Mark Wegierski on a distinctively Canadian genre
The term “speculative fiction” is seen as a Canadian invention. It encompasses 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. Tesseracts is the foremost speculative fiction anthology in Canada. There have been a number of other anthologies published, some arising out of writing contests. The leading magazine of Canadian speculative fiction is On Spec. The magazine Parsec is another avatar. A more recent addition to the field is Neo-opsis.
Aside from Margaret Atwood, who eschews the term in regard to such of her works as The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and most 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 cutting-edge scientific speculation, although they are also imbued with political correctness. The scientific ideas are fascinating, but the incidental societal background can be tiresome.
Rob Sawyer has had a major influence building up Canadian science fiction on the world-scene, especially in regard to his role, along with prominent horror writer Edo van Belkom, in establishing a Canadian region of SFWA (Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). Another prominent science fiction, author Karl Schroeder, has instigated an association strictly for Canadian writers of science fiction and fantasy – SF Canada. The Aurora Awards and more recently the Sunburst Awards as well as a number of World Science Fiction Conventions, most recently in Toronto (2003) and Montreal (2009), have also emerged.
Two of the best-known writers of Canadian SF are Phyllis Gotlieb and Cory Doctorow. The seminal anthology of Canadian science fiction and fantasy is John Robert Colombo’s Other Canadas (1979). One inclusion therein is Judith Merril, who helped to establish one of the largest public collections of science fiction and fantasy in the world, now located in the Toronto Public Library system and called for a long time “The Spaced Out Library” – SOL.
The most prominent Canadian fantasy writer is probably Guy Gavriel Kay. Some other Canadian fantasy writers are Steven Erickson, Anthony Swithin, Michelle Sagara, Caitlin Sweet and Tanya Huff. Ed Greenwood is the originator of Forgotten Realms, one of the leading Dungeons & Dragons role-playing settings.
There has been a protracted debate as to whether Canadian speculative fiction possesses truly distinctive features. Quebecois and French-language writing in Canadian SF is sometimes cited but this raises the question of the putative difference between SF in English-speaking Canada and Quebec (on the one hand) and between those “two solitudes” and America, on the other.
Do Quebecois writers address similar content to their American counterparts except that their texts are written in French? Quebec is a society that went from ultra-traditionalism to ultra-progressivism within a very short period of time. Recent curriculum changes, removing any attempt to give serious instruction in religion, suggest that many people in Quebec, especially its elites, want to jettison Quebec’s Roman Catholic tradition and past history – which earlier generations had seen as definitional of French Quebec identity.
Some see Canadian science fiction as more sociologically oriented than American SF, given the problematic nature of Canadian identity in view of the currents 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.
Canadian science fiction could be seen as more politically left-wing than American science fiction, insofar as a political message may be discerned in fictional writing. One radical science fiction writer 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 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 thin on the ground.
Nevertheless, out of the varied, mostly urban-based ethnic subcultures of Canada or out of the residues of the once-robust regional cultures, or even from some Aboriginal communities, fragments or shards of distinctly more traditionalist visions may emerge, 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 is a Toronto-based writer and researcher