Godly Love Story

A review of Jerome Stueart’s “Brazos” in The Angels of Our Better Beasts (ChiZine, 2016).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Mythology is filled with love stories between a human being and a god. These stories are generally told from the perspective of the beloved of the god… and generally they don’t turn out well for the human being with mortals transformed into trees, driven mad, or abandoned. Jerome Stueart’s “Brazos” takes a different perspective, providing a meeting of fathers – the father of a god, and a farmer, who is the father of a young woman getting ready to go to college. This is a modern myth playing with ancient traditions, and those traditions are encoded in the way that the fathers speak to each other about the relationship between their children.

Stueart sets his story in a modern American setting, adding a new setting to an old myth and playing with the power of myth to speak to multiple audiences. His farmer is an American self-made man, not trusting anything he didn’t build himself, and this gives him an instant distrust of the easy success of a god. He recognizes the history of gods mistreating their mortal lovers and wants better for his daughter, asking why humans have to make all of the sacrifices for gods and questioning whether this will allow for a deeper relationship if the god gives nothing and the mortal gives everything.

Stueart brings attention to power dynamics in relationships, inviting a questioning of relationships and assumed sacrifices. He uses myth to bring attention to the way that traditions are mythical and need to change under new circumstances, needing to be as transformative as the gods of these myths and their mortal lovers.

To find out more about Jerome Stueart’s work, visit https://jeromestueart.com
To find out more about The Angels of Our Better Beasts and other ChiZine publications, visit http://chizinepub.com

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Frozen Wooden With Steampunk Horror

Frozen Wooden with Steampunk Horror

 

A review of Kate Heartfield’s “The Seven O’Clock Man” in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction, edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

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As much a horror tale as it is a steampunk story, Kate Heartfield’s “The Seven O’Clock Man” evokes the powerlessness of youth. Heartfield constructs a community where the late mayor had built a clock with a clockwork automaton in it who seeks out any children who are awake past 7 o’clock to turn them into wood. The mayor had viewed order and control to be central to his city, believing that the best means of exerting control was to create a persistent threat to the children of the community, punishing them for disobedience of community rules that are imposed on them. Like many communities that use fear as a means of securing power, the mayor made certain that any of the children who were turned to wood would become part of the clock, peaking through the clock’s doors when the clock struck the hour. The children held within the clock were frozen in horrified immobility, able to see the world, but controlled by the mechanisms of the clock, exhibiting the horror of absolute powerlessness.

 

As much as “Seven O’Clock Man” is a discourse on the powerlessness of childhood it is also a narrative about systems of colonial power. The mayor of the city was particularly interested in controlling aboriginal children, viewing them as a threat to the order of the city. He constructed the clock in order to force his notion of decorum onto the population of aboriginal children, symbolically representing the horrors visited upon aboriginal children in the residential school system where children were similarly taken away, locked up, and subject to threats and violence all in the attempt to force children to conform to colonial cultures. Most of the children frozen in the clock were Mohawk and the man who the mayor forced to wind the clock was also a man who came from a Mohawk family – Jacques. Jacques is forced to continue to wind the clock because his son has clockwork gears installed in him that wind down if the clock is not wound.

 

Heartfield brings attention to the depression and post-traumatic stress that comes from systemic colonial control and threats when Jacques’ wife Marie-Claire (a former slave) experiences regular depressive episodes, freezing in catatonia while her husband winds the clock. Her life of horrors shapes her ability to interact with her family and her frozen state mirrors the frozen state of the statues subject to the punishment of the figure in the clock.

 

Heartfield creates a sense of creeping horror with “The Seven O’Clock Man”, evoking the fear of being made powerlessness, subject to someone else’s will, and the emptiness that flows from being denied expression.

 

To find out more about Kate Heartfield’s work, visit her website at https://heartfieldfiction.com/

 

To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit Exile’s website at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html

 

 

And Dominik Parisien’s website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology

 

 

 

Into the Darkness of Exploitation

Into the Darkness of Exploitation
A review of Premee Mohamed’s “The Adventurer’s Wife” in She Walks in Shadows (ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, Innsmouth Free Press, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

  
Premee Mohamed’s “The Adventurer’s Wife” plays with the traditional images of the adventurer in a strange land. Mohamed plays with the problematic trope of the western adventurer when she explores the traditional features of the adventure story where the adventurer steals from sacred sites of non-Western peoples, exploits the stories of indigenous populations for his own benefit in publications, and falls in love with and brings home a young woman from Africa. Mohamed complicates these tropes by illustrating the repercussions for some of these exploitative colonial actions by having the older adventurer Penhallick have to face some of the ramifications of his actions. When he is told not to remove artifacts from a sacred site and does so anyway, Penhallick experiences a degradation in health and becomes part of something larger than himself, having made an accidental deal by removing artifacts from sacred locations. The much younger woman, Sima, who he takes back home from his adventures abroad ends up illustrating that, rather than the passive subject that most adventure stories construct, she is an active agent of her own desires. 

Exploring the notion of the silencing of colonial subjects, “The Adventurer’s Wife” explores Lovecraftian Silent Ones, old gods from before the gods could speak, playing with the notion that the colonial exercise has been one of silencing the people that it exploited, using them to create adventure stories while ignoring their actual voices and their own stories. Penhallick ignores everything he is told by the indigenous population of the village he explores while seeking out his own stories to tell at home, paying no attention to what he is told by the people who have knowledge of the region because he de-values them outside of the parameter of being characters in his own adventure narratives. 

Premee Mohamed reverses the trope in adventure stories that curiosity is an innocent pursuit by illustrating the damaging nature of colonial ‘curiosity’ and the exploitation that comes along with it. She illustrates that colonial exploration is an activity that is shaped from notions of privilege that allowed western adventurers to take from the Others that they constructed, treating them as resources to be mined for cultural stories and artifacts that could be used to wow people back in the West. 

To discover more about She Walks in Shadows, visit Innsmouth Free Press’ website at http://www.innsmouthfreepress.com/blog/books/she-walks-in-shadows/

RagnaROCKING Manitoba: The Road to Hel

A review of Chadwick Ginther’s Tombstone Blues (RavenStone, 2013).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Tombstone Blues courtesy of RavenStone books

Cover Photo of Tombstone Blues courtesy of RavenStone books

This second book in the Thunder Road trilogy takes a turn toward the dark. The dead have risen, and Thor, who has been sitting in Hel since Ragnarok… has become dark and twisted by years of post-mortem torture.

When Thor encounters Ted Callan, the first thing he notices is that Ted has been tattooed with Norse artifacts… including Thor’s own hammer Mjolnir…. and he wants it back. Ted has become used to the powers that were granted to him by his Norse tattoos, so, when Thor rips Mjolnir from Ted’s body, he has to adapt to the changes in his body, finding new ways to cope with the magical and mythical world that continues to surround him and finding new ways to deal with the dead who have risen guided by a dark Thor and twisted Valkyries.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the same can be said with the role to Hel, the Norse goddess of death (and the name for her hall and her realm). All of Ted’s acts of heroism, his attempts to save the world have only made it more vulnerable. The wall that Odin placed around Midgard (Earth) to keep otherworldly beings out only allows these beings to influence those who have already been touched in some way by the otherworldly. Unfortunately, that means that every one of Ted’s heroic acts has created a potential victim, marking them for transgression by mythic and magical beings. In his attempts to protect his fellow humans, Ted has unintentionally weakened the barrier around Midgard, and the supernatural is getting closer. His good intentions paved a road for Hel to Earth and as the fog and mists of Nifleheim, the hellish realm between, roll out across the Earth, nightmares are able to visit a human race no longer prepared for the otherworldly, lost in the technocracy we have created.

The Dwarven tattoos carved into his body gave Ted the ability to walk on air, super strength, near invulnerability, power over the weather… and all of this has given him a hero complex, a belief in his ability to solve problems through brute force. But, despite the whisperings of Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, which should grant him wisdom, Ted is only given information rather than wisdom. Power without knowledge and thoughts about consequences is a feature of many of the heroes our society manufactures, but in Tombstone Blues, Chadwick Ginther forces Ted to face responsibility for his acts, to question and debate his belief in his own moral rightness and question what may happen if he makes the wrong choice. Ted realises that he is only part of a greater world which can be changed by his actions, and not always in the positive way that he intends. A man of action, Ted is forced to reassess those actions, to stop, pause, and speculate about what he is doing and why.

Ted’s own bodily vulnerability, brought on by Thor’s act of ripping Mjolnir from his body allows him to think of wider vulnerabilities in the world, changes and dangers that may be too large for one person’s heroism to change. Like himself, the world has become wounded, and instead of blood, it is leaking the mists of Nifleheim, a fluid that is no less deadly.

To read more about Chadwick Ginther’s work, visit his website at http://chadwickginther.com/ .

To discover more about Tombstone Blues, visit RavenStone’s website at http://www.ravenstonebooks.com/spec-fic/tombstone-blues.html .

Humour and Subversion

By Derek Newman-Stille

How many people take humour seriously?

Can humour say things that we wouldn’t say in polite society?

Can humour ask us to think about things that we normally wouldn’t?

Humour has a subversive potential. Good authors of humour can wield it as a microscope on society, a lens of the absurd through which we can see how the things that we take for granted as “normal” can actually be quite ridiculous. Humour has historically been something to be wielded by subaltern groups (those people who society’s power structures disempower and devoice). Disempowered groups have often found the power of their voice in humourous critiques (being often forbidden or discourages from voicing their critiques directly).

Humour CAN be subversive, but it can also reinforce social norms and power structures. It has been historically applied both to oppress groups as well as used by those oppressed groups to give themselves as sense of liberation from oppression, to comment on the society that casts them out.

So, why don’t we take humour seriously? The great thing about humour is that it is precisely because it ISN’T taken seriously that allows it to make deeper social comments. Humour contains the potential to mock society, to raise speculative questions about what we consider normal without necessarily producing solutions. Humour and the speculative genres can often work well together, challenging and questioning the barriers of the “real”, the “normal”, the “expected”.

Historically humour has had a place in the speculative genres, those moments of comedy that heighten the emotional experience. It can allow science fiction and fantasy to poke fun at itself, mocking their own tropes to point out that they are being used intentionally and to attract the reader’s attention… but I have always felt that humour speaks best with the horror genre. There is something about fear that evokes those bubbles of laughter, the inability to contain the sustained feeling of terror without our own bodies betraying us, bubbling out awkward giggles or frightened chortles. Humour and horror can mutually support each other. The contrast between these two states of being can push one another into elevated positions – things seem more funny when they are a break from the atmosphere of fear, and things seem more horrifying when terror intrudes on a comic scene.

So can horror and comedy coexist? Can seriousness and mockery speak to each other? As far back as the Ancient Greek world, there was a recognition of the mutual dependency of the tragic and the comic. Ancient Greek tragedies were performed in groups – three tragedies followed by one satyr play. Satyr plays are not the same as satires (a word that derived from them). They were performed with a group of satyrs as the chorus -> complete with fuzzy goat legs and erect phalloi (penises)… and that chorus of satyrs interacted with similar scenes to those of tragedy, but brought in images of heightened sexuality, drunkenness, and general tomfoolery. They were brilliant intrusions into the set of tragedy, into the tragic space, adding a counterpoint to the seriousness of the tragic performance.

Seriousness and humour have been in conversation for a long time, each having something to say to the other, each forming an outlet and expressive space that bursts forth, inserting itself into the world… and yet humour and seriousness are not mutually exclusive. There is something funny about being serious… and something serious about being funny. Emotional experience can be part of a commentary, and emotions can say things that words may not be able to encompass.

Upcoming Interview with Lynda Williams on August 2, 2013

Lynda Williams and I have been corresponding for a while, each visiting the other’s website and reading about various comments about Canadian SF. I was therefore very excited when Ms. Williams agreed to do an interview here. It is always very exciting to talk with an author who is comfortable deconstructing and analysing her own work, and whose keen observations add much to the discourse of Canadian SF.

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

In our upcoming interview on August 2, 2013, Lynda Williams discusses the power of close observation for an author, religion, culture contact, imbalances of power, writing LGBTQ or queer characters and giving them personal complexity and depth, engaging with issues around homophobia, gender stereotypes, the question of medical intervention, writing about trauma, and the importance of fan participation in an author’s world.

Here are some teasers from our interview:

Lynda Williams: [Science Fiction] “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.”

Lynda Williams: “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.”

Lynda Williams: “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.”

Lynda Williams: “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.”

Lynda Williams: “My initial interest in sexual differences sprang from something like rebellion against male and female stereotypes.”

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.”

Lynda Williams: “Real people aren’t perfect. Neither are believable characters.”

Lynda Williams: “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.”

Lynda Williams: “The Okal Rel experience evolved out of playing with others, so it invites participation naturally.”

Lynda Williams: “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.”

Lynda Williams: “The Okal Rel Saga is the sum of my life’s work of making meaning of my world through fiction.”

Lynda Williams: “The pleasure in writing, for me, has always been about creativity and ideas. The heroes. The questions. The larger-than-everyday feel of SF.”

If you have not already had the chance, check out my review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-in-between-space/. You can find out more about Ms. Williams and the Okal Rel universe at http://okalrel.org/.

The Timeless Power of Legends

A Review of The Monkey King & Other Stories Edited by Griffin Ondaatje (Harper Collins, 1995).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Griffin Ondaatje compiled The Monkey King & Other Stories as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of World Literacy of Canada. The stories within represent Canadian and Sri Lankan adaptations and re-tellings of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim tales, bringing the timeless wisdom of these tales to an English-reading audience. Written by a variety of authors and including such powerful voices from canonised Can Lit as P. K. Page, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and M.G. Vassanji, this volume represents a multitude of voices telling tales that have transformed and changed throughout history, illustrating the timeless quality of their narrative as well as the multiplicity of their voice and ability to transcend a single person’s narrative.

Each of the tales in this volume focuses on raising questions and imparting some form of wisdom, and although they are largely tales borrowed from religious texts, I have included them on Speculating Canada because of their speculative quality (asking timeless questions) – this is not to suggest that the religious texts contained in this volume are speculative fiction themselves, since they hold a religio-mythic realism, but their speculative quality is evoked in the re-telling of these stories to a diverse audience and the focus of the volume on rendering these religious tales into stories for consumption outside of a religious setting.

Many of the tales in this volume caution against ignorance, against the belief that there is something in this world that people don’t need to know about. They teach the importance of an open mind that is prepared for receiving new wisdom and new ideas. The thing that is most critiqued in these stories is arrogance and the limiting quality of arrogance as well as its impact on the world around it. Closely allied with this is a critique of the misuse of power and misunderstanding of the relationship between the common people and those in power.

Many of the tales in The Monkey King & Other Stories give voice to the animals surrounding humanity, allowing the largely ignored fauna of the world to gain a presence in human consciousness. These stories critique the misuse of animals by human beings and critique human power over animals (or the perception of power over them) while making the reader consider the way that humanity systematically de-voices the animal world, robbing the other creatures of the planet of agency. Buddhist tales in this volume, which contain the potential through ideas of reincarnation to make literal the humanity of animals, teach that it is essential to look at the wisdom of animals. After all, the Buddha did take the form of animals in the past, and therefore there is an essential transcendent quality of animal existence. The tale “Brighter Still” (retold by Graeme MacQueen), about the Buddha in the form of a deer teaches that animals serve a pedagogical value for humanity, imparting ideas of self-sacrifice, protection of one’s people, and the cruelty of over-hunting. “The Deer, The Tortoise, and the Kaerala Bird” (retold by J.B. Disanayaka) uses a discussion of the diversity of animal bodies and the ability of diverse animal bodies to each serve a different purpose to remind readers of the essential importance of  diversity and that our system of “normalising” certain bodies or ideas is limiting.

The narratives in this volume focus on the importance of sharing resources, both material and intellectual and looking for a fair distribution of goods and ideas. Stories like “The Monkey King” (retold by Shyam Selvadurai) teach the importance of self-sacrifice as an essential part of leadership, as well as cautioning about the power of fear to override justice. “The Chola King” (retold by Tim Wynne-Jones) reminds leaders that they are ultimately responsible to the people they represent. “Two Friends by the Villu” (retold by Ranjini Obeyesekere) reminds the reader that friendships and alliances are often strained when there is a deficit of resources, while “The Dog Who Drank From Socks” (retold by Griffin Ondaatje) teaches that occasionally shared thirst can teach compassion for others who are suffering. “Power Misused” (retold by S. Samarasinghe) warns that the power to destroy often facilitates the desire to destroy. “The Cycle of Revenge” (retold by M.G. Vassanji) warns about the ability of revenge to escalate violence and trap the participants in a permanent and self-destructive battle that damages them and those around them. “Kundalini” (retold by Chitra Fernando) teaches compassion for difference and the importance of being inclusive and creating a welcoming society for diversity. The narratives in this volume are pedagogical and illustrate the important role of telling stories to help people transcend their limited viewpoints and gain further, diverse wisdom as well as questioning taken-for-granted ideas about the way the world is or “should be”.

Griffin Ondaatje’s retelling of “The Resting Hill” teaches the importance of place in creating stories and illustrates that stories often come from the land itself and an explanation of the features of the landscape. Land embodies memory of the events that have taken place on it as well as being filled with the myths of the people who have lived on it. We live with a diverse history of myths around us as well as within us, shaping who and where we are. He reminds us that the telling of stories is essential and important to our existence. Timothy Findley, in “The Unicorn and the Grapevine” reminds readers that magic exists in the world through the ability of words from stories to transcend the teller, to survive the ages and the distance and that telling stories is itself a form of magic that pervades our world and prevents the destruction of mythical creatures like the unicorn. Telling stories keeps magic in the world

The tales in this volume are those of gods, monsters, common people, animals, and transcendent sages and each evokes a sense of wonder and a desire to learn more about the world around us. Ondaatje’s ability to collect tales that evoke questions and challenge preconceptions makes this volume accessible as well as evocative.

You can explore more about Griffin Ondaatje at http://harpercollins.co.in/author.asp?Author_Code=1296 . You can find out more about World Literacy of Canada at http://www.worldlit.ca/ .