Thursday, July 02, 2015

Mini Reviews 7 - the 2015 Canada Day Edition!

In honour of Canada Day, I thought I'd post a set of reviews with an all-canuck lineup. Best of all, Fractured — Tales of the Canadian Post Apocalypse, Nocturnes and other Nocturnes, and The Affinities are all recent (more or less) books that are really, really good. Whether you're Canadian or from somewhere else, these are all books that you should make a point of looking for.


Fractured — Tales of the Canadian Post Apocalypse, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The end of the world, and having to adapt to live in what comes after, are not alien concepts to Canadians. For European settlers who survived the harshness of the crossing (themselves often carrying the emotional baggage and physical scars of being persecuted and forced out of their homes in the Old World), the Canadian colonies and territories were a radical change from the lives they were used to: forest wilderness stretching into seemingly limitless distances, wild rivers, lakes as big as seas, seas of grass, jagged mountains, ice fields, a small desert, oceans bordering this vastness on three sides, Native peoples already well established there for thousands of years, other groups of Europeans with different languages and customs living side by side, and hostile Americans to the south. Even the seasons themselves could be apocalyptic, with brutally cold and long winters and sometimes unforgivingly hot summers; blizzards and tornados and droughts and ice storms and floods and forest fires (not to mention the occasional epidemic outbreak or earthquake). No wonder it was called the New World. It was the end of everything they had known, and now they had to figure out how to survive in this strange place. It was a challenge as daunting psychologically as physically. For the First Nations people who lived here, the arrival of the Europeans represented their own apocalypse. While the settlement of Canada did not involve anywhere near the same bloody degree of physical genocide that the American expansion did, there certainly was a marginalization of First Nations people as they were conned out of their land (or had it flat-out expropriated) and forced onto reserves; there was systemic racism across the country (which some argue still exists); and the cultural genocide and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of the residential school system and similar programs. In a sense, the legacy of modern Canada is the survival of many apocalypses, of people being broken, thrown into someplace new, seeing the end of their old worlds and being forced to reinvent themselves and the place where they live.

And so it's no wonder that — carrying the weight of these experiences — this sense of worlds ending, and of survival and rebuilding in the post apocalypse, is something that pops up not infrequently in Canadian speculative fiction. That's why this anthology, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is so entirely appropriate for our country. Forget about Mad Max or Snake Plissken or Robert Neville or Henry Bemis or Brother Francis Gerard or Alwyn Macomber; this book assembles a collection of our own post-apocalyptic heroes, anti-heroes, and people just too concerned with the day-to-day business of survival to worry about any of that other shit. Here, Moreno-Garcia has explored the literary landscape of the strange, and brought back a collection of unique treasures. These stories are not salvage from the old world, they are new inventions that have plundered pieces of the old and have repurposed fused them with the dreams of the new to repurpose them into things that do more than fascinate the eye — these tales, like improvised gadgets in the wasteland, make us a little better for having them.

Among these stories, one of my favourites is John Jantunen's "The Body Politic", a brilliant and poignant juxtaposition of a global apocalypse with the more personal catastrophe of dementia. Even as the world outside the narrator's home falls apart in some way we don't see, the narrator himself experiences a life that is becoming increasingly frustrating and confusing as his mental faculties deteriorate. For his wife, it's an obvious double hell as she has to take care of her husband, coping with his steady decline, while behind the scenes dealing with whatever needs to be done to ensure their survival. Whether it's finding making eggs for breakfast, re-using newspapers to let her husband maintain the delusion of his daily routine, or calming him down when he discovers a body at the end of the driveway, the narrator's old wife keeps both of them going in face of an inarguable loss of everything.

"Persistence of Vision", by Orrin Grey — about a ghost apocalypse — and "Manitou-Wapow", by GMB Chomichuk — about the people of a Hudson's Bay Company post in Manitoba trying to survive, and eventually retaliate against, a Martian attack in the HG Wells War of the Worlds setting — are both deeply absorbing and entertaining. I can't get enough of War of the Worlds-inspired stories, and 'Persistence was frightening for its persistent sense of inescapable doom, as well as its subject matter. And we can't forget Claude Lalumiere's "Maxim Fujiyama and Other Persons" about a man who needs the apocalypse to happen in order to allow him to connect with other people — sort of.

This book shows why Canadian speculative fiction anthologies are so great.


Nocturnes and other Nocturnes, by Claude Lalumiere

You know those muggy summer nights when the sweat undulates down your back and the heat hugs your head like you're trying to put on a wool sweater that's just come out of the dryer but is still damp? Think of the kind of night where there's no air conditioning and you can't sleep... The kind of night where all you can do in the restless, soft, hot-toffee-sticky, 3 o'clockishness of it is to play the blues, write, or have sex... The kind of night that anyone in eastern North America (especially the Ontario of my youth) just has to live with, but has newly and unusually become the norm here on BC's Lower Mainland this year.... But what if you don't play an instrument or want to listen to your neighbours screaming for you to shut up? What if the long day before has worn you down past the point where you could write? What if your spouse/partner/girlfriend/boyfriend/whatevermakesyourboatfloat slaps away your hand and whine-growls "What the fuck?! I just got to sleep, you piece of shit! Leave me alone!"? That's the kinda night to grab Claude Lalumiere's new collection, Nocturnes and other Nocturnes... the kind of night when its stories of sex and noire-ish death and somewhat otherworldly weirdness are most at home and seem to nourish you.

Or, you could just open it up on your long, boring, overcrowded train ride into work every too-bright morning like I did last week.

Either way, 'Nocturnes is a superb collection that's worth picking up.

The book is divided into three sections: "Shades of Noir", containing stories which, although not set in the 30s or 40s, do have a very noir feel to them; "Nocturnes": shorter pieces which often have a very dreamlike quality to them and are frequently of a speculative fictional nature; and "Strange Tales of Sex and Death", which is pretty self-explanatory.

One of my favourites is "She Watches Him Swim", which is (afore-mentioned decade setting aside) the quintessential Canadian noir story. I mean, finding a way to rid oneself of a spouse at the cottage? It could only have been more Canadian if they'd just finished a meal of pig tails and poutine while wearing toques, or if it was a movie with Paul Gross and Maury Chaykin playing respectively a troubled local cop and a donut shop owner who saw too much. And it's an incredibly well-written noir story, where the protagonist's feelings are unveiled slowly and methodically until her true desires are finally revealed.

I also enjoyed the set of playful little myths that Lalumiere has invented, such as "What to Do with the Dead", "Manit and the Nightmares", and "The Beginning of Time". "The Secret Seduction of the Subtle Serpent" was also interesting, with its science fictional tale of sex and power and how inequality in a relationship can bring someone low. And "All You Can Eat, All the Time" was quite the take on the urban vampire story.

It should be noted that a number of the stories do contain explicit sex — are about sex — but even people who don't normally read erotica may still want to consider this collection because of its intelligent approach to the subject. Many of the stories concern themselves with celebrating the enjoyment of sex, but they're often as not also discussions of identity and the fluidity of one's sense of self, as well as power and fear.

'Nocturnes is a short book, and its stories read quickly, but the length feels right. Like a series of dreams on a hot night that are over after a too-brief bout of sleep, but that you ponder for days to come.


The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

A lot's been said over the years about how technology changes us — about it's effect in the past, present, or future; what we gain and lose of  ourselves; what we keep and what we leave by the side of the road. In a way, the discussion of culture can become like a discussion of technology itself, in terms of the effects of the introduction of new ideas, mechanisms, or circumstances. Robert Charles Wilson's new novel, The Affinities, does just that, exploring how one man's sense of identity and his place in the world is affected by the creation of a new technique that places people in their most optimal peer group, and how that ultimate cooperation creates a system of tribalism and potentially dangerous competition between rival groups of personality types.

Adam Fisk seems to have never really fit in. He's left his family in New York State to attend university in Toronto because he doesn't want to be around his authoritarian father and older brother; there isn't much of a connection with his quiet, religious, determined home-maker step mother; and while his younger, slightly autistic step brother (it's a Wilson story, there's almost always a kid somewhere on the autism spectrum) is a nice kid, they don't have much in common. Adam doesn't even really have much attachment to his girlfriend. He only has a real bond with his grandmother, and health-wise, she's on her way out. In Toronto, there are no close friends, and no great prospects at school or for a career. Then he decides to look into a new service from a tech company called InterAlia. For a fee, the company uses a new way of evaluating a person's personality traits, and then pairs them with their "Affinity" — a group of others with a similar nature (if differing backgrounds, experiences, and interests) who that individual is comparable and ideally compatible with. There are more than 20 Affinities, and almost immediately they begin to form strong tribal identities, with members of each group starting to socialize almost exclusively with members of their own Affinity, often to the point of distancing themselves from their own families and other non-Affinity connections. Rivalries then begin to form between the different Affinities, as well as with governments and other organizations worried about losing their power to the rise of these proto psychological ethnicities, and with a loose affiliation of other people whose psychological profiles or personal circumstances prevent them from joining any Affinity. Now, Adam finally finds himself running with a pack whose members like him and understand him on an instinctual level; he's found love; his tribal connections offer him well-paying and fulfilling jobs; and he's becoming a key figure in the plans of one of his Affinity's leaders. Problem is, there's a growing realization that things can't last: that the Affinities must out-compete each other (and the non-Affinity groups that don't trust them) or die, and that if the right one succeeds, they could usher in a new golden age for humanity. As Adam's group finds itself in an increasingly violent rivalry with another Affinity, he finds his place in the world, and his loyalties to his Affinity and non-Affinity ties, tested.

In a small way, The Affinities reminded me of the notion Cory Doctorow played with in his novel Eastern Standard Tribe, where connections made online become important, and become somewhat tribal in nature.

But what's most interesting in The Affinities is the warning about how the best intentions can become corrupted due to basic human flaws. As much as the Affinities are supposed to offer hope for humanity because of their innate ability to cooperate better, they're unable to cooperate significantly with each other. Worse, right off the bat, it's quickly established that not every human will be able to join an Affinity, giving the reader the feeling that in a future Affinity-created utopia, there may be no room for the non-aligned; that they may wind up as an underclass, or wiped-out entirely. This feeling is underscored by the development of a slur used against the non-Affinity connections of Affinity members: tethers (as in, the non-Affinity person is a "tether" that ties an Affinity member to her or her old, and, it's implied, inferior life). Moreover, it's a slur that's used within Adam's own "Tau" Affinity, which, from the perspective of the narrative, is supposed to be the easygoing, nice tribe. It's a slur that Adam's Tau friends use in reference to the non-Tau family and acquaintances who are important to him, and circumstances develop where Adam is steered towards an "us or them" choice. Then there are the drifts — people who's personality test scores change over time, meaning that at different stages of their lives, they change to become more appropriate for a different Affinity, and are cast out of their previous tribe. It's a world with frightening implications.

And yet, the Affinities, for all their statistical prophecies about their ascendence to supremacy, are not the be all and end all. As previously mentioned, it doesn't take long for unaffiliated people to form their own loose coalition dedicated to finding an alternative path for humanity. Through this arms-length sub-plot, and the eventual outcome of Adam's story, we see Wilson using the novel to play with the idea of evolutionary experiments — times where a species or technology has branched out into several different, simultaneous lines, some which might have had more advantages than others, but died-out none-the-less, becoming evolutionary dead ends. In human history, we have the examples of the Neanderthals and their cousins, and the Homo Sapiens. The Neanderthals were stronger, and well-adapted to their environment, but ultimately died out. Sure, there was interbreeding, and many modern humans carry a little bit of Neanderthal genetic legacy, but it's the Homo Sapiens line that's still round. In the world of technology, if you were around in the late 70s and early 80s, you'll remember the VHS versus Beta choice (my family went VHS, but I had friends who owned Betamax machines — for a while, anyway). Was Beta a better tape? Maybe, but VHS won out, and stuck around for another 20 years or so. In the novel, we see the Affinities arise and naturally consider themselves to be the replacement for old-style human relationships and organization. And yet, in the background, as the old governments and organizations dig-in, and as the non-aligned humans form their own coalition, we see the possibility that there may be a different option available for humanity's advancement.

For a relatively short book (at least, short in this age of doorstopper novels), The Affinities has a lot to say.

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