Rabbi Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Excessive Greenery

A review of Kim Goldberg’s “Neither Slumber Nor Sleep” in Urban Green Man (Edge, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

A rabbi loses his position at the Beth Shalom Congregation when he becomes interested in a new supernatural phenomenon that appears in Nanaimo. Called in to investigate a series of strange events regarding the sighting of a huge Green Goddess figure and sudden surges of greenery over the urban space, the rabbi’s faith is challenged and questioned when he sees a bizarre series of events that defy his beliefs in the logical universe and that seem to reflect a pagan belief system more than they do a Jewish one. But, it is his belief in logic and the undeniable facts of the Green Goddess’ appearance in the city that cause him to eventually believe that she is appearing in the city.

He investigates the situation with logic and deduction, looking at these strange tales and gradually piecing together undeniable evidence that convinces him of the accuracy of these unusual reports – as Sherlock Holmes would say “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

Much like the bumbling police in a Sherlock Holmes tale, the RCMP in this story grasp for simple answers instead of investigating the case, blaming the sudden appearance of vinery overgrowing buildings on student pranks and acts of protest. Goldberg critiques the RCMP’s too easy assumptions in recent years that youth culture is linked to acts of rebellion, and their desire to suppress instances of protest as though they are symbols of a decaying society. Her vision of the RCMP reflects the issues of police violence against protestors who are advocating for environmental issues in Canada.

As the Green Goddess’ acts of environmental re-assurgency continue, environmental advocates join her in their pledge to “assist the Green Goddess in her mission to refoliate Nanaimo by whatever means necessary”. Although originally the police had assumed protest, eventually protestors join this environmental cause, seeing the Green Goddess’ actions of refoliation as beneficial for urban spaces.

Despite his assertion that “I am a man of both Talmud and science, neither of which places much store by pagan rituals”, the rabbi begins to see that there is not so much difference between the religious ideologies expressed in the Talmud, the principles of scientific investigation, and the likelihood that the Green Goddess represents a real change rather than an urban legend (particularly when it is reported that the Green Goddess has a series of Hebrew letters inscribed across her forehead that are the same as those that are used in evoking a golem). Moreover, he begins to wonder if the behaviours of this golem are threatening or if the world needs further acts of refoliation.

Goldberg examines the role of faith in modernity, and the interaction between notions of logic and belief. She creates a character whose observation of facts has isolated him from his community and resulted in his expulsion from his own congregation. Using the combination of environmentalism and the discourse of faith and logic, Goldberg explores the idea that modernity leaves many things unquestioned, particularly our assertion that an urban space and notions of progress have ascendency over green spaces and the significance of natural growth. By situating police powers in opposition to assumed (and then eventually real) environmental groups, she calls attention to the need to question government and media images of environmental protestors as violent people and instead suggests that we, as a culture, need protest – we need to question social messages and interrogate how our actions impact the environment.

Although, of course, not named Sherlock Holmes, the rabbinical protagonist of this story shows many similarities to the canonic character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales. By leading her readers through a similar analysis of the evidence, deep detective work, and psychological insights, Goldberg evokes this figure from literary history and questions the foundations of the idea of logic, reminding her readers of the importance of looking deeper into what appears to be “evidence” rather than accepting the assumptions that are presented.

To find out more about Kim Goldberg, visit http://pigsquash.wordpress.com/ .

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Characters in Books Become Real in the Otherworld

A Review of Charles de Lint’s Spirits in the Wires
By Derek Newman-Stille

In his Spirits in the Wires, Charles de Lint expresses something that I have wished to be true since I was a child: that the characters that we read in books become real through our collective imagination. De Lint’s Otherworld and the In-Between, standing between our world and the Otherworld is made up of the spirits and beings of myth, legend, and religion in addition to discarded parts of the human imagination and manifestations of belief. Within this realm are fairies, manitou, gnomes, dwarves, characters from novels that human beings have read, and even the discarded shadow of the self (the part of ourselves that we cast off as we develop ideas about what we want ourselves to be and what we don’t).  There is something absolutely comforting about the idea that your belief in the characters you read about in books makes them manifest and real in another realm – that warm feeling that by reading about them, you are sustaining these characters, feeding them with imagination and that there are hundreds of lives inside of you being created and maintained by your love of literature.

Spirits in the Wires focusses around a wide group of characters both human and otherworldly, including a woman who was created by a website as a way of learning about the world outside of the web, and the discarded shadow self of an author and preserver of urban myth. The internet itself has become a place that creates spirits from the imaginings of human beings, creating worlds between the wires, between computer systems. De Lint focusses on the Wordwood, an internet site that has been featured in several of de Lint’s books that was a repository for books and information which eventually gained sentience through the volume of stories running through it. The hodgepodge of stories, myths, and tales running through the Wordwood had a capacity to breathe life into it, grant it consciousness and personality as well as magic, which courses through the site.

Charles de Lint has often described the place of magic as a place in-between, to the corner, at the edge, and the internet is a logical place of magic, existing between computers in an ether of signals and wires. He disrupts the binary that often separates the magical from the technological, creating a story where the two interact, reinforce each other, and in doing so creates a new mythology for the cyber age.

Despite their separation from the human experience, there is something fundamentally human about the spirits that de Lint creates. They are figures in constant identity crises, trying to find out who they are and how their pasts have been formative in creating them. Saskia is a woman who suddenly appears with no tangible background, knowing things only as facts and not as direct experience. She is a creation of the Wordwood site, and has to face whether she is a simulacrum of humanity or if there is something intrinsically her about her existence. She is simultaneously self and stranger on the cusp between knowing herself and finding every experience new and challenging to her identity. Christianna, the discarded shadow self of urban fantasy author Christy, cast away in his youth, is forced to come to terms with her identity as a distinct being, trying to find herself while surrounded by the baggage of being a cast-off, abandoned. She explores whether there is something about her that is separate from Christy and whether there is value in her own existence. Even characters from books who have gained sentience and lives of their own separate from the novel that created them have identity issues, experiencing a grudge toward the authorial parents that created them from their imaginations. De Lint questions the nature of personhood and asks readers to look at whether origin is as significant in identity formation as we tend to think – whether we are created from the discarded parts of another person, manifest through a website’s desire to experience the world, a character from someone else’s imagination does that origin define us, or are we defined by what we do after we are conceived of?

De Lint asks the fundamental question that underlies a great deal of human experience: who am I? And, as a good author does, he doesn’t provide readers with an answer, but allows them to ponder what defined us, how we create ourselves, and what creates identity.

Spirits in the Wires is a novel about identity and self discovery, and particularly the power of a community to help in the process of identity development. Characters in this novel help each other to discover what is fundamentally separate and unique about them, and characters find some keys to their identity (though not an answer to this question that cannot be answered) in the process of a mythic quest. He reminds us that it often takes those around us to show us that we are unique and that we are fundamentally different from the primordial ooze that manifested us.

You can explore more about Charles de Lint and Spirits in the Wires at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Interview with Camille Alexa

Camille Alexa has dual Canadian and American citizenship. She is the co-editor of the Canadian Superhero collection Masked Mosaic as well as the author of the short fiction collection Push of the Sky. She wrote the winning story for OnSpec’s Apocalypse issue (#90 Vol 24, no 3) and has published in magazines and anthologies such as Subversion, Space & Time Magazine, Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, Blood and Water, and Chilling Tales 2: In Words, Alas, Drown I.

Author photo courtesy of Camille Alexa

Author photo courtesy of Camille Alexa

You can explore my review of her story  “All Them Pretty Babies”  at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-i-feel-speculative/ and “Children of the Device” at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/doomed-to-repeat/ . From the amount of times I have reviewed her work, you can probably tell that I am a fan, so I was quite excited when Ms. Alexa agreed to do an interview with me. I hope you enjoy the following interview as much as I did. Reading her work, you can really tell that, as she says below “My primary aim in fiction is to have a blast writing.” Her love of writing and joy at playing with literary work comes through in the interview below as well as in her fiction writing.

Spec Can: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about yourself to start off this interview?

Camille Alexa: I’m a dual Canadian/ American writer currently riding the rails back and forth between Vancouver, BC and Portland, Oregon.  I’ve been told I’m a bit of a contrarian.  My hair is not always the same color it was the previous year and a professor once remarked that while my clothes might not make a fashion statement, they certainly raised some fashion questions.  I like yams.

Spec Can: Several of your short stories have featured an apocalyptic theme. What is the appeal of writing about apocalyptic themes?

Camille Alexa: I’ve been pondering this myself.  My so-amazing literary agent [Jennifer Weltz of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency] recently asked me to compile a list of my published stories for the agency database, each followed by a one- or two-sentence description.  There were a few – seventy or eighty – so it took a while, and I was shocked at the kinds of words and phrases popping up again and again:  ragtag band of surviving children. . . on the eve of apocalypse . . . land devastated by ecological and biological warfare . . .

Some stories hold more conscious humour (“Four Jerks of the Apocalypse,” “A Pretty Lucky Day”), but others tilt toward the raw end of things.  I’m not sure why my fiction mind turns to apocalypse so easily, but disaster literature is just so appealing, so rife with opportunity for growth and heroism.  New beginnings.  Dire endings.  That sort of thing.

Also, maybe I live in constant fear for the state of the planet?  Humans are pretty rough with their toys.

Spec Can: What is your favorite apocalyptic theme and why does it interest you so much?

Camille Alexa: I’m much less interested in – or for that matter cognizant of – exact themes than I am in characters and the ways in which they react to extreme scenarios.  Hey!  There’s apocalypse in a nutshell:  extreme scenario.  About as extreme as you can get, frankly — at least from a human perspective. . . .

Now my fiction brain wants to go off and write stories about the beneficiaries of an apocalypse, those life-forms that’ll thrive and flourish once the rest of us are swept away.  Hello, slime mold and cockroaches! Hello, genetically-modified invasive flora!

Spec Can: What social issues can apocalyptic themes deal with or raise awareness of? What is useful/worthwhile/important about pondering potential apocalypses?

Camille Alexa:  My primary aim in fiction is to have a blast writing [author’s note: because writing is awesome!].  My secondary aim is to tell a good story.  I’m not trying to teach or preach; if people see something of themselves or their world in a story, recognize something moving or disturbing, then that’s in keeping with the effects of art in general.  Cinema, theatre, music, literature — art expands us, makes our private worlds larger rather than smaller, adds to what we’ve felt or seen or experienced up to that point.

Spec Can: In your short story Children of the Device (In Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth: Issue Seven, 2012) you deal with a group of human beings who have escaped from the Earth’s destruction and later generations of humanity end up repeating the same self destructive behaviour – over-consumption, mass violence, a focus on the “now”. Where do you see our current social focus on over-consumption and instant culture going?

Camille Alexa: Hah!  See my answer about the appeal of writing apocalypses.  Overconsumption, violence, lack of compassion or fairness, shortsightedness about the future . . . I’ll repeat:  humans are rough with their toys.  Of course, you could write a perfectly non-apocalyptic story addressing all these themes — it just might not be as much fun.

Spec Can: In your short story All Them Pretty Babies (On Spec, Fall issue, 2012), you deal with a post-apocalyptic world in which people with biological differences are only able to thrive in the wastelands outside of the protected city. Could you expand on your commentary about the control and normalising effects of society? What can we learn from your character Esmè, who considers biological difference to be beautiful?

Camille Alexa:  I’m certainly not anti-society!  I think of myself as fairly civic-minded.  I recycle and ride a bike and support use of renewable resources.  I want society – or should we call it Society, capital S? – to be the best version of itself, honest and just and mighty.

Of course, that other stuff you mention – control and normalizing effects – those things sound pretty crummy.  Esmè’s story is cool because you get to see the world through her eyes, but also through yours, the reader’s.  The intersections of those viewpoints, where they’re dissonant and where they harmonize, is where things get interesting.

Spec Can: You currently live in a 2 author house. The creative energy in that house must be amazing. What is it like to live with another author? 

Camille Alexa: Yes!  Though Claude [Lalumière] and I are very careful to give each other space for writing, which is a mostly private endeavour.  We’re huge fans of each other’s work, but we do not critique or proof or even read each other’s stories until contributor copies arrive at the house.  It can be quite excruciating, waiting on the mail.  We love egging each other on, though.  Love seeing each other succeed and be read.  But it can get emotional.  We just received the On Spec all-apocalypse issue with “All them Pretty Babies.”  When he told me he liked it, I burst into tears.  It’s very powerful thing, knowing someone you respect so much respects you in return.

Spec Can: What mythologies influence your work and why do they speak to you?

Camille Alexa: My father’s a folklorist, so I’ve always been fascinated with myth and lore.  My heritage is Caribbean on my father’s side, Irish and Scandinavian on my mother’s.  Since I lived in Denmark for a time, I’d say the Scandinavian history and mythologies speak to me the most, though I love it all.  Urban legends and schoolyard lore have always held particular fascination for me, too.

Myth taps into things we can’t always justify or explain, moves us or scares us or elates us.

Cover photo of Push of the Sky by Camille Alexa

Cover photo of Push of the Sky by Camille Alexa

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

Camille Alexa: What CAN’T speculative fiction do?  I think that’s its appeal.  You can go anywhere when you untether a story from the probable.  With luck, you can get others to follow you to those places you pull from the aether, meet the strange creatures there and tread those weird and unlikely paths.

Not all my fiction is speculative.  And there are certainly tropes and modes that appeal to me more than others; I’d write a genetically-modified supervirus zombie over a magically animated corpse any day of the week – and it would more likely be tragic than terrifying.  Because I’m continually moved and astounded by the natural world, I tend to find inspiration in flora, fauna, specialized ecosystems, early hominids, pterosaurs. . . .

That said, I have absolutely no trouble writing about unicorn shapeshifters or the moon being an enormous wedge of green cheese.  I simply treat those things, within the parameters of their own universes, as factual rather than magical.

Spec Can: What is distinctive about Canadian Speculative Fiction?

Camille Alexa: The Canadian scene feels very exciting right now.  The speculative fiction scene in the US seems to have gotten bogged down with a distressing focus on awards and “approved” hierarchies and paths to writerdom.  There is no single path to writing, or to loving to write, or to living to write – any more than there is a single path to reading or loving to read.

There’s real excitement and energy to Canadian spec fic writing. I was utterly blown away by the incredible stories Claude and I received for our MASKED MOSAIC: CANADIAN SUPER STORIES anthology.  As Flash Fiction Editor at Abyss & Apex, I read hundreds of stories from around the world.  But that slush pile didn’t hold a candle to the overall quality and inventiveness and sheer excitement of what I read for MM.  Not even close.

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?

Camille Alexa: Absolutely!  I usually start a story with just a spark.  It might be a hint of a character, or a vague idea – even an opening line or a sequence of words.  With “All Them Pretty Babies” it was a voice; I simply woke up one day with Esmè’s voice in my head, the way she’d speak and think if she were raised by a mountain woman in a postapocalyptic world with no formal schooling, no society of peers to dictate how and what her grammar or her word choices would be.  The voice of the POV character in “After the Pipers” (Triangulation: The Morning After anthology) comes from a similar place, though it’s not got the same cadence or grammatical roots or even plot reasons as Esmè’s.

My father the folklorist was an English professor most of my life.  Maybe I like disaster stories because they can let me wreak deliberate havoc on grammar as well as on the wider world.

Author photo courtesy of Camille Alexa

Author photo courtesy of Camille Alexa

 

I want to thank Camille Alexa for this fantastic interview and for her incredible insights. However, I was really hoping that her hair colour would actually change during the course of our interview 😉 It has been a pleasure talking with her and I really appreciate that she was willing to share insights with readers here on Speculating Canada.