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 .

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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

Between Coping and Addiction

A review of Brandon Crilly’s “Remembrance” from OnSpec # 95, vol 25, no 4

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

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


By Derek Newman-Stille

Set in the future, Brandon Crilly’s “Remembrance” is a venture into the results of war, not on nations, but on one family. Since returning from war, Anna’s father has used an assemblage of assistive technology including a bionic prosthetic leg, but more importantly, a new technology that is purported to help soldiers cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This technology allows a soldier to visit friends lost in war by simulating them in a virtual world.

Anna fears that the assistive tech her father is using is causing him to lose touch with reality and become addicted to his technology. She feels him slipping away from her as he engages more and more with his virtual world. She ponders whether the technology is helping or hindering his metal health.

It is only when Anna is able to think about her own experience of loss, the trauma that she suffered when her mother died, that she is able to understand her father. This common experience of loss lets her enter into a shared space of longing and constant coping.

Crilly provides no easy answers or simple resolutions, but rather shows that trauma and loss are always negotiated, ongoing processes for families to work out.

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

To find out more about the work of Brandon Crilly, visit his website at brandoncrilly@wordpress.com

Performing “Reality”, Living Fiction

A review of Kevin Harkness’ “Double Vision” 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

Truth is painful, and seeing the truth is a huge responsibility. Kevin Harkness’ “Double Vision” peels back the layers of fiction in our society, exposing the social masks and lies we create for ourselves and others – an important part of this process we call “civilisation”.

When Chartrand was in a mining explosion, pieces of metal and rock were thrust into his brain, severing it into two halves. This doubling of cognition allowed him to simultaneously see and hear two different visions and sets of words – one, the words that were said and the attitude performed by a person, and the other their true face and the words that they conceal. His doubled experience allowed him (or forced him) to see the difference between the performed world and the inner, hidden world, creating a painful cognitive dissonance and a general alienation from an all-to-often fictional society.

Harkness takes the reader into this realm of duality, letting us see how much of our world is fictional, performed, and inauthentic. In this space of question, Harkness exposes not just individual secrets, but the way that communities ignore or hide problems to make things appear better on the surface, erasing difference, removing members of a community that differ from the values that are entrenched as the “norm”, and concealing issues of violence and abuse because they are “private” rather than public affairs.

Through Chartrand’s dual vision and dual hearing, the reader is pulled into a place of social question, asking what has been concealed, what hidden, what erased to make communities appear to be homogenous.

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

To find out more about the work of Kevin Harkness, visit his website at http://kevinharkness.ca/

YOLO Deathwish

A review of R. Crowle Gray’s “The Revenant Threat” in OnSpec #94, vol 25 no 3

By Derek Newman-Stille

We all have one of those friends who defies all of the theories of Darwinian evolution by making perpetually stupid decisions and still managing to survive. R. Crowle Gray appropriately names this frat boy type of character Darwin and in “The Revenant Threat”, his friend Tristan has to bail him out of another bad situation he has gotten into as a result of his YOLO attitude about decision-making. Darwin returns from a night of poker and drinking with a bag full of money, a new watch, and a writing, growing tattoo that radiates bad vibes. Darwin assumes that the tattoo was just another bad drunken decision, but Tristan can see the air of the supernatural haunting this bad choice – something about this tattoo radiates “death mark”.
Not bothering to tell Darwin about his poor choice, which could turn him into an evolutionary dead end, Tristan seeks to fix Darwin’s mistake without consciously involving him – only asking him a minimum of questions about how he acquired his new death mark and literally distracting him by turning on the television or pointing out pretty girls to him.
Gray mixes a bit of magic with characters that we can all relate to – those loveable fools who can’t help but get themselves into trouble and the intellectual badasses who find creative ways to bail them out of trouble through creative uses of wit, and, if not magic, at least a bit of the miraculous.

Books for Kindling

A review of Andrew Bryant’s “Last Stand at Catesby’s Books” in OnSpec #94, vol 25 no 3
By Derek Newman-Stille

For those of us who love books, love the touch, smell, and experience of them, there is something that eBooks can never replicate. The experience of going into a bookstore is transcendent, a venture into a place where tales, myths, wonders, and magic are embedded in paper. When we are told things like “books are going extinct” and “who needs books when I can download a whole library”, we cringe, worrying that booksellers will take these comments seriously and close their stores.

That is one of the things that makes Andrew Bryant’s “Last Stand at Catesby’s Books” so appealing. Bryant creates a band of outlaw booksellers trying to defend the last of the bookstores from a society of e-zealots determined to wipe out the last vestiges of ink on paper. His future is one where people have become so invested in the notion of the eBook that they view books themselves as a crime, an attack on trees and view the eBook reader as the way to achieve the future.
Bryant plays with the notion of the Kindle – both Amazon’s proprietary eBook reader and kindling, something to be set fire to and has this future e-hooked readership launch campaigns to burn all of the books. This is a last stand narrative, a last stand to save the book by a group of paperback frontiersmen against the quick encroachment of a technology that doesn’t want to coexist with them.
To explore OnSpec, visit their website at http://www.onspec.ca/

Disability Ghetto

A review of  Tyrell Johnson’s “Feathers for Tray” in OnSpec Vol 25 No. 2, Summer 2013
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover image for OnSpec Summer 2013 courtesy of the publisher

Cover image for OnSpec Summer 2013 courtesy of the publisher

In his Feathers for Tray, Tyrell Johnson explores the ghettoisation of people with disabilities. Disabilities in our own society are often treated like something that should be hidden, moved out of sight. People with disabilities are often put into homes and hidden from the sight of the able-bodied.

Writing about disability can be transformative, and Johnson’s story is imbued with ideas of transformation and change, both bodily and societal. In the society that Johnson creates, people with disabilities are put into a walled in enclosure called “Confine”, and the only open space that is not gated is a cliff face. This becomes a place of escape for many of the residents, jumping off of the cliff to their death to escape ghettoisation. Johnson’s story explores the social equivocation of disability with death and the notion embedded in our society that the death is a “way out” for people with disabilities and examines the social construction of disability as a form of “end of life”.

The society of Johnson’s world separates people with disabilities from their biological families and friendship networks when they attain any form of bodily difference (whether through genetics or circumstances) and they are placed in this enclosed space, assigned a new family unit, and expected to remain out of sight of the able-bodied. Disability is socially constructed as a problem, a danger.  It is made invisible by the change in place… and yet, within the enclosure, disability is highly visible. Everyone is expected to show their bodily difference and that bodily difference becomes a subject of regular discussion.

When a girl named Tray arrives and appears to have no visible disability, she is met with speculation, uncertainty, and, eventually, fear. She is seen as hiding something, keeping the feature that makes her belong in this space a secret. This is a community that is both policed by external forces (the guards and gates) and within, by the community members who have bought into this bodily surveillance and policing of difference. They can’t fit Tray into a category that they understand, can’t slot her into a pre-defined body type, so she becomes constructed as a threat and they decide that she needs to be murdered for her perceived dishonesty about her body.

Johnson brings attention to the way that society regulates bodily difference and ascribes systems of control onto those whose bodies don’t fit with socially constructed norms and assumptions.

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