Posthuman Passions

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ premonitory words, written almost two centuries ago, seem to accurately describe the turbulent dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and perhaps posthuman worlds depicted by contemporary writers Nalo Hopkinson and Julie Maroh. Combining stories published in the last fifteen years with new material, Hopkinson’s collection Falling in Love with Hominids (2015) brings fresh flavours into the heterogeneous genre of black feminist fantasy and speculative fiction. The suggestive title of the collection, borrowed from a ballad by sci-fi writer Cordwainer Smith, entices the reader from the start by anticipating some of the common themes in the stories: the complexity of affective relations; the limitations of the category of the human; the possibilities offered by posthuman bodies and communities; and the creation of an alternative ethics across species.

In an optimistic tone, Hopkinson explains in the foreword to the collection how she believes that working collaboratively can lead “towards positive change,” a trait that has characterized her oeuvre from her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring (1996). Those kinds of coalitions and collaborations recur in stories such as “The Easthound,” where a group of urban children need to find ways to survive in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by adults who are now child-killing cannibals with monstrous bodies. Resisting nostalgia and innocence, Hopkinson’s narratives are populated by child and teenage figures whose resilience, passion, and imagination help them not only to survive, but also to create new communities in a world at the brink of extinction and exhaustion. In related ways to Larissa Lai’s and Hiromi Goto’s speculative fictions, the teen protagonists and young adults in other stories such as “Message in a Bottle” and “Left Foot, Right” are presented as imperfect subjects whose bodies and affective systems do not conform to standardized definitions of the human; instead, their strangeness and difference become positive elements that help them sustain themselves in a world saturated by longing, pain, and death. These abject figures, as the protagonists in “The Smile on the Face” and “Delicious Monster” illustrate, manage to recreate feminist and queer forms of sustainable living through their self-reliance and their coalitions with non-human creatures, which include ecological landscapes as embodied subjects.

It is this crossing of boundaries between the human, the monstrous, and the animal that may connect Hopkinson’s stories with Julie Maroh’s second graphic novel Skandalon (2014). The depiction of a young musician’s descent into hell allows Maroh to challenge readers to face our darkest passions: how power can transform us into monstrous creatures; how success can lead to isolation instead of communal change; and how creativity can also become a source of ugly feelings. The theme of the tormented musician, though a very much exploited figure, is approached by Maroh in novel ways, particularly through the use of intense red and black colours as markers of saturated affect. The intensity of the drawings also highlights the crisis of Tazane, the protagonist, who radically transforms throughout the narrative, engaging in acts of violence against himself and others, and ultimately committing rape. The extreme close-ups of Tazane’s eyes, tongue, and body suggest a continuation between an excessive masculinity and his becoming a monstrous creature in a dominantly patriarchal society. In his own words: “I’m less and less human. . . . I am your double, your shadow, your nervous system. . . . . I feel nothing.” The spiral of violence that leads into his arrest is also mirrored in the streets of Paris, where multiple riots take place, shaking the public opinion. Eventually acquitted, the story’s anti-hero thus manages to escape justice but succumbs to a symbolic death through his retreat from society. The last pages of the book, however, are filled with evocative images of water and waves that suggest some form of potential transformation, followed by close-ups of Tazane’s body being beaten, until he finally exclaims: “I feel . . . alive.” Readers are then left to question the possibilities and limitations of the vitality of the world that surrounds us; how our passions, our energy, our thirst for life, can make us flourish but can also kill us. In the words of Hopkinson, “We’re all on the same spinning ball of dirt, trying to live as best we can.” Our challenge then in this age of global crisis would be to figure out sustainable ways to rethink this “we” in order to generate equitable forms of affective, ethical, and social justice. In this sense, Nalo Hopkinson and Julie Maroh’s passionate fictions are an excellent starting point.

This review “Posthuman Passions” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 139-40.

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