Rejected Bodies

Rejected Bodies
A review of Kelly Robson’s “Two Year Man” in Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2015

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kelly Robson’s “Two Year Man” is a tale that explores the idea of rejection, and, particularly, rejected bodies. Focused on a man named Mikkel, who carries out janitorial duties and partially survives by bringing home the discarded waste of wealthier people, “Two Year Man” examines economic hegemonies, monetary power structures that de-value the lives and existence of other people. Robson points out our own socio-economic issues by abstracting them onto a science fictional world, but the issues she represents are highly relevant for examining and critiquing our own society. This is a world of economic systems of control where survival requires the selling of one’s selfhood and self respect. 

Robson particularly highlights the complexity of issues shaping the experiences of women in poverty, exploring Mikkel’s wife Anna’s sacrifices for survival and the way that these sacrifices tie into notions of family. Anna, like many women, has to negotiate the systems of control projected at her body. In order to help her mother survive medical issues, she has to sell her ovaries. This sacrifice for her family is still critiqued by others however, because, in sacrificing her ovaries, she is then open to critiques from others based on the assumption that her primary role as a woman should be motherhood. No matter which actions she takes, she is viewed as unnatural and unnurturing.

Things are further complicated when Mikkel brings home a baby who was about to be thrown into an incinerator by the scientists in the lab that he cleans. This baby was born with talons, a beak, and challenges breathing due to her different body. She is viewed by the corporation that created her and by Mikkel’s neighbours as a tainted body and the child evokes horror by others, but adoration and love by Mikkel. When he presents the baby to Anna, expecting her to relish in the possibility of motherhood, she reacts with horror, both because of the danger of arrest for having a tainted child and because she does not want to be a mother. Robson uses this interaction to highlight the complexity of issues around motherhood, particularly for those from low income groups. She points out that there is a social assumption of a universal desire for motherhood that is projected to women and that not wanting to be a mother means being subject to assumptions that one is cold and unfeminine.

This is a tale about control – economic control and oppression of the lower classes, the conteol of women’s bodies, the way that social pressures dictate what can and cannot happen for cetain types of people. Robson brings attention to notions of the family, disability and accommodating disabled youth, the culture of rejection and eugenics, a culture of waste and highlights the complex strings that bind these ideas together and reinforce systems of control by depicting certain people as rejected.

To find out more about Kelly Robson, visit her website at http://kellyrobson.com

UNsettling Homelife

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A review of They Have to Take You In edited by Ursula Pflug (Hidden Brook Press, 2014).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Home is a complicated concept, but one that we often pretend is easy. We project “home” as a place of belonging, of comfort, of ownership, and an extended form of selfhood, and we connect ideas to home like family, security, safety…. But these concepts are always open to challenge, to question, particularly by those whose home lives don’t match the assumed standard. Ursula Pflug’s edited collection They Have to Take You In blends the speculative and realist literature that borders on auto-ethnographic in cases to explore this multiplicity of “homes” and to challenge the safe, secure image of “home” that society prefers to construct to the exclusion of other options. 

As much as They Have to Take You In is about home, it is more about exile: the experience of being Othered, of not being able to find that place of comfort and security that is promised through the notion of “home”. The authors in this collection remind readers of the unsettling power of home, its ability to make people feel excluded because it focuses so strongly on the promise of belonging, and that sense of belonging only works for people in positions of privilege. The characters in these stories are Othered from a sense of home through poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, dementia, the need to escape from abusive homes, as well as a sense of wanderlust. The authors explore the possibility that sometimes you have to leave the place where you have settled in order to find home… and sometimes you can’t ever find home, can’t discover a place of belonging. The multiplicity of these narratives provides a space for exploring  home as a place of security… and simultaneously suggests that, for some, ESCAPE from home is a place of safety.

Connected to home is the notion of family, an idea that has been shaped by historical circumstances (industrial systems, labour, political and religious ideologies), but that has pretended to be natural and enduring. They Have to Take You In complicates family as a natural category. In addition to showing assumptions about traditional family structures, these stories complicate these structures, invite speculation and open them up to question the ways in which “family” as a category can be exclusionary, delimiting possibilities for other interactions. 

Many of the endings in these stories are open, uncertain things because the reality of home life is that nothing ever really ends and everything is always open to change and reassessment. Homes are places that are always complicated and always haunted by the potential failing of the home as a place of belonging, security, and safety. Deep down, we, as readers, know that while we feel safe in our homes, there are those who are homeless, those whose homelife is marked by domestic violence and who need to escape, those whose housing is precarious because of poverty, and so all houses are haunted places… haunted by the myths of belonging, security, and safety that are not as ubiquitous as they pretend to be. 

To discover more about They Have to Take You In, visit Hidden Brook Press at http://www.HiddenBrookPress.com

To discover more about the work of Ursula Pflug, visit her website at http://ursulapflug.ca 

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

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 .

Commodifying Extinction

A Review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Maquech” (This Strange Way of Dying, Exile Editions, 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

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s short story “Maquech” is a narrative of wealth disparity and the value attached to animal life. Set in the near future, rare animals that are going extinct have become commodities for the rich, purchased as fashion items, status signifiers, and indicators of wealth. Animals are not valued unless they serve a capitalist end, providing an economic advantage.

In a world of wealth disparity, where the poor are struggling to survive, animals are endangered, seen as competitive resource consumers, and de-valued. Rather than balancing wealth and making clean water and food available to all (instead of just to the wealthy), the poor starve and live with thirst and come to see animals as only competition for resources rather than valuable contributors to the world around them. Rather than viewing the wealthy as the competing consumer, the cultural messages of this near future world construct animals as the competing organism, and a draw on resources, much as, in our own time period, the wealthy tend to blame others for the disparity in availability of resources.

Mario is the grandson of a man who makes rare animals, reconstructing them before they are extinct. He wants to travel to Canada to see the polar bears before they become extinct and sells a rare maquech (an insect) to Gerardo in order to get the funds to witness animal life flourishing before it disappears. Gerardo sees the maquech as an economic advantage, a saleable item for the wealthy to consume since the rich use these live insects as clothing items, a living broach on their clothes. Animals have been reduced to trade items, methods for people to make money and survive in a competitive future.

Ignoring the ecological and mythical significance of the animal, its life has been reduced to a dollar value. It is the very nature of extinction that attributes value to these animals, their rarity constructs them as something to be used as status symbols: “he likes real things and real things are scarce”. Life itself has been rendered as part of the capitalist economy, but the real wealth of animals, their deeper significance is lost in the trade for money as Gerardo discovers when he finds a loss in himself at the loss of his maquech.

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 at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/ . This collection will be available in the fall.

Draconic Intersections

A review of Charles de Lint’s Berlin (in Wings of Fire Ed. Jonathan Strahan and marianne S. Jablon, Night Shade Books, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Worlds collide in Charles de Lint’s Berlin. De Lint explores the borderland between the human world and Elfland, a place called Bordertown where things mix and mingle and where magic and reality overlap with one another. Things that are generally ignored in our world are noticed here, and not just magical things – in a world where poverty is generally ignored and the homeless are rendered voiceless, a place can be found for them in Bordertown.

Like any town, it has problems, and gossip and misunderstandings feature strongly in those problems. Berlin, a woman who is primarily interested in defending the poor and finding a place for people living in poverty, is trapped in a conspiracy of lies that implicate her as a trouble-maker in a city that likes to avoid notice and attention. She becomes a pawn in a war of reputation.

De Lint doesn’t avoid the tough topics. He approaches issues of homelessness, drug abuse, gang violence, and, like many of his works, he uses art forms as a means of dealing with and coping with issues. In Berlin, de Lint explores the lingering presence of past traumas and how these traumas can continue to haunt us and influence us in conscious and unconscious ways, but it is through artistic performance, through acting out scenes that reflect on the past that characters are able to explore their trauma, feel it, and cathartically deal with the lingering essence of the past, and, in particular, past pains.

The realms of Elfland and the ‘real world’ are not the only things that collide in Bordertown – it is also a place where memory meets the present, where gang violence meets people trying to survive, where pain meets healing, and where dragon meets human. Berlin, like her community, is hybridised – she is human and dragon, and aspects of both bleed over into the other, much as the past bleeds into the present and violence spills over into places of community. De Lint reminds readers that every space is hybridised, made up of a running together of multiple pasts, multiple people, and multiple ideologies.

You can explore more about Charles de Lint and his work at his website http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/ .

Dragonville

A review of Charles de Lint’s The Painted Boy (Viking, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Charles de Lint often takes his readers into the hidden parts of the world and brings attention to the things that people ignore in the world around them, whether that be the fantastic side of the world and the potential for a magical viewpoint or attention to those within our society that are often ignored such as the homeless, or those on the social fringes. In The Painted Boy, de Lint takes on gangs, a part of our society that most people prefer to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist outside of the media excitement over violent attacks (and then they are only noted at a distance). De Lint reminds readers that they do exist and that kids in gangs have a reason for being in them that can’t be gotten rid of just by punitive actions – rather, we need to look at the social issues that give rise to gangs: poverty, feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, racism, exclusion, social ideas of masculinity, a society that celebrates violence.

James Li is a Chinese-American teen who, at the age of 11 had a tattoo suddenly appear on his back; a tattoo of a dragon that meant that his life had changed and that the weight of traditions that he knew nothing about had come down on him. He is sent out into the world at age 17 to discover himself and find the dragon within him (literally since he is a dragon shape shifter). When he arrives in Santo del Vado Viejo, he is instantly pursued by gangs who think that he is part of a rival gang infringing on their territory. But he is the fundamental opposite of the gang mentality, though bears enough similarities to contain a social commentary on gangs.

Like gang members, James Li’s body is marked with his particular group affiliation (the dragon), he has had a strict regimen of control, loyalty has been bred into him as an essential part of his being, he could be killed by those in charge if he disobeys the authorities in place, dragons are territorial so he embodies a sense of place much as gang turf does, his body contains a potential for rage and violence. But his role shows the fallacy of the claims that the gangs make. They are not actually loyal as the dragon is, they are afraid of those in control. The gang leaders will kill those under them from a sociopathic whim, whereas the dragons will only kill of one of their members becomes a threat to others. The gangs aren’t actually part of their turf, they don’t respect it or the people on it – they control it with fear. James holds a distorted mirror up to the gangs, illustrating that they are hollow and that all of the values and ideas of belonging that they claim are shallow and without substance. Gangs don’t protect or guard anything despite their claims to protect their members, where James as a dragon is the literal embodiment of protection. De Lint evokes the history of the dragon in China as a protector of emperors, but notes that over the years as empires have fallen, dragons have become guardians of places, linked to the spirit of the place and guarding over locations. They protect spaces, but aren’t lords over a territory.

De Lint’s interest in place is common to many of his stories; featuring various genius loci (spirits of place) and focussing on the distinctiveness of landscapes (even urban landscapes) as having both distinctive physical but also spiritual features. By creating a figure who is a shape-shifting dragon, de Lint brings extra attention to ideas of space and place. James Li has to connect with the embodiment of the spirit of his new town in order to drive the gangs and drug lords out and protect his new home. But he also has to acknowledge the distinctiveness of his new home and learn about how to deal with the social issues that have become embedded in this place such as fear, poverty, threatening notions of masculinity, general disrespect for others, and the realities of a community in threat. De Lint doesn’t create a magical cure that fixes the society, but rather requires James to find himself within his new community and acknowledge and work on notions of changing social issues gradually. James is required to create friends, acknowledge the community around him (both human and supernatural) in order to prevent him from becoming like the previous gang leaders of the place, who weren’t really attached to it or its communities but viewed it instead as a territory to be controlled. When his dragon threatens to consume him and destroy the city he is supposed to protect, it is only through the collective efforts of the community of friends he has made getting together to have a concert and the rhythmic beat of the music that holds the collective heartbeat of the community that brings him back to himself. He learns that he cannot guard a place from a distance, but rather has to be part of it, to have connections to the people around him and to care for them. Here de Lint once again contrasts James to the gangs – whereas the gangs have a false community based on fear, James is able to establish a community based on mutual respect, cooperation and the desire for collective well-being.

Key figures in this change in society are the lesser cousins – shape-shifting supernatural beings who are generally seen as weaker. Despite being self depreciating, the weaker spiritual powers are the ones who gather people together, who create connections and open pathways of communication. The Painted Boy acknowledges the importance of all members of a community in creating a society and that the under-represented often have a key role that is ignored by a society that focusses on the ‘big’ powers.

Despite being one of those big powers because of his dragon heritage and supernatural abilities, James considers himself a social outsider, a kid who wants to learn and above all else wants to belong. He faces the struggle of wanting to fit in and be normal, while simultaneously wanting to be unique and special. He is in a war with himself both through his desire to lead a normal human life and his need to fulfill a destiny that has been inscribed onto him.

To read more about Charles de Lint, you can visit his website at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/  and can read more about The Painted Boy at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/painted-desc01.htm .