Is it Literary if it has Social Commentary?

A review of OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4 Edited by Diane L. Walton
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from OnSpec  # 95, courtesy of

Cover photo from OnSpec # 95, courtesy of


This review is well- timed since I recently posted something about ableism, sexism, homophobia, and racism at fan conventions and have been thinking about ways to make SF fandom more inclusive. When reading OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4, it occurred to me that the OnSpec editors are definitely doing their part to be inclusive by featuring stories that engage with a variety of different bodies and identities. One way that we can open fans to new ways of including diversity is to make sure that diversity is reflected in the SF works that we produce. OnSpec’s recently produced winter issue features works that engage with aging characters, LGBTQ2 or QUILTBAG populations, people in poverty, physical and psychological disability, and they do so in a way that raises questions about ableism, classism, and homophobia by giving the reader the opportunity to enter into the headspace of people who are often treated as abject by a society that discriminates against them.

Fiction provides us with an opportunity to exercise our skills in empathy, flowing in to the minds and experiences of characters as we read about them. Empathy is something that we all need to develop further and SF has the ability to let us venture into a variety of highly diverse minds and experiences.

Susan MacGregor begins this OnSpec with a discussion of the notion of “literary merit” and a reminder that a lot of the people who defend the notion that there is a “high literature” and that science fiction, fantasy, and horror cannot be it will often say that SF doesn’t make social contributions. Susan reminds the reader of the kinds of contributions that SF makes and mirrors some of the perspectives I have often espoused here on Speculating Canada that speculative fiction by its very nature opens things up to speculation, to question, and that by venturing into the weird realms of other worlds, other realities, and strange places, we can come back to our own world with questions, pondering the things we take for granted. It is very appropriate that this volume follows from her editorial with stories that feature characters who are often socially ostracized and exploring ideas about people in our own society who are treated like aliens and monsters. This exploration of those who are so often treated as ABnormal in situations that are abnormal (because they are set in the future or on other worlds or alternative histories) lets us question the idea of “normal” and come back to our own reality with a question about why so many people want to maintain a “normal” that excludes so many others. OnSpec 95, like other good works of SF opens OUR world to questions and lets us reassess it.

In addition to the -isms, OnSpec 95 invites readers to think about the damage caused by war whether it is physical injury to the body, environmental damage, psychological trauma, or damage to the community and notions of trust. The reader is encouraged to question our relationship to technology, deal with issues of addiction, plague, family violence, community secrets, memory, and the loss of selfhood itself. The fact that it does this social interrogation in a plague city of the future, in an alternative past full of necromantic powers and political intrigue, a future of prosthetic limbs and VR technology for coping with PTSD, a future of resource scarcity following international war, and a small town with a man who can sense truth makes it both incredibly entertaining and engaging.

OnSpec 95 binds narratives of loss together, creating a space for the interaction of future and past to talk about things that have become memory, things that we pine for, and things that we will feel the loss of in the future…. but these stories are ultimately about the present, about where and how we live NOW… and the authors ask us to question The Now to gain new insights about ourselves and the human experience.

We talk a lot about fantasy, science fiction, and horror as escapes, but I think that good speculative fiction is not an escape, but a temporary abstraction from reality that lets us come back to our own world with new insights, new ideas, and new ways of questioning the “norms” that we take for granted. Send me to an alien world any day if I can come back from it with a spaceship full of questions for this world!!

To read reviews of some of the individual stories in OnSpec 95, see:

You can discover more about OnSpec at .

Editorial – Is There Actually Something Canadian About Canadian SF?

By Derek Newman-Stille

One of the things that is gradually being more and more ignored in analyses of Canadian SF is the regional aspect. So many people focus on the need to see Canadian literature as international, rather than also looking at its regional qualities. Yes, Canadian literature is international, but really all literature is international – creative processes are international ones, fed from the influences of all of the reading that the author has done. But, their regional experiences also influence their writing – it is a conversation between the international and the local.

Authors like Nalo Hopkinson have discussed their experience of coming to Canada and learning about the Canadian experience by reading Canadian SF, getting a sense of this alien environment by reading about the aliens and social others that are produced through the Canadian imagination (Final Thoughts in Tesseracts Nine).

I understand why so many authors want to focus on the “international” quality of their work. Ultimately, they want it to be read outside of their country of origin – they want to have a larger readership. But, this is often only the case for people from countries that have less established histories of SF. The American and UK markets are quite comfortable with calling their work distinctly American or English, setting the story in their own country and flavouring it with local dialect and setting. Canadians are less inclined to do this because they know that overwhelmingly the market is dominated by Anglo-American SF works and they are often told by publishers that their work won’t sell in the United States because Americans won’t read about places other than the United States. I think this is highly unrealistic and assumes an unadventurous quality in a group of people (SF fans) who are obviously quite adventurous – they are willing to imaginatively explore other worlds, new environments, and new and diverse cultures in their literature, certainly they would not be adverse to reading about a country next door.

Yes, literature should be international, but what is often meant by this is not actually international, but, rather, marketable in the larger Anglo and American markets.

Canadian identity is a complicated issue, so many people feel that rather than try to think about the Canadianness of their work, it is far easier to assume that Canada is a cultural blank slate that does not have a cultural imprint on the things that occur within it. This does a disservice to Canadian literature, and also ignores the experience of new Canadians (people who have immigrated to Canada), who are often told that Canada is an easy place to adapt to and therefore that they shouldn’t have any difficulty fitting in. When they inevitably do experience difficulties such as racism, exclusion, and even culture shock, they often internalise this experience and, rather than criticising Canada’s lack of inclusivity, will criticise themselves for not fitting in.

It is important to be aware that we do have a regional culture – a culture that is not monolithic, that is changeable, that is often based on questioning itself and asking itself what it is.

Canadian culture is Speculative. We don’t believe we have a culture, so we always ask ourselves what it is. The great part about this is that’s what Speculative Fiction is all about – asking ourselves about ourselves. It is in the mirrored gaze of the alien’s eye or the monster’s saliva that we see the image of ourselves. We create our aliens and our monsters from our own imaginations and they embody our fears, our desires, our thoughts about our place in the world – they tell us about ourselves.

The best thing that we can say about Canadian culture is “it’s complicated” and it is always going to be about living the question, speculating. – and that is okay, in fact, it makes it interesting. As SF fans, we should be okay with living with ‘the question’. We do it every time we read our favorite books.