Beyond the Threshold is EXPANDING

Hi all!

This is just a quick update about what I’ve been up to, and some changes you will notice on Beyond the Threshold. As much as I love writing flash fiction, there is so much more within the realm of speculative fiction that I want to explore. As you may have guessed, I’ve always been a lover of books, comics, TV and movies. I spent 7 years in post-secondary education for film studies, so when it comes to discussing film and TV, I really can’t shut up. So I’m expanding Beyond the Threshold to leave room for things such as more book/comic reviews, and Top Lists for a variety of topics regarding TV and movies. I’m currently writing for a pop culture website, so a lot of this content will be linked to those published articles. And, of course, I will also continue to post my own fiction here too.

Thanks for all the support – I hope you’ll enjoy the expansion. Stay Strange!

Kindred (Octavia Butler): Book Review

Science Fiction; Historical Fiction; African American Literature â™ â™ â™ â™ â™ 

Author: Octavia Butler

This book was published in 1979, the first science fiction novel to be published by a black woman. It holds a rating of 4.14 on Goodreads.

Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.

A perfect book – Kindred is a balanced blend of science fiction and historical fiction, providing an original and thoughtful framework through which to consider black American history.

I’ve read slave narratives, and seen period films dealing with slavery. They are gut-wrenching, difficult, pieces to get through. They elicit emotional and visceral reactions, exposing a dark reality that many of us are relieved is left in the past when the book ends or the credits roll. But how can we connect with these characters who are living in a completely different world than we are today? We can’t, not entirely. And it’s a problem that Butler solves with one simple plot device: time travel.

Dana and Kevin are characters we can relate to. She is a modern black woman and he a modern white man. Perhaps reading this book in the 1980s would have made their interracial relationship stand out more, but in returning to the book in 2016, it’s hardly jarring. In fact, it makes them seem even more modern; even easier to relate to. So when Dana finds herself to have inexplicably travelled across space and time from her California living room to the antebellum south, she is a perfect point of reference for the reader. The reader is forced to consider, along with Dana, what aspects of modern life one can has taken for granted, and how one would adjust to life as a slave in 1815.

More to Offer than Violence

The immediate concern for Dana, of course, is safety. What we know of slavery is its brutal and dehumanizing nature. Reading slave narratives often means having to read first hand accounts of violences and atrocities many of us prefer to believe no person can be capable of committing. But there it is, written outright, stirring up the most intense emotions. Kindred deals with this in moments, but consciously focuses more on Dana’s adjustments to her new role and how she reasons herself into submission when she has to. The story is more about the struggle of accepting certain terrible things, and learning to appreciate what remains in 1976 (or today). So when the violence happens, it is emotionally painful to read, but it doesn’t happen on every page, which seems like a wise decision on the author’s part. This way it doesn’t lose any of the more squeamish or ignorant readers, because the book has so much more to offer than the stark reality of violence. It’s not just a story of strength and survival of the body, but of the mind.

Race, Romance, and Desire

(SPOILERS BELOW)

Dana and Kevin have already chosen each other despite the objections from friends and families who have not been able to understand why a black woman and a white man would fall in love. But they have. And if they think that’s tough in the 1970s, that they might make it through the treacheries of the antebellum south seems damn near impossible. When Kevin ends up on the plantation with Dana, she instantly fears what may become of him; how the ideology of the times may taint him. She never outwardly thinks he’ll become a bigot, or leave her – but her fears lie just below the surface. Meanwhile, Kevin simply can’t adjust. The master/slave role they have to take on to stay together is so unnatural to him that he can’t quite feel it, or play it. It’s both frustrating and beautiful to watch him, a white man, struggle to fully understand what he is witnessing. He remains an observer on the outside, simply unable to blend. But when he gets trapped in that time and place, stranded when Dana unexpectedly time travels home without him, he’ll have to learn to. Back home, Dana is determined to find her way back to him – whoever, or whatever, he may be by then.

Then there is Rufus – the white boy who keeps inadvertently calling to Dana, ripping her from the comforts of 1976 to his father’s plantation. He finds himself in love with a free black girl, Alice, and she and Rufus will someday become Dana’s great great grandparents. When Dana first meets Rufus and makes this connection, he is still just a young boy who can’t seem to stay out of life-threatening trouble. Each time she comes to him she must save his life, secretly insuring their family line. But each time she comes to him he is a little older, a little meaner, and a little more a plantation owner’s son. Soon, it becomes clear that his love for Alice, although “true”, is one of obsession and possessiveness. Dana watches it unfold, knowing it’s how it must be if her great grandmother will ever be born.

Final Thoughts

This book is a triumph in both Sci-fi and Black Lit. It’s touching, emotional, powerful; and yet it never pushes itself over the edge that is so readily available in slave narratives. I give it 5 spades ♠♠♠♠♠*.

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own definition of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.

Unwind (Neil Shusterman): Book Review

Dystopia; Young Adult â™ â™ â™ â™ 

Author: Neil Shusterman.

This book was published in June 2009, the first of the Unwind dystology. It holds a 4.19 rating on Goodreads.

Connor, Risa, and Lev are running for their lives.
The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child “unwound,” whereby all of the child’s organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn’t technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive.

This book is a haunting, disturbing, and thought-provoking. When I first began it, I was skeptical. Young Adult fiction doesn’t always do it for me, and I was opposed to the lack of backstory it seemed to offer. The reader is told that a war has taken place and as a result abortion is illegal – but unwinding teenagers is commonplace. My immediate thought was that a pro-life society could not devalue the life of teens so readily. Not laying out the course of events that would lead to such a society seemed like a misstep on Shusterman’s part. But once I finished the book I realized something crucial that I wish had been made clearer by the author; the unspoken beauty of this work is that it is not simply another dystopian world, but one of utilitarianism: the ethic that the best moral action is the one that has the greatest ability to maximize the well-being of the many as opposed to the one. This social approach removes emotion and personal attachment from the equation all-together. As a result, it’s cold and terrifying.

Social Values and Reproductive Rights

The key to understanding this world is to acknowledge that it’s less pro-life than it is pro-optimal-functioning-society. And everyone has to earn their right to life within it. That means, by the time you’re a teenager, you have to have given society a reason to deem you valuable. The parents who choose to unwind their kids are not considered bad people, but good people for understanding the value of a strong, thriving society made up of only strong, thriving people. Yes, it’s a little master-race-y, isn’t it? So obviously, as an ideology it’s problematic and it inherently devalues anyone who is different.

Learning the stories of the unwinds forces the reader to think about what, in this society, is valued, what is not, and how those ideals can be manipulated. And while aborting babies is now illegal, storking is perfectly accepted. This is the act of leaving your newborn on a doorstep, which will make the homeowners legally responsible for it. If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is; and it begs us to consider the issue of reproductive rights and what happens when they are eradicated.

Race

The portrayal of the Other is quite unique in Unwind. In one of my favorite passages, the character Cyfi is described as “umber.” He explains that the term “black” was once used, but was switched to umber, in honor of a mixed-race artist who always used the color umber to paint images of people from African ancestry. Soon after, white people began being referred to as sienna. Cyfi says these are “Better words. Didn’t have no value judgment to them. Of course, it’s not like racism is gone completely, but as my dads say, the veneer of civilization got itself a second coat.”

It should be noted that this reference to his “dads” is the readers first indication that Cyfi is being raised by a gay male couple. In the casualty of very few words, a lot is said; but not much about sexualities is mentioned otherwise.

Religion

The afterlife is obviously  huge aspect of this book, but so it the concept of the Tithe plays a huge role in this book. According to Christianity, members of the religion are supposed to practice tithing: giving one tenth of what you have back to the community, and God. In a world of unwinding, some religious families allow this to apply to their children as well.

A main character, Lev, is a Tithe. He was born, the tenth child, specifically to be so. On his 13th birthday, he will be unwound, considered in this circumstance a great honour for his family and to his God. Lev has been raised with this belief and feels strongly that it makes him special. But when his pastor expressed his own doubts about the world and God, Lev is forced to question everything he knows. As he struggles to find a new version of himself in a world that looks quite different than it did mere hours earlier, Lev finds himself trotting a new path – and it’s one that is both righteous and dangerous.

Final Thoughts

The subtly with which the story unfolds is actually its genius. What I disliked about the book at first, became what made it so powerful by the end. Slowly but surely, all of the issues caused by a purely Utilitarian society come to light: the value of life, the definition of consciousness, medical science, race, religion, and terrorism.

The issues explored throughout the book, however passingly, are jarring enough to make you stop and think. More discussion would have been welcomed, but ultimately it’s still a strong narrative structure featuring well developed characters.

I give this read 4 Spades: ♠♠♠♠*

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own understanding of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.

Misery (Stephen King): Book Review

Horror â™ â™ â™ â™ 

Author: Stephen King

This book was published in 1988. It holds a rating of 4.06 on Goodreads.

Paul Sheldon. He’s a bestselling novelist who has finally met his biggest fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes and she is more than a rabid reader – she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

This is a straight-forward horror piece that sets out to do one thing: thrill. In that, it’s very successful. This was the first King book I read cover to cover, and on that note I should probably preface this by pointing out that while I admit King is an amazing storyteller, I’m of the seemingly popular opinion that his actual writing is not very impressive in terms of style. Actually, I tend to find it a bit bland, and I normally give up on his books quite quickly.  I know that’s a contradiction and that it’s not entirely fair.

King is meant to be read for thrills, not for prose. He writes in a very clear and concise manner – and as a tech writer, I appreciate that to some extent; but, what can I say, I’m a sucker for prose. And yet, Misery sucked me in, and left me satisfied.

A genre piece through and through, the story at once seemed unrealistic and entirely realistic. Hmm… I guess I’m full of contradictions when it comes to King.

While the story did not outwardly discuss any social issues, I still think it raised a few things worth discussing.

The Creative Industry

Paul Sheldon has made a name for himself as the bestselling author of the Misery book series. The books are period pieces that follow the romances and dramas of the (presumably) young and beautiful, Misery. The character has had many adventures but Paul has decided to call it quit on the series. He’s tired of panning to the masses and their love of Misery, and wants to try something a little more creatively ambitious. He wants to write something serious and meaningful.

This aspect of the book is very interesting because even as a successful well-known author, he doesn’t feel like a real artist. It begs the question of how we as a society define art, and has us question whether art and pop culture can co-exist, and what makes them different. It also makes us think about the pop culture machine – note that Sheldon’s agent is not impressed with his new career path. What if his new approach simply doesn’t sell? It’s all about the masses.

Gender Role Reversal

It seems worth noting that when Paul falls victim to Annie Wilkes (an obsessed fan who holds Paul hostage until he “brings Misery back to life”), there is an inherent gender role reversal taking place. Historically, females have been thought of as the more vulnerable sex, making them easy targets for men, who have been thought of as the more violent and dangerous sex. Historically, this scenario has also played out in reality many times, and continues to, across all societies. Subsequently, archetypes like the damsel in distress or the attacked woman have populated our books and screens. But not this time.

Annie is large, strong, and independent. She has the ability to physically overpower Paul, even if he wasn’t recovering from a terrible car accident. When men are victimized to the extreme level Paul is in this book, it adds a level of discomfort. The role reversal is itself scary because it says no one is safe, not even a big, tough, man. At the same time, the idea of a woman being so powerful is also jarring. Even if only subconsciously, this type of reversal is its own brand of horror. That this book is so obviously playing with that is really entertaining.

But for all its clever reversal, there is one generic element that remains intact: like in all good horror narratives, the (male) authority figures turn out to be utterly useless. These are the moments the readers/horror fans gets to roll their eyes and smirk.

Violence

The violence in this book is a slow build; and it works. Annie is clearly a little strange when she is first introduced, and slowly but surely her craziness begins to seep through. She’s unstable. She’s unpredictable. And then, after a long while of seeing it coming, she’s violent.

That first act of violence against Paul is intense. The reader has by this point suspected for some time that Annie is not to be trusted, and it seems that she is capable of doing him harm. But when she finally does, all of the anticipation is satisfied, explosively. The story’s pace increases from that point on, and the reader remains just as on edge as poor, helpless, Paul.

Final Thoughts

It’s fair to say that the suspense and thrill was delivered very effectively in this novel. It was a lot of fun to read, and it leaves a chill not to be soon forgotten.

As for the characters, it was exciting to watch Annie’s ups and downs and Paul’s plight was captivating. The book offered lots of suspense and thrills, and I loved that it mixed up the typical gender roles. Lastly, there were some noteworthy points raised about the creative industry, even if they weren’t explored in-depth.

I give this book a solid 4 spades* â™ â™ â™ â™ 

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own definition of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.

Dawn (Octavia Butler): Book Review

Science Fiction; Fantasy; Post-Apocalyptic â™ â™ â™ â™ â™ 

Author: Octavia Butler

Something a little different today: a book review of one of my all-time science fiction favorites (expect a few more scattered book reviews in the future). This book was published in 1987, the first of the Xenogenesis trilogy. It holds a rating of 4.09 on Goodreads.

Lilith Lyapo awoke from a centuries-long sleep to find herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali. Creatures covered in writhing tentacles, the Oankali had saved every surviving human from a dying, ruined Earth. They healed the planet, cured cancer, increased strength, and were now ready to help Lilith lead her people back to Earth–but for a price.

This is a brilliant fantasy narrative that never misses an opportunity to remind the reader of the ongoing atrocities that exist in our world, while maintaining an intriguing story of its own.

I read Dawn without having ever really engaged with science fiction or fantasy before-hand, and it opened so many new doors for me. It was a very unique experience because I felt as though I was being introduced to a new world alongside the character, Dawn, who wakes up centuries after the destruction of Earth to find herself on an alien planet she never knew existed. In learning about the Oankali creatures and their way of life, Dawn is forced to reconsider everything she once knew about the world and how it works. As a result, a great number of issues are explored, making reading the book an extremely fruitful exercise in critical thought.

Please note: As I discuss the themes, some plot points will be eluded to, prompting this “minor spoilers” notice.

Race

Octavia Butler is one of the few renowned black sci-fi writers. So it’s no surprise that this book explores issues of race. What is a surprise, however, is that the exploration unfolds on two levels.

Dawn (a black woman) is the chosen one, that is, the Oankali have decided she will be a leader among a small group of people salvaged from Earth to restore it with them. However, prepping her for her return often mirrors the experiences of black slaves. She was taken from her home (Earth) without consent. She is kept in small, bare quarters, and initially told nothing about where she is or why. Her captors study her from a position of superiority and authority. Her attempts at rebellion result in punishment; and eventually she learns that the only way to survive is to accept her situation.

At this point, the roles shift to some extent. Now, Dawn has the opportunity to study the Oankali. She finds their appearance disturbing, and their culture impossible to relate to. In many ways, her Othering of the Oankali also mirrors the concept of race-supremacy.

Gender and Sexualities

Dawn is a strong female lead and the idea that she is chosen to be the first person back on Earth also positions her as a matriarch. Of course, there are feminist connotations to this that I can appreciate; but it is the Oankali that become the most interesting in regards to concepts of gender.

The Oankali can be male, female, or neutral. Of the three genders, only the neutral sex is the only one that can procreate. In order to do this, it must mate with a male and female (simultaneously). The Oankali therefore must maintain three-way relationships, and each child has three parents.

The entire concept is difficult to grasp and the scenes in which it is explained or performed are difficult to follow. This allows us to think about how narrow mainstream understandings of gender and sexualities are, and opens up discussions of traditional values. For Dawn, the idea of sex with the Oankali becomes a point of serious self-evaluation and stress.

Reproductive Rights

In order to rebuild the world, repopulation must take place. The Oankali have saved hundreds of humans, both male and female, but they are not planning on simply returning them to Earth alone. In fact, the Oankali believe it would be morally wrong to give Earth back to humans who would (according to their genetic makeup) inevitably destroy themselves and the planet once again. The compromise? The next generation to inhabit Earth would have to be human/oankali.

Interspecies relationships mean there is a lot at stake, namely, the continuation of the human race (or what will be left of it). Dawn and the other humans must decide how they feel about the extinction of a purely human breed – and whether they even have a choice in the matter.

Final Thoughts

This book introduced me to a genre, and made me think about so many aspects of humanity and society.

The prose were not the most elegant, but the story was fascinating. The plot does not move very quickly, but that is to serve the purpose of making the reader think about the ideas being presented. The main character’s point of view is just the right amount of confused, and I found that for the most part she was believable, even if not relatable. The book surprised me, and as far as conceits of the genre go, I think it deconstructed them in a way that made it a wonderful introductory text. A lot of issues were explored, and adequately discussed in the moments where Dawn and the Oankali try to understand one another.

I give this book 5 spades â™ â™ â™ â™ â™ *

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own definition of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.