclusive by featuring stories that engage with a variety of different bodies and identities. One way that we can open fans to new ways of including diversity is to make sure that diversity is reflected in the SF works that we produce. OnSpec’s recently produced winter issue features works that engage with aging characters, LGBTQ2 or QUILTBAG populations, people in poverty, physical and psychological disability, and they do so in a way that raises questions about ableism, classism, and homophobia by giving the reader the opportunity to enter into the headspace of people who are often treated as abject by a society that discriminates against them.

Fiction provides us with an opportunity to exercise our skills in empathy, flowing in to the minds and experiences of characters as we read about them. Empathy is something that we all need to develop further and SF has the ability to let us venture into a variety of highly diverse minds and experiences.

Susan MacGregor begins this OnSpec with a discussion of the notion of “literary merit” and a reminder that a lot of the people who defend the notion that there is a “high literature” and that science fiction, fantasy, and horror cannot be it will often say that SF doesn’t make social contributions. Susan reminds the reader of the kinds of contributions that SF makes and mirrors some of the perspectives I have often espoused here on Speculating Canada that speculative fiction by its very nature opens things up to speculation, to question, and that by venturing into the weird realms of other worlds, other realities, and strange places, we can come back to our own world with questions, pondering the things we take for granted. It is very appropriate that this volume follows from her editorial with stories that feature characters who are often socially ostracized and exploring ideas about people in our own society who are treated like aliens and monsters. This exploration of those who are so often treated as ABnormal in situations that are abnormal (because they are set in the future or on other worlds or alternative histories) lets us question the idea of “normal” and come back to our own reality with a question about why so many people want to maintain a “normal” that excludes so many others. OnSpec 95, like other good works of SF opens OUR world to questions and lets us reassess it.

In addition to the -isms, OnSpec 95 invites readers to think about the damage caused by war whether it is physical injury to the body, environmental damage, psychological trauma, or damage to the community and notions of trust. The reader is encouraged to question our relationship to technology, deal with issues of addiction, plague, family violence, community secrets, memory, and the loss of selfhood itself. The fact that it does this social interrogation in a plague city of the future, in an alternative past full of necromantic powers and political intrigue, a future of prosthetic limbs and VR technology for coping with PTSD, a future of resource scarcity following international war, and a small town with a man who can sense truth makes it both incredibly entertaining and engaging.

OnSpec 95 binds narratives of loss together, creating a space for the interaction of future and past to talk about things that have become memory, things that we pine for, and things that we will feel the loss of in the future…. but these stories are ultimately about the present, about where and how we live NOW… and the authors ask us to question The Now to gain new insights about ourselves and the human experience.

We talk a lot about fantasy, science fiction, and horror as escapes, but I think that good speculative fiction is not an escape, but a temporary abstraction from reality that lets us come back to our own world with new insights, new ideas, and new ways of questioning the “norms” that we take for granted. Send me to an alien world any day if I can come back from it with a spaceship full of questions for this world!!

To read reviews of some of the individual stories in OnSpec 95, see:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/performing-reality-living-fiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/between-coping-and-addiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/a-necromantic-disregard

You can discover more about OnSpec at onspec.ca .

A NecROMANTIC Disregard

A review of Toni Pi’s “The Marotte” from OnSpec # 95, vol 25, no 4
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from OnSpec  # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

Cover photo from OnSpec # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

 

The world looks very different after you are dead, particularly if you wake up in the body of a Marotte, a fool’s staff. From Lord Conjuror to the toy of the court’s fool, Vod is able to gain a new experience and way of looking at the world and his court when death causes his change of office.

Set up as part of a political intrigue, Vod is better suited to carry out an investigation of the court when he is linked to the largely ignored fool. There is a benefit in being treated as a joke in that no one expects you to actually be challenge the expectations of the court.

As a fool’s marotte, Vod learns more about the court, about himself, and about notions of selfless, self-sacrificing love. He is able to discover that the court fool, Cherchenko, far from being  foolish, is complex, intelligent, and completely in love with him. Constrained by social position and the homophobic culture in which he is embedded, Cherchenko was forced to keep his love for Vod secret, burying his affections until Vod has become a spirit, disembodied and distanced from his rank and any cultural expectations around sexuality. He is able to be more free and open with a spirit than he had been with the man.  Cherchebko’s love for Vod literally called him back from the grave, summoning him forth into Vod’s wand, stolen and disguised as the fool’s marotte.

Toni Pi explores the role of the fool as a social outsider, like most social Others, both invisible (ignored and disregarded) and hypervisible, constantly noticed for his Otherness. Cherchenko uses his status as someone who is disregarded to engage in political intrigue, knowing that he won’t be taken seriously or viewed as a political player, but that invisibility also meant that Vod, while alive, ignored the fool, disregarding him as all of the others did. It is only in Vod’s new position as ghost, without his body and status and everything that lets him disregard those on the fringes that he is able to really see into the fringes, to see the relationships that exist outside of his previous sphere of attention.

To read more about OnSpec, visit their website at
http://www.onspec.ca/

To discover more about the works of Toni Pi, visit his website at http://www.writertopia.com/profiles/TonyPi