Blind Vision Quest

A Review of Douglas Smith’s The Wolf at the End of the World (Forthcoming)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Wolf at the End of the World courtesy of Douglas Smith

Cover photo for The Wolf at the End of the World courtesy of Douglas Smith

The Wolf at the End of the World is a tale that would resonate with the spirit of any environmentalist – the struggle of diverse species to survive, the conflict with human greed and capitalism, the invasiveness of the human presence on animal life, and also the potential for a shift in human consciousness toward a connection with the animal world, an acknowledgement of our dependency on our environment and eco diversity. As he often does, Douglas wields myth as a tool for pedagogy, much like myth-tellers have been doing throughout history. He taps into that vital essence of the story to reveal truths that we ignore in our mundane world and teaches complexity through the poetics of language and potentials of symbols.

Smith’s work, as always, is full of potent ambiguities, the moral questions that fill us with the potential to interrogate our world and challenge the assumptions that have become part of living our lives. He does this through beautiful prose and an exciting and powerful story. Smith tackles issues of huge importance for our understanding of modernity such as the relationship of the human to our environment, the power of greed, the emptiness that comes from loneliness, the danger of secrecy (particularly government initiated secrets), ideas of ability and disability, the relationship of indigenous people to the state, and the general issue of bodily and identity difference. He recognises that accepting difference is a complex process, even for the person who is fundamentally ostracised and cast socially as different.

The Wolf at the End of the World is a text of loss and hunger, the pining for that which is missing, absent, taken away, or desired, and Smith embodies this in the figure of the Windigo, a being from Indigenous cosmologies that is the embodiment of hunger with a heart of ice, an insatiable appetite. It is the perfect symbol of modernity, with all of our greed, our loneliness, our desire for something we have lost or not yet obtained… it reminds us of our absences. The Windigo, despite being the villain in this novel, becomes a form of teacher, espousing a pedagogy about the dangers of desire, the dangers of creating a heart of ice and always wanting and losing ourselves to greed as a way of trying to fill the spot in ourselves that has become empty (or icy) because of our feeling of loss. The Windigo is a great expression of the modern condition.

In contrast to the Windigo are the Heroka, figures who are shape-shifters, able to speak to and connect on a spiritual level to animals, and a boy, Zach, who is sorting through his difference – as a blind person, as someone who is half Cree and who does not know about his father. His mother, who is Cree, has been running from her heritage, trying to ignore her past, and she fears her son’s difference, and also the secrets that she has kept from him about his father’s heritage and the potential differences that are inherent in it. But, Zach’s differences are his strengths, things that have shaped him and he is put into the position of accepting his differences and becoming even further different from the socially-defined norms or of passing as “normal” and missing something of himself.

Ancient gods reenact mythic roles, renewing and changing the world around them to play out what it means to be human and what it means to be spirit and animal. Trickster spirits play with human lives, challenging them to change, learn, and grow, and to question everything they have been taught and the world that has shaped them. The reader is carried along on this mythic tale, taught the potential of stories to challenge us and make us more aware.

To find out more about Douglas Smith and The Wolf at the End of the World, visit his website at http://www.smithwriter.com/the_wolf_at_the_end_of_the_world . This novel will be coming out soon and you can link through the website above to pre-order a copy.

Depths

A Review of A.E. Van Vogt’s The Silkie
By Derek Newman-Stille

Van Vogt’s creation, the silkie is both human and fundamentally alien, integrating elements of “us” with the “Other”. Possessing senses beyond human understanding -enough to reframe the entire sensory network – the silkie sees the world through different eyes, yet it is forced to take a human mate and live as a human for periods of time. It is at home in the depths of the ocean and in the expanse of space, able to shift its form from an aquatic being, to a human form, to a space-fairing form capable of swimming through the stars, it possesses the ability to move beyond the limits of human exploration, both sets of depths.

The name “silkie” is borrowed from mythology, from the figure of the “selkie”, an entity that is capable of shifting from the form of a seal to a human form. In myth, the selkie is often female and is trapped into a marriage relationship when a male human being takes her seal skin and she forgets her life under the sea and becomes subservient to him. Van Vogt’s silkie is male, forced by genetic manipulation to take a weaker, human state in order to mate with human females on a cycle to ensure that the silkie maintains its allegiance to Earth. Van Vogt plays with the myth, inverting gender and inverting the impulses of the creature. It is still a creature that can occupy a human form, but is capable of travelling into depths that are inaccessible to humans, and it is imbued with the “Otherness” that comes from having a transformative body and that comes from venturing into places of the unknown or unfamiliar.

Van Vogt’s silkie challenges the alien in other forms – alternating between human and alien bodies, it is capable of confronting difference in the form of invading aliens. Although its body is transformative, the silkies of Earth have been made police officers, enforcing the status quo and resisting change. They challenge alien invaders and eliminate them, sometimes incorporating elements of the alien into themselves in order to best them like an undercover police officer confronting the criminal underworld while allowing him or herself to meld with it.

Thanks to James Kerr for lending me this book. This book is currently out of print, but is available through used bookstores and used book retailers.