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Divine Realms: Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Susan MacGregor, Ravenstone, 1998, 275 pp.
Divine Realms has an unusually high proportion of strong stories compared to what can be typically expected from an anthology of short stories. Divine Realms is actually a theme anthology: as the second subtitle on the cover puts it, these are "tales from the spiritual world." The stories inside range from historical pieces to urban fantasy to alien encounters to literary think pieces, and all are connected by an unusual concern (unusual in the genre at least) for the spiritual, mystical, or religious. The stories work surprisingly well. Despite a few quibbles on my part, I would recommend the anthology for anyone interested in an above average collection of stories.
First my quibbles, to clear the air. The subtitle clearly indicates that the stories are Canadian, however that might be defined. That's why it seems odd to include a writer like Louise Marley, who has no connection to Canada as far as I know. A few of the other author bios are ambiguous, but most of the writers are clearly Canadian. My other quibble: this is the third anthology that I've read recently (this collection, Crossing the Line, and North of Infinity) with a story written by an editor. I always thought selling a story to yourself was a taboo, but it seems to have moved from taboo to bad taste to accepted practice. MacGregor's story here, "Drying Out in Purgatory", is by no means the best story in the collection, but even if it were, I would still agree with the older standard that dictates its omission.
Enough peeves. Divine Realms is an excellent anthology, with a number of stories that have become favourites of mine. "Not in Front of the Virgin" by Mary Woodbury is a short piece with a clever title and even better writing. Woodbury takes a certain phenomenon -- the likeness of spiritual figures appearing on everyday objects -- and places it in the life of Wally Jarman, an older man who drives a bus and whose relationship with his wife, Vera, is not what it used to be. A painting of the Virgin Mary appears on the wall of Wally's room, and soon he is engulfed in media hype and eager-to-believe fanatics. The charm of the story is in Wally's reactions, and in the way the painting intrudes on their love life -- the story is funny and warmhearted.
"Thanksgiving Day at the Temple" by Donna Farley is my next favourite. It's a well-written story, suffused with melancholy, as an alien comes to Earth and finds no comfort for spiritual needs in a time of dying. Farley rather accurately points out the division of labour, so to speak, between the physical and the spiritual in our society. A bit of special pleading mars the story, but still vividly conveys the sense of an alien on Earth, alone and profoundly frightened.
Peter Watts' "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald" closes the collection, and it's an interesting story in the vein of Wilson's Darwinia. The story starts off as a detective story, complete with murder and police psychiatrist. The title character has murdered her lover, but protests that she was trying to save him. As with Wilson's novel, Watts uses some theories from physics that verge on theology, and to fascinating effect. Interestingly, the reason why Jasmine in particular is the one who has a second coming has everything to do with human progress and the increase of knowledge.
The bulk of the collection is made up of stories that take moderately compelling premises and treat them competently, and again, this is a distinct mark in Divine Realms' favour compared to most other anthologies. For example, Jason Kapalka's "The Power of Faith" opens the collection and it's a well-told slice of life of two scoundrels selling relics in the Middle Ages. Louise Marley's "Body and Blood" uses a modern day setting to tell the story of a girl named Perpetua who has joined a cloistered convent and has to juggle her spiritual devotion with the fact that she has some unusual mental powers. "Little Bones" by Jena Snyder is the type of story that Dean Koontz used to specialize in, a story with a chracter named Eldie who has the ability to dowse, not for water, but dead bodies. I liked Keith Scott's "Voices" with its tale of a Canadian pilot flying in the Battle of Britain, a pilot who learns a few lessons about mercy and the nature of war. A few other good stories fill up the book, and one or two gimmicky or unsuccessful stories.
What does it mean that a specifically spiritual collection of fantasy and science fiction exists? To generalize, fantasy has been a friendlier genre to tales of the spiritual world, while science fiction has been more inimical (as Orson Scott Card has written about). However, like most generalizations, mine here are not particularly helpful, especially since genre blurring is not a new thing in the field, and in that sense Divine Realms resolves into yet another salvo in the war against limitations on writerly ambition. Science fiction can't deal with the spiritual? Oh yes it can! This seems to be the mood of Divine Realms, and perhaps the idea does have something to prove. That's why I was happy to see so many strong stories in this collection, proving that the kneejerk reaction to genre conventions had some substance after all. Whether Divine Realms would appeal to anyone other than a science fiction or fantasy fan (like someone who lives in the type of convent Marley describes, for example) is another question altogether.
To close, I'll add that it's nice to see another anthology showcasing Canadian writing!
Last modified: April 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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