It’s the End Of The World As We Know It, and I Feel Speculative

A review of OnSpec #90, Vol 24, No. 3 Fall 2012 Apocalypse Special Issue.

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

Cover image courtesy of On Spec

By Derek Newman-Stille

On Spec, with their combination of SF stories and non-fiction SF essays and interviews, never fails to be entertaining, but the special issue on the apocalypse was even more fantastic than most. It was as thought-provoking as it was entertaining, reminding readers of their own culpability in creating the potential for a destroyed world as well as their responsibility for making the world a better place.

The layout of the volume was, itself, fascinating and had the ability to draw the reader in on multiple levels. This was most in evidence by the interweaving of Kevin Cockle’s “Timeline” (a recounting of some of the history of economic theory as well as a postulation on the future of economic policy and where this will lead) throughout various narratives – every few pages, elements of Cockle’s timeline would appear at the bottom of the page, threading itself through the overall narrative of the On Spec volume and tying stories together.

As a disability scholar who does work in fantastic fiction, I was particularly taken with Camille Alexa’s story “All Them Pretty Babies”, which challenged social ideas of beauty in the post-apocalyptic future. Unlike many authors who revel in the horror of the different body, who present the “deformed” body as something that should evoke shock and disgust, Camille Alexa puts the reader into the position of her narrator, Esme, who collects babies that have been mutated by bio weapons that have damaged the future. Esme is an incredible character, able to see the beauty of diversity, seeing disability and difference as markers of beautiful bodies. She defines beauty as difference from the mundane normalcy of the human body that is preferred by most of society – Esme sees beauty in extra eyes, legs, arms, and conjoined bodies. She is dismayed that she is so boring, with only two legs, two arms, and two eyes: “Bonita’s so pretty, she probably never walk. Not even walk like New Mama, who hunch over cane and hobble like on third leg – though she’s not that pretty, what with her having only two like most” (6).

Despite the human race suffering because there are too few human beings remaining after the bombing, the people of the future preserved cities are abandoning children that they view as deformed, trying to stick to an ideal of what the “normal” human being should be.  People in haz mat suits come out to the destroyed fields to leave babies to die because of their biological difference, while worrying about the future of human fertility. Esme and her group go through the fields to rescue these abandoned children of a humanity that fears biological difference, telling these children how beautiful they are for their diversity from bodily norms. Esme and her group of abandoned children are trying to make the world outside of the city livable again while the city-dwellers consistently deny the changes that they have wrought. The city dwellers waste human life because the life forms they encounter don’t conform to their notions of beauty.

Camille Alexa provides a commentary on the ableist (able-bodied centred) world that we currently live in. She creates an exaggerated ableist future to point to issues regarding biological diversity and disability in our current world. Disabilities are made more prevalent and occurring more often, and people with disabilities face even more discrimination – having their lives and rights taken away completely rather than facing the likelihood of facing a life of reduced rights, government control, and the medicalised body. Her future population tries to euthanize functioning human bodies because they differ from a socially determined norm and they justify these actions as humanitarian because they cannot imagine people living with diverse bodies. Rather than shifting their own notions of what is bodily acceptable, they eliminate difference and further regulate and control the body.

Ideas of the danger of birth continue into Daniel LeMoal’s short story “Destroyer”, where small elements of future populations have developed the ability to project dreams into the minds of others. When a child begins to show an increased ability to control the minds around him, he is seen as a biological threat. Like Camille Alexa’s story, this apocalyptic narrative focusses on the danger embodied in the future – represented by children. Apocalyptic narratives are fundamentally about the future, and, therefore tales about children and the potential embodied in future generations brings attention to the impact we have on the future of the world.

Karl Johanson’s “Frats and Cheers” is probably the most terrifying narrative in this volume for me since it shows a future population that is so inundated with media manipulation that it has lost the ability to think for itself. His population is terrifying because it shows a magnification of the modern disinterest in challenging and questioning messages. His future population enjoys reality T.V. more than the actual reality of the world around them, and actively avoids interest in world affairs, while being content to have their messages fed to them. This is a narrative of the dangers of apocalyptic stupidity – truly terrifying.

Timothy Gerwing plays with ideas of religious apocalypse narratives and portrays a future that is visited by an avenging angel in his “Hog-Killing Weather”. Gerwing turns religious apocalyptic narratives on their end by creating an angel who punishes religious zealots as much as any others who show a fundamental inhumanity.

Al Onia, also playing with religious narratives of the apocalypse, presents us with four horsemen who are gathered together to fight the four horsemen of the apocalypse in “Knights Exemplar”. Despite their desire to save the world around them, they are subject to the social fear and hatred of outsiders that becomes magnified in times of crisis.

Douglas Smith’s “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” creates a different kind of religious narrative of the apocalypse when he presents the embodiment of Chaos and Order and their child, the Walker, who is seeking balance between these forces. Reality is crumbling as Order and Chaos seek to maintain their old status quo and prevent new changes in the world. This is a tale of epic love when a mortal gets caught between a battle of the gods. Smith reminds us that we have the potential to change the world around us and that self-sacrifice can be a means of making the world around us better.

Leslie Brown’s “Mesa at the Edge of the World” portrays a future in which the government has provided a method of euthanasia for any who want to commit suicide. Rather than putting funding into health care and psychological care programmes, the government has shown a willingness to ship people who seek suicide out into the desert so that they can hurl themselves into a vortex. Brown illustrates the treatment of people with psychological disabilities as disposable objects and inconveniences.

The apocalyptic narratives in this On Spec issue are not ones of futility, hopelessness, or loss, but are rather reminders of the importance of continuing a battle for social justice and a reminder that we have the potential to change the world around us, to fight the apocalypses that we continually create around us.

You can explore On Spec at their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ and pick up a copy of this apocalyptic issue since the world didn’t end after all. Thank goodness you will have enough time to read this before the next apocalypse comes along.

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Interview with Noah Chinn

An Interview with Noah Chinn by Derek Newman-Stille

Noah Chinn is the author of Bleeding Heart Yard (about werewolves, witches, and

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

romantic curses) and Trooper # 4 (a post-apocalyptic adventure). Noah Chinn tends to play with ideas of comedy and humour while dealing with issues of disaster and destruction… and he brings some of that humour to this interview. I hope you enjoy laughing in the apocalypse with Noah Chinn as much as I did. If you have not already read my review of Bleeding Heart Yard, you can check it out at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/bewitched-beloved-and-between-worlds/ 

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

Noah Chinn: Hmmm… I could just give you a boring standard mini bio, or I could give you some interesting highlights that make me sound like a rock star. What to do, what to do?  Yeah, let’s go with the latter.

I’ve bicycled across Canada and eight other countries (including Japan, England, France and Germany). I’ve hiked a few mountains, including Fuji and Snowden, as well as a few in B.C.  I lived in Japan for three years teaching English, and England for five years running a bookstore. I proposed to my wife on the stage of the Lord of the Rings musical (with an Elvish ring no less). I had a long running comic strip online and in print, and now have two novels published with a third on the way.  I got caught up in the middle of a riot once.  Sometimes I babysit a ferret.

Spec Can: Your story Trooper # 4 is a post-apocalyptic narrative. What got you interested in writing about apocalyptic themes?

Noah Chinn: I wonder if the appeal of post-apocalypse is an urban-centric phenomenon.  How many people raised on prairie farms are fans of Mad Max?  Some of us daydream about how we could survive in such a world, while others just like being taken out of their comfort zone.  It’s not just the threat of death, after all. It’s all the things you take for granted being taken away.

They also say that there are only three types of stories: man versus nature, man versus man, man versus himself.  Facing a post apocalypse usually means dealing with all three.

But really my attraction to those stories is the personal challenge.  The idea that if you keep your wits about you and learn the rules, you can adapt and survive any imagined hell.  The real question is, do you keep your humanity in the process?

Spec Can: People often suggest that those who read apocalyptic narratives are negative in some way. What do you think are some of the characteristics of those who read and write apocalyptic narratives?

Noah Chinn: I’m not sure people who read apocalyptic narratives are necessarily negative. Granted there are a lot of stories where the prospect is bleak once the story ends.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – holy hell.  Great book, but you don’t exactly expect the human race to survive long afterwards. We’re pretty much doomed.

But sometimes the stories are about overcoming, surviving, and the possibility of rebuilding.  And sometimes it’s about the world changing. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, is a good example.  Homo Sapiens might be at an end, but we’ve also become something else.

And then there’s World War Z by Max Brooks, probably my favorite of the Zombie genre.  In that case it’s not only about the end of the world, but fighting to take the world back, and dealing with the new reality in a rational way.  In that sense it’s quite positive.

Spec Can: What is the apocalyptic theme that fascinates you most and what is so interesting and exciting about it?

Noah Chinn: I think some people (especially in film) mistake fatalism and hopelessness with being exciting. To me it sucks the tension away.

Where’s the fun in being thrown into a hell you CAN’T possibly survive or fight back against?  Where the enemy is unstoppable and invincible?  That was always my problem with the War of the Worlds movies and films like Independence Day – they always had the aliens utterly invincible (baring a convenient fluke that allows us to learn more about them) until the germs get to them (or in Independence Day, a virus, heh).  If the story was aboutescaping, that could work, but it’s not.

What made HG Wells’ novel superior, in my opinion, was that the Martians were vastly superior to us, but NOT invincible.  The scene where the HMS Thunder Child destroys two Tripods makes you realize the Martians aren’t invulnerable, but we are still so vastly outmatched that the end result is still the same.

That tiny bit of hope adds to the hopelessness of the situation, which has far more tension than constant failure.  And it keeps the reader thinking about “but what if they try this” instead of just giving up and waiting for the characters to keep running away.  I think the movie Aliens succeeds in a similar way.  Sure, you can shoot them, but they can be anywhere, they’re smart, and there’s always more of them.

So to me what fascinates me most is trying to find the solution to the problem – whether it’s the survival of the species or just the main character.  If it’s just about counting down the minutes till you kiss your ass goodbye and praying for a deus ex machina type miracle, then it’s just not as interesting to me.

Spec Can: How can apocalyptic themed novels raise social awareness about current social issues? What can readers learn by reading apocalyptic narratives?

Noah Chinn: It depends on who is handling it and what kind of story they’re trying to tell.   Some stories are big into metaphors and symbolism, and sometimes have the fall of civilization tied in with various social elements.  Sometimes a story has the survivors represent different facets of humanity, and the story is a microcosm of society.

To bring up some of the books mentioned earlier, World War Z does a very good job of dealing with a lot of contemporary social, cultural, political, medical and even military ideas to explain not only how the end comes about, but how different countries cope with what’s next.  But it’s not doing it through symbolism.

I Am Legend essentially shows how the last man on earth ends up becoming the boogeyman of the next civilization.  In many ways the story reflects the nature of revolutions in the real world, and how the old regimes are vilified.

My own take on it in Trooper #4 is of a far more personal and internalized nature.  I’d rather not say more than that.  Spoilers, y’know.

Spec Can: What role does curiosity play in creating a better future?

Noah Chinn: Curiosity is one of the reasons we are who we are.  We ask ourselves questions and we try to find answers.  Sometimes we make things better, sometimes we make things worse – but even when we make things worse that same curiosity gives us the capacity to try and fix it.

The other reason we are who we are, I believe, is storytelling because we’re the only species that can imagine a different reality than what we’re in, and not only communicate it, but get others interested in it as well.  And at some point someone might try to make it happen. Nobody would have bothered going to the moon if nobody was curious about it, or told stories about how to get there or what we might find.

Spec Can: Trooper # 4 features a woman who has lost her memory. Why is memory loss such a popular topic in fiction at the moment? What fascinates us so much about losing one’s memory?

Noah Chinn: Is it?  I must have forgotten that….

On the one hand it’s an easy gimmick.  Few writers if any have their characters fleshed out before they start writing them.  The process of writing is in part the process of finding out who your characters are.  And if they have no memory then everything’s as much a surprise to them as it is to you.  It also conveniently locks away information that the character might otherwise have that you don’t want them to know until a later time.  But that’s me being half heartedly cynical about the writer’s stake in the game.

From the reader’s angle there is genuine curiosity about solving a puzzle.  Memory loss on its own isn’t that interesting except from a scientific standpoint.  But in a story the memory loss is almost always somehow connected to the story.  Why they lost their memory might be central to the plot, or what they forgot is key to unlocking a mystery or saving the day.  It also makes anyone and everyone involved in the story unreliable – especially the person who lost their memory.

Spec Can: Your novel Bleeding Heart Yard is partially about a man who discovers his “true love” but is cursed to be unable to communicate with her apart from swearing. Why are supernatural narratives such great places to explore ideas of love and relationships?

Noah Chinn: Probably because it gives the characters something unusual to overcome, and can be metaphors for something else entirely. Twilight is supposed to be about abstinence, for example.  And I think most people can relate to the idea of putting your foot in your mouth when trying to talk to a boy/girl you like, so a curse like this lets you ramp up that effect in every possible way.

Spec Can: Why is the theme of the curse popular? How does it speak to modern readers?

Cover photo of Bleeding Heart Yard, courtesy of the author

Cover photo of Bleeding Heart Yard, courtesy of the author

Noah Chinn: A curse is something imposed on you, something out of your control.  You can point a finger at who did it, but you can’t really do anything about it.  I think we all feel cursed now and then – bad stuff happens and we think “What did I do to deserve this?” as if we actually DID do something, instead of just the random nature of the universe.  It taps into our paranoia of someone or something that has it in for us. But it also gives us a target for our attention, rather than a vague sense of bad things happening, you have something specific and defined.  In an odd way, it brings order to that chaos, which means there’s a chance to do something about it, instead of just swinging at shadows.

Spec Can: What myths of the monstrous and magical do you draw on when you write?

Noah Chinn: Whatever is handy.  Whether you’re using something that’s existed for millennia or inventing something new, the truly important thing is consistency.  Monsters , magic, and myth all have to follow rules. They can be broad rules, but they need to be there so you know what the limits are and work within them (or, if you break them, come up with a reason explaining how and why).

Spec Can: What is different about Canadian stories of the supernatural from those of other nations?

Noah Chinn: I honestly can’t say. We apologize more?

Spec Can: What werewolf myths do you create and how are they different from the werewolves of other authors?

Noah Chinn: In Bleeding Heart Yard I wanted to have a creature that wasn’t exactly a werewolf, but something that werewolves could have been based on – as well as a number of other mythical creatures.  The species in the book has a couple of key powers and vulnerabilities that make it broadly applicable to everything from werewolves and vampires to rakshasa and wendigos. But in actuality they are simians that simply evolved along different lines from humans in a parallel world where magic is strong.

Cute little coincidence: the year after Bleeding Heart Yard came out Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter published The Long Earth, which has a similar idea (tying the creatures to elves and trolls instead) as well as the notion of parallel worlds one can jump to one at a time (which is also in BHY). In my case the ideas are simply touched upon, whereas in The Long Earth they are the full focus of the story.    

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realistic” fiction can’t?

Noah Chinn: Depends who you ask, but the most obvious answer is you’re not constrained by reality to get your message across. You could write a story about banning books in a realistic fiction story set in modern day, sure.  But what if you wanted to take it further to get your point across? It would be of hard to write something with the impact of Fahrenheit 451 without creating a society in which all books are banned.  You need to think not only of why, but what form that world would take, how people live their lives, the consequences of that culture on people’s behavior, and so on.  You need to create a world that doesn’t exist, but you can believe could – even if only for the duration of the story.

Spec Can: Are there any other ideas or thoughts that you would be interested in sharing with your readers?

Noah Chinn: Eat your Wheaties and drink your Ovaltine.  Don’t do drugs.

I want to thank Noah Chinn for this insightful and humourous interview. There is nothing quite like a talk about apocalyptic themes where you spend most of the time chuckling.