A Review of On Spec #89 Vol 24, No. 2 (Summer 2012 issue)
By Derek Newman-Stille
I have been a fan of On Spec for some time. I enjoy the quality of their stories, the diversity of their authors, and their ability to play with diverse characteristics of the speculative medium. I enjoy the fact that On Spec combines short stories with poetry, essays that provide insights into the nature of speculative fiction and trends in the speculative genres, interviews with authors that provide insights into the authorial process and the thought that goes into a creative work, and I am impressed by On Spec’s willingness to bring in artistic works that play with ideas of the speculative rather than focussing on the textual. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy On Spec so much is that its ideologies match so well with my own. Like this website, On Spec is interested in both exploring speculative authorship at the same time as it is aware of the incredible insights an author can provide and the complex issues that speculative fiction authors bring into their works to evoke thought from their readers. As a speculative artist (you can check out my art work at www.dereknewmanstille.ca ), I particularly enjoy that they are willing to engage in multiple media of the speculative, not just sticking to short stories, but displaying an interest in works of photography, painting, pencil and ink sketches. It is great to see a recognition of the diversity of media that people operating in the speculative can bring out. On Spec also displays an interest in quotations, and an incredible aptitude for pulling out the most poignant and thought-provoking quotes in a story. I always find it exciting when I look at the quotes that they have pulled out of a story and notice that they match the ones that had drawn me in.
Normally I like to review a selection of short stories from On Spec volumes, but I thought I would do a quick overview of the Summer 2012 issue to look for binding themes and ideas that pull the volume together. This volume taps into an interest I have noticed recently in the theme of displacement by Canadian speculative fiction authors. There is a sense of loss that permeates this volume, a sense of homes forgotten, the search for a new place, the feeling of being left behind by people, by time, and by places that shift and change in such a way that we can no longer fit into them. Memories fade and we are lost in a place between them. There is an edgy sense that knowledge and wisdom can be alienating and that, perhaps… sometimes ignorance, while not very fulfilling, can at least keep one from the horrors of knowing about the loss of everything that can be valued.
The volume begins with an essay on Steampunk, a genre or aesthetic that plays with notions of the displacement of time and uses elements of past worlds and the notion of nostalgia to create a place of adventure outside of the normal course of time. In the words of Mike Perschon, Steampunk “is the way the present imagines the past seeking the future.” It is a complex interweaving of times and notions of time that both plays with notions of nostalgia for the past, while also complicating notions of the past and the way we see the past from our present perspective.
That sense of the defamiliarisation of time itself carries over into the first story, 7:54 by Susan Forest, a story about the ability to see into the future, and the inevitability of the future that opens moral questions about the way we envision ourselves moving forward. Shen Braun’s Village of Good Fortune is set in the past in the world of Japanese shintoism where spirits and demons are part of the landscape of the world. Here, the displacement shifts to a man who has had to leave his home and searches for a new place to call home, a place of belonging and comfort. But, these things are not easy to find and even the most pleasant village can have a dark undercurrent running through it, a shaky ground of ambiguity between ideas of right and wrong.
This place of metaphysical and moral ambiguity brings us to another story about questions of morality and the nature of good and evil, Peter Darbyshire’s The Only Innocent Soul in Hell. The terrifying thing about hell in this story is that it shows a remarkable similarity to the bureaucracies of our everyday experience…. and this reminds us that although we believe we are living in a world of familiarity and normalcy, there really is hell lurking in every government building. Darbyshire portrays the typical impatient, self-righteous customer as the archetype for the sociopathic personality, and, reminds the reader that people who play the system too well… a pretty hellish system at that… are probably devils in sheep’s clothing… or at least expensive wool suits. Through hiding his memories… and a few other tricks, a sociopath tries to trick a demon into letting him out of hell.
The theme of memory and the loss of memory follows into E.J. Bergmann’s Penultimate, a poem about the process of aging and the loss of memory and selfhood that can be seen to arise from the experience of getting older. It is a crushing poem about the systematic loss of the self, a story being unwritten with pages torn out of the autobiography of the self.
Paul Kenneback’s In Which Demetri Returns the Elgin Marbles takes the notion of loss to an international level and shows the horror of a world that has decided to forget its own history, emptying museums to fill them with the less controversial and less diverse Disney. It represents the ultimate Disneyfication and Touristism of the world: turning the world into a spectator’s gaze reflecting itself – everywhere cultural specificity is erased so that every nation is just a mirror of the United States with slightly different climates. Kenneback shows the horror of a world that has been systematically erased in the name of social control and propaganda, a place that has been neutralised and whose art has been rendered bland and undifferentiated. Kenneback wields his narrative of an artist working for museums trying to promote Disney in order to evoke in his audience a desire to question the focus on the modern and the systemic loss of cultural memory and artistic past that defines civilisations.
Canine Court by Tyler Keevil, takes away the notion of familiarity in one’s family. He portrays a typical Canadian small town with a secret and a displaced city boy who soon discovers that things may not be as they appear in the town or in his own family. Keevil’s tale features werewolves, but the kind of predators that lurk in small towns may not all have fangs.
Kevin Shaw’s Bespoke explores the lack of familiarity that can be evoked by a changing body, a body that has been mutated into a shape that is responded to by onlookers with horror. But, although often body changes are portrayed in stories as tales of the loss of the self, an inability or lack, in Shaw’s narrative, this body change can distance someone enough from their familiar patterns that they can be encouraged to develop new behaviours, new relationships and when slight changes are made to accommodate their bodily difference, a new respect and love for their changed body.
This volume of On Spec was an amazing adventure into the unfamiliar territories that lurk hidden in the shadows of the familiar. The reader finds him or herself lost, disassembled, made strange to her or himself and then brought back together with a new understanding of the world around them and appreciation for the weird places that lurk between the cracks of the normal.