Persistence of Memory

A Review of M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia (Anchor Canada, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

vassanji nostalgia

Memory is powerful and it can be fleeting, but M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia is a tale of memory’s ability to persist. Vassanji writes a near future fiction story in which immortality has been achieved, but in this future, everyone who undergoes rejuvination (the age reversal process) simultaneously has the memories of their past life erased for the new life as a younger person. But, memories are hard to erase and occasionally these memories resurface. These memories are pathologized in this world and are considered a medical disease colloquially called “nostalgia”. Vassanji creates a world that fears its past, that tries for an eternal present.

 

Vassanji invites us into the political questions raised by technology. He invites us to explore what would happen in a world that had a “cure” for ageing. Rejuvenation creates a series of social divides: between the aged and the young, the rich and the poor, and between medical ideas and religious. The young feel as though they are not able to make their place in the world because of the proliferance of older people being returned to youth. They engage in protests with slogans like “Let them go! The Earth for the Young! Let the Fogeys Die!”, viewing the aged as getting in the way of young people. Only the most wealthy can afford rejuvenation and those who undergo it keep generating further wealth, creating a greater wealth disparity bet the rich and the poor. The poor are often also the disenfranchised young, who are unable to get jobs in a world where all of the best positions are already occupied. They perceive of the older generation as needing to make way for the new generations. Yet the young are not the only ones to feel detached from their lives. Many of the ‘rejuvies’ feel a sense of disconnect in their lives, a sense of detachment and not fitting in.

 

Memory in Nostalgia is shaped by medical discourse, constructed as a danger to people’s current identities, which are authored by medical doctors who give people a new background for their new lives after rejuvenation, lives changed from the ones they are seeking to forget. The lives of the rejuvies are authored, constructed, and artificial, a veneer over a personality that has been suppressed to create the new rejuvenated self. These past lives are a threat in this medical discourse, dangerously causing a collision of personalities in the rejuvenated person. They call it “Leaked Memory Syndrome” (LMS). Yet, religious systems also engage with ideas of past lives, and religious groups have perspectives on what happens after death. They protest the damage being done spiritually through the proliferation of rejuvenated people.

 

Vassanji brings critical attention to these clashes between groups by putting us into the perspective of a doctor who deals with constructing identities for people undergoing rejuvenation, with a specialty in treating case of LMS or nostalgia, Dr. Frank Sina. Sina’s beliefs are deeply embedded in him, making him a firm believer in the mastry afforded by science, an almost zealous believer in the power of the medicine to cure the world’s ills. But even Sina’s beliefs can be challenged and they shift when he meets a man, Presley Smith, whose LMD memories seem to resonate with him and lead to his obsession with this man’s past.

 

This is a world divided not just by rejuvenation, but also by other political systems, where the wealthy parts of the world are walled off from the poorer parts of the world. This is a world where the memory constructing ability of rejuvination provides the perfect systems of assimilation for those from other countries, rewriting people’s pasts – their politics, their ideologies, and their belief systems to turn them into ‘perfect citizens’. Vissanji writes a narrative of totalitarian power and the power of memory in a political system for preventing erasure.

 

To discover more about Nostalgia, visit http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/183221/nostalgia#9780385667173

To discover more about the works of M.G. Vassanji, visit http://www.mgvassanji.com/

Ageing Into The Future

A review of Lazarus Risen edited by Hayden Trenholm and Michael Rimar (Bundoran, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Hayden Trenholm and Michael Rimar’s collection of fiction Lazarus Risen constructs itself as a collection of stories about the biological singularity, exploring “dreams of immortality and eternal youth”, yet most of the stories in the collection bring attention to that spectre that always haunts ideas of youth – old age. This is an anthology that is well-timed and extremely important as ageing gets codified in political policies and ideologies that largely examine ageing as a social burden. These stories provide a challenge to easy ascriptions of ageing and interrogate assumptions about ‘old age’. They provide a foundation for a genre of Ageing Futurisms, which is a genre we desperately need as our societal views of old age continue to be narrow. Lazarus Risen explores the complexities of ageing and the potentials that exist within ageing bodies and identities. 

Most of the tales that we encounter, whether through speculative fictional lenses or through realist genres, tend to focus on youth, constructing 20-somethings as the harbingers of “relateable experiences”. Our social favouritism toward youth feeds our social obsession with staying young, holding all of the negative implications for those who don’t fit this social mould of youth. Ageing people tend to be constructed as, at best, inconveniences, and at worst, are erased because they are seen as being non-contributors. We create social ideas that the aged have been erased from our society by virtue of not contributing in the economic ways that we construct as normative, ignoring all of the ways that ageing people contribute to society and add to our social growth.

It is fascinating that so many speculative fiction texts erase ageing people from their narratives (or cast them in stereotypical roles such as the role of the mentor or the burden to the narrator) because age is something that is fundamentally connected to a major theme in speculative fiction – change… and age is powerfully connected to the idea of the future and the passage of time, which SF frequently interacts with.

We pretend in our society that “coming of age” happens only once – in the transition between childhood and adulthood, yet we are ALWAYS coming of age, always moving from one age category to the other and shifting and changing to accommodate those movements. Lazarus Risen provides a space for examining the way that we keep coming of age, that people keep shifting and changing over the course of their lifespan. 

Like any SF collection, Lazarus Risen deals with the social changes that come with technological changes, but the tales in this collection centre the human (or inhuman) experiences that come with these changes, exploring how “what it means to be human” is something that always has to run after our technological imagination, constantly redefining itself. It is the focus on the human experience that makes this collection a powerful one, and it is the focus on age that makes it one that is both timely and necessary. Lazarus Risen makes readers confront their insecurities about the spectre of ageing, makes us examine that biological clock that keeps ticking away, reminding us that change is inevitable and that change comes with constant new wonders, excitements, and, yes, challenges.

To read reviews of some of the short stories in this collection, visit:
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/03/19/a-plague-of-immortality/
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/03/16/mecha-care/
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/03/07/ageing-usefully/
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/03/02/a-wilde-ride-through-time/
https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/02/27/split-apart-for-new-perspectives/

To find out more about Lazarus Risen, visit Bundoran Press’ page at http://www.bundoranpress.com/product/1/Lazarus-Risen

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 46: A Discussion of Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I explore Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novel SuperMutant Magic Academy, a novel that plays with the theme of “You are different, so you should go away to a special school for people like you and everything will work out”. I discuss Tamaki’s clever play on Hogwarts (Harry Potter) and Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (X-Men), and her play with the notion of youth in a special school that embraces difference. I interrogate Tamaki’s portrayal of youth and the ability of youth to disrupt expectations.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

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. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

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

Transitional Words

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love With Hominids (Tachyon Publications, 2015)
By Derek Newman-StilleIMG_0213

Falling in Love with Hominids illustrates Nalo Hopkinson’s playfulness with language, her characteristic exploration of the way that language shapes social interactions and develops plot. Hopkinson illustrates her fascination with ideas of sound and the power of mis-hearings, exploring stories that came from her own mis-hearings of things and the point of speculation that occurs when one tries to determine what was actually said. In stories like The Easthound which came from a mis-hearing of “The Eastbound”, Hopkinson examines what an Easthound would be and how this notion can create a figure of terror. In “The Smile on the Face”, she examines the relationship between names and identities, creating a character named Gilla who discovers a resonance to the reptilian (coming from the association with her name) and a connection to mythic stories about other reptiles.

Hopkinson plays with characters who question the way they are written, examining figures (for example) from Shakespearian plays such as Caliban from The Tempest and allowing them a place to resist the texts that have been written about them and providing a space for them to push their own meanings through the text. In Shift, she explores the way that racialised assumptions have been cast onto Caliban and his desire to escape from the narrative that has shaped his life.

Hopkinson enters into shared-world creations and disrupts the idea of a very white, Euro-centric fairy world in the Bordertown series by creating figures who challenge this focus on the European magical world by creating characters who come from non-European mythologies. In “Ours Is The Prettiest”, she asserts the multi-ethnic nature of characters, playing with previous reader assumptions about character ethnicity and examining the intersection of ethnicities and cultural identities.

Hopkinson illustrates her ability to represent the under-represented, bringing attention to those areas that are cast in the shadows of most mainstream ideas of science fiction. She brings attention to those characters who are largely left off from mainstream SF, populating her worlds with characters from an array of sexual and gender identities, challenging the white-centric worlds created by most SF authors, and inserting those presences that are Othered in so many SF narratives.

Falling in Love with Hominids is a text of transitions, examining those times when change is at its peak. She examines transitions between adulthood and youth, portraying the idea that adulthood is not always in a protective role over youth and can, in fact, be damaging to youth because of the excesses of power adults wield over the young. She plays with the transition between life and death, exploring notions of life after death and the way that we tend to be haunted by memory and guilt.

Hopkinson casts the light of speculation onto those ideas that are cast into shadow in everyday reality, those areas that can be seen best by the outsider, the oppressed, the erased. Falling in Love with Hominids represents a text of examining the human experience, an act of recovery of those aspects of humanity that are suppressed or repressed and a re-invigoration at the sense of wonder about human experience.
To read reviews of individual stories in the collection, click on the links below:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/09/16/the-oddity-of-children-2/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/07/28/growing-up-monstrous/

To listen to an Episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio about Falling in Love with Hominids visit:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/07/26/speculating-canada-on-trent-radio-episode-45-a-discussion-of-the-work-of-nalo-hopkinson/

To read more about Falling in Love with Hominids, visit Tachyon Publications’ Website at https://tachyonpublications.com/product/falling-love-hominids/

Growing Up Monstrous

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Easthound” in Falling in Love With Hominids (Tachyon Publications, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Easthound” takes the reader onto the streets with a group of street children who have been displaced from their homes. There is a long history of street kids creating their own myths and legends about survival as a means to be able to deal with life on the streets, which, in the case of most of these kids, was safer than life in their original homes with abusive parents. But in “The Easthound” the monsters of those street tales is true. There is something lurking in the dark and it is something that often threatens children on the streets – adults and adulthood.

Hopkinson explores the spectre that haunts most kids on the streets – the violence of their parents and other adults in their lives. But, instead of these adults being regular abusers, they become actual monsters, transformed at the age of adulthood into werewolf-like beasts that prey on anyone who remains human. The street kids in “The Easthound” have gathered together in small groups to keep themselves safe from the spread of the monstrous virus that sets in at puberty and they try to resist adulthood, starving themselves to prevent their bodies from maturing. Many of the children were already abused by adults who were turned into beasts by the spreading virus, some losing limbs. 

Although Hopkinson deals with the spectre of violence as an actual viral spread of monstrosity, she points to the overall issue of violence against youths and the fact that many young people have to take to the streets to escape the violence of adults in their lives and then live in fear on the streets as well. 

Hopkinson’s “The Easthound” mirrors the classic Star Trek episode “Miri” (Season 1, Episode 8) where a virus has spread on an Earth-like planet that turns people monstrously violent when they hit puberty. But, she takes thing further. Whereas the writers of “Miri” try to resolve these issues with a cure (followed by sending educators to the planet), “The Easthound” expresses the idea that there generally aren’t simple solutions to the violence that street children experience and adults are generally part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Hopkinson explores the complexity of street life and the complex ways that “growing up” has a different set of meanings for kids on the street. 

To discover more about the work of Nalo Hopkinson, visit her website at http://nalohopkinson.com

To find out more about Falling in Love with Hominids and other books by Tachyon Press, visit their website at https://tachyonpublications.com/product/falling-love-hominids/

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 35: A Discussion of the Works of Nancy Baker

Many years ago, I went on a quest to find the works of Nancy Baker since I had heard such wonderful things about her work. I was able to track down some used copies and read them… and they were brilliant, blending the artistic with the dark. Excitingly, ChiZine Publications has re-released Nancy Baker’s works, so I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about some of my favourities. In this episode, I discuss Nancy Baker’s vampire novels The Night Inside, Blood and Chrysanthemums, and A Terrible Beauty, looking at the way that Nancy explores the power of the vampire to talk about humanity, our society’s beauty and youth obsession, and art.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

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. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

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

You can read more about Nancy Baker and her work at http://www.nancybaker.ca/

Chilly Renewal

A review of Dominik Parisien’s “My Child Has Winter in His Bones” in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada From Coast to Coast (Edge, 2013)

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

By Derek Newman-Stille

In My Child Has Winter in His Bones, Dominik Parisien evokes his characteristic blend of the human and the landscape, amalgamating a child with the icy lake where his parent fishes. Like much of his poetry, this piece evokes the horror and beauty of a body modified and the child in this poem is described as being almost fish-tank-like, clear and full of aquatic matter. There is a beauty in the image of the body as a living landscape, an ice-scape imbued with life and yet always temporary, doomed to thaw in the spring. Parisien evokes the beauty of the permeable body, a body that is revealed as being integrated with its environment even though we spend so much time as a society creating barriers around our bodies, trying to suggest that they are separate from their environments.
Although a temporary body, the child’s body evokes the image of renewal, a body that is forged from the ice and then melts in the spring to be re-formed.
Unlike most poetry that is obsessed with images of youth symbolised in spring and growth, Parisien reverses this paradigm by equating youth with winter, with the freeze, and with a season that we tend to think of as inherently liminal, frozen, between times: the Winter. Parisien invites his readers to question why we associate youth with the Spring and asks us to look at the shallow way we observe youth and the passage of the seasons.
To discover more about Dominik Parisien, visit his website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/
To discover more about Tesseracts Seventeen, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess17/t17-catalog.html