A review of James Alan Gardner’s Ascending (Open Road Media)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Ascending is James Alan Gardner’s discourse on boredom wrapped up in science fiction. Gardner’s narrator Oar is from a genetically modified species that at the age of 50 literally just becomes bored with the world and lays down to sleep for eternity…. and Oar has just reached the age of 54. They refer to it as having a “tired mind”. In order to keep going, she needs to stay stimulated and keep her mind active. She already has moments when her mind is tired and she loses minutes and hours as she spaces out. She finds herself losing time and becoming disconnected to the world around her even as she sets out on a galactic adventure full of action-packed excitement and new challenges.
Oar was first introduced in Gardner’s Expendable, when Explorer Festina Ramos was dropped off on her planet and changed the world that Oar had known. Now, Oar has sought out Festina again and the two are plunged into a galaxy of conspiracies, advanced paranoid aliens, and secret discoveries.
Although Oar is 50 and that is normally the end of her species time awake and active, Ascending is a coming of age story for Oar as she faces the reality of the universe around her, challenges her pre-existing ideas, and grows up. Growing up is never easy and Oar’s coming of age is one that involves painful awakenings.
Through the lens of Oar, Gardner presents an examination of the social meaning of boredom and writes a discourse about ennui through an exciting sci fi adventure.
A Review of James Alan Gardner’s Hunted (HarperCollins, 2000).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Edward is a man with an intellectual disability who grew up being treated as a child by his sister and as an embarrassment by his father. He was taken under the claws of the queen of the Mandasars, a race of strictly hierarchical lobster-like aliens until their planet went to war. He was then made part of the Explorers, who are better known as Expendables because they are sent into risky situations that no one else is sent into. The Expendables are all made up of people with disabilities and “disfigurements”, people who didn’t fit into their society’s ideas of beauty, and it is because of these disabilities that the Explorers are treated as expendable people. James Alan Gardner’s Hunted begins with Edward being taken to a new planet but when the entire crew of his spaceship except for him dies as they cross into open space, he is placed at the centre of several conspiracies with galactic consequences and implications for what it means to be human. As Edward’s body and mind begin to change, he comes face to face with his own identity and questions what it is to be himself and who he is as his selfhood becomes unfamiliar.
Hunted, much like Gardner’s Expendable is an exploration of disability and what it means to be disabled. Few authors examine disability in future settings, erasing the idea of a future for disabled people. Most science fiction authors treat the future as a period in time when all disabilities are “cured” and erased. This has implications for the disabled community because this negates the important role we play in our current society and even the possibility of us having a role in our future. Much of Sci Fi’s treatment of disability is eugenicist in nature, treating disabled bodies as ‘mistakes’ that are meant to be rectified out of existence. For disabled readers, this has implications about our identities and reinforces ableist practices and ideologies in our current cultural circumstances.
Although there are some challenges to the way that Gardner constructs disability in Hunted, he powerfully presents disability as an essential part of Edward’s identity and illustrates Edward’s fear of becoming something different and losing his disability. Gardner also recognizes the way that disabled people tend to form our own communities and Edward is placed in the context of other disabled Explorers Festina Ramos (who has a reddish mark on part of her face) and Kaisho (who is a wheelchair user and has a symbiotic relationship with sentient glowing moss). Characters have complicated relationships with their disabilities just as disabled people do, but both Edward and Festina embrace their disabilities are part of their identities, not wanting to change them.
Hunted in addition to its disability narrative, and perhaps because of this narrative, is a discourse on identity and what makes a person an individual. Gardner questions ideas of individuality and the idea of a stable personality and personhood and instead illustrates that personhood is intensely malleable and changeable and that people are not nearly as independent as we think. In addition to Edward’s identity crisis about who he would be without his disability, Edward also discovers that he has alien DNA, questioning the barriers of his humanity and whether he can consider himself the same person he has always been. His identity is shaken by changes in his body that make him question himself. Kaisho is similarly presented as a question in individualism and identity as someone who is human, but whose body and mind are symbiotically connected to sentient moss that is considered a more advanced and more intelligent life form. Gardner invites the reader to question where one being ends and the other begins. In addition, Gardner brings attention to questions of identity and individuality by presenting us with the Mandasars, a race of beings that have an insect-like relationship to authority and hierarchy. Their entire society is controlled by their queen through pheromones that immediately overpower most of their sense of will, and, additionally, each of the Mandasar social/biological subsets needs to be in contact with the other two subsets or they will change their personalities – for example, workers kept amongst workers will become so complacent that they become slavish and warriors kept among warriors will become more war-like and violent, and gentles will become sociopathic individuals who privilege science over anything else.
Hunted plays with ideas of identity and examines the barriers of individualism while illustrating that those barriers are not as firm as we like to believe.
A review of Julie Czerneda’s Changing Vision (Penguin Random House, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Julie Czerneda’s Changing Vision is a tale of found families across space. Esen is the past of her species, the final member of her Web. This could leave her isolated and alone in a massive universe, but, instead, she finds a human companion, Paul, who bridges the species divide and proves that friendships can be incredibly powerful.
Czerneda focuses her space opera on the ability of people to create family even out of the completely alien and challenges ideas of family that are limited to biological or legal relations. This is a friendship that not only survives the species divide, but survives war, intrigue, lies, and torture.
Changing Vision is a tale of diplomacy in the face of warring species that deny the sentience of each other, espionage, xenophobia, and space battle, but it’s quintessence is the power of cross-species friendships as ways to create family and a sense of home for an alien shapeshifter who at times feels like she has neither as the last member of her species.
A review of Julie Czerneda’s “Beholder’s Eye” (Penguin Random House, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In Beholder’s Eye, Julie Czerneda explores the possibilities of consciousness in varying shapes and forms. From pig-like creatures who communicate by clicking their hooves and by emoting smells to canid-like beings, to large cat-like beings, to a puddle of goo, Czerneda explores the diversity of bodily possibilities and envisions their impact on consciousness and culture. She examines the impact of herd mentalities on sentient life forms, and the pull of herd instinct along with conscious thought, and envisions possibilities for sensory differences and the intellectual possibilities that come from sensory diversity. As always, communication is key to Czerneda’s narratives and she explores cross-species interactions and cross-pollination of ideas within different environments.
Beholder’s Eye focusses on the narrative of Esen-alit-Quar, a member of an extremely rare shape-shifting species in a universe that doesn’t believe that there are shape-shifters. Esen can take on the form of any sentient being and Czerneda uses this ability of her character to bring the audience into multiple different possibilities for consciousness and it’s relationship to the body. Czerneda often has a fascination with ecosystems and the diversity of life, so a creature that shifts into multiple shapes allows for her to take the reader through an examination of what consciousness could mean as well as allowing us to imagine the way that different bodily forms and ecosystems could produce different cultures.
Esen-alit-Quar is not only the perfect figure for examining the relationship between body and culture because of her ability to shape-shift, but also because of her species imperative to preserve the memories of sentient beings and sample their cultures. She is the ultimate anthropologist, able to not just study a culture from the outside, but shift her body to examine it as an insider.
With Beholder’s Eye, Czerneda not only creates a fun galaxy-spanning science fiction story, she creates speculative anthropology, bringing her readers into an exploration of cultures, bodies, and potentialities.
A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow (Del Rey, 2020)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Gods of Jade and Shadow is a discourse on the Hero’s Journey while it also serves to disrupt that cycle. Silvia Moreno-Garcia presents readers with a girl in a fairy tale circumstance, being used and abused by her family. But Cassiopeia doesn’t seek out a prince who will rescue her from household drudgery, instead she craves her own adventures. She keeps a little collection of magazine cut-outs showing aspects of the life she wants to live, but hides them from everyone, almost burying them from herself because she considers them so precious.
When she is left alone with her grandfather’s key, she opens up a world of new possibilities by awakening a Mayan god and binding him to her. She becomes part of a mythic narrative, conscribed to the role of the hero, a plaything of the gods. Here Cassiopeia also resists her role, not willing to just follow the edicts of the god that is tied to her but instead being a shaper of her own destiny and possibly a shaper of the destiny of the gods who are trapped in her orbit.
Heather and Tasha are both storytellers. Both weave tales for their own needs. When meteors fall and humanity is left starving and disoriented, Heather carries on her father’s tradition of telling fairy tales to create a more magical life while Tasha keeps telling others the bigger fairy tale – that they can all survive.
In The Centaur’s Wife, Amanda Leduc reveals the power of storytelling, necessary lies, and complicated truths. She reveals the human need to create stories and the transformative power of the tales we tell. Part apocalyptic fiction, part myth, and part collection of new fairy tales, The Centaur’s Wife demonstrates Leduc’s versatility and brilliance as a storyteller.
The Centaur’s Wife is a tale of the liminal, the between, and not just because centaurs are half human and half horse. Leduc tells a story about outsiders, edgy Others who belong neither completely to one world or another. Leduc reveals the power of not belonging, of existing outside the order imposed by those in power. Her characters question easy categories and simple social structures, revelling in complexities. They disrupt norms and it is through this disruption that they invite in new possibilities.
Earlier this year, I came across a kickstarter that I just had to support. In addition to my work on Speculating Canada, I teach writing classes, so I am always on the lookout for new and exciting ways to teach. I have a particular interest in teaching through games and play. So, when I saw the Kickstarter for The Story Engine by Peter Chiykowski I thought it would be a fun way of engaging my students in another method of storytelling. The Story Engine involves a set of cards that can be used for writing inspiration. They are divided into multiple different types of cards that are meant to be used together: agent cards, engine cards, anchor cards, conflict cards, and aspect cards. Together they make up fundamental parts of a story and allow for the development of writing prompts.
I bought The Story Engine itself as well as the many booster packs that come with it. These include: horror, fantasy, science fiction, eldritch horror, dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, mythology, cyberpunk, and steampunk. The booster packs can either be used separately for genre stories or mixed in with the main Story Engine to give different flavours to the original stories.
If you are more of a visual person, each card also comes with an image that can either enhance the language of the card or provide you with some visual inspiration. As someone who collects images for my stories, I thought this was a powerful starter for those who enjoy image-based story development.
I have spent most of the day playing with these various decks in The Story Engine and have found them incredibly fun and a great way to get creative ideas flowing. I think The Story Engine will be a powerful teaching tool, especially around genre fiction and will allow students to engage differently with aspects of the story. The different categories of cards such as agents and engine cards will help students to think about the various aspects of story like characters, motivations, drive, and conflict. The cards also seem like a powerful tool for getting through writer’s block and the playful aspect of it takes off some of the stress associated with being blocked.
I wanted to share some samples of writing prompts that I have created using The Story Engine to illustrate the adaptability and fun of the deck:
– An underworld God wants to save a loved one by using a hardwired cult, but they will likely lose their life.
– A corporate addict wants to gain the power of a gilded drop of blood, but they will lose part of their humanity.
– An arcane teacher wants to stop being haunted by a rave, but they will lose their closest friend.
– An oracle wants to save the world from a protective mecha but it will mean forever living a lie.
For these prompts, I mixed in the booster packs with the original deck and then just drew them at random. It felt like a fun way to develop some strange and unique stories.
A review of Catherine MacLeod’s “The Stone Alphabet” in Earth: Giants, Golems, & Gargoyles Edited by Rhonda Parrish (Tyche Books, 2019)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Catherine MacLeod’s “The Stone Alphabet” is a refreshing collection of microfiction stories. Each of the stories is only a few lines of text but shows incredible worldbuilding, character development, and each has a delightful twist ending. MacLeod plays with the senses of the reader, moving us from world to world and story to story, immersing us in little drips of horror instead of a larger pool of story.
Like the rest of the Earth collection, MacLeod’s collection focuses on the multiplicity of the element, illustrating the idea that Earth can be articulated in a variety of ways. She tells stories about characters with an appetite for stones to stories of the underworld, tales of dark cellars that suddenly appear, addictions to beauty mud, statues carved into life, and stories about stoning.
Despite the short length of these tales, MacLeod explores deep and powerful social patterns and ideas. She explores ideas of life and death, oppression and violence, loss and imprisonment, representation of the human body and the implications of creating something so close to the human. MacLeod invites her reader to speculate and imagine new possibilities, using the “weird” to invite readers to question their norms and everything that is taken for granted. Playing with the theme of the earth, she shakes the foundation of the reader’s reality and invites new philosophies and ideologies. The rapid succession of worlds and stories allow for a sense of cognitive dissonance, immediately putting the reader in a reflective, questioning space.
Reviewed By Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them)
A review of Chadwick Ginther’s “The Enforcer” in Rhonda Parrish’s Earth: Giants, Golems, & Gargoyles (Tyche Books, 2019).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Chadwick Ginther’s “The Enforcer” is part of a collection on the element of Earth by Rhonda Parrish, titled Earth: Giants, Golems & Gargoyles, yet his vision of the earth is unique. He associates the earth with the things that go in it – bodies. “The Enforcer” is a necromantic tale, a story of raising the dead and challenging the barrier between the living and the dead. It’s about things that rise from the earth.
Ginther’s take is a Frankensteinian story, with a character named Frank who happens to be an assemblage of different body parts. Of course, he isn’t the original Dr. Frankenstein’s famous creature, but he, like the classic monster, is made up of parts of dead bodies. Where Dr. Frankenstein reanimated his monster through science, Frank is resurrected through magic performed by a cult. He is made up of parts of the bodies of multiple soldiers. Frank is a creature defined by his parts, defined by memories and thoughts of multiple different soldiers that intrude on his consciousness. He isn’t one thing. He is always a multiplicity. Frank’s body is shaped by pain and he is constantly in pain. Ginther imagines possibilities for a fragmented life filled with pain for his monstrous hero.
This is a narrative of autonomy and control, exploring what it is like to have control over a body that is fundamentally resistant and what it means to unify multiple minds and resist external control.
Ginther imagines Frank in a way that several scholars have done – picturing him as a golem made of flesh rather than of earth (because flesh becomes the earth and is placed in the earth). For those who haven’t encountered the mythology of the Golem, it is a figure from Jewish folklore who takes on a human shape, but is made entirely from mud, clay, or earth. Often the golem is created to work for someone or achieve a task for them. In Frank’s world, golems are creatures made of earth that often have a dead body at the centre of them. They are figures that are brought to life by necromancers. So although Frank is made of flesh, he has something in common with these figures of earth. Frank is also an artificial body made up of matter.
Ginther centres his narrative in Winnipeg, imagining a magical undercurrent to the city and secret clubs and bars only available to the undead. In this strange underbelly to Winnipeg there are constant struggles over who has control over life and death and Frank finds himself trapped in the middle of these struggles, needing to find a way to survive.
A review of Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild (Random House, 2019)
By Derek Newman-Stille
A fascinating blend of Red Ridinghood, werewolf fiction, Greek myth, and Rogarou legends of Metis people from the Georgian Bay area, Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild weaves together monstrous wolves into a book that is partially horror story and partially a call for social change. Like many werewolf tales, Empire of Wild calls attention to predatory masculinity, and the Rogarou (from Loup Garou, French for werewolf) she creates are transformed into their animal form by transgressions, primarily against women. The Metis people in Dimaline’s tale all grew up with Rogarou lessens and were taught not to wander too far away from the main paths or they would be stalked by the Rogarou, much as Red Ridinghood’s mother tells her.
Joan is a woman who walks her own paths, and even though early in her childhood, she encountered the Rogarou, she still seeks her own way, often telling herself that the stories of her people are just stories. Yet Joan becomes embroiled in a cosmological battle for her land, her husband, and her lifeways. She has to learn from the stories of her elders and partake of their magic in order to keep herself and her family safe from the predators around them.
Cherie Dimaline brings attention to the predatory nature of white men in particular, highlighting the way that white people have predatorily taken Indigenous lands and continue to try to consume more and more. Whiteness is the personification of consumption in Dimaline’s narrative. Her Metis characters seek to buy back land taken from them by white people, constantly fighting against business interests who try to consume more of their land and fill the land with mines and pipelines. She brings attention to the continuing action of businesses to pollute Indigenous territory and displace Indigenous people from their traditional lands. She explores the implications of the church in that theft of land, pointing out that the church seeks to alienate people from the traditional practices of the land in order to pave the way for businesses to buy up land. One of her characters, a miner, tells her protagonist Joan that the church works to control Indigenous people and saying that “the only real threat to a project – to our jobs – are the Indians. They’re the ones with the goddamned rights, I guess. Always protesting and hauling us into church… But when the missions come through? They’re too busy praying to protest. The missions are good at changing the way people see shit…. Mission tents are an important part of mining, of any project really – mining, forestry, pipelines. That’s what’s going up in here next, a pipeline conversation.” Dimaline brings critical attention to current issues around land rights and pipelines, pointing out the continual exploitation of Indigenous peoples. Dimaline points out that colonialism is not only consumptive, it is predatory and the rogarou becomes a symbolic manifestation of this constant territorial violence.
Dimaline uses the image of predation to talk about the loss of selfhood and identity, creating the danger of a wolf that consumes a person from within, consuming everything that makes them who they are and leaving a hollow shell. But, Dimaline also links the rogarou and its predation to missing and murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, pointing out the way that Indigenous women and girls are especially at threat to predatory behaviour, violence, and death. Dimaline, in particular, highlights the predatory and violent nature of toxic masculinity, providing a critique of the way that masculinity is constructed and the violence of the image of the so-called “alpha male”.
Dimaline’s story is an interplay of fairy tale, myth, legend, and Indigenous cosmology, and, like most tales and traditions, it has powerful implications for rethinking and challenging contemporary issues.