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.

Upcoming Interview with Julie Czerneda on Thursday February 28

I first encountered Julie Czerneda’s work through my friend and colleague Ellen Bentzen, who was, among other things, a

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

limnologist (a biologist focussed on the study of lake ecosystems) as well as a brilliant teacher and friend. Ellen and I had often talked about the link between science and the arts and the mutual need of science and the arts to support and be in conversation with each other. I was therefore extremely excited when Julie Czerneda said she would be willing to do an interview with me and I am excited to share her insights with all of you readers about the links between speculative fiction writing and science.

In our upcoming interview on Thursday February 28, Julie Czerneda reveals to readers how she balances a life of scientific academic research and science fiction and fantasy writing, reminds us that life itself is weird and well suited for speculative fiction, shares her joy and excitement at the prospect of doing research for a novel and learning something new, and the importance of biology in science fiction writing, the importance of diversity (both ecological and cultural). She reminds us of the importance of curiosity, imagination, and communication for creating a better tomorrow.

Here are some teasers from the upcoming interview:

Julie Czerneda: “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.”

Julie Czerneda: “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.”

Julie Czerneda: “The more I know about something, the more questions I have and the more intense my exploration of that idea will be.”

Julie Czerneda: “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.”

Julie Czerneda: “Diversity is, to me, a sign of robust health and a source of possibilities, regardless of where I find it.”

Julie Czerneda: “What I write is who I am.”

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.”

Julie Czerneda: “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.”

Julie Czerneda: “What we can’t imagine, we can’t create. What we can’t imagine, we can’t prepare against or for. 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.”

Julie Czerneda: “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.”

Julie Czerneda: “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.”

Julie Czerneda: “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.”

I hope you enjoy our upcoming interview on Thursday February 28, and if you are unfamiliar with Julie Czerneda’s work, please check out her website at http://www.czerneda.com and I hope you enjoy her work as much as I have.

Interview with Douglas Smith

An Interview with Douglas Smith
By Derek Newman-Stille

This week I had a great opportunity to chat with Toronto author Douglas Smith to

Author Photo Courtesy of Douglas Smith

discuss ideas about genre-crossing in SF, the ability of SF to challenge the status quo and propose new questions and ideas about how we can view our world, and the power of SF as a medium without boundaries. Interviewing Douglas Smith was an incredible experience because he has done so much introspection about his role as an author and is highly aware of his creative process. I hope that you enjoy hearing about his insights as much as I did.

I want to thank Mr. Smith for being willing to do an interview for Speculating Canada, and I will let him introduce himself and his work below.

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

Douglas Smith: I’ve been writing for about fifteen years and have over a hundred and fifty short story publications in thirty countries and two dozen languages. I have three published story collections: Chimerascope (ChiZine Publications, 2010), Impossibilia (PS Publishing, 2008), and a recently translated fantasy collection, La Danse des Esprits (France, 2011). My first novel, a shape-shifter fantasy set in Northern Ontario, The Wolf at the End of the World, will be released in 2013.

I’ve twice won the Aurora Award, and have been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the CBC’s Bookies Award, the juried Sunburst Award, and France’s juried Prix Masterton and Prix Bob Morane.

A multi-award winning film based on my story “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down” will be released on DVD this year, and other films based on my stories are in the works.

I’m Toronto born and raised, and live in Markham with my wife. We have two grown sons and a beautiful granddaughter. By day, I’m an IT executive, and by night I fight crime in the streets of the city–no, wait–that’s Batman. By night, I try to find time to write.

My website is smithwriter.com  and I tweet at twitter.com/smithwritr.

Spec Can: Your work is extremely diverse. What is the key to being able to write in multiple genres of the speculative?

Douglas Smith: I’m not sure if there’s a single answer to that. For me, I read widely as a kid across genres, especially SF, fantasy, and mystery, but general fiction as well, so when I began writing, it just seemed natural to write across genres. I’m also an avid movie goer, so I’ve been exposed to storytelling (good and bad) across genres in that medium as well. As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed stories that mix genres. One of my favourite writers, Roger Zelazny, was a master of what I call “science fantasy”, stories which have the veneer or trappings of fantasy, but have a core logic of SF, stories like “Lord of Light” or “Jack of Shadows.”

Spec Can: What draws you to write Science Fiction? What can science fiction do that realist fiction can’t?

Douglas Smith: I think that the genre’s greatest power as a literature is, to paraphrase the great SF anthologist Damon Knight, to hold up a distorted mirror to our current reality, to focus on some aspect of our world which needs to change (in the writer’s opinion). It’s that “if this goes on…” type of story that allows SF to provide a social commentary in a way that mimetic fiction cannot.

That’s the power of SF and fantasy (and I’d put SF as a specific subset of fantasy)–there are fewer (no?) limitations to the types of stories that I can tell. The stories still need an internal logic and consistency, but I’m not bound by any concerns of matching current reality. That is wonderfully freeing for a writer.

Spec Can: What draws you to write horror?

Douglas Smith: I actually don’t consider myself a horror writer.  I have only consciously sat down to write one pure horror story ever, and that was “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down.” That being said, my work often gets tagged as horror in “Best of …” anthologies and reviews, and many of my SF and fantasy stories do have horror elements to them. I’ve always thought of horror as more of a mood rather than a genre, so when I include horror in my stories, it’s more that I think those elements fit with the broader character arcs or the plot, rather than that I’m aiming at a writing a horror story. I don’t read horror, beyond some of the classics and the occasional Steven King or Clive Barker.  I do tend to see a fair number of horror movies, but even those tend to the supernatural, rather than the slasher, real world horror stories. Serial killer or chain-saw massacre stories bore me. But I love werewolf or ghost movies, for example. I’ve written several shape-shifter stories, plus one vampire story that I didn’t realize was a vampire story until multiple reviewers began mentioning it as an unusual take on vampirism. And I’m currently working on a zombie story that really isn’t a zombie story.

Spec Can: What can speculative fiction tell us about ourselves as readers and as a society?

Douglas Smith: I’d go back to the “distorted mirror” analogy I mentioned above. Fantasy or SF can use other worlds–future or alternate–to focus on aspects of our real world, our shared beliefs, our conflicting beliefs, our humanity, our inhumanity, our potential, our failings, to let us view ourselves through a different lens, at a slightly different angle. Speculative fiction, by the very nature of its unreality, can make us see our reality in ways that mimetic fiction cannot. How we relate to those views, which messages resonate with us as individual readers, can then tell us something about ourselves.

Spec Can: Where do your ideas come from?

Douglas Smith: www.ideas’r_us.com. Just kidding.  Ah, that question. The one that every writer gets at some point.  It’s a very logical question for a reader to ask, but a difficult and often puzzling one for writers to answer, because, I think, readers and writers come at that question from very different perspectives. A reader sees a writer, and thinks “that person’s a writer. Therefore, they need ideas to write about. I wonder where they get those ideas.” This makes perfect sense, except that the experience for writers is exactly the reverse of that sequence.

Asking a writer where they get their ideas is like asking a beleaguered doctor in an under-staffed emergency room where she gets her patients. And you’ll get a similar response from both: I don’t know and I don’t care. I just try to fix them up as best I can and send them out into the world. But I do wish that whoever is sending them to me would slow down a bit.

Most writers are writers precisely because we are constantly getting ideas. And a lot of us would be quite happy to have fewer of them cluttering up our mental waiting rooms, thank you very much, because the only way to get those ideas out of our heads is to write them down into stories. Until we do that, they exist as nattering voices reminding us that they are waiting to be born onto the page.

Let me give one example: my story “The Red Bird” (which appeared in On Spec #45) is an epic fantasy that combines martial arts, a lonely beach, and a very singular bird into a fable set in what might or might not be late 14th century Japan. So where did I get the idea for the story? I’m not sure, but I can explain the events that led up to the idea arriving.

As a child, I spent many summers with my family at a rented cottage on Georgian Bay, just north of Wasaga Beach. My favourite memories are of early mornings, windy and overcast, walking on the wide sandy beach, alone except for the crashing of waves and the cries of the gulls. Many years later, I began studying karate with my oldest son, Mike. One summer, our club held a weekend camp at Georgian Bay. Much to my surprise, the location they chose was the same collection of cottages from my childhood summers, and I spent the weekend practising and sparring on that same beach. At the end of the weekend, I walked that beach again, remembering those mornings of long ago. Somewhere in that stroll, the story was born, initially no more than a strong image of a strange bird with burning plumage and god-like powers of life and death. I don’t know from where that image came, but just being in that physical environment with all of its past and recent memories stimulated the creative process for me, and influenced many of the elements that appear in the story.

How a writer takes a kernel of a story idea and develops it into a story, however, is something that most writers can answer, and I think that’s your next question.

Spec Can:  Great prediction! What sorts of things are the points of genesis for a story?

Douglas Smith: Sometimes it’s an unusual image, such as that strange red bird. Or a giant arch built from encased corpses (“Enlightenment”) or a house as big as the world (“Going Harvey in the Big House”). Sometimes it’s an opening line or a title, such as “By her hand, she draws you down” or “The universe ended at noon. Again.” Other times it will be an idea or situation, such as a drug that turns all emotions, even pain and sorrow, into joy (“Scream Angel”). I have also written several stories (and plan to write more) that were inspired by a line or situation in a Bruce Springsteen song (“Going Down to Lucky Town” and “Radio Nowhere”).

Finally, it can be a character who shows up, and you know you need to figure out their story, how they came to be where they are, and where they will go from there.  Or how they ended up where you’ve found them, because many of my story ideas start with the last image, the last scene. I rarely write a story in order, and often write the last scene before any other.

And not all ideas that show up are good ones, so a writer has to perform some sort of triage on the ideas sitting in their mental waiting room, to reuse my earlier analogy. I have to decide which ones need to be pulled into O/R now and written before they drive me crazy (crazier?); which ones need more time to diagnose and should be kept waiting; and which ones are the malingerers–ideas so incredibly stupid that I’ll try to ignore them and hope that they go away and stop bothering me until I see someone else resurrect them in a movie.

Once I’ve decided to develop an idea into a story, for me, I need to know my characters. I can’t tell any story unless I can tell it as a character’s journey. If I don’t understand my characters, who they are, what drives them, what they want, then I can’t tell the story. For me, everything in a story is character. Plot turns must be based on character decisions. Even setting is character, since what the reader learns about the story’s setting must be through the senses of the story’s point-of-view characters, so what that character notices and cares about in the setting is what the reader experiences as well.

I’ll give one detailed example of the genesis of a story, which also illustrates something else that I’ve discovered–that a single idea is often not enough. A story is stronger if it combines multiple, often seemingly disparate ideas.

Early in my novelette, “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, by Van Gogh,” the main character Maroch reads a plaque beside the painting of the story title:

“This still life is not mentioned in van Gogh’s letters and has puzzled scholars as to its place in his artistic production. Most certainly a late work and possibly the Museum’s first painting from his Auvers period (May-July1890).”

That is taken from the actual plaque in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for the actual painting, “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase” by van Gogh.

Art is a passion of mine (as a viewer, not a creator). When I travel, I try to visit the local art museums in that city, with a special interest in European art from the mid-1800’s through the surrealists. But my favorite artist has long been Vincent. I’ve seen (I think) every publicly viewable painting of his in every museum in every city I’ve ever visited. I’ve read his letters with his brother, Theo, and ever so many biographies.

I’d always wanted to write a story about Vincent. I’d tried to write that story many years ago, a story about a woman in our time in love with Vincent and who (somehow) actually managed to meet him. The “somehows” that I tried didn’t work for me, so that story stayed in my head as one of those annoying little voices tickling me every now and then to remind me that it was still waiting to be born, until I found myself in front of “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase” in the MMoA.

I’d never seen the painting before, which was cool enough, but when I read the plaque, I knew that I had to use this somehow in my Vincent story. Van Gogh is one of the most researched artists of all time, and because of his extensive letter correspondence with his beloved brother, Theo, we have a running commentary of his entire artistic career, including what paintings he was working on at any time. For a painting to be unmentioned and undated was a wonderful mystery.

But I still didn’t have my time travel “somehow”. Then one evening, a writer friend was discussing remote viewing and how it had been used in the field of one of her own passions, archeology, to search for the lost tomb of Alexander the Great.

Somewhere in that conversation, the penny dropped, and I knew I had my time travel “somehow” to link my heroine in modern time to Vincent in the past. I did some research on remote viewing, from which came another part of my story: my main character, a former CIA operative. I added some tragedy in his past and a search for lost paintings, and the story (finally) started to take shape.

So sometimes a story idea has a very long stay in the waiting room.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian Speculative Fiction is going from here?

Douglas Smith: I have no idea, beyond bigger and better and more well known. We have an astoundingly talented array of speculative fiction writers, both established and emerging, all across the country, in all genres. At one time, I could give a list of recommended Canadian speculative fiction writers, but now I won’t even try because I know I’ll leave someone out and feel bad about it.

As a timely example of both Canadian writing and the themes that it can deal with, I’ll point to the brand new anthology, Blood and Water (Bundoran Press, 2012), edited by Hayden Trenholm and featuring stories from Canadian writers about “the new resource wars that will mark the next fifty years – stories of conflict and cooperation, of hope and despair – all told from a uniquely Canadian perspective.” Full disclosure: my shape-shifter, logging activism story “Spirit Dance,” which is the prequel to my novel The Wolf at the End of the World, is included.

Spec Can: What is distinctly Canadian about your work? What Canadian themes do you work with?

Douglas Smith: Another tough question. While I’m thinking up an answer, why don’t you check out Karen Bennett’s wonderful “Fantastic Toronto” web site (http://www.karenbennett.ca/FantasticToronto.html), which is an extensively researched bibliography of science fiction/speculative fiction, fantasy and horror that is set in (or has major mentions of) Toronto.

You’re back? Damn, I still need an answer. Well, beyond the Canadian and Toronto settings in many of my stories, now that I think of it, one of themes that recurs in my work, especially the Heroka shapeshifter stories, is that of the conflict between our civilization and the natural wilderness, as our resource-based industries, which feed our cities’ growing hunger for timber, water, power, minerals, and land, consumes more and more of the natural world and habitats of our wildlife. Our country has always been defined by its vast wilderness areas, and yet the huge majority of our population lives in only a few highly urbanized pockets of that vastness.  So there’s this destructive dichotomy between us and the land we live in–we live off of the land but we don’t really live in it. But for those who do live there and for the wildlife species that live there, we’re destroying more of that wilderness every year to feed the hunger of the cities. This is the central theme in The Wolf at the End of the World and in most of my other Heroka stories. The Heroka are a race of shape shifters whose vitality as a race is tied directly to the vitality of their totem animal species, species that are dwindling as their natural habitats are destroyed by logging or mining concerns, or flooded for hydro-electric projects.

Other Canadian themes in my work include a suspicion of both corporate and political power, a suspicion that I think is greater here in Canada than, for example, in the US.

Spec Can:  What are the values of writing short fiction?

Douglas Smith: I think that short fiction remains the best way to “break in” as a speculative fiction writer and to build a reputation with sales and awards. It’s also the best way to learn the craft of writing prose. Short stories allow a writer to write across genres, to learn different techniques, to try different approaches from one story to another that the novel form doesn’t permit (or rather, it would take longer to do over multiple novels).

And finally, quite frankly, if you’re a beginning writer, I think it’s wiser to invest your time in writing a few short stories and trying to sell them than in writing and marketing a novel. It’s a smaller hill to climb to find out if you can sell what you write. And to find out if you actually enjoy writing.

For me, at this point in my career, I’m spending most of my writing time on novels. But I love short stories, both to read and to write, and will (I hope) always continue to write them.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write the short story By Her Hand, She Draws You Down? What ideas did you deal with in this story?

Douglas Smith: I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process and have written several stories about other creative arts, such as music in “Symphony,” sculpture in “Enlightenment,” dance in “The Dancer at the Red Door” or art in “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, by Van Gogh” and “By Her Hand…”

The genesis of the story came while engaging in that favourite past-time of writers, staring out a window, this particular window being on the GO bus (Toronto commuter thingy) that I was riding home that evening. I’ve found that a flow of images in that sort of situation seems to trigger some sort of subconscious creative process. Anyway, the opening line to the poem that opens the story and forms the title to the story arrived from somewhere, and then Cath, the tortured artist of the story, showed up to audition for the lead role shortly thereafter.

This was the first pure horror story I ever wrote. It was an Aurora finalist and was selected for The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #13. A movie adaptation of the story from TinyCore Pictures toured film festivals in 2010-2011 and is included on the horror anthology DVD, Gallery of Fear.

Spec Can: What social issues can Science Fiction and Horror explore?

Douglas Smith: I’ve touched on many of these in my answers to some of the earlier questions, regarding the power of SF and Canadian themes, so I’ll give a short answer here:

Anything. Literally, anything.

If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue. I really see no limits. Rather, I think that SF&F offer more options for doing so than within the restrictions of mainstream mimetic fiction.

Spec Can: What role does diversity play in your work?

Douglas Smith: I certainly aim at a good balance of gender diversity.  About half of my stories have females as the main character or a key point-of-view character. My upcoming novel, The Wolf at the End of the World, has three female and three male POV characters. Beyond a gender diversity, half of the main characters in that book are Anishinabe, both Cree and Ojibwa. Plus there’s a blind POV character (which was interesting to write). One of the characters is even dead, which is a sector of our society that is usually not given a voice, so I’m trying to do my part. My next novel, an urban fantasy set in Toronto, has a gay character. But I’m sure I could do more and plan on having even more diversity in my cast of characters in future stories.

Spec Can:  What is the virtue of creating characters outside of the mainstream?

Douglas Smith: I’m not sure how virtuous it is, but it’s certainly fun from a creative perspective. Aside from that, characters outside the norm, whether they be aliens in our universe, humans from our possible futures, or characters from an entirely different reality, alternate or fantasy, aid in bringing the distorted mirror into focus. These characters can look at our world, our societies, our problems with fresh eyes and fresh outlooks, and thereby show readers a different perspective.

Or they can just be freaking cool, giving a reader that sense of wonder that only speculative fiction can deliver.

Spec Can: Your stories deal with some mythical characteristics. What can myths teach people in the modern world? How are myths still active in our world?

Douglas Smith: The ancient myths were the way that humans tried to explain the unexplainable, and writers and artists are still trying to explain the universe and our place in it. Our myths simply change as we learn more. Science replaces a myth, but each answer we find simply leads to another area where we know nothing. Myths rush in to fill the void. We are story tellers and will always be story tellers. It’s part of being human–it’s hard-wired in us. We will always use stories to try to explain or to process our world and what it means to be human. So we will always be building myths–stories that try to explain, stories that everyone knows are myths but enjoy by pretending they’re real.  The best stories, like the best myths, contain an element of truth that helps to make it all make sense.

Here’s an extract from my upcoming novel, The Wolf at the End of the World, which has an animal habitat / environment destruction theme, and draws heavily on Cree and Ojibwa stories and myths. In this scene, the Cree spirit Wisakejack is explaining the Cree story about the creation of the world to a boy named Zach who will play a part in an impending and mysterious battle:

“In the beginning,” Wisakejack began, “Kitche Manitou, the Great Spirit of the People, dreamed of this world. Kitche Manitou knew that dreams are important, even for him, so he meditated on his dream and realized that he had to bring what he had dreamed into being.

            “So, out of nothing–the nothing that we’re floating in right now–he made four elements–rock, water, fire, and wind. Into each, he breathed the breath of life, giving each its own spirit.”

            Zach suddenly felt solid ground under his feet. Rain wet his face, and a breeze moved his hair. He felt the heat of flames and smelled smoke. He still could see nothing but mist.

            “From these four elements,” Wisakejack said, “he created the four things that form the physical world: the sun, stars, moon, and earth.”

            Zach gasped. The grey mist was gone. A red sun sank over a broad bare plain of gray rock cut by a winding river, while a full moon peeked yellow-white over a tall, barren mountain under a canopy of stars in a black sky.

            “Then Kitche Manitou made the plant beings in four kinds: flowers, grasses, trees, vegetables.”

            From the bare expanse of rock, a forest of huge trees and undergrowth suddenly arose. Zach sensed something primal about this place. Something old–very, very old–and yet, at the same time, something still new, virgin.

            “And to the plants, he gave four spirits–life, growth, healing, and beauty.”

            “He liked to do things in fours, didn’t he?” Zach said, looking around in wonder.

            Wisakejack grinned. “See? You are learning. Next he created animals, each with special powers–two-legged, four-legged, winged, and swimmers–yep, four again.”

            Zach heard chirping and looked up to see a blue jay on a tree branch. When he looked back down, the coyote from his first dream sat beside him.

            “Wisakejack?”

            The coyote’s outline shimmered, and Wisakejack took its place. He stood up, brushing himself off. “Last, Kitche Manitou made the People. Humans.” He raised a finger. “Last–not first. That’s your most important lesson tonight. The plants came after the physical world, cuz they needed the earth, air, rain, and sun to live. The animals came after the plants, cuz the meat-eaters needed the plant-eaters, and the plant-eaters, well, they needed the plants.”

            “And people came last,” Zach said slowly, “because we depend on everything–sun, water, earth, air, plants, animals.”

            Wisakejack grinned. “Yep. None of the other orders of life needs humans to survive, but people depend on everything. You’re the weakest of the four orders–something the white man has never figured out. But Kitche Manitou wasn’t finished. Because the People were the weakest of his creations, he gave them the greatest of all his gifts–the power to dream.” He looked at Zach hard, his grin gone. “You believe that, kid? That dreaming is a power?”

Spec Can: You are able to really get into the minds of your characters. How do you get into the minds of alien or other than human characters?

Douglas Smith: I don’t really differentiate between the human and non-human characters. Writing a story for me means understanding my characters and telling the story via their journeys through it. An alien may be completely different from us in physiology, intelligence, culture, spiritual beliefs, and moral code, but all sentient creatures will be motivated by something, both as a race and as individuals. It’s just a matter of understanding what is important to a character.

And when I say understanding a character, I don’t mean completing one of those ridiculous “character sheets” that often get foisted on beginning writers. I couldn’t care less what my character’s favourite colour is or what they like for breakfast. If those details are needed in a story, fine, I’ll figure them out when I need to. But that isn’t understanding a character. Understanding a character means knowing what makes them tick. What gets them out of bed each morning? Or why do they dread getting out of bed? What are their passions? Or maybe they don’t have any. What do they truly fear more than anything? What do they want more than anything? What would they die for? What would they kill for? And most important for any story, what are they are missing in their lives right now that will drive all their decisions in their story?

Spec Can: What is the role of the urban in your work? What can SF teach us about the city and cityscapes?

Douglas Smith: I’d say that I have always enjoyed stories set in our modern cities where something of the other intrudes, unnoticed by most except (of course) by the story’s main character who is brought to a close encounter with the strangeness, either by chance or by intent. It’s one of the reasons that I enjoy the work of Charles de Lint so much. Other works that come to mind are the openings in the first books of Zelazny’s Amber series, Andre Norton’s Witchworld series, and Farmer’s World of Tiers series.

Regarding what spec fic can teach us about urban life, it’s back to the distorted mirror again. We are becoming increasingly dependent on technology to make our complex urban civilizations run. But at what cost? SF contains multitudinous extrapolations of what our cities and city-dwellers might become. We’ve gone from the fanciful city of flying cars in early SF to darker and dystopic views, and I’d include my own “Going Harvey in the Big House” in the latter category.

Spec Can: Is there anything else that you would like to mention to our readers?

Douglas Smith: Just that I hope they’ll visit my web site at http://smithwriter.com and take a tour. If any of your readers would like to check out any of the stories I mention here, they are all available as individual ebooks at all major etailers or from the store on my web site, and are also included in one of my collections, Chimerascope or Impossibilia.  And please look for my urban fantasy, The Wolf at the End of the World, in early 2013.

Thanks for the invitation to be interviewed here and for the thought-provoking questions.

I want to thank Douglas Smith for sharing his insights with us and provoking new thoughts and ideas about the future of SF and of human beings. To read more about Douglas Smith, check out his website at smithwriter.com. Click on Douglas Smith in the Tags on the left of this website to read some of my reviews.

Imagining Canadian Speculative Fiction

An Editorial on SF Versus Realist Fiction and a Review of Imaginarium 2012:

Derek Newman-Stille reading Imaginarium 2012

The Best Canadian Speculative Writing Edited by Sandra Kasturi and Halli Villegas (ChiZine Publications, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

I received a copy of Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing on August 23rd and was so excited that I had to read the essay introducing the volume right away even though I had several other projects on the go. The collection has such a brilliant title that I felt an instant desire to read through it. I have enjoyed all of the books by ChiZine that I have yet encountered, so it was hard for me to wait to read this volume.

Once again ChiZine impressed me. Imaginarium 2012 was a brilliant collection of diverse sources borrowing from various speculative genres and bending genre roles to read between the boundaries. The vast scope of the volume provides a great introduction for new readers of Canadian Spec Fic and tingles the tastebuds of experienced Can Spec Fic readers. Sandra Katsuri and Halli Villegas pull together materials from diverse publications from the year, allowing readers to see the range of possible sources available.

The collection does draw heavily from Edge and ChiZine publications of the year, which are fantastic, but for those of us who tend to get as much new Canadian SF as possible, it tends to repeat the materials already in one’s collection. I would love to see more materials pulled from diverse, small journals and possibly Canadian works of short fiction that have been published as part of larger American anthologies or other international anthologies which the reader may not be able to access unless she or he purchases the entire volume. These international anthologies are often fantastic, but Canadian authors often get lost in the mix and sometimes have a habit of not identifying themselves as Canadian.

I was impressed that this volume was not solely focused on short stories, but rather contained a mix of prose and poetry, allowing readers to see the rich diversity of verse that is available for the speculative genres.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this volume was the list of honourable mentions, which was a great introduction or ‘recommended reading list’ of current brilliant works of Canadian Spec Fic.

Steven Erikson’s introduction to the volume provides a great opening to a volume on the speculative, reminding readers of the importance of looking beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary and envisioning new worlds and new potentials.

In particular, I really enjoyed his critique of fictions about “mundane reality” and the assertion that there is something more exciting about SF. He counters the assertions of people who are enmeshed in the belief that realist fiction is the only reasonable fiction to enjoy and that any SF is ‘escapist’ and ‘made for children’. Any readers of SF would know that the vast majority of it is made for adult readership and the complexity of the issues involved evoke serious subject matter.

My one criticism of this essay, and this should in no way suggest that it is not a worthwhile essay, is that it presents itself as groundbreaking and new territory. There is a suggestion in this essay that it is one of the first to look at SF as a serious area for discourse, and this is particularly pronounced by the claim on the cover of the volume that one should expect a “provocative introduction”. However, since the inception of research on science fiction, fantasy, and horror, this has been an assertion put forward by scholars. The vast scholarship on the topic alone suggests that it is considered worthy of discourse, and most scholars of the fantastic have suggested that Spec Fic is perhaps a harder area for authors to create. I have suggested this in conference papers for years now, and this is a primary motivation in my research on disability in Spec Fic and my assertion that the depiction of people (or others such as aliens, werewolves, cyborgs, mutants, etc.) with disabilities  in fantastic literature is oftentimes more potent than the depiction of disabled subjects in realist fiction. Realist fiction on disabilities often serves as a form of manual for non-disabled people on the subject of understanding disabilities. Speculative fiction about disabilities often allows people with disabilities to see themselves in a narrative without the need for the associated realist written report on the disability. As a person with disabilities, I have found that SF is one of the few areas where I can find characters with disabilities that I identify with and am interested in.

Having said that Erikson’s essay is not presenting totally new material, the virtue of this essay is that it is written for a more open audience and not limited to scholarly discourse, and it also provides readers of SF with the language to be able to defend their reading choices when confronted with what I would call the unwavering realist headspace (that realist headspace that suggests that realism is the only true literature and everything else is lesser and the accompanying inability to look beyond this perspective).

Moreover, the issue of SF’s ghettoisation still exists. There is still a focus on realism by most literati as the only capital L Literature, and this is certainly true with Can Lit, which tends to posit realism and the realistic depiction of lives in Canada as the only true Canadian Literature unless the speculative subject is written by an author who already has been accepted in the cannon and who is ‘slumming in the SF’ to raise it to a perceived ‘literary standard’.

I have received a few comments by email from readers of Speculating Canada that I should look into this volume and many of them critiqued the lack of discussion about a distinctly Canadian focus for the essay, particularly since it was opening a volume titled Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. I also would have liked to have seen more discussion of the regional aspect of this Spec Fic since this regional or locative dimension is often ignored (sometimes under the claim that not referring to the Canadian element makes it an ‘international’ genre), but I also understand the constraints for space that go with writing an introduction and I hope that in the future scholars and fans may write their own analyses of the Canadian and regional aspect of this collection and what the speculative fiction in Imaginarium 2012 suggests about Canada and Canadian speculations on the nature of reality (or the imagination).

This incredible work reminds the reader of the caliber of ChiZine’s publications and the great fiction that they are known for compiling. Katsuri and Villegas demonstrate their ability to tackle the energy-intensive collecting and organising skills needed to pull a volume of this incredible scope together. Their breadth of knowledge on the subject of Canadian Speculative Fiction is clear from their ability to mine diverse sources and pull together some really incredible works.

Here is a hope for a future Imaginarium collection and I can’t wait to read it!

To find out more about Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, explore ChiZine’s website at http://chizinepub.com/ . You can explore the works contained in Imaginarium 2012 and purchase a copy at http://chizinepub.com/books/imaginarium/imaginarium_2012.php . This is a great way to start your collection or to expand your existing collection.