Secret Identities

Secret Identities

A review of James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded (Tor, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, continues his exploration of the superhero. Gardner focusses his narrative on the perspective of another of his superheroes, Jools, whose superhero identity is 99, an homage to Wayne Gretzky. 99 has the ability to be the best in the world at any given profession and has access to all of the knowledge of wikipedia, which she calls her WikiJools ability. Yet Gardner’s heroes are never so simple, and Jools’ incredible ability also contains the potential for her to fall into the mad genius role.

In Gardner’s superhero universe, characters are constrained by story and by superhero tropes. The universe literally shapes people into comic book tropes. Gardner uses this method to examine tropes of superheroes and to complicate them, but, like in most of his narratives, Gardner is most interested in the power of story and the way that stories shape the characters and people that come into contact with them. In having his characters resist the roles their world tries to force on them, Gardner uses these characters to illustrate and complicate those tropes, playing with what it means to be a superhero, a supervillain… or someone who doesn’t want to be either. Characters recognize that certain things will work in their universe primarily because they make a good story.

As much as Gardner is fascinated by the mechanics of the superhero universe, his primary focus is on character and his characters are complex, often coming into conflict with what they think they should or shouldn’t be. Gardner has always been a strong writer of character-centred narratives, and the superhero narrative provides him with a space to examine characters because of the comic narrative of the secret and dual identity. Superheroes already have complicated engagements with identities and made the perfect space to explore the multiplicity of identities people express throughout the day. Jools, a character with self confidence issues, is able to further highlight character complexity as she searches for the real her, the TRUE identity. In They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded Jools not only takes on her role as the superhero 99, but also takes on another superhero identity, joining a second superhero group temporarily in order to ponder who she is. Not only does Jools’ identity change with her costumes, she also sees others who exemplify who she could be, watching heroes who are entirely hijacked by their superhero identity and losing themselves in them, and watching a mad scientist at work, exemplifying Jools’ greatest fear about her abilities. Indeed, one character tells her that being a Spark, a superhero, is like an infection and that it changes who one is and overrides their personality in order for them to fit the narrative.

Gardner tells a story of the struggle for identity amidst a changing world, examining the way that people shift and change for different needs. But on an authorial level, he also explores the struggle between character-driven narratives and world-building-focussed narratives. Not only is Gardner telling a powerful story, he is highlighting the nuances of story itself.

To discover more about James Alan Gardner, go to https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To find out more about They Promised Me The Ray Gun Wasn’t Loaded, go to https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780765398789

Story Gestation

Story Gestation

A review of “Where Roots and Rivers Run as Veins” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (Exile, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

It is an incredible experience to view a story at its gestation, to be able to watch as the seeds of inspiration take root in an author’s mind. I had that opportunity when my friend Dominik Parisien visited me in Peterborough and our meanderings through the city’s woods and drumlines inspired Dominik with a story about the landscape and the relationship between people and their environment.

I watched as Peterborough’s greenery inspired new ideas, led Dominik though some of the city’s history and saw resonance with ideas that were rooted in his own understanding of the world and in the stories that he needed to tell. Peterborough became fascinating through the eyes of another author, awakened from the banality that I had projected onto my home, the casual boredom that allowed me to ignore the wondrous potential of the landscape.

It is fascinating how new perspectives can arise by seeing something mundane through the eyes of another, by seeing a landscape be awakened with new stories since the old ones had become so much background noise for me.

Dominik Parisien wrote the epistolary story “Where Roots and Rivers Run as Veins” after our meanderings around Peterborough, and as much as it is a conversation between two women during the time of Catharine Parr Traill, this tale is also about Parisien’s own conversation with a landscape that was new to him, a reminder that we always speak with our landscapes and they always speak back. “Where Roots and Rivers Run as Veins” is a tale of people becoming part of the landscape, of an infection of leaves and bark and twigs where people become tress, growing roots into a landscape already rooted with history. It is a whispering of landscape to settlers and the need of a place not to be erased.

“Where Roots and Rivers Run as Veins” is a story of awakening and transformation, a tale of the power of words to open up new understandings and new ways of communing with the landscape. It is a tale of renewal and of a landscape that won’t surrender itself to human greed or ownership.

It is also a meta story that is as much about Parisien’s own conversation with the landscape of Peterborough – a sense of wonder arisen from a landscape that still needs to speak – as it is an epistolary conversation between two women who are new arrivals to the area.

To find out more about Those Who Make Us, visit http://www.exileeditions.com/shop/those-who-make-us-the-exile-book-of-anthology-series-number-thirteen/.

To discover more about Dominik Parisien, visit https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com

Confusion

Confusion

A review of Karin Lowachee’s “Invasio”in Shades Within Us: Tales of Migration and Fractured Borders Edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Groups Inc., 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Telling a tale of mass migration after an apocalyptic invasion, Karin Lowachee’s “Invasio” explores the confusion associated with diaspora and the search for a new home. Although her narrator never describes details of the invasion, there are inferences of an alien invasion that has resulted in a scattered few escaping out of cities and major populated areas, relying on their survival skills to survive.

Lowachee explores the “I will do anything to survive” motif that is popular in a lot of survival stories, particularly apocalyptic ones, however, her narrator repeatedly questions whether she is the villain. Rather than telling herself she is a good person for putting her own survival first, the narrator relates her experiences and actions to the various science fiction and fantasy books she has read and realizes that she can’t justify the actions she has taken to survive and the impact that it has had on the lives around her.

This is not a straightforward tale, but rather it is stream of consciousness, illustrating the confusion of memory, current experience, and speculation that occurs when people are in situations of desperation. Her character is without a touchstone, without a connection to home or family that can keep her identity intact and instead experiences a slipperiness of identity and experience, an uncertainty that accompanies major lifestyle changes and loss of land. The narrator’s experiences are so unlike the privileged life she has led that she can only relate them to the fiction books and films she has experienced, understanding herself through speculation and imaginative works.

Lowachee creates a tale that dissociates the reader, makes the reader uncertain, uncomfortable, and evokes a need to pay attention deeper to the transformative actions the narrator is undergoing. This is a tale of profound loss and confusion. As much as it is a tale of aliens, it is also a tale of alienation.

To discover more about Shades Within Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/shades-within-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause/

To find out more about Karin Lowachee, visit http://www.karinlowachee.com

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 58: An Interview with Evelyn Deshane

As part of Write on the Street Peterborough, I had the opportunity to interview author Evelyn Deshane for this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio. We discuss trans literature, horror, genre-crossing, disability, synesthesia, queer fiction, and the relationship between place and identity.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

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This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

You can explore Evelyn Deshane’s website at https://evedeshane.wordpress.com/ .

You Are What You Eat

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s “Slow Cold Chick” in Northern Frights 5 (Mosaic Press, 1999)
By Derek Newman-Stille

We are shaped by what we eat, by what we consume and Nalo Hopkinson’s “Slow Cold Chick” is an examination of the relationship between food, identity, and selfhood. Food is transformative. When Blaise finds rotting eggs and rotting hot sauce in her fridge and throws them out, but rotting is a process of transformation itself and the interaction of rotten egg and hot sauce breathes new life into the rotting fetus. A cockatrice is formed, with blazing eyes and incredible hunger. Like the hot sauce, the cockatrice is all fire – anger, heat and desire.

The cockatrice needs to eat and whenever it consumes something, it takes on the characteristics of its food, altering and changing to incorporate elements of its food into itself. Blaise also discovers that food shapes her neighbours, that the woman next door who reminds her of prehistoric Venus figurines eats flower petals and her stony companion eats raw earth, both of them taking on qualities of their chosen food.

Food can remind us of home and it can connect us to the landscape by providing us with nourishment from the locales where we collect it. Blaise, like her neighbours and the cockatrice that makes its home with her, is shaped by the foods she eats and her connection to the landscape. Eating allows her to connect with that part of herself that she has closed off, that she has alienated herself from, and the act of eating allows her to connect to parts of herself that she has denied: her desires, heat, anger, and passion.

To discover more about Nalo Hopkinson, visit her website at nalohopkinson.com

A Mosaic of Stories

A review of Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson’s Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast (Edge 2013)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

It is very exciting to see one of the prestigious Tesseracts books sharing a name with this website. I was quite honoured to see that they had chosen a name that matched the name I created for my website. Tesseracts has been a Canadian SF institution since Judith Merril edited the first collection in 1985, recognising that there was a need for a Canadian collection of SF and that there was something distinct about Canadian spec fic that could only come out by bringing works of Canadian SF together in a collection instead of the random inclusions of Canadian SF in American and British anthologies.

Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast is an exciting addition to this historic institution and rather than focusing on a single theme or idea, this collection sought to bring together Canadians from around Canada in order to capture some of the distinct flavours of Canadian SF from our diverse regions. Canada is a huge country and this collection was a huge endeavor. While reading this collection, I found myself flipping back to the author descriptions to constantly find out where authors were from to get a sense of that regional flavour, an idea of whether Canadian SF ‘tastes’ differently in different parts of our country. Tesseracts Seventeen provided a chance to travel across this country, but also into the minds of Canadians: their visions of the future, their travels across the universe, and their ventures into the unknown. Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson were able to capture a tiny bit of Canadian diversity, a few wondrous tiles of the mosaic of thoughts and perspectives that creates the overall picture of Canada.

The tales in this collection bring together ideas about family, memory, privacy, religious fanaticism, dreams, isolation, the history of residential schools, aging, stigma and identity, issues of conformity, poverty and the exploitation of workers, … namely, issues relevant to Canada today and our constant pondering of Northrop Frye’s question “where is here?”, speculating about what Canada is and how to define our identity. Despite most stories being set in the future, on other worlds, in other realities, Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast speaks very much to Canadian realities, questions of today, and issues relevant to this world.

From a church devoted to Star Trek’s Spock to imaginary friends to ageing ghosts to sacred kitchen recipes to a galactic civilization that forces conformity to living graffeti … this is a book of Canadian magic, a passport to the Canadian beyond.

You can read reviews of individual short stories on this site at:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/19/life-drained-by-residential-schools/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/15/haunting-disability/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/chilly-renewal/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/cityscapes/

You can explore Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast at Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess0/about-tesseracts.html

Cityscapes

A Review of Lisa Poh’s “Graffiti Borealis” in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada From Coast to Coast (Edge, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Our urban environments are places of identity, places where one can find oneself, but they are also places of loss. Lisa Poh’s Graffiti Borealis is about the notion of finding a voice and finding a place in the city. Daniel, having moved to Canada for his dream job, finds himself out of place. The city is a strange place, particularly since all of the graffiti on the walls come to life around him and call his attention to him.
Graffiti is generally seen as a form of vandalism, but Poh explores the potential for it to be a medium for people without voices to speak, to claim the urban environment for themselves as they are pushed to the fringes and to be able to say something despite being largely silenced. Graffiti can represent the need to speak, to express, and graffiti can be a form of resistance to erasure. In Graffiti Borealis, the graffiti literally NEEDS to speak, not for the author, but for itself, calling the attention of Daniel, who is one of the few people who can see graffiti art move and hear it speak. He is called upon by urban art to save tags and other street art from a section of the city that is being demolished as part of an urban renewal project. The graffiti itself fears being erased as the city re-forms itself once again to privilege certain architecture and certain inhabitants.
Daniel finds another person who is out of place, a Haitian-Canadian graffiti artist who has been able to see her graffiti move, but not had the opportunity to speak to her own art. Calling herself La Gueparde, the artist also wants to rescue the graffiti from obliteration and bring it into new vitality elsewhere, to give it a home in an urban environment where everyone is trying to find a sense of home.
The connection between graffiti and the notion of finding home is made even stronger when La Gueparde refers to the rescued works of art as “refugees”, bringing to mind the search for a home and the need to find a place of one’s own. Despite being an inherently temporary medium, constantly being erased, tagged over, and modified, graffiti serves here as an evocation of a love of place, a way to make a place of home out of an isolating urban environment. Poh, by making the graffiti in her fiction a portable medium, alive, vibrant, and full of movement and identity, underscores the power of this art form for creating a sense of belonging, and since Daniel and La Gueparde are both figures trying to find their voice and place in the city, giving them the power to move the graffiti by summoning it off of the surfaces it occupies gives them the power of being mediators in discovering a place of belonging.
To find out more about Tesseracts Seventeen, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess17/t17-catalog.html

Definitely Not A Chameleon.

A Review of Jason Loo’s The Pitiful Human-Lizard Issue 1 (May, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Few superheroes call themselves “pitiful”. Most tend to hypermasculinize themselves to try to make themselves seem beyond the human, more powerful, further beyond moral critique, but Jason Loo’s The Pitiful Human-Lizard plays with the superhero genre and opens it to critique, question, and, yes, pity.

Jason Loo brings a distinctly Canadian aesthetic to the superhero genre and challenges the notion of moral ease for heroic work. His superhero The Pitiful Human-Lizard has few powers at the start – glue that allows him to stick to walls, but no super strength, no laser vision, no power ring… and he keeps failing his Brazilian Jujitsu classes. Also… he has to hold on to a regular day job… and, with transit time on the subway, that doesn’t give him much time to engage in the superhero business. In order to make ends meet and pay for the repairs to his costume, he even has to undergo drug trials.

Loo creatively takes on the hypermasculinity and intense gender divisions of the superhero genre by creating a superhero who is nominally pitiful, and minimally powerful. He is incredibly outclassed by Toronto’s female superhero Mother Wonder, who has all of the powers (super strength, invulnerability, laser vision) of Superman AND is also a mother with children. The Pitiful Human Lizard just wants to have a chance to collaborate with the big leagues, which is a nice change from the majority of the comic industry which generally leaves the superheroine in the support role. The Pitiful Human-Lizard dwells mostly in the shadows around greater heroes, often serving as a distraction for villains rather than a key threat.

Most superheroes are created by a fundamental loneliness, which is constructed as the necessary setting for creating a figure dependent on no one but themselves to emphasize the superhero’s personification of the American dream of ultimate independence and self reliance. But, he is not a self made man. The Pitiful Human-Lizard relies on his (very much living) parents, piecing together various networks of support in order to conduct his acts of superheroism.

Jason Loo is comfortable expressing the fallibility of superheroes, disrupting their certainty, and in so doing, pointing out the arrogance of the “regular” superhero and our need as a society to have a superhero who is uncertain.

Loo has created a Toronto superhero, putting him in battles at Toronto scenes like the Royal Ontario Museum to counter the habit of Hollywood for trying to create Toronto as the Everycity, filming in Toronto but then calling it New York, Seattle, or whatever city they need for the plot of their film. He has created a superhero who talks about the issues of Toronto life as he travels from place to place on the TTC (subway) and, at the end of this first comic, encounters a supervillain who bears a striking resemblance to Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford.

This is a lizard who is not a chameleon… he is fundamentally at odds with his place, uncertain, and questioning. He expresses the diasporic feeling of many people in large cities, lost to obscurity but wondrously awkward.

To find out more about The Pitiful Human-Lizard, visit the facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/PitifulHumanLizard or the kickstarter page at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/761064731/torontos-new-superhero-the-pitiful-human-lizard-is

Superheroic Questions

A review of Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny by Mark Shainblum and Garbriel Morrissette (Caliber Press, 1989)

Comic books are often treated as a lower form of culture and considered to be pure pleasure reading without intellectual interest, but comic books, like any other form of text, offer a vision of the world around us and the speculative nature of the format offers us a series of questions to ask about normalcy. The superhero genre, in particular, evokes questions about what constitutes heroism, what makes someone special or different, and comments on the way we look at ideas of justice and moral rightness, which are entirely subjective.

Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette’s Northguard is a figure that offers a critical lens to the superhero genre. He is not the moral guardian who is sure of his rightness and always saving the day, but rather is insecure, uncertain, and cautious in his approach. He does not seek to impose his idea of rightness, but rather dwells in a space of moral question, critiquing himself and his choices. All of this contrasts nicely with the key enemy in the collection Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny, the organizsation ManDes, an American religious fundamentalist group who sees Canada as an embodiment of weakness to the North, too passive, too diverse, and sinful in our allowance of diversity. ManDes is a group that embodies patriarchal misogyny, religious intolerance, capitalist monopolism, and white supremacy.

P.A.C.T. (Progressive Allied Canadian Technologies) has formed in Montreal to stop organizations like ManDes from imposing their corporate control over people and doing social harm. They form a system to keep multinationals in check. In their attempt to provide a set of balances against other corporate powers, they created a device called the uniband, which has the power to reverse the laws of thermodynamics and operate beyond the restrictions of physics… and it can be integrated into the human body. When the person who has originally worked with the uniband and attuned it to his biorhythms is killed, P.A.C.T. ends up finding an unlikely candidate to wear this personal arsenal: Philip Wise, a comic book fan. Philip only asks for one thing: that he be allowed to design his own suit to operate the machine, one modeled after his own superhero fantasies and featuring the prominence of the Canadian flag.

Philip’s uneasy relationship with the flag represents a microcosm of the Canadian uncertainty around embodying ourselves in a patriotic symbol. Unlike American figures like Captain America, that easily wear the flag and represent a certain brand of American patriotism, Canadians on the whole have been a little less certain about a figure that wears his or her patriotism on the outside and Northguard is the perfect character to embody that uncertainty. Before he decides to model his costume after the maple leaf and dress in red and white, he throws the flag down on the ground yelling at it “mean something”, bringing to his own experience of uncertainty to his garb as well as his conflicting need to have the flag mean something for him. In this simple act, Northguard is able to take up an aspect of Canadian identity: the perpetual search for what Canadian identity can mean.

His own interaction with Canadianness also embodies a particular Canadian notion of dualistic identity and the potential for a multicultural reading. Philip is a Jewish Canadian living in Montreal – his identity is powerfully shaped by his ability to simultaneously represent Canadianness and Jewishness, and living in a city that is bilingual and multicultural. The power of his duality is marked nicely in the comic when the maple leaf on Northguard’s mask and chest are both overlaid by the Star of David, allowing the costume to simultaneously speak to Canadian identity and how that identity is made up of a multiplicity of cultures and cultural symbols.

Yet, ManDes sees Canada as weak because of this multiplicity and attempts to play into the perceived insecurity caused by a collective of cultural interests by purposely trying to play Francophone and Anglophone Canadians against each other, perpetrating violence and attributing it to one language group or the other. Northguard resists these attempts both by foiling these plots by also by trying to become bilingual himself, creating a French name for himself “Le Protecteur” and working with a French Canadian superhero named Fleur de Lys, who wears the symbols of Quebecois identity.

Northguard is able to embody the potential of the superhero to be a figure who evokes questions, both in his own morality and in the way Canadians see ourselves. Shainblum and Morrissette turn the Canadian question about “who are we?” into a suit of red and white, featuring a maple leaf that asks readers to keep questioning and to recognise the superpower that exists in the act of constantly questioning our identity and what we can and do represent.

Unfortunately, this collection is hard to come by and I hope that Shainblum and Morrissette are able to revive Northguard in the future.

To find out more about Mark Shainblum, visit his website at http://www.shainblum.com/

 

 

Blurring the Boundaries

A review of Greg Bechtel’s Boundary Problems (Freehand Books, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

We tend to think of boundaries as stable, fixed, unchangeable, but boundaries are inherently permeable, and any boundary that is created is created because someone or something is able to slip trough it. Greg Bechtel writes on these borderlands whether they be of genre (realism, science fiction, fantasy), gender (male, female, intersexed, trans, genderqueer) temporal (past, present, future), he shows a fascination with those luminal spaces and situations, heightened periods of intensity when things are shifting, because the reality is that everything is constantly in flux and stability is a fiction. And fiction, the stories that create us, constitute us, and shape our experience of the world, can be very much real.

Boundary Problems delves into a polyphonic mix of characters speaking themselves into the world from the margins, announcing their complexity and unwillingness to be captured in a single voice. Bechtel recognizes the inherent slipperiness of stories, the sense that writing a story down attempts to, but will never succeed in, fixing a story in one voice. Every reader will inherently read a story with their own voice, their own set of expectations and symbolic understandings. His characters fluctuate throughout the story, in some cases fluidly moving between gendered, racial, and sexual identities. He recognizes the permeability of story and personhood – that each filters into the other and that we are constituted by stories, tales that shape our identities. The uncertainty of his story endings speaks to this idea that he is only capturing a snapshot of a wider story and that the character has an existence separate from and larger than the story. He speaks to the continuity of all stories and that the stories that we write are fragments building a feeling, a state of being and an aesthetic for the reader but that no story is ever complete or done, but perpetually in progress. He reminds readers that writing endings is an artificial process, and that it limits the complexity of the notion of The Story itself.

Boundary Problems provides snapshots of the human experience, moments of people trying to make sense of the world around them. Bechtel shows an interest in going voice to people who have been expelled from the hegemony of “The Normal”, inserting those pushed to the fringes into a position of centrality. He reminds readers that those stories pushed to the fringes and devoiced are often the most complex, fascinating, and thought-provoking.

Bechtel’s collection explores that permeable place between speculative fiction and realist fiction, not shying away from either, but interweaving them – because reality IS speculative, and good speculative fiction should evoke questions and speculations about reality. Bechtel deals with real world issues like violence against women, place and selfhood, the policing and control of sexuality, surveillance and losses of freedoms, and the danger of hegemonic power structures silencing the voices of dissent, the voices who speak up against systemic violence and the erasure of their stories, their histories. Boundary Problems delves equally into quantum physics, magic, and the everyday experience of a coffee shop book reading… but all of these stories evoke something of the human experience, tell us about our relationships to each other, to our perceptions of ourselves, and to the world around us.

To read some reviews of individual short stories in this collection, see:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/sexy-shiftings-and-stirrings/

and

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/interweaving-worlds-of-possibility/

To discover more about the work of Greg Bechtel, visit his website athttp://gregbechtel.ca/ .

To read more about Boundary Problems, visit Freehand Books athttp://www.freehand-books.com/authors/greg-bechtel