TIME HAS always dawdled along. The light from exploding stars took millions of years to reach Earth. It wasn't until human beings started taking over their environment that we discovered that time also has an accelerator. Horses, wagons, and sailing ships were replaced by trains and steamships. journeys that once took years were condensed into fortnights. And the rate of change seemed to increase exponentially, giving us television, cars, satellites, and computers, until it became impossible to keep up. Now, we just try to hold on to our own little chunks of personal reality as we hurtle madly into the future.
Science fiction is the literature for those who are trying to keep their eyes open along the way, while the best modem fantasy provides a more mythical, spiritual treatment for our futureshock. If you doubt the enormous cultural impact of these two main forms of "speculative fiction" (the new "SF), watch cartoons with your children some Saturday morning. Note that "Star Trek" is now considered by many to be the most popular series in TV history; almost all of the highest-grossing films in Hollywood history contain a significant measure of science fiction or fantasy; a science-fiction television network has just been launched in the United States; and writers as respected and revered as Doris Lessing, P. D. James, and Margaret Atwood have tried their hands at SF.
Speculative fiction (which also includes supernatural horror and magic realism) is arguably the most influential genre in the world today. A surprising number of writers who call Canada home have infiltrated the front ranks.
One of the buzzwords of the late 20th century is "cyberpunk." The term was invented to describe a certain multi-headed species of hi-tech SF, and its hottest practitioner is Vancouver's William Gibson. In a number of powerful short stories, Gibson introduces readers to a near-future Earth that has transformed itself into a single, teeming city called the Sprawl. The only things that flourish in the Sprawl are criminals and corporations (often interchangeable). Most of Gibson's tales involve freelance criminals taking on the giants, often from within "the matrix" - a separate reality existing within a computer network of almost infinite proportions.
Neuromancer, Gibson's first Sprawl novel, won every major award in the SF field. In a more open-minded world, it might also have dominated the mystery awards, since it is essentially an espionage story. And it would have made a much more significant impact on the mainstream literary world - since cyberpunk in general and Gibson's writing in particular prove that speculative fiction has also taken over the velvet underground. If William Burroughs had had a computer port in his head instead of a needle in his arm, he would have been William Gibson.
Gibson's forthcoming novel, Virtual Light, due later this year, promises to open a new universe for fans of his weird, visionary, 21st-century beatnik style. Observations that the cyberpunk sub-genre is already considered passe don't appear to bother Gibson, who describes his upcoming novel as "cyberpunk after the fact."
What's even more astonishing than seeing a Canadian SF writer achieve such huge success is the realization that Gibson is getting a run for his money as the Great White North's hottest writer in the genre. In fact, one of the most underrated writers in the whole world of speculative fiction lives in the same city as Gibson. But Robert Charles Wilson has toiled in much greater obscurity. Wilson's eighth book, The Harvest [reviewed on page 351, appeared in January, and each of his books has been greeted with great acclaim by reviewers; his 1991 novel, A Bridge of Years, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick award for best original paperback. Wilson utilizes many Canadian settings in his fiction, which remains eloquent and touching no matter what manner of mayhem and violence his narratives unleash along the way.
Robert Sawyer is one of the biggest boosters of Canadian SF, and as president of the new Canadian chapter of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), he's one of the most influential. But even he balked at the suggestion that as many as five out of the 10 top moneymaking fiction writers in Canada may be speculative fiction writers; that is, until he heard the list: William Gibson, Charles de Lint, Dave Duncan, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Garfield and Judith Reeves Stevens (who write as a team, so they only count as one) - A surprising number of others are able to support themselves almost exclusively on their writing incomes. This group includes Robert Charles Wilson, Sawyer himself, Michael Coney, Spider Robinson, Elisabeth Vonarburg, Tanya Huff, and probably half a dozen others. Many of our top SF writers have international reputations to rival that of all but a few of our established mainstream writers. And many of our mainstream writers, including Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Timothy Findley, have themselves produced first-rate works that fall within the boundaries of speculative fantasy.
The future of SF in Canada looks promising: two of the five nominees for last year's John W, Campbell Award for best new writer were Michelle Sagara and Barbara Delaplace, both Canadians; the first volume of Jacques Brossard's "L'Oiseau de feu" tetralogy swept all three major French-Canadian SF awards in 1989; SF Canada, our association of professional SF writers, has more than 75 members; and SFWA has a much greater presence than it once had. Canada now has a number of well-established professional and semi-professional speculative-fiction magazines, including On Spec, imagine .,and Solaris. Winnipeg has been selected to host the 1994 WorldCon -the pre-eminent gathering of writers, editors, and fans; and the Alberta critic and scholar Robert Runte will be one of the guests of honour at that convention.
The most remarkable thing about all this activity and success is how quickly it came about.
With his anthology Other Canadas (1979), John Robert Colombo tried to raise our awareness of a Canadian science fiction/fantasy,tradition. But in a 1981 Books in Canada article, Terence M. Green supported the notion that Phyllis Gotlieb was Canadian speculative fiction, because at that time she was the only Canadian-born writer who was enjoying any appreciable measure of success in the field. This conclusion was reached by drawing a distinction between indigenous Canadians and writers such as Michael Coney and Spider Robinson, whom Green considered more British or American than Canadian. If mainstream literature used this criterion, we'd have disowned such valuable national resources as Robertson Davies, Michael Ondaatje, and even Stephen Leacock, because none of them were born here. Nevertheless, the article convincingly suggested that a Canadian speculative fiction tradition was largely wishful thinking.
Judith Merril, a once prolific writer and still well-respected SF editor from the United States, has lived in Canada since the late 1960s. She offers an interesting perspective on the question of who qualifies as a Canadian writer. "The entire immigration to Canada during the late '60s and early '70s acted as a tremendous kick-start for a lot of Canadian culture that was genuinely Canadian. It's not like it was American stuff superimposed. It was people who were indeed questioning events and looking for new forms and different ways of approaching things, arriving here with the personal backgrounds of American aggressiveness and American energy."
For William Gibson, diversity is part of the definition of Canada. Comparing our country with a giant department store, he points out that "Canada is full of people who are permanent immigrants."
Robert Charles Wilson enthuses about the tolerance this diversity has encouraged in us. "For all that Americans are supposedly individuals, I think there is a little more room to manoeuvre in Canada. There's a little less political pressure, cultural surveillance, a little less concern with custom and morality. Canadians are polite enough to leave their more eccentric neighbours alone. Maybe that comes from living in the wilderness."
Prior to 1985, Canada was looked upon more as backwoods than wilderness. Very few of our writers seemed to have a speculative fiction mind-set, and those who did, such as A. E. Van Vogt and Gordon Dickson, moved to the United States.
One of our most celebrated French-Canadian writers, Elisabeth Vonarburg, points out that Quebec is now on its third generation of SF writers. After more than 20 years, she says, "we may all be building our own tradition...." But because virtually none of the books and stories are available in translation, the English-speaking world is only peripherally aware of such talents as Esther Rochon, Daniel Sernine, and Jean-Pierre April.
In Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy [reviewed on page 32], David Ketterer, one of our most respected scholars and critics, gives a historical overview of the field and cites at least three pre20th-century practitioners of Canadian speculative fiction. Ketterer's book is a valuable resource - a thorough, definitive, and intelligent guide to Canadian imaginative literature that offers an indepth look at many of our best authors and their works. He devotes two chapters to the many developments since the mid- to late- 1980s.
In 1985 Press Porcepic (now Beach Holme Publishers) published the first Tesseracts anthology. The press was hoping to increase sales by venturing into the popular-fiction market, but couldn't decide on a genre. Porcepic's editor Gerry Truscott's predilection for SF helped convince the publisher, Ellen Godfrey, to give it a try.
They knew that Judith Merril was in Canada, and so approached her to edit what turned out to be the first-ever anthology of original Canadian SE Merril has contributed greatly to Canadian SF, but she is perhaps best known for donating her personal book collection to establish Toronto's Spaced Out Library (now the Merril Collection), the world's largest public library of science fiction and fantasy. Although expecting few worthy submissions, Merril agreed to edit the anthology. She was astonished at the quality of the more than 250 submissions. Instead of falling back on novel excerpts or reprints from Other Canadas, Merril found herself apologizing that there wasn't room for more than a fraction of the fine stories she was sent.
Tesseracts received good reviews, sales exceeded expectations, and the book was reprinted in 1988 as a mass-market paperback. Godfrey and Truscott were inspired to attempt a second such anthology. There were more than 400 submissions to Tesseracts 2. The rate at which SF novels and collections were being submitted, along with sales of Press Porcepic's SF publications, prompted creation of Tesseracts Books as a separate imprint.
"The snowball turned into an avalanche," says Truscott. "And I'm not sure any of it would have happened without Judith Merril. She has been enormously influential in this country."
In her afterword to the original Tesseracts, Merril enthused about finding SF with a uniquely Canadian sensibility and identified alienation as the predominant theme running through the stories and poems in the anthology.
Truscott suggests that "Canadian writers have always shied away from hard science. The Canadian philosophy of adapting to one's environment appeals to many more people in our ecologically conscious world than the traditional American philosophy of changing the environment to suit our needs." Elisabeth Vonarburg points out that "Canadian characters as a whole tend to be less obsessed by competence and more interested in soul-searching than their American counterparts."
Candas Jane Dorsey, the editor of Tesseracts 3, eloquently sums up the Canadian perspective in her afterword:
The tracks we have followed to grandparents' house' have brought us into the dangerous realms of many forests, far from initial influences, under the eyes of many wolves. Like typical Canadians, we do not fight it: we map the forest, make friends with the wolves, and emerge from the forest subtly changed, having also transformed forests, wolves, and even our grandparents into something new, strange, wonderful.
Others take issue with the notion that there is such a thing as a distinctly Canadian SE William Gibson suggests that a phenomenon is only theoretical until the trend-setters recognize and acknowledge it. He says bluntly, "I don't feel like there is a Canadian SF right now. It doesn't exist - I wish it did. I think there will be a Canadian SF, but it's not here yet."
In the SF world most of the trend-setters are in New York. Ellen Datlow, fiction editor at OMNI, is one of them. She professes that she hasn't noticed any idiosyncratic stirrings beneath the northern snow. She says she pays no attention to where anything comes from as long as it's good. TOR Books' assistant editor Greg Cox agrees, explaining that to his company the quality of stories is more important than the return address.
Possibly Gibson and the trend-setters are having trouble seeing the forest for the trees. It was Gibson who enthused about what a unique vantage point we have in Canada, "Sitting on the fringes of America at the tail end of the American century." Perhaps that's the key to identifying what distinguishes Canadian SF from that written elsewhere.
Because SF has always been predominantly American, most of our genre models and influences are American. It's inevitable that our SF shares many traditional American values and ideals. And at this point in history, when Americans have entered an age of cynicism of the same sort that dragged the former empires of Europe toward their current defeatism Canadians are among the only people still naive enough to face a bewildering and frightening new millennium with the optimism of 1950s America.
In writers such as Robert Sawyer, those values are reflected in a sense of wonder that hasn't prevailed in American SF since the days of Heinlein. In writers like William Gibson, the influence manifests itself in the attitude of defiance and experimentation that characterized the Beat era. Even the films of David Cronenberg echo the monster-within paranoia of early '50s America - done with a great deal more style.
Canadian SF is characteristically ambitious and hopeful. As a result, Canadian science fiction, fantasy, and horror are flourishing in a display of geographical influence that SF hasn't seen since the early 1970s, when writers from Texas essentially dictated the direction of the whole field.
Robert Charles Wilson says, "I think America in the '80s looked on culture as a sort of ephemeral thing. It lost a certain amount of cachet, credibility, respectability. But not here. The Canadians who are writing speculative fiction have an idea of their work as fairly serious - not simply as feeding an industry, not just as entertainment."
Our best fantasists also provide examples of that seriousness. Ottawa's Charles de Lint is essentially reinventing fantasy, bringing ancient myth into the modern world. As the New Age messiah Joseph Campbell suggested, we really do seem to be a world in dire need of mythologies. De Lint has come up with a way to make the old seem new again, by overlaying modern landscapes with ancient fairy tales. In de Lint's Ottawa, goblins and trolls roam the unsuspecting streets, ready to reteach us moral lessons. The public loves it. Urban Fantasy is the current big wave in the fantasy genre and de Lint is one of the inventors and leading practitioners of that sub-genre.
Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasies are close enough to reality that they can almost be described as alternate histories. And he too writes with a style and vision that have enthralled reviewers and readers throughout the world. But as popular and potentially lucrative as speculative fiction titles are, so few Canadian publishers take advantage of it that most of our SF writers are forced to publish south of the border.
Lesley Choyce of Pottersfield Press in Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia, publishes about one SF title every five years. In 1992, the Pottersfield contribution was the Ark of Ice anthology [reviewed on page 381. Choyce makes no secret of his dismay at "the lack of glandular and cerebral activity on the part of the major Canadian publishers when it comes to science fiction."
Beach Holme Publishers in Victoria now publishes three SF titles a year under the Tesseract Books imprint. In 1992, in addition to the Tesseracts 4 anthology [reviewed on page 391 and Sean Stewart's Passion Play, they released Elisabeth Vonarburg's The Maerelande Chronicles (translated by Jane Brierley) [reviewed on page 3 71 simultaneously with Bantam
in the United States. Beach Holme also published Crawford Kilian's Lifter as a young-adult title. The company's managing editor, Guy Chadsey, says that their SF anthologies and short-story collections are the moneymakers. He assumes this is because the short-story market isn't lucrative enough for the big US companies, so collections don't have to compete with the yearly flood of American SF novels. Accordingly, forthcoming titles include The Children of Atwar, the sequel to Heather Spears's novel Moonfall (which began as a short story in Tesseracts 2), a collection from Phyllis Gotlieb, and the groundbreaking Tesseracts Q - an anthology of French-Canadian speculative fiction in translation, edited by Vonarburg and Brierley.
Such publishing activity isn't completely absent in central Canada: Oakville's Mosaic Press recently released a Canadian horror anthology, Northern Frights [reviewed on page 36]. And McClelland & Stewart published Terence Green's Children of the Rainbow as a mainstream rather than a genre title.
Although William Gibson disagrees with the concept of a distinctively Canadian SF, he says "I think Canada will become a very speculative fictional place -- more so than anywhere else in North America."
Some of us think it already is. If our voices from the wilderness are truly valuable and unique, they will continue to shake up the imaginations of the world SF community.