Sexy Shiftings and Stirrings

A review of Greg Bechtel’s “The Smut Story (III)” in Boundary Problems (Freehand Books, 2014)

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

By Derek Newman-Stille

We are made up of stories. We are created from sex. In “The Smut Story (III)” Greg Bechtel interweaves the sexual with notions of the construction of self through narrative. After an erotica reading series at a bookstore on Mother’s Day, the media is driven wild with interest in a situation that seems to defy explanation. It has all of the earmarks of a good media story – sex, scandal, confusion, and hype from right wing pundits…. the only problem is that none of the narratives about the events from this particular night align.

Tales of the night are slippery (and not just with lube). Each participant describes a person named T. Boop differently – man, woman, trans, androgynous… but all agree that T. Boop is the most beautiful person they have ever seen. His/Her/Their appearance shifts depending on the teller, and the story T. Boop tells changes with the re-telling.  The story told is intensely sexual, and incredibly personal to the listener. Starting in the second person, each reader hears a story that speaks directly to them, evoking their deepest sexual fantasies… even ones they don’t care to admit to themselves or others. The stories and T. Boop’s appearance shift with the sexual preferences of the listener, slide with the performance of erotica.

This narrative and identity slippage points to the power of stories to shift in the act of perception, to become more than a single narrative, a unitary utterance.

Bechtel illustrates the power of the re-telling of fantasies to draw the listener in, constitute them, but also to challenge them, particularly those who fear the revelation of their sexual fantasies, the desires that they hide from themselves and others.

Character Peter Smith launches a media campaign against the events of that Mother’s Day and the sexual excesses he believes occurred (because he likely participated in them). His retreat into hate doctrine and intolerance comes from his insecurity about the slippage that occurs when he confronts something about his own psycho-sexual identity.

Bechtel draws gender categories into his work, using the body of T. Boop to illustrate the permeability of sexual identities, the ability for narrative and individuality to challenge traditional assumptions about gender binaries, and the perception that sexualities are fixed and unchanging. T. Boop evokes the power of a shifting voice, literally because each audience member hears a different tone, and socially because each telling of a singular story is different, shifting with the diverse perceptions, the different ears, of the audience. Narratives shift because each sexual telling is both intensely personal and private, but also collective and public since sexuality is something that is socially created and shaped by social mores. This slippery story is one that invites the reader to play with notions of gendered identities, question the social messages that have been projected upon our society, and challenge any identity of fixity.

To discover more about the work of Greg Bechtel, visit his website at http://gregbechtel.ca/ .

To read more about Boundary Problems, visit Freehand Books at http://www.freehand-books.com/authors/greg-bechtel

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Interview with Anna Frost

An interview with Anna Frost

Author image of Anna Frost.  Anna Notes: "This was taken in Nara, Japan, in 2008. Nara is a popular destination because of its numerous temples and its tame sika deer. They close in rather quickly when they figure out you’ve got deer crackers in hand! "

Author image of Anna Frost.
Anna Notes: “This was taken in Nara, Japan, in 2008. Nara is a popular destination because of its numerous temples and its tame sika deer. They close in rather quickly when they figure out you’ve got deer crackers in hand! “

By Derek Newman-Stille

Anna Frost is the author of The Fox’s Mask and The Fox’s Quest, both fantasy novels that are set in ancient Japan and feature Japanese mythical beings. As a Teen Fiction (YA) author, she pushes genre boundaries and brings in characters that question norms.

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

Anna Frost: I’m a French-Canadian girl with hermit tendencies and a fondness for World of Warcraft player vs player fights. My house is full of chinchillas and ferrets and therefore impossible to keep clean for longer than five minutes.

Spec Can: What inspired you to set your novel The Fox’s Mask, in Ancient Japan?

Anna Frost: I’ve been reading manga (Japanese graphic novels) and watching anime (Japanese animation) since high school. Add in a few years of Japanese language classes, a month-long trip to Japan, and a fascination with Japanese fox shifters (kitsune). That kind of prolonged exposure was bound to influence the ideas that pop out of my head.

Spec Can: Why do you think so many authors set their fantasy novels in a world that is reminiscent of the Western Middle Ages instead of places like Japan? Why do they seem disinclined to explore Japan as a site of fantasy?

Anna Frost: I think people are inclined to write what they know, or at least start there. Because North American writers have a general cultural awareness of what the Middle Ages were like, it’s a logical starting point for world building. It takes effort to use a different culture as the base and even more efforts to spin out a story that is respectful of the model culture. People may also be afraid they’ll make offensive mistakes. It’s certainly something I worry about, but I think it’s better to try and fail than not bother trying.

Spec Can: What fascinates you most about Japanese myth?

Anna Frost: Generally speaking, I love how different their mythology is. My favorite example is the contrast between the Japanese fox shifter and the European werewolf. The mythical werewolf has no depth: it’s a terrifying man-eating beast. The fox shifter, however, is not so limited. It can be malicious in its tricks, but it can also be benevolent. It can even be portrayed as a seducer of men.

Spec Can: What were some of the issues that came up as a non-Japanese Canadian writing about Japanese subject matter?

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

Anna Frost: It’s frequent for me to have to do extra research to understand certain aspects or details of Japanese culture. Everything related to religion is especially tough, because not only do I lack any sort of personal experience with Buddhism and Shintoism, the way these two religions coexist in Japan seems unique. Today the Japanese do not seem to consider them separate at all. I’ll spare you the historical reasons for it, but it’s both extremely interesting and difficult for an outsider to grasp and portray properly.

Spec Can: What inspired you to make your kitsune characters capable of transsexual transformations?

Anna Frost: That part comes straight from Japanese mythology. A male fox can turn into a human woman as well as a female one can. It’s one big reason why I find the kitsune legends fascinating. 

Spec Can: When I was a teen, LGBTQ2 books were non-existent for teens. How is that changing now? Do you see there being more LGBTQ2 books for teens in the future?

Anna Frost: Author Malinda Lo recently compiled a graph that indicates that if you put all the main publishing houses together, LGBTQ books currently represent less than 1% of new YA books coming out every year. I’m sure this number will grow as society continues to shift in favor of equal rights.

Spec Can: Fantasy books tend to still be pretty heterosexist. What are some ways that authors can “queer” their fantasy books a bit more? How can authors bring more LGBTQ2 content into their novels and what are some of the challenges they may encounter?

Anna Frost: That’s a tough question because it would never occur to me NOT to have LGBTQ characters in my work. It’s simply part of my worldview. The best advice I can give is this: do your research, avoid stereotypes, and always remember that LGBTQ characters are no less human and complex than anybody else. They need motivations and goals unrelated to their sex life. My favorite fantasy books are the ones where being gay is roughly as strange as preferring white chocolate over milk/dark chocolate.

Spec Can: What are some of the things you hope your novels will do to inspire readers?

Anna Frost: I don’t have lofty aspirations. If the reader is entertained, I’m happy. If the reader has also learned something or been spurred to find out more about Japan, I’m extremely happy.

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

Cover photo courtesy of Anna Frost

Cover photo courtesy of Anna Frost

Anna Frost: I’d like to mention that Masque Books, a brand new imprint from Prime Books, will be publishing a new project of mine in the fall. I would call it a Japanese steampunk fantasy with a genderqueer main character. It’s got samurai on airships, giant sea serpents in the water, and steam mechas on the battlefield. The name is pending, but I’m sure it’ll be a fun one.

I want to thank Anna Frost for this fantastic interview and I encourage you to check out her novels at http://musapublishing.com/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=180 . I am pleased that she was willing to share so many insights and was willing to talk about how easy it is to include LGBTQ2 characters without those characters being entirely and exclusively defined by their sexuality.

TRANSformations

A review of Anna Frost’s The Fox’s Mask (Musa Publishing, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

It is refreshing to see a fantasy book that is set in Imperial Japan. So often, fantasy series are based on a Western Medieval archetype, inferring that this is the only forum for sword and sorcery. Anna Frost, although not Japanese herself, explores the imagery and richness of Japanese culture as a framework for her novel The Fox’s Mask. Populating her novel with Kitsune (fox spirits), healing spirits from springs, demons possessing humans, and dragons, it is clear why she chose an ancient Japanese setting for her fantasy series because it is so rich with mythical material for her to incorporate into this narrative. The framework of Shintoism works so well for explorations of the fantastic, having a general comfort with the notion that the natural world is populated not just with recognised animals, but also with a range of spiritual beings and manifestations.

Frost’s novel explores the relationship between duty and love (whether that be of a job or of a person), the social obligations that try to push people to accept familial responsibility over their own needs. Akakiba is a kitsune, able to transform from human form to fox form. He is a samurai, interested in protecting humanity from demons who would do them harm. He loves his job, and tolerates the humanity that he serves to protect… yet, his world is shaken when he is forced to take on a human apprentice, Yuki. Despite sharing years with his apprentice, he keeps secrets from him about his past, his family, and his kitsune nature. Despite his family wanting him to hold his first duty to them, he sees his primary duty as the protection of humanity, honouring his relationship to Yuki, and living the samurai lifestyle.

Yet, his choices have consequences. By not choosing to settle down and have a family of his own, he risks his clan, a people that are facing extinction as their numbers dwindle. Not only the foxes, but all spirits and otherworldly beings are beginning to dwindle, gradually disappearing from the world. The world is changing and Akakiba is faced with the notion that he may be contributing to that change by not taking a mate.

The Fox’s Mask is further enthralling because of its willingness to feature LGBT or queer characters. Characters are accepted in a large number of different relationships and love is not limited to heterosexual relationships. Because the foxes are able to change shape between human and fox and change sex between male and female, they are comfortable with ambiguities of gender and sex. They aren’t stuck in the human notion that one’s born gender defines them, or that one must chose to only enter into a sexual relationship with the opposite sex… the only challenge is that they try to encourage their members to enter into relationships with the opposite sex to ensure that there are children born and that the dwindling population continues. Anna Frost’s engagement with queer subject material is complex, not allowing easy relationships, but instead inviting the reader to engage in the complexity of issues that arise from a past society that is different from our own (both because of the past setting and the fact that they are foxes).

To find out more about The Fox’s Mask, visit Musa’s website at http://musapublishing.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=400

An Interview with James Alan Gardner

An Interview with James Alan Gardner
By Derek Newman-Stille

I have been very lucky to get in touch with James Alan Gardner. As a disability scholar and someone who is interested in portrayals in Science Fiction of people who are Othered, I was extremely pleased that Mr. Gardner agreed to do an interview with me. I hope that readers enjoy our conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it. 

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

James Alan Gardner: I grew up in small-town Ontario, then went to the University of Waterloo to take math. Eventually I got my B.Math and M.Math in Applied Math, writing my master’s thesis on black holes. Just recently, I’ve gone back to UW part-time to study Earth Sciences. In my spare time, I meditate and do kung fu.

Spec Can: What role can Science Fiction have to push boundaries and help people to question the status quo?

James Alan Gardner: Science Fiction is always based on the question, “What would happen if things were different?” The differences can be technological, sociological, or even historical as in alternate history stories, but one way or another, SF deals with worlds that are not exactly like our own. The whole premise of SF is that the status quo is impermanent: it hasn’t always been what it is today, and it won’t be the same in future.

Spec Can: Your novels set in the League of Peoples universe question a lot of the traditions of human society and presents a future that both defies current assumptions about what is “normal” as well as presenting future worlds that continue with our assumptions. What interested you in questioning ideas of “normal” and traditions?

James Alan Gardner: I’m a straight white middle-class male, so the world has never hassled me about “normality”. Maybe that puts me in too privileged a position to say this, but I’ve never understood the concern about what is and isn’t normal. I meet people who are afraid that they’re weird or who brag about being weird, and my reaction is, “Who cares?” (Well, usually, my first reaction is, “You have no idea what weird really is.” Caring about weirdness is pretty darned mainstream.)

So I never deliberately set out to confront tradition or normality. Stuff like that just never occurs to me. Instead, I ask, “What would be interesting? What wouldn’t be cliché?” That may take me to non-traditional places, but not in the spirit of questioning tradition or addressing it at all. It’s just more interesting to do something that hasn’t been done to death.

For example, the whole idea of the League of Peoples comes out of a desire not to do warring interstellar societies. War in space is so old hat. How could I do space adventure stories without war? So I invented a universe where interstellar war was absolutely impossible. Then I followed all the implications to see what would happen.

Spec Can: As a disability scholar, I was fascinated by your novel Expendable and the concept of a universe in the future where people who are disabled or disfigured are treated as an expendable class because they are considered less aesthetically appealing. What inspired this novel? What are some of the issues around appearance and the body that you were hoping to attract attention to?Expendable

James Alan Gardner: For any Star Trek fan, it’s obvious that Expendable was inspired by the redshirts: the characters who got killed instead of the show’s stars. One night, I was writing impromptu—just improvising to see what came up—and Festina’s voice erupted with the first ten pages of the novel, pretty much exactly as they appear in the finished book. I had no prior ideas for any of that material; I don’t know why it was sitting in my subconscious. But once it was on the page, I had to deal with it and make a story around it.

A lot of what eventually appeared in Expendable was informed by issues of privilege. Except for the Explorer Corps, everyone else in the Technocracy navy is shallow and pampered. Later on in the series, I let the “pretty people” have more depth—they’re human, so they have their private pains, despite being born “lucky”—but Expendable was filtered through the eyes of Festina Ramos, and at that time, Festina had a huge chip on her shoulder.

Recently, John Scalzi has come up with a great way of expressing something I was talking about in Expendable. Scalzi said that being a straight white (non-disabled) male is like playing video games on the easiest setting. It’s not that life is problem-free, but that the bar you have to clear is lower. An ongoing issue in the League of Peoples stories is that Explorers are better prepared to deal with the unknown because they’ve faced more adversity than most of the other people in their time.

Spec Can: Commitment Hour presents people who change sex every year until they reach the age of 21. What was it like to conceive of an annual shift in sex for your characters? How did this question the rigidity of gender roles and gendered identities for you?

James Alan Gardner: I really like the alternating-sex set-up of Commitment Hour, but in retrospect I don’t think I used it as well as I could have.

The action was narrated by a character named Fullin who was male during the action of the novel, but who had occasional flashbacks to years when he was female. For the purpose of the story, Fullin’s culture had to differentiate between male and female gender roles—otherwise, there’s no drama when characters have to choose one sex over the other. So male Fullin had to have a different identity than female Fullin. But I went too far in making male Fullin a full-out sexist. If I could do the book over, I’d make Fullin’s male and female personalities different in some other way. That would have allowed me to address issues of gender with more nuance.

I might note that this highlights an important point about writing: the restrictions imposed by your viewpoint character. Writers aren’t 100% confined by the character’s viewpoint—there are tricks you can use to sneak past the character’s limitations—but you can only go so far. Every character is a collection of blind-spots, and that stops them from being able to tell certain types of stories.

Spec Can: In Vigilant, you examine what a society would be like where polygamous (group) marriages are traditional. What fascinated you with the idea of questioning the assumption that all relationships should be monogamous?

James Alan Gardner: I went into Vigilant wanting to write about a democracy. Too often, SF shows future societies that are monarchies or oligarchies; I wanted to write about a real democracy with institutions designed to keep it working well. This led to an interest in the relationship of individuals to groups…so it was a short step to making group marriage the standard family form. It’s more social, less claustrophobic.

The group marriage also gave the narrator Faye a social connection—she’s not a loner, like so many SF protagonists—while giving her more rope to play with, sexually. There are things she does in the novel which would be objectionable in a normal two-person marriage, but which are less so in a loose group marriage.

Spec Can: What is something that you hope that readers will take away from reading your novels?

James Alan Gardner: I hope my readers enjoy spending time with the characters. I also hope I’ve given people things to think about that they haven’t seen before. Finally, I hope that readers have had a few laughs; comedy matters a lot to me.

Spec Can: As an educator as well as science fiction author, in what ways do you see SF as being something that can be pedagogical?

James Alan Gardner: Science fiction and fantasy can deal with the world being changed to an extent that doesn’t happen in other branches of literature. I don’t just mean depicting different kinds of worlds; I mean the process of people actually changing the world. In other forms of literature, characters may make a difference on a small scale, but they can’t be world-changers.

For example, what would a literary novel about Einstein look like? It would be about his childhood, his home life, his psychology, and so on. It wouldn’t be about his big public accomplishments. SF can talk about the big stuff because SF worlds are always subject to change. That’s what we write about: different worlds. So it’s very easy for SF to show entire worlds being changed by the actions of people. That’s a lesson readers should learn.

Spec Can: What do you see as particularly Canadian about the SF you produce? Does your Canadian identity influence your work, and, if so, in what ways?

James Alan Gardner: Being Canadian affects everything I write, though seldom in any obvious way. For example, I think it makes me more quietly optimistic than American or British writers. Canada is far from perfect, but we have experience with peaceful coexistence between different types of people. In a lot of American SF, there’s a subtext that culture war is inevitable unless everyone melts together into the same pot. In Canada, we don’t see that as necessary—individuals can be very different, yet still get along.

Spec Can: Where do you see Canadian SF going from here? What is the future of Canadian SF?

James Alan Gardner: There are plenty of good Canadian SF writers, and more appearing each year. Just to name a few whom I make sure to follow: Robert J. Sawyer, Karl Schroeder, Julie Czerneda, Guy Gavriel Kay, Nalo Hopkinson, Tanya Huff, Peter Watts, and no doubt others who slip my mind at this moment. (You’ll notice that I don’t distinguish between science fiction and fantasy. To me, the family resemblances between science fiction and fantasy are more important than the differences.)

Spec Can: How can the figure of “the Alien” make us think more about ourselves and question the things that we do?

James Alan Gardner: In science fiction, aliens typically fall into one of three categories: totally alien, so we really can’t understand anything they do; pretty much human, in which case they’re mostly like us, except for cosmetic touches; and human reflections, where the aliens are like humans in many ways, but have some substantial difference (e.g. Star Trek Vulcans with their devotion to logic and attempted erasure of emotion).

Often, authors use the third category to make some point about the human condition by exaggerating or eliminating some ordinary human trait. When it’s done well, it can make us think about that trait’s role in our lives and society. Since I’ve already mentioned Vulcans, a great many Star Trek episodes played on the place of emotion in human existence. When is it good? When it is bad? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Spock’s presence made it possible to explore such questions. In fact, Spock’s presence almost forced the writers to keep coming back to the questions, and to make them a central part of the series. The writers had to keep digging, and to keep thinking about the role of emotion in our lives.

Spec Can: As a pacifist, I was fascinated by the idea of murderers being defined as “Dangerous Non-Sentients” by the League of Peoples in your novels – the idea that people who killed were considered not sentient by the League and unable to therefore travel from their solar system. What inspired this idea of the “Dangerous Non-Sentient”?

James Alan Gardner: I’ve already mentioned my desire to write books without interstellar wars, just as a way to avoid doing the same old same-old. The other thing that the League’s influence did was separate humanity into two camps: those who left Earth were those who accepted the League’s version of pacifism; those who remained on Earth were essentially the people who couldn’t bear to put down their guns. As a result, those left on Earth went through a very turbulent time, and order was only restored when one group came out on top (with help from alien partners). This gave me a cake-and-eat-it arrangement: League-imposed pacifism in space, and a much more violent situation for those who stayed on Earth. I could play around with both strands of human culture, and eventually show what might happen if they were artificially separated.

Spec Can: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?

James Alan Gardner: Thanks for asking me to participate!

I want to thank James Alan Gardner for this incredible interview and for all of the insights that he has raised. If you are interested in reading more of his work, you can explore his website at http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim/english/index.shtml