Beyond the Pale (Vampire)

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

One type of vampire story tend to flood the market – the sexy male vampire who is iridescently pale, wealthy, and feeds on women in an erotic embrace. Silvia Moreno-Garcia has again and again demonstrated her love for horror, but also her desire to shift the tired old narratives, dust off the layers of racism and sexism to find new narratives. Certain Dark Things is a revitalization of the vampire narrative, allowing it to kick off the detritus of the past to tell some new stories. 

Moreno-Garcia sets her story in Mexico City in contrast to the vast number of vampire narratives set in the United States or the United Kingdom. Her vampires are not the pale, white European figures of vampire romances, or, at least not all of them are. Her narrative focuses on Atl, a Tlahuihpochtli, an indigenous vampire of the Mexico region who can trace her lineage back to the Aztecs. Moreno-Garcia’s vampires have multiple different subsets, each with different characteristics and hailing from different geographies, and often the only thing they share in common is their hunger for blood. There are European vampires in her narrative, calling themselves Necros and fitting most of the characteristics of the vampires that generally populate the pages of paranormal romance novels, but these vampires are not sexy, otherworldly beings. They control human beings through their bite, which can turn human beings into slaves, without any will. 

Moreno-Garcia explores displacement narratives in her interactions between the Tlahuihpochtli and the Necros, exploring the way that the European Necros brought diseases with them when they came to Mexico and have been trying to push the Tlahuihpochtli out of their native landscapes. She makes connection between this displacement by Europeans and historical displacements of human indigenous populations by Europeans. The Necros brought pathogens with them that made the blood of many humans intolerable to the Tlahuihpochtli, and with the rise of a new disease Croneng’s disease, the government has decided to create sanitation groups whose goals seem to be as much about harassing the homeless population and institutionalizing people with disabilities as they are about dealing with the spread of a pathogen. 

Health is a huge part of Moreno-Garcia’s narrative. Uniting the vampire with ideas of health is powerful since the vampire is often a figure of excessive health, and yet, in most vampire narratives, vampirism spreads like a pathogen. In Certain Dark Things vampirism is an ethnicity, a genetic group and cannot be passed from one person to another, but that doesn’t eliminate the health narrative Moreno-Garcia explores. She examines the role of institutionalization and its impact on populations in poverty, exploring the way that health and wealth often go hand in hand. The bite of the Necros vampires, although not able to turn someone into a vampire, does take away all of their agency, turning them into a slave through a viral contagion in their saliva that will eventually kill the human host. All vampire species are hard to kill and long-lived, but one of the other vampire species is especially known for its interaction with health – the Revenant. The Revenant subspecies is exceptionally long-lived, and can feed on both blood and the life force of others. These Revenants seem to de-age when they are infused with enough life force, appearing younger, and in creating them, Moreno-Garcia plays with the traditional narrative of the person who gains eternal youth by becoming a vampire. These vampires always look somewhat disabled no matter how young they become, still having a hunched appearance, complicating ideas of the excessive ability of the vampire and the ableism that often comes along with this portrayal of the vampire. Many of the governments in the world of Certain Dark Things perceive of vampires as a plague even though they are a racial group, and this complicated relationship between ideas of health, illness and race bring attention to the way that in our own world there is often an assumption that illnesses come from outside, which affects travel, immigration, and often means that any pathogens that arise are eventually believed to come from other regions. 

Certain Dark Things doesn’t create a romantic story of wealth, but rather explores poverty. Her central human character, Domingo, is a street teen who has made his living collecting and purposing garbage. Domingo relishes his invisibility, the way people work to ignore him and pretend that he isn’t there because it is easier to do so than to admit that there are homeless young people. Yet, in pointing out the invisibility of homeless Youth, Moreno-Garcia brings it to the reader’s attention, reminding us of how hard we work to ignore social inequalities. This is a story of drug cartels, poverty, government and police abuses of power, and the monstrousness of corruption itself, which is a far more dangerous monster than Atl or her vampire cousins. But, she does use the figure of one Necros vampire, Nick, to point out the excesses of privilege that come with wealth and whiteness, having Nick frequently prioritize himself over anyone else, having him eat in excess, and showing the ease with which he exercises his power over women around him, particularly marginalized women. 

Certain Dark Things disrupts the Eurocentrism of vampire tales, providing an under-represented tale that needed to be told. 

To discover more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, visit her website at http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ 

Valuing Care

A review of Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As a society, we undervalue care and undervalue care workers. We tend to assume that people who do care work are doing it because they like helping people and we assume that the job is compensation enough. Even in the home, we de-value family members who provide care, viewing their care work as something that doesn’t need compensation. Care work is consistently treated as though it is not real labour and isn’t valued or compensated for. 

Part of this lack of value for care work stems from patriarchal beliefs that position care work as a feminine labour and therefore de-value it the same way that patriarchy de-values anything viewed as feminine. 

Care work has been in need to reimagining for some time. It has needed a fundamental disruption of social assumptions and a re-evaluating of the meaning of this labour. Using the medium of speculative fiction, a genre devoted to asking questions, Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound brings together stories that critically interrogate the way that we imagine care and care-giving. These stories take a broad exploration of what care can mean, looking at parental care, long term care homes, social responsibilities for care, foster care, maternal care, elder care, medical care by doctors and nurses, the care relationships of pets, and even the care roles of insectile species’ (since care isn’t just a human trait). These stories examine complexities of care that are critical to this culture moment such as what is the value of care?, what difference does quality care make?, what is quality of life?, is care the role of home or the state?, what are the gendered dynamics of care-giving?, why do we de-value care-givers?, how much responsibility should parents have in the care of their children?, and what is the role of robotics in care? These are all critical questions that are in need of complex and creative answers and The Sum of Us invites readers to think critically about them. It doesn’t introduce easy answers about care-giving, but instead invites readers to explore often contrary ideas about care, asking readers to come up with their own critical questions and creative answers to the meaning of care.

These are tales of robots, aliens, insects, future wars, supervillains, nanites, other worlds, plagues, and mutants, but at their core, these are all tales about what caring means, and these are real, human questions. They may be explored through the lens of the alien, but they are fundamentally about human values and what care means to us. Sometimes the only way to get us to ask critical questions about the way that we value (or de-value) caring labour is to project our modes of care onto another, onto the future, onto another society, onto the inhuman so that we ask ourselves “if this makes us upset when we see an alien doing it, what does it mean that we are doing the same thing?”

To read some of the reviews of individual stories in this collection, see my review of:

Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/25/skating-on-the-thin-ice-of-sports-masculinity/

Juliet Marillier’s “The Gatekeeper”

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/the-reaper-cat/

Edward Willett’s “The Mother’s Keeper”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/08/insectile-intimacies/

Sandra Kasturi’s “The Beautiful Gears of Dying”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/06/exposing-the-caregiver-within-the-human-suit/

A.M. Dellamonica’s “Bottleneck” 

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/06/10/caregiving-at-war/

Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Dreams as Fragile as Glass” 

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/breakable/ 

Kate Story’s “Am I Not A Proud Outlier”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/28/what-is-means-to-be-an-outsider/
To find out more about The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/ 

Inverted Worlds

A Review of Jeff Lemire’s Trillium (Vertigo, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

1921 Earth and 3797, two worlds separated and connected by timelines, lives, temples, and trilliums. Jeff Lemire’s graphic style pulls together two narratives, linking two lives together. William, a man traumatized by war and Nika, a scientist in the future are strung together through circumstance and through their connection both of their worlds are inverted. By literally inverting one set of panels under another, portraying one story reversed, Lemire’s graphic style invites readers to see the interconnection between worlds and yet their ability to run in contrast to each other.

Lemire’s “Trillium” is a science fiction comic about cross-cultural and cross-temporal communication and the intersection of lives. Lemire’s protagonists Nika and William oppose the war-driven societies they came from that were willing to infringe on the lives of others to secure their own goals whether it be a cure from a plague that is sweeping across human intergalactic civilisations or a quest for the riches of history without regard for indigenous inhabitants. Both time periods are intimately self-interested and it is only through a willingness to bridge the gap between peoples that new knowledge and experience can be gained. “Trillium” is a tale about questioning what we believe to be true, all of the assumptions and ideas that shape our experience of the world and being willing to learn from our questioning mindset, challenging established patterns of knowledge.

Like the trillium itself, which in this graphic novel serves to facilitate a connection between those who ingest it, Lemire’s work serves to open up the idea that communication is multifaceted, multi-sensory, and requires complex ways of listening.

To read more about Jeff Lemire and his work, visit his website at http://jefflemire.wix.com/jefflemire

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 .