Sunday, July 19, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Grin and Bear It

Saturday morning cartoons saw their share of anthropomorphic animals: dogs, cats, horses, apes, even sharks. But bears had their place in the lineup too, and they did more than just steal pic-a-inc baskets. In this episode of the 'rewatch, I'm bear-ly able to suppress the bad puns as I present to you: The Gummi Bears and Pandamonium.

Imagine an evil, inhuman force from beyond our world hell-bent on controlling the universe, who one day turns its attentions on Earth. The thing's less like Cthulhu and more like Sauron — in that it's got a fascination with hunting down pieces of some ancient relic — but not really, and likes to mind control people for shits and giggles. And the only people who can stop it are two American teenagers and a trio of pandas. This would be Pandamonium. Why these kids are the only people in the world who seem to be able to bear-up under the badguy's Jedi Mind Trick is beyond me (perhaps because said badguy has already lulled me with its psychic attack — excuse me while I run for my tinfoil helmet), but the real mystery is the bears. They're not like your normal pandas. They can speak (for some reason, I have a vague memory of the pandas being a kind of Three Stooges rip-off, but I may be wrong), at least one of them wears a hat, and strangest of all, these pandas do more than just laze around eating bamboo all day in a Chinese zoo. They actually participate in the adventures, and possess the ability to combine, Devastator-like, into a single, larger (sort of) entity known as Poppapanda who is better suited to take on the villain. In terms of animals to hinge the plot on, it didn't really have to be pandas to make this show work. It could have just as easily been hamsters, except then the title of the show would've been something like Ham-fisted or Hamstrung, and neither has the ring to it that Pandamonium does. Anyway, here's what Pandamonium looks like:

If you'll bear with me (See, I didn't stop. I could have. But I didn't. And you love me for it.), there's another pinnacle of ursine animation to experience: Disney's The Gummi Bears. For several seasons, The Mouse's machine cranked out this story about a small group of intelligent, bipedal, half-sized bears having adventures in their forest as they hide from a nearby medieval human civilization and an army of dangerous, if stupid, ogres commanded by a rogue human duke. They're joined by a couple of trustworthy human friends. When confronted by enemies, the Gummis have a bit of an advantage in escaping (and sometimes fighting), thanks to the magical gummiberry juice they always keep on-hand.

And yet, for all of Disney's attempts to make these stories fun, there's something deeply disturbing about them if viewers (even kids) pay attention to the backstories and some of the settings (not unlike Adventure Time with Finn & Jake episodes): the Gummi bears of Gummi Glen are (more or less) the last, isolated members of a fallen civilization. Each episode features the bears reading from their precious Book of Gumm, a collection of the history and lore of their people, and every time it's a reinforcement of what the Gummis used to have in the past, and what they no longer have now. We see them travel through the vastness of Gummi Glen, clearly some sort of former city or large outpost colony, with its echoing, but empty tunnels, shafts, and rooms. The half-dozen or so Gummis who are left occupy only a tiny section of the settlement, and frequently have to go out on repair missions to maintain its failing infrastructure, even though there's no-one else to use it. Eerily, we never really find out why Gummi Glen is empty, or why they're the only ones left. Sure, there are episodes that reference other Gummi communities, and sometimes other Gummis wander out of the woods to join our heroes, but never in any great numbers, and never for very long. There are episodes telling about some great past migration of Gummis over the sea, but the Gummi Glen residents never go this new land, and there's no armada of triumphantly returning bears set on re-taking their ancient holdings. Instead, we have just this small group of survivors barely hanging on in the face of human encroachment and ogre attacks. With two of the Gummis being old, and the younger generation consisting of a handful of males and just one female, you know it won't be long before the breeding options become limited, inbreeding sets in, knowledge is lost, and Gummi Glen finally sits dark and empty. This is a really a post-apocalyptic story of a dying people trying desperately, though ultimately futilely, to hang on, cooking up their performance-enhancing substance, living amidst the failing ruins of their civilization, and dreaming of better days.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wollheim's Pluto

I have always loved Pluto.

Ever since I was a little kid in elementary school and I learned about the nine planets of the solar system, Pluto, way out there on the on the icy frontier (although it's clearly not the actual edge of the system), has fascinated me. Maybe because it was so far out, or because it would take so long to get there by rocketship, or because so little was known about it, or because we'd never sent a probe there, it was my favourite, and it played a central role in my dreams about outer space. I remember in Grade 3, when we were given a creative writing assignment with the theme of "space," I wrote a story about flying away in a spaceship with the people of Pluto to fight off evil conquerors from Jupiter.

But the best came the next year, in Grade 4, in the older kids' school, when I went into the library and discovered The Secret of the Ninth Planet by Donald A. Wollheim.

The ninth planet? Guys on the cover wearing spacesuits? A strange, domed building in the distance with a shitload of antenna dishes on top? I judged this book by its cover, and in that instant, I judged it to be good. And when I cracked it open (and cracked is the right word: this was an original from the late 50s that had been read, reread, and re-reread in the same little country school library up until I got my mitts on it in the fall of '83, so that old spine was cracked all right), it got even better. In the two years I was at that school before we moved out west, I must have checked The Secret of the Ninth Planet out a dozen times or more. I'm sure if you found the old check-out card from inside the front cover, you'd find my name every three or four lines.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed all three of Wollheim's Secret books (The Secret of the Martian Moons and The Secret of Saturn's Rings) and read them all several times, and read fairly widely throughout the entire library, but 'The Ninth Planet was the best.

The story is about Burl Denning (Burl? Yes, Burl. By that name alone, you know this book was written in America in the 50s.), a teen who's on an archaeological expedition in the Andes with his father, when they get a message (by drone rocket!) from the US government ordering them to investigate a strange phenomenon causing communications problems and a steady drop in global temperature — a mystery with a source apparently in the mountains nearby. The Dennings discover an automated alien base. They force their way in, and after initially being unable to make the controls work, Burl is zapped by a strange ray and is suddenly able to use the alien console to shut the system down. Eventually, it's determined that the facility was syphoning off the vital solar energy that would normally be hitting the Earth. Scientists then discover this is happening on every planet in the solar system. Worse: not only would the process have rendered the Earth cold and dark (in a matter of weeks!) if left unchecked, it is going to cause the sun to go nova! Because he's the only one who can manipulate the alien controls, Burl is recruited by the US government to join a group of adventurers aboard the Magellan, a spaceship that will use nuclear energy to power a newly-developed anti-gravity drive. Their mission: to travel to every world in the solar system, find and destroy each solar sucking station, discover who or what is behind this deadly scheme, and put a stop to them. Interplanetary adventure ensues, and the Magellan's crew faces everything from a giant, hungry mat of fungus heaving up from the seas of Venus, to Martians living in an unthinking ant-like society who get pissed-off when the wrong signal is given, to booby-trapped  solar installations, to show-downs with the evil minds behind the nova plot — the nefarious arachnoid people of Pluto! It seems Pluto is a rogue planet (and one that was once Earth-like) that wandered into our solar system not too long ago, and its inhabitants want to make the sun go nova to defrost their world and make it livable again. Helped by crystalline warriors from Neptune, and later by a menagerie of intergalactic prisoners kept in an exhibit on Pluto, the Earthmen destroy the badguys and restore safety to our solar system.

The Secret of the Ninth Planet is immensely problematic. In fact, if you try to look at it rationally, especially with what we now know about... science, and in terms of what we expect of acceptable behaviour and ethnic and gender representation, this novel has a shitstorm of problems. The science is downright laughable: harvesting solar energy will not make the Earth freeze up or make the sun go nova. Basically, the Plutonians? Plutokins (as I thought of them when I was a kid)? Plutoites? Hadesians?— spider dudes are a bunch of hippies. In fact, they're —in some ways — rather considerate of the locals, because they put their solar power stations in really out of the way places on most of the worlds and moons and then (usually) leave said locals alone. Granted, the spider people of Pluto are slavers, genocidal, and into the religious sacrifice of intelligent beings, but they're environmentally friendly. Sort of. But this book was written in the 50s, so solar power stations are bad, and nuclear's good. Then there's the notion that a good deal of the solar system is teeming with sophisticated life — some of it having achieved technological civilizations. It would be cool if that were so, but it isn't. Hell, watch the news enough, and it often seems like our civilization, while technological, isn't that sophisticated.

Getting away from the "science," when one reads this book from a modern perspective, there's also something intensely weird about parents allowing their teenager to go galavanting off into the unexplored depths of space on what's sure to be a suicide mission in the company of a bunch of strange men without any family supervision. But then we remember that this was written in the '50s, so, from the perspective of absolute duty to one's country and trust in the moral authority of, well, the authorities, and the naive take-it-for-granted attitude that your countrymen are all good and trustworthy gentlemen, the whole thing is basically a prolonged Boy Scout adventure weekend, so it's all fine and dandy.

There are also no women in this book. Yes, Burl's mom is mentioned — in passing, for about a second and a half, and has no speaking role at all. Again, '50s YA novel, givin' the nod to June Cleaver.

There is also no ethnic diversity among the human crew. From their brief descriptions, we can guess they're all apparently white. Now, to be fair, about half the Magellan's crew members are referenced  so briefly and described so barely that you could imagine that some of them might be African-American (but not Hispanic or Asian or South Asian or First Nations, or any other ethnic group)... but probably not. And even if you did imagine there was some degree of undescribed ethnic diversity among the crew, half of them stay belowdecks for most of the story and don't play much of a role, so it wouldn't be a very flattering representation even if it was there.

Then there's the fact that our heroes are themselves pretty genocidal. They figure out that the people of Pluto are the last vestiges of their civilization and only just surviving, but there's no thought of talking things out with them, making peace and trying to set them straight, and offering them an opportunity to maybe resettle to, say, Venus, since they're so desperate for warmer climes. Nope. Without a trace of irony, the solution to the problem of the genocidal Pluto people, right off the bat, is to blow 'em up real good. Every last one of 'em. No talking. No attempting to create an understanding. Just nuke 'em. And, you know, in the final battle, rip them limb from limb in a grisly multi-species hand-to-hand brawl. Yeah, we're better than the people of Pluto.

And plot holes? Did I mention plot holes? Plot holes that you could fly a dumbbell-shaped Plutonian battlecruiser through? How could the Magellan possibly stand a chance against even one Plutonian ship, made by an enemy with a centuries or millennia head-start in technology? These people can engineer a friggin nova - they're not gonna have a problem wiping aside one measly little prototype from Earth. And yet, time and again, the Magellan slugs it out with its alien rivals and — except when it's ambushed — it comes out on top. Come to figure, if the Plutonian civilization has that much technical know-how, what do they need with a nova? Why not relocate themselves to Venus? Why not shove off for an uninhabited star system and turn on the juice somewhere where no other race will be harmed — and where no other race will come and wipe them out?

And yet, for all that, I love this goddamn story. The Secret of the Ninth Planet is such a fast-paced, rip-roarin', page-turning, optimistic and earnest story galavanting through a solar system teeming with life and adventure — a solar system as was imagined of old, so much more interesting and vital than the one we really have — that even now, after having reread it so many times, after coming back to it as an adult and seeing it for all its flaws, even now it still carries me along from the first page to the last page and I have fun the whole time.

About two weeks ago, in celebration of the imminent flyby of the New Horizons probe past Pluto and its moons, I picked up The Secret of the Ninth Planet and read it again. There are astronomers like Clyde Tombaugh who certainly deserve to be immortalized in the naming of geographic features on Pluto. And I'm fine with all of the other names that have been suggested for features of the planet, drawing from literature and pop culture and legend. But because way back at the end of the '50s Donald A. Wollheim let his imagination stray to that strange little world at the farthest reaches of the solar system, and wrote such an enjoyable, if flawed, story about it and its inhabitants, I'd really like to see some part of it named after him. Because Wollheim took so many readers there before New Horizons, I'd like it to be his Pluto too.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Now with More Irregularity

I'm irregular!

Wait, that doesn't sound good for anybody.

I'm an irregular!

Still not quite right. Sounds like a downtrodden caste in some dystopian YA novel. Let's try something else...

I'm one of the Irregulars!

Yeah. That'll do.

A bit of good news to pass along: I've been invited to join the most ancient and esteemed order of the SF Signal Irregulars.

As many of your know, I've been a big fan of SF Signal for a long time – since shortly after it was launched, in fact. John and his team of contributors, known as the "Irregulars," have been offering up interesting reviews, engaging discussions, eminently listenable podcasts, and plenty of nerd-related news for 12 years now.

During that time, I've left the occasional comment, and it's been my privilege to have participated in a couple of Mind Melds. Not too long ago, John floated the idea of my joining the Irregulars, and I had to ask myself "Self (because, in the words of the late, great George Carlan: I do so enjoy good conversation), how can I say no?" Well, I couldn't! Who wouldn't want to be part of this awesome team?

So here we are, all Irregular. For starters, I'll be one of the site's army of book reviewers, but there may be opportunities for other things later – we'll see whether they can tolerate my Canadian spelling, awful sense of humour, and steadfast refusal to give up my worship of donuts in favour of bagels. Seriously though, I'm pretty excited about being a small part of SF Signal.

Really seriously though: donuts are much better than bagels.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to blather away here on as usual. More mini book reviews, the occasional rehash of Saturday morning cartoons, grumblings about movies and TV shows, exhausted mumblings at the end of the day from whatever con I happen to be attending, and whatever else catches my attention. And I'm working on something special for later this year or early next... but no spoilers.

Stay tuned for more sf goodness both here and on SF Signal.

Irregulars... that's a lot better than being one of the Expendables. Less chance of getting dysentery crawling through some bacteria-infested creek somewhere with bad guys shooting at you. That'd be like having to eat bagels.

Monday, July 13, 2015

WHERE - Over on SF Signal

Good news, everyone (to channel my inner Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth): SF Signal has just posted my review of Kit Reed's new novel, WHERE.

John over at SF Signal was kind enough to send me a galley of WHERE a little while ago, and I jumped at the opportunity to share some thoughts about it. WHERE is tightly-focussed, but it has an awful lot to say for such a succinct novel. But I won't spoil my spoiler-infested review here — get over to SF Signal to read my impressions of what is probably one of Reed's best works to date.

In fact, I'll admit that one of the problems I had in writing the review was that there's just so much to say about this book. In order to stay on track, I couldn't talk about the symbolism of the water journeys in the story (trips to the underworld, and/or baptisms maybe?), or the claustrophobic inversion of the wardrobe image and journey from CS Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe that comes near the end, or any of a dozen other interesting little side avenues that nag at the brain for hours or days after putting the book down. I'll leave that for someone else... or come back to it in a couple of years after a reread maybe. In any case, these are the frustrating pleasures of reading a really smart story that you just know you'll have to come back to eventually.

But beyond this review, you should be reading SF Signal anyway, because it's just such a cool site!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Artifacts of the 80s

There are some lost artifacts that are better left buried. Some hidden relics of the past that, while they are statements about the nature of their time and culture, are just too terrifying to behold.

I'm going to dig two of them up and show them to you anyway.

This time on the Saturday Morning Rewatch, we're going to inflict some very specifically 80s pain on ourselves, in the form of Rubik The Amazing Cube, and Kidd Video. Admittedly, we've rewatched some questionable Saturday morning fare in the past, but these two cartoons may just be enough to make you regurgitate your dried marshmallow-augmented cereal.

Admittedly, you can make the argument that music videos have been around for many decades in various forms. After all, what were Frankie & Annette's beach movies, or Elvis' flicks, but extended music videos where thin plots bridged multiple songs? But music videos really came into their own in the 80s, with big budgets and flashy sets and locations, bands putting an emphasis on style as much as (sometimes more than) talent, directors and extras making names for themselves – or big names coming in as directors or extras. And the videos and their video shows were goddamn everywhere. Everywhere. I remember you couldn't turn on the TV in the early-mid 80s on a Friday or Saturday night without seeing a music video show at some point on nearly every channel; there were music videos available for rent on videotape in just about every video store; and, of course, entire TV channels dedicated almost entirely to music videos were launched. And kids weren't exempt from the marketing madness of music videos: even if you didn't have older siblings or babysitters watching music video shows in the evening, the record company promoters and TV producers still found a way to start cultivating the younger crowd: some channels ran music video shows on Saturday mornings after the cartoons were finished. These were somewhat tamer than their night-time counterparts, although while they ran most of the same charting videos, they withheld the ones that might have been considered a little too sexually charged – although they didn't apply the same standards towards frightening subject matter... I still remember the morning when they broadcast Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, and it scared the shit outta me. But what does all of this have to do with Saturday morning cartoons? At some point, a group of TV producers and record label types decided to take this marketing drive to its ultimate end – it wasn't enough to show videos after Saturday morning cartoons. No. They had to put the peanut butter in the chocolate. In 1984, they decided to put pop music and music videos into the cartoons. In 1984, they created Kidd Video.

Kidd Video was the story of four teens who had a band in the real world, who, one day, were magically transported into a cartoon world called "the Flip Side" by a record-company-boss-like badguy called Master Blaster (no relation to the Bartertown duo from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome) and his trio of anthropomorphic cat henchmen. Saved by a pixie who looked like she was fresh from a high-impact aerobics session, the group wandered the Flip Side trying to find a way home. Every episode would feature a segment from at least one well-known real-world pop/rock song, and some episodes ran segments of real music videos from well-known groups. I seem to recall the idea with some of the clips being that they real bands had been captured by the Master Blaster, and the kids had to do something to free them. Was there any interaction between the characters and the actual musicians from the videos we were all watching Friday nights? Of course not. It was just a plot device concocted to play charting and generally popular music to kids to program them into wanting to buy it. Every episode also ended with a full-length music video featuring the real-world versions of the Kidd Video cast. I didn't like the blonde kid. I think he stares at himself in the mirror when they're singing just a little too intensely.

Anyway, here's Kidd Video:

Another classic artefact of the 80s was the Rubik's Cube. The puzzle became so popular that it gave rise to a whole series of variants, including a sphere, a pyramid, and a long snake-like thing. It also spawned a truly terrible cartoon – and utterly transparent marketing gimmick – called Rubik The Amazing Cube.

The show is about a group of kids (It's always about a group of kids, isn't it? I mean, it's never about a gaggle of middle-aged janitors on their coffee break, or a squad of elementary school lunch ladies or something.) who find a magic Rubik's Cube that sprouts a greyish-blue head and feet – or maybe it's a normal Rubik's Cube that's been possessed by some kind of minor demon – with a truly annoying high-pitched voice that sounds like it's being squeezed out of a cockateel's sphincter. The kids and this armless, multicoloured horror then have adventures.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Rubik's Cube puzzle itself because I was the first kid to have one in my little country elementary school. But that doesn't change the fact that this cartoon was a complete piece of shit, and a little unnerving. I mean, maybe there was a reason little Rubik was trapped in a chest in the back of a fleeing wagon. Maybe he wasn't supposed to be unleashed upon a group of helpless kids and an unsuspecting world.

So, Rubik The Amazing Cube for any who dare to look:

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - More Superheroes... Sort of

In the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s, Saturday morning cartoons gave us an odd assortment of heroes and superheroes to follow. Some figures from franchises that had been around for a long time, rehashed in watered-down cartoon form, some were plundered from the pages of comics (and not always the best pages, either!), while others were invented purely for the tube to run between commercials for hyper-sugared cereals and action figures. But we watched them all, because when you're a kid, it's all good... and because we didn't have much of a choice, because at that hour, if you were home instead of at hockey practice (not my thing) or out delivering the Saturday morning newspaper to the neighbourhood (which I eventually did for a couple of years), then it was probably still a bit too early to go out and play with your friends, so... TV.

In today's Saturday morning cartoon rewatch, I've found openings to a group of radically different shows featuring a very diverse group of heroes: The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour, The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show, and Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels. Hey, I said this batch would be diverse, not good.

The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour was a lot of fun back when I was 8 or however old I was when this collection of cartoons was on the air (the 80s were big for "adventure hours", combining 2 or 3 different shows, occasionally related by theme, into a single programming block to keep kids glued to a particular channel). These days, I can look back on this trio of shows and see how, at least in the current entertainment era, they might be more problematic, being potentially offensive to different groups. That said, they did offer a lot of action and adventure, and the occasional dose of science fiction or fantasy elements, and lessons on "doing the right thing" at a time when Saturday mornings were sometimes dominated by more cutesy fare.

Did I mention "superheroes" in this posts's title? Yes. And while, admittedly, they don't have super powers per se (although you might make an argument for Tarzan having beyond-normal abilities to communicate with animals, or Zorro and the Lone Ranger and Tonto being able to survive falls and do other stunts that would probably kill a regular person), we can give them honourary superhero status for being old-time proto superheroes — the examples who would go on to inspire their more powerful descendants, like Batman and Ironman (in fact, wasn't the Green Hornet, an early superhero, supposed to be related to the 'Ranger in some way?).

And speaking of superheroes, sometimes things got a little weird on Saturday mornings, when cartoon producers tried to combine superheroes with subject matter that was silly and kind of cute. Hence Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels, wherein three young women thaw out a club-wielding prehistoric superpowered hominid of some sort, allow him to build a cave on top of their minibus, and adventures (and supposedly hilarity) ensue. Now, a superpowered hominid I can believe, but a cave on top of a minibus? That's pushing it. I will allow, though, that the Captain was pretty funkified in that leopard-skin cape.

And lastly, leaning a little more towards traditional superheroes, but nevertheless overly silly, there was The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show. I wanted to like this show, I really did, but I never got the chance to watch more than 2 episodes of it. The show started running the winter when I was enrolled in skating lessons (I was 5 or 6 at this point, and a lot of other kids were already starting beginner-level hockey), which, inconveniently for a young cartoon-lover like me, took place first thing Saturday morning. This was a double whammy: not only did I miss-out on Plastic Man, but I never did learn to skate that well. Hardly at all. Bad ankles at the time. Even braces in my skates didn't help. Couldn't turn very well, the only way I could stop was by crashing into the boards, and let's not even get into skating backwards. Some Canadian kid, huh? Anyway, looking back on it, I don't think I missed much by missing-out on Plastic Man... none of my little friends talked about it on the playground at the time, and watching the YouTube clips now, it doesn't look like it was successful as a comedy or adventure. But wanting to watch, and yet missing, the damn show, left an impression on me, so, here we go:

One question: the goggles I get (he's a superhero, goggles are an acceptable accoutrement), but what's with the short shorts? Reed Richards never showed off that much leg.

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.