Spring cleaning: UPDATED

April 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Anyone who has had occasion to pass by TSR of late has probably noticed that it looks somewhat abandoned: vines are drooping over the verandas, the lawn is overgrown, and the roof of the garage has caved in. This state of disrepair is the fault of the author, who has succumbed of late to a kind of lethargy that makes matters of daily upkeep seem close to impossible. However, with temperatures creeping ever upward, the robins returning, and the tulips doing their best to poke up out of the ground, it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, slap on a new coat of paint, and get the old homestead looking respectable again.

To that end, we’ve lined up a busy couple of months at TSR. April is jam-packed with goodies for the literary minded:

  • The Toronto Public Library is hosting the Keep Toronto Reading Festival 2011. The program includes a series of events throughout the month, including appearances by 2010 Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, Alissa York, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, and Judy Fong Bates, whose novel Midnight at the Dragon Café is TPL’s One Book for the year.
  • In conjunction with TPL’s initiative, Jen Knoch’s Keepin’ It Real Book Club is spotlighting videos of public figures recommending a book that has changed their lives. You can hear, among others, Richard Crouse on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Fallis on Three Cheers for Me, Jessica Westhead on Bats or Swallows, and Iain Reid on The Beggar’s Garden. There are more to come, including, just maybe, one from yr. humble correspondent.
  • April is also National Poetry Month, which is a chance to celebrate a genre that TSR has historically neglected. We’ll try to talk poetry around these parts in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll also try to inveigle a few guests to come aboard to do likewise.
  • There are a couple of blog tours stopping by here in the next few weeks. Stop by on Friday for Antanas Sileika, author of the newly published novel Underground, and on April 30 for Sarah Selecky, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party.

Selecky’s appearance on TSR leads nicely into May, which is Short Story Month. This year, Selecky, along with Canadian authors Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) and Matthew J. Trafford (The Divinity Gene) have inaugurated a project they’re calling YOSS: The Year of the Short Story. Their manifesto states that YOSS “aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause – to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” An admirable endeavour, and one that TSR, which has always been an advocate of the genre, can wholeheartedly endorse. This site’s contribution will be more modest: for the third time, we’ll launch our 31 Days of Stories, featuring one story per day, plus as many goodies and Easter eggs as time and the generosity of fellow contributors permit.

So, an ambitious plan for the next couple of months. I’m planning to throw open the windows and let some air into the joint. Hope you’ll join me.

UPDATED April 8: An earlier version of this post neglected to include Sarah Selecky as one of the founders of YOSS. TSR regrets this oversight.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 4: “The Divinity Gene” by Matthew J. Trafford

May 4, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

From Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow

Defending her 2003 book Oryx & Crake as an example of speculative fiction, not science fiction proper, Margaret Atwood writes, “Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms.” It seems reasonable to expand Atwood’s assertion to include speculative short fiction, something that Zuszsi Gartner asserts in the introduction to the anthology Darwin’s Bastards when she writes, “Our business is to ask What if?” The “what if” of Matthew J. Trafford’s story “The Divinity Gene” is provocative: What if someone found a way to clone Jesus Christ? In Trafford’s hands, this “what if” becomes the springboard for an inquiry into the nature of religious belief and an examination of the unintended consequences that can accrue to scientific exploration without limits or moral boundaries.

Trafford’s approach is postmodern: the story’s three parts appear in reverse chronological order, and the opening section takes the form of an entry from an online encyclopedia complete with mock hyperlinks in boldface type. In this “Poplopedia” entry, dated June 18, 2029, we learn that in the year 2006 a Polish scientist by the name of Maciej Wawrzyniec released a DNA formula that is believed to be the genetic code of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Using this code, a group of humans – collectively known as the Jesi – were created, all apparently embodying the divine qualities of the original Jesus. The third section of the book details certain events from Maciej’s childhood in Poland, and the bridging section describes how Jesus’ DNA came into the scientist’s possession.

Trafford’s story begins as satire, and the dominant tone is one of irreverent humour (the story becomes less humorous as it proceeds). The language of the mock encyclopedia entry is dry and factual, focusing on matters such as the gestational period of the Jesi and their accelerated aging. But the author also riffs on the idea of Jesus in the modern world: “In 2010, the seven Jesi walked across the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia, Canada, carrying torches and inaugurating the 21st Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.” Of course, it is inevitable that corporations will want a piece of the Jesi, and the Poplopedia article informs us that Coca-Cola and Microsoft each created a branded Jesus for their own purposes. The Microsoft Jesus became the first of the resurrected Jesi, returning to life three days after being blown up by a suicide bomber in Israel. Because of a strange lethargy that sets in when the Jesi hit the age of 11 or 12, they lose all motivation and respond only to simple commands; as a result, they are put to work defusing minefields, their owners secure in the knowledge that if their workers get blown up, they will be resurrected three days later.

The satire here involves the ironic disconnect between Jesus’ miraculous abilities as a manifestation of his divinity and the impulse on the part of secular humans to marshal these abilities for their own ends. But rather than a Manichean dichotomy that posits the sacred and profane as being in eternal conflict, Trafford suggests that they are in fact two sides of the same coin; the story’s cascading ironies arise out of the co-opting of sacred impulses for profane ends, and vice versa.

Indeed, Maciej’s genetic breakthrough comes as a result of his extreme devotion: as a child he imagines that he is responsible for Christ’s suffering on the cross: “He thinks: How much of that suffering am I personally responsible for? And the answer comes to him as though his guardian angel whispered it in his ear: all of it.” Maciej takes horrific revenge on a don at his school who makes a pass at him, a revenge that goes unpunished at the time, although it is possible to argue that Maciej’s ultimate punishment is to witness the Second Coming of Christ degraded by a society that can only imagine the Jesi in utilitarian terms. The geneticist’s suicide note reads, “You have desecrated the one true thing that ever existed, and made my life’s work profane.” The name Maciej means “gift from God”; instead of acting as the bearer of such a gift, Maciej finds himself unable to go on living in a world that has forgotten God altogether.

In this, his trajectory is opposite to that of Jordan Shaw, the amoral billionaire who inadvertently releases the DNA code that allows Maciej to create the Jesi. Shaw is a professed atheist and a collector of horrific memorabilia: “copies of the Bernardo tapes; the pickled body parts from Ground Zero and [a] piece of shrapnel from the second plane.” An unrepentant hedonist, Shaw lives to gratify his own desires, regardless of how perverse or distasteful. The story’s scalding irony involves Shaw’s feelings of guilt for participating in the chain of events that would lead to the “fucked up shit” Maciej does with the DNA code. The guilt that Shaw feels is, for him, proof of God’s existence, but it brings him no solace:

So God’s finally won. I believe in you now, you prick. You’ve made my life a living hell and you’ve sent the dreams to drive me crazy. You want me to kneel down and pray? Fine, I can do that. But don’t think for a second I buy your bullshit about forgiveness and eternal love – there’s  no repenting everything I’ve done.

Blasphemous, corrosive, and ultimately moving, Trafford’s story wrestles with deep theological questions and attitudes toward morality that seem to have little place in a world that has abandoned the divine. “The Divinity Gene” does what all good speculative fiction does: it imagines the extremes we might arrive at if we continue along the road we’re currently walking. It is a cautionary tale, and one that we should pay close attention to.