Tradition and liberty in science fiction and fantasy: Part Fourteen – Canadian speculative fiction, and conclusion
By Mark Wegierski
Canadian Speculative Fiction
The term “speculative fiction” is said to be a Canadian invention. “Speculative fiction” is a term that is said to cover science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Science fiction is said to be a genre of the mind; fantasy, of the heart; and horror, of the body.
Apart from Margaret Atwood, who tends to eschew the term science fiction in regard to her works such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and (more recently) The Year of the Flood, the most prominent Canadian science fiction writer is probably Robert J. Sawyer. His novels are usually based on some interesting premise from more cutting edge scientific speculation, although they are also heavily layered with various types of political correctness. The scientific ideas are fascinating but the incidental societal background may be annoying to some.
Rob Sawyer has had an enormous influence on building up the presence of Canadian science fiction on the world-scene, especially in regard to his role (along with prominent horror writer Edo van Belkom) in having a Canadian region of SFWA (Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) established. Prominent science fiction author Karl Schroeder has established an association strictly for Canadian writers of science fiction and fantasy – SF Canada.
Canadian science fiction fandom has been especially prominent, for example, in instituting the Aurora Awards (and more recently, the Sunburst Awards) as well as in running a comparatively high number of World Science Fiction Conventions, most recently in Montreal (2009).
The seminal anthology of Canadian science fiction and fantasy is John Robert Colombo’s Other Canadas (1979). Very prominently noted in it is Judith Merril (herself a well-known author), who helped establish one of the largest public collections of science fiction and fantasy in the world, now held in the Toronto Public Library system (and called for a long time “The Spaced Out Library” – SOL). The prominence of the reference in Colombo’s book suggests that the building up of various distinctive, specifically Canadian infrastructures of science fiction and fantasy, has been critical in establishing the notion of a specifically Canadian science fiction and fantasy.
One of the best known writers of Canadian SF is Phyllis Gotlieb. A younger prominent writer is Cory Doctorow.
The most prominent Canadian fantasy writer is probably Guy Gavriel Kay. Some other Canadian fantasy writers include Steven Erickson, Anthony Swithin, Michelle Sagara, Caitlin Sweet, and Tanya Huff. Ed Greenwood is known as the creative originator of Forgotten Realms (one of the leading Dungeons & Dragons role-playing settings).
The most prominent magazine of Canadian speculative fiction is On Spec. Another magazine of some prominence was Parsec. A magazine which has more recently arisen is Neo-opsis.
The most prominent Canadian speculative fiction anthology is Tesseracts. There have been a number of other anthologies published, some arising out of writing contests.
Nevertheless, there has been a longstanding debate whether there are, in fact, any truly distinctive features to Canadian speculative fiction. Though one can define Canadian speculative fiction as that written by Canadians – one could ask if there are any specific differences in the content of the writing from that found in America?
One obvious difference is the presence of Quebecois and French-language writing in Canadian SF, although this also raises the question of distinctiveness between SF in English-speaking Canada and Quebec, and between those “two solitudes” and America. To what extent do Quebecois writers indeed follow similar content, except that it is written in French? Quebec has been a society that went from ultra-traditionalism to ultra-progressivism within a very short period of time, which would suggest that writing of the type which explores intersections of traditionalism and modern or futuristic technology would be comparatively rare in Quebec. It is widely perceived today (based for example on the recent curriculum innovations in Quebec removing any attempt to give serious instruction in religion) that many people in Quebec (especially in its elites) want to get away as far as possible from Quebec’s Roman Catholic tradition and past history – which earlier generations had seen as virtually definitional of French Quebec identity.
Some have suggested that Canadian science fiction is more sociologically oriented than American SF, this being related to the more problematic nature of Canadian identity, especially in terms of the waves of multiculturalism that are sweeping over Canada’s large cities such as Toronto. So Canadian SF may be described somewhat vaguely as “more open to difference.” Others have suggested that Canadian speculative fiction tends towards such subgenres as “magical realism” – especially as seen in On Spec’s de-emphasis of strictly science-fictional writing.
It may perhaps be suggested that Canadian science fiction could in general be seen as more politically left-wing than American science fiction, insofar as a political message may be discerned in fictional writing. One of the most prominent and highly radical science fiction writers in Canada is Nalo Hopkinson. The most prominent, strictly Canadian publisher of science fiction and fantasy is probably Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, some of whose output has been considerably radical. Doubtless, this fits very well into a Canadian society where most provinces except Alberta have been seen as the equivalents of the most deeply “Blue” (Democratic) states in the U.S.
The corollary of this is that any traditionalist themes in Canadian science fiction and fantasy are rather thin on the ground.
Nevertheless, it may be possible that out of the varied, mostly urban-based ethnic subcultures of Canada, or perhaps out of the residues of some once-robust regional cultures, or even from some Aboriginal communities, there may arise fragments or shards of distinctly more traditionalist visions, as part of the over-all society’s “value pluralism”. Whether such fragments may ever be instantiated in the writing of credible fiction that will see professional publication – as opposed to SF criticism or journalistic endeavors or just “fan fiction” alone, centered mostly on the Web – remains to be seen.
Mark Wegierski asks whether serious SF may play a heuristic role in regard to suggesting different future scenarios.
It could be argued that, what the science fiction genre offers, in contrast to the usually intellectually lighter efforts of fantasy and similar subgenres, is a possible glimpse into the future of humankind. As can be noted from the descriptions of the last few weeks, the genre of the fantastic in American cinema tends toward lighter productions. (Many of the more serious productions were mentioned in earlier installments.) Although such less serious works can give an indication of the social attitudes of a certain period, they usually do not engage in theorizing about the future, often basing themselves rather on the emotions of people looking for some kind of escape from the world of late modernity.
It may be noted that science fiction in print form is usually rather more subtle and intellectual than most film or television productions. In the more subtle works of printed science fiction, there are indeed raised the perspectives of humankind in the future – an evolution toward “something better”, decline and decay, or even the possibility of human extinction.
One of the not too frequently discussed topics in regard to the future is the so-called “overreach” of the West. It is possible, that there is a very deep trend in Western history toward the desire of “crossing boundaries”. It would seem that much of social and technological advance in human history is based on this “overreach” aspect of the West, its desire to “transcend limits”. It could be noted, for example, that rocket ships are an example of the expression of this “overreach” of the West (also sometimes called "Faustianism"). It could be said that "Faustianism" has the tendency to raise up incredibly high “cathedrals” or structures, which are raised so high, they will eventually collapse into catastrophic ruins.
The excessive valorization of this "overreach" has probably in the end carried Anglo-American and northern European societies, as well as Germany, to a state of being close to collapse. It could be argued that the Celtic, Latin, and Slavic nations – which could be seen as more “balanced” between “activist” and “passivist” tendencies -- may have a greater chance of long term survival.
It is interesting to consider that the Soviet Union, although it left millions of corpses in its wake, had incredible achievements in technology. Indeed, the Soviet Union was a colossus of technology. For example, one can see during the World War II period, the almost unbelievable amounts of military hardware, which the Soviet Union was able to produce. Apparently, in June 1941, just one Soviet armored army had more tanks than the entire German armed forces. The launching of Sputnik in October 1957 enormously frightened America. It is difficult to deny that the schooling in scientific and technical disciplines in the former East Bloc was at a very high level.
Perhaps the West in particular, and maybe even the world in general, is in the phase of an approaching collapse of almost everything into ruin. Perhaps there is now needed an incredibly powerful breakthrough effort. To put this into the science fiction idiom, either we will elevate ourselves to the stars, or sink into the swamps.
It’s also possible, that we may have to, in the end, reject this overreach, and find satisfaction with living within limits on Earth itself. It can be pondered whether the image of elevating oneself into space seen in many science fiction works, is not shown there as being simply too facile. It may indeed be possible that, "… the stars are not for man."
Generally-speaking, it could be argued that science fiction offers us certain possibilities of clearing blocked paths of perception and a wide canvas for thinking about the future.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.