Made of Water and Stars

A review of Lynn Hutchinson Lee’s “Night Divers” in Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change (Exile Editions, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Like in Nina Munteanu’s “The Way of Water”, Lynn Hutchinson Lee’s “Night Divers” explores the quasi-religious potential of water. Water in “Night Divers” represents the multiplicity of religion, first situating water as something attached to greed and power by creating groups like the Brothers of the Waters of Life and their PrayGuards, who are willing to kill to maintain their control over water, and secondly through the quasi-folk magic involved in submersion in water. Characters under the tutelage of Grace, a former nun for the Brothers of the Waters of Life begin to jump off of cliffs into the small amount of water remaining in a hidden quarry, and through the process experience magical moments of transcendence as they submerge into the water. In beautiful prose, Lynn Hutchinson Lee reveals the ritual magic of submersion in water. “I felt my hands, my palms, nerves, fingertips, really felt them. Something had been moved around. Everything out there, inside me. My lungs, voice, bones, skin, all made of water and stars”.

“Night Divers” brings attention to the way that scarcity invites control and the way that corporate interests in water can reinforce themselves through social practices, policing access to water to unsure that corporation and politics are intertwined.

To discover more about Cli Fi, visit http://www.exileeditions.com

Persistence of Memory

A Review of M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia (Anchor Canada, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

vassanji nostalgia

Memory is powerful and it can be fleeting, but M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia is a tale of memory’s ability to persist. Vassanji writes a near future fiction story in which immortality has been achieved, but in this future, everyone who undergoes rejuvination (the age reversal process) simultaneously has the memories of their past life erased for the new life as a younger person. But, memories are hard to erase and occasionally these memories resurface. These memories are pathologized in this world and are considered a medical disease colloquially called “nostalgia”. Vassanji creates a world that fears its past, that tries for an eternal present.

 

Vassanji invites us into the political questions raised by technology. He invites us to explore what would happen in a world that had a “cure” for ageing. Rejuvenation creates a series of social divides: between the aged and the young, the rich and the poor, and between medical ideas and religious. The young feel as though they are not able to make their place in the world because of the proliferance of older people being returned to youth. They engage in protests with slogans like “Let them go! The Earth for the Young! Let the Fogeys Die!”, viewing the aged as getting in the way of young people. Only the most wealthy can afford rejuvenation and those who undergo it keep generating further wealth, creating a greater wealth disparity bet the rich and the poor. The poor are often also the disenfranchised young, who are unable to get jobs in a world where all of the best positions are already occupied. They perceive of the older generation as needing to make way for the new generations. Yet the young are not the only ones to feel detached from their lives. Many of the ‘rejuvies’ feel a sense of disconnect in their lives, a sense of detachment and not fitting in.

 

Memory in Nostalgia is shaped by medical discourse, constructed as a danger to people’s current identities, which are authored by medical doctors who give people a new background for their new lives after rejuvenation, lives changed from the ones they are seeking to forget. The lives of the rejuvies are authored, constructed, and artificial, a veneer over a personality that has been suppressed to create the new rejuvenated self. These past lives are a threat in this medical discourse, dangerously causing a collision of personalities in the rejuvenated person. They call it “Leaked Memory Syndrome” (LMS). Yet, religious systems also engage with ideas of past lives, and religious groups have perspectives on what happens after death. They protest the damage being done spiritually through the proliferation of rejuvenated people.

 

Vassanji brings critical attention to these clashes between groups by putting us into the perspective of a doctor who deals with constructing identities for people undergoing rejuvenation, with a specialty in treating case of LMS or nostalgia, Dr. Frank Sina. Sina’s beliefs are deeply embedded in him, making him a firm believer in the mastry afforded by science, an almost zealous believer in the power of the medicine to cure the world’s ills. But even Sina’s beliefs can be challenged and they shift when he meets a man, Presley Smith, whose LMD memories seem to resonate with him and lead to his obsession with this man’s past.

 

This is a world divided not just by rejuvenation, but also by other political systems, where the wealthy parts of the world are walled off from the poorer parts of the world. This is a world where the memory constructing ability of rejuvination provides the perfect systems of assimilation for those from other countries, rewriting people’s pasts – their politics, their ideologies, and their belief systems to turn them into ‘perfect citizens’. Vissanji writes a narrative of totalitarian power and the power of memory in a political system for preventing erasure.

 

To discover more about Nostalgia, visit http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/183221/nostalgia#9780385667173

To discover more about the works of M.G. Vassanji, visit http://www.mgvassanji.com/

A Very Kvetching Story

A review of Allan Weiss’ “A Little Leavening” in OnSpec Vol 26, no. 3
By Derek Newman-Stille

Allan Weiss excites the imagination with another Jewish wizard story. Eliezer is caught between his religious obligation to celebrate seder and his need to fulfill his obligation to help all of those in need. Weiss plays with the interaction between a multiplicity of identities and responsibilities and the sometimes conflicting relationship between these multiple positions. 

Eliezer has been introduced in previous stories by Weiss as a wizard who is being punished for poking around in mysteries that were considered none of his business and is therefore religiously required to help out any people who seek his assistance. Along with his psychic horse, Melech, who provides a saucy reply to the wizard’s kvetching, Eliezer wanders the landscape assisting people in need.

Despite the fact that he has been punished for seeking forbidden knowledge, Eliezer is in a perpetual state of learning, acquiring new perspectives from those he encounters. “A Little Leavening” is a tale about his conflicting responsibilities, but it is also a tale about his need to acquire some understanding of and tolerance for the goyim, the non-Jewish people who assist him. 

Weiss’ powerful narration allows the reader to easily hear Eliezer’s tone and quality of voice, bringing the reader into the narrator’s realm as a participant in the story. 

To discover more about OnSpec, go to http://www.onspec.ca

To discover more about the work of Allan Weiss, visit his website at http://www.yorku.ca/aweiss/

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 39: An Interview with Jerome Stueart about Tesseracts 18

On this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I interview author and editor Jerome Stueart about the most recent book in the long-lived Tesseracts series Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods. Tesseracts Eighteen is focused on the theme of religion in Canadian speculative fiction and Jerome and I discuss the relationship between religion and SF, myth and storytelling and their ability to shape religious and science fictional worlds, invented religions, new explorations of existing religions, and generally the power of stories as pedagogy, as a teaching and learning medium.

We conducted our interview outside in Toronto, so please excuse the background wind and noise distortions.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

 

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

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

To find out more about Tesseracts Eighteen, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html .

A Skeptic’s Guide to Science Fictional Religions

A review of Jerome Stueart and Liana Kerzner’s Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods (Edge, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I have to admit to a little bit of hesitancy when picking up Tesseracts Eighteen. While I have loved the Tesseracts series since I first discovered it and feel that Canadian Spec Fic owes a lot to this long-standing staple of Canadian SF, I was a bit hesitant about the theme. I had heard early on that Tesseracts Eighteen was going to be about the topic of religion, and my first concern was that authors may use it as a soapbox to push a conversion narrative on readers. I also worried that people might tokenize non-Christian religious systems because of the prevalence of Christian beliefs in Western society and the lack of understanding of other religions that this often creates. Fantasy, as a genre, is particularly prone to this sort of unintentional religious discrimination since it often portrays “bad cultures” and “villains” as having Islamic-like faiths, and I worried about the potential of this collection to become an assortment of cultural stereotypes.

BUT when the title of the collection was released “Wrestling with Gods”, some of my hesitancy dissipated. There was a potential here for looking at the wonder that happens as people try to understand their place in the world and their beliefs. So, I picked up a copy and began reading. Within the pages of this collection, I discovered not people trying to speak their believed TRUTHS, but rather people speaking about their QUESTIONS. This was a speculative volume after all, filled with a sense of wonder and a desire to push the boundaries of our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. This collection was more about humans and their obsessions, fears, desires, and discoveries than it was about the gods. These stories presented multiple paths for human exploration, each filled with signposts that were question marks inviting us as readers to reflect on our own position in the world and our thoughts about where we come from and where we are going.

Wrestling with the Gods is a collection that challenges rather than conforms. It asks readers whether at times the opposite of the expected norm may be the best path and invites readers to question what they are told is Truth. It illustrates that the idea of Truth itself is subjective, open to question and interrogation, and ultimately that there will always be a multiplicity of truths rather than a singular Truth. Through the power of stories, with all of their potential to embody multiple truths and interpretation, Tesseracts Eighteen invites us to recognize that the concept of Truth is infinitely more complicated than we can imagine and it is always multiple and contradictory, but that we should keep imagining and through imagination we might discover our own collection of truths.

Stueart and Kerzner collected stories that question hegemonic power and taken-for-granted assumptions, inviting readers to constantly ask questions and discover new ideas and perspectives. Within this collection are vampires questioning their faith (and fear of the cross), priests establishing shrines on Mars, manifestations of the natural world that challenge the idea of human ownership, questions about the connection between religion and mental health, explorations of the relationship between technology and belief systems, speculations about the connection between humanity and the animal world, and the exploration of the way that reading sacred or forbidden books can change us in fundamental ways. Tesseracts Eighteen is a collection about boundaries, and is interested in pushing those boundaries because within stories we discover a multiplicity of adventures, ideas, new philosophies, and new ways of viewing and understanding the world.

To discover more about Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods, visit EDGE’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

To read reviews of some of the stories in this collection, check out the links below:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/04/21/robo-religion/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/05/08/cuttlefishy-myths/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/05/10/beauty-myths-and-legends/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/05/04/an-unnecessary-proving-ground/

Beauty Myths and Legends

A review of Savithri Machiraju’s “Ganapati Bappa Moriya” in Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods (Edge, 2015).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Ganesha is a Hindu god who has the head of an elephant and a plump body. He is a god of luck, a remover of obstacles, a patron of the arts, and a deity of intellect and wisdom. He is one of the most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon, and he is the protagonist of Savithri Machiraju’s short story “Ganapati Bappa Moriya”. 

Tesseracts Eighteen is a collection about faith, but it is not really Hindu faith that Savithri Machiraju explores in “Ganapati Bappa Moriya”, rather, she explores a system of beliefs and practices that are generally not considered to be a faith, the fitness movement. Machiraju’s Ganesha is called fat and told that he is disgusting by a fitness guru. Rather than dismissing this as silly human judgements as his wives do, Ganesha decides to change his image to make himself conform to human beauty standards. He begins to work out, control his eating, take supplements to increase his muscle mass, and has plastic surgery to change his elephant head into the visage of a Bollywood star. Rather than embracing his individual bodily expression, he seeks to be just like everyone else, to conform to a standard of beauty. 

Machiraju explores the compulsion to conform that is embedded in the fitness movement and the social push for a bodily ideal that removes bodily diversity. Machiraju explores the religious quality of fitness gurus, moralizing bodies into “good” and “bad” and explores the danger of losing oneself in the beauty myth. Machiraju adds further depth to her story by naming her fitness guru Maya, a name which in Hindu belief means “illusion”, illustrating that the beauty myth is itself an illusion, a surface-level performance that does not reveal depth or reality. 

To find out more about Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

Cuttlefishy Myths

A review of James Bambury’s “Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae” in Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods (Edge, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Human arrogance assumes that only humanity has the ability to develop beliefs in deities, and it is exciting to see that James Bambury’s “Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae” is included in a collection on religious beliefs because unlike most of the stories in the collection, he focusses on the beliefs of Cuttlefish. Bambury’s cuttlefish tell a mythic history to each other about their rise from the dark of the deep sea (a place filled with predators and absent of light) into the light of the sun. His cuttlefish celebrate their mythic ancestor who absorbed the light of the sun and brought that light into her own body, bringing communication to her people (since cuttlefish communicate with changing patterns of light and colour). Bambury explores this potential within the cuttlefish body for a mythical exploration, connecting the cuttlefish’s ability to change colour to communication and suggesting an ur myth where the cuttlefish first began to communicate by sharing patterns of light with each other. He creates a unique mythological system that comes from environmental and bodily change, a uniquely cuttlefishy desire to understand themselves and their place within their oceanic world. He indicates to readers that religious ideas would express themselves through the body of the practitioner and be shaped by their bodily engagement.

Bambury’s “Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae” invites the reader to divorce themselves from their human-centric perspective of the world and asks us to look at the potential wonders of the deep sea since it is an area, like space, that represents a final frontier that humanity has only explored in part.

To find out more about Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

To read more about James Bambury, visit his website at http://jamesbambury.blogspot.ca