A Mosaic of Stories

A review of Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson’s Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast (Edge 2013)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

It is very exciting to see one of the prestigious Tesseracts books sharing a name with this website. I was quite honoured to see that they had chosen a name that matched the name I created for my website. Tesseracts has been a Canadian SF institution since Judith Merril edited the first collection in 1985, recognising that there was a need for a Canadian collection of SF and that there was something distinct about Canadian spec fic that could only come out by bringing works of Canadian SF together in a collection instead of the random inclusions of Canadian SF in American and British anthologies.

Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast is an exciting addition to this historic institution and rather than focusing on a single theme or idea, this collection sought to bring together Canadians from around Canada in order to capture some of the distinct flavours of Canadian SF from our diverse regions. Canada is a huge country and this collection was a huge endeavor. While reading this collection, I found myself flipping back to the author descriptions to constantly find out where authors were from to get a sense of that regional flavour, an idea of whether Canadian SF ‘tastes’ differently in different parts of our country. Tesseracts Seventeen provided a chance to travel across this country, but also into the minds of Canadians: their visions of the future, their travels across the universe, and their ventures into the unknown. Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson were able to capture a tiny bit of Canadian diversity, a few wondrous tiles of the mosaic of thoughts and perspectives that creates the overall picture of Canada.

The tales in this collection bring together ideas about family, memory, privacy, religious fanaticism, dreams, isolation, the history of residential schools, aging, stigma and identity, issues of conformity, poverty and the exploitation of workers, … namely, issues relevant to Canada today and our constant pondering of Northrop Frye’s question “where is here?”, speculating about what Canada is and how to define our identity. Despite most stories being set in the future, on other worlds, in other realities, Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast speaks very much to Canadian realities, questions of today, and issues relevant to this world.

From a church devoted to Star Trek’s Spock to imaginary friends to ageing ghosts to sacred kitchen recipes to a galactic civilization that forces conformity to living graffeti … this is a book of Canadian magic, a passport to the Canadian beyond.

You can read reviews of individual short stories on this site at:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/19/life-drained-by-residential-schools/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/15/haunting-disability/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/chilly-renewal/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/cityscapes/

You can explore Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast at Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess0/about-tesseracts.html

Superheroic Questions

A review of Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny by Mark Shainblum and Garbriel Morrissette (Caliber Press, 1989)

Comic books are often treated as a lower form of culture and considered to be pure pleasure reading without intellectual interest, but comic books, like any other form of text, offer a vision of the world around us and the speculative nature of the format offers us a series of questions to ask about normalcy. The superhero genre, in particular, evokes questions about what constitutes heroism, what makes someone special or different, and comments on the way we look at ideas of justice and moral rightness, which are entirely subjective.

Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette’s Northguard is a figure that offers a critical lens to the superhero genre. He is not the moral guardian who is sure of his rightness and always saving the day, but rather is insecure, uncertain, and cautious in his approach. He does not seek to impose his idea of rightness, but rather dwells in a space of moral question, critiquing himself and his choices. All of this contrasts nicely with the key enemy in the collection Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny, the organizsation ManDes, an American religious fundamentalist group who sees Canada as an embodiment of weakness to the North, too passive, too diverse, and sinful in our allowance of diversity. ManDes is a group that embodies patriarchal misogyny, religious intolerance, capitalist monopolism, and white supremacy.

P.A.C.T. (Progressive Allied Canadian Technologies) has formed in Montreal to stop organizations like ManDes from imposing their corporate control over people and doing social harm. They form a system to keep multinationals in check. In their attempt to provide a set of balances against other corporate powers, they created a device called the uniband, which has the power to reverse the laws of thermodynamics and operate beyond the restrictions of physics… and it can be integrated into the human body. When the person who has originally worked with the uniband and attuned it to his biorhythms is killed, P.A.C.T. ends up finding an unlikely candidate to wear this personal arsenal: Philip Wise, a comic book fan. Philip only asks for one thing: that he be allowed to design his own suit to operate the machine, one modeled after his own superhero fantasies and featuring the prominence of the Canadian flag.

Philip’s uneasy relationship with the flag represents a microcosm of the Canadian uncertainty around embodying ourselves in a patriotic symbol. Unlike American figures like Captain America, that easily wear the flag and represent a certain brand of American patriotism, Canadians on the whole have been a little less certain about a figure that wears his or her patriotism on the outside and Northguard is the perfect character to embody that uncertainty. Before he decides to model his costume after the maple leaf and dress in red and white, he throws the flag down on the ground yelling at it “mean something”, bringing to his own experience of uncertainty to his garb as well as his conflicting need to have the flag mean something for him. In this simple act, Northguard is able to take up an aspect of Canadian identity: the perpetual search for what Canadian identity can mean.

His own interaction with Canadianness also embodies a particular Canadian notion of dualistic identity and the potential for a multicultural reading. Philip is a Jewish Canadian living in Montreal – his identity is powerfully shaped by his ability to simultaneously represent Canadianness and Jewishness, and living in a city that is bilingual and multicultural. The power of his duality is marked nicely in the comic when the maple leaf on Northguard’s mask and chest are both overlaid by the Star of David, allowing the costume to simultaneously speak to Canadian identity and how that identity is made up of a multiplicity of cultures and cultural symbols.

Yet, ManDes sees Canada as weak because of this multiplicity and attempts to play into the perceived insecurity caused by a collective of cultural interests by purposely trying to play Francophone and Anglophone Canadians against each other, perpetrating violence and attributing it to one language group or the other. Northguard resists these attempts both by foiling these plots by also by trying to become bilingual himself, creating a French name for himself “Le Protecteur” and working with a French Canadian superhero named Fleur de Lys, who wears the symbols of Quebecois identity.

Northguard is able to embody the potential of the superhero to be a figure who evokes questions, both in his own morality and in the way Canadians see ourselves. Shainblum and Morrissette turn the Canadian question about “who are we?” into a suit of red and white, featuring a maple leaf that asks readers to keep questioning and to recognise the superpower that exists in the act of constantly questioning our identity and what we can and do represent.

Unfortunately, this collection is hard to come by and I hope that Shainblum and Morrissette are able to revive Northguard in the future.

To find out more about Mark Shainblum, visit his website at http://www.shainblum.com/

 

 

Resurrecting a Goddess

A review of Adrian Dingle’s Nelvana of the Northern Lights (reprinted by Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson, CGA Comics, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Resurrecting a goddess is hard work, particularly when she is the demi-goddess first Canadian national superheroine, pre-dating the invention of Wonder Woman… but this is precisely what Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey did this year. Through a kickstarter that I helped to fund, Hope and Rachel were able to bring Nevlana of the Northern Lights back from Canadian comic book history.

Created by Adrian Dingle, Nelvana of the Northern Lights flourished during the WWII years, providing Canada with an indigenous superheroine who could represent ideas from a Canadian perspective. She made her debut appearance in August 1941 in Triumph-Adventure Comics.

Dressed in Blue and Green with a fur-trimmed skirt and green cape (that later became a red cape) with northern lights dancing around her headband, Nelvana was uniquely situated as a figure who represented a particularly Canadian mythology of the time, being a personification of the North (literally the daughter of the Northern Lights and later taking the name Alana North for her secret identity). She claims connections to Group of Seven painter Franz Johnston, who Dingle claimed heard about her as an Inuit goddess (though it was later revealed that Johnston met an Inuit woman named Cecile Nelvana Kamingoak, who he asked to model for him). She spent most of her time battling invaders into the North, often those with aspirations involving destroying the natural environment, whether through invasive species introduction, bombing animals in our lakes, or spilling oil into rivers. Her connections to figures and ideas that have become symbolic of Canadian identity makes her a figure who can embody a Canadianness that a superhero with a flag on their chest could not attain… besides, we aren’t really the sort of country to view flag iconography as the epitome of national identity.

Dingle’s creation, much like the work of the Group of Seven, ascribed a spiritual quality to the Canadian northern landscape, an otherworldliness that makes certain that The North comes with a capitalised “N” to indicate that it is more than a compass direction, but something more like a personification of a power. Producing Nevlana of the Northern Lights in black and white with colour covers, Dingle showed his mastery over the art of ascribing life and liveliness to vast, open, white spaces by drawing landscapes that, although they didn’t use the sort of backgrounds that artists drawing city-based landscapes required, he was able to fill a seemingly blank space with life and use the white space of the snowy northern landscape to imbue it with wonder.

Nelvana was a figure who drew on the vast Canadian ideology of the North as making something different of us, a people forged by a landscape and a colder climate into something distinct from other nations. Dingle drew in the almost spiritual quality of the cold, using it as a testing ground for people’s strengths and abilities and as a Canadian defense against invasion in WWII by expelling people from a landscape that they viewed as hostile. Nelvana herself has a freezing breath that is able to douse flame-people in her later adventures, but she also travels into locations marked by their frozen quality, like that of the Glacians (a race from under the ice that has been frozen since the time of dinosaurs), and the Canadian government who Nelvana protects devised an ice ray to be used against Axis powers. Riding in occasionally on a polar bear, Nelvana stood as a marker for the protection of the Canadian North.

Nelvana, the daughter of the invented Inuit god of the Northern Lights Koliak and a human woman, wielded powers associated with her luminous heritage including power over light and magnetic fields which could, among other things, allow her to melt metal with the power of light and heat, render herself invisible, permit her to fly and travel at light speed, and disrupt radio transmissions. Being a demi-goddess, she also had the ability to transform her brother into various animals with a wave of her cloak, attaching her heritage to other trickster figures who have populated world mythology. In addition to her superhero crime fighting, she also took on the role of Alana North, a secret agent who foiled plots to damage the war effort and occasionally worked alongside RCMP officers to solve crimes and disrupt conspiracies.

As a feminist, I was particularly drawn to the power that Nelvana brought to a comic book industry that was often unabashedly a boys-only-club. She appeared at a time when women were disempowered and often viewed as supporters for the male heroes in their lives rather than heroes themselves, but she was a heroine with incredible power and independence.

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Despite the incredible things that Nelvana represented, there were some issues with her representation that were endemic to the time period and social circumstance in which she was created. The Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics embodied the poor cultural representation of Canadian indigenous peoples, referring to the Inuit as “Eskimos” and portraying them as culturally backward and intellectually inferior. Many of the comics depict Inuit people constantly being tricked by others and constantly in need of rescue by Nelvana, or by members of the Canadian RCMP. Inuit people are often portrayed as obstacles to progress during the war, standing in the way of development (defined in these comics as an industrial act to support war and economic efforts). At times, Inuit people are also portrayed as being involved in race conspiracies against “the white race”. Unfortunately, these characteristics are ones that most Canadian popular media of the time was portraying and ubiquitously appeared in representations of the Inuit people by non-indigenous Canadian media contributors.

The WWII context of the comic also influenced the portrayal of Japanese characters, who were depicted as being sneaky, dangerous, and dishonest. They were referred throughout the comic as “Japs”, the “yellow menace”, or the “yellow peril”. This, like the racist portrayal of Inuit people, was absolutely horrifying for myself as a modern reader to witness, but is also an not surprising given the cultural context in which it was created. After all, at the time when Dingle was writing his comics, the Canadian and American government were creating posters and other media that referred to the Japanese as “the yellow peril” and encouraged people to “slap a Jap” as part of the war effort and both governments were also placing Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans into Japanese Internment Camps that robbed them of all rights as citizens and subjected them to regular systemic abuses. Here, the racism of the Nelvana comics was part of the general war propaganda culture.

Despite the issues with the Nelvana comics, which are part of their historical situation, the re-printing of the Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics represents an act of recovery of lost Canadian voices. Many cultural contributors tend to think of the superhero genre as distinctly American, so it is important to remind ourselves that we have created distinct superheroes. After all, the origin of the superhero figure in the form of Superman was a collaboration between Canadian Joe Shuster and American Jerry Siegel, so the superhero is a collaborated North-South creation.

Nelvana, as a representation of the North may be more emblematic of something distinctly Canadian than a hero draped in a Canadian flag. As a culture, we tend to take more pride in our clean water, beautiful environments, interaction with the landscape, and ability to survive the cold and an environment that isn’t easily suited to human habitation. Despite the temporally-situated problems of the Nelvana comics representing racist stereotypes of the time, she also represents something distinctly multicultural as a figure who was born from Inuit roots and seems to occupy a space of question, referred to variously as white and Inuit and therefore likely representing a form of hyphenated identity.

Nelvana could wear green and blue because she represented something more Canadian than red and white. She was a personification of Northern beauty, and, whether modeled after a figure from Inuit mythology or after an Inuit woman who Franz Johnston encountered, she, as a Canadian national superhero, is mythic, mighty, and magical.

Cover of the Nelvana reprint courtesy of http://nelvanacomics.com

Cover of the Nelvana reprint courtesy of http://nelvanacomics.com

To find out more about Nelvana of the Northern Lights and to purchase your own copy of the reprint of this comic, visit http://nelvanacomics.com/

Escaping North – Zombified Canada

A review of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Exile Editions, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

In American zombie movies, Canada is a place of escape, a place to run to in the event of a zombie apocalypse to escape from the ravening hoards. I am not certain what sort of magical barrier our country’s border has, or whether perhaps zombies just really don’t like winter, or perhaps zombies are threatened by public health care, but somehow the Canadian landscape is seen as anathema to the zombie apocalypse. Dead North tackles that notion of the zombified Canadian landscape and rustles up our dead to wander in search of Canadian flesh… adding to the BODY of literature.

Like the flesh of the creatures in its pages, the stories in this collection are morally grey, defying the easy morality of most zombie movies and the Us-Them dichotomy that often shapes the zombie genre (and allows for the killing of zombified human beings without guilt). Instead, these zombie stories play with the notion of Us versus Them, breaking down barriers and complicating the possibility of distancing ourselves from the figure of the zombie. The zombie is intimately connected with humanity and these stories question whether it is the zombie who is the monster… or the human who hunts them. The zombies in this volume make the normally straight forward ascription of humans as heroes and zombies as villains complicated, slippery, challenging.

Dead North brings zombies into Canada, but does so with a sense of play with the tropes of the genre, challenging traditional patterns of zombie apocalypse literature and film. These zombies are issue-laden, exploring notions of environmentalism, history, colonialism, protest culture, technological relationships to human beings, capitalism, aging, sexuality, and diversity. These zombies present a mosaic of the dead, a landscape of multiplicity in the types of rotting flesh.

Zombies have something in common with the North: cold, blanched… and they take the notion of a “biting chill” literally!

You can explore a few reviews of the individual short stories in this volume at:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/necrosexual/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/zombie-survival-training-101/

and

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/hunger/

Find out more about Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2013/deadnorth.html

All The World is a Stage

A Review of Welwyn Wilton Katz’s Come Like Shadows (Coteau Books, 1993)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As someone who has done stage acting, Welwyn Wilton Katz’ Come Like Shadows spoke to my experience of the stage, and added a little bit of magic in addition to the already potent magic of the theatre itself. Set at the Stratford Festival during a production of Macbeth, Come Like Shadows evokes the play between the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’, bringing home the point to the reader that ‘truth’, ‘history’, and ‘knowledge’ are all as constructed as the stage – just sets and trappings of performance.

In theatre, naming the Scottish Play, or the Thane is taboo. Macbeth is seen as a cursed play, and speaking the name “Macbeth” in a theatre outside of the production itself is believed to bring disaster on any production. When the Stratford Festival decides to stage ‘the Scottish Play’, disaster happens – a series of unfortunate events involving the death of actors, stage fires, and general tragedies both on and offstage. Actors and performance are brought into a historical assemblage, players in a curse that was created when the historical figure of Macbeth decided to interrupt a pagan ceremony by three ‘witches’ who sought to regain their youth by entering into a mirror. When Macbeth intentionally changes their spell for youth, replacing the spell’s words “Two into one. Find through this glass a future for thy past that the name of the Goddess be remembered” into “Two into one. Find through this glass a past for thy future that the name of Macbeth be remembered” and both he and the eldest of the witches, the Hag, are pulled into the mirror and projected into the future, stuck in the glass.

The Hag, now a manifestation of rage spends centuries torturing Macbeth in the mirror, locking the two into an eternal combat. When she discovers that a bard by the name of William Shakespeare is trying to honour the memory of the Thane with a play, she changes his words, making Macbeth into a villain so that rather than fame, Macbeth’s name becomes associated with infamy. She inscribes words of magic into the play to attract her sisters, the Maiden and Mother, with the hope that the other two witches might be able to free her from the mirror. From that moment onward, the play becomes a nexus of strange, magical events.

Kincardine (Kinny) O’Neill, named after a small Scottish town that her father once visited, wants to become an actress. When she finds out that she has an internship with the Stratford Festival, she jumps at the opportunity, particularly since her mother’s friend Jeneva is directing Macbeth this year… only to become horrified when Jeneva decides to use the text of Macbeth to launch her own attack on French Canadians (whose rights Kinny had been defending).  Canadian identity, Kinny’s own coming of age, and the path of history intersect in the performance, evoking the power of performance for speaking about issues of identity nationally, personally, and historically.

Kinny meets Lucas, born French Canadian but having adopted a completely American identity for himself out of embarrassment at his French heritage and due to teasing from American children who see him as a humourous Other.

When shopping for props for the performance, Kinny and Lucas find a mirror at a local antique store that draws both of their attention. The mirror shows the two of them the past and Macbeth’s encounter with the witches. It offers Kinny power and magic, and offers Lucas a glimpse of the historical figure of Macbeth that he wishes to one day play. Both become obsessed with the mirror – Kinny out of fear of what it could offer her, and Lucas out of obsession with the ‘truth’ behind Macbeth. Both are horrified at Jeneva’s appropriation of the play for her own purposes and the distortions that she brings to the performance in order to further her own ends rather than discover some fundamental truths in the act of performing. For both youths, theatre should be an act of self-discovery, but theatre is also a place of appearances, of distortions.

The Maiden and Mother involve themselves in the play, manipulating the performance itself as well as the fates of those involved, making the world a stage for their own desires. Like the mirror itself, the play becomes a reflection not of truth but of their desires and the desires of those who gaze into it, drawing them into webs of control. Past and present, truth and falseness, reality and lies all become implicated and interwoven in the play and issues of identity are challenged and complicated. Whenever characters try to change the path of their destinies, they are brought further under the control of the three weavers of fate, losing their free will during every attempt they make to express it. Like Macbeth himself, characters are trapped into pre-ordained actions and roles, deprived of agency before Fate’s power. Like a pre-written performance, everyone is assigned to their roles, acting out their lives under the influence of a director.

Katz brings the essence of Shakespeare’s play into a modern Canadian environment and a coming of age story, exploring the way that identity becomes subsumed by choices and the perception that there is a lack of choice. Like the clashing of Scottish and English interests in the play, she writes about a time when Franco-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians battled about notions of identity and the place of French Canada within an overwhelming Anglo majority. Like Macbeth, Kinny and Lucas feel that they are trapped into hopeless fate, their identities subsumed by a fate that they see as larger than themselves. Like the Scottish Play, notions of sacrifice and suffering end up being for nothing, never allowing freedom from the restraints placed on the characters.

Katz recognises that acting can be a form of possession and that actors can lose themselves in their roles, in the performative act. It is only through the performance that Kinny and Lucas can see themselves as they perform aspects of the Other. They come of age through the act of suffering, through the act of loss and the heightened awareness that, like those of Macbeth, sometimes the best of intentions can lead to the most harm.

To find out more about the work of Welwyn Wilton Katz, you can visit her website at http://www.booksbywelwyn.ca/ .

Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

An Interview with Robert J. Sawyer
By Derek Newman-Stille

I recently had the opportunity to meet Robert J. Sawyer at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. We only had time for a short chat since both of us had a great deal of events on our plates, so I wanted to have the chance to do a full interview with Mr. Sawyer here on Speculating Canada and give him the chance to provide some of his insights to readers.

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Robert J. Sawyer: My friend David Gerrold and I had a discussion a few years ago, when we were both giving talks in Istanbul, about how one should answer that question. My answer is, “I’m a Canadian science-fiction writer.” David contends that’s what I do, not who I am—but I don’t agree. Over the last few years, I’ve given up using the very nice office in my home and moved to writing in my living room, because I simply don’t make a distinction between work and the rest of my life. Besides, being a science-fiction writer is too much fun to actually be termed “work.”

I was born in Ottawa in 1960, grew up in Toronto, and now live in Mississauga. I write a novel a year, and have been doing so consistently since my first, Golden Fleece, came out in 1990. I’m fortunate enough to be one of only eight writers ever to have won all three of the world’s top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo (which I won for Hominids), the Nebula (which I won for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which I won for Mindscan). Oh, and the ABC TV series FlashForward was based on my novel of the same name, and I was one of the scriptwriters for that show.

Most recently—and of interest to Canadians—I was lucky enough to win three consecutive Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (“Auroras”), one for each volume of my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder. Humanist Canada just gave me their first-ever Humanism in the Arts Award, the Governor-General’s office just awarded me a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the RTA School of Media at my alma mater, Ryerson University, just named me one of the 12 initial inductees to their Wall of Fame. They say a prophet—if a science-fiction writer may be termed that—is never honoured at home, but that certainly hasn’t been my experience.

Spec Can: A lot of your written work shows an interest in anthropology and paleontology (such as Hominids, Humans, Hybrids, and Red Planet Blues). What inspired your interest in these fields? Why do they speak to you?

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: Ever since I was a pre-schooler, I’ve been fascinated by paleontology, and especially dinosaurian paleontology—so much so, that right up until halfway through my last year of high school, I intended to make a career out of being a paleontologist, and was accepted to study that field at the University of Toronto.

I love studying ancient life for the same reason I love the notion of extraterrestrial life: they’re alien beings. Not only is that cool in and of itself, but both are highly speculative areas: in paleontology, we try to puzzle out what dinosaurs might have looked like, and extrapolate from elusive clues what their reproductive strategies, diets, and social structures might have been like. In astrobiology, we go even further, trying to figure out what extraterrestrial intelligences might be like from first principles, without a single actual specimen to study.

My focus on these issues has led me to have a wonderful relationship with the SETI Institute, by the way; I’m the only science-fiction novelist who was invited to their two public SETICon symposia, and their chief astronomer, Seth Shostak, often has me as a guest on the SETI Institute’s radio program “Big Picture Science.” In turn, I named a genus of Martian fossil Shostakia in Red Planet Blues.

The foremost Canadian paleontologist is the dinosaur specialist Philip Currie, currently at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and the CBC, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, and others have been kind enough to call me the foremost Canadian science-fiction writer. But Phil always wanted to be a science-fiction writer, and I always wanted to be a dinosaur expert. It tickles us both that in some alternate timeline, he’s me, and I’m him.

As for my fascination with anthropology, and especially paleoanthropology, again, it mirrors my interest in extraterrestrial intelligence. A Neanderthal or an individual of Homo erectus or Homo ergaster is fundamentally much more alien than, say, a Vulcan or a Bajoran. Figuring out what the cognitive processes and lifestyles of our cousins or ancestors might have been like is as thrilling as any detective story.

Spec Can: There is an upcoming conference in your honour called “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre”. What makes SF so interdisciplinary? How does it extend beyond traditional genre boundaries?

Robert J. Sawyer: Yes, indeed. This September, McMaster University is hosting this conference, which will surely be the largest academic conference ever held devoted to Canadian science fiction and fantasy, in honour of the donation of my archives to that institution. I am totally thrilled about that. The paper proposals that have come in are amazing.

I’ve often said that science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions. Where else will you find, say, quantum computing and paleoanthropology sparking off each other, as they do in my Hominids, or information theory, primate communication, and Chinese politics jointly driving the plot, as they do in my novels Wake, Watch, and Wonder?

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

For a large number of my books, I’ve focused on consciousness studies, which is the most interdisciplinary area of all: neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, artificial-intelligence researchers, evolutionary biologists, philosophers, theologians, and so on, all have places at the table in debates about the nature of consciousness, and those clashing perspectives have fueled my novels The Terminal Experiment, Factoring Humanity, Hominids and its sequels, Mindscan, Wake and its sequels, Triggers, and the novel I’m writing now, tentatively titled The Philosopher’s Zombie.

Most other genre fiction is plot-driven; at its best, science fiction is thematically driven, and the high-level exploration of a theme—does God exist, do we have free will, what are our ethical responsibilities to other intelligences that already exist or that we might create?—demands an interdisciplinary approach.

Spec Can: Many of your novels blend or bend genres. What are some of the genre-bending novels you have most enjoyed writing? Why were you interested in pushing genre boundaries?

Robert J. Sawyer: People who don’t read science fiction tend to think of it as a very narrow category: space opera, and not much more. But it provides the widest possible canvas: all of space, all of time, all forms of life. And beyond that, it let’s you tell any kind of story, including courtroom drama (as I did in Illegal Alien), romance (Rollback), thriller (Triggers), and noir detective fiction (Red Planet Blues). Calgary critic Hugh Graham observed recently that it’s almost impossible to believe that Triggers and Red Planet Blues—so different from each other in style and voice—were written by the same person; that pleased me immensely.

I push genre boundaries for three reasons. First, because I don’t actually believe in the boundaries; our genre distinctions come out of American bookselling, and the attempt to organize the shelves in a store—it’s entirely artificial, and of little artistic interest.

Second, because it keeps me fresh. If I’d been a mystery-fiction writer, I’d very likely be doing my twenty-third novel about my ongoing series detective character; instead, I’ve gotten to write twenty-three very different novels, and that’s very artistically satisfying. I enjoy stretching different muscles with each new work.

And third, because it makes sound business sense. It’s a way to grow my audience, bringing in people who don’t think they’d like science fiction. I love that Penguin Canada publishes my books under their mainstream Viking imprint, and I’m so proud that first Waterloo Region and then the County of Brant chose books by me for their community-wide reading programs (Hominids in Waterloo; Rollback in Brant—which includes Paris, Ontario, and environs), and that I’m currently a finalist for the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award for best Canadian-authored fiction or nonfiction book of 2012 (for Triggers). That’s a reach way beyond what an author who stayed comfortably within the SF box would ever normally get.

Spec Can: What is distinctly Canadian about the characters and/or worlds you create? How does your Canadian identity influence your writing?

Robert J. Sawyer: My novels are mostly set in Canada, have Canadian protagonists, revel in Canada’s diversity, and deal with Canadian themes. I’m a pacifist, and Canada is a country of peacekeepers, not aggressors—and you see that very much in my books. I’m firmly committed to diversity, and I reflect Canada’s multiculturalism in everything I write—and I’m so proud to twice have been nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, which honours works that positively portray gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered lifestyles. As the Globe and Mail has said, “Sawyer sells so well in Canada because of his celebration of our culture; citizens seek him out for both a good story and affirmation of our identity. By writing about us, he has pried himself loose from the SF purgatory and onto the bestseller lists.”

Spec Can: What distinguishes Canadian SF from that of other nationalities?

Robert J. Sawyer: How’s this for an answer: its quality.

On April 29, 2013, which happens to be my 53rd birthday, I’ll be celebrating my 30th anniversary as a full-time professional writer, something that’s only been possible because of Canada’s wonderful socialized healthcare. Malcolm Gladwell—himself a Canadian—wrote the great nonfiction book Outliers, in which he documents at length how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at something. We Canadian writers, because we don’t have to be shackled to a nine-to-five to get health insurance, often get those hours under our belts decades before our American colleagues do, and you see that reflected in how many Canadians show up on the Hugo ballot year after year—in numbers all out of proportion to Canada’s population size.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian SF is heading for here? What does the future of Canadian SF look like?

Robert J. Sawyer: We’ve long had a vigorous tradition of small-press SF publishing in Canada, and that’s going to continue. But I also think the big presses are going to start doing more and more honest-to-goodness science fiction. Penguin Canada was a trendsetter when it acquired me back in 2007, prompting the Canadian publishing trade journal Quill & Quire to opine, “When Penguin Canada snatched up domestic rights to science fiction giant Robert J. Sawyer, it felt like the Canuck industry was finally waking up to an entire genre.” And it has. You no longer have to go to US publishers to make real money writing science fiction in this country, and that’s all to the good.

Spec Can: What new questions or ideas can SF open in the minds of readers? How can SF challenge the status quo?

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: SF is a subversive genre, and always has been. Sometimes it’s done with metaphors and disguises; I certainly did that in Hominids, which is as much about contrasting Canadian and American values as it is about contrasting those of Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals. And sometimes it just stands up and does that. Page one of my novel Calculating God, published in 2000, says this:

The alien’s shuttle landed out front of what used to be the McLaughlin Planetarium, which is right next door to the Royal Ontario Museum, where I work. I say it used to be the planetarium because Mike Harris, Ontario’s tightfisted premier, cut the funding to the planetarium. He figured Canadian kids didn’t have to know about space—a real forward-thinking type, Harris. After he closed the planetarium, the building was rented out for a commercial Star Trek exhibit, with a mockup of the classic bridge set inside what had been the star theater. As much as I like Star Trek, I can’t think of a sadder comment on Canadian educational priorities.

A few Canadians objected to that, saying political commentary doesn’t belong in science fiction. They’re dead wrong, in my view. Going right back to H.G. Wells, it’s always been a vehicle for political comment.

Spec Can: What can SF do that “realist” fiction can’t?

Robert J. Sawyer: First, it’s important to stress that SF can do everything that mimetic fiction can: it can move you to tears, it can make you laugh out loud, it can explore character psychology in exquisite detail, it can dazzle you with stylistic experimentation and beautiful prose.

But on top of that, it can also get you to think about issues you haven’t thought about since late-night dorm-room bull sessions decades ago. All the topics we’re told to avoid in day-to-day life—politics, religion, sex, and alternative approaches to those things—are the core subject matter of speculative writing, whereas they are ignored in much mainstream fiction.

Spec Can: Your work often deals with the interconnection and collision of ideas of past, present, and future. What inspires your interest in the interrelationship between past, present, and future?

Robert J. Sawyer: I don’t write in a linear fashion—I never start at page one and go to page last; rather, I bop back and forth throughout the narrative as I’m constructing it. That reflects my belief that time itself isn’t really linear.  Now is now solely because you and I happen to—for the moment—agree on that point.  But here, a few seconds later, is the new now, oh, and look—here comes another now! Time is endlessly fascinating to me simply because it’s so often not thought about at all by most people, and because we know so little about its nature.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write SF?

Robert J. Sawyer: A confluence of things: seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theatre in 1968 when I was eight years old; seeing a bit of the original Star Trek on TV; the Supermarionation TV shows of Gerry Anderson; growing up as the Apollo space program was happening; and reading the first few science-fiction books I encountered: Oliver P. Butterworth’s The Enormous Egg; The Runaway Robot, putatively by Lester del Rey but actually ghostwritten by Paul W. Fairman; Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse; Space Skimmer by the same David Gerrold I mentioned in the answer to your first question; and the Asimov collection The Rest of the Robots —which, at twelve years old, I thought was about robots taking a break, not realizing that it was the leftover stories that weren’t in I, Robot.

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

I enjoyed all of those books enormously, and wanted to try my hand at creating my own stories. Ironically, of them all, the one that’s mostly not thought of as an SF book—The Enormous Egg—is the one that probably influenced me most, with its contemporary setting, its focus on paleontology, and its satiric bent.

Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Robert J. Sawyer: No, not really. They have the personalities I give them; I’m a craftsperson, and they’re carefully constructed pieces of my craft. I think they’re highly realistic, but they’re not voices in my head; heck, if I did start hearing voices, I hope I’d have the good sense to go see a psychiatrist.

Spec Can: What new technological advances most interest and excite (or frighten) you as an author of Speculative Fiction?

Robert J. Sawyer: The digitizing, copying, uploading, and modifying of human consciousness—which is one of the core topics I explore in my latest novel, Red Planet Blues.

I want to thank Mr. Sawyer for his incredible insights, particularly about the subversive nature of Canadian SF. If you haven’t had the chance yet, check out Robert J. Sawyer’s website at http://www.sfwriter.com/ .

Also, Mr. Sawyer mentioned above the conference Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre. If you are interested, you can explore it at http://www.sfwriter.com/cfp.htm . A conference on Canadian SF, could there be anything more fun? 

Interview With Julie Czerneda

An interview with Julie Czerneda
By Derek Newman-Stille

I want to thank Julie Czerneda for being willing to do this interview and for her enthusiasm for these questions. I am truly honoured that she took the time to participate in this interview. Ms. Czerneda’s work was an incredible source of inspiration to a friend and colleague of mine at Trent University, Ellen Bentzen. Julie Czerneda’s incredible ability to be equally comfortable in both the worlds of the sciences and humanities informed a lot of my discussions with Ellen about the interconnectedness of science and humanities discourse and I am hoping that this interview honours Ellen’s memory.

Julie Czerneda is a former biologist and current author of both Science Fiction and Fantasy. She is a prolific author in both genres as well as a prolific editor. Her SF works include works such as the Clan Chronicles, Species Imperative, and Esen and Her Web series

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to start this interview?

Photo of Julie Czerneda map-building by Roger Czerneda.

Photo of Julie Czerneda map-building by Roger Czerneda.

Julie Czerneda: I was born on an air force base, spent my childhood in the Maritimes, then my teens on the shores of Lake Ontario. Met my other half (Roger) at the University of Waterloo, in Calculus class (but didn’t realize it until we were chem partners), married, then went to the Universities of Saskatchewan and Queens to study the evolution of chemical communication in fish. After working for a while at the U. of W. (life can indeed be circular), produced offspring and began writing biology textbooks, in that order. While in the midst of a successful career as an author/editor in educational publishing, someone (Roger) thought I shouldn’t write science fiction as a mere hobby but should actually show someone. Years later, having been introduced to fandom, conventions, and many folks of the Best Sort, my first novel was indeed bought by Sheila Gilbert of DAW Books, and I’ve been doing this for a living ever since. Yes, my life is insanely fun and I’d not change a thing.

Spec Can: You were a biologist before becoming a Science Fiction and Fantasy author full time. What was the transition like? How do you straddle the worlds between academia and fiction authorship?

Julie Czerneda: Thursdays. Seriously. While I still earned my living from non-fiction, I wrote fiction on Thursdays, and only then. I remember loving Thursdays. But that came later, once I was actually trying to finish something to, as mentioned above, show someone.  I also used different desks. Where I worked on physics curricula or designed exams was there. Where I worked on imaginative, go with me or not, story-telling? Way over there. With posters of Godzilla and a subwoofer of unusual size.

From the beginning, to me, biology and science fiction differed in degree, not substance. Biology filled me with wonder and curiosity.  All science does. The universe does. Reading science fiction did that. Writing it? Ah, there was the legal, moral, and fun way to answer my own questions. I was hooked.

Spec Can: In what ways can biology inform Science Fiction and Fantasy? How much do you rely on your repertoire of biological knowledge when you create your fantastic worlds?

Julie Czerneda: Every way and in everything and all the time. Firstly, what I write, the stories I tell, come from what interests me. So there are cool real bits of biology everywhere in my stuff. I couldn’t make up the weirdness of real life. Secondly, I recognize the trust a reader places in me when they pick up one of my stories. They have a right to expect that I’ve done my homework, and what needs to be credible is. (Plus research is something I adore.) Last, and not least, the more I know about something, the more questions I have and the more intense my exploration of that idea will be.  For Species Imperative, I spent five years reviewing biodiversity, salmon research, and the evolution of distinct populations before writing a word. I remain very proud of the result.

Spec Can: What do you enjoy most about doing research for your novels?

Julie Czerneda: Ah, research. It’s like that first cold beer on a hot afternoon. So satisfying yet potentially distracting.

What I enjoy most is learning stuff. Any stuff. Particularly stuff I’d never thought about knowing before, although more about the familiar is fine with me too. Having to do research for a new story? Really? Does anyone think that’s anything but joy?

For my latest book, the fantasy A Turn of Light, I spent wonderful hours and days and months delving into pioneer history, which was new to me. Antique lamps and razors. How to grease a barn door track or  how freshly milled flour feels to the skin. For every piece I set out to learn, there’d be so much more I hadn’t expected. How recent in our history it was to have clean light for work at night. How new a concept to have separate bedrooms. The names of tools and how very old some are.  I’d read letters written two hundred years ago and catch myself nodding with agreement or laughing, for the voice I was hearing in my head could have been that of any of my peers or friends.

The distracting part? Research can seem like progress when, on its own, it’s merely an investment. It’s what you do with it that matters. Once I have enough stuff in my head to feel confident, I focus on the writing and avoid more research unless I need something specific. Case in point, Turn. I was well into the writing when I came to a scene where I needed to put something personal in my character’s hands that would show who he is now but also something of what he’d left behind. Reading what a military kit of the era should contain gave me the essentials. An hour’s pouring over images of antique razors, mirrors, and other personal items provided a sense of the real things. (Plus I dug out my Grandfather’s bristle brush.) I found links to descriptions of hard soaps and small ornate mirrors. The little scene that resulted is one of my favourites and does everything I could have asked, with significant charm.

There’s one small downside. I can’t stop myself from spouting fabulous new facts at supper. The month I studied the history of cod fishing may go down in infamy in our family. They still bring it up. (As they should. It’s fascinating stuff!)

Spec Can: Why do you write speculative fiction? What drew you to it?

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Julie Czerneda: Curiosity. I turn over rocks. I long to see over hills. When I was 10 I read my first SF book (Andre Norton’s Star Ranger, now called The Last Planet) and realized there was fiction that did the same. I was hooked and never stopped.

Spec Can: What experience first told you “I need to be a storyteller”?

Julie Czerneda: Oh that. There was an actual moment. Thinking back, I believe it was late one Saturday afternoon in January. My Dad had bought me the first two Tarzan novels, but only gave me one. I devoured it only to be infuriated by the ending. The weasel of a cousin gets everything! I stormed into the kitchen and complained to my parents, something I’d never done before. Rather than give me the next book, in which all is made right, my Mom, with a perfectly straight face, suggested I use her huge Underwood manual typewriter to “fix it.”

I did.

What Power!!!! I was a storyteller from then on.

Spec Can: Ecologies – flora and fauna – play an important role in your work. What important role can ecological knowledge play in the works of SF authors?

Julie Czerneda: Two, I feel. One is the obvious, that when world-building one should consider the life of a place. The other? Because nothing lives in isolation, an ecological approach gives a writer the opportunity to fit the puzzle together. To have alternative points of view and unintended consequences. All the intricate and messy ways things happen.

Spec Can: A Lot of your work involves meetings between diverse species. What important role do you hope to convey to your audience about cultural diversity and perhaps ecological diversity?

Julie Czerneda: The more the merrier! Or, in the case of living things, the more stable and resilient the community. It’s interactions that interest me. The interface between any two or more creatures is full of change and adaptation and lovely icky bits. In storytelling — and real life — I’d rather toss a problem at a group of people (or whatever I have in mind at the moment) who’ll each have a different approach to a solution, if they see it as a problem at all. That’s the joyful surprise of it all.

I also have no problem letting my love of wild places show. Some writers love food or detailed descriptions of hardware. For me, it’s passages like those in Species Imperative that exist for no reason other than to show how much ours or any world with life risks losing if life itself is endangered. I heartily and passionately include us in there, by the way. I’ve never distinguished between the human fauna and all the rest. We’re part of the living landscape, simply a little too clever for our own good sometimes, but not always. Sometimes, we get it just right.

That was the long answer. The short? Diversity is, to me, a sign of robust health and a source of possibilities, regardless of where I find it.

Spec Can: Can SF and Fantasy have a role in changing people’s thoughts about the environment?

Julie Czerneda: On their own, I doubt it. We pick what we want to read, so someone who reads my stuff, for example, will already be someone firmly a fan of slime. And nature. And messy compromise.

That said, there are always stories that catch a wider audience. The film Avatar was exotic and new to non-science fiction readers (read Andre Norton’s Judgement on Janus for a familiar one), not to mention gorgeously made, so its message had to have an impact.

I don’t write fiction with a message or intent to change anyone’s mind. I do it for the story. If someone nods along to that story, I take it as a sign we’d enjoy each other’s company. What I write is who I am.

Spec Can: What pedagogical role can Science Fiction and Fantasy have to open up new questions about the environment?

Julie Czerneda: I believe, passionately, that science fictional thinking is a crucial survival skill. We all need to ask questions, to speculate about possible consequences in an imaginative, yet as close to real fashion as possible, and to become able to assess incoming  information in a critical, not cynical manner. Imagination is of immense use, too often undervalued. We who live and breath SF rarely appreciate what a strong and active muscle our minds have developed. I’d like everyone to have the same advantage. To ride society’s changes, rather than be swept away. To decide where and how technology best fits our needs, before it’s in our homes.

Another aspect is science as a human activity. There are works of science fiction that do an admirable job of making science accessible, relevant, and, best of all, something people do.  The X-Files drew a host of young women to forensics and other sciences who might otherwise have gone elsewhere. Fringe is another show that comes to mind.

Spec Can: Communication plays an important role in your work. How can SF teach us to communicate better, and – especially – to listen better?

Julie Czerneda: The issues involved in communication between organisms who may not even share the same sensory equipment, let alone intentions, fascinate me. They form the foundation of my Web Shifter series, in fact. Tremendous fun. In this case, I’m using SF to explore and investigate.

As for our own communication? We’re a chatty species. We should chat about the science and technology that matters to us as easily and well as any daily topic, but few do. I’ve had success using science fiction with students to get them “talking science.” SF provides useful vocabulary, presented in context.  Story dialogue gives examples of conversations centred about science as something immediately important to the characters.  With a bit of care to choose age/experience-relevant SF, the playing field levels off. Students who’d otherwise struggle with English become just as passionately outspoken as their peers, and they do it about science.

Spec Can: As an occasional university instructor, I am most interested in how SF can be used in a university environment. Could you share some strategies and ideas with us about SF in higher education?

Julie Czerneda: Interestingly, one of the uses I’ve been involved with has been SF as part of science courses for non-science majors. The emphasis is on science in society, with science fiction basically used to deliver the big science ideas within the context of consequence and change. The desired outcome is to instill a questioning, curious, and aware attitude in these students, rather than a breadth of science knowledge.

I’ve also worked with a professor who, for many years now, has used science fiction as an integral part of his first year astronomy course. Students take what they’ve learned about the science and apply it to alien world-building as an SF writer would do it. I’m proud to say this class has been using Beholder’s Eye (my second novel) as part of this process.

Going back to your earlier question, the University of Wales offers degrees in science fiction and communication, with an enviable employment rate. We need people who can bring science to life, who can clearly express complex ideas in meaningful ways to a varied audience. SF? Does it all the time.

Spec Can: What is the most exciting moment you have experienced where you saw the impact your authorship had on a student’s knowledge and excitement about science?

Julie Czerneda: It’s always exciting, seeing that spark take hold. But the best moments haven’t been exciting. They’ve been powerful. I’ve sat, spellbound, in the midst of kindergarten students so caught up in imagining they lived in a space station that they began to sway as if weightless. I watched a group of noisy grade 8 students grow quieter and quieter as they worked through a science fiction scenario about limited resources, only to burst into tears when they realized that their character would sacrifice herself for her younger brother; my eyes were no drier than theirs. The shared experience. The power of imagination. The swell of emotion no less real for coming from a story. Those are the moments.

Spec Can: What is the importance of imagination and a sense of wonder for our world?

Julie Czerneda: What we can’t imagine, we can’t create, so there’s one. What we can’t imagine, we can’t prepare against or for, so that’s another. Imagination is essential to our survival, as individuals and as a species, and has been for eons. The sad thing is that it can atrophy from lack of use or be stunted by those who’ve lost their own. The best? The more it’s used, the stronger it becomes. I’m a believer.

As for a sense of wonder? That’s how imagination connects in the most positive sense to the world around us. That’s how we know we belong.

Spec Can: What important role can curiosity play in creating a better future?

Julie Czerneda: What technology is to science, I suspect curiosity is to imagination. The hands at work. The application. The impulse to look beyond, because there might be more, turned into the act of looking. That make sense? Curiosity, to me, demands an open yet questioning mind. When you talk to post-adolescents, curiosity sounds like something kids do, but it’s primal and important to all of us. Children are curious in order to investigate and learn. Society has a tendency to assume the curious should become scientists or explorers or artists, but I think everyone should be, in every aspect of life.

None of which answers your question, does it? Questions of privacy and personal space aside, I think we’d be better off for more curiosity in our citizens. Where you see people encouraged to be curious and ask questions for themselves, is where you see improvements being made.

Spec Can: Your work seems to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities. In what way are these disciplinary boundaries artificial? How can we do more to evoke scientific interest in people focused on the humanities and vice versa?

Julie Czerneda: I’m a lumper. When I started university, I did my utmost to combine biology, physics, and geography. (With other stuff.) My schedules blew up with conflicts every term because those were supposed to be separate. Once I accepted that I’d have to stick to biology, not being a Time Lord, I resisted specialization to a ridiculous extent. Everything mattered to me; everything connected.  (And it’s all so amazing …)

I understand the need to compartmentalize in order to focus, but even today, nothing pleases me more than blurring those edges. Nothing, in my opinion, does science a greater favour than the healthy mixing of disciplines. In my non-fiction science writing, I wrote in every science, but it was applying my work within the humanities, describing the people who work in science and the interactions among science and society that stands the test of time (and curriculum changes) best.

It’s about listening and respect, really. Good manners rule. Everyone’s work or field is personally important to them as well as to society. Terms like “soft” or “hard” science were never useful. Yes, there’s rigour and reproducibility, but there should also be room, because any human endeavour is an art, for observation and discourse around what doesn’t lend itself to measurement. The payoff? Synergy.

One of my fondest experiences of that in action was with a group of psychology graduate students. I’d been asked to bring my SF-self to the table, to help them develop testable hypotheses. They knew their field but were having trouble reaching out from it into new ground. What I brought to the discussion was a well-oiled imagination and curiosity, as well as an awareness of experimental design. We had a blast. They developed great ideas and I came away with some of my own.

Spec Can: Your work alternates between Science Fiction and Fantasy and you excel equally in each. Is it tough to alternate between genres? Are these genre categories that separate?

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Julie Czerneda: ::blush:: Thank you.  I enjoy both and yes, tough describes it. But in a good way.

For me, both as an author and editor, they are different and separate. Even as a reader, I look for work that is clearly one or the other as well. Every so often I’ll read something that blends all manner of genres into a great story. Some authors can do that and I’d never suggest they stop. But it’s not an approach I’d find satisfying for myself. There’s too much risk of losing what’s special about each. Let me explain.

I take pleasure and pride in what makes science fiction a speculation about the real world, by asking that one “what if …” then building a story framework that lets me play with an answer, while keeping as much of what we know factual and true to life. I’ve no problem inviting a reader to play along with FTL and aliens, but I won’t mess with anything more and there’s always a science question at the heart of my plot. What if life evolved this way or that? How might biological imperatives affect technological civilizations? Who might we become in the future? What cost is too high or risk too great, when manipulating genetics? I love how science fiction gives me insight into these and any other questions I might have. Imaginative, yes, but in a sense, imagination with gloves on, respectful of what we know. The setting of a science fiction story must be solidly built, its plot and premises credible enough that the ultimate answer presented will be accepted by the reader. That’s when, in my opinion, it works best.

Fantasy, on the other hand, takes those gloves off. It must. Its questions are every bit as important as science fiction’s, but they are no longer about the world outside, but the one within. What makes us tremble in dread or exclaim with joy? Who do we want to be? Who are we now? How far could we rise — or fall?

To examine those sorts of questions, fantasy shakes us from this world, the one we’re so comfortable and sure about, and drops us into one with new rules. Here be dragons. In an science fiction story, explain their presence to me or I’m gone. In a fantasy? Oh, in a fantasy, I’m wide-eyed with wonder and eager to fly too.

Some stories give us clear warning of those new rules. Gates, as in Andre Norton’s Witch World series. Lewis’ wardrobe. Step through and nothing will be the same. Or no warning at all. Preconceptions must be abandoned as the fantasy weaves the strange and different around the willing reader. That interplay is when, to me, fantasy is at its best.

As for what’s tough about working in fantasy as opposed to science fiction? Certainly the editing is pure joy. I’m happy with my personal “this is science fiction/this is fantasy” radar, and have thoroughly enjoyed editing anthologies of one or the other.

The challenge was writing my own. I’ve admired authors who do both well. C.J. Cherryh. Patricia McKillip. For many years I contemplated trying fantasy, because I love reading it, but didn’t see myself as having the skill. To create a wholly new world for readers, a convincing fantasy world, takes a daunting command of language and exceptional writing craft.  To be blunt, I find starships and slime pretty easy. Readers meet me more than halfway, so I just blurt out the ideas as a story and we’re all happy. But an immersive, wondrous fantasy world, where everything has to be created, including the rules? That was a huge undertaking.

Before that point, I had to find out if I could even tell a readable fantasy story. Every so often, rather quietly, I’d write one. For those curious, my first was “’Ware the Sleeper” in 1998, published in Battle Magic edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff. My novella Gossamer Mage: Intended Words came out from Baen’s Universe in 2008. The gloves were definitely off.  (I’ve done a couple of horror stories, not willingly; friends made me. I’m proud of them but that’s not what I am.) A funny aside to my efforts to figure out fantasy: I wrote an okay-I-suppose story called “Peel” for what I thought was an SF anthology. Turned out I hadn’t read the invitation properly and it should have been fantasy. As an experiment (and because I was embarrassed beyond words) I rewrote the story. To my astonishment, as a fantasy it was much better — powerful and dark and second person to boot.  You can read that one in In the Shadow of Evil edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers.

I apologize for being long-winded here, but you’ve struck a chord with this question. You see, my first fantasy novel, A Turn of Light will be released in stores about the time this interview goes up, and writing that book was the most difficult, time-consuming, and terrifying task I’ve ever done, as well as the most rewarding. It’s made me a better writer without doubt, but the numbers behind it appall even me. I wrote the first paragraphs over twenty years ago. I deleted well over 400K words during the writing process. Three years to write, during which I worked daily on it and couldn’t touch anything else. A final word count of epic proportions, but I’d made up my mind at the start to write a complete story. If I was going to commit fantasy, I was going all the way.

Having had some utterly wonderful early feedback about Turn, not to mention it being picked up by the SFBC and Audible.com, has eased some of my anxiety, but not all. Don’t get me wrong, I love this story and believe in it. I’ve put everything I had into it. But at the end of the day, I’m a biologist turned science writer turned science fiction writer. Starships or slime, I’ll stand up to be counted. Fantasy? I enjoy and respect it. Can I write it for others to read?

That’s up to my readers to discover.

Spec Can: What is distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction? Is there anything distinctly Canadian about the worlds and characters you create?

Julie Czerneda: I believe I have the first alien pick-up hockey game. Ties of Power. I wrote it in a rink while watching our offspring play, hence the authenticity of the cold seat. I’ve named starships after our astronauts. In the Company of Others. There’s a distinct possibility that beer occurs at least once in every book I’ve written and I’ve set portions of a trilogy in Canada. Species Imperative.

That said, I have an American publisher, so my words lack “u’s.” (I make a conscious effort to avoid the ones that would bug me, like colour and behaviour, but honour and armour are less easily avoided. I can live with that.) I would like to point out that my American publisher, DAW Books, treats its Canadian authors (we are legion) extremely well and we try to do the same in return. Of course they do well by all their authors, but we Canucks are something of a club and proud of it.

On a more serious note, and “u’s” aside, how could my work be anything but Canadian? for that’s what I am. My stories lack villains. I like resolving incompatible-seeming goals. I value diversity and expect everyone to queue nicely, even if they can’t quite get along or smell funny. Weather’s often an issue. The endings I prefer don’t have winners and losers, but change and accommodation. I’m optimistic, not solely a Canadian trait, but something being Canadian makes me determined to share.

As for Canadian SF?  We have wonderful, imaginative, thoughtful, ground-breaking authors all across this country. If I had them in a room, I’d give them each a beer (or beverage of choice) and force them to wear a pin that says “World-class Talent” for an hour. Of course they’d take it off outside the door. Yes, being Canadian makes it slightly naughty to tell anyone how great we are, but there is a way around it. I sincerely hope we learn to talk more about each other’s great stuff. You there. Reading this. You’re GREAT! Now get back to your own writing.

Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places that you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Julie Czerneda: No to the first bit. My characters are very much my creations and serve the story. I don’t start writing until I know how they would react in any given situation. I’m always aware of the need to convince my readers these “folk” are real and if a character doesn’t fly as he/she/it should, to me that indicates a problem to be fixed.

That said, I love how a story, through its characters and plot, develops momentum and direction once there’s critical mass. The notions my “hindbrain” comes up with when I’m in the shower or about to doze off delight and sometimes surprise me, but I consider that still part of my process.

As for personalities? Oh yes, if I’ve done my work properly, characters develop personalities that resonate for me and hopefully for readers. I adore Esen. I have my Mac moments. I wouldn’t want to face such difficult trials as Aryl or Sira or Aaron  but I assuredly know their natures and trust they can and will face them. Jenn Nalynn, my latest, is different again and I can “hear” her laugh. Such are the end results of the craft, of putting enough into each character that they are believable and, I hope, as admirable/vile/adorable/or annoying as I intended.

What does amaze me is how readers respond to minor characters. I expected the main characters to take hold of a heart or two but not that my walk-ons would have their own fans. These days, I take such great glee in adding details where I know they’ll be appreciated.

Spec Can: What is your favorite mythical creature and how has it inspired you?

Julie Czerneda: “I was never a unicorn or fairy type. Dragons called to me. Power, attitude, age. Those are the ones I like. Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy remains a favourite. The early Pern novels. There’s a YA I remember very fondly from long ago and have tried to find again, about an injured dragon whose wing is darned with spider silk. If anyone can tell me the title/author, I’d appreciate that. I’ve waited until my latest novel to put forth my own version. Ironically, though I once daydreamed about having dragons on one of my book covers, I produced a dragon who couldn’t be.

Spec Can: What current projects are you working on?

Julie Czerneda: If I could write more than one book at a time, I’ve readers who’d be happy. I’ve six novels contracted with DAW at the moment: the concluding trilogy of THE CLAN CHRONICLES, another Esen story (yay!), a new standalone fantasy, The Gossamer Mage, and, much to my delight, a sequel to Turn called A Play of Shadow which I truly hope won’t take as long to write. It shouldn’t. I’ve some confidence now about that fantasy stuff.

I’m also making notes for some other projects. I’ve questions, you see.

Spec Can: Are there any other ideas or thoughts that you would be interested in sharing with your readers?

Julie Czerneda: Whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, or answering thoughtful and thorough questions such as these, what you read is me. Give A Turn of Light a try, even if you’re unsure about fantasy. I hope, if you do enjoy the story, that you’ll read the acknowledgments at the back of the book as well, for DAW’s given me several pages to talk about this book, my journey through it, and to thank the very many people I owe.

Now? It’s time for a new story to come to life in your hands, dear readers, and for me to settle back and create the next.

Hmmm. Where was I? Right … Winter stretched its icy fingers across Marrowdell in the early hours before dawn, crisping leaves and polishing the commons pond with a skin of ice. It breathed traces of snow over the crags and into crevices, snow that, like rain, avoided the Bone Hills altogether. It sighed at the rising sun and retreated, for now, leaving the air sparkling with frost.

What can I say? I’m Canadian.

I want to thank Julie Czerneda for doing this interview and sharing her incredible insights with Speculating Canada. I am hoping that her insights about the environment and ecology as well as the importance of a good imagination will help us to speculate a new and better world for tomorrow.

To read more about Julie Czerneda’s work, please visit her website at http://www.czerneda.com . Her website also includes sources on teaching the sciences through SF, so if you are a teacher, there are incredible resources that you can bring into your classroom.