Another day, another review from Interzone in 2007
Cory Doctorow and Holly Phillips, eds.
Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 344pp US$19.95 pb
I have in my hands an anthology of ‘amazing Canadian speculative fiction’. ‘Does the world need “Canadian” science fiction?’ is Cory Doctorow’s question in his introduction. I like the way that question goes straight to the heart of things. Is that a specifically Canadian trait? Something I should look out for as I read this anthology?
In turn, I have a question of my own: what makes these stories ‘Canadian’? What is this Canadian-ness of which Doctorow speaks, this Canadian-ness which Canadians have so much more of than any other sf-writing nationality? How does it inform their work? And if it doesn’t, why is their work being designated as Canadian?
And have you noticed that if you keep saying a particular word over and over it gradually loses all meaning? Canadian, Canadian, Canadian.
As Doctorow notes, Canada is too often defined by how it is not American, but there is something disquieting about the oblique way in which he tries to define Canadian speculative fiction – ‘quiet, introspective’, ‘particularly incisive on the subject of what it means to be Canadian’, and most important, ‘we’re good at looking, at figuring out what makes other cultures tick.’ Doctorow seems to be unintentionally propelling the ‘Canadian’ sf writer into a peculiarly Tiptreeish position: ‘the writers readers don’t see’, sitting on the sidelines, watching, watching (though, forgive me, isn’t this what all writers supposedly do). Doctorow’s contention is that this is ‘a robust position from which to write science fiction’, given that science fiction is about the present day. What Canadians do, apparently, is to bring their particular cultural awareness to bear on an increasingly fragmented world, hunting out the ‘common threads’.
It sounds wonderful but do the stories and poems measure up to the theory? They’re all stories by people born or living in Canada, and a lot them are low-key and introspective. But were I trying to construct a picture of Canadian-ness from reading them, what would I come up with? The word that springs to mind, regrettably, is ‘pleasant’. These are all very pleasant stories. None disappointed me; one or two caught my attention a little more actively, but none actually prompted that ‘gosh-wow’ moment that I thought the best speculative fiction is supposed to produce. In fact, too often I felt a sense of over-familiarity in such things as Madeline Ashby’s neatly constructed but ultimately yes? well? time-travel story, ‘In Which Joe and Laurie Save Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ the title of which probably tells you all you need to know. Or what about Khria Deefholts’ ‘Persephone’s Library’ or Susan Forest’s ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow’, both set in a close future in which wider society has collapsed and small groups are variously surviving through religious fanaticism and breaking family taboos. There are others, very similar in nature.
Of those that raised a moment’s recognition, I’d single out Kate Riedel’s ‘Phoebus ’Gins Arise’, a stern mixture of the fantastic and the small-town prosaic, which deals with the flourishing of one woman’s long-suppressed artistic temperament. Claude Lalumière’s ‘The Object of Worship’ is a satisfyingly savage little story about the effects of belief. Also, Jerome Stueart’s ‘Bear With Me’, while it has an annoyingly punning title, is a neat modern twist on the old story of Beauty and the Beast. And it even has a certain ‘Canadian-ness’ about it, if only in terms of setting.
Or am I looking at this anthology in the wrong way? Is Doctorow’s Canadian-ness a red herring? In her afterword, Holly Phillips lays alarmingly firm, almost special-pleading emphasis on how writers are bringing home ‘those grand ideas, those […] moral strivings’ that once upon a time could only be dealt with in the wide expanses of other worlds. Or rather, as it turns out, most of the anthology’s submissions were set in this world, or something remarkably like it, rather than far away, in other worlds. The two are not the same necessarily, though I have a suspicion that other editors are finding something similar, which means that it is not a specifically Canadian phenomenon.
In which case, what does this anthology tell me about Canadian short speculative fiction? It tells me that Canadian-based writers are going through a quiet and introspective period, with stories and poems that all strike a very similar low-key note, and that, as a reader, I still hunger for something a little bit more … well, gosh-wow, I suppose. And I don’t think either thing is a specifically Canadian phenomenon.