Speculating Fantasy

Speculating FantasyBy Derek Newman-Stille
Fantasy fiction is frequently viewed as an escapist form of fiction, one whose sole purpose is to provide a retreat from reality. Even people who advocate for the importance of fantasy tend to treat it as being important solely for its ability to provide an escape from reality. However, fantasy, like any genre fiction, is produced and created through the social lens of the author who writes it. Authors draw on the events, anxieties, uncertainties, ideas, developments, and issues of the world that they belong to when writing fantasy, converting these contemporary thoughts into symbolic form and writing them onto the canvas of a different world. 
Fantasy is unselfcritically defined in opposition to realism, not seeking to pretend to be based on the real world and therefore it has leeway for addressing issues that are “too real” for realist fiction by converting them into symbolic media, transforming them from issues into ideas. By defining itself as “untruth” – as fantasy – the genre does not lay claim to any single truth or single interpretation, but, instead presents a series of dream-like images. Dreams have symbolic power and blend images together in a way that requires the mind to be actively involved in translating them. 
Fantasy provides a lens for us to examine our own world in abstraction, slightly removed from reality. It is as much a journey as it is a genre, pulling the reader between the pages with an intensity that makes him/her come back to the everyday with a form of culture shock, suddenly viewing the “normal” anew and asking questions about the taken-for-granted qualities of the “real” world. 
In saying that fantasy has the power of reflection (though a distorted mirror) embedded into itself, I am not suggesting that fantasy is without problems. The genre has been based on extreme ethnocentrism, colonial ideologies, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. But, fantasy still contains that seed of change, that embedded potential that allows for engagement with mythic themes, fairy tale ideas, and the power of imaginative new possibilities. Fantasy could invite questions about the normative gaze, that socially embedded structure that reifies the world into Us and Them, Self and Other by providing a more distant Other, an Otherworldly set of encounters that invite questions about the Self, about what we consider the easy-to-define norms. 
Fantasy operates through the power of estrangement, inviting readers to accept unfamiliar universal rules (planes where magic exists alongside technology, where orcs and elves and goblins are possible, and where it is possible to confront the monsters that lurk in the shadows) and through this process of exploring the unfamiliar, fantasy has the ability to question the familiar, to invite questions about why we accept certain ‘rules’ as universal and instead open the world up to the question “what could be true?” and “what is possible?” 
We return from the adventure of fantasy with quest items that are really questions, speculations that invite us to wonder at the world we return to like our epic heroes/heroines, who once they return, discover that they have been permanently changed by their experience.

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Can Con Updates!

Can Con is coming up soon in Ottawa on October 4-6th (and you can find out more about it at http://www.can-con.org/ ). The diversity of activities this year is absolutely amazing with sessions on writing, academic analyses of literature and literary themes, author readings, book launches…. and even a few singing events (seriously!).Canada Day

Prepare for discussions of AI, comics, enhancing creativity, fandom, astronomy, disease, zombies, future technologies, possession, poetry, humour, horror, law, LGBTQ issues, multiculturalism, mystery, publishing, popular music, gender, genre, and YA fiction among many others.

As many of you who follow my blog will note, there are a few special areas of interest of mine in Canadian Speculative Fiction: portrayals of characters and themes of LGBTQ or Queer people, and discourse about disability featuring highly among them. I am particularly excited that I get a chance to talk about both of them at Can Con this year and I hope to see many of you at these panels. Here are the panel descriptions:

Cripping the Light Fantastic: Disability in Canadian Speculative Fiction

How many spaceships are wheelchair accessible? Do office buildings create light shielding for the undead who might be singed by solar exposure? Can my guide dog be a werewolf? Does one need to simply WALK into Mordor… or can one wheel in instead? SF has an interest in the body, whether it is the augmented body of sci fi, the body horror of the gothic, or the magically altered body of fantasy, and it is worth looking at the way disabilities are portrayed in Canadian SF.

Panelists: Derek Newman-Stille, Tanya Huff, Douglas Smith, and Dominik Parisien

Let’s get Fantastic: LGBTQ or Queer Speculative Fiction

Speculative Fiction is sexy, but so often TV only shows heteronormative relationships. Canadian SF literature seems to be more willing to portray gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgendered, and queer-oriented characters. Let’s take a look at gay zombies, sex-changing aliens, lesbian superheroes, bisexual wizards, and other potential queerings of the fantastic.

Panelists: Derek Newman-Stille, Tanya Huff, and Liz Strange

You can explore all of the panels at http://www.can-con.org/2013/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Can-Con-programming-panel-descriptions-2013.pdf

Check out some of your favorite authors like Robert Sawyer, Tanya Huff, Sandra Kasturi, Chadwick Ginther, Jean-Louis Trudel, Brett Savory, Karen Dudley, Hayden Trenholm, Marie Bilodeau, Violette Malan, Dominik Parisien, Derek Kunsken, Matt Moore, Sean Moreland, Liz Strange, Kate Heartfield, Suzanne Church, Lydia Peever, and many more. This is your chance to meet some really brilliant Canadian Speculative Fiction authors, scholars, and fans and have a chance to ask those questions that have been occupying your minds.

I hope to see you there, and please feel free to come up and chat with me about Speculative Fiction. I always enjoy a chance to have a great conversation about this genre that I love,
Derek Newman-Stille

Immortal Complacency

A review of Billie Milholland’s “Autumn Unbound” in The Puzzle Box (Edge, 2013)

Cover Photo of The Puzzle Box courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

Cover Photo of The Puzzle Box courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

By Derek Newman-Stille

The stories in The Puzzle Box tackle the subject of a box that holds secrets and produces changes in the world. It therefore makes sense that Billie Milholland explores the mythical figure most connected to a box in her “Autumn Unbound”. Pandora, tied to Epimetheus by Zeus’ command, seeks to find her own life, wanting to separate herself from the bounds of her life. In seeking to become Pandora Unbound, she is cast into the mortal realm, reborn with a new identity, but still bound with the same chains of fate and relationship.

In her immortal life, she lived only a half life, chained to another, and only in her mortal life does she see the opportunity to live a full life, appreciating the small things in her world. Denied aging and choice, it is only as a mortal with a short span of years can she challenge and question things.

The immortal life creates a web of complacency with the way things are and a desire not the change or question the status quo. But, when Pandora submerges herself in mortality, the short span of years invests her with a desire to challenge things, to alter her own worldly context and stand up for her own needs and wishes.

To find out more about The Puzzle Box, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/puzzlebox/pzbox-catalog.html

Collecting Canada

A review of Imaginarium 2013: The Best Canadian Speculative Fiction Edited by Sandra Kasturi and Samantha Beiko (ChiZine Publications, 2013).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover image of Imaginarium 2013 courtesy of ChiZine Publications. Art work by GMB Chomichuk

Cover image of Imaginarium 2013 courtesy of ChiZine Publications. Art work by GMB Chomichuk

Imaginarium 2013 was even better than Imaginarium 2012. With more diversity of authors, I found myself introduced to a large number of authors I had never encountered before. The collection had a wider scope and included a wide number of works with varying styles and thematic foci. This collection included works of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and various blends and warpings and re-imaginings of those genres.

Varying between poetry and short stories, this collection captured an essential essence of Canadian speculative fiction – the Canadian comfort with grey areas both in plot and character morality, a willingness to explore things that are generally left ignored by the general population, the desire to not just represent oppressed people, but to revel in that outsider dialogue.

This collection brings together works that evoke questions, challenge the reader to expand their consciousness and think outside of the easy answers that society tries to provide and instead calls upon readers to interrogate these easy answers and find out the implicit complications in them.

Reading this volume will provide you with a whole range of new authors to read and explore.

To find out more about Imaginarium 2013, visit the ChiZine Publications website at http://chizinepub.com/books/imaginarium/imaginarium_2013.php

To read reviews of individual stories from this volume, visit:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/instead-of-lets-pretend-lets-become

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/cold-war-superheroes-frozen-in-suffering

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/perfect-bodies

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/protagonist-problems/

The In-Between Space

A Review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince (Edge, 2005).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

The Reetions and the Gelacks, two branches of the human race that were separated from Earth due to temporary losses of space travel. The Reetions developed from the first group of people to leave Earth and settle in a colony. Connections to Earth were lost, and they developed into a divergent civilisation. They developed an egalitarian system of government with open policies, public access to information, and general public engagement in decision-making processes.

The Gelacks developed from a second wave of human space travel. They too lost contact with Earth. The Gelacks were a civilisation that had been changed by the intervention of genetic technology, technology that changed certain people to better sustain the biologically damaging effects of space travel. This group became stronger, smarter, and better at healing than the regular human population. Because Gelack population had both genetically modified humans and unmodified humans (as well as interbred populations), a class system developed along feudal lines. The genetically modified populations attained positions of superiority and hegemonic control.

The Reetions and Gelacks had met before, and the results were devastating, with misunderstandings and miscommunications on both sides. Now, both sides have discovered that traders are making jumps between their civilisations and it has become clear that they may need to make formal contact again. In The Courtesan Prince, Lynda Williams explores the diversity of cultures and the misunderstandings that can come from cultural difference. She illustrates to readers that a large part of conflict comes from misunderstandings and the more diverse the populations are, the more effort needs to be put into understanding the cultural gap and communicating effectively with others.

The Courtesan Prince follows the life of Von, a courtesan who seems to be more than he appears to be. Von’s life and understanding of the world is challenged when he encounters the Reetions, and, in particular Ann, who encourages him to understand her on a deeper level and get rid of some of his xenophobic fears and beliefs that human social relations can only be understood through a Gelack lens.

Simultaneously Ranar, a Reetion anthropologist is left among his research subjects, the Gelacks, and is forced to understand their way of life, even if it is both fundamentally different and even hostile to his own. The Gelacks are a fundamentally homophobic people, with a deep and violent hatred for queer-oriented people. Often this homophobia erupts into public torture of gays and lesbians, followed by their murder and the murder of any children they may have had. Ranar, a gay man, is left in a vulnerable position, having to hide his sexuality for the first time in his life. Among the Reetions, sexual diversity is respected and people are encouraged to accept themselves and there is never a question of sexual interest being either bad or problematic in any way. It is simply another form of relationship. With this openness of sexuality, Ranar has to quickly shift his own openness about his sexuality in order to keep himself safe. When one of the Gelack leaders Di Mon develops an attraction for him (an attraction that he hates in himself and that encourages violence from him), Ranar is confronted with the idea that his own sexuality could be harmful to a lover who is part of a system that systemically oppresses queer-oriented people. He has to keep his sexuality hidden not only for his own protection but to preserve the life of his lover, Di Mon.

Unlike many SF authors, Lynda Williams does not just stick to heteronormative SF, but presents homophobia as something that is socially created and that can be resisted. By contrasting two cultures with different treatments of queer-oriented people, she illustrates that our own homophobic culture has been created by our own social issues and is not something that is taken-for-granted (as it is often portrayed by people who espouse homophobic beliefs). By having one culture that has a healthy, open approach to sexual diversity, and another that has a deep-seated hatred of queer people, she illustrates that homophobia is a choice, not homosexuality.

Lynda Williams is willing to do deep cultural critiques, exploring the development of different cultural ideas and contrasting them in societies that essentially descended from the same roots. She is willing to interrogate politics, ideas of social equality, the complexity of sexuality, ideas of privacy, biological change, and technology. And she is unwilling to give the readers simple answers, but encourages them to interrogate these issues, think for themselves, and develop their own ideas. The Courtesan Prince is a pedagogical text in the best sense of the word, not because it gives answers (as many think that teaching does), but because it asks questions, opens things to debate, and encourages readers to be uncomfortable with any easy answers.

Gelacks and Reetions are contrasted with one another in a way that pushes readers into an uncomfortable intergalactic, in-between space, stuck in the limbo between different ideologies. And this is a hugely powerful creative space where readers are made aware of how much their ideas and thoughts are socially defined and they are encouraged to get rid of cultural trappings and question things freely. The Reetions focus on the idea of honesty, and everything being public… but with that comes the limitations on privacy and the sense of living in a panopticon where everything can be easily seen. The Gelacks are more private, but lying is culturally entrenched to maintain secrets. The Gelacks have a population with bodies that are stronger, heal faster, and survive better… but the power of these bodies have meant tight restrictions on mating practices and the social control of “common” people by a small minority of physically stronger people. The Reetions don’t genetically modify people to be stronger, which means they are able to attain an egalitarian civilisation… but because of this their pilots often have short careers, damaged by the ravages of space travel which destroys normal human bodies. The Reetions are more comfortable with technology… but this means that they are also willing to modify people’s minds through psychotherapy. Whereas the Galecks consider certain forms of technology taboo, which prevents healing adaptions… but they are able to reduce the construction of any weapons of mass destruction. Nothing is easy in The Courtesan Prince and neither civilisation is portrayed as the model of perfect human society. Both have flaws, and these challenges make Lynda Williams’ novel more complex, more rich in substance, and portray the idea that the struggle for perfection is culturally defined and that one person’s ideal may be another’s horror.

The Courtesan Prince is book 1 in Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel Saga, to find out more about it and other books in the series, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/index.html . To find out more about Lynda Williams and the Okal Rel universe, visit her site at http://okalrel.org/ .

Dead Depressed

A Review of James Marshall’s Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos (ChiZine Publications, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Zombies are normally pretty content – they groan, they chase, they eat, they shuffle… but what happens when a zombie becomes depressed? In James Marshall’s Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, depressed zombies get promoted. No matter how much they tell their bosses they hate their jobs, plan to demotivate workers, and decrease productivity, a diagnosis of depression is a one way ticket to the top… in fact, Buck Burger’s description of how he plans to destroy the company is exactly the skill-set and thought pattern that zombie corporate life thrives on. After all, when you are a people that are totally steeped in decay and the destructive lifestyle, what is more appealing than destruction. But, Buck starts to feel stuck, realises the monotony of his existence… and unlike most zombies, he dislikes this monotony… he wants to do forbidden, stigmatised things like change.

When Buck meets Fairy_26, a green-haired beauty infused with life, he sees in her everything that is lacking in his own unlife. The fairy, and the supernatural races have something that he has been desiring, something that challenges the monotony of existence and promotes growth. She is the opposite of everything every zombie wants (which is probably why the zombies and the supernatural races have been at war for so long), but because she is so different and because he hates his unlife due to his depression, she represents an opportunity for change, a challenge to the status quo of boring zombie existence. Instead of mindless destruction, she is steeped in mindful life.

Buck wishes he could become what he eats… a living human being. He pines for his lost life and envies the living. Fortunately, as depression often does, his depressed state serves as a hunger suppressant, which is ideal for someone who wants to give up gnawing upon people.

Buck has to question commitments, obligations, social restraints upon him that hold him in his current unlifestyle in order to make a new unlife for himself. He has to challenge his marriage obligations to his wife, his job requirements, and commit social faux pas that would horrify any moral zombie in order to free himself from the chains of dull, colourless zombie existence and open himself to the vibrancy of fairyland and fairy life.

Marshall reveals a social critique of the monotony of human existence through the figure of the zombie. In our corporate greed and unquestioning repetition of outmoded patterns, we become like zombies – unwilling to change things, unwilling to question, unwilling to extend our creative impulses. His zombie society represents a flesh and blood covered mirror of corporate life and the eerie creep of suburban society. Zombies in his world impose their values on the young through an unquestioning education system designed to make them into automatons and prepare them for transition into zombie society or the zombie digestive system.

Marshall notes the allure of the zombie lifestyle and why it is so desirable for so many people “I know how they feel. Angry. Mindless. They’re doing things because they’re supposed to do things. They don’t want to. They don’t know what they want. They don’t know anything. For a while, they tried to learn but they didn’t so they stopped. They became zombies. It’s easier than trying to stay human when everyone else isn’t” (195). Like zombies, we get trapped into simple desires in an attempt to fill a void in our life of what we really want with meaningless trinkets that the marketing world tells us will fill that void. We mindlessly replicate things, follow the status quo, don’t seek to learn the meaning behind things. This is pretty alluring. It seems, on the surface, to be an easy lifestyle… but our society have become like zombies, not questioning, not changing, following outdated patterns, and mindlessly destroying – after all, look what we are doing to our environment. After reading this, any trip to the mall or witnessing of road rage lets the reader see the zombie apocalypse already in full swing.

To find out more about Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, check out ChiZine’s website at http://chizinepub.com/books/zombie-versus-fairy.php

To read more about what James Marshall is up to, visit his website at http://www.howtoendhumansuffering.com/ .

“What I like is getting my head turned around. I get off on fresh perceptions, widening horizons, new thoughts, and I like them best when they occur as a process in my own mind, rather than an exposition at which I am a passive spectator/ receiver. What I look for in SF is the story (or verse – occasionallly film – sometimes even essay) conceived and written in a way as to suggest alternatives that will cause me to exercise my own imagination to broaden my own vision. To ask the next question.””

-Judith Merril – Afterward (Tesseracts)

Quote – Like When SF Broadens Vision