Infected by Repression

A review of Colleen Anderson’s “Sins of the Father” in OnSpec #105, vol 28, No. 2
By Derek Newman-Stille

Colleen Anderson’s deeply psychological tale “Sins of the Father” brings attention to the long term repercussions of violence, not only on the victims of violence, but on the family of the person who is perpetrating violence. Anderson’s narrator is the daughter of a murderer who was hiding his murderous behaviour from his family. He was able to perform the image of the loving father, not allowing his mask to slip in front of his wife and daughter until he was finally convicted. 

Anderson’s narrator bares the wounds of her father’s actions in her nightmares, guilt and shame, trying to purge his dark legacy by doing as much good as she can, taking work in the hospital to try to make the world a better place.

Anderson explores the idea of violence, of predatory behaviour as an infection, a black mould that creeps and crawls through human monsters, a fungus that taints people beneath their human faces. Her monsters are not otherworldly, but, rather the human predators, the monsters that conceal themselves in their humanity. Her narrator can still feel her father’s blight infecting her soul, but she uses this tinge of darkness to find the criminals in her world, to feed their own crimes back at them, letting them experience what their victims experienced. 

Anderson examines the horrors that come from an absence of empathy and ideas of repression, imagining a literal fungus germinating in those who victimize others, letting them become prey to monstrosities that grow within them.

To find out more about OnSpec, visit https://onspecmag.wordpress.com/current-issue/

To discover more about Colleen Anderson’s work, visit https://colleenanderson.wordpress.com 

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Superhero Psychology

A review of Michael Johnstone’s “Missing in Action” in OnSpec # 105 Vol 28, No 2 (2017).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Can a superhero retire? Is it the sort of lifestyle that can be surrendered? Michael Johnstone’s “Missing In Action” is a tale of a superhero who is experiencing PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) after the murder of his son. He surrendered his position with the League of Canadian Heroes because every day on the job reminds him of his loss and re-traumatizes him. He has sought to keep his identity a secret, hiding from public life, and avoiding people who could recognize him, burying himself in a new civilian identity because he wants to be a normal human being. 

But the world isn’t that simple, and the cape and cowl aren’t as easy to give up as it seems. Jason Park can’t stand by and see a girl be abused by her father, especially since he is trying to excuse his abuse of his daughter on the fact that she is “a freak”.

Johnstone brings out aspects of the superhero mythos that are under-represented. He asks what would happen if there were vigilante justice in a world where abuse continues to happen and police rarely do anything to stop it. He reminds the reader that the sort of experiences superheroes have are not ones that can be easily shrugged off and that there would be long term psychological consequences for loss, not a short hate spiral that only lasts the length of one comic issue. Johnstone’s “Missing in Action” is a story about complicating the superhero narrative, and taking it into areas that are less simple than good vs evil.

To discover more about OnSpec, visit https://onspecmag.wordpress.com/ 

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