Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 13: An Interview with Sean Moreland

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I interview Ottawa author, editor, and academic Dr. Sean Moreland. Dr. Moreland teaches various courses at Ottawa University, including courses on horror. He is also one of the co-editors of Postscripts to Darkness (which you can explore at http://pstdarkness.com/). He has published short fiction in several collections of speculative fiction such as Pavor Nocturnus: Dark Fiction Anthology, and Allusions of Innocence.

Dr. Moreland and I discuss teaching speculative fiction, illustrating horror, notions of the “literary” and exclusions of genre fiction from the literary, the ability for horror to push boundaries, horror as a mechanism for exploring and experimenting with identity, epics and nation building… and in addition to the more intellectual materials, we also talk about heavy metal themed spec fic, Kaiju and other giant monsters, revisiting horrific themes from youth and youth as a formative theme for ideas of horror… Needless to say, there is at least a week worth of conversation built into this one, short programme.

For this, the thirteenth episode, things get spooky.

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.

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

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The Pedagogical Power of Play – Teaching Canadian SF (okay, and other literature courses too)

The Pedagogical Power of Play
by Derek Newman-Stille

Play is an important way to help students (of any age) learn. When you evoke student emotions, they remember things more effectively since memory acquisition is linked to emotional responses. By using an element of play in your teaching, your students are also more willing to take bigger risks, and do things that seem too stressful in a classroom that takes itself too seriously. When playing, students become more active learners. They know that the rules are somewhat suspended, so they are willing to take greater risks, think further outside the box. Once you are able to get students to think outside the box, they are able to think more critically about what they are doing. Not only will they remember the ideas you are covering, but they will also be more willing to question things, engage deeper with ideas, and be more inspired.

A lot of instructors use questions about the text (memory exercises) as a way to help students learn. They will create activities geared at helping students remember facts, but students remember facts best through using them, and being emotionally attached to them.

The most important thing to do is to let the texts themselves lend different ideas for inspiring students. Applying ideas from outside to various texts ends up feeling unnatural to the students. Look for entertaining ideas that stem from the text itself. For example, when I was teaching Stephen King’s Misery to my students, character Paul Sheldon discusses a game that he used to play with his friends where they would tell a story and then vote about whether it was believable or not. I adapted this for an activity for the classroom, having the students share in telling the story of Annie Wilkes (the villain of the story) in pieces and then vote after each segment whether the tale was believable for the Annie Wilkes that King created. By playing at giving Annie a background, students were able to explore narrative potentials and they were able to look deeper and more critically at the character King had created.

A Few Activities:

 1. Fan Fiction

Have students search for those narrative gaps in the text, those areas that the author didn’t explore and are rich for exploration. Fan fiction allows students to get deeper into the narrative and do an analysis beyond the surface reading. When students write fan fiction, they need to understand the text deeply in order to write a story that feels authentic to them. They tend to mine the text for incredible amounts of detail to support their ideas… which is great preparation for later essays and examinations.  When students write fan fiction, they look for narrative gaps, which means they look at the text critically, searching for what is missing, for problems in the text.

Make sure to provide students with a few examples of fan fiction (it is best if it comes from texts outside of the course so that they don’t feel like they are too limited)
(Thank you to Kelly McQuire for inspiring this)

2. Title Mash-Ups

Have students chose the titles of two different books from the course and then mash their titles together. Provide them with a few examples (of titles outside of the course). Then ask students to do an “elevator pitch” about what that novel will look like. Let them know that an elevator pitch is the pitch for a new novel that you would give in the few minutes that you have between floors when you are in an elevator with a publisher – make sure that they limit it to about 5 minutes.

This activity will help students to start making connections between the texts and thinking about them comparatively. This allows them to work out some ideas about the conversations between the texts and the overall themes of the course. Once they begin looking at things through a comparative lens, it makes it easier for them to do comparisons between texts later in essays and exams.

Here are a few examples of title mash-ups:

The Twilight Games
(Mash up of The Hunger Games and Twilight)

Vampires from each of the districts of Panem have to enter into an (eternal) life or death match with other vampires. Each of them has to protect a human companion from vampiric attack by their other opponents and battle their own hunger for human blood in order to keep their human alive in a world where everyone else and even the land itself is out to get them.

And some Canadian SF examples:

Blood Expendable
(Mash up of Tanya Huff’s Blood Price and James Alan Gardner’s Expendable)

After developing Retinitis Pigmentosa, Vicki Nelson, detective for the Technocracy loses her position and is made a member of the Explorer Corps, or, as they call themselves, Expendable Crew Members and sent on all of the dangerous missions that other, able-bodied crew members aren’t sent on because the Admiralty knows that people with disabilities aren’t mourned as much as able-bodied crew members. When the Admiralty sends her on a mission to a planet that is known to be a place of certain death, a planet where it is rumored that people frequently die of blood loss, she finds out that her only ally on this planet is a vampire. She learns that she can heal her body if she choses to become a vampire, or she can embrace her Retinitis Pigmentosa and try to change a society that rejects its disabled members and views them as expendable.

Bitten by a Turn of Light
(Mash up of Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten and Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light)

The small valley of Don is an odd pioneer settlement on the outskirts of Toronto where there are elements of magic like house toads, wells that fill up with sweet-tasting water whenever it is desired, fields that suddenly lay down during harvest, and where the woods are populated with strange beings. After being bitten by her friend, a mysterious, invisible entity named Wisp, Elena Nalynn discovers that something has changed in her body. She discovers that she is cursed, stuck between the human world, and the world of her friend. While trying to control her new hungers, her ability to turn invisible, and the impulse to fly, she has to confront whether she wants to try to make a normal, human life for herself in Toronto or venture into the Verge to join Wisp and live with the dragon pack.

3. Monster Mash-Up

In the wake of Mash-Ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Mash-Ups have become really popular with readers. A mash-up is a work of fiction that combines a pre-existing literary work with another genre – essentially an injection of a monstrous bite into an existing literary work. In a work like this, students are encouraged to use somewhere between 60-85% of the original text and adapt other parts of it to suggest monstrous figures like zombies, vampires, or werewolves.

This can be a great activity for teaching a course that combines traditional Can Lit with Canadian genre fiction, for example, inviting students to mash up Anne of Green Gables with the monstrous. But, it can also be used to mash up other works of genre fiction, combining aspects of the monstrous with other narratives – for example, taking Canadian SF stories and injecting in a bit of monstrous characteristics.

You can ask students to do a full novel Mash Up, a single chapter, or even just do an elevator pitch about what the Mash Up would look like. If you decide to do an elevator pitch, ask student to think about how monsters would be integrated into the novel’s world, what challenges the narrative would face, which characters would be (or become) monstrous, and what elements of the story would shift with the monstrous introduction.

To begin, introduce students to a wide variety of Canadian monster short stories and/or novels.

Some Examples of Great  Canadian Zombie Short Stories or Anthologies:
Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction Edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“The Ethical Treatment of Meat” (in Objects of Worship) by Claude Lalumiere
“A Visit to the Optometrist” (in Objects of Worship) by Claude Lalumiere

Some Examples of Great Canadian Zombie Novels:
Husk  by Corey Redekop
Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos by James Marshall

Some Examples of Great Canadian Vampire Short Stories or Anthologies:
Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick
Evolve 2: Vampire Stories of the Future Undead Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick
“Stories With Happy Endings” (in This Strange Way of Dying) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Cemetery Man” (in This Strange Way of Dying) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Some Examples of Great Canadian Vampire Novels:
Blood Books (series) by Tanya Huff
Blood and Chrysanthemums by Nancy Baker
A Terrible Beauty by Nancy Baker
The Night Inside by Nancy Baker
The Embrace of Life and Death by Liz Strange
The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel  by Drew Hayden Taylor
Enter, Night by Michael Rowe

Some Examples of Great Canadian Werewolf Short Stories or Anthologies:
“Out of the Light” (in Chimerascope) by Douglas Smith
“Spirit Dance” (in Impossibilia) by Douglas Smith

Some Examples of Great Canadian Werewolf Novels:
The Wolf at the End of the World by Douglas Smith
Bitten by Kelley Armstrong
Naked Brunch by Sparkle Hayter

Think about how much fun your students could have writing Anne of Green Pustules!

4. Write a review on GoodReads or another review site

Introduce students to a review website so that they can get a sense of what book reviews look like. Then, ask them to write their own review of one of the books on the course or one of their own books for a later essay. By asking students to check out GoodReads or other review sites, it introduces them to the notion of literary media sites and allows them to begin participating in literature communities. This will allow them to engage with a wider community of literature fans and prepare them for writing their own critiques of the books they are reading. By having them post their reviews on GoodReads or a similar site, students will feel engaged and will also feel the social pressure to write good reviews for others who might be interested in the book. It also allows them to feel more responsible for writing a good review since they will be responsible to a whole group of other readers.

I like to introduce GoodReads to students as “It’s like Facebook for people who love books”.

By having students review Canadian SF material, you are also contributing to Canadian authors by making sure that there are more reviews available for a genre that is traditionally under-reviewed.
(Thank you to Adam Brittain for inspiring this)

5. Now You Go There

Have students think about what it would be like to suddenly be in the world of the novel they are reading. What would their experience be? How would they survive in this world? What challenges would they face?

This activity will help students to deeply explore the role of setting in the novel – the social, political, and environmental context of the novel. This is especially effective for fantasy, science fiction, and some types of horror since students will have to examine the world-building of the author and try to fit themselves into that world. By asking the student to enter metaphorically into a new world, you are helping them to become (quite literally) personally involved and students often remember things better when they somehow relate back to themselves.

I find an effective accompanying text for this (in addition to whatever novel you are teaching) is Gary W. Renshaw’s “Vacation” in OnSpec #92 Vol. 25, No. 1 since it explores a sci fi author who ends up crash landing on an alien world (as well as the accompanying issues and frustrations that come from living on that world). You can find a review at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/sci-fi-author-in-space/

6. Correspondence

Have your students write a series of emails or letters between various characters at various key points in the narrative. This will help the students to explore character psychology and interaction. They can interrogate the intentions of the characters as well as the way they want to represent themselves to other characters, and how they manage their identity portrayal.

7. Comic Book It!!

Have your students think about how they would adapt the novel they are reading into a comic book. I would suggest limiting their comic books to a 5 comic book run to cover the material from the original novel. Have them think about what they would need to include, what they would have to remove (while still making certain that they text conveys all of the relevant parts of the novel), ask them to think about their audience and in which ways they may have a different audience.

Ask students to do character layouts for each of the characters, considering the personalities, motivations, desires, flaws, strengths, and quirks of each of the characters. Following this, ask them to write out titles for each of the 5 comics and write a short description of each comic, considering the action of the scene, what to highlight, the fundamentals of the dialogue, and which parts of the novel they will cover.  Then, ask them to think about the essential dialogue of the text and choose some key quotes that would appear in word bubbles to capture the action of the scenes.

You can introduce students to an adaptation of a Canadian novel into a comic by having them first read Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten and then have them explore the comic book adaptation of the novel by Angilram at http://angilram.deviantart.com/gallery/6373443 .

8. Interview the Author

Have students develop questions for the author of the book that they have just read. This will allow them to delve into the narrative gaps, the missing or unexplored parts of the book.  In order to help them to prepare, you can introduce them to some interviews that you have found particularly interesting (hopefully, perhaps, like those on Speculating Canada). Consider using interviews that do deeper interrogations rather than ones that just ask the author “how did you sell your first book?”

9. Dating Profiles

This works particularly well for novels that have a romantic component. Ask students to choose three characters from the novel and write a dating profile for each of them. Have them consider the personalities of the characters as they are laid out in the novel and think about what they would write in a dating profile.

Here are some key areas that you can direct them toward:

-Headline:
-Name/ Pseudonym:
-Gender:
-I am Looking For: Marriage/ Dating/ Relationship/ Casual/ Friendship
-Looking for a Person Who is:
-Likes in a Partner:
-Dislikes in a Partner (Deal-Breakers):
-About me:
-Physical Description:
-Interests:
-Hobbies:

You can also have students write a dating questionnaire from the perspective of their characters with questions like:
-Describe any frequent types of barriers or patterns you encounter in your search for relationships:
-Please describe any circumstances or conditions in your life that you are concerned about regarding your relationship search and/or ultimate relationship success:
-What is your greatest achievement?
-What is your greatest disappointment?
-What is your best attribute?
-What is your worst attribute?
-If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
-What is your greatest passion?

As a really fun way to finish this activity, you can ask students to engage in a speed dating activity, having them play the part of the character trying to date one of the others. I find it really entertaining to have them speed date random other characters from the novel (other than the one the author intended to be their ideal partner).

You can, of course, use these activities for any literature course (not just for Canadian Speculative Fiction), but I hope they will inspire you to consider proposing a Canadian genre fiction course at your university or high school, or at least to include a few Canadian genre fiction texts on your syllabus.

These activities lend themselves particularly to literature courses, and the activities in the course assist students to develop confidence in creative writing, so can be quite effective for a creative writing course.

Remember, the more skills your students develop, the better your marking experience will be!! Well-written, interesting papers are much MUCH easier to mark.  So, when you inspire your students to develop their skills, you also save yourself time, energy, and headaches. Plus, playing when you teach also means that you will look forward to your own classes instead of dreading the boredom that comes from repetitive, replicative teaching.

Cripping the Light Fantastic: Disability and Speculative Fiction

A Brief Exploration of Disability in Speculative Fiction
By Derek Newman-Stille

This post will explore some of the notions we examined in my panel at Can Con on Disability in Canadian SF. The panel went extremely well, and I hope to be able to share some insights with Speculating Canada readers who were unable to make it to Can Con.

The various speculative genres of fiction can engage with notions of the disabled body in a variety of different ways: through the notion of the medical cure or the augmented body of Science Fiction, the magically changed body of Fantasy, body horror and notions of disfigurement in Horror. Speculative Fictional engagements with the body are often problematic and disabling, much as the superstructure of our society is disabling in its construction of certain bodies as “problematic”. Through the absense of disabled bodies, or the treatment of the disabled as people who “need to be fixed”, SF can disable.

Disability is a socially constructed phenomenon, casting certain bodies as “unable” when the social structure itself is unwilling to accommodate bodily diversity. Texts (books, films, televisions, and other items of culture) can disable in the way they present certain bodies, re-affirming societal biases or reinforcing power dynamics. BUT, they can also disrupt these power dynamics. Literature has the power to change the way people think. It can reinforce or change social conditions. Speculative fiction, in particular, can SPECULATE. It can ask questions, encourage its readers to ask questions, and these questions can challenge social notions that are largely unchallenged and taken as unquestioned truths in our society.

Speculative Fiction has the power to present a different world of possibility where ideas about disability can be questioned, where disability is treated as a social issue, not an issue with the bodies of specific individuals. However, this requires a deep awareness of the issues and a desire to see social change on the part of SF authors.

As readers we can ask questions like:

-How is disability presented in this novel?

-Does this portrayal empower people with disabilities or does it disempower them?

-Is disability treated as a convenient plot device or is it a part of a wider narrative?

-Is disability portrayed accurately?

-What questions is the author asking about disability?

-Do I feel like the portrayal of people with disabilities is stereotypical.

Remember, as a reader, you can (and should) pose critical questions about what you read – interrogate it, challenge it, and question it. That is part of the enjoyment of reading and being an engaged reader.

As authors we can ask questions like:

-Have I consulted with the disabled community about this?

-What questions about disability does my work bring attention to?

-Do I construct disability as a “problem body” or as an issue of a society that is unwilling to accommodate bodily diversity?

-Have I made my character with disabilities a complete character or a walking symbol and plot device?

-Does my work challenge stereotypes or does it reinforce them?

-Have I considered how disability would relate to all situations or am I only applying issues of disability when it is convenient to my plot?

-What common tropes about disability do I want to avoid?

One of the most important things to consider is the axiom “Nothing About Us Without Us”. If you are an able-bodied author writing about disability, you should make sure to talk to members of the disability community about your characters. In the same way as you may research ideas of physics for your starships or the history of portrayals of the werewolf for your horror novel, consult with the experts about disability. This is even more important research than physics or mythology because it pertains to real people, and real readers that you may alienate or disempower through your writing.

 

Here are a few common tropes of disability that I observed when reading and watching portrayals of disability in Speculative Fiction novels, comics, movies, and television. I used these to create a disability trope bingo for the panel on disability at Can Con, and I thought I would replicate it here for you to explore:

 

Disability Trope Bingo

Mark your bingo card whenever you see a disability trope appearing on the slide. Feel free to mark multiple spaces if there are multiple categories that apply.

Here are the questions for each of the categories:
B1: My disability is a superpower
B2: “Better dead than disabled”
B3: The magical / technological cure
B4: Other senses magnified to “cope” with “deficit”
B5: Disabled person as inconvenience to others
I1: Disabled person as inspirational
I2: People helping disabled people as heroic
I3: Disability as burden on the social system
I4: Disabled person as perpetual victim
I5: Disabled in Distress (always needing to be saved by the Able-bodied)
N1: Exclusively plot relevant disability that is forgotten at other times
N2: The “Who is at fault for this person being disabled” trope
N3: The token disabled character
N4: Assuming disability means ubiquitously unable
N5: Disability as ugliness
G1: Disability only as contrast with perfection or to highlight the perfection of another character as the opposite
G2: Disability as moral weakness of character or villainy
G3: Assuming every emotional state of the disabled person relates to his/her disability
G4: Character angry at world because of their disability – defined by frustration
G5: “Heroic Disabled” able to “overcome disability”
O1: “Tragically damaged” former hero – often a person who is disabled in an act of heroism and is now unable to accomplish heroic feats
O2: Disability as only a state of mind – the idea that a person can overcome disability with enough willpower
O3: Cursed Disabled – victim of magic
O4: Disabled as mentor for hero
O5: Disability hiding other difference

 

 

 

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Regarding the title of this post, as a disabled person, I am reclaiming (like many scholars of disability and people with disabilities) the term “crip” that has often been used to oppress and disempower people with disabilities.

This is only an initial exploration of the topic of disability in SF and should not be considered complete. It is used here only to open dialogue about disability in SF.

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio for Geek Day Today

Speculating Canada will be on Air at Trent Radio today for their Geek Day events.Trent Radio

You can listen to a discussion between Derek Newman-Stille and Alissa Paxton today at 92.7 FM in the broadcast range or listen online to a broadcast stream at http://www.trentu.ca/org/trentradio/. We will be online at 10:30 AM and will be talking about the role of science fiction as an exploration of scientific ideas, pedagogy and SF, environmentalism and SF, exploring moral grey areas in Canadian SF, giving SF authors voice, and Canadian SF in general.

Here is a list of Geek Day Events:

0800-1000 Transpartune Brit Psyche – Jacob Quinlan
1000-1030 Final Fantasy Music Awards – Scott Cecchin
1030-1100 Speculative Fiction – Derek Newman-StilleAlissa Paxton
1100-1200 Shibuya Style – Matt Jarvis
1200-1300 Young Adult Science Fiction – Jess Grover
1300-1400 On Air Live Text Adventure – Wes Grist
1400-1500 Melinda Snodgrass Interview – James Kerr
1500-1600 Bleep Bloop – Pat Reddick, Jesse Louro
1600-1630 Earthforce – Anthony Gulston
1630-1700 Dictionary Roulette (Oxford Style) – Wes Grist, Shan Culkeen
1700-1730 Computery-Radio – Matt Poppleton
1730-1800 Dispatches from the Mountainhomes – Robert Hailman
1800-1900 ♀ + Scifi (film + TV) – Alissa Paxton
1900-2000 Five As One Against the Mythos – Christopher Challice
2000-2100 Ex Latinate – Katie Adamson
2100-2200 Dramatised “Magic: The Gathering” Duel – Garette Hotte, Wes Grist
2200-Anon Dungeons & Dragons On Air – James Kerr, Bennett Bedoukian, Jess Grover, Jesse Louro, Garett Hotte, and Sable Guttman.

It should be an exciting and fun day.

Interview With Julie Czerneda

An interview with Julie Czerneda
By Derek Newman-Stille

I want to thank Julie Czerneda for being willing to do this interview and for her enthusiasm for these questions. I am truly honoured that she took the time to participate in this interview. Ms. Czerneda’s work was an incredible source of inspiration to a friend and colleague of mine at Trent University, Ellen Bentzen. Julie Czerneda’s incredible ability to be equally comfortable in both the worlds of the sciences and humanities informed a lot of my discussions with Ellen about the interconnectedness of science and humanities discourse and I am hoping that this interview honours Ellen’s memory.

Julie Czerneda is a former biologist and current author of both Science Fiction and Fantasy. She is a prolific author in both genres as well as a prolific editor. Her SF works include works such as the Clan Chronicles, Species Imperative, and Esen and Her Web series

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to start this interview?

Photo of Julie Czerneda map-building by Roger Czerneda.

Photo of Julie Czerneda map-building by Roger Czerneda.

Julie Czerneda: I was born on an air force base, spent my childhood in the Maritimes, then my teens on the shores of Lake Ontario. Met my other half (Roger) at the University of Waterloo, in Calculus class (but didn’t realize it until we were chem partners), married, then went to the Universities of Saskatchewan and Queens to study the evolution of chemical communication in fish. After working for a while at the U. of W. (life can indeed be circular), produced offspring and began writing biology textbooks, in that order. While in the midst of a successful career as an author/editor in educational publishing, someone (Roger) thought I shouldn’t write science fiction as a mere hobby but should actually show someone. Years later, having been introduced to fandom, conventions, and many folks of the Best Sort, my first novel was indeed bought by Sheila Gilbert of DAW Books, and I’ve been doing this for a living ever since. Yes, my life is insanely fun and I’d not change a thing.

Spec Can: You were a biologist before becoming a Science Fiction and Fantasy author full time. What was the transition like? How do you straddle the worlds between academia and fiction authorship?

Julie Czerneda: Thursdays. Seriously. While I still earned my living from non-fiction, I wrote fiction on Thursdays, and only then. I remember loving Thursdays. But that came later, once I was actually trying to finish something to, as mentioned above, show someone.  I also used different desks. Where I worked on physics curricula or designed exams was there. Where I worked on imaginative, go with me or not, story-telling? Way over there. With posters of Godzilla and a subwoofer of unusual size.

From the beginning, to me, biology and science fiction differed in degree, not substance. Biology filled me with wonder and curiosity.  All science does. The universe does. Reading science fiction did that. Writing it? Ah, there was the legal, moral, and fun way to answer my own questions. I was hooked.

Spec Can: In what ways can biology inform Science Fiction and Fantasy? How much do you rely on your repertoire of biological knowledge when you create your fantastic worlds?

Julie Czerneda: Every way and in everything and all the time. Firstly, what I write, the stories I tell, come from what interests me. So there are cool real bits of biology everywhere in my stuff. I couldn’t make up the weirdness of real life. Secondly, I recognize the trust a reader places in me when they pick up one of my stories. They have a right to expect that I’ve done my homework, and what needs to be credible is. (Plus research is something I adore.) Last, and not least, the more I know about something, the more questions I have and the more intense my exploration of that idea will be.  For Species Imperative, I spent five years reviewing biodiversity, salmon research, and the evolution of distinct populations before writing a word. I remain very proud of the result.

Spec Can: What do you enjoy most about doing research for your novels?

Julie Czerneda: Ah, research. It’s like that first cold beer on a hot afternoon. So satisfying yet potentially distracting.

What I enjoy most is learning stuff. Any stuff. Particularly stuff I’d never thought about knowing before, although more about the familiar is fine with me too. Having to do research for a new story? Really? Does anyone think that’s anything but joy?

For my latest book, the fantasy A Turn of Light, I spent wonderful hours and days and months delving into pioneer history, which was new to me. Antique lamps and razors. How to grease a barn door track or  how freshly milled flour feels to the skin. For every piece I set out to learn, there’d be so much more I hadn’t expected. How recent in our history it was to have clean light for work at night. How new a concept to have separate bedrooms. The names of tools and how very old some are.  I’d read letters written two hundred years ago and catch myself nodding with agreement or laughing, for the voice I was hearing in my head could have been that of any of my peers or friends.

The distracting part? Research can seem like progress when, on its own, it’s merely an investment. It’s what you do with it that matters. Once I have enough stuff in my head to feel confident, I focus on the writing and avoid more research unless I need something specific. Case in point, Turn. I was well into the writing when I came to a scene where I needed to put something personal in my character’s hands that would show who he is now but also something of what he’d left behind. Reading what a military kit of the era should contain gave me the essentials. An hour’s pouring over images of antique razors, mirrors, and other personal items provided a sense of the real things. (Plus I dug out my Grandfather’s bristle brush.) I found links to descriptions of hard soaps and small ornate mirrors. The little scene that resulted is one of my favourites and does everything I could have asked, with significant charm.

There’s one small downside. I can’t stop myself from spouting fabulous new facts at supper. The month I studied the history of cod fishing may go down in infamy in our family. They still bring it up. (As they should. It’s fascinating stuff!)

Spec Can: Why do you write speculative fiction? What drew you to it?

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Julie Czerneda: Curiosity. I turn over rocks. I long to see over hills. When I was 10 I read my first SF book (Andre Norton’s Star Ranger, now called The Last Planet) and realized there was fiction that did the same. I was hooked and never stopped.

Spec Can: What experience first told you “I need to be a storyteller”?

Julie Czerneda: Oh that. There was an actual moment. Thinking back, I believe it was late one Saturday afternoon in January. My Dad had bought me the first two Tarzan novels, but only gave me one. I devoured it only to be infuriated by the ending. The weasel of a cousin gets everything! I stormed into the kitchen and complained to my parents, something I’d never done before. Rather than give me the next book, in which all is made right, my Mom, with a perfectly straight face, suggested I use her huge Underwood manual typewriter to “fix it.”

I did.

What Power!!!! I was a storyteller from then on.

Spec Can: Ecologies – flora and fauna – play an important role in your work. What important role can ecological knowledge play in the works of SF authors?

Julie Czerneda: Two, I feel. One is the obvious, that when world-building one should consider the life of a place. The other? Because nothing lives in isolation, an ecological approach gives a writer the opportunity to fit the puzzle together. To have alternative points of view and unintended consequences. All the intricate and messy ways things happen.

Spec Can: A Lot of your work involves meetings between diverse species. What important role do you hope to convey to your audience about cultural diversity and perhaps ecological diversity?

Julie Czerneda: The more the merrier! Or, in the case of living things, the more stable and resilient the community. It’s interactions that interest me. The interface between any two or more creatures is full of change and adaptation and lovely icky bits. In storytelling — and real life — I’d rather toss a problem at a group of people (or whatever I have in mind at the moment) who’ll each have a different approach to a solution, if they see it as a problem at all. That’s the joyful surprise of it all.

I also have no problem letting my love of wild places show. Some writers love food or detailed descriptions of hardware. For me, it’s passages like those in Species Imperative that exist for no reason other than to show how much ours or any world with life risks losing if life itself is endangered. I heartily and passionately include us in there, by the way. I’ve never distinguished between the human fauna and all the rest. We’re part of the living landscape, simply a little too clever for our own good sometimes, but not always. Sometimes, we get it just right.

That was the long answer. The short? Diversity is, to me, a sign of robust health and a source of possibilities, regardless of where I find it.

Spec Can: Can SF and Fantasy have a role in changing people’s thoughts about the environment?

Julie Czerneda: On their own, I doubt it. We pick what we want to read, so someone who reads my stuff, for example, will already be someone firmly a fan of slime. And nature. And messy compromise.

That said, there are always stories that catch a wider audience. The film Avatar was exotic and new to non-science fiction readers (read Andre Norton’s Judgement on Janus for a familiar one), not to mention gorgeously made, so its message had to have an impact.

I don’t write fiction with a message or intent to change anyone’s mind. I do it for the story. If someone nods along to that story, I take it as a sign we’d enjoy each other’s company. What I write is who I am.

Spec Can: What pedagogical role can Science Fiction and Fantasy have to open up new questions about the environment?

Julie Czerneda: I believe, passionately, that science fictional thinking is a crucial survival skill. We all need to ask questions, to speculate about possible consequences in an imaginative, yet as close to real fashion as possible, and to become able to assess incoming  information in a critical, not cynical manner. Imagination is of immense use, too often undervalued. We who live and breath SF rarely appreciate what a strong and active muscle our minds have developed. I’d like everyone to have the same advantage. To ride society’s changes, rather than be swept away. To decide where and how technology best fits our needs, before it’s in our homes.

Another aspect is science as a human activity. There are works of science fiction that do an admirable job of making science accessible, relevant, and, best of all, something people do.  The X-Files drew a host of young women to forensics and other sciences who might otherwise have gone elsewhere. Fringe is another show that comes to mind.

Spec Can: Communication plays an important role in your work. How can SF teach us to communicate better, and – especially – to listen better?

Julie Czerneda: The issues involved in communication between organisms who may not even share the same sensory equipment, let alone intentions, fascinate me. They form the foundation of my Web Shifter series, in fact. Tremendous fun. In this case, I’m using SF to explore and investigate.

As for our own communication? We’re a chatty species. We should chat about the science and technology that matters to us as easily and well as any daily topic, but few do. I’ve had success using science fiction with students to get them “talking science.” SF provides useful vocabulary, presented in context.  Story dialogue gives examples of conversations centred about science as something immediately important to the characters.  With a bit of care to choose age/experience-relevant SF, the playing field levels off. Students who’d otherwise struggle with English become just as passionately outspoken as their peers, and they do it about science.

Spec Can: As an occasional university instructor, I am most interested in how SF can be used in a university environment. Could you share some strategies and ideas with us about SF in higher education?

Julie Czerneda: Interestingly, one of the uses I’ve been involved with has been SF as part of science courses for non-science majors. The emphasis is on science in society, with science fiction basically used to deliver the big science ideas within the context of consequence and change. The desired outcome is to instill a questioning, curious, and aware attitude in these students, rather than a breadth of science knowledge.

I’ve also worked with a professor who, for many years now, has used science fiction as an integral part of his first year astronomy course. Students take what they’ve learned about the science and apply it to alien world-building as an SF writer would do it. I’m proud to say this class has been using Beholder’s Eye (my second novel) as part of this process.

Going back to your earlier question, the University of Wales offers degrees in science fiction and communication, with an enviable employment rate. We need people who can bring science to life, who can clearly express complex ideas in meaningful ways to a varied audience. SF? Does it all the time.

Spec Can: What is the most exciting moment you have experienced where you saw the impact your authorship had on a student’s knowledge and excitement about science?

Julie Czerneda: It’s always exciting, seeing that spark take hold. But the best moments haven’t been exciting. They’ve been powerful. I’ve sat, spellbound, in the midst of kindergarten students so caught up in imagining they lived in a space station that they began to sway as if weightless. I watched a group of noisy grade 8 students grow quieter and quieter as they worked through a science fiction scenario about limited resources, only to burst into tears when they realized that their character would sacrifice herself for her younger brother; my eyes were no drier than theirs. The shared experience. The power of imagination. The swell of emotion no less real for coming from a story. Those are the moments.

Spec Can: What is the importance of imagination and a sense of wonder for our world?

Julie Czerneda: What we can’t imagine, we can’t create, so there’s one. What we can’t imagine, we can’t prepare against or for, so that’s another. Imagination is essential to our survival, as individuals and as a species, and has been for eons. The sad thing is that it can atrophy from lack of use or be stunted by those who’ve lost their own. The best? The more it’s used, the stronger it becomes. I’m a believer.

As for a sense of wonder? That’s how imagination connects in the most positive sense to the world around us. That’s how we know we belong.

Spec Can: What important role can curiosity play in creating a better future?

Julie Czerneda: What technology is to science, I suspect curiosity is to imagination. The hands at work. The application. The impulse to look beyond, because there might be more, turned into the act of looking. That make sense? Curiosity, to me, demands an open yet questioning mind. When you talk to post-adolescents, curiosity sounds like something kids do, but it’s primal and important to all of us. Children are curious in order to investigate and learn. Society has a tendency to assume the curious should become scientists or explorers or artists, but I think everyone should be, in every aspect of life.

None of which answers your question, does it? Questions of privacy and personal space aside, I think we’d be better off for more curiosity in our citizens. Where you see people encouraged to be curious and ask questions for themselves, is where you see improvements being made.

Spec Can: Your work seems to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities. In what way are these disciplinary boundaries artificial? How can we do more to evoke scientific interest in people focused on the humanities and vice versa?

Julie Czerneda: I’m a lumper. When I started university, I did my utmost to combine biology, physics, and geography. (With other stuff.) My schedules blew up with conflicts every term because those were supposed to be separate. Once I accepted that I’d have to stick to biology, not being a Time Lord, I resisted specialization to a ridiculous extent. Everything mattered to me; everything connected.  (And it’s all so amazing …)

I understand the need to compartmentalize in order to focus, but even today, nothing pleases me more than blurring those edges. Nothing, in my opinion, does science a greater favour than the healthy mixing of disciplines. In my non-fiction science writing, I wrote in every science, but it was applying my work within the humanities, describing the people who work in science and the interactions among science and society that stands the test of time (and curriculum changes) best.

It’s about listening and respect, really. Good manners rule. Everyone’s work or field is personally important to them as well as to society. Terms like “soft” or “hard” science were never useful. Yes, there’s rigour and reproducibility, but there should also be room, because any human endeavour is an art, for observation and discourse around what doesn’t lend itself to measurement. The payoff? Synergy.

One of my fondest experiences of that in action was with a group of psychology graduate students. I’d been asked to bring my SF-self to the table, to help them develop testable hypotheses. They knew their field but were having trouble reaching out from it into new ground. What I brought to the discussion was a well-oiled imagination and curiosity, as well as an awareness of experimental design. We had a blast. They developed great ideas and I came away with some of my own.

Spec Can: Your work alternates between Science Fiction and Fantasy and you excel equally in each. Is it tough to alternate between genres? Are these genre categories that separate?

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Julie Czerneda: ::blush:: Thank you.  I enjoy both and yes, tough describes it. But in a good way.

For me, both as an author and editor, they are different and separate. Even as a reader, I look for work that is clearly one or the other as well. Every so often I’ll read something that blends all manner of genres into a great story. Some authors can do that and I’d never suggest they stop. But it’s not an approach I’d find satisfying for myself. There’s too much risk of losing what’s special about each. Let me explain.

I take pleasure and pride in what makes science fiction a speculation about the real world, by asking that one “what if …” then building a story framework that lets me play with an answer, while keeping as much of what we know factual and true to life. I’ve no problem inviting a reader to play along with FTL and aliens, but I won’t mess with anything more and there’s always a science question at the heart of my plot. What if life evolved this way or that? How might biological imperatives affect technological civilizations? Who might we become in the future? What cost is too high or risk too great, when manipulating genetics? I love how science fiction gives me insight into these and any other questions I might have. Imaginative, yes, but in a sense, imagination with gloves on, respectful of what we know. The setting of a science fiction story must be solidly built, its plot and premises credible enough that the ultimate answer presented will be accepted by the reader. That’s when, in my opinion, it works best.

Fantasy, on the other hand, takes those gloves off. It must. Its questions are every bit as important as science fiction’s, but they are no longer about the world outside, but the one within. What makes us tremble in dread or exclaim with joy? Who do we want to be? Who are we now? How far could we rise — or fall?

To examine those sorts of questions, fantasy shakes us from this world, the one we’re so comfortable and sure about, and drops us into one with new rules. Here be dragons. In an science fiction story, explain their presence to me or I’m gone. In a fantasy? Oh, in a fantasy, I’m wide-eyed with wonder and eager to fly too.

Some stories give us clear warning of those new rules. Gates, as in Andre Norton’s Witch World series. Lewis’ wardrobe. Step through and nothing will be the same. Or no warning at all. Preconceptions must be abandoned as the fantasy weaves the strange and different around the willing reader. That interplay is when, to me, fantasy is at its best.

As for what’s tough about working in fantasy as opposed to science fiction? Certainly the editing is pure joy. I’m happy with my personal “this is science fiction/this is fantasy” radar, and have thoroughly enjoyed editing anthologies of one or the other.

The challenge was writing my own. I’ve admired authors who do both well. C.J. Cherryh. Patricia McKillip. For many years I contemplated trying fantasy, because I love reading it, but didn’t see myself as having the skill. To create a wholly new world for readers, a convincing fantasy world, takes a daunting command of language and exceptional writing craft.  To be blunt, I find starships and slime pretty easy. Readers meet me more than halfway, so I just blurt out the ideas as a story and we’re all happy. But an immersive, wondrous fantasy world, where everything has to be created, including the rules? That was a huge undertaking.

Before that point, I had to find out if I could even tell a readable fantasy story. Every so often, rather quietly, I’d write one. For those curious, my first was “’Ware the Sleeper” in 1998, published in Battle Magic edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff. My novella Gossamer Mage: Intended Words came out from Baen’s Universe in 2008. The gloves were definitely off.  (I’ve done a couple of horror stories, not willingly; friends made me. I’m proud of them but that’s not what I am.) A funny aside to my efforts to figure out fantasy: I wrote an okay-I-suppose story called “Peel” for what I thought was an SF anthology. Turned out I hadn’t read the invitation properly and it should have been fantasy. As an experiment (and because I was embarrassed beyond words) I rewrote the story. To my astonishment, as a fantasy it was much better — powerful and dark and second person to boot.  You can read that one in In the Shadow of Evil edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers.

I apologize for being long-winded here, but you’ve struck a chord with this question. You see, my first fantasy novel, A Turn of Light will be released in stores about the time this interview goes up, and writing that book was the most difficult, time-consuming, and terrifying task I’ve ever done, as well as the most rewarding. It’s made me a better writer without doubt, but the numbers behind it appall even me. I wrote the first paragraphs over twenty years ago. I deleted well over 400K words during the writing process. Three years to write, during which I worked daily on it and couldn’t touch anything else. A final word count of epic proportions, but I’d made up my mind at the start to write a complete story. If I was going to commit fantasy, I was going all the way.

Having had some utterly wonderful early feedback about Turn, not to mention it being picked up by the SFBC and Audible.com, has eased some of my anxiety, but not all. Don’t get me wrong, I love this story and believe in it. I’ve put everything I had into it. But at the end of the day, I’m a biologist turned science writer turned science fiction writer. Starships or slime, I’ll stand up to be counted. Fantasy? I enjoy and respect it. Can I write it for others to read?

That’s up to my readers to discover.

Spec Can: What is distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction? Is there anything distinctly Canadian about the worlds and characters you create?

Julie Czerneda: I believe I have the first alien pick-up hockey game. Ties of Power. I wrote it in a rink while watching our offspring play, hence the authenticity of the cold seat. I’ve named starships after our astronauts. In the Company of Others. There’s a distinct possibility that beer occurs at least once in every book I’ve written and I’ve set portions of a trilogy in Canada. Species Imperative.

That said, I have an American publisher, so my words lack “u’s.” (I make a conscious effort to avoid the ones that would bug me, like colour and behaviour, but honour and armour are less easily avoided. I can live with that.) I would like to point out that my American publisher, DAW Books, treats its Canadian authors (we are legion) extremely well and we try to do the same in return. Of course they do well by all their authors, but we Canucks are something of a club and proud of it.

On a more serious note, and “u’s” aside, how could my work be anything but Canadian? for that’s what I am. My stories lack villains. I like resolving incompatible-seeming goals. I value diversity and expect everyone to queue nicely, even if they can’t quite get along or smell funny. Weather’s often an issue. The endings I prefer don’t have winners and losers, but change and accommodation. I’m optimistic, not solely a Canadian trait, but something being Canadian makes me determined to share.

As for Canadian SF?  We have wonderful, imaginative, thoughtful, ground-breaking authors all across this country. If I had them in a room, I’d give them each a beer (or beverage of choice) and force them to wear a pin that says “World-class Talent” for an hour. Of course they’d take it off outside the door. Yes, being Canadian makes it slightly naughty to tell anyone how great we are, but there is a way around it. I sincerely hope we learn to talk more about each other’s great stuff. You there. Reading this. You’re GREAT! Now get back to your own writing.

Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places that you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Julie Czerneda: No to the first bit. My characters are very much my creations and serve the story. I don’t start writing until I know how they would react in any given situation. I’m always aware of the need to convince my readers these “folk” are real and if a character doesn’t fly as he/she/it should, to me that indicates a problem to be fixed.

That said, I love how a story, through its characters and plot, develops momentum and direction once there’s critical mass. The notions my “hindbrain” comes up with when I’m in the shower or about to doze off delight and sometimes surprise me, but I consider that still part of my process.

As for personalities? Oh yes, if I’ve done my work properly, characters develop personalities that resonate for me and hopefully for readers. I adore Esen. I have my Mac moments. I wouldn’t want to face such difficult trials as Aryl or Sira or Aaron  but I assuredly know their natures and trust they can and will face them. Jenn Nalynn, my latest, is different again and I can “hear” her laugh. Such are the end results of the craft, of putting enough into each character that they are believable and, I hope, as admirable/vile/adorable/or annoying as I intended.

What does amaze me is how readers respond to minor characters. I expected the main characters to take hold of a heart or two but not that my walk-ons would have their own fans. These days, I take such great glee in adding details where I know they’ll be appreciated.

Spec Can: What is your favorite mythical creature and how has it inspired you?

Julie Czerneda: “I was never a unicorn or fairy type. Dragons called to me. Power, attitude, age. Those are the ones I like. Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy remains a favourite. The early Pern novels. There’s a YA I remember very fondly from long ago and have tried to find again, about an injured dragon whose wing is darned with spider silk. If anyone can tell me the title/author, I’d appreciate that. I’ve waited until my latest novel to put forth my own version. Ironically, though I once daydreamed about having dragons on one of my book covers, I produced a dragon who couldn’t be.

Spec Can: What current projects are you working on?

Julie Czerneda: If I could write more than one book at a time, I’ve readers who’d be happy. I’ve six novels contracted with DAW at the moment: the concluding trilogy of THE CLAN CHRONICLES, another Esen story (yay!), a new standalone fantasy, The Gossamer Mage, and, much to my delight, a sequel to Turn called A Play of Shadow which I truly hope won’t take as long to write. It shouldn’t. I’ve some confidence now about that fantasy stuff.

I’m also making notes for some other projects. I’ve questions, you see.

Spec Can: Are there any other ideas or thoughts that you would be interested in sharing with your readers?

Julie Czerneda: Whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, or answering thoughtful and thorough questions such as these, what you read is me. Give A Turn of Light a try, even if you’re unsure about fantasy. I hope, if you do enjoy the story, that you’ll read the acknowledgments at the back of the book as well, for DAW’s given me several pages to talk about this book, my journey through it, and to thank the very many people I owe.

Now? It’s time for a new story to come to life in your hands, dear readers, and for me to settle back and create the next.

Hmmm. Where was I? Right … Winter stretched its icy fingers across Marrowdell in the early hours before dawn, crisping leaves and polishing the commons pond with a skin of ice. It breathed traces of snow over the crags and into crevices, snow that, like rain, avoided the Bone Hills altogether. It sighed at the rising sun and retreated, for now, leaving the air sparkling with frost.

What can I say? I’m Canadian.

I want to thank Julie Czerneda for doing this interview and sharing her incredible insights with Speculating Canada. I am hoping that her insights about the environment and ecology as well as the importance of a good imagination will help us to speculate a new and better world for tomorrow.

To read more about Julie Czerneda’s work, please visit her website at http://www.czerneda.com . Her website also includes sources on teaching the sciences through SF, so if you are a teacher, there are incredible resources that you can bring into your classroom.

Interview with Jerome Stueart

An interview with Jerome Stueart by Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

There is nothing quite as fantastic as an interview that begins by thanking reviewers! It was truely a pleasure to talk to Jerome Stueart and I hope that all of you enjoy his insights as much as I did. I will let him introduce himself to you.

Spec Can: To begin this interview, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Jerome Stueart:  Sure, Derek.  First, thanks for interviewing me, and taking an interest in my work.  Reviewers mean the world to writers!

I’m the son of a Texas Baptist preacher who grew up in a lot of small towns in the Midwest and Southwest US.  My mom read me and my brother and sister myths, fairy tales, and the Chronicles of Narnia in our hallway between our bedrooms.  I grew up loving Bradbury, Clarke, King, and Piers Anthony, and studying animals and science.  I took a left turn away from science and into writing when I was a junior in the smallest high school in Texas because a teacher said she would mentor me.  (Teachers make a difference).  I went to college for literature and writing, attended Clarion in 2007 in San Diego, and then immigrated to the Yukon to write about science research here.  Stayed because the people were awesome.  I started out an English and Writing teacher, and became a marketer for an arts centre.

Spec Can: As an author from the Yukon, do you find that the environment of the Yukon influences your SF writing?

Jerome Stueart:  You can’t help but see the Yukon’s exotic environment—light all day in the summer, darkness in the winter, extreme temps, strange wildlife, and a plethora of scientist all trying to find treasure up here. Geoscientists after marketable minerals; biologists after wilderness preservation.  Passions run high here.  I think I was surprised at how much my relationships, and the way the Yukon changes people quickly have both found their way into my writing.  As I was working on my immigration in Texas, after having visited the Yukon for three years, I was yearning to come back to the Yukon—and now I find I have a lot of characters outside the Yukon yearning to get back in.

Spec Can: What is the SF community like in the Yukon? Has it been easy to create a community of authors and SF aficionados?

Jerome Stueart: There’s a healthy readership up here for scifi and fantasy, and there are several writers too—about 8 or 9.  We formed a small group of SF/Fantasy writing adults, and then I started teaching a small group of high school students, and they stayed together for four years.  Two of them are part of our adult group now.  It’s not been easy to form the groups—as the Yukon is a very busy place, and writing is sometimes a very solitary profession—but we get together as often as we can.

Spec Can: Your short story One Nation Under Gods (from Tesseracts 14) speaks to your birthplace in the United States. What was the inspiration for this short story?

Cover photo of Tesseracts 14 courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Cover photo of Tesseracts 14 courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Jerome Stueart:  My stories tend to be a hodgepodge of different things.  Jeff VanderMeer at Clarion gave us an exercise that sparked the idea of imagining an alternate world.  The young boy’s voice came out of that exercise.  Two questions helped developed the story while I was at Clarion.  I remembered some teen asked me while I was subbing a high school class, “Why do I need to know about history?”—hehe.  Trying to convince her why history was important wasn’t easy.  I found the answers too pat.  The other question that helped develop the story was a question that many religious faiths grapple with: Why can’t God be more real?  And what would that mean if we could actually see and touch our gods?  My relationship with my younger sister and her dyslexia formed the emotional core of the story, and my feelings against a one-style fits all teaching method that favors memorization.  I watched her struggle with a feeling of inadequacy because school didn’t “find” where she was brilliant.

Spec Can: One Nation Under Gods has a lot to say about the education system and its focus on memorization instead of developing a good questioning mindset. What could help to improve the education system? How important is speculation and the question ‘why’ to a healthy education system?

Jerome Stueart: It’s funny—I became a teacher—writing and literature—so I found myself having to deal with both sides of the issue.  I had students who were not going to learn in the classic memorization way. I made my classes entertaining and engaging.  But I still had to have standards of learning—and that’s where it broke down.

Everyone’s concerned with their grades.  Students determine what they need to do to balance their lives and get just the grades they need to pass—or to get scholarships.  It’s hard to generate an interest or love of reading if you are worried about your future.  When it’s your Beowulf or their biology exam, biology wins.

Now, with the American government grading schools, schools have the same mindset.  Schools want to pass—so out goes anything that’s not going to help them pass.  Students are even more focused in high school on memorization to pass state exams to help the school out.  We’ve turned schools into manufacturing plants with a QC officer standing at the door of the school waiting to lock it up if the “plant” doesn’t produce good enough product.

Society doesn’t back up any need to think as teachers might want their students to.  Society wants skilled workers and consumers, not skilled thinkers and changers.  We are a consumer culture.  The most important day is not Election Day, but Black Friday.

Colleges have begun enhancing only programs that are funded by big business, and charging students a lot of money for tuition.  [My student loans are crushing.] We’ve become training facilities for those businesses.  Who’s gonna directly fund liberal arts courses—or provide jobs for thinkers?  Imaginative students?  We need them, but we don’t know where to put them in society.  And burdening students with debt in college means that they only go into practical professions afterwards.

I think the current problems with getting the world to understand climate change is directly related to an inability to speculate—or see the future from the evidence you have.  Society has equipped scientists to extrapolate from their research, but we don’t take their recommendations because we don’t trust science anymore, or intelligence.  Unless the majority of the population respects knowledge, has a healthy speculative mind, they can’t see consequences.

I think this contributes to a rise in crime, a rise in mindless consent to whoever speaks the loudest, a rise in selfish individualism (rather than community), and a rise in a consumer culture.

Spec Can: What can speculative fiction do to help readers to question things and advocate for change?

Jerome Stueart:   Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale societal consequences.  I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.  Silent Spring is a “speculative novel” written as nonfiction by Rachel Carson with such an apocalyptic vision of the dangers of DDT and other chemicals we were putting on crops and in the air—with real evidence– that it scared people into regulation.  Carson used speculative tools to give reason to turn the boat around.

Unfortunately, speculation in the wrong hands can just be fear-mongering.  Recent commercials against Obama speculated a world four years from now full of apocalypse!  Without any evidence.  It was cheap scare tactics, but they worked on some people who couldn’t extrapolate from evidence, or who couldn’t question the premises or the evidence.  I saw that in both political parties.  If we don’t “produce” thinking minds—in every place in society—fear mongering will work, evidence won’t count.  That scares me.

Climate Change has to find a way to alert people to change without becoming alarmist—but we have a society less-inclined to think for themselves now, and less-inclined to value knowledge and preventative measures.  We’re all about reacting now.  We’re all about consuming.  We’re living like it’s the last days on Earth and we want our feast.  Anyone who says we have to “cut back” which is the message of climate change—restraint—is taking away “our fun.”  We are such a Mine Culture, not a Mind Culture.  We may live together, but we don’t think together.

I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom starting with Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change series, Science in the Capital—or his Three Californias. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like.  What do they WANT society to be like?  And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us?  Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely.

Spec Can: In One Nation Under Gods you propose images of what American gods would be like if the United States were pantheistic. What gods would Canada have?

Jerome Stueart:   Haha.  I’m not going to tell you that!  I really do want to do a sequel in Canada.  But I’ll tell you this much—as an American living in Canada—it seems that Canadians think of themselves more regionally than Americans do.  With larger “states”/provinces and territories, there’s more a chance for people to think regionally: Maritimers think of themselves very differently than Ontarians or Albertans, and I think their gods would have to reflect that.  I think Canadian gods, too, would have less power over their people than what I’ve set up for the US.  My point with One Nation is to say that the US has given too much power to their gods.  I still treat the States as a “great experiment”, though, so the gods there did something very different than any other country’s gods.

Spec Can: Your story Lemmings in the Third Year (from Tesseracts Nine) deals with a group of researchers who are able to speak to animals – almost combining the fields of biology and anthropology. How would giving animals voice change the role of science and particularly the way biology sees the world?

Jerome Stueart:  Wow.  In the same way any culture changes outside perception of that culture when they start having their own “voice.”  I did take a very anthropological angle with that story to explore how closely related those two sciences are—one is missing the voice.  Anthropology realized that at the turn of the last century when they realized that the indigenous people—all over the world—had rights and had voices and couldn’t just be curiosities to be reported on.  We’re only just starting, too, to accept those indigenous ideas and ways of seeing as just as valid as Western ideas of civilization, and we have a long to go before they are seen as equally valid ways of life.

Animal communication is being studied right now to determine what animals are communicating to each other.  But I would think that biology would be turned on its head if animals ever started really talking.  Apes using signs and symbol keyboards are just a first step—and really they can only communicate about their lab environment, not their philosophy of the jungle.  But if we had insight into what animals are thinking about their environment—well, we’d have to start granting their wishes, thinking of their rights, their opinions, about the encroachment of humankind.  Sometimes I wish the animals would speak to say “you can do so much to prevent some of the consequences of climate change.”

But, to paraphrase what God said to the rich man who wanted to go back and warn his brothers of the coming doom, “If I sent a talking polar bear to you to warn you, you still wouldn’t listen.”

Spec Can: You have a passion and interest in the voice of animals in Speculative Fiction. What important things can animals in SF give voice to?

Jerome Stueart:  My real interest in animals in fiction is asking how we’re using them in speculative fiction.  Often times, I see authors going to animals to use them a bit as puppets to be the “truth” the author has.  Putting it in an animal gives the author innocence and credibility, because there’s no sin in animals, no nuance.  Their representation, as far as I can tell—and I’ve read a lot of talking animals in fiction—doesn’t have the character nuance that humans do, or the baggage.  So they can get away with being wiser than the rest of us: ala Ishmael (via Daniel Quinn) or all of Rudyard Kipling’s animals (who are characterized more by their species than their particular character) or even Rafi Zabor’s Bear in The Bear Comes Home [which is the author in disguise and is a character more pure than the others in the novel].  More interesting characterizations are being done by Jonathan Lethem in his novel, Gun with Occasional Music, where he gives his animal characters the chance to make life choices with consequences.  Joey, the Kangaroo in the Mafia, I think, is a brilliant character.  Others have thought about dogs having their own culture.

I don’t think that animals should just give voice to “our wisdom” and become Animal Masks for us the author.  We can’t hope readers will take our wisdom better from a non-human.  We make them all into Shamans, and I don’t think that’s as interesting.

Instead, I look forward to more nuanced character in the animals you see in SF—animals with choices, pasts, agendas, and cultures that are wildly different than our own, languages and ways of seeing that are entirely new.  I think they might be able to give us insight into a world of animals, so we can live like weasels as Annie Dillard talks about in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  They have the possibility of teaching us how to live more in harmony with the environment—or not.  An overpopulation of any animal is bad for the environment.  Check out the overpopulation of deer and elk in Yellowstone.  So our being able to live in harmony may have more to do with our numbers than the way we treat it.  Still, I think we’re smart animals.  We can figure this out.

I do think we’ll always be fascinated by the mystery of animals speaking to us—because it’s the closest we get to something alien and new, and, in our minds, divine.

Spec Can: Speculative Fiction is often described as the “literature of change”. What important questions around transformation can SF raise for readers?

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Jerome Stueart:  I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable.  We get in our ruts.  If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it.  LOL.  But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.

The danger of SF, though, is that it inherently likes NOT so positive paths.  They present more of what readers desire: conflict, danger, suspense.  So we get much more apocalyptic SF which shows us what NOT to do, but rarely shows us HOW to get to the change.

The challenge for SF writers is to imagine us a path to get to the change and show it as a positive one.  And that I think is the most fun.  Star Trek cheated a bit by shooting so far in the future that all those things like poverty, greed, violence, were all gone by the 24th century.  We’ve been spending the last 45 years trying to figure out how Gene thought that might happen!  But at least it modeled diversity for us.  I recall Nichelle Nichols’ wonderful story of her encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. just before she was about to quit the show.  He encourages her to stay on because he too believes that SF is the literature of change.  He saw her presence on the bridge as a model for behavior and hope for a positive future beyond Race.  So in this way, SF is a model for change—it models good behavior, even if it doesn’t have all the answers.

Spec Can: What do you see as a distinctive feature of Canadian SF? Has your work changed in a Canadian context?

Jerome Stueart:    I think Canadian SF is darker and more experimental than mainstream American SF.  I think the publishing industry allows for more kinds of individual author development—we have smaller publishers with greater weight in Canada.  In the States, where every microgenre gets codified and calcified, I see a lot more of the same stuff coming out for consumers.  I see a lot more undefinable genre in Canadian SF.  A freedom because, partly, there’s not a lot of fame on the table, but also because there’s a desire to create a Canadian SF.  It looks like we’re nowhere near nailing a specific kind of SF, though, more inviting people to play.  Look at Evolve from Edge—the SF future of vampires; look at anything Chizine is doing, which is so out there!  It massacres genre-expectations.  It also gives authors so much freedom.

Canada has the opportunity to show what the future of Canada will be through SF, and use our regional identities as a way to forge a truly unique version of Canadian SF.

Spec Can: Your short story How Magnificent is the Universal Donor (from Evolve) features an LGBTQ2or queer-oriented protagonist. Could you talk a bit about the representation of LGBTQ2 characters in SF?

Jerome Stueart:  Right now, there’s not a lot of queer characters in mainstream SF, and that’s sad.  Writing about gay characters seem to relegate your fiction to only specialty bookstores and markets.  I can see some of the reason why: When the LGBT community is looking at a permanent minority (at 10%), a marketer/publisher looks at this and says, wow, if gay characters are the main, or only, characters, then we have a small audience.   Therefore, heterosexual main characters would “appeal” to more people—it’s “straight marketing math”.  Even when a gay male main character is going to have a gay male love interest, you can’t even get half the LGBT community to read it—no female interest, or vice versa.  I don’t read any lesbian SF.   But I do read SF that happens to have lesbian characters in it if it’s good story.  I don’t read for the LGBT.  I read for the plot and interesting characters.

So there’s no reason to NOT write gay characters.  If the plot is more than a romance novel, queer characters are just as valid and interesting for their choices, their agendas, their characters beyond their sexuality.

I grew up with strong male and female characters, and I identified with the men as men, and with the women emotionally, perhaps, and certainly on who they were in love with, so I found multiple ways of enjoying SF.  But then I didn’t know I was gay till much, much later in life (lots of religious reasons why gay feelings go unrecognized).

But as I write now, I want to include more queer characters because if I’d had more of those characters present in literature I might have a) figured out who I was earlier, and b) found more role models in the literature I read.  I write for me, and hope that having positive queer role models for younger queer men helps them too.  The models of queer SF protagonists: Samual Delany, David Gerrold and Geoff Ryman—I want to read more of their work.

However, mainstream SF publishers and some editors are still not comfortable with queer characters.  Star Trek, which I love, and would love to one day write for, needs queer characters, instead of relegating them to the Mirror Universe where every body is omnisexual and perverse.  TV and movies still haven’t caught up, and that’s a shame.  Granted, I still find strong male characters in SF, and those traits are universal for me.

I thank JK Rowling for giving us Dumbledore, a flawed, beautiful man that kids will hopefully be able to identify with whether they are straight or gay.

I’m working on stories with gay and straight characters right now, so, hey, I’ll do my part!

Spec Can: How Magnificent is the Universal Donor deals with the conflict of medical technology and the mixed blessing/danger of the medical world, particularly focusing on ideas of medical control of the body. What are some of the things SF can do to raise questions about the use of medical technologies, the medicalised treatment of the body and the health-crisis fear that is repeatedly raised by medical professionals?

Jerome Stueart:  More stories and novels that take the medical profession to task.  Not create a fear, but certainly raise a concern.  I wrote How Magnificent after the Flu scare and what I noticed was that getting a flu shot was starting to be cast in a moral argument—you had a duty to others to get the shot.  You were putting lives at risk.  That’s when I said—that’s too far.  1) if YOU get the flu shot, me getting the flu isn’t going to affect you, and 2) it’s my body.  I get to decide what goes in it.  And guilt only makes the medical establishment sound like the Church.

We also need to see alternate medical technologies and treatments.  Love to see more SF explore the medical treatment of terminal illness and of the way our society can’t look at death.  Saw a beautiful documentary on the last rites/rights, palliative care requested by terminally ill patients.  SF is the kind of literature that can tackle a societal issue.

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that realist fiction can’t?

Jerome Stueart:  Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens.  SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems.  Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society.  It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.

But again, it also has a chance to be more society-scaled prescriptive—and model societal behavior and model change that realistic fiction can’t.  SF is the quantum reality of realistic fiction.  While realistic fiction might concentrate on individuals and their changes, SF goes wide to take the choices and changes of a large group.

Spec Can: What projects are you currently working on?

Jerome Stueart:  I’m finishing up a novella about a gay park ranger working at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site and trying to pick up tips on how to live right from Teddy Roosevelt.  I’m turning One Nation into a novel, which is darn hard.  I’m also working on other SF and fantasy short stories, trying to get some things finished by Christmas.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add to our interview?

Jerome Stueart:  The importance of reviewers cannot be overstated.  With the amount of novels and short fiction out there, just having one review increases your chances of being read, and that’s very important.  Thank you for reviewing authors, especially short fiction, and taking the time to come up with good interview questions too!

I want to thank Jerome Stueart for this fantastic interview and all of his brilliant insights, and, selfishly, for his comments about reviewers – thanks Jerome!!

You can explore Jerome’s website at http://jeromestueart.com/ to find out more about his current projects and where to find his novels and short stories.