Discovering the Canadian Fantastic

Editorial by Derek Newman-Stille

When I was younger, and particularly when I was an adolescent, I remember searching for fiction that really spoke to me. I had an intense love of science fiction and read as much of it as I could.  But there was something distinctly lacking in the science fiction I was reading. All of the utopian and dystopian futures I encountered were distinctly either British or American. They spoke to a sensibility that I could somewhat identify with (after all, most Canadian media comes from either the U.S. or U.K.), but there was something lacking, an essential something that spoke to me as an individual. I could sort of find myself in some American and British SF, but always felt that there was something lacking, that I was still an outsider, suspended between genres that I could almost but not entirely relate to. I found that I wasn’t in these novels, that Canadians were not really represented in the genre I enjoyed.

I remember searching as a young adult for Canadian authors of science fiction to see if there was an even better fit, to see if they wrote me and my experience into their pages, but I was consistently met with the assertion of my educators that Canadians didn’t write science fiction, and certainly wouldn’t be any good at it if they tried. I was taught that Canadians wrote realist fiction. They captured life on the prairies. They captured life on an island. They struggled with everyday issues and the realities of Canadian life. They struggled with monotony.

Rocks and trees and lakes and rocks and trees and lakes and rocks and trees and lakes – that was Canadian fiction as it was explained to me. And, if I didn’t like it, I could read American literature, but, just so I knew, it was all pop culture stuff (read, portrayed as a lesser genre). So I snuck away with my American and British SF and read about utopian futures imagining to myself, ‘hey, this alien is kind of Canadian…. well, if I really stretch my imagination’ and ‘I guess I can see London as being sort of like life in any city… just with different sayings… and different ways of doing things’.

I was told that Canadian fiction was about survival. It was about testing yourself against nature. It was about the struggle between family and the desire to leave for some place better. It was about things that didn’t really speak to me. So, I only read it when I had to, and mostly postulated questions as I was reading like ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if this red head on an island actually turned out to be a werewolf?’ and ‘wouldn’t it be great if these prairies opened up and swallowed all of these boring characters, forcing them to finally get out of their boring, monotonous lives?’ I could see myself finding these characters interesting if the struggle for survival they endured was against an apocalyptic danger, or if the struggle against nature was actually a struggle with the nature of the beast lurking within, the monstrous at the heart of the human, or if the desire to find a better place led to a quick voyage into space that required diplomacy and creative engagements with diverse peoples of the universe….

I should point out, before it sounds like I am writing a bash on realist fiction, that I have since come to really appreciate and enjoy realist fiction, but it still doesn’t hold the pull, the draw on my soul that Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror does.

It wasn’t until university that I started to encounter some Canadian authors of Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy and I still feel like I am just approaching the start of reading the Canadian Fantastic. There is something to be said for finding oneself finally in the pages of a book after a long quest; of finally discovering one’s own cities from a fantastic angle and seeing the speculative and the strange that lives on one’s own block.

I am still not sure what exactly was so Canadian about Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, or what spoke to me about it… but something was different about the way those authors wrote, something was unique about them and spoke to my experience and where I was at in a different way than authors from other nations wrote.

I am curious about how others began their journey to discover Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror (or the many genres of the fantastic that broach the boundaries between these areas or find new niches), and would love people to share their stories with me and other readers.

Derek Newman-Stille

9 Responses

  1. That lecture you received about the inability of Canadians to write good science fiction or fantasy irks me. I have never received that lecture but I’m sure I would have rolled my eyes. That’s narrow-minded thinking.

    Over the years, I’ve read a few science fiction stories which took place in Canada, but I can’t remember the names. They are mixed in with all the other books I’ve read in the last four decades.

    Most of my stories take place in Canada, mostly in Nova Scotia, since that’s where I live. There needs to be more books with settings in Canada. We are a diverse population with a distinct survial instinct that will carry us across universes. I mean, if Captain Kirk can go, why can’t other Canadians?

    I write using Canadian spelling (colour, neighbourhood, etc.), which should help connect readers with home even if my story takes place in a far-off fantasy land. I also use Canadian place names in my fantasy world because we have unique and fabulous names, too.

    Currently, I have only one science fiction story published: “Mutated Blood Lines”. It’s a short story at Smashwords (, and it’s free until August 30th. It takes place in Nova Scotia after December 21, 2012.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Great point Diane. I have read so many amazing Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and other speculative stories in recent years and I think there is something absolutely brilliant about Canadian works of the fantastic. Canadians like to ask questions, and ultimately what makes SF fantastic is that it opens more questions than it answers and invites the reader to really deeply question things.

    It is also so incredible to be able to read something and feel like it is talking in some way about home, even if it is set in a far off galaxy or in a realm of elves and gnomes. I think there is something that still speaks of home in Canadian writing.

    You are right that sometimes all it takes is seeing Canadian spelling to feel that sense of home and to connect us to a story.

    I didn’t realise that you also wrote SF. I look forward to reading it.

    Thank you,

    • I used to write a lot more SF. I was raised on Star Wars, Star Trek (the original), Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica and Space 1999, so it’s only natural that I’d try and write a few. Most of my early stuff was similar in style to those movies/shows. I’ve got a story idea of life after the ‘big bomb’, but I’m no where near starting it. “Mutated Blood Lines” is my only pubished piece of SF. The rest are fantasy, contemporary and a soon-to-be-released romance. I don’t feel tied to a genre. I write whatever comes to mind in whatever world that might be.

      • I will definitely have to read some of your fantasy work as well at some point. I think it is great to be dynamic and write in a diversity of genres. I think it keeps one’s work really fresh.

        • One of the first science fiction novels I ever read turned out to be written by a Canadian author. THE WONDERFUL FLIGHT TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET – by Eleanor Cameron. I picked it up from the Scholastic Book Club, if I recollect. I read that thing coverless.

          We Canadians live in wide open space. We grew up scraping blizzards out from under our fingernails. You take a look at a mosquito and try and tell me that blood-thirsty thing with a hypodermic for a nose-hole isn’t some kind of alien creature. Heck, even our prime minister is of dubious terrestrial ancestry. I mean – take a look at the dude. The man looks like he has lived on cottage cheese, Wonder Bread and the pureed brains of small orphan children.

          We gave birth to Captain Kirk!

          Let me throw a few names out there.

          Robert Sawyer. Cory Doctorow. Lesley Choyce. Charles De LInt. Margaret Atwood – even if she is still in the scifi closet. Tanya Huff. Spider Robinson. Claude Lalumiere, Nalo Hopkinson, Colleen Anderson, A.E. FREAKING VAN VOGT!!!

          Oh yes – we Canadians write Science Fiction.

          Klaatu – Barada – Nikto – eh?

          • Good point Steve. How can we not write about aliens when we are surrounded by mosquitos?

            An amazing list of SF authors. We are pretty lucky to have been living in a country that has given birth to so many creative and brilliant people who challenge the barriers of the way we define reality (and perhaps suggest that reality is not as concrete and defined and simple as we try to make it).

  3. I’ve never had a epiphany of discovering Canadian SF, myself. Having grown up paying little attention to the nationality of the writers I read, my reading has continued to be international. I don’t recall ever being disappointed at not finding Canadians, or characters mirroring me, in the novels I read, but then generally I was hoping to find not myself, but someone more interesting 🙂

    • One of the benefits of reading the fantastic is that the characters tend to be incredibly interesting. I think this is why I like SF, fantasy, and horror so much. The characters are much more complex than they tend to be in realist fiction. Despite the fictive context of these narratives, there is an essential reality in the experiences of these characters, some fundamental humanism or something that speaks to the human experience even in the alien or the monstrous.

    • Plus, I have read some of your work, Paul, so I know that, of course, you are an interesting person. Anyone who can combine Canadian history, werewolves, steampunkesque qualities, and theosophy in one book has to be an incredibly interesting person! We should look into doing an interview sometime soon, perhaps?

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