The Watcher on the Shelf

For all that you readers have done this year to support Speculating Canada, I thought I would write a story for your enjoyment as a way to celebrate the passage into a new year. I hope that you enjoy the story. 

The Watcher On The ShelfBy Derek Newman-Stille

Staring, staring, always staring.

They made sure of it when they dipped me into the cauldron, pinned my eyes wide open with merry thorns of holly. I was meant to be a silent watcher, a judge, a surveillor. They created all of the Watcher Elves the same way. I say “they”, but i suppose i mean “we”… or more specifically “he”, since none of us really have any agency of our own. We are toys, motivated by the whims of he who pulls my strings.

He makes each of us wear red, the same colour as he, and stained through the same process. We are beaten into our smaller elvish size by his cane, reduced with each strike of the cane as our blood is struck from our bodies, and it stains his suit deep crimson. No one seems to think about this “right jolly old elf” as a redcap because they are too focused on the beneficence of his gifts, but those of us who experience his beatings know that the red he wears is the paint of victimization. 

Most seem to have forgotten the term “redcap”, so invested are they in the Disneyfied fairies of modernity. They have forgotten that the magical encounters with the fey have often been marked with tragedy. The term redcap comes from the crimson colour of their hats, dyed in the blood of humans who have strayed into their homes. They need to kill regularly to sustain their own lives, feeding their caps with new blood or their hats will dry out and so to will their vitality. I suppose i can stop saying “they” because he made each of us his kind. 

When he beat the blood out of us, we became like him, needing it to stain our own caps and coats to keep us “Watcher Elves” alive. Everyone needs blood – needs the vital fluid running through them to keep their bodies moving. We need it more than most because our bodies miss it, deprived of it for so long. We can only move at night, when the moon’s own fluidity surges through our bodies, and only for a few moments before we are frozen again at rest, motionless surveillors frozen in watchful silence, unblinking eyes wide for anything that can justify that blissful moment where we can sustain ourselves and stain our caps anew.

Unlike his mythical brothers, mostly extinct now due to human interventions of iron, this redcap is beloved, invited into human homes and fed on cookies and milk that are but dust and ash in a mouth that is sustained by crimson sap. He is so beloved that we, this new breed of redcaps, are equally invited into their homes (so like the homes we once had), stared at with glee and excitement.

And how does he achieve it? How do we all achieve it?

Admittedly, part of it is human greed – an ironic twist of fate because we punish greed at the same time as we rely on it to gain entrance into homes with the promise of gifts on a midwinter night…

But greed is not all we rely on. Greed only does so much to permit people to allow themselves to be perpetually watched. There is something that they don’t want to admit…. They like to be watched.

They feel comfort in the touch of a watchful gaze. They feel that our eyes keep order, sustain normalcy, and prevent acts of rebellion. 

And they justify the idea of punishment too. They convince themselves that punnishment will only come for the wicked… and who genuinely thinks that they are capable of wickedness? Who isn’t able to justify any actions they take as “for the better good”? Who doesn’t convince themselves that they only hurt the guilty, that their acts of harm to others are because “those people are lazy”, “it’s really their own fault”, “they had it coming to them”, “they would have done the same to me”…?

They invite us into their houses to watch their children, to become the omnipresent threat of the deprivation of presents on a midwinter morning… but we are only partially watching the children. Most of their acts of wickedness are wrought from a lack of understanding, and we generally think of them as excused from the crimes they commit because of their lack of experience… such a short number of years to learn the world around them. The people we pay the most attention to are the adults, the ones who justify bringing us into their homes as a threat to their children, using punishment to achieve control. They are the most interesting.

Children focus on the little sparkle in our eyes, seeing magic. They don’t know enough to see hunger there. Adults rarely look into our eyes, viewing them as vehicles only for a child’s imagination and therefore beneath their notice. They would be able to see the hunger in that persistent glance if they looked deep and long enough, but they justify ignoring that hungry gaze because they are too busy to look deeper. They don’t want to waste their time on frivolous things. 

The frivolous things are so often sustaining.

If any person stared at their home and their children with the intensity of our redcap eyes, they would feel threatened. They would feel a compulsion to protect what is theirs. But we are immobile things, lifeless. They have forgotten how to fear lifeless things. They have forgotten that predators freeze before they pounce on their prey, making themselves seem like just part of the scenery, part of the landscape.

And so we become part of the landscape of their home, hidden in plain sight. They even give us the perfect predatory view of their home, perching us up high so we can survey everything beneath us. Silently waiting.

It is amazing how easily we learned to be predators, we Watcher Elves. I would like to pretend that it was part of the process of being turned into a redcap, part of the abduction by the jolly man in red, the beating until his sack of toys and corrupt people turned red, the pinning of our eyes with holly, and the dip into the icy cold cauldron of the Northern Pole… I would like to believe it.

No matter how strong I imagine myself and my fellow humans to have been innocent, to be anything other than predators, I have to admit that these traits were easy to uncover and that the beatings just give us cause, justification to want the things that we are convinced were taken from us – blood. Hunger can justify a lot of actions that we pretend we aren’t capable of, and the feeling of loss, the desire for what once was, can sharpen that justification.

Without blood, so many things become hollow. I watch the children dance around in front of the fireplace, looking gleefully up at me, perched near their stockings, calling me – ironically – Holly, a name that they rhyme with “jolly” in a persistent sing-song of joy that I only hear as mockery, feeling the pain of that herb in my eyelids, holding them perpetually open in staring horror. I feel only emptiness and pain, hollowed out partially by the ceremony that inducted me into this madcap menagerie of joy and pain, but more painfully hollowed out by my remove from the holiday cheer, my watchful distance, forced to re-live again and again the moments so similar to those that led up to my incarceration in this hollowed out body, my imprisonment on the shelf. 

I wonder sometimes if my children look up at me and see their daddy or if they forgive me for the horrors i subjected them to before i was taken away one Christmas Eve and stuffed in a sack, made more spacious for the gifts he left for my children. Parents buy all of the toys, but he leaves deeper gifts, gifts of learning and understanding that children unwrap through their own imaginations. 

I stare and stare and stare at the hollow thing that hatched from wrapping paper, tape, and imagination and has taken my likeness, the perfect dad that they always wanted, that they dreamed about as I struck them. 

I stare and stare and stare at what I could have been and I wait for someone else to be naughty, to bring them into my huge family of Watcher Elves. I wait and watch.

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CyberSexualities

A review of Don Bassingthwaite’s “Who Plays with Sin” in Bending the Landscape: Original Gay and Lesbian Writing: Science Fiction (The Overlook Press, 1999).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cyberpunk, with its attraction to marginalized characters who live on the edge, has needed to be queered for some time, so it is refreshing to encounter a fantastic queering of the genre by Don Bassingthwaite. “Who Plays With Sin” is timely in its exploration of the ways that data can be manipulated and the ways that surveillance invades every aspect of our online presence…. and the ways that those online presences can be employed to either shore up or destroy reputations.

Thunder doesn’t conform to the typical assumptions about internet specialists, nor does he conform to assumptions about gay men. He is burly, strong, and tall, which works well for him in his position as a spider, a web master who uses the internet to seek out truths. His ability to resist stereotypes allows him to throw off those who see him, not conforming to their expectations and therefore giving him an edge in their dealings… particularly since Thunder’s world is one of rampant homophobia, where queerness has been made illegal and LGBTQ people are frequently imprisoned for their sexuality.

Thunder is a figure of resistance, resisting the passification and disempowerment of queer people. Even Thunder’s reaction to the pathologized, passivising term “homosexual” evokes a strong reaction from him: “Say ‘faggot’, say ‘queer’, say ‘gay-boy’. Even as insults, they had a raw power. Primal, street-level, animal-level. There was sex in the words. Say ‘faggot’ and there was a cock in your mouth – whether you enjoyed it or despised it, it was there. ‘Homosexual’ was cold. Clinical. Dead. Desexed, but with implications of perversity and mental illness. It was a safe word for straights, no more dangerous than a sterile tongue depressor.” Thunder illustrates the way that words can be re-appropriated for empowerment and that any image of queer people can be complicated by techniques of resistance.

This is perhaps why when he is approached by a man named Carter, who claims to be the victim of a corporate blackmail to make him seem as though he is gay and therefore subject to the potential loss of position and exile, Thunder tries to assist him to uncover the roots of this manipulation. But, Don Bassingthwaite doesn’t provide easy answers for his characters and this is a tale of convoluted messages and systems of resistance and oppression. There are no simple answers, and every message is complicated. In a world of surveillance and manipulation, nothing is easy and Bassingthwaite reminds readers that the web is always full of spiders.

To read more about the work of Don Bassingthwaite, visit his website at http://dbassingthwaite.com/ .

You can find out more about Bending the Landscape at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bending_the_Landscape .

 

Speculative SEXtember

Paranoia, Power, Politics, Police, and Protest

A Review of Cory Doctorow’s Homeland (Tor Teen, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Marcus was known as m1k3y when he was younger, a web protestor and advocate of human rights who exposed government corruption. In Homeland, Marcus is a young adult, just beginning life outside of university. He has all of the regular issues facing a young person – searching for a job, dealing with student loans, new relationships… but he also has had a new set of responsibilities placed on him. When two of his friends are kidnapped, they leave him with a huge document listing and proving a remarkable variety of government and corporate abuses of power, criminal activities, and general corruption. He has to think about his own safety and the safety of his friends and family when he decides whether to release this information to the public.

The world Cory Doctorow creates in Homeland is one of corruption by people in positions of power (the 1%), government control, surveillance, invasions of privacy, and the general disinclination of the public to challenge these systems of control and abuse…. in other words, our world. Homeland, as well as being a brilliant story, is a call to activism, a demand that readers open their eyes and see the world around them with all of its flaws and to do something about the horrors that are being perpetrated in their name (in the name of the public, in public security, or ‘our best interest’).

With the rise of protests against the abuses of power by the 1%, the occupy movement, and Anonymous, Homeland is written at the perfect time to empower young adults to take an active interest in their world and in the collective power that they can wield against a corrupt system. Our society is one in which protests, activism, and even general consciousness about injustices is discouraged… indeed one in which many of the groups who bring awareness about inequalities are criminalised and portrayed as social problems. Doctorow reminds us that we cannot allow the criminalisation of social protestors and people standing up for collective rights, and that we need to ask questions, inquire about things, be aware, and actually DO SOMETHING about the corruption in our world rather than assuming that this is the natural way of things.

Doctorow’s character Marcus is a hacker, but not someone who puts malicious software on computers (as many hackers are portrayed to be), he is someone who is intensely interested in governmental and business corruption and the abuses that occur to the public in the name of “public safety” and “betterment”. He sees the Orwellian doublespeak that is used to put layers of control on the public. Marcus faces moral dilemmas when hackers break into his own computer and begin surveilling him – the same kind of surveillance and violations of privacy that corporations and the government have done to control society. Despite what they have done to him personally, they provide him with information that could help to ensure his freedom from the corporations that stalk him and endanger his friends  – BUT if he uses it, he is endorsing the kind of malicious use of technology that he has been fighting against (attacks on his own privacy). His ‘saviours’ are very much like the corporations that have endangered him in the first place. Doctorow ensures that his novel has no easy morals – no ‘hackers good, corporations bad’ dichotomies, but rather relies on his readers to determine their own morals and question the diversity of individuals who are conducting actions rather than trying to paint entire groups with one moral brush.

Doctorow doesn’t limit his ideas of moral ambiguity to personalities in the novel, he also explores the dualistic role of technology – no technology is, in itself, either good or bad, and technology that was used to support the 1% and their abuse of power can be reworked, changed, and re-purposed to help to expose those abuses of power. UAVs, although used to spy on protestors and reveal their positions to police can also be used to take areal photos of the group to expose police bullying and abuses of power as well as to show ways for protestors to escape from police blockades. Doctorow illustrates that protestors have to be as willing and able to adapt, change, and modify their strategies as those in charge of the systems of oppression around them.

Homeland reminds readers that we can’t blame the system and give up our agency over what is happening in the world around us. Acts are being committed in our names, in the name of the public that we would not approve of. We have to take responsibility and do something.

To find out more about Cory Doctorow, you can visit his website at http://craphound.com/ . To find out more about Homeland, visit Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/homeland-1/CoryDoctorow .