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The Latest in Canadian SF
Tesseracts Ten, edited Robert Charles Wilson and Edo van Belkom, Edge, 2006, 301 pp.
I went through a phase a few years ago of reading Canadian science fiction and fantasy obsessively. This phase was a necessary corrective to the idea that nothing good was coming out of the frozen north, at least in terms of speculative fiction. So science fiction is an expression of American exuberance (or something)? It appealed to my perverse side to find out just how well Canadians were doing in this stereotypically American genre. I took a break after a few years -- focusing on one thing for too long is an easy way to get fed up with it -- and now I’d like to come back home with a column suitably titled “The Latest in Canadian SF.” What has been happening up here in the last few years? I’ll be looking at the most recent novels by four Canadian writers to answer that question.
But an even better way to take a survey of the state of affairs in Canadian genre fiction is to look at Tesseracts Ten. Editor Judith Merril started up the Tesseracts series in 1985, with a collection that had the express intent of showcasing and proving the worth of Canadian material. The series has continued strongly over the next 22 years, and this is actually the eleventh entry, with TesseractsQ as a side entry that focused on French-Canadian stories. The series ran for many years under the imprint of Tesseract Books, with Tesseracts 8 being the last item from them (and quite a worthy entry). Edge Books picked up the series with Tesseracts Nine, and here we are with number 10. As before, two editors, most often working writers, get together and select stories from original submitted works.
So what does this collection look like? And what can it tell us about Canadian genre fiction?
The best story this time around is clearly Matthew Hughes’ “Go Tell the Phoenicians.” The story is a bit heavy on the exposition at the top, but the setup is worth it. Earth’s civilization has spread through the galaxy, and it’s a repressive one -- as Hughes puts in a memorable phrase, it’s a combination of “multinational corporations and tyrannical regimes” (159). It’s like all the worst aspects of colonial times, with the science fiction twist that only humans have discovered interstellar travel and they’re keeping it a huge secret. Endless exploitation follows, as only the Bureau of Offworld Trade could do -- and it’s certainly a wonderful acronym!
Into this setting comes a protagonist, Kandler, who is an exo-sociologist, and mostly filled with self-loathing because the only way he’ll get to practice his knowledge is as a BOOT functionary, thus opening up new planets to BOOT “trade”. So there are two things going on here, both of which Hughes has to get right: the puzzle of a new alien race and their culture, and then the question of how Kandler will resolve the situation. I feel a bit odd cheering on the stick-it-to-the-humans ending, but BOOT is a hissworthy villain if there ever was one. And the story plays on so many different SF ideas that it’s a marvel that Hughes can pull it off.
Another memorable story, “Puss Reboots” by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, is a somewhat unusual thing for an anthology of Canadian speculative fiction: it’s a story set in space with strong leanings towards standard science fiction, with a computer/culture twist. Life in space is hard, but made much livelier (i.e., more difficult) by sexy androids, the mechanical cat of the title that’s not quite what it seems, and a seriously down-and-out group of workers who are just trying to survive. Bedwell-Grime uses a light tone, but just like the story by Hughes, we have a hostile workplace as a form of antagonist. That’s less the case here, but the similarities are remarkable.
Scott Mackay contributes two stories, “The Threshold of Perception” and “The Girl from Ipanema.” In the first story, an astronomer named Monsieur Marcotte argues with Percival Lowell about the existence of canals on Mars. Then when Lowell makes a claim that the Halley’s Comet of 1910 has altered its course and is now heading directly for Earth, Marcotte does not immediately believe him. The story ends on an unusual note. The second story takes us into the viewpoint of an AI learning how to escape into the “real world” from the prison of a funding cut at a laboratory. Solidly assembled, but a bit standard in narrative.
Allen Moore’s “Donovan’s Brain” runs with a similar theme as “The Girl from Ipanema” but instead of a look from the inside, we are looking at the same development from the outside. What would a benevolent AI look like? How would it treat us normal humans? The story ends with what might be a dry historical piece -- someone from the future looks back at the development of Donovan’s Brain -- but it’s chilling, absolutely chilling, in its implications. A standard cautionary note perhaps, but with a nifty twist.
I liked Matthew Johnson’s “Closing Time.” It’s a tale of ghosts and Chinese cooking. Made my mouth water! It stands out as the one major story in the collection that doesn’t try to riff off of standard SF ideas.
Quite a few of the other stories take standard sci-fi set pieces and try to do something new with them, with not as much success. “Women are from Mars, Men are from Venus” by Michele Laframboise (and translated by Sheryl Curtis) takes the title literally, but doesn’t seem to get very far. “The Intruder” by Lisa Smedman seems very Tiptree-esque to me -- a small creature on another planet sees a weird biped land on the surface. How to drive off such an intruder? Fine, but it’s been done.
Tesseracts Ten has a number of mood pieces, some more successful than others. For instance, “Permission” by Mark Dachuk is one of the weirdest leaving-Earth stories I’ve ever read. Very compelling, very intriguing. I don’t even know how to summarize it, since it seems so ordinary yet it still has a clear/sinister edge of surrealism. The story that follows directly after it, “Summer Silk” by Rhea Rose, aspires to be a mood piece of the horror variety, as a mother’s instinct gets altered into a less nurturing version of itself. It’s passable, but not compelling.
Other mood pieces include “Au pays du merveilles” by Wendy Warring, a look at a futuristic society without books, “The Undoing” Sarah Totton, a grim story about a doctor who works in a disciplinary system that destroys prisoners physically, and “Angel of Death” by Susan Forest, a futuristic death match entertainment satire.
Tesseracts Ten also has stories by Greg Bechtel, Victoria Fisher, Yvonne Provonost, and Rene Beaulieu, and poetry by Sandra Kasturi, Jason Christie, and Nancy Bennett.
Robert Charles Wilson provides an interesting introduction, “A Nervous Look Down a Dark Road,” and Edo van Belkom concludes the book with a summary called “Canadian SF Comes of Age.”
Overall, I found Tesseracts Ten to be slightly disappointing. The book provides a handful of strong stories, but the rest are too familiar in concept and tone and don’t do enough to break free of that familiarity. I hope this is not representative of the latest wave of Canadian writing -- let’s move on and examine the evidence.
Widdershins, Charles de Lint, Tor, 2006, 560 pp.
The world of Newford has been in the telling for close to 20 years, just a few years less than the Tesseracts series. De Lint has put out over 20 novels and short story collections about Newford, and part of each Newford book is about dealing with the past. Although it’s less than you might think. There is indeed the weight of what we know of the past, but since Newford has such a large cast of characters, de Lint can mix things up by moving his focus from one protagonist to another.
Widdershins is a bit unusual, in that de Lint returns to the same main character as he used in The Onion Girl. Jilly Coppercorn, one of the central figures in this imagined world, already had a pretty rough time of it -- as de Lint himself puts it in the Author’s Note that opens the book: “Let’s face it, you can’t have a novel without some drama and hardship in the lives of its principal characters, and I didn’t want to have to put her through the wringer yet again” (11).
But he gamely does so, and Widdershins is the result. Jilly in fact goes through more than the wringer, she goes back to her childhood. That’s not such a good thing, considering what she endured at that time.
Many of the characters in Newford are recovering from problems in their past. In Jilly’s case, it was an abusive older brother (as well as a local priest, but the brother was the worst of it). At the time, Jilly would imagine another world and a character in it who was the one this was all happening to. Through magic of considerable power, this place became real in the otherworld (as we have seen happen with other people’s imagination in previous Newford novels). Sure enough, Jilly now lands in this world, where the evil Del is once more in charge and she is powerless. It presents some grim reading. Will Jilly bring some of her maturity and the confidence that she has painstakingly accumulated over the years to the situation? Despite the fact that she is immersed in her worst nightmare?
Widdershins has another major storyline running through it -- Jilly gets tangled up in it near the beginning, but is soon off in the world of her own making. The book starts with a musician named Lizzie and an encounter on a lonely crossroads. Lizzie doesn’t know about fairies or the otherworld or any of the other things that have been happening to so many people in Newford through the last 20 years. But she stumbles into a feud between the fairies who live in urban areas and the cousins, the animal spirits who were pushed out of their own territories when the fairies came over the ocean with the Europeans. Some bogans, the most mean-spirited of the fairies, have killed a deer princess, Anwatan. Lizzie stumbles on the aftermath.
Now, Lizzie doesn’t know anything about this, and barely escapes with her life. She and the other members of her band can hardly believe what they have gotten into, and there’s at least one serious injury before they manage to get some help.
It’s quite difficult to summarize this part of the plot, because de Lint piles on the narrative complications. Soon it seems like every major magical entity on both the side of the fairies and the side of the cousins is involved. There’s a showdown between the multitude of spirits of murdered buffalo and the fairies who were there when it happened. There’s a longstanding feud between two cousins, Joe Crazy Dog and Odawa, a blind salmon spirit. The book might be nearly 600 pages, but the story is always hopping.
I really liked the storyline of Rabedy, a bogan who doesn’t fit in with his bloody-minded brethren. It’s kind of sweet -- a story of someone who finds his own courage to do right, even though he was present when an awful wrong was done. The memory of the slaughter of Anwatan haunts him. As a new protector says to him at the end of the story: “And now you have to carry the weight of not stepping up. But the memory of what you didn’t do can be the strength that lets you do the right thing, the next time you see somebody about to get hurt” (522). Rabedy is not the only character who gets a second chance here, and most of it is due to the wisdom and compassion of the protagonists. If you like your fantasy bloody and filled with vengeance, this is not the book for you. Like some of the most interesting stories, de Lint tries to figure out how differences that would be mortal and gruesomely resolved in another book are dealt with gracefully.
And in terms of long-standing Newford characters, there’s also Geordie Riddell. In his Author’s Note, de Lint mentions that Newford fans were curious to hear what would happen between Jilly and Geordie, considering their long history and some hints that have been dropped in previous books. They spend most of the story apart! But that’s maybe the way of romances -- Jilly in particular has to sort out some personal history before she can be ready for anything else.
Newford is still alive in this latest book by Charles de Lint. I liked the way the book came together, and I especially admired the elements of conflict resolution that showed de Lint cares about keeping the story interesting with drama and confrontation, but then sorting and resolving the drama in an inspiring manner. But I also felt the weight of what has come before -- it takes me a while to get into a Newford book, even though the opposite should be true. Sometimes I like a little novelty. I wish Newford fans and de Lint all the best, and I’ll drop in and visit when I can.
The New Moon’s Arms, Nalo Hopkinson, Warner, 2007, 323 pp.
The New Moon’s Arms, Nalo Hopkinson’s latest novel, takes place on a fictional Caribbean island group called Cayaba and features some extraordinary events that happen in the life of an ordinary woman. These two concerns -- Caribbean culture, the influence of the extraordinary on a sympathetic protagonist -- carry forward from Hopkinson’s earlier work. From a young mother trying to survive on the streets of a dystopian Toronto in Brown Girl in the Ring to the nanotech utopia of a Caribbean-settled planet in Midnight Robber to the patchwork of historical episodes assembled in The Salt Roads, Hopkinson has taken the speculative genre to a new stop in each book. The New Moon’s Arms feels closest to The Salt Roads in its explicit Caribbean setting, but the latest book takes a fresh angle on any familiar concerns by grounding itself resolutely in the present day. There are a few exceptions to spice up the storyline, reaching back into history to add some depth to the but The New Moon’s Arms is definitely a story of today.
Hopkinson does most of the grounding through the protagonist, and this book is a character portrait, through and through. The central figure of Calamity Lambkin supplies most of the narrative energy of the book -- Calamity is perverse, profane, and quite prickly. She keeps everyone around her hopping, even though these traits don’t make life any easier for her.
The book opens with the funeral of Calamity’s father. He died after a 2-year illness; Calamity cared for him throughout his sickness, but the father and daughter were estranged for many years previous to that. Calamity was a teen mother, part of the reason for the break between the two, a situation made worse by the disappearance of Calamity’s mother right around the same time. Based on such events in her life, Calamity recently changed her name from what it used to be -- Chastity. It’s a telling detail, and one that suits what we come to know of her as protagonist.
I appreciate a prickly character who doesn’t care too much about what other people think and speaks her mind. This is not always successful in Calamity’s case and it makes her relationships difficult. Calamity’s homophobia is the centre of some of the book’s most uncomfortable scenes, since she tells off at least two of the gay/bisexual men in her life. Not the most fun way to get through your day.
Two impulses are driving Calamity’s life, in addition to the events in her past that have lingering psychological effects. Firstly, as she is going through menopause, she has discovered that she gets unusual hot flashes, intense and disturbing, that have the power to bring back physical objects from the past. It’s an interesting way to literalize the concerns of her stage in life: her father has died, so she’s going back and thinking about and summarizing their relationship. And literal reminders of how things used to be are dropping out of the sky. She can’t help but be reminded.
The other big impulse in her life happens when she discovers an injured boy washed up on the beach. She names him Agway and tries to take him in. But she’s in her fifties, pretty much broke, and she has hardly any social capital with the family and friends around her who might be able to pitch in and help. She regains a friendship with Evelyn, a childhood tormentor who is now a doctor, but even Evelyn’s help doesn’t seem enough. Calamity is brave, and I admired her anger at the way she is treated as old (at one point, her daughter calls her a matriarch, which causes no small amount of grief) and poor.
There is a mystery about Agway -- he seems to be from a sea-people family. Calamity has memories of meeting a young girl on the beach who had intriguingly marine characteristics, and there are some hints that her own mother had mysterious oceanic origins (although Hopkinson seems to drop that storyline later in the book). The history of the sea-people comes through in little vignettes all along the way, and this is where a slight flavour of the historical interludes of The Salt Roads is present. Where might such creatures have come from? Why might they be in the Caribbean?
Hopkinson tells a sly story of politics on the side. While the Caribbean islands of Cayaba in The New Moon’s Arms are fictional, the politics of Cayaba feel very realistic. There’s a conflict between the investment of a big factory and American tourists vs. what is happening to the wildlife around the islands and to the lives of the regular people who live there. We often get to know people and see their lives before we see how they fit into the political structure -- some nice surprises there, since our sympathy is spread around in interesting directions. And there’s an opposition politician who seems to be saying all the right things, but she swoops in and uses Calamity as a prop into a photo opportunity in a scene that’s devastatingly funny.
I generally liked The New Moon’s Arms, and I admire Hopkinson’s ability to change up her style and try fresh approaches while keeping the same core concerns in place. But experimenting inevitably leads to less than optimal results, especially if you are attempting something risky and new. Hopkinson simply does not settle down and crank out the same regurgitated material, which puts her in a very elite group of writers. The flip side of course is that sometimes the result might not gel completely, and that’s my impression of The New Moon’s Arms -- something new and interesting that doesn’t quite have all its bits working in alignment. I liked Calamity and her story, but I was underwhelmed by the book as a whole. That said, I’m looking forward to Hopkinson’s next project, as always.
Sun of Suns, Karl Schroeder, Tor, 2006, 318 pp.
Karl Schroeder’s Sun of Suns is a tour-de-force -- no matter which way you approach the book, Schroeder has the angle covered. Sure, there are a few slip-ups here and there, but overall Sun of Suns delivers. The book takes two strong trends in science fiction -- the big dumb object in space, à la Ringworld, and the much more recent trend of neo-pulp -- and mashes them together with a higher degree of elegance than should be possible. There have been quite a few other recent pulp revival projects, but Schroeder manages to maintain a lot of the hard-won wisdom from the intervening decades since the era of swashbuckling space pirates and princesses on Mars and so forth. That wisdom means that the story is put together smoothly, the writing is undeniably tight and wondrous at once, and the characters -- well, the characters might be the one drawback, but they are certainly perfectly serviceable. So, most of the advantages of well-written, high-falutin’ literary SF, mixed with zero-g battles, lost civilizations, epic confrontations, and non-stop action.
Schroeder’s secret weapon is that his exposition has only gotten better over the years, and in this case the exposition is matched with a nifty piece of world-building. The setting gives the book a great deal of its confidence: we are thrown into a world that seems to be zero-gravity mixed with a regular breathable atmosphere, and it’s not until page 83, and a considerable amount of action, that we learn the world’s exact nature, this from a character who has come from outside of it and has some perspective.
The world of Virga, as its called, is essentially a giant gas balloon, over five thousand miles in diameter, with an artificial sun at its centre -- everything follows from this proposition, and any further details are always integrated into the flow of the story. So there’s a lump of exposition to satisfy the curiosity of those who want to know at the book’s quarter point. The other main item, just a few pages later, that lets the reader in on the secret of the world is a virtuoso passage that follows a bullet, fired in one location, all the way along its travels until an inevitable intersection with a person. It’s like all that footage of people shooting into the air on the eleven o’clock news: the practice is dangerous enough on our world, but in Virga, it’s positively deadly. And with this amount of action, it’s going to be happening to other people too.
That stuff is almost all background, thankfully. Schroeder gets the big picture stuff note-perfect, but he also focuses on telling a story, in the best pulp tradition. So we have a hero, and the book rests on the capable shoulders of Hayden Griffin. The book opens with an attack on his town, Aerie, that wipes out of most of what he holds dear. The story picks up again a few years later: he has infiltrated the ships of the navy (so to speak) that blew up Aerie, ships belonging to a nation called Slipstream. But he is all-too-human and once he gets to know the ordinary Slipstreamers, he realizes that they are only human too. Is this enough for him to forget his vengeance? Maybe.
Slipstream, meanwhile, is facing an even bigger threat, and the Slipstream admiral, Chaison Fanning, and his wife, Venera Fanning, have planned an only-slightly-insane escapade that will give Slipstream an advantage in the coming conflict. The escapade functions partly as a tour of some the more interesting locales in Virga. Schroeder has all the possible Virgan variations worked out, and maximizes the sense of wonder with each episode. I particularly liked the escape from a principality in Candesce (the closest area to the sun that’s livable) that is trying to keep them in town. I also liked the sargasso expedition: there’s an area of Virga where a giant fire destroyed a civilization. No air circulates through the burned mass, and all the oxygen is gone, making it very dangerous.
But this particular expedition, which takes up the bulk of the storyline, exposes one weak spot in the book: the motivations of the main character. Now, I understand that Hayden is not a stereotypical hero, and I liked the fact that his motive of vengeance was not as pure and sociopathic as, say, an action movie hero. But I was never entirely convinced as to why he would go along with the Slipstream expedition -- the book piles on the explanations, this way and that, and it’s a case of protesting too much. If his decision has been a logical one, Schroeder would not have had to expend so much narrative energy defending it.
Two other characters make an impression: Venera Fanning, a strong, capable woman who is determined to make the most of her political marriage to the admiral, and Aubri Mahallon, a woman who comes from outside of Virga. Venera’s plans and secret knowledge drive all of the actions of the Slipstream fleet, and she’s a forceful presence at all of the key moments in the book, just as much as Hayden. In a more simplistic book, she would form the opposing binary of the protagonist/antagonist split, against Hayden. But Schroeder treats Venera’s deviousness (and occasional bursts of murderousness) with an unusual dryness, as if she is only a logical outcropping of the social structures around her. More on that in a minute.
Aubri is an enigma for most of Sun of Suns, for the very good reason that she has some kind of chip or trigger implanted in her head and she simply cannot reveal her mission. She was exiled into Virga by the world outside, which is controlled by a culture called Artificial Nature. I won’t say more about Aubri or Artificial Nature, but it’s worth noting that her background is part of a lineage in science fiction where an advanced culture loses track of reality and becomes enervated and essentially self-destructive. See Greg Egan’s Diaspora, Charles Stross’ Accelerando, and Schroeder’s own Lady of Mazes.
The front cover proclaims this Book One of Virga. Virga is a very promising setting, so Schroeder can go in any number of directions with this. Especially since the first adventure is largely self-contained: some of the characters get away, some battles happen, but the main storylines are wrapped up. The immediate sequel, Queen of Candesce, is on bookshelves soon -- Schroeder has been busy -- and it follows the adventures of Venera Fanning. A ruthless pragmatician like Venera has already shown that she can tear through the pseudo-medieval power structure of Virga like nothing, so this promises to be an equally interesting and exciting book, with a definitive shift in tone. The bar is set quite high!
Blindsight, Peter Watts, Tor, 2006, 384 pp.
I guess the easiest way to describe Blindsight, the latest novel by Peter Watts, is to say that it’s the exact opposite in nearly every way from Widdershins. De Lint tries to offer reassurance that things can work out and that there’s hope, and also tries to give us some very familiar characters to spend some time with. Whoo boy, Watts has no patience with anything like that. The universe doesn’t hate us, per se -- more that life exists in an impersonal universe and the more we can comprehend that, the easier it is to deal. And as for characters, Watts pushes that as far as it might be possible to go in the direction of unfamiliarity. The antagonists have approximately zero similarity to human intelligence (not to reveal any big secrets!) and the narrator has had half of his brain removed, which means that a main challenge in understanding the book is to figure out how far away from human the narrator actually is.
Ironically, a lot of the plot seems like window-dressing, and the book itself rests on its characterization. Yes, the characters are not familiar, but I find when I’m thinking about the book, I have a one-line summary of the plot, but that the list of characters is where Watts has focused his energy. In a weird way, it entirely serves Watts’ point to locate the scientific and philosophical speculation within the fleshy bodies of the protagonists.
The plot, then, briefly, before moving on to the characters. There’s another big dumb object, but in this case, it’s an alien spaceship heading towards Earth, possibly with hostile intentions. An existing space mission is diverted to investigate. Hilarity doesn’t ensue. In fact, first contact is when the deaths start.
As I mentioned, Blindsight is narrated by someone with half a brain: Siri Keeton had the medical procedure done as a child to save him from a form of epilepsy. He is alive, quantifiably, but is he part of society in any meaningful way? We get some flashbacks to his previous life experiences, including a relationship that he messes up spectacularly. But he simply doesn’t have the ability to act “human” -- he’s modelling the processes of socialization and empathy with whatever got stuck in the empty half of his skull. If we consider this as a literalization of the way that we are alienated from each other, it’s cheeky and devastating in equal measures, and Watts plays it to the logical extremes. A finely judged literary performance, but still one that repels as much as it attracts.
Four other characters are on the ship, none of them particularly human. There’s a soldier named Amanda Bates who has her mind pretty much distributed through drones and other military devices. There’s a scientist named Isaac Szpindel who is also augmented through mechanical and technological means. A linguist named Susan James has a brain that has been tampered with just as severely as Siri’s brain, but this time for the functional purpose of splitting hers into four separate personalities. Supposedly it helps her on the job.
The fourth character is the ostensible captain, Jukka Sarasti. He’s a form of human that has been brought back from extinction -- the vampire. Watts has fun with this one, but he never cracks a smile. This is no pop culture cheesefest or romance novel wannabe, like most manifestations of the vampire in television or books. The captain is the least squeamish and sentimental of the bunch, which is a hard feat to pull off, and just because the other crew members see how he is pushing them around like pawns on the board doesn’t mean they can do anything about it.
So a narrator that demonstrates to us the futility of human contact (or human contact as a taunt of the cold impersonal universe just before random events squish us all like ants), a crew that has desperately thrown humanity aside and still discovers that the gesture is not enough, and a first contact scenario that goes further to define our very small status in the ultimate order of things… Apparently we are an unfortunate detour in the process of evolution -- lovely stuff!
Having said all that, I have a great deal of admiration for Watts. He has the courage of his convictions, and he doesn’t back down. His voice is always consistent, always taking the presuppositions that the rest of us pay lip service to, and taking them to their logical conclusions. If science fiction sometimes succumbs to happy myths to make things easier for the reader, Watts has no patience for that crap. However, I’m not sure if I could handle it if every writer was like Watts! It’s a noble thought experiment, this book, and science fiction is clearly his home, but we all still have to get through our days somehow. That’s why I like a diversity of books, like this most recent batch of Canadian volumes.
James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa.
Last modified: July 28, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by James Schellenberg
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