Persistence of Memory

A Review of M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia (Anchor Canada, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

vassanji nostalgia

Memory is powerful and it can be fleeting, but M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia is a tale of memory’s ability to persist. Vassanji writes a near future fiction story in which immortality has been achieved, but in this future, everyone who undergoes rejuvination (the age reversal process) simultaneously has the memories of their past life erased for the new life as a younger person. But, memories are hard to erase and occasionally these memories resurface. These memories are pathologized in this world and are considered a medical disease colloquially called “nostalgia”. Vassanji creates a world that fears its past, that tries for an eternal present.

 

Vassanji invites us into the political questions raised by technology. He invites us to explore what would happen in a world that had a “cure” for ageing. Rejuvenation creates a series of social divides: between the aged and the young, the rich and the poor, and between medical ideas and religious. The young feel as though they are not able to make their place in the world because of the proliferance of older people being returned to youth. They engage in protests with slogans like “Let them go! The Earth for the Young! Let the Fogeys Die!”, viewing the aged as getting in the way of young people. Only the most wealthy can afford rejuvenation and those who undergo it keep generating further wealth, creating a greater wealth disparity bet the rich and the poor. The poor are often also the disenfranchised young, who are unable to get jobs in a world where all of the best positions are already occupied. They perceive of the older generation as needing to make way for the new generations. Yet the young are not the only ones to feel detached from their lives. Many of the ‘rejuvies’ feel a sense of disconnect in their lives, a sense of detachment and not fitting in.

 

Memory in Nostalgia is shaped by medical discourse, constructed as a danger to people’s current identities, which are authored by medical doctors who give people a new background for their new lives after rejuvenation, lives changed from the ones they are seeking to forget. The lives of the rejuvies are authored, constructed, and artificial, a veneer over a personality that has been suppressed to create the new rejuvenated self. These past lives are a threat in this medical discourse, dangerously causing a collision of personalities in the rejuvenated person. They call it “Leaked Memory Syndrome” (LMS). Yet, religious systems also engage with ideas of past lives, and religious groups have perspectives on what happens after death. They protest the damage being done spiritually through the proliferation of rejuvenated people.

 

Vassanji brings critical attention to these clashes between groups by putting us into the perspective of a doctor who deals with constructing identities for people undergoing rejuvenation, with a specialty in treating case of LMS or nostalgia, Dr. Frank Sina. Sina’s beliefs are deeply embedded in him, making him a firm believer in the mastry afforded by science, an almost zealous believer in the power of the medicine to cure the world’s ills. But even Sina’s beliefs can be challenged and they shift when he meets a man, Presley Smith, whose LMD memories seem to resonate with him and lead to his obsession with this man’s past.

 

This is a world divided not just by rejuvenation, but also by other political systems, where the wealthy parts of the world are walled off from the poorer parts of the world. This is a world where the memory constructing ability of rejuvination provides the perfect systems of assimilation for those from other countries, rewriting people’s pasts – their politics, their ideologies, and their belief systems to turn them into ‘perfect citizens’. Vissanji writes a narrative of totalitarian power and the power of memory in a political system for preventing erasure.

 

To discover more about Nostalgia, visit http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/183221/nostalgia#9780385667173

To discover more about the works of M.G. Vassanji, visit http://www.mgvassanji.com/

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EmptyA review of Drew Karpyshyn’s Star Wars The Old Republic: Revan (Del Rey, 2013).

By Derek Newman-Stille

  
I don’t often get a chance to talk about Star Wars since this is a site that examines Canadian Speculative Fiction, but Star Wars is a franchise that I have enjoyed since i was a child. So, i was extremely excited when i came across the work of Canadian author Drew Karpyshyn. In addition to writing the game Knights of the Old Republic, Karpyshyn has written several novels in the Star Wars franchise.

Star Wars the Old Republic: Revan takes long before the movies of the franchise in a time period when the Republic and its Jedi believe that they have wiped out the Sith Empire. This is a novel of political intrigue and the battle between light and darkness, but it is quintessentially a novel about people and personalities. The Jedi Revan, having been a dark lord of the Sith in the past has been converted to the light by having his memories erased by the Jedi. He now experiences a gap between his live as a Jedi before being seduced to the dark side and his later recovery. This absented presence in his mind leaves an emptiness that he seeks to fill, a need to find what has been lost and fill that void left inside of him. As part of his quest to discover what has been lost, Revan is drawn into a quest across the galaxy to follow those thin threads of memory and weave them together in order to find wholeness.

 Revan’s emptiness is paralleled a planetary emptiness when he discovers a planet that has been totally drained of all Force energy, left a desolate and empty wasteland that is stuck in a state of perpetual emptiness in the Force. This planet was drained of all of its Force by a Sith who feared death and hasn’t simply been imbued with the dark side, but, rather, erased from the Force entirely. When Revan lands on the planet, his own Jedi powers are eliminated as is his connection to the Force, creating an emptiness inside of him that parallels his erased memories. 

Karpyshyn takes on a subject that is challenging for most Star Wars authors, exploring the types of personalities and motivations that underly the desire to become a Sith and the cultural manifestations of a Sith culture. 

To discover more about Drew Karpyshyn, visit his website at http://drewkarpyshyn.com

Interview with Ada Hoffmann

An interview with Ada Hoffmann
by Derek Newman-Stille

Ada Hoffman describes herself as a queer-oriented, autistic author of Canadian Speculative Fiction. She has an interest in portrayals of autism in SF, and does critical readings of these portrayals on her website http://ada-hoffmann.com/autistic-book-party/ .

I am very excited that Ada is willing to do an interview since I am interested in both portrayals of queerness and disability in Canadian SF, and Ada is a wonderful author.

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

Ada Hoffmann: Oh no, the dreaded open-ended question! Well, I’m twenty-six years old, I’m studying for my PhD in computer science, and I live in Ontario. I made my first four professional fiction sales in 2013, though I’ve been writing for pay since 2010 and writing in general since I was five. I love cats, roleplaying games, and music. Most other facts about me are either incredibly boring or classified.

Spec Can: What first inspired your passion for Speculative Fiction?

Ada Hoffmann: I grew up around speculative fiction. My parents were both huge nerds who taught computer science for a living, and the house was full of bookshelves, many of which were solely devoted to science fiction and fantasy. As a child I started with the usual fairy tale picture books and graduated to Narnia, Tolkein, Star Wars, Susan Cooper, Heinlein juveniles, and stealing my dad’s issues of Analog every month (which, in retrospect, were not always appropriate for children). I got into fantasy roleplaying games pretty early in life, too, mostly because my dad had giant boxes of them under his desk and I was curious. (Also, there were So Many Interesting Tables to roll dice on! You can’t go wrong with dice. I got fascinated by using the random tables long before I started to actually play.) When I hit my teens, it was like, “yay, you’re old enough for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5 now!” It was how we entertained ourselves and bonded as a family. I hear stories of people who “discovered” speculative fiction and had to hide it from their parents, or got shamed for not reading “real” literature, and I’m just baffled. It was never anything like that for me.

Spec Can: What, if anything, is different about Canadian speculative fiction?

Ada Hoffmann: I don’t think we can really pin down Canada that way. It’s a big place. Lots of room for contradictions. I’ve heard that the Canadian SF community is different from the American one, but I’m too much of a social hermit to really comment on that one way or the other.

Spec Can: You have a strong interest in representations of autism in speculative fiction. What first got you interested in representations of autism in SF?

Ada Hoffmann: Just seeing the same kind of fail repeated multiple times. I didn’t set out to be The Autism Lady, but when I found autism stuff that frustrated me, I blogged about it, because I was frustrated. Then I realized no one else was blogging about it this way. It was a side note in social justice discussions, if it was mentioned at all. Which makes sense – there are fewer of us than there are of, say, women, or POC, plus it’s not always safe to be “out”, so the discussion space is going to be smaller – but it is frustrating. So I kept going. Eventually I had so much to blog about that it had to be organized, and I started doing an official book review feature, etc. I’m not sure if this is an abiding interest, or if I’m just going to keep going until I run out of new things to say and then stop.

Spec Can: What was the first SF work that you encountered that dealt with the topic of autism or featured an autistic character? What was the portrayal like?

Ada Hoffmann: Oh, gee, I can’t even remember. Maybe Robert Charles Wilson’s Blind Lake, which is actually pretty good. It’s hard to say because I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate these problems until a few years ago, when I started publishing short fiction and a social justice-minded editor took me under their wing. I didn’t connect with the autistic self-advocacy community until even more recently, and to some extent I still feel like an outsider to that community. I’m still learning a lot.

The first portrayal that really frustrated me in a way I could articulate was Nancy Fulda’s short story “Movement”, which was nominated for a Nebula Award. And it was so bad on multiple levels. I think what frustrates me most is when an NT (neurotypical) writer produces something which is nothing like autism, or which is insulting, but NTs who don’t know any better think it is a good portrayal and therefore it gets lots of attention and praise – even in the face of actual autistic people trying to point out why there are problems.

Spec Can: What are some common errors or misconceptions that authors make when portraying characters with autism?

Ada Hoffmann: Not doing the research. (You have to look at what’s being said by autistic people, not just our doctors and caregivers; otherwise you’ll miss a lot.) Not giving an autistic character feelings and concerns of their own, or only giving them feelings when it relates to a special interest, cure decision, or other stereotype. Over-focusing on the odd behaviors that are most visible to neurotypical people and under-focusing on cognitive and sensory differences, especially when trying to write from the autistic character’s point of view. Trying to draw some sort of moral conclusion from autism, like by using a character with autistic traits to teach NT characters about the dangers of social withdrawal, and not noticing that this implicitly demonizes the autistic person. Forgetting that most of us work very hard to look “normal”, and that many of us succeed – but at a cost.

Spec Can: What can speculative fiction do to shift the way readers think about the world around them? How can SF encourage readers to question their assumptions?

Ada Hoffmann: I am struggling to come up with a good answer for this question. It seems to me that there are as many answers as there are potential stories. Also, not every shift in thinking or questioned assumption works the same way, nor is every shift in thinking equally valuable, though to some extent the ability to question one’s thinking is always valuable.

It also isn’t as simple as setting out to shift assumptions and thought patterns with a single story. We are made of the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, and the commonalities between stories form larger structures. Tropes, worldviews, cultures, archetypes. A single story might explicitly question or subvert an aspect of a worldview but with enough of these questions and subversions, a new substructure with its own rules and tropes forms. It’s not possible to do away with the structure as a whole, because this would take us to a place with no comprehensible narratives and no thought. We can’t dispense with all assumptions, but we need to replace some of our current ones with broader assumptions which help us understand and care for each other.

Spec Can: What do you hope readers will take away from reading your SF?

Ada Hoffmann: Oh, that depends on the story. It would be super boring if I was trying to make the same point with all of them! My goals are a little bit different every time.

Spec Can: You tend to write a lot of short stories. What are some benefits of the short story medium?

Ada Hoffmann: It’s short! Which makes it a wonderful place to learn and experiment. It’s short to write, which means you can try all sorts of risky things without such a steep penalty for failure. You can switch settings, genres, characters, themes, or anything else about your writing whenever you want to. And it’s short to read, which means it’s easy to get feedback and figure out where your weaknesses lie. Maybe I’m just a really impatient person, though?

There are benefits to longer forms too. With something like a novel (or a long-running RPG campaign), it’s easier for me to really get into the characters’ heads and fall in love with them all. But it’s a different process and a different way of constructing a plot, and I’m still figuring out how to make that work for me.

Spec Can: On your website, you mention that you are both queer and autistic. As a queer, autistic author, what can you suggest to encourage other queer authors or authors with disabilities to write further?

Ada Hoffmann: I’m not sure if this is specific to queerness or disability, but one of the most important things is to find beta readers who “get it”. Not just people who are good at dissecting a story (though these are valuable, and rarer than you would think). But people who understand the way your individual creative mind works, who are excited to see the things that you are excited to create, and who understand your goals well enough to help you figure out what’s gone wrong when you’re stuck. Everybody who’s good at something gets impostor syndrome, but marginalized people get it worse. To survive as a writer, you need people who will help you bounce back from the bad times, people who will keep believing in you and your work even when you don’t, and who are smart enough about it that you’ll take their opinion seriously. Doesn’t matter if they are fellow writers, fans, family – just find those people and cling to them, because their support makes you strong.

My other advice would be learn to trust your own voice. If your own underrepresentation pisses you off, great! It’s worthwhile to talk about that, and to talk about what other writers are doing wrong. But don’t stop there. You are a writer yourself (if you aren’t a writer, this advice is not for you). You have the power to make books of your own, to your own specifications, so do it.

(I can say this as forcefully as I do only because it is a lesson I have had to teach myself, time and time again.)

But also remember that you are more than the sum of your identity labels. Being queer and a writer doesn’t mean you have to write a specific amount of queer fiction to someone else’s specifications (or queer fiction at all). Likewise with disability. There’s a lot to do in these fields. Chances are that some of the required tasks will set your imagination on fire and some won’t. This is okay. There’s far too much of this for one person anyway. Do the tasks that speak to you, and don’t feel guilty if you want to write stories that aren’t about your identity labels, too. Your voice matters, even when you aren’t talking about those. Don’t stop educating yourself, because there is intersection and variety within your own labels that you probably don’t know about. (This was certainly the case for me!) But don’t let anyone in your group make you feel guilty for writing from your own lived experience, your own fascinations, your own deeply held beliefs, and not theirs.

If you’re asking for advice for others in the community, and not just advice to disabled/queer writers themselves, then I have some other suggestions. Explicitly welcoming diverse submissions in your submission guidelines, if you’re an editor, is a wonderful thing. It’s easy to do and it really helps with the impostor syndrome, and the feeling of “no one wants to hear my story anyway,” which can be pervasive. Making sure that conventions and other science fiction spaces are accessible and that accommodations can be made – I can’t stress this enough. (This conversation often focuses on wheelchair access, which is important. But for autism specifically, having a quiet room to retreat to is often VERY helpful. There are certain conventions I will never, ever attend, because I would not be able to bear the crowds long enough to do anything useful or enjoyable there. I’m thinking especially of the very large, commercially-oriented ones.) And making sure that there is an actual policy to prevent and investigate harassment, which disproportionately targets all sorts of marginalized people, not only women.

Spec Can: Can you talk a bit about the under-representation of queer characters in SF?

Ada Hoffmann: Maybe! I feel like I’m the wrong person to talk about this in depth, because I’m dating a man. (Bisexuality is a thing, yay.) That doesn’t make me straight, and the emotions and experiences that make me different from a straight person are important to me. But it does mean that there are very wide swathes of queer experience which are not actually my experience at this point in my life, and I have to respect that.

What I’m finding these days is that there are a fair number of queer characters around if you know where to look, especially in short fiction. But it’s still hard to find queer characters who turn out happy with each other the way the straight characters do, as opposed to dying, or having a crush on a straight character who dies, or getting into an abusive relationship and turning evil, etc. Which is ironic, because hope is a thing that real queer people badly need.

I also have an absurd amount of difficulty finding depictions of polyamory that don’t suck. (Even Stranger in a Strange Land doesn’t do it right, IMO.) Same with power exchange, and with trans* and nonbinary characters (although Crossed Genres at least has a fair number of those lately), and also asexuality. All of which are important parts of what sexual diversity means. I’m realizing as I type this that I haven’t done enough of this in my own fiction, either.

Spec Can: What can SF do to give voice to people who are traditionally under-represented in society and in fiction?

Ada Hoffmann: First, we can imagine futures (or magical, alternate pasts and presents) in which under-represented people actually exist. This step is more of a mandatory basic minimum, but it’s neglected too often. Second, we can actively look for under-represented authors and find the SF they are already producing.

Going further than this, of course, we can naturally use SF for subversive purposes. We can imagine worlds in which we overcome oppression in new ways, or in which people flourish in new ways because oppression does not exist as it does here. Or we can build worlds in dystopian and satirical modes in order to point out the workings of oppressive systems in the real world.

But it doesn’t all have to be overtly political. There’s nothing wrong with SF serving more individual purposes: wish-fulfilment, catharsis, escape, validation, emotional regulation, education (in many senses), or just being a heck of a lot of fun to read. In a perfect world it would serve these purposes both for the majority and for the marginalized. Which means that as well as political stories we simply need a larger amount of awesome fiction which happens to be inclusive, and which doesn’t scare all the marginalized people away through casual prejudice and erasure.

Spec Can: You are able to write both science fiction and fantasy – in what ways do these two genres support each other and in what way do they challenge each other?

Ada Hoffmann: I’m not sure I even believe in a distinction between science fiction and fantasy. There’s just so much good stuff in the gray area in between. I like SF with magic-y bits and fantasy with science-y bits, and stuff like a China Miéville novel that doesn’t fit neatly into either category because it’s its own thing.

I think the idea of a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy comes from the very 20th century idea that “science” and “magic” are incompatible. Modern people think this rule is so obvious that it has to apply even in imaginary worlds. And that’s so incredibly boring to me. It’s not even consistent with the way most people intuitively classify the genres. Most science fiction uses handwavey technology that isn’t plausible to modern scientists anyway, and series like Star Wars are full of outright mysticism.

I should note here that I don’t think mysticism is a bad thing. Or even an “unscientific” thing. It’s complicated.

But basically, rather than drawing lines telling people where science ends and magic begins, I’d rather look at the whole thing as one big umbrella genre where the imagination has free rein to do whatever it likes.

Spec Can: Magic and the mythical frequently shows up in your short stories and poetry. What continues to be powerful about magic and the mythical for readers?

Ada Hoffmann: For this sort of question I have to refer back to Carl Jung. The mythical will always be a part of the human mind at some level. “Realism” implies a certain set of rules for what is real, what it means for a thing to be real, and how the world works. But huge swathes of human experience, particularly the unconscious, do not conform to these rules. There are some truths that we can only tell through symbols, and through magical and mythical thinking. This is difficult for some people in mainstream Western culture to accept, but it will continue to be the case no matter how many shiny computers we have.

Spec Can: What do you do differently when you write poetry instead of short stories?

Ada Hoffmann: Poetry is a very different beast from short fiction. It’s not only structured differently, but it feels like it comes from a different place for me. With a short story I have to lay out exactly what is happening, where are we, who is in this place, what are they trying to do, how is this resolved, why should we care. Poetry is not laid out in this way. It can purport to tell a story (or not), but the story doesn’t need the same kind of scaffolding. Things sometimes come out of the depths of my brain and demand to be written as poems, whether I like it or not: there’s no use in laboring to contrive a full setting and plot to support them when they’re already strong enough to stand on their own. But in exchange for this kind of independence, poems have a desperate need for attention to imagery, rhythm, the impact of individual words. It’s detail work in a way that is often superfluous to short stories. Without this kind of attention a poem is just a splat of words on a page, or at best an anecdote or thought experiment, and it can’t survive.

Spec Can: What can poetry add to speculative fiction?

Ada Hoffmann: I’m having trouble answering this question. I assume you don’t mean literally putting poems in the middle of fiction. I’m in a bit of a bind here, because if a device from poetry can be used to good effect in fiction, it’s probably already been used in this way, and we can just continue to use it in fiction with no further recourse to poetry. And if it can’t be used in fiction, then by definition it’s not a useful addition to fiction. So there’s never a need for poetry in fiction, per se. But reading and writing good poetry brings our attention to imagery, to the details of how words are used, to beauty and other spectacular uses of the senses, to structures other than the typical linear narrative, and to the kind of ephemeral truths that fit best into these alternate structures. These are all things that I’m happy to see in fiction, too.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add to this interview?

Ada Hoffmann: No, I think I’ve talked your ear off already! But thanks for having me, and thanks for asking such interesting questions. I’ve enjoyed this.

I want to thank Ada Hoffmann for all of her insights and thoughts and for her work advocating for traditionally under-represented groups in Speculative Fiction. I hope that you have enjoyed her insights and thoughts as much as I have.

To find out more about Ada Hoffmann and her work, check out her website at http://ada-hoffmann.com/

Upcoming interview with Ada Hoffman on Friday December 6th

As many of you know, I have an interest in portrayals of queerness and disability in Canadian Speculative Fiction. I was very excited when I came across Ada Hoffman’s work and when I came across her website, which does critical readings of SF that portrays autism http://ada-hoffmann.com/autistic-book-party/ .  It is great to see an author with autism writing about portrayals of autism in SF and bringing critical attention to the way disability is constructed in speculative fiction.

Check out our interview this Friday December 6th. Here are a few highlights to our interview for you to check out!

Ada Hoffmann: “We are made of the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, and the commonalities between stories form larger structures. Tropes, worldviews, cultures, archetypes. A single story might explicitly question or subvert an aspect of a worldview but with enough of these questions and subversions, a new substructure with its own rules and tropes forms.”

Ada Hoffmann: “I didn’t set out to be The Autism Lady, but when I found autism stuff that frustrated me, I blogged about it, because I was frustrated. Then I realized no one else was blogging about it this way. It was a side note in social justice discussions, if it was mentioned at all.”

Ada Hoffmann: Not every shift in thinking or questioned assumption works the same way, nor is every shift in thinking equally valuable, though to some extent the ability to question one’s thinking is always valuable.

Ada Hoffmann: “I think what frustrates me most is when an NT (neurotypical) writer produces something which is nothing like autism, or which is insulting, but NTs who don’t know any better think it is a good portrayal and therefore it gets lots of attention and praise – even in the face of actual autistic people trying to point out why there are problems.”

Ada Hoffmann: “[Short stories are] a wonderful place to learn and experiment. [They are] short to write, which means you can try all sorts of risky things without such a steep penalty for failure. You can switch settings, genres, characters, themes, or anything else about your writing whenever you want to.”

Ada Hoffmann: “Everybody who’s good at something gets impostor syndrome, but marginalized people get it worse.”

Ada Hoffmann: “If your own underrepresentation pisses you off, great! It’s worthwhile to talk about that, and to talk about what other writers are doing wrong. But don’t stop there. You are a writer yourself (if you aren’t a writer, this advice is not for you). You have the power to make books of your own, to your own specifications, so do it.”

Ada Hoffmann: “What I’m finding these days is that there are a fair number of queer characters around if you know where to look, especially in short fiction. But it’s still hard to find queer characters who turn out happy with each other the way the straight characters do, as opposed to dying, or having a crush on a straight character who dies, or getting into an abusive relationship and turning evil, etc. Which is ironic, because hope is a thing that real queer people badly need.”

Ada Hoffmann: “[In Speculative Fiction], we can imagine futures (or magical, alternate pasts and presents) in which under-represented people actually exist… Going further than this, of course, we can naturally use SF for subversive purposes. We can imagine worlds in which we overcome oppression in new ways, or in which people flourish in new ways because oppression does not exist as it does here. Or we can build worlds in dystopian and satirical modes in order to point out the workings of oppressive systems in the real world.”

Ada Hoffmann: “[SF] doesn’t all have to be overtly political. There’s nothing wrong with SF serving more individual purposes: wish-fulfilment, catharsis, escape, validation, emotional regulation, education (in many senses), or just being a heck of a lot of fun to read. In a perfect world it would serve these purposes both for the majority and for the marginalized. Which means that as well as political stories we simply need a larger amount of awesome fiction which happens to be inclusive, and which doesn’t scare all the marginalized people away through casual prejudice and erasure.”

Ada Hoffmann: “I’m not sure I even believe in a distinction between science fiction and fantasy. There’s just so much good stuff in the gray area in between. I like SF with magic-y bits and fantasy with science-y bits, and stuff like a China Miéville novel that doesn’t fit neatly into either category because it’s its own thing. I think the idea of a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy comes from the very 20th century idea that “science” and “magic” are incompatible. Modern people think this rule is so obvious that it has to apply even in imaginary worlds.”

In our upcoming interview, Ada Hoffmann breaks down barriers and shows the ability for SF to disrupt and destabilise the barriers that we, as a society, erect around people, genres, ideas, and perspectives.

Zombie Soldiers

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Cemetery Man” in This Strange Way of Dying (Exile Editions, Forthcoming 2013).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

When you are in a battle against an enemy that keeps bringing forth the resurrected dead, the worst thing that can happen is when you find yourself tended to by their doctor. In “Cemetery Man”, Catalina finds herself under the ministrations of a Frankensteinian doctor, affectionately called Cemetery Man. Pain runs through her body as Cemetery Man conducts experiments on her, changes her to suit his own ends and those of the military units that support him. He is the ultimate expression of the ability of science to be forced to express political ends. Research is placed above patient needs and the push of politicians for results causes a total abandonment of the statutes of medical care.

In a civil war, like in any war, bodies become disposable, food for the war machine, and Catalina finds herself trapped between allegiances, being used in multiple ways and having her agency ripped from her while struggling to maintain some form of selfhood separate from the political agencies that rob her of power. The zombies surrounding her in Cemetery Man’s lab are the ultimate expressions of the disempowerment of people that often accompanies war – they become the ultimate soldiers, feeling no pain, unable to question their circumstances or their orders, and relegated to the position of murderous machines. But no one is really free of the zombieism that accompanies war, the march with one foot in the grave and control taken into the hands of another.

To find out more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, you can visit her website at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ . To read this story and others from This Strange Way of Dying, you can explore it athttp://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/ . This collection will be available in the fall.

Interview with Lynda Williams

An interview with Lynda Williams
By Derek Newman-Stille

It is always refreshing and exciting to have the opportunity to talk to a writer who is willing to really interrogate and question the world around them through SF, and I am glad that Lynda Williams is willing to share her insights and observations with readers and help us to step out of our taken-for-granted observations of the world around us. I am happy that she was willing to do an interview here and help us to debate and question our world. I hope that you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed talking to Ms. Williams about these complex topics.

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

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Lynda Williams: I’m a nice middle-class girl who went to university, got a good job, got married, raised three great daughters and once led a grass-roots movement to get internet connectivity for the general public. Anyone interested in more about my work as an applied technologist and teacher of computing is welcome to check out my profile at LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/lyndajwilliams

My intellectual life has been equally important to me as a person. In some ways, I’ve always been an observer of life requiring a conscious effort to mimic what comes naturally to others, and felt most at home in fiction where everything has some kind of meaning. On the whole, in antithesis to the deconstructionist era in literary studies, my goal has been to construct meaning wherever I find pre-existing maxims unsatisfying. Writing is the necessary by-product.

Spec Can: In your Okal Rel Saga you explore two civilizations, the Reetions and the Gelacks, who both descended from Earth populations but were cut off from each other and Earth and culturally drifted over the years. Now, upon re-encountering one another, they are confused by different cultural customs that have developed. What inspired your interest in cultural drift and change?

Lynda Williams: Perhaps it started with the arguments about religion among my fathers’ siblings. They were all religious but could never agree with one another.  It made me think. So I read about dozens of religions. I also joined Amnesty International, became a volunteer crisis counselor and read a lot of anthropology, mythology, history, popular science and stuff like theories of culture and social order down the ages. I remember being deeply impressed by the ancient Greek play, Antigone, in which the heroine accepts a death sentence in order to honor her brother’s corpse, motivated by cultural imperatives that make no sense to a modern reader. But the dilemma is no less real.

Spec Can: What got you interested in the idea of culture contact?

Lynda Williams: Star Trek, originally. The old TV show. I branched out to history where I discovered most of the injustice surrounding culture contacts arose from an imbalance of power. That’s what got me thinking about methods of social control and what might happen if the tribal culture, like the neo-feudal Gelacks, had one kind of power (reality skimming prowess) while the culture that considers itself more advanced and sophisticated, like the Reetions, had another (medical and information science, and political infrastructure). But neither side is more powerful in an absolute way, so they have to work out their differences.

Spec Can: The topic of taboos is one of the areas where the Reetions and Gelacks differ from one another. What interested you in the idea of conflicting taboos and conflicting religious and social patterns? How can this help readers to think differently about cultural and religious difference?

Lynda Williams: I grew up with the Canadian mosaic idea of celebrating differences. Then I encountered things like a father justifying the murder of a daughter over her choice of husband and realized I was not okay with complete cultural relativity. None of the cultures of the Okal Rel Universe are without blemish. Rire is where I’d prefer to live, but Reetions can be obnoxiously superior.  In Part 5: Far Arena, for example, they are so resistant to viewing Gelacks as their equals that not even living in a transparent society prevents them from lying to themselves. Most Gelack cultures discriminate between classes of Sevolite and the Nesaks practice genocide toward “non-eternals”, which means any human less than highborn in the court biological hierarchy.  Yet there are good people in all these cultures, and individuals who think for themselves. My hope is that by examining fictional cultures in conflict, readers might learn to think through situations in their own world on a case by case basis.

Spec Can: The Reetions and the Gelacks each have different ideas about sexuality (the Reetions encouraging acceptance of sexual difference whereas the Gelacks have created a fundamentally homophobic society). What inspired your interest in sexuality? What do you hope readers will take from this interaction?

Lynda Williams: I knew nothing about homosexuality until first year university, where I spent hours discussing it with a couple of gay acquaintances in my favorite study spot, the Raven’s Wing Café. Di Mon became a homosexual the minute I learned a tough guy could be. This move gave the very principled Di Mon, who was already a well-loved main character, the same problem as Amel’s whiny abuser, H’Reth. So naturally it struck me as a perfect thought experiment.  If there’s a message in this for readers it’s a complex one about responsibility for one’s actions while, simultaneously, registering the non-trivial nature of finding oneself on the wrong side of a cultural norm.

My initial interest in sexual differences sprang from something like rebellion against male and female stereotypes. Hence the extremes, among the Gelacks, of Vrellish woman, like Vretla, and Golden Demish men, like Amel.

Spec Can: When I was younger, there were very few science fiction novels that had queer characters (unless they were portrayed as villains). How is this shifting, and what can we do to encourage more representation of LGBTQ characters?

Lynda Williams: Let the LGBTQ characters be fully realized, even if that means they won’t always be perfect role models. I’ve had readers express impatience with Di Mon, for example, because he can’t “get over” his dislike of being homosexual. Really? Given what’s at stake for him? When the idea of Di Mon jelled for me, back in the 1970s and 80s, it was radical to contemplate a gay hero. Now, it sometimes feels as if he’s lost the right to be a character with hang-ups because he has to represent something. If readers need proof that the Okal Rel Universe can also harbor a well-adjusted homosexual character, Ranar is right there. Di Mon is Di Mon, and that’s all there is to it. And Vretla is a female-chauvinist pig who believes there aren’t really any “girl-sla” women, just horny ones suffering a shortage of available males. But we love her anyway. Real people aren’t perfect. Neither are believable characters.

Spec Can: Your work often explores notions of compassion, and, particularly the point at which compassion shifts from being beneficial to almost self-harming. What inspired your interest in the complexities of compassion?

Three Versions of Amel by Yukari Yamamoto.

Three Versions of Amel by Yukari Yamamoto.

Lynda Williams: I think I’ve always admired the combination of great sensitivity and great strength, but recognized it could lead to an undesirable martyrdom.  If I’d discovered Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, at an earlier age, I might have saved myself the work of creating Amel. Amel’s history in the Okal Rel Saga also dramatizes the question of whether science should be used to “fix” people. For example, my father used to hate being on anti-depression medication because it altered his sense of who he was. But he couldn’t cope without it, either. As we become more and more able to directly intervene to change ourselves, medically, the questions Amel and his Reetion doctor, Lurol, dance around in books 1 and 5 will get nothing but more important.

Spec Can: I was at a conference recently where a speaker (Robert Runte) discussed the incredible work that you are doing including and encouraging fan participation in the Okal Rel world that you have created. What inspired you to encourage fan participation and what are some of the benefits of involving fans in the worlds you create?

A photo from Lynda Williams' Teen Years - The origins of the Okal Rel universe

A photo from Lynda Williams’ Teen Years – The origins of the Okal Rel universe

Lynda Williams: The Okal Rel experience evolved out of playing with others http://okalrel.org/i-promised-my-dolls/ , so it invites participation naturally. But it’s a misconception to assume it is easy to get involved. The very first prerequisite is to learn the Okal Rel Universe. It isn’t light reading. And it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I’m arriving at a stage of life where I’m losing interest in complying with marketing imperatives to make out that one’s work is “just like” something better known in order to ride on its coattails, or to define an audience niche and conform to its standards for acceptance. I count among my favorite readers high school students and university professors. What they share is a love of rich cultural settings, intense human relationships, and well-plotted stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic and always emblematic of some dilemma or concern that preoccupied the writer. When I find people among this audience who have the talent and mind-set to play with me, I welcome them. I never called them fans but collaborators. People are welcome to write fan fiction if they want, too. But that’s not the same thing. The benefits? The Okal Rel Universe is nearly as old as I am, and has matured with me under the influence of constant challenge and stimulus from others. It feels like a lived-in place for a reason. And I love collaborating, as an adult, as much as my youthful self loved playing make-believe.

Spec Can: Your encouragement of fans shows that you view readers as valuable participants in the process of creating worlds. Are there any drawbacks or challenges to fan participation?

Lynda Williams: The Okal Rel Saga is the sum of my life’s work of making meaning of my world through fiction. So I am sometimes frustrated to see it branded as a shared-universe as if all that mattered was the rule-book for how to write about Sword Law, or arbiters, or reality skimming physics.  I suppose this is a fate I brought upon myself by blurring the distinction between “pro” and “fan” that writer-culture fights to maintain. At the same time, I am proud of the people who engage with me, from the professional writers and artists to the amateurs who walked a mile with me in the ORU during an important stage of their lives, crossing the “line” between fan and collaborator. I embrace both ways of making meaning. But I sometime cringe at the label “fan” because I fear it may be taken as an insult by the professional participants. The truth, I think, is this: many (but not all) readers have the potential to be creators, but most are discouraged by what pilots in the ORU might characterize as the hard rel of doing any kind of art for a living. So they stop. I can’t help but love the creative engines of the ORU for being a micro-environment where a greater-than-usual diversity of skills, styles and even genres thrive under one “roof”. In the end, like many things about the Okal Rel phenomenon, the role of collaborators in its creation is a complex and evolving business.

Spec Can: In addition to being an author, you also work in higher education at Simon Fraser University. In what ways do these roles complement each other?

Lynda Williams: A day job makes it harder to commit time to promoting one’s work, but it’s a rich source of material. I’ve seen and participated in big changes brought about by information technology, for example, which makes me sympathetic to both Erien’s drive for progress and the resistance of conservative Demish society. The politics of Fountain Court are as much informed by life as a “nobleborn” in post-secondary institutions as by my reading of history. And my crisis centre work was an eye-opener. But my use of real life in fiction is always a mash up. Colleagues, friends and family will be hard pressed to identify themselves in any particular character. It’s the essence, not the details, of a real life problem that I abstract into fiction to examine.

One great thing about having a good day job is the freedom to write what you want. I worked as a professional writer for a few years, as a journalist. It was a great experience. But the Okal Rel Saga was what I always wanted to write and being able to do it as a part-time job meant I could take my time to get it right, over the years.

Spec Can: How is Science Fiction a process of education and learning, and how can it encourage readers to think in new ways?

Lynda Williams: It makes us think outside the box. People can have petrified attitudes about a topic due to past associations which aren’t necessarily part of the package. In science fiction, we can alter the stimulus. We can identify exactly what we want to show the reader and see if he/she has the same reaction without the usual triggers. Take the Nesaks. They loom, throughout the Saga, as the war-mongers who periodically invade the empire. Their religious motivations might suggest a jihad, and, in fact, Part 9 of the saga is called Holy War. But if there’s a touch of Islamic warriors about the Nesaks there is also a touch of American family-loving Christians who believe the rest of the world has got it all wrong. The combination of real family values and militaristic theocracy is something I’ve always had trouble reconciling. But it happens. Readers can weigh what’s right and what’s wrong about it in their reaction to the Nesaks without automatically applying beliefs they might otherwise be unable to avoid falling back on.

Spec Can: Many of your characters have been visited by trauma or have been heavily influenced by traumatic events of the past. What encouraged you to involve characters that are coping with and learning from trauma?

Lynda Williams: I think I needed to believe anything could be survivable when I was young. The more I found out about just how awful “anything” could be, the harder it was to believe. So I invented a hero, Amel, whose job was not only to survive it all but to retain the ability to love. I read up on the topic, a little, and saddled him with some of the problems suffered by abuse victims. I didn’t want him to just get up, dust himself off, and be emotionally whole. Putting yourself back together after trauma is a lot of very hard and scary work. But there’s an opportunity to learn about how to do it, or how not to do it, in studying the lives of characters. Eler, in Part 2: Righteous Anger, is messed up by the implosion of his family over religious and political differences. He reacts by spending the rest of his life poking and prodding people to prove they aren’t what they seem. Di Mon suffered a trauma in the loss of his first lover, Darren, and responds with iron self-denial and devotion to duty which, arguably, kills him in the end. But the interpretation of Di Mon’s suicide haunts the series to its conclusion. Was it a maladaptation to his homosexuality, or a rational act motivated by the desire to die with dignity?

Spec Can: In The Courtesan Prince, the Reetion civilisation is fundamentally socialist and has gotten rid of class divides, whereas the Gelack civilisation is entirely based on class distinctions and has been shaped by a strong belief in the differences between classes. Why did this idea of competing class systems interest you? What shaped your fascination with classes and how they orient societies?

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Lynda Williams: I think I became fascinated by class distinctions because at some fundamental, instinctive level at which most people ‘get’ who is important and who isn’t, I just didn’t. I therefore found myself, from a young age, in the midst of a never-ending social game of hierarchy where I had to keep figuring out the rules. It still bewilders me why anyone would be excited about spotting a celebrity on the street, for example. But I did come with a conceit of my own. My upper class English heritage. Or, at least, the sense of it conveyed by my mother and grandmother. It made perfect sense to me that Oliver, in Oliver Twist, was a different kind of being from his fellow orphans who were what my grandmother would have termed “common children”. How my family managed to simultaneously instill in me an impression that being half-Welsh was a little bit magic, is a mystery, given what the English think about the Welsh. But I do know that one of my early mental images of Amel was as an Oliver Twist kind of character, so obviously better than those around him that it leaps out at the reader, even though it is invisible to other characters. The blindness of social systems, in other words, is revealed by the participants’ failure to see the very truth they most profess to value.

Spec Can: Your work engages with tough social questions and complex ideas. In what ways can Canadians SF ask those tough questions or help people to challenge their social situation and think outside the box?

Lynda Williams: We profess to be above class distinctions in Canada. I don’t believe it. People are always pegging each other in some hierarchy or other. The saving grace, I think, is that there are now multiple hierarchies in which to participate and we can choose which we prefer to take to heart. Just like Ilse Marin, a merely nobleborn woman of the Midlord birth rank, takes pride in being Blue Demish, we can chose to measure our own self-worth in terms of our education level, income, family, professional distinctions, volunteer roles, creative skills, etc.  We can build our identities in our chosen spheres of influence while still respecting other people’s worlds. But to be truly happy, I think, we have to make peace with the idea people just aren’t equal in all things. No amount of wishing is going to make us all equally attractive, strong or smart. Writing about how people negotiate the class system of Sevildom, within and across cultures, gives me toys to play with for dramatizing hierarchy issues of all sorts. For example, in the fourth Okal Rel anthology there’s a brilliant story by M. Alexis Pakulak about a woman who defines herself as a Sevolite, finds out she isn’t, and has to decide whether it matters. In her case, it’s mostly a psychological affair because she’s a Fractional Sevolite, but for this dilemma the question of actual differentiation of abilities wasn’t an important issue. But what if, like Gadar, in my story “Going Back Out”, it is physical? Gadar, as a natural human, will never be able to outfly a highborn. Ann’s answer is “so what!” That only means we need you all the more for Reetion purposes. “Fly for your own reasons,” says Ann. Good advice, not always easy to follow. But there’s something deeply gratifying about pursuing one’s own, particular rel, no matter what.

Spec Can:  In addition to your work as an author, you also are known for running blogs about Canadian SF. What can blogs add to the developing nature of Canadian SF? How can they help people to think differently about SF?

Lynda Williams: For many years, writing was a bizarrely private experience for me, shared primarily with a few special friends. But I wanted to get my characters out there in the world and felt the pressure to promote. Most of the ways of doing this rankled. And, let’s face it, if something goes against the grain of your soul, you aren’t apt to do it very effectively. The pleasure in writing, for me, has always been about creativity and ideas. The heroes. The questions. The larger-than-everyday feel of SF.  Blogging let me extend that preference to a wider public. It’s a social thing for me, letting me collaborate with kindred spirits in a way that feels good. It is also an outlet for my surplus thoughts and idea about life, which prevents me driving my family nuts. I enjoy inviting fellow authors and thinkers to appear on Reality Skimming. And since I’m a Canadian SF author, it is true that a good number of the guests are Canadians but that’s more an accident of overlap than a real intent to focus on Canadian SF. Some writers are fiercely national in their outlook but international in their audience. I’m probably the opposite. A would-be citizen of the world in my outlook, but Canadian by default.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would be interested in including in this interview?

Lynda Williams: Just to thank you for the opportunity to respond to such insightful questions. People keen to talk about themselves are legion. Those game to bring their heart and mind to the task of encouraging another to explore her inward halls of thought are rarer stock.  The Okal Rel Universe is proud to count you among its readers, and I hope additional books in the series have the pleasure of your visitations there. Ack rel.

I want to thank Lynda Williams for being willing to do such deep analyses of her own work and of the world around her. I am honoured that she was willing to let me participate in this interrogation of the deeper issues expressed in her SF and to share this conversation with readers who may be interested in the worlds she creates and the potential of SF to not only create different worlds, but to question this one and encourage readers to be comfortable questioning their own worlds and their own perspectives.