Wegierski: Canadian Speculative Fiction

Mark Wegierski looks at possible definitions of a distinctly 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 (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 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) (the acronym is usually pronounced “seff-wah”) 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 Toronto (2003), and 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


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