A review of Kelley Armstrong’s “The Culling” in Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts (Laska Media Groups Inc., 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Kelley Armstrong’s near future fiction story “The Culling” examines the relationship between resources and disabilities. Her story is set in a future where there is resource scarcity and a general lack of water and food resources and this future society decides to deal with resource scarcity by killing disabled members of that society each year. Although set in the future, Armstrong’s tale brings attention to the treatment of disability as simultaneously a resource depletion, the disabled body being treated as socially non-productive, and the eugenic attitudes that are part of modern society as much as they are part of the future or past of social treatments of disability. 

This future society uses multiple methods of de-humanizing disabled people, beginning first with the rhetoric of weakness by suggesting that society would be stronger without disabled people in it. It then treats disabled bodies as drains on society resources, acting as though disabled people are not contributors to that society. The strongest rhetoric for de-humanizing disability is to put a person with mental illness on display in front of the society, strip him down, forbid him resources for cleaning himself, and post a sign above him that states that he murdered his family because people with disabilities are a threat to others. 

Armstrong illustrates the danger of rhetoric around disability, illustrating that the portrayal of disability as unproductive and as threat can lead to social actions of ostracism and violence against disabled bodies. Her near future fiction is not only “near future” because of its temporal setting, but because it is “near” and close to present realities. She uses The Culling to symbolically represent the violence against disabled bodies – the ostracism, institutionalization, and the lack of resources given to disabled people. Armstrong brings attention to the dangers of “normalcy”, creating a society whose violence against the non-normate is deadly. She also links non-normate bodies (disabled bodies) to cultural dissent by having teachers and medical doctors consider any act of resistance to be the same as a disabled body and both be subject to termination. In doing so, “The Culling” suggests that control of disabled bodies is a form of enforced normalcy and the suppression of deviation from an external norm. She illustrates that scapegoating certain people is always a form of social control, distracting people from the controls that are placed on them by letting them direct their fears and hostilities onto another group that is already considered abject, considered Other. 

Rather than concentrating on physical disability as many speculative fiction authors do, Armstrong entwines aging, physical disability, psychological disability/mental illness, cognitive disabilities, and non-normate appearance to create a sense of connection between those bodies and minds that are seen not to belong in a society that is hyper-focussed on maintaining ideas of normalcy that Other certain bodies. 

Marisol has a family history of mental illness and her parents, fearing that she will be culled like her aunt, train her from an early age how to avoid looking different in any way in public, how to pass medical tests that are geared toward rooting out dissent, and how to pass as ‘normal’. She is always aware of the presence of systems of control that exist around her throughout her life and her need to pretend to be as normal as possible, and is more aware as she ages and becomes more aware of her own psychological disability. Yet, she is aware of the work that other people with psychological disabilities have done and is aware that the rhetoric of unproductive bodies is a social lie since she has seen the beautiful artwork produced by her aunt, who was culled for her psychological disabilities. 

It is significant that Armstrong made her protagonist a teenager both because this is the time period when most psychological disabilities become apparent, but also because teenagers are often subject to a normalizing influence, encouraged to conform, and yet are viewed as being rebellious and non-conformist. Her character is at the perfect age to invite social questions even while she is trying her hardest to fit in to a society that has already rejected her.

To discover more about Kelley Armstrong, visit her website at
To discover more about Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, visit 

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 12: Alpha Flight

Continuing the comic book theme, this week James Kerr and I discuss Marvel Comics’ Alpha Flight, the superhero team that the American Marvel Comics designed for Canada. James and I talk about some of the positive things that Marvel Comics did with their Canadian superhero team such as including the first gay character (Northstar), indigenous characters (Shaman, Talisman), French Canadians (Northstar, Aurora), characters of short stature (Puck), and characters with disabilities (Box, Aurora). We discuss the history of Alpha Flight, and its development in the context of other comics, the history of the Marvel universe, and the context of Canadian comics. … And… of course, we discuss the wonderful cheesiness of American visions of what a Canadian superhero would be.

Explore Trent Radio at

Explore Trent Radio at

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

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

Cover photo from OnSpec # 95, courtesy of


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:

You can discover more about OnSpec at .

Zombie Survival Training 101

A review of Ada Hoffmann’s “And  All The Fathomless Crowds” Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction (Exile Editions, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

Coming of age in a world where everything has come to life is a difficult experience. Thank goodness the universities offer survival training!

In Ada Hoffmann’s “And All The Fathomless Crowds”, the world is divided into “the Minded” and “Non-Minds”. The Non-Minds are animated forces that should be dead, entities with agency but without thought, consciousness, or any real intentionality. In this world, the desire to kill without considering the intentions of the entity one encounters is considered “Romero Disorder”, a dangerous condition where a human begins killing the other without remorse like a person in a George Romero zombie film.

Through her exploration of “Romero Disorder”, and pathologisation of the slaughter of zombies, Hoffmann explores the issues with zombie films and the fetishisation of slaughter. She brings critical attention to the notion of zombie films as excuses for human beings to fantasise about murdering human beings without penalty or guilt, something that the black and white morality of the zombie film (and more so zombie video game) lends itself easily toward. Hoffmann compares this “Romero Disorder” with mindlessness, suggesting that the humans who indulge in slaughter become like the zombies they pretend to battle against.

In the Department of Survival, Queen’s University, students are taught to wait to use deadly force until they are threatened, until the Non-Minds endanger them. For their culminating examinations, students are sent out into a world that is potentially violent and hostile toward them and they pass the exams by 1) surviving, and 2) making certain not to use excessive force or violence toward anything around them that could be a Non-Mind.

Contrasting with the modern trend toward viral zombies, Hoffmann instead has her zombie future animated by magic, magic that can bring a semblance of life to anything that is not traditionally animated or alive. She brings life to fountains, coats, and, of course, dead humans.

Hoffmann makes the experience of going through tests more prevalent to the reader by writing in second person, inviting her reader to envision what they would do in a world that was suddenly animated by magic and pushing her reader dangerously close to “Romero Disorder” in their own fear over a world where everything carries the potential for threat. In our urban deserts, homo-sapiens-centric and often seemingly devoid of life we become complacent with the idea that the only things that threaten us are each other, but Hoffmann pushes the urban environment into animation, making it threatening and strange and chasing the reader out of his or her complacency and into the challenging space where perceived threats can spark violence.

You can explore more of Ada Hoffmann’s work at or
Find out more about Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction at

A Brush With Mythical Madness

A review of Ursula Pflug’s The Alphabet Stones (Blue Denim Press, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Ursula Pflug writes The Alphabet Stones with a mixture of rural Ontario accent and a transcendent poetic quality. Her work glitters with the cadences of rural ontario while evoking a deeply poetic quality and beauty of phrasing.

The Alphabet Stones is a voyage of self discovery and delving into the blurry lines between myth and memory, the haunting quality that the past has on the present. Jody is a girl who was raised on a commune with a mother who has been committed to an asylum. The land around the commune and her experiences with others have written themselves deeply into her memory, shaped her into who she is but her memories are suspect, questioned, and shaped by an air of myth.

Pflug does an incredible job of exploring the dream-like quality of memory – shifting, changing, and uncertain. But, the memories she explores are literally tinged by the mythic, the unbelievable, and the supernormal. Jody and her friends have had contact with the otherwordly through a mythic place where stones are written with words and images that evoke a world beyond our own, and she has been touched by an element of the fey.

Jody is a youth invested with the qualities of old age – she is wise beyond her years and is steeped in a deep nostalgia that often only permeates those later in life – she misses things from her past, feels cut off from her places of origins, and senses that things have fundamentally changed while pining the fact that things will never be the same. She is defined by an inescapable sense of loss.

Ursula Pflug wends her story with twining threads of strangeness and loss, the alienating quality of the past. It is fantasy on the cusp of madness, with characters debating the reality of their experiences and the extent to which delusion may have permeated their lives.

Her characters prefer to believe that the otherworld is just stress or delusion. It is easier and safer for them to think that the world itself is knowable rather than subject to an uncanny quality, a place infinitely more complex than they can grasp or understand. Pflug doesn’t try to create easy answers in her novel, providing for her readers the same sense of dislocation that is invested in her characters. She allows the readers to truly feel what it is like to stand on the cliff between reality and the mythic, madness and ideas of normalcy.

To discover more about Ursula Pflug, visit her website at .

Upcoming interview with Lydia Peever on Friday August 23

I had a great opportunity to talk to Lydia Peever after an author reading in Ottawa recently and knew I wanted to hear more about her insights, so I was pleased that she agreed to do an interview here. I was particularly excited that Ms. Peever brought attention to issues that are generally ignored or hidden in our society due to stigma like drug addiction and mental health issues. By bringing attention to things that people ignore, we can make positive changes. Lydia Peever reminds us that horror can shine a light on the areas of stigma that our society casts into the dark.

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Check out our interview on Friday, August 23, where we discuss writing-group communities versus cliques, gender and horror writing, writing about addiction, bringing attention to mental health issues, the teaching power of horror, the need to express, the ability of horror to be empowering to women, the need to read and watch horror critically, the relationship between writing and other artistic expressions, the insights that come from talking to fans, the power of horror as a social activist text,

Lydia Peever: “The world is really very weird, if you pay attention.”

Lydia Peever: “If you write about the things happening around you that really shake you to your foundations – the stuff that gives you real nightmares that aren’t fuelled by the last movie you watched – people will tune into that. If you have a history with a social issue be it addiction, debt, domestic crisis, sexual conflict, mental health; write about it. Never be afraid to write about what shakes you up, breaks your heart, or makes you scream.”

Lydia Peever: “At one point I would be best described as an artsy yet anti-social high-school dropout that messed up at college too. My focus has been split between writing and photography since I was at least ten years old, so art always seemed more important than school.”

Lydia Peever: “Drugs are mentioned here and there in my stories as a colour to paint a character with. Usually a dark colour as drug abuse is basically a dark thing. In Crocodile Rot, where the sun shines bright on intravenous drug use, I talk about it like it’s happening on our front porch, because it probably is regardless of where you live.”

Lydia Peever: “I can’t turn a blind eye to the dark alleys around me since I’ve walked down them. People I knew since childhood have walked down them. I’ve lost people down dark alleys.”

Lydia Peever: “Stigma and fear surrounding drug abuse and its affects are far more damaging than communication, education and true understanding. I write just as often about mental health issues, which I know just as well and can at times be related.”

Lydia Peever: “You may not have experience with the specific terror or the ‘other’ found in the story, but it explains itself neatly and from a safe distance. You can inspect so many otherwise inaccessible worlds this way.”

Lydia Peever: “A trip to the dentist can be as fraught with weird as the trip to that carnival trailer after dark. I like living in a world like that, so I pay attention to the weird.”

Lydia Peever:  “Infuse what moves you into a story. Let a story sprout from blood spilled in real life. Let those you know or who have passed transmogrify into beast or angels.”

Check out our interview on Friday August 23, and let Lydia Peever remind you: “Don’t keep that precious dark ink bottled up.”

Blood on the Starscape

A review of Peter Watts’ Blindsight (Tor, 2006)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Life itself is strange, odd, and unordinary. We try to create ideas of normalcy to impose order on the world around us and end up limiting our perception and understanding of that world. We categorise, we cut things that we don’t think should belong, and we butcher reality to make it somehow easier for us to understand. In Blindsight, Peter Watts challenges ideas of normalcy, warps our understanding and questions the privilege we give to certain bodies, certain modes of interpreting and thinking, and the limitations we impose on categories around us.

Watts presents us with truly alien aliens, not stereotypes of Earth civilisations with miniscule differences in behaviour and appearance. He explores what a diverse universe could be like – so different from human understanding that their biology defies our understanding and the aliens themselves see our cultural modes of behaviour as almost viral, as so foreign that we can’t be anything but a threat. He questions our privileging of self awareness, consciousness, and our assumption that this is necessary for intelligent thought.

Instead of presenting the dichotomy of “normal” people facing the “abnormal” alien, Watts assembles a group of human outsiders, because who is better suited to understand the alien than those who have been alienated on our world? People embedded in and performing ideas of normalcy would be too invested in seeing that normalcy to really understand the experience of the “other”. The crew of the exploratory ship Theseus is made up of a man who has been partially lobotomised as a way of “correcting” his seizures and has lost the ability to really empathise, a woman with compartmentalised consciousnesses, a group mind that we would have labelled “Multiple Personality Disorder” (but is recognised in the future as a form of multiple intelligences), two men who are spliced with technological prosthetics allowing them an expanded view of the world and an interrelationship with a mechanical sensory network, and… a vampire, a figure from human history who was extinct but was brought back to existence through bio-technology and has a sensory and interpretive framework so different that he sees things that human beings could not, and yet is harmed by images like the cross because of the intersection of 90 degree angles. These characters are so completely different than the human “base norm” that they require interpreters to relay the complexity of their speech and behavioural patterns to the general public, a majority that cannot understand them and is content in their lack of understanding.

Siri, the interpreter, trained to be separate from the events occurring and to present a non-biased interpretation/translation of the behaviour of his colleagues for the majority back on Earth, is himself an outsider, and this leads to his ability to interpret since he sees all of humanity (including those who would consider themselves “normal”) to be foreign and difficult to understand. He serves as the gateway between his crew of outsiders and the people back at home, waiting from some insights into the aliens that the crew is seeking to encounter. His sociopathic characteristics mean that he is able to look at the people around him with an outsider’s understanding, lacking empathy and the ability to collude or feel akin to those around him. He sees himself as a vessel of translation facilitating communication between his crew of outsiders that seem foreign to him and a foreign and odd humanity that although considering themselves “normal” are equally odd to him.

The crew of the Theseus has been sent to find out about a new alien life form that has disrupted the human notion that we are probably alone in the universe. These beings, encountered for the first time when they showed up in our atmosphere and photographed the Earth, present a puzzle to humanity, and, of course, are considered a potential threat. When the Theseus first encounters the alien ship, it calls itself Rorschach, reminding the reader of Rorschach blots used in psychological procedures to allow the patient to project their understanding onto the image in order to get at a greater understanding of the patient, their motivations, and their understanding of the world. Watts points out that this is precisely what we do with the image of the alien, we project our own understandings onto it, our own insecurities, our own ideas, and ultimately shape aliens in ways that reveal more about us, the viewers, than they do about the alien itself. Rorschach becomes a vessel for all of the projections of the crew’s understanding of the world.  It’s foreignness, and the foreignness of the “Scramblers” that occupy the inside of Rorschach become a way for the crew to debate the nature of human consciousness, ideas of normalcy, and the privilege we place on our modes of interpretation.

You can explore more of Peter Watt’s work at his website . To find out more about Blindsight, visit Tor’s website at

Science and Speculative Fiction

An editorial on Science and Speculative Fiction By Derek Newman-StilleCanada Day

Although as a society, we often create an impenetrable barrier between the arts and sciences, seeing each as separate and distinct from one another, these barriers are historically created and are social inventions. The origin of science is through philosophy, remember. Science Fiction (or more widely, Speculative Fiction) is one of the arenas where there are still obvious bridges between the arts and sciences – being a production of artistic endeavor, but also dealing with ideas coming out of technology and sciences.

Several Canadian SF authors including Julie Czerneda, Scott Fotheringham, and Nina Munteanu have operated in the field of science, noticing the opportunity that SF provides to explore critical questions around science. Czerneda has even used science fiction as a mechanism for teaching students about science, allowing them to play out scientific ideas in a science fictional setting.

SF allows authors to explore the social implications of science, the social contexts and ideological underpinnings that accompany scientific endeavors. SF explores the social ramifications of scientific ideas and developments, exploring what could happen, where things could go, what social issues could develop in correspondence with technological invention, seeing the sociocultural aspect of science rather than viewing scientific ideology as separate from the social sphere and divorced from its ideological implications. SF can provide a critical lens to scientific pursuits, providing writers and readers the opportunity to insert the deeper questions into scientific explorations: asking “Why?”, “What happens if…?”, and “What could come from this?”.

So often, scientists are wrapped up in the act of invention, in the process of discovery, that they ignore what the implications of their research could be, how it could be used (and for whom), and how it could be made to serve purposes for which it was not intended. The research for research’s sake mentality sometimes cultivates an ideology that ignores social implications. SF can provide social warnings about where things could go, bringing ideas back into the world and seeing how they could play out within a political, societal sphere.

SF often displays scientific ideas magnified, extremified, exaggerated to illustrate possible implications, highlighting the dangers as well as the potentialities that could be embodied in the process of discovery, and the hazardous places that society could take scientific invention to. SF can be a place to explore moral issues in relation to technology – what are the implications of invention? How will inventions shift our consciousness and the way we view the world? Will we still capture what is fundamentally human if we switch our basic behaviours, our patterns of thought, or even our bodies themselves?

Writers can use SF as a medium for exploring whether the social or the technological will be a greater mechanism of change. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence explores whether social change or technological change will be the thing that will deter the destruction of our natural environment and deal with the development of pollutants. Will we be able to shift our way of thinking about the world to be more ecologically safe, or will we once again try to rely on a technological invention to solve our problems?

SF can illustrate the limits of science to repair our social problems. We tend, as a society, to put a lot of faith in the idea that science will solve our problems, whether they be environmental (as illustrated by our trend to introduce new species into ecosystems as an attempt to control those ecosystems) or medical (believing that the medical profession can solve our bodily ills).We often take science as a given solution, as an ideology founded in concepts of “Truth”, rather than a set of theories that is open to challenge and is historically contingent (formed from a specific line of thought that has developed over time). SF provides a space to question the unquestioned authority of science and our social belief that science can solve our world’s ills.

One of the fora of scientific exploration that SF has been doing a great job of critiquing is the field of medicine, and, particularly, the ideologies that are created from viewing the body mechanically (as something that can be fixed through forced normalisation). One of the areas that is most affected by the medicalised ‘normalcy’ forced on bodies is the area of diverse bodies, and people with disabilities, who are often subjected to painful procedures in an attempt to normalise their bodies rather than shifting social ideologies to allow for more diversity and more accessible spaces for diverse bodies. Leah Bobet does a great job of critiquing the medicalised body in her YA novel Above, where she presents readers with a group of individuals who are mutated or bodily different in certain ways (either with crab arms, the ability to transform into a bee, lion feet, or the ability to speak to ghosts) who have escaped from medical facilities that broke their feet, cut off their arms, and subjected them to harsh medical drugs in order to force their bodies to resemble the human ‘norms’. These people created a community called “Safe”, a place of safety away from the “Whitecoats” (doctors, scientists, psychiatrists, and other medical practitioners). The ideas of healing used by the Whitecoats were shaped by the idea that only certain bodies are normal, and any others are threatening and would be changed (even in painful and destructive ways) to represent that norm.

Camille Alexa, in her short story “All Them Pretty Babies” (from OnSpec Vol 24, No 3) takes this idea even further, presenting a future in which the population is limited, and yet, the society that is fighting for its own survival is still willing to cast out those who are bodily different, those mutations that threaten ideas of the normal. Scientists cast bodies out into areas of intense radiation while they try to preserve their ideas of what is and should be human, allowing anyone who deviates from that idea of humanity to rot in radioactive woods.

In Sparkle Hayter’s naked brunch, a doctor tries to medicalise the werewolf. Rather than accepting it as a figure of legend, he ascribes a disease to this different body: “Lycanthropoic Metamorphic Disorder”. He treats these medically diverse bodies as threatening, trying to force the werewolves to pass as human, subjecting them to harsh treatments that lead to chemical addictions and often death in an attempt to have them be more like ‘normal’, ‘regular’ human beings. He and his society deny the possibility that diverse bodies are useful and even necessary in a social system, that this diversity can be healthy.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake illustrates the extremes of danger that could be involved in the economicisation of medical technology. Her future is one in which pharmaceutical companies have solved all of the medical problems, but periodically release viral epidemics to spur the social need to buy more advanced cures and spend more money on medical advances to fuel the pharmaceutical industry. She shadows the issues we see in our society now where a great deal is medically possible, but the access to that medical technology is often restricted by wealth, and where often research is focussed on treatment (which is a greater long term investment) than on cures.

Canadian SF can also point out our reliance on technology. Joseph Macchiusi’s The Betelgeuse Oracle shows a world after the release of a massive EM pulse and the challenges of a world without technology. Urban spaces become deserts cut off from the modes of production, and characters have to adapt to a world that is different from the one that suffused their existence since birth. One character is so dependent on his connection to technology and particularly to communications technology and the need to be connected that he carries his dead cell phone everywhere with him and spends precious moments alternating batteries to try to re-activate it. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence illustrates the world’s reliance on plastic and the social breakdowns that occur when plastic is removed from our society.

One of the issues with science is that it often limits things into easy (and uncritical) categories (such as binary notions of gender), and good Canadian SF complicates these theories, disrupts this boundaries and categories and shows the complexity of the issues involved. It questions the foundations of categorization altogether.

SF doesn’t just critique scientific endeavours, SF also provides the opportunity for creative thought. So often people become limited in their outlook, navel-gazing within their own field and looking only at what is currently possible instead of what is impossible. Often it is in the sphere of the impossible where new ideas are found, new visions of things, and new ways of considering things outside of what is ‘normal’. Reading and writing SF allows for the development of insights into the impossible, the places of new innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.

SF explores the “what ifs” that are the foundation of scientific hypothesis building.

Science and SF can provide a powerful conversation with each other, changing, questioning, and challenging each other.

Here are some points that SF authors have raised about Science in their Interviews on Speculating Canada:


( )

Scott Fotheringham: I wanted to use what I had learned of biology to perform a thought experiment: What would happen if plastic began to disappear? Because

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

that probably won’t happen because we choose to make it happen, I wondered if organisms could digest plastic.

Scott Fotheringham: “much of science is goal-driven or product-driven. Scientists create things that are worth a lot of money but have little social value or actually harm us.”

Scott Fothertingham: “The questions I’d like to see asked – particularly by the scientists themselves – are, What value does the work I’m doing have to society? How will this be used and, if it has potential for harm, should we pursue the research at all? So often scientists shrug their shoulders and say it’s not up to them how their inventions and discoveries are employed. This is a grievous abdication of their responsibility.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Right now our intention is to use technology to make money. Only if that changes will we able to work to heal what we’ve wrought.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Reading gives us insight into how other people view the world. If all I had was my experience, and that didn’t include reading, my view of how the world works would be narrower than it is.“


( )

Julie Czerneda: “From the beginning, to me, biology and science fiction differed in degree, not substance. Biology filled me with wonder and curiosity.  All science

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

does. The universe does. Reading science fiction did that. Writing it? Ah, there was the legal, moral, and fun way to answer my own questions.”

Julie Czerneda: “what I write, the stories I tell, come from what interests me. So there are cool real bits of biology everywhere in my stuff. I couldn’t make up the weirdness of real life.”

Julie Czerneda: “Because nothing lives in isolation, an ecological approach gives a writer the opportunity to fit the puzzle together. To have alternative points of view and unintended consequences. All the intricate and messy ways things happen.”

Julie Czerneda: “The more the merrier! Or, in the case of living things, the more stable and resilient the community. It’s interactions that interest me. The interface between any two or more creatures is full of change and adaptation and lovely icky bits. In storytelling — and real life — I’d rather toss a problem at a group of people (or whatever I have in mind at the moment) who’ll each have a different approach to a solution, if they see it as a problem at all.”

Julie Czerneda: “I believe, passionately, that science fictional thinking is a crucial survival skill. We all need to ask questions, to speculate about possible consequences in an imaginative, yet as close to real fashion as possible, and to become able to assess incoming  information in a critical, not cynical manner. Imagination is of immense use, too often undervalued. We who live and breath SF rarely appreciate what a strong and active muscle our minds have developed. I’d like everyone to have the same advantage. To ride society’s changes, rather than be swept away. To decide where and how technology best fits our needs, before it’s in our homes.”

Julie Czerneda: “I’ve had success using science fiction with students to get them “talking science.” SF provides useful vocabulary, presented in context.  Story dialogue gives examples of conversations centred about science as something immediately important to the characters.“

Julie Czerneda: “I’ve also worked with a professor who, for many years now, has used science fiction as an integral part of his first year astronomy course. Students take what they’ve learned about the science and apply it to alien world-building as an SF writer would do it. I’m proud to say this class has been using Beholder’s Eye (my second novel) as part of this process.”

Julie Czerneda: “We need people who can bring science to life, who can clearly express complex ideas in meaningful ways to a varied audience. SF? Does it all the time.”

Julie Czerneda: “What we can’t imagine, we can’t create, so there’s one. What we can’t imagine, we can’t prepare against or for, so that’s another. Imagination is essential to our survival, as individuals and as a species, and has been for eons. The sad thing is that it can atrophy from lack of use or be stunted by those who’ve lost their own. The best? The more it’s used, the stronger it becomes.”

Julie Czerneda: “What technology is to science, I suspect curiosity is to imagination.”

Julie Czerneda: “I take pleasure and pride in what makes science fiction a speculation about the real world, by asking that one “what if …” then building a story framework that lets me play with an answer, while keeping as much of what we know factual and true to life. I’ve no problem inviting a reader to play along with FTL and aliens, but I won’t mess with anything more and there’s always a science question at the heart of my plot. What if life evolved this way or that? How might biological imperatives affect technological civilizations? Who might we become in the future? What cost is too high or risk too great, when manipulating genetics? I love how science fiction gives me insight into these and any other questions I might have.


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Karl Schroeder: “We spend much of our lives programming ourselves to react automatically rather than to think. It’s faster, costs less energy. Part of that process involves the ossification of our basic categories: man/woman, human/nonhuman. SF deliberately blurs these categories in order to almost literally wake us up. It’s strangemaking, which is a very valuable capacity, especially in the present situation when the world needs innovative new solutions to some pretty dire problems. It’s not that SF presents, or even can present, the solutions to big issues like global warming or global poverty; it’s that it helps educate us in the kind of thinking that can lead to them.”

Karl Schroeder: “Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator.  It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories… They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking.”

Karl Schroeder:  “There’s lots of technologies that are flashy, or might have this or that big effect on the world. Nuclear fusion, augmented reality, nanotech… yeah, they’re all great. But we don’t need them. There’s only one development that we need at this point in our history: better methods and systems for decision-making, both individual and collective.”

Karl Schroeder: “We have all the technologies—all the tools and capabilities and understandings—to create a Utopia on Earth now. We can absolutely solve the problem of global warming, for instance; we even know how to reverse it with technologies we currently possess. What’s become abundantly clear in the past couple of decades is that the only thing we lack is the ability to make, and follow-through on, the right decisions. So much of my work right now is dedicated to asking what we need to do to get to such capabilities.”

Karl Schroeder: “Do you imagine or write a future where anything is possible except the invention of prostheses to compensate for the inadequacies of human decision-making? Does your worldbuilding encompass universes with star flight, robots and nanotech—yet accept royalty, corporations and bureaucracies as inevitable?”


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Nina Munteanu: “The literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”

Nina Munteanu: “Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”

Nina Munteanu: “Both ecology and science fiction explore consequence in a big way.”

Nina Munteanu: “My ecological interests and experiences have influenced my writing in every way: in providing me with ideas, in world-building, and in the interactive fractal nature of plot, theme, character and premise. For me, the two are intertwined. Writing science fiction has opened the doors of creative problem solving in my scientific pursuits; and my science has opened windows of possibilities in my writing. It’s a win-win situation, really.”

Nina Munteanu: “Most science and technology presents itself in literature through premise or plot, which influence various characters in their life journeys. Ecology—like setting—manifests and integrates itself more in theme. This is because, while most of the hard sciences study the nature and behavior of “phenomena”, ecology studies the consequences of the relationship of these phenomena and the impact of their behaviors on each other and the rest of the “world”.”

Nina Munteanu: “Environmental issues are largely a global phenomenon—concerns like water quality and quantity, air pollution, resource acquisition, allocation and sharing, wildlife extinction, etc. Science fiction is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind; it can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity….The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premise based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”) to dystopias (e.g., Huxley’s “Brave New World”).


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Jerome Stueart: “Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

societal consequences.  I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.”

Jerome Stueart: ““I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom…. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like.  What do they WANT society to be like?  And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us?  Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely. “

Jerome Stueart: “I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable.  We get in our ruts.  If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it.  LOL.  But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.

Jerome Stueart: “Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens.  SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems.  Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society.  It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.”

Jerome Stueart: “I think the current problems with getting the world to understand climate change is directly related to an inability to speculate—or see the future from the evidence you have.  Society has equipped scientists to extrapolate from their research, but we don’t take their recommendations because we don’t trust science anymore, or intelligence.  Unless the majority of the population respects knowledge, has a healthy speculative mind, they can’t see consequences.”


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Douglas Smith: “That’s the power of SF and fantasy (and I’d put SF as a specific subset of fantasy)–there are fewer (no?) limitations to the types of stories that I Douglas Smith with Impossibiliacan tell.”

Douglas Smith: “If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue.”

Interview with Leah Bobet

An interview with Leah Bobet by Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of Leah Bobet

Author photo courtesy of Leah Bobet

I was fortunate enough to meet Leah Bobet at CAN CON: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature in Ottawa this past year. We had a brief chat about SF and inclusivity, and I got back in touch with her again after reading her novel Above, which I was excited about because it dealt with disability (the focus of my research). I was very excited when Leah Bobet agreed to do an interview here on Speculating Canada so I could share some of her insights with readers.

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

Leah Bobet: Hmm.  It’s always a tricky thing to decide what’s interesting about oneself.

I’m a writer and editor, and also work as a bookseller at Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s oldest speculative fiction bookstore.  I run Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a quarterly webzine, and write for Shadow Unit, a project that’s best described as fanfic for a TV show that never existed, alongside Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Amanda Downum, Holly Black, and Chelsea Polk.

Before going to full-time writing, though, I worked as a non-partisan staffer at Queen’s Park, and so local politics – and local activism — are something of a passion: I’m on the board of Women in Toronto Politics, a tiny brand-new non-profit that works to help more women access City Hall and build the communities they want to live in, and I’m going to be working on Toronto’s brand new pedestrian advocacy organization.  I’m also deeply into urban agriculture and supporting local food, and spend a lot of my summer working with groups that glean downtown fruit trees or plant gardens in public spaces.

Otherwise, I do a lot of reading; I see a lot of small indie bands in smaller spaces; take wandering, exploratory walks; look for the perfect Eggs Benedict; and make bad puns about Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Spec Can: Above was a novel about discrimination. What types of discrimination were you thinking of when writing this? What social plights influenced this story’s discourse on discrimination?

Cover photo of Above courtesy of

Cover photo of Above courtesy of

Leah Bobet: I was thinking, mostly, about intersectionality: How we can be legitimately marginalized because of one aspect of who we are, and legitimately marginalizing someone else because of another facet.  Every single character in the book has that dual role, because that’s life; that’s how people are and can be.

Some of that comes out of my own background.  I grew up in a minority culture, PTSD everyone-will-genocide-you tics and all, but in such a homogenous neighbourhood that I never really felt that social difference until I was an adult with a strong sense of my own power.  It was a slightly weird way to grow up, and made cultural politics both complicated and fascinating: People I cared about acted in ways that to my mind were horrifying, racist, and amoral, but to them were self-defense, because having been victimized so badly meant whatever steps you took were justified.  And there was no communicating one side to the other.  The context gap was just too great.

So I wanted to talk about that: the damage that our damage does, and how on earth one strikes a balance between recognizing what one’s suffered and perpetuating it on someone else.

One of the other focuses was disability: both physical disability and mental illness.  And that came about partially because of my own dissatisfaction with the official line on mental illness, and because of a friend, who’s mobility-impaired, speaking about how stories about kids in wheelchairs always had them sidelined as assistants to the nice, smiling, able heroes.  So one of the goals I had for Above was to write a story where disabled people were the heroes and the able people got to die tragically for their cause.  It felt like a thing worth doing, and it turned out that it was.

Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in helping people to question their biases?

Leah Bobet: There is a stock reply to this question: about metaphor, and removing present concerns from their context to sneakily teach people lessons from other angles.  Rocketship angles!  With space morals!  But it’s not an answer I tend to believe in, and not one I can really give.

I think the role of speculative fiction in confronting bias depends very strongly on the reader, the book, and whether they’re ready for each other on the day they meet.

Books have made me question my biases and move past them, or never develop certain noxious ones.  In fact, the best reviews I’ve heard for Above were the ones where people said, “This made me want to do something.”  But that doesn’t fool me into thinking speculative fiction has some sort of special magic that readers of other genres – or TV-watchers, or gamers – will never access.  That’s, ironically, a bias that speculative fiction readers have – one that feeds into our ideas of ourselves as more enlightened, better, and smarter, and misses the fact that of course speculative work will reach readers like us better than other kinds.  Because otherwise we wouldn’t be reading speculative fiction in the first place.  We’d be face-first into a detective book and never pick up SFF to start with – and we’d be having conversations about our biases in the tropes of detective fiction.

Reading, to me, is a dialogue.  It’s a conversation between the ideas in the book and the ideas in the reader’s head, and then you see how well they meet in the middle.  Sometimes the reader’s not in a place where they’re ready to be receptive to a book’s point.  Sometimes what the book’s saying is just old news to that reader (good example: I tend to appreciate early feminist SFF, but a lot of it feels like someone trying to convince me the sky is blue.  Generational context.  Go figure.)  Sometimes book and reader just legitimately disagree.  And that’s true of all novels, all genres, and all forms of telling people a story – speculative or not.  The only thing we can really do, as readers, is read widely and with open minds.

Spec Can: Your novel Above brings critical attention to scientists and, particularly to medical practitioners (the Whitecoats in the novel). What questions were you hoping your readers would ask about medical practices and the cultural ideas underlying them?

Leah Bobet: Actually, in terms of the Whitecoats and Dr. Marybeth’s balancing role, I was hoping people would treat that question of medical practices thoughtfully – just like everything else in Above – and consider what our treatment of mental illness and disability mean in terms that aren’t black and white.

Like anyone else, the medical practitioners in Above are people: a mixture of good and bad personalities and ideas.  And like everything else, who’s good or bad depends on who’s telling the story.  The type of person who would prefer to live in a roughed-out underground cavern rather than in bad circumstances that still include heating and flush toilets just…they didn’t seem like they’d have kind things to say about the medical profession.  And so Safe has the concept of Whitecoats.  And that’s less about me getting a particular message across than trying to create those characters logically, and build a culture that was true to how they’d feel – and then explore the consequences of that culture on their children.

Spec Can: Above focusses on the narration of Matthew, the Teller for the community called “Safe”. His role is primarily to tell stories of the community. What role do you see stories having in creating a community? How can the telling of the past form a sense of shared history?

Leah Bobet: I think stories basically are the defining factor of a community.  Identity’s a funny thing: We tell stories about ourselves (and others, and that’s where we get stereotyping), and when we compare those stories and they come up the same, we decide we’re the same.  Community is shared stories.  Community splinters when our worldviews – the stories we tell about the world – get too far apart.

There are about a trillion examples of how giving people a narrative binds them together – the most obvious one being the US, where the patriotism story is so frequently hammered home and so prominent because (I think, sometimes) it’s so big and full of people who have nothing in common, period.  That’s looking back to shared history every day: We did something together, we shared experience and values, and so we must be the same.  It’s functionally a social hack.  And it can really work to smooth out the tensions caused by present differences, until it doesn’t.

This is, in some ways, a very academic-linguistic perspective on communities, and how and why we form them (sorry; I trained as a linguist, and it’s in everything I do).  The warmer, more optimistic side of that, though: It gives us the option of making our own communities.  We can get together, with our shared experiences, and be social and understood and not be alone.  And that’s kind of a wonderful gift for those of us who don’t fit well into the places we were born, and need to make new places; who need to make Safe.

Spec Can: In Above, the characters also raise the issue of history that is edited out, stories that are deleted and not spoken of. Canada has a bad history of removing people’s stories to benefit its own image. What stories do you feel we, as a society, are ignoring?

Leah Bobet: The stories I was thinking of when I wrote Above were First Nations stories; the loss of language, poverty, colonial barriers, high suicide rates, and general slow genocide going on in our cozy little first-world country.  I was taking some classes that threw light onto those issues at the time: one on First Nations languages and language revitalization, and one on First Nations women’s modern literature.  The Idle No More movement has brought a lot more attention to those stories in the last few months, and I’m really hoping it doesn’t die in the next news cycle.  It’s too wrong, and it needs too much discussion, action, and righting.

But I was thinking about revisionist history in general: in relationships, in families as well as in nations.  Many people have stories they just don’t tell, even to themselves.  It’s always worth asking why.

As for stories we’re currently ignoring: I’m afraid I’m not the best person to ask.  I’m aware that I live with a certain amount of advantages in my life, and that all kinds of things go on – experiences, injustices, needs, fears, loves – that I don’t see because of where and how I live.  It’d be a better thing, I think, if we all talked to each other a little bit more; talked to people who are living poverty, disability, mental illness, racism, sexism, transphobia, and everything else – instead of asking the people who write about them.  We don’t and shouldn’t need spokespeople that way.  We should respect each other’s voices.

Spec Can: Trauma plays an important part in Above in the background of your characters and is important in forming their identities. Why is trauma such an essential part of this book?

Leah Bobet: Trauma’s a big player in Above mostly because of what I was interested in exploring: What we do to each other out of our own trauma, and where the limits of making room for trauma bump up against treating other people terribly.  The discourse on trauma in North American society is…well, it’s reasonably new, and so maybe a bit awful.  There’s not a lot of room between Walk it off! and treating trauma as a debilitating, central tragedy of one’s life; one that excuses everything after.  And like most binaries, there’s a lot of discussion to be had about the experiences that live in the middle.

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “Realist” fiction can’t?

Leah Bobet: Nothing.  What a work of fiction can do depends on the author, the ideas, and how they use their tools.

Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian SF?

Leah Bobet: That’s, again, quite hard for me to say.  Each individual author’s such a unique mix of their own influences, interests, and passions that I don’t know if the idea of national literatures can stay as it traditionally has: some notion of a geographical “character” that influences the stories we tell.  Or some trait, like a genetic marker, that everyone we label as Canadian SF will have.

A few questions up, we talked about stories as community, and forming communities of choice instead of birth or geography.  I think this might be an outgrowth of that ability: My friend who really identifies with Japanese shoujo tropes can write her Japanese-influenced near-future literary fiction.  I can write my magical realist social justice and urban planning stories, with bonus! ruins and city gardening.  We live in the same city.  We’ve just gravitated to the stories that resonate with who we are, instead of telling stories and using tropes that are bounded by the place we were born.

Spec Can: Is there anything distinctly Canadian about the characters and settings you create?

Leah Bobet: Well, they are Canadian.  That’s pretty much it: anything I consider a marker of Canadian literature in my own work – multicultural casts, quieter and smaller stories, that fixation with landscape as character – I’ve seen in works from other countries too, and it’s a somewhat narrow view of what Canadian fiction is and can do.

I’ve written characters and settings that were American, but I prefer to keep my stories above the border, just because this is home; it’s where my heart is.

Spec Can: What was it like to write about an intersexed character? What inspired you to write about an intersexed person?

Leah Bobet: It was on one level an intensely tricky experience – checking one’s assumptions and shorthands every step of the way, and I’m certain I still failed hir in a number of respects.  But on another level, it was like writing any other character, because sie’s…just a person: one who lives, loves, hates, chooses, and makes some intensely bad decisions for reasons that are not entirely hir own fault.  I made sure I wasn’t writing An Intersex Character™; that I was writing that person instead, at all times.

As for the inspiration: A friend of mine is a doctor, and back in her residency blogged privately about that experience, including delivering and dealing with the system around intersex children.  It stuck as something intensely painful and unfair, to the children and families both.  And so when I went to write a story about discrimination, the stories my friend told – and the issues around sex assignment within a week of birth – were at the top of my list to include.

Spec Can: What drew you to write Young Adult books? What can Speculative Fiction do for young people?

Leah Bobet: Me writing young adult books actually happened entirely by accident!  When I wrote Above, it was in my mind an adult novel.  It was only in having my agent point out that there was a coming-of-age arc, as well as a young protagonist, in Above that I even entertained the notion that it could be published as YA.  I’m writing young adult deliberately now, on my current project, and it’s been a learning curve.

As for speculative fiction aimed at young adults, I don’t really feel like that concept needs to be sold to the public.  Most of what young adults read – and always have – has been speculative fiction, for the cold business reason that there have not been, until recently, genre shelves in the YA section of the bookstore.  Parents are generally content that young readers are reading, so YA books have always had a little more freedom to remix, blend, and use whatever genres they feel like.  It’s only when we reach the adult sections of the bookstore that anyone cares to get into slapfights about whose genre can beat up whose.

Spec Can: How can Speculative Fiction authors bring more diversity into their work?

Leah Bobet: It’s a funny thing, that: Just do it.

Look at the characters you have in your work and ask how diverse they are.  If the answer doesn’t satisfy you, well, think of all the ways people can be diverse in real life, and start getting that in there.  Read fiction and non-fiction stories from and about diverse people: people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, people whose religion is different from yours.  Think critically about them, and do some informed imagining of what the world’s like from their perspective.  When you get evidence that your informed imagining isn’t all there yet, don’t get mad and give up; revise the model to be better and clearer.  And then use that model as part of your storytelling kit.

But mostly?  Just do it.  Because a lot of hand-wringing goes on from writers who don’t feel themselves to be diverse about how on earth they will possibly write diverse fiction.  And that hand-wringing can ultimately be a way of putting off the job: of deciding it’s too hard, the same way someone can be “researching” a novel for years and never write a word.

So do it.  Commit yourself to thinking and learning.  And then do it better next time.

Spec Can: How do ideas of the mythic influence your work? What mythologies speak to you?

Leah Bobet: Subtly, I think.  I was a little nuts for the mythic when I was a kid – mostly Greek, Roman, and Inuit stories – because my childhood culture didn’t have a great sense of magic, and I wanted magic very badly.  These days, though, there’s no separating the stories from the people; I’m a little too aware that “myth” is a word we use to describe dead cultural stories we’ve decided aren’t true, and I’m leery of it.  It’s a little too much like talking smack about someone else’s family.

I’m most interested – and probably because of that unbreakable association of mythic stories with the people whose stories those are, to whom they’re precious – in writing work that explores how people interface with those stories.  What do they mean to someone?  What’s the interaction this person has between their here-and-now concerns and the ineffable, and how can those things be made to balance, if at all?  Because they’re living stories, which means people live with them.  I’m most curious as to how.

I want to thank Leah Bobet for her incredible insights and for her discussion of the importance of narratives in the development of community. It is always great to interview an author that also works in the realm of advocacy.

You can find out more about Leah Bobet and her current projects on her website at .

Empowering the Freak

A Review of Leah Bobet’s Above (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)

Cover photo of Above courtesy of

Cover photo of Above courtesy of

By Derek Newman-Stille

Leah Bobet’s novel Above focusses on a group of people who have taken up residence in the sewers. Chased from society above the ground and called “Freak”, “Monster”, “Sick”, and “Cursed”, they retreated beneath the city to create their own society, free of discrimination. Their most feared opponents are the true monsters of this world, the Whitecoats, medical practitioners and scientists who are focussed on controlling, managing, and normalising their bodies. They capture those who have different bodies and force them into their own ideas of what normal bodies should be like, cutting them, medicating them, breaking their bones, and locking them up until their bodies start to look more like what society considers to be the “normal” body shape.

Characters with crab arms have them cut off and prosthetic human limbs forced uncomfortably into their stumps until they regain their shape. Characters with lion feet have them broken and re-shaped into a human-like foot shape, forcing them to walk in an uncomfortable and painful manner. But, a group of people escaped from the medical facilities above and created a community called Safe that was built on the foundation that no one should ever stare, no one should humiliate others, and everyone should have a safe place to be themselves.

One of the cornerstones of their community is the shared trauma they endured and the importance of sharing community stories. A central figure in the community is the “Teller” (who narrates this novel), a person who gathers the collective history of the people who form the community, hears their stories, and observes the events of the community, saving the stories that have brought them together and continue to shape them. The Teller functions as a mixture of a historian and counsellor, creating a safe space for people to share the stories that brought them trauma. By telling stories, the people of Safe create their own community narrative, separate from the normalising narrative of Above, and the medical documents that try to write their story for them. They become masters of their own stories, taking words away from others who would use them to oppress them.

But, part of every community is the stories that are not told, the stories that are edited out, considered taboo, and Matthew, the Teller, is forced to keep certain stories hidden and secret. These stories, like anything that is repressed, begins to haunt them, resurfaces from the collective unconscious of the group and harms the community, disrupting it. A community member who was removed and edited out of the collective history returns, bringing shadows of the past that haunt the sewers, snippets of memory that attach themselves to others, forcibly reminding them of what they have tried to forget.

Characters are forced out of Safe and into Above, the city that was the site of their truama. They are forced to see the world around them again and see things from the city above with new light… and new shadows.

You can find out more about Leah Bobet at her website . To explore this book and more by Arthur A. Levine Books, you can check out their website at