Canada Day Complexities and Questioning the 150

By Derek Newman-Stille

Art by “Chippewar”

Like many marginalized Canadians, Canada Day can evoke some complicated feelings. We are often very aware of the oppressions that have been carried out in the name of “Canada”: residential schools for aboriginal people, asylums that perpetuated the torture of people with disabilities, the Pink scare, bathhouse raids, and other attacks on queer Canadians, the razing of Africville and so many other acts of violence that seek to position white, straight, able-bodied, Anglophone Canadians as the only “true” Canadians. 

Canada 150 has been constructed as a celebration of Canadian history, and yet, in the nation’s attempt to construct itself as a country of justice and benevolence, it has erased large parts of its past, trying to make itself seem as though it is a country of constant justice, rather than a country that needs to acknowledge that it has carried our horrible abuses of people in the past and continues to do so. Even the title “Canada 150” carries a problematic assumption, erasing the thousands of years of aboriginal presence on this landscape in trying to make it seem as though Canada was born from nothing 150 years ago. Canada’s acts 150 years ago were a theft of land, an oppression of people who have lived on this landscape and who have continued to be robbed of land and have been oppressed for the length of those 150 years. 

Canada has supported arts for its 150, but only if those arts celebrate the message that it is trying to evoke, and the arts council positions artists within its “cultural mosaic”, but only if one fits into the mosaic in the right way, only if one performs identity the way that the arts council wants to see. 

As writers, researchers, and fans of speculative fiction, we have an opportunity to ask big questions (the speculative part means being inquisitive). We can ask these questions of our past through historical fiction, inviting questions about what could have happened in Canadian history if things had gone differently and invite readers to learn about Canadian history beyond the canonical history we are often taught in our schools (the sanitized version that constructs this nation as heroic). We can invite questions about where we are going from here, ask questions of our future, and interrogate possibilities and alternatives that we are told are impossible or improbable. With our creative energy we can invite those impossibilities to the table and see how they play out. We can write dystopian fiction that invites critical questions about how things can go wrong if we continue on our current path. We can write utopian fiction that imagines a radically new nation of justice and inclusion. We can write horror that showcases the horrors that constantly take place behind closed doors in our nation, imagine fantasies where Canada can be transformed through a different relationship to our environment, superhero fiction that doesn’t end up just being nationalistic tripe, and science fiction that imagines different ways of understanding the sciences that we use to justify our actions. 

Speculative Fiction, like all fiction, is an act of imagination, and, as such, it is about the potentials that we can dream up. It is a genre of our imagination, our thoughts, our perspectives, our aspirations, our anxieties, our fears, our dreams and our nightmares. It is a genre of ideas, and we need to remember that ideas are powerful, transformative, and, yes, dangerous. A nation is a boundary – one that is placed on geographies and people and that uses techniques to try to bind those disparate people and geographies together. But we aren’t defined by our boundaries. Canada’s boundaries have separated people, sought to erase aboriginal territories and nations, and the process of drawing that boundary was as much about exclusions as it was about inclusions. It is up to us to redraw boundaries, or, better yet, to imagine beyond boundaries and conceive of new types of definitions and new ways of understanding ourselves and the places we access. We need to remember our history, and that means all parts of it, including (or possibly especially) the ugly parts of it. We need to question the way that borders have been drawn around what is appropriate Canadian history and what is not. We need to invite questions of our government when it tells us that it has given people enough and as it why, ask it to give access to fresh water to aboriginal people, ask it to make spaces actually accessible for disabled people, ask it to stop pathologising queer people and trying to portray only one type of queer person (normally the most normative behaving) and actually open things up for areas of radical expression and radical inclusion. 

We can imagine new possibilities in our arts and our critiques and we have a responsibility to imagine better.
To find out more about the art by Chippewar above, visit http://www.chippewar.com/product/free-150-years-of-colonization 

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?