An Editorial on SF Versus Realist Fiction and a Review of Imaginarium 2012:
The Best Canadian Speculative Writing Edited by Sandra Kasturi and Halli Villegas (ChiZine Publications, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille
I received a copy of Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing on August 23rd and was so excited that I had to read the essay introducing the volume right away even though I had several other projects on the go. The collection has such a brilliant title that I felt an instant desire to read through it. I have enjoyed all of the books by ChiZine that I have yet encountered, so it was hard for me to wait to read this volume.
Once again ChiZine impressed me. Imaginarium 2012 was a brilliant collection of diverse sources borrowing from various speculative genres and bending genre roles to read between the boundaries. The vast scope of the volume provides a great introduction for new readers of Canadian Spec Fic and tingles the tastebuds of experienced Can Spec Fic readers. Sandra Katsuri and Halli Villegas pull together materials from diverse publications from the year, allowing readers to see the range of possible sources available.
The collection does draw heavily from Edge and ChiZine publications of the year, which are fantastic, but for those of us who tend to get as much new Canadian SF as possible, it tends to repeat the materials already in one’s collection. I would love to see more materials pulled from diverse, small journals and possibly Canadian works of short fiction that have been published as part of larger American anthologies or other international anthologies which the reader may not be able to access unless she or he purchases the entire volume. These international anthologies are often fantastic, but Canadian authors often get lost in the mix and sometimes have a habit of not identifying themselves as Canadian.
I was impressed that this volume was not solely focused on short stories, but rather contained a mix of prose and poetry, allowing readers to see the rich diversity of verse that is available for the speculative genres.
One of the things I most enjoyed about this volume was the list of honourable mentions, which was a great introduction or ‘recommended reading list’ of current brilliant works of Canadian Spec Fic.
Steven Erikson’s introduction to the volume provides a great opening to a volume on the speculative, reminding readers of the importance of looking beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary and envisioning new worlds and new potentials.
In particular, I really enjoyed his critique of fictions about “mundane reality” and the assertion that there is something more exciting about SF. He counters the assertions of people who are enmeshed in the belief that realist fiction is the only reasonable fiction to enjoy and that any SF is ‘escapist’ and ‘made for children’. Any readers of SF would know that the vast majority of it is made for adult readership and the complexity of the issues involved evoke serious subject matter.
My one criticism of this essay, and this should in no way suggest that it is not a worthwhile essay, is that it presents itself as groundbreaking and new territory. There is a suggestion in this essay that it is one of the first to look at SF as a serious area for discourse, and this is particularly pronounced by the claim on the cover of the volume that one should expect a “provocative introduction”. However, since the inception of research on science fiction, fantasy, and horror, this has been an assertion put forward by scholars. The vast scholarship on the topic alone suggests that it is considered worthy of discourse, and most scholars of the fantastic have suggested that Spec Fic is perhaps a harder area for authors to create. I have suggested this in conference papers for years now, and this is a primary motivation in my research on disability in Spec Fic and my assertion that the depiction of people (or others such as aliens, werewolves, cyborgs, mutants, etc.) with disabilities in fantastic literature is oftentimes more potent than the depiction of disabled subjects in realist fiction. Realist fiction on disabilities often serves as a form of manual for non-disabled people on the subject of understanding disabilities. Speculative fiction about disabilities often allows people with disabilities to see themselves in a narrative without the need for the associated realist written report on the disability. As a person with disabilities, I have found that SF is one of the few areas where I can find characters with disabilities that I identify with and am interested in.
Having said that Erikson’s essay is not presenting totally new material, the virtue of this essay is that it is written for a more open audience and not limited to scholarly discourse, and it also provides readers of SF with the language to be able to defend their reading choices when confronted with what I would call the unwavering realist headspace (that realist headspace that suggests that realism is the only true literature and everything else is lesser and the accompanying inability to look beyond this perspective).
Moreover, the issue of SF’s ghettoisation still exists. There is still a focus on realism by most literati as the only capital L Literature, and this is certainly true with Can Lit, which tends to posit realism and the realistic depiction of lives in Canada as the only true Canadian Literature unless the speculative subject is written by an author who already has been accepted in the cannon and who is ‘slumming in the SF’ to raise it to a perceived ‘literary standard’.
I have received a few comments by email from readers of Speculating Canada that I should look into this volume and many of them critiqued the lack of discussion about a distinctly Canadian focus for the essay, particularly since it was opening a volume titled Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. I also would have liked to have seen more discussion of the regional aspect of this Spec Fic since this regional or locative dimension is often ignored (sometimes under the claim that not referring to the Canadian element makes it an ‘international’ genre), but I also understand the constraints for space that go with writing an introduction and I hope that in the future scholars and fans may write their own analyses of the Canadian and regional aspect of this collection and what the speculative fiction in Imaginarium 2012 suggests about Canada and Canadian speculations on the nature of reality (or the imagination).
This incredible work reminds the reader of the caliber of ChiZine’s publications and the great fiction that they are known for compiling. Katsuri and Villegas demonstrate their ability to tackle the energy-intensive collecting and organising skills needed to pull a volume of this incredible scope together. Their breadth of knowledge on the subject of Canadian Speculative Fiction is clear from their ability to mine diverse sources and pull together some really incredible works.
Here is a hope for a future Imaginarium collection and I can’t wait to read it!
To find out more about Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, explore ChiZine’s website at http://chizinepub.com/ . You can explore the works contained in Imaginarium 2012 and purchase a copy at http://chizinepub.com/books/imaginarium/imaginarium_2012.php . This is a great way to start your collection or to expand your existing collection.
I agree with your review in all it’s particulars, especially the point about wanting a bit more in an introduction about Canadian SF–though given how greatly Canadian SF has grown and how diverse, it’s much harder these days to talk of common themes (for example) than it used to be.
I did want to note, however, that your comment that the editors needed to caste a slightly wider net somewhat misses the fact that Imaginarium was open to submissions — that is, if an author thought their story qualified, they needed to submit it for consideration. I think now that the first issue of Imaginarium is out and people become familiar with it, that more authors who are getting published in obscure markets or foreign markets will become aware of Imaginarium and submit to it, so that the problem will likely solve itself. I have to say that I trust Sandra Kasturi’s tastes (and now her coeditor’s) to identify the best of the best out of whatever can come to her (their) attention.
The above is not meant to be a critique of Sandra Kasturi and Halli Villegas’ selection skills since the volume is absolutely brilliant and illustrates ChiZine’s incredible ability to collect the best and most incredible works of SF, it is rather just a wish that I had MORE new material to read – i.e. a totally selfish note that I would have liked to have new reading material separate from other volumes I own, not a critique of their ability to gather materials.They definitely chose the best material out there and a great cross-section of the fantastic works of diverse authors. I definitely agree that as Imaginarium’s popularity rises (which I have no doubt it will), more diverse authors will submit materials to future incarnations of this volume and add to the collection.
I don’t think there needs to be a discussion necessarily about common themes of Canadian SF, but it would be brilliant if there was an acknowledgement of the regional aspect of literature that takes into account the unique cultural history that has led to the development of certain trends in Canadian SF (particularly considering the past shaping of notions about Can Lit by bodies such as the Massey Commission). Unlike other countries, Canadian governmental bodies have had a direct role in shaping the nature of Canadian literature, and determining what Canadian literature (and the arts more broadly) would be. Notions of Canadian cultural protectionism have shaped our arts and the historical development of our arts (and, more particularly, which forms of the arts are funded and which are not). This interesting cultural history adds to the narrative of the current development and incarnations of the arts in Canada and an examination of this cultural and regional history of Canadian literary development and the development of Canadian SF would have made a brilliant and interesting introduction to this volume. I am not here suggesting that we do a Atwood-of-the-1970s-style search for the theme of “Survival” in Canadian literature or an attempt to find one other binding theme. A pan-Canadian meta-narrative wouldn’t be possible – we are too regionally and culturally diverse for that – but some discussion of Canada outside of the genre debate would have been nice to see in the introduction, particularly since Imaginarium was about Canadian SF. Also, it would have been nice to see Steven Erikson acknowledge the history of scholarship on SF that has shown that it is viewed as worthy of discourse.
As I mentioned above, I absolutely loved this volume and, as always, am incredibly impressed by the ability of the people at ChiZine to find really fabulous works of Canadian SF and bring Canadian SF to a wider audience. I hope that my above comments weren’t seen as a negative view of the volume since, as I mentioned, it was one of the best collections I have read all year.
Personally, I was hoping the introductory essay would engage in some discussion as to “why” a specifically Canadian ‘Best of’ is needed in today’s (Canadian) SF market. This is a hugely positive step for Canadian SF, but the essay’s focus on what has become a predictable genre/mainstream binary fails to underscore the anthology’s novelty and significance.
Great point Dominik!