Power Dynamics

Power Dynamics

A review of James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (Tor, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, James Alan Gardner creates a world of heroes and monsters to explore ideas of identity. In this world, the wealthy have bought the magical ability to become Darklings through a pact with otherworldly entities. They have become vampires, demons, ghosts, werewolves, and other things that haunt the magical imaginations. But, this world also touches on the heroic realm and therefore there are Sparks – beings that are created (at least to some degree) through “science” (or some semblance of it). Many of these Sparks become heroes, acquiring powers… but also acquiring the need for secret identities and costumes.

Superheroes are the perfect space to explore the fluidity of identity, especially since the idea of the costume and the secret identity are so intrinsic to the superhero mythos. In Gardner’s world, characters who gain powers need to take on a superhero identity and keep their ‘normal’ identity a secret as part of the complicated rules of the world. And when they use an superheroic name and wear a costume, they BECOME different, adopting new personality traits and radiating an aura of respectability. Yet, there are characters who are already accustomed to switches in identity like Kim Lam, who, in her search to find herself, has used multiple different names and personality characteristics. In fact, Kim refers to her previous identities as being dead like her identity as Kimmi, the goth girl who had a fascination with Darklings, her childhood name of Kimberly, or the name her father chose for her: Kimberlite (after the igneous rock). Kim is a genderqueer person (using she/her pronouns), existing in a nonbinary space, and Gardner is influenced in this idea of the death of identities by the Trans population and the use of the term “deadname”, referring to a previous identity that no longer reflects the person using it. Kim has had fluidity in her own identity, exploring different aspects of herself until she became Kim. Gardner makes a connection in his novel between gender fluidity and the superhero narrative, exploring the spaces of multiplicity of identity and the generative potential of this multiplicity. Identity and secret identity are interwoven in a way that allows for character complexity.

Transitions become an important factor in All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault not just because of Kim’s transition to a genderqueer identity, but also because this world is made up of transitions – the change from wealthy to Darkling (which is marked by a ritual) and the transformation into a Spark (which is marked by an origin story). Transformation is part of a living story in Gardner’s world, something invested with power. In fact, even the powers of the Sparks need to be narrated and characters need to create a story to explain their powers in order to increase the likelihood that the universe will grant them those powers. In this way, the author plays with the idea of stories within stories and the importance of tales for creating new possibilities.

In addition to exploring identity and fluidity, Gardner offers a critique of the logic of wealthy people, literally turning the rich into vampires. In fact, the wealthy still suggest that there is a “trickle down economy”, but instead of just buying businesses and claiming that hiring people will allow their wealth to trickle down, the Darklings use “trickle down” to refer to the money that they give to others when they take their blood. There is a literal feeding off of the labour and bodies of the poor by the wealthy in this world. Gardner uses literal consumption (of blood) to comment on capitalist consumption of resources. He borrows from right wing pundits who try to justify hoarding of wealth by the 1% when creating speeches by the wealthy who use rhetoric like “”We manage sources of prosperity to maximize their return” and “We bought our powers legitimately through a mutually beneficial, clearly defined argument”, and “I didn’t just fluke my way into undeserved privilege. I paid”.

Gardner uses speculative fiction in order to bring up critical questions, inviting readers to interrogate the status quo and think about the way that power and exclusion work in our society, while also illustrating to the reader that change is possible.

In addition to being a fun superhero versus monsters narrative, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is a social text, exploring possibilities through storytelling.

To find out more about James Alan Gardner, visit https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To discover more about All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, visit https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780765392657

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Poor Monster

Check out my review of a Frankenstein story by Charles de Lint, set in his created city Newford. “Pity The Monsters” is a story that is as much about poverty, institutionalization, and family violence as it is about monsters.

We Shall Be Monsters

Poor Monster

A review of Charles de Lint’s “Pity The Monsters” in The Ultimate Frankenstein (Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I was surprised to see that Charles de Lint set his Frankenstein tale Pity The Monsters in the city he invented – Newford – a city that he generally sets tales of fairies and fantasy in, but in doing so, he illustrated the fantasy quality of Frankenstein tales, and he stuck to areas that he has often evoked in his Newford-centred stories. De Lint used a Frankenstein tale to explore ideas of poverty and homelessness, setting his tale in the impoverished part of Newford generally called The Tombs, an area of abandoned buildings that house squatters of the human and supernatural variety. De Lint explores the interweaving of normal city life with the uncanny, as he generally does in his Newford tales, having characters pulled out of…

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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/ 

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

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 .