Power Dynamics

Power Dynamics

A review of James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (Tor, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, James Alan Gardner creates a world of heroes and monsters to explore ideas of identity. In this world, the wealthy have bought the magical ability to become Darklings through a pact with otherworldly entities. They have become vampires, demons, ghosts, werewolves, and other things that haunt the magical imaginations. But, this world also touches on the heroic realm and therefore there are Sparks – beings that are created (at least to some degree) through “science” (or some semblance of it). Many of these Sparks become heroes, acquiring powers… but also acquiring the need for secret identities and costumes.

Superheroes are the perfect space to explore the fluidity of identity, especially since the idea of the costume and the secret identity are so intrinsic to the superhero mythos. In Gardner’s world, characters who gain powers need to take on a superhero identity and keep their ‘normal’ identity a secret as part of the complicated rules of the world. And when they use an superheroic name and wear a costume, they BECOME different, adopting new personality traits and radiating an aura of respectability. Yet, there are characters who are already accustomed to switches in identity like Kim Lam, who, in her search to find herself, has used multiple different names and personality characteristics. In fact, Kim refers to her previous identities as being dead like her identity as Kimmi, the goth girl who had a fascination with Darklings, her childhood name of Kimberly, or the name her father chose for her: Kimberlite (after the igneous rock). Kim is a genderqueer person (using she/her pronouns), existing in a nonbinary space, and Gardner is influenced in this idea of the death of identities by the Trans population and the use of the term “deadname”, referring to a previous identity that no longer reflects the person using it. Kim has had fluidity in her own identity, exploring different aspects of herself until she became Kim. Gardner makes a connection in his novel between gender fluidity and the superhero narrative, exploring the spaces of multiplicity of identity and the generative potential of this multiplicity. Identity and secret identity are interwoven in a way that allows for character complexity.

Transitions become an important factor in All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault not just because of Kim’s transition to a genderqueer identity, but also because this world is made up of transitions – the change from wealthy to Darkling (which is marked by a ritual) and the transformation into a Spark (which is marked by an origin story). Transformation is part of a living story in Gardner’s world, something invested with power. In fact, even the powers of the Sparks need to be narrated and characters need to create a story to explain their powers in order to increase the likelihood that the universe will grant them those powers. In this way, the author plays with the idea of stories within stories and the importance of tales for creating new possibilities.

In addition to exploring identity and fluidity, Gardner offers a critique of the logic of wealthy people, literally turning the rich into vampires. In fact, the wealthy still suggest that there is a “trickle down economy”, but instead of just buying businesses and claiming that hiring people will allow their wealth to trickle down, the Darklings use “trickle down” to refer to the money that they give to others when they take their blood. There is a literal feeding off of the labour and bodies of the poor by the wealthy in this world. Gardner uses literal consumption (of blood) to comment on capitalist consumption of resources. He borrows from right wing pundits who try to justify hoarding of wealth by the 1% when creating speeches by the wealthy who use rhetoric like “”We manage sources of prosperity to maximize their return” and “We bought our powers legitimately through a mutually beneficial, clearly defined argument”, and “I didn’t just fluke my way into undeserved privilege. I paid”.

Gardner uses speculative fiction in order to bring up critical questions, inviting readers to interrogate the status quo and think about the way that power and exclusion work in our society, while also illustrating to the reader that change is possible.

In addition to being a fun superhero versus monsters narrative, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is a social text, exploring possibilities through storytelling.

To find out more about James Alan Gardner, visit https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To discover more about All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, visit https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780765392657

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Beyond the Pale (Vampire)

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

One type of vampire story tend to flood the market – the sexy male vampire who is iridescently pale, wealthy, and feeds on women in an erotic embrace. Silvia Moreno-Garcia has again and again demonstrated her love for horror, but also her desire to shift the tired old narratives, dust off the layers of racism and sexism to find new narratives. Certain Dark Things is a revitalization of the vampire narrative, allowing it to kick off the detritus of the past to tell some new stories. 

Moreno-Garcia sets her story in Mexico City in contrast to the vast number of vampire narratives set in the United States or the United Kingdom. Her vampires are not the pale, white European figures of vampire romances, or, at least not all of them are. Her narrative focuses on Atl, a Tlahuihpochtli, an indigenous vampire of the Mexico region who can trace her lineage back to the Aztecs. Moreno-Garcia’s vampires have multiple different subsets, each with different characteristics and hailing from different geographies, and often the only thing they share in common is their hunger for blood. There are European vampires in her narrative, calling themselves Necros and fitting most of the characteristics of the vampires that generally populate the pages of paranormal romance novels, but these vampires are not sexy, otherworldly beings. They control human beings through their bite, which can turn human beings into slaves, without any will. 

Moreno-Garcia explores displacement narratives in her interactions between the Tlahuihpochtli and the Necros, exploring the way that the European Necros brought diseases with them when they came to Mexico and have been trying to push the Tlahuihpochtli out of their native landscapes. She makes connection between this displacement by Europeans and historical displacements of human indigenous populations by Europeans. The Necros brought pathogens with them that made the blood of many humans intolerable to the Tlahuihpochtli, and with the rise of a new disease Croneng’s disease, the government has decided to create sanitation groups whose goals seem to be as much about harassing the homeless population and institutionalizing people with disabilities as they are about dealing with the spread of a pathogen. 

Health is a huge part of Moreno-Garcia’s narrative. Uniting the vampire with ideas of health is powerful since the vampire is often a figure of excessive health, and yet, in most vampire narratives, vampirism spreads like a pathogen. In Certain Dark Things vampirism is an ethnicity, a genetic group and cannot be passed from one person to another, but that doesn’t eliminate the health narrative Moreno-Garcia explores. She examines the role of institutionalization and its impact on populations in poverty, exploring the way that health and wealth often go hand in hand. The bite of the Necros vampires, although not able to turn someone into a vampire, does take away all of their agency, turning them into a slave through a viral contagion in their saliva that will eventually kill the human host. All vampire species are hard to kill and long-lived, but one of the other vampire species is especially known for its interaction with health – the Revenant. The Revenant subspecies is exceptionally long-lived, and can feed on both blood and the life force of others. These Revenants seem to de-age when they are infused with enough life force, appearing younger, and in creating them, Moreno-Garcia plays with the traditional narrative of the person who gains eternal youth by becoming a vampire. These vampires always look somewhat disabled no matter how young they become, still having a hunched appearance, complicating ideas of the excessive ability of the vampire and the ableism that often comes along with this portrayal of the vampire. Many of the governments in the world of Certain Dark Things perceive of vampires as a plague even though they are a racial group, and this complicated relationship between ideas of health, illness and race bring attention to the way that in our own world there is often an assumption that illnesses come from outside, which affects travel, immigration, and often means that any pathogens that arise are eventually believed to come from other regions. 

Certain Dark Things doesn’t create a romantic story of wealth, but rather explores poverty. Her central human character, Domingo, is a street teen who has made his living collecting and purposing garbage. Domingo relishes his invisibility, the way people work to ignore him and pretend that he isn’t there because it is easier to do so than to admit that there are homeless young people. Yet, in pointing out the invisibility of homeless Youth, Moreno-Garcia brings it to the reader’s attention, reminding us of how hard we work to ignore social inequalities. This is a story of drug cartels, poverty, government and police abuses of power, and the monstrousness of corruption itself, which is a far more dangerous monster than Atl or her vampire cousins. But, she does use the figure of one Necros vampire, Nick, to point out the excesses of privilege that come with wealth and whiteness, having Nick frequently prioritize himself over anyone else, having him eat in excess, and showing the ease with which he exercises his power over women around him, particularly marginalized women. 

Certain Dark Things disrupts the Eurocentrism of vampire tales, providing an under-represented tale that needed to be told. 

To discover more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, visit her website at http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ 

Commodifying Extinction

A Review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Maquech” (This Strange Way of Dying, Exile Editions, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s short story “Maquech” is a narrative of wealth disparity and the value attached to animal life. Set in the near future, rare animals that are going extinct have become commodities for the rich, purchased as fashion items, status signifiers, and indicators of wealth. Animals are not valued unless they serve a capitalist end, providing an economic advantage.

In a world of wealth disparity, where the poor are struggling to survive, animals are endangered, seen as competitive resource consumers, and de-valued. Rather than balancing wealth and making clean water and food available to all (instead of just to the wealthy), the poor starve and live with thirst and come to see animals as only competition for resources rather than valuable contributors to the world around them. Rather than viewing the wealthy as the competing consumer, the cultural messages of this near future world construct animals as the competing organism, and a draw on resources, much as, in our own time period, the wealthy tend to blame others for the disparity in availability of resources.

Mario is the grandson of a man who makes rare animals, reconstructing them before they are extinct. He wants to travel to Canada to see the polar bears before they become extinct and sells a rare maquech (an insect) to Gerardo in order to get the funds to witness animal life flourishing before it disappears. Gerardo sees the maquech as an economic advantage, a saleable item for the wealthy to consume since the rich use these live insects as clothing items, a living broach on their clothes. Animals have been reduced to trade items, methods for people to make money and survive in a competitive future.

Ignoring the ecological and mythical significance of the animal, its life has been reduced to a dollar value. It is the very nature of extinction that attributes value to these animals, their rarity constructs them as something to be used as status symbols: “he likes real things and real things are scarce”. Life itself has been rendered as part of the capitalist economy, but the real wealth of animals, their deeper significance is lost in the trade for money as Gerardo discovers when he finds a loss in himself at the loss of his maquech.

To find out more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, you can visit her website at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ . To read this story and others from This Strange Way of Dying, you can explore it at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/ . This collection will be available in the fall.