Science and Speculative Fiction

An editorial on Science and Speculative Fiction By Derek Newman-StilleCanada Day

Although as a society, we often create an impenetrable barrier between the arts and sciences, seeing each as separate and distinct from one another, these barriers are historically created and are social inventions. The origin of science is through philosophy, remember. Science Fiction (or more widely, Speculative Fiction) is one of the arenas where there are still obvious bridges between the arts and sciences – being a production of artistic endeavor, but also dealing with ideas coming out of technology and sciences.

Several Canadian SF authors including Julie Czerneda, Scott Fotheringham, and Nina Munteanu have operated in the field of science, noticing the opportunity that SF provides to explore critical questions around science. Czerneda has even used science fiction as a mechanism for teaching students about science, allowing them to play out scientific ideas in a science fictional setting.

SF allows authors to explore the social implications of science, the social contexts and ideological underpinnings that accompany scientific endeavors. SF explores the social ramifications of scientific ideas and developments, exploring what could happen, where things could go, what social issues could develop in correspondence with technological invention, seeing the sociocultural aspect of science rather than viewing scientific ideology as separate from the social sphere and divorced from its ideological implications. SF can provide a critical lens to scientific pursuits, providing writers and readers the opportunity to insert the deeper questions into scientific explorations: asking “Why?”, “What happens if…?”, and “What could come from this?”.

So often, scientists are wrapped up in the act of invention, in the process of discovery, that they ignore what the implications of their research could be, how it could be used (and for whom), and how it could be made to serve purposes for which it was not intended. The research for research’s sake mentality sometimes cultivates an ideology that ignores social implications. SF can provide social warnings about where things could go, bringing ideas back into the world and seeing how they could play out within a political, societal sphere.

SF often displays scientific ideas magnified, extremified, exaggerated to illustrate possible implications, highlighting the dangers as well as the potentialities that could be embodied in the process of discovery, and the hazardous places that society could take scientific invention to. SF can be a place to explore moral issues in relation to technology – what are the implications of invention? How will inventions shift our consciousness and the way we view the world? Will we still capture what is fundamentally human if we switch our basic behaviours, our patterns of thought, or even our bodies themselves?

Writers can use SF as a medium for exploring whether the social or the technological will be a greater mechanism of change. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence explores whether social change or technological change will be the thing that will deter the destruction of our natural environment and deal with the development of pollutants. Will we be able to shift our way of thinking about the world to be more ecologically safe, or will we once again try to rely on a technological invention to solve our problems?

SF can illustrate the limits of science to repair our social problems. We tend, as a society, to put a lot of faith in the idea that science will solve our problems, whether they be environmental (as illustrated by our trend to introduce new species into ecosystems as an attempt to control those ecosystems) or medical (believing that the medical profession can solve our bodily ills).We often take science as a given solution, as an ideology founded in concepts of “Truth”, rather than a set of theories that is open to challenge and is historically contingent (formed from a specific line of thought that has developed over time). SF provides a space to question the unquestioned authority of science and our social belief that science can solve our world’s ills.

One of the fora of scientific exploration that SF has been doing a great job of critiquing is the field of medicine, and, particularly, the ideologies that are created from viewing the body mechanically (as something that can be fixed through forced normalisation). One of the areas that is most affected by the medicalised ‘normalcy’ forced on bodies is the area of diverse bodies, and people with disabilities, who are often subjected to painful procedures in an attempt to normalise their bodies rather than shifting social ideologies to allow for more diversity and more accessible spaces for diverse bodies. Leah Bobet does a great job of critiquing the medicalised body in her YA novel Above, where she presents readers with a group of individuals who are mutated or bodily different in certain ways (either with crab arms, the ability to transform into a bee, lion feet, or the ability to speak to ghosts) who have escaped from medical facilities that broke their feet, cut off their arms, and subjected them to harsh medical drugs in order to force their bodies to resemble the human ‘norms’. These people created a community called “Safe”, a place of safety away from the “Whitecoats” (doctors, scientists, psychiatrists, and other medical practitioners). The ideas of healing used by the Whitecoats were shaped by the idea that only certain bodies are normal, and any others are threatening and would be changed (even in painful and destructive ways) to represent that norm.

Camille Alexa, in her short story “All Them Pretty Babies” (from OnSpec Vol 24, No 3) takes this idea even further, presenting a future in which the population is limited, and yet, the society that is fighting for its own survival is still willing to cast out those who are bodily different, those mutations that threaten ideas of the normal. Scientists cast bodies out into areas of intense radiation while they try to preserve their ideas of what is and should be human, allowing anyone who deviates from that idea of humanity to rot in radioactive woods.

In Sparkle Hayter’s naked brunch, a doctor tries to medicalise the werewolf. Rather than accepting it as a figure of legend, he ascribes a disease to this different body: “Lycanthropoic Metamorphic Disorder”. He treats these medically diverse bodies as threatening, trying to force the werewolves to pass as human, subjecting them to harsh treatments that lead to chemical addictions and often death in an attempt to have them be more like ‘normal’, ‘regular’ human beings. He and his society deny the possibility that diverse bodies are useful and even necessary in a social system, that this diversity can be healthy.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake illustrates the extremes of danger that could be involved in the economicisation of medical technology. Her future is one in which pharmaceutical companies have solved all of the medical problems, but periodically release viral epidemics to spur the social need to buy more advanced cures and spend more money on medical advances to fuel the pharmaceutical industry. She shadows the issues we see in our society now where a great deal is medically possible, but the access to that medical technology is often restricted by wealth, and where often research is focussed on treatment (which is a greater long term investment) than on cures.

Canadian SF can also point out our reliance on technology. Joseph Macchiusi’s The Betelgeuse Oracle shows a world after the release of a massive EM pulse and the challenges of a world without technology. Urban spaces become deserts cut off from the modes of production, and characters have to adapt to a world that is different from the one that suffused their existence since birth. One character is so dependent on his connection to technology and particularly to communications technology and the need to be connected that he carries his dead cell phone everywhere with him and spends precious moments alternating batteries to try to re-activate it. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence illustrates the world’s reliance on plastic and the social breakdowns that occur when plastic is removed from our society.

One of the issues with science is that it often limits things into easy (and uncritical) categories (such as binary notions of gender), and good Canadian SF complicates these theories, disrupts this boundaries and categories and shows the complexity of the issues involved. It questions the foundations of categorization altogether.

SF doesn’t just critique scientific endeavours, SF also provides the opportunity for creative thought. So often people become limited in their outlook, navel-gazing within their own field and looking only at what is currently possible instead of what is impossible. Often it is in the sphere of the impossible where new ideas are found, new visions of things, and new ways of considering things outside of what is ‘normal’. Reading and writing SF allows for the development of insights into the impossible, the places of new innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.

SF explores the “what ifs” that are the foundation of scientific hypothesis building.

Science and SF can provide a powerful conversation with each other, changing, questioning, and challenging each other.

Here are some points that SF authors have raised about Science in their Interviews on Speculating Canada:

SCOTT FOTHERINGHAM

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/interview-with-scott-fotheringham/ )

Scott Fotheringham: I wanted to use what I had learned of biology to perform a thought experiment: What would happen if plastic began to disappear? Because

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

that probably won’t happen because we choose to make it happen, I wondered if organisms could digest plastic.

Scott Fotheringham: “much of science is goal-driven or product-driven. Scientists create things that are worth a lot of money but have little social value or actually harm us.”

Scott Fothertingham: “The questions I’d like to see asked – particularly by the scientists themselves – are, What value does the work I’m doing have to society? How will this be used and, if it has potential for harm, should we pursue the research at all? So often scientists shrug their shoulders and say it’s not up to them how their inventions and discoveries are employed. This is a grievous abdication of their responsibility.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Right now our intention is to use technology to make money. Only if that changes will we able to work to heal what we’ve wrought.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Reading gives us insight into how other people view the world. If all I had was my experience, and that didn’t include reading, my view of how the world works would be narrower than it is.“

JULIE CZERNEDA

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/interview-with-julie-czerneda/ )

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

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

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.”

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: “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.”

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.”

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.”

Julie Czerneda: “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.“

Julie Czerneda: “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.”

Julie Czerneda: “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.”

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.”

Julie Czerneda: “What technology is to science, I suspect curiosity is to imagination.”

Julie Czerneda: “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.

KARL SCHROEDER

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/interview-with-karl-schroeder/ )

Karl Schroeder: “We spend much of our lives programming ourselves to react automatically rather than to think. It’s faster, costs less energy. Part of that process involves the ossification of our basic categories: man/woman, human/nonhuman. SF deliberately blurs these categories in order to almost literally wake us up. It’s strangemaking, which is a very valuable capacity, especially in the present situation when the world needs innovative new solutions to some pretty dire problems. It’s not that SF presents, or even can present, the solutions to big issues like global warming or global poverty; it’s that it helps educate us in the kind of thinking that can lead to them.”

Karl Schroeder: “Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator.  It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories… They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking.”

Karl Schroeder:  “There’s lots of technologies that are flashy, or might have this or that big effect on the world. Nuclear fusion, augmented reality, nanotech… yeah, they’re all great. But we don’t need them. There’s only one development that we need at this point in our history: better methods and systems for decision-making, both individual and collective.”

Karl Schroeder: “We have all the technologies—all the tools and capabilities and understandings—to create a Utopia on Earth now. We can absolutely solve the problem of global warming, for instance; we even know how to reverse it with technologies we currently possess. What’s become abundantly clear in the past couple of decades is that the only thing we lack is the ability to make, and follow-through on, the right decisions. So much of my work right now is dedicated to asking what we need to do to get to such capabilities.”

Karl Schroeder: “Do you imagine or write a future where anything is possible except the invention of prostheses to compensate for the inadequacies of human decision-making? Does your worldbuilding encompass universes with star flight, robots and nanotech—yet accept royalty, corporations and bureaucracies as inevitable?”

NINA MUNTEANU

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/interview-with-nina-munteanu/ )

Nina Munteanu: “The literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”

Nina Munteanu: “Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”

Nina Munteanu: “Both ecology and science fiction explore consequence in a big way.”

Nina Munteanu: “My ecological interests and experiences have influenced my writing in every way: in providing me with ideas, in world-building, and in the interactive fractal nature of plot, theme, character and premise. For me, the two are intertwined. Writing science fiction has opened the doors of creative problem solving in my scientific pursuits; and my science has opened windows of possibilities in my writing. It’s a win-win situation, really.”

Nina Munteanu: “Most science and technology presents itself in literature through premise or plot, which influence various characters in their life journeys. Ecology—like setting—manifests and integrates itself more in theme. This is because, while most of the hard sciences study the nature and behavior of “phenomena”, ecology studies the consequences of the relationship of these phenomena and the impact of their behaviors on each other and the rest of the “world”.”

Nina Munteanu: “Environmental issues are largely a global phenomenon—concerns like water quality and quantity, air pollution, resource acquisition, allocation and sharing, wildlife extinction, etc. Science fiction is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind; it can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity….The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premise based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”) to dystopias (e.g., Huxley’s “Brave New World”).

JEROME STUEART

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/interview-with-jerome-stueart/ )

Jerome Stueart: “Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

societal consequences.  I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.”

Jerome Stueart: ““I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom…. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like.  What do they WANT society to be like?  And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us?  Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely. “

Jerome Stueart: “I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable.  We get in our ruts.  If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it.  LOL.  But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.

Jerome Stueart: “Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens.  SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems.  Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society.  It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.”

Jerome Stueart: “I think the current problems with getting the world to understand climate change is directly related to an inability to speculate—or see the future from the evidence you have.  Society has equipped scientists to extrapolate from their research, but we don’t take their recommendations because we don’t trust science anymore, or intelligence.  Unless the majority of the population respects knowledge, has a healthy speculative mind, they can’t see consequences.”

DOUGLAS SMITH

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/interview-with-douglas-smith/ )

Douglas Smith: “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 Douglas Smith with Impossibiliacan tell.”

Douglas Smith: “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.”

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Year in Review: What is Canadian Speculative Fiction – from the authors

People are often asking if there is such a thing as “Canadian identity”, something that differentiates Canada from other nations. I thought I would ask authors if theyfuture spec can thought that there was something distinctly Canadian about Canadian Speculative Fiction or how much they felt that their Canadian identity influenced their writing.

I have provided links to the full interviews below each author’s comments so you can re-read them or, if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, to read them for the first time.

Claude Lalumiere:

“I know that [my Canadian identity] does [influence my writing], but I am not sure if I’m equipped to know how, aside from the fact that Montreal is often an important setting in my stories. On the subject of my being a Canadian writer, Paul Di Filippo, in his introduction to The Door to Lost Pages, wrote, ‘Claude Lalumière is not only a universal author but a regional writer. His native Canada, specifically the city of Montreal, is as much a player in these stories as the people, even when not specifically named. There’s some numinous element of these tales that acts as a counterbalance to the hegemony of US fantasy trilogies. We are hearing a voice literally from beyond the lands we (we American readers) know.’”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/interview-with-claude-lalumiere/

 

Steve Vernon:

“We Canadians are champion diehard storytellers. I mean take a look at our winters. Take a look at our television network. Take a look at our mosquitoes. What else have we got to do but to tell stories to each other?

“In some ways my Canadian identity limits me – in that it is harder to find my place in the international market. But my Canadian identity helps make me the writer that I am today. Remember – I have a half dozen regional books out at this moment from Nimbus Publishing – Nova Scotia’s largest publishing network. I am also close to signing a contract with another new Canadian publisher for a series of YA horror novels. My regional books have sold in the thousands – which makes me a bestselling author in Canada.”

“Nova Scotians are the true storytellers of Canada. We have an even worse selection in television, bigger mosquitos, and less opportunity for honest work. Again I ask you what else can we do but sit around and spin out yarns?”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/interview-with-steve-vernon/

 

Ian Rogers:

“Is there something that makes our stories inherently Canadian? Possibly, but it would probably take someone who isn’t from here to determine that. They say you should write what you know. I agree with that, but I would add a corollary: you should also write where you know. I know Canada, specifically Toronto and the GTA, so that’s where I typically set my stories.”

“I like to think that Canadian authors are reclaiming the “horror” word in much the same way David Cronenberg reclaimed it for Canadian film.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/interview-with-ian-rogers/

 

Nancy Kilpatrick:

“I think my work is multi-national, multi-cultural and encompasses a lot of attitudes and values that Canadians hold to like gender equality and equal pay for equal work.  For example, I’ll use fairness.  Canadians like to be fair and that leads to that stereotyping of people from this country always apologizing.  But really, it’s not so much apologizing out of guilt–as the Americans imagine–as Canadians being polite, acknowledging the other person’s existence and that they, too, have rights.  I think my writing incorporates that even in the conflicts of the story, even when a character is obnoxious.  I try to give the characters the chance to do the right thing.  If they do, they are holding to my values and the values I see around me, despite how much the current climate tends to try to erode those values.”

“I’d say that in general, Canadians write with intelligence, and that includes the darker genres.  They are educated and that becomes clear when you read the stories and novels.  Nothing here is slapped together and I suspect that’s because in the past we didn’t have a horror publishing industry so writers have had to work harder, knowing their English-language markets were in the U.S. and Britain, and the French markets in France.”

“Besides being thoughtful and intelligent, Canadians write from their experience.  Cities here are different than cities in the U.S.  For example, our citizens don’t carry guns.  Our landscape involves a lot of nature, which is important to Canadians, and that allows for a certain type of horror that can be both visceral and psychological.  Characters in the stories and novels produced in this country — and I’ve read a lot of short fiction for the four anthologies I’ve edited for Edge (two were all Canadian authors and the other two have a goodly chunk of Canucks) and the eight before those for the U.S. market — read like real people, well-constructed, with depth and lives and thought-processes which aren’t stereotyped.  Because the characters are intelligent, even if a tad whimsical, readers can respect them.  There’s nothing worse in a horror novel or story than the clichés, for example:  “Let’s split up!” Stories by Canadians strike me as having characters who are loners, not necessarily out of some twisted or evil past but more because of the way we live here, a kind of self-sufficiency that isn’t bitter.  What I mean is, you get characters who just get on with it and deal with things to the best of their ability.  And most of the time they don’t have arsenals at their disposal so they have to use brain-power while coping with the emotions evoked by the horrific situation.

“Don Hutchison, who was the editor of the wonderful anthology series Northern Frights, used to say he thought Canadians wrote with a sense of place, and that might be what I’m getting at.  But I think it’s more.  I think the place shapes the person and their world view and how they cope with everything.  What I like about what I’m reading by Canadians — besides  the fact that they like to slide between genres, which I find fun — is that they bring themselves to the fore and that Canadianism is recognizable.  In my view, we don’t need the government shoving Canadian content down our throats as if it has to be protected or die out, or shoving language down our throats, ditto the reasons.  These things already exist and can stand on their own.  It’s who we are and it shines through in the writing.  When travelling, one can usually spot travelers who are English or French or German because they are distinctive.  But you can also spot Canadians because we are distinctive in our way.  Canadians are nice, fair, friendly without being in your face, and honest.  Why Canadians don’t see and appreciate these rare qualities in themselves, I don’t know, but it’s also in the writing and in the books we’re now producing that are in the horror/dark fantasy genre and that’s one of the reasons Canadian fiction stands out.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/interview-with-nancy-kilpatrick/

 

Paul Marlowe:

“If I can depart from the standards of civil debate for a moment, I would suggest that in a country where anti-intellectualism is on the rise – where anyone interested in technology or SF is branded a geek, and where a political leader such as Stéphane Dion can be discredited amongst the public by being called “professor” by that weird gang of mediocrities, cranks, embarrassing amateurs, control-freaks, spin-doctors, and corporate sock-puppets comprising the Government – the question facing Canadian SF is: how many of us want to think?”

“It’s probably premature to begin identifying what, if anything, differentiates Canadian from international steampunk. If its popularity survives for more years, then a comparison might be worthwhile. In some ways, the real history of Canada is kind of like an alternate history of the United States – we were the part of British North America that chose to stay British. Those who didn’t want to become republican Americans came here as Loyalists.

“Once you get past the superficial bric-a-brac of steampunk that is common in books from various countries, the Canadian angle has interesting opportunities, since it places the reader in North America, and yet also in the greatest multinational empire that has ever been.

“For a writer of fiction, the fluid, evolving nature of the empire that Canada was a member of provides plenty of opportunities to imagine what it might have become, for better or worse, had its evolution proceeded differently.”

“Not being a scholar of Canadian SF, I don’t know if my forecast would be any better than those of Environment Canada since their budget cuts. It looks like SF will continue to be sidelined, culturally, for the foreseeable future, since there’s a sort of literary apartheid in Canada (as in other countries), which places SF down in the lowest class where it can be disenfranchised by excluding it from the grants, prizes, reviews,  media attention, and the rest of the grease and hot air that lets the literary machine chug along, hoisting books out of the shadows and into the public eye.

“Some countries, perhaps, do a bit better than Canada. In the US, where every stage of the Lit Cycle from writing to reviewing to award-giving isn’t subsidized by a federal or provincial ministry of official culture, there seems to be an acknowledgement that literature consists of something beyond self-conscious nation building, lyrical tales of suicide on the prairies during the Great Depression, and other dismally “realistic” but morally uplifting fare. Coincidentally, the US also has a huge SF publishing industry, attracting writers from, among other countries, Canada. And there’s probably a reason why writers like Sir Terry Pratchett appear in the UK, and not in Canada. Despite there being the same tendency to pretentious literary cliques in the UK as we have here, Pratchett was knighted (the equivalent of a Companion of the Order of Canada), his works have been performed as stage plays, as TV programmes, and on the BBC, and he won this year’s Wodehouse Prize (equivalent of the Leacock Medal, but with more pigs and champagne). Writing SF requires imagination, but I’m not sure that I have enough to imagine a Canadian fantasy writer being similarly celebrated by his or her country.

“Government assistance was certainly necessary here to kindle a national book industry and literary institutions. Unfortunately for many “genre” writers, it’s now simply supporting an industry that does little for them but denigrate and ignore their work. Canadian literature won’t be as rich and varied as it might be until the bigotry of the industry abates. I suppose the best way for that to happen might be for more people involved in Canadian SF to sit on grant & prize juries, write reviews, and speak out when they’re discriminated against, not on their literary merit, but on their choice of subject matter (or choice of friends).”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/an-interview-with-paul-marlowe-about-the-wellborn-conspiracy-series/

 

Douglas Smith:

“Well, beyond the Canadian and Toronto settings in many of my stories, now that I think of it, one of the [Canadian] 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.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/interview-with-douglas-smith/

 

Kelley Armstrong:

“I don’t think [Canadian supernatural fiction] is heading anywhere different than supernatural fiction in general, which is beginning a downswing. It will never go away completely, but the market will be smaller.”

“There are differences in the [Canadian versus other nations’]markets. What is a bestseller in the US will not necessarily be a bestseller in Britain. That’s the same for all geographic areas—Canada also has differences from both. The literature produced in our country reflects the differences in regional taste. I’m not sure it affects the supernatural aspects of the story as much as the general ones—the tone, the themes etc.”

“[My Canadian identity] makes it easier to do Canadian characters and settings 🙂 On the other hand, it makes it harder to do American ones, and that’s where a lot of my stories are set, for the simple fact that I can have a larger cast of supernaturals that way—it’s easier to speculate that so many supernatural beings go unnoticed if the population is much larger. Beyond that, I don’t feel it’s had much impact on my opportunities as an author or how I’m treated.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/interview-with-kelley-armstrong/

 

Chadwick Ginther:

“I quite enjoyed blending Canadian folklore with other myth cycles. It’s a sandbox I could see myself playing in for a long time. It’s easy to think that Canada doesn’t have a folklore unique to our borders. But I don’t think that’s the case. I would love to see our own folk stories and tall tales take centre stage. I would also love to see Indigenous writers bringing modern takes on their myths and folklore to the fantasy genre. Something I’ve so far only really seen from Daniel Heath Justice.”

“Because I so enjoyed mixing myth and Manitoba, I also hope that Thunder Road can inspire readers to look more closely at their homes to find those ties to the mythological past.”

“I have to be honest, I’ve never thought about my work in [the] context [of its Canadian identity]. I certainly didn’t set out to write the Great Canadian Fantasy novel and am woefully unfamiliar with the Canadian literary canon (perhaps if it included more dragons and robots…). I suppose one could say there is an element of the immigrant’s tale to Thunder Road, not a uniquely Canadian experience, but we are a nation built by immigrants. It’s one of the reasons I decided not to make Manitoba Ted [the main character from Thunder Road]’s home. Having him trying to start a new mundane life in an unfamiliar place echoed his becoming a part of the Nine Worlds, and the new fantastical life that awaited him.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/chadwick-ginther-interview/

 

Karen Dudley:

“I do believe that Canadians (myself included) have a distinctive sense of humour – part bawdy British, part self-deprecating Canadian. I’m not sure an American, for example, could have written a book like Food for the Gods. Canadians also have a reputation for being nice. I’m not sure if I’m nice or not (I like to think I am!), but as a Canadian, I can’t relate to the more extreme or paranoid political cultures. This can’t help but inform my work, and my characters tend to display a certain tolerance and trust in their world which matches my own.”

“Apart from the same way it speaks to any modern reader, I think here in Canada, we have a unique perspective on mythologies simply because so many of us come from different cultures and traditions. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of different perspectives on how we live our lives. With such an incredibly rich diversity, these myths have something to say to just about anybody regardless of which cultural tradition they come from.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/interview-with-karen-dudley-about-food-for-the-gods/

 

Liz Strange:

“I try to set a majority of my works in Canada, or at least have a Canadian character represented.  Our recognition in the world as peace keepers, progressive thinkers and top providers to our citizens is very important to me. I am proud of my nationality and our country’s history, and come from a long line of writers, historians, politicians and educators.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/interview-with-liz-strange/

 

Helen Marhsall:

“Canada has always seemed to me to be a place struggling with memory. Both of my parents emigrated to Canada just before I was born, my mom from South Africa and my dad from England via Zimbabwe. I didn’t feel a strong connection to Canadian history. I grew up reading books about European history, reading children’s literature that was grounded in mythologies that seemed very distant. Stories were things that happened in other places. As a medievalist in Canada, I find I always have to explain why I do what I do. When I go to England, they get it. Because it’s a part of their history and it matters to them. I’ve learned to live with that dissonance.”

“I think the macabre in Canadian fiction accomplishes what the macabre accomplishes in all fiction: it gives us a sense of our own mortality, of the body as something that will inevitably die. It reacquaints us with fear, and at the same time it enlivens us. Does Canada have its own unique brand of the macabre? Most definitely. Canadian literature has been traditionally considered to have a strong vein of realism to it, but the macabre, the Weird—the kind of books that ChiZine Publications has championed–are doing something to open that up. That’s good. I don’t believe in straitjacketing literature.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/interview-with-helen-marshall/

 

Nina Munteanu:

“Canada is a truly multi-cultural country and serves an excellent fractal microcosm for writing about mixed civilizations in the universe.”

“[Canadian Speculative Fiction] tends to be darker and more reflective. With fewer happy endings… LOL! Who else but a Canadian would write a science fiction romance with a tragic ending? When I wrote The Cypol (Extasy Books) I discounted the protocol of the romance genre for happy endings. The Canadian publisher accepted the novelette, which says a lot. Even though the critics liked it, romance fans hated the book. LOL! I think that Canadian SF authors bring a dark edge to the genre that slides a bit into literary fiction. Again, perhaps why Booker prize-winner in literary fiction Margaret Atwood finds herself writing speculative fiction. Her works are a good example of what Canadian SF writers do best: infuse meaningful reflection and deep allegory in speculation. I think much of Canadian speculative fiction springs from our multi-cultural and northern setting.”

“I feel a strong Canadian identity and I’m certain it imbues my main characters and the cultures I portray. Firstly, I make a point of using Canadian places as settings for my fiction (if set on Earth, that is).

“I like that Robert J. Sawyer, back in the 1980s, either set part of his novels in Canada or made at least one of his main characters a Canadian. This was in a time when it wasn’t vogue for a large American publisher to set your novel outside the USA unless it was some place globally recognized, like Paris. Sawyer wasn’t the only one; other notable Canadian SF authors who set their stories in Canada include Charles De Lint, Cory Doctorow and Guy Gavriel Kay.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/interview-with-nina-munteanu/

 

Nancy Baker:

“One reviewer called my characters “kinder, gentler vampires”, which strikes me as very Canadian.  I certainly felt that you could not have the kind of violent, predatory vampires in Toronto that seemed common in U.S. vampire fiction – though one New York writer I shared a radio panel with seemed appalled at the idea that I assumed you could leave dead bodies all over Manhattan and no one would care.  However, I don’t think there’s any particular type of Canadian vampire.  Mine might be “kinder and gentler” but those are the last words you’d use to describe the vampire in Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night. One of the interesting things about that book is that the demons that must be confronted are deeply rooted in the book’s Northern Ontario setting and in a part of Canadian history we’re conditioned to think of as something boring to study in public school.  The evocation of nature as a shaping, often inimical,  force is one of the things that is considered traditionally “Canadian” and it works brilliantly in that book.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/interview-with-nancy-baker/

 

Gemma Files:

“In her book Survival, Margaret Atwood once advanced the idea that all CanLit centres around a massive, indifferent, rejecting physical landscape and our place, or lack of one, within it. And while I initially found that idea hard to go by, mainly because I was raised in one of North America’s cities. One thing I’ve learned from teaching Canadian film history is that Canadian “culture” is mainly defined negatively, like in the old Molson’s “I am Canadian” beer commercial: We don’t eat blubber, we don’t have a President, etc.

“Nine times out of ten, particularly in English-speaking Canada, what we’re defining ourselves against is the spectre of America—if I had a dollar for every time a student of mine from somewhere else in the world asked me to admit there’s basically no difference between us and the U.S., I’d eat free for at least a week. Before that, however, it was about wanting to still be part of the British Empire even after they didn’t have any use for us, and these days it’s about how our vaunted multiculturalism mainly provides a way for us to stay in insular little groups and only interact when forced to. Which does, in the end, actually stem from geography: We’re a country the size of the former Soviet Union with a population the size of California spread out across a very disparate series of environments, most of whom still maintain they were tricked into becoming part of one country united by a railway and a radio-television network.

“When you get down to it, our national self-image is entirely imposed from the outside, a generalization cobbled together from dreams and guilt, then historically distributed through a Film Board put together by a socialist Scots expatriate who hated Hollywood and a Broadcast Corporation run from Ottawa. No wonder we’re so unable to explain what sets us apart. I always think about the title of one of Alice Munro’s early short story collections, Who Do You Think You Are?, because it perfectly encapsulates the sort of crushing self-doubt and left-over British class system resentment of the individual’s capacity for change in the face of static stagnation that defines the heart of the non-indigenous Canadian experience. And while it’s slightly different when set within an urban context, it’s not even vaguely as different as most of us would like to think.

“Which is all a very roundabout way of saying that there’s a big empty place in the Canadian psyche that takes extremely well to fantasy. Hell, even our “non-genre” literature tends to have a massive streak of surrealism and magic realism in it—think about the work of Michael Ondaatje (a poet turned prose writer, which happens a lot up here), Wayson Choy, Paul Quarrington, Derek McCormack, Michael Helm, Anne-Marie McDonald, Barbara Gowdy, Margaret Laurence, Anne Hébert, Atwood herself. But whether you’re talking about Charles de Lint and Guy Gavriel Kay or Susie Moloney, Andrew Pyper and Michael Rowe, our fantasy tends to be rooted in the uncomfortable, the self-reflective, the place where power and freedom come with a price, one that must be paid knowingly, and in blood. We accept coincidence and synchronicity, but also understand hubris, and karma. We expect doom at best, failure at worst. It’s bleak, but it’s familiar, especially to somebody who likes horror.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/interview-with-gemma-files/

 

Jerome Stueart:

“I think Canadian SF is darker and more experimental than mainstream American SF.  I think the publishing industry allows for more kinds of individual author development—we have smaller publishers with greater weight in Canada.  In the States, where every microgenre gets codified and calcified, I see a lot more of the same stuff coming out for consumers.  I see a lot more undefinable genre in Canadian SF.  A freedom because, partly, there’s not a lot of fame on the table, but also because there’s a desire to create a Canadian SF.  It looks like we’re nowhere near nailing a specific kind of SF, though, more inviting people to play.  Look at Evolve from Edge—the SF future of vampires; look at anything Chizine is doing, which is so out there!  It massacres genre-expectations.  It also gives authors so much freedom.

“Canada has the opportunity to show what the future of Canada will be through SF, and use our regional identities as a way to forge a truly unique version of Canadian SF.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/interview-with-jerome-stueart/

Canadian Werewolves

By Derek Newman-Stille

Canada is fundamentally a hybridised place, embodying multiple differences in the same country and torn/strengthened by contrasting pulls of culture. This hybridity, and ability to alternate between different forms is best expressed in the werewolf and this is why the werewolf has become such an interesting medium for Canadian duality or multiplicity. We are multiple and ever changing, shifting between diverse forms and expressions. Canada’s bilingual and bicultural policy embeds in it a binary, a duality that echoes the transformation of the werewolf. It’s multicultural policy shows the fluctuations of identity and the multiplicity of identity that the werewolf can also express. We are not set and unchanging, but, rather, Canada defines itself by its changeability, by its multiplicity just as the werewolf is defined by its ability to shift and take new forms. The werewolf represents the challenge of balancing a multiplicity and shifting of existence and the idea that shifts of form are not easy, but require constant vigilance and self awareness.

Here are a few werewolf stories that have really spoken to me and helped me to question existence and be comfortable with the changeability of identity and the ability to live in the question and not try to force anything into my ideas of stability.

Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten

A great book that uses the werewolf as a symbol of feminine empowerment. It positions the heroine as the only female werewolf in the world, dealing with the conflicts between her own desire for the ‘normal life’ and the call of a new form of heritage. She challenges the masculinity inherent in a lot of werewolf horror.

Tanya Huff’s Blood Trail

Deals with issues of intolerance and religious persecution. Set in a small town, this novel is about the secrecy of identity, and the need to hide aspects of the self that are different from the mainstream culture around oneself.

Sparkle Hayter’s Naked Brunch

Treats the werewolf as a point between the medical and the mystical. Hayter’s werewolves are subject to medical treatment, control, and suppression.

Charles de Lint’s Wolf Moon

Positions the struggle between assumption about identity and the truth of identity. This is a novel that reveals that the surface aspects of identity are often the least important.

Claude Lalumiere’s Roman Predator’s Chimeric Odyssey in Objects of Worship

Werewolf meets alien in apocalyptic future. This werewolf, already hybridised, encounters an alien that is based on assimilation, bringing new and unique biological forms into its own body and incorporating diversity into itself.

Margaret Atwood’s Wereman in Journals of Susana Moodie

Positions the man as fundamentally werewolfish, embodying a changeable identity and shifting from when he is inside the house, to when he is outside the home in a space that he defines as one in which he can express his masculinity.

Douglas Smith’s Out of the Light in Chimerascope.

Creates a distinctly urban were creatures and causes the reader and characters to question the image of the natural were, out in the scary woods and reminds us that the city itself is a frightening environment of changeability and shifts. Not every creature of darkness lurks in the shadows and shadows need light to take form.

John Fawcett (director)Ginger Snaps (2000)

This film  plays with ideas of gender and the coming-of-age theme through the werewolf medium. It deals with ideas of sisterhood, family, and the straining bonds of family that come with radical change.

This Werewolf Wears Pumps

A review of Margaret Atwood’s Update on Werewolves in Thriller Suite: New Poems (available online at Wattpad at http://www.wattpad.com/5346412-thriller-suite-new-poems-update-on-werewolves )

By Derek Newman-Stille

Margaret Atwood’s poem Update on Werewolves explores the shifting culture of werewolves over time. In a lot of the werewolf cinema and literature of the later 20th century, werewolves were predominantly male and embodied the expression of over-masculinity and dangerous male behaviour. Werewolves mirrored the actions of rapists, murderers and others with an uncontrollable “animal” impulse and often the figure of the werewolf was situated as the opposite of a woman who was rendered cinematically powerless. This reflected notions of masculinity of the time as an uncontrollable, woodsy feature and notions of femininity as powerless and relegated to the victim role.

Atwood’s Update on Werewolves takes her earlier notions of werewolves from poems like Wereman and Werewolf Movies that are fundamentally about a masculine werewolf and re-situates them in popular notions of the werewolf in the 21st century. Her most recent werewolf poem focuses on the figure of the female werewolf (which is becoming more popular) and on the ability of the female werewolf to be a symbol of feminine empowerment. She follows the work of other Canadian werewolf works like the Ginger Snaps movie trilogy and Kelley Armstrong’s novel Bitten (particularly in her discussion of running through ravines) in making the werewolf figure feminine and exploring how the shift in gender can change notions surrounding and shaping the werewolf.

Atwood suggests an influence by Angela Carter (presumably The Company of Wolves), but I would also suggest that there are shades in this poem of Suzie McKee Charnas’ short story Boobs, particularly in Atwood’s description of boys picking on girls and the role of the female werewolf for reversing this dynamic. Atwood is able to capture the new feminine spirit of the werewolf, and the ability of the werewolf to adapt and shift with the changes of time and place – shifting (much as it does with the cycle of the moon) to become a symbol for new ideologies and a new time period.

Atwood’s poem Update on Werewolves engages the reader, pulling them into a position of questioning the notion of the werewolf. She talks about the role of werewolves of the past as figures of masculine threat abusing women and running nude (“those things frat boys do”): as fundamentally pubescent immature boys (or as men who stay in the mental space of pubescent boys as so many do). Her poem then shifts, talking about the different place werewolves are at now in popular culture: kinky women with sophisticated appearances – career women with an urban feel to them. Her poem illustrates that, for her, werewolves have shifted from figures built on a masculine threat to femininity to figures that represent empowerment for women: the feminine werewolf wielding all of the powers of freedom that the wolf expresses and uniting urban and forest environments in her ability to move between worlds. They are figures of wild abandonment and middle-management classiness. And they are figures that challenge the limits that continue to be socially imposed on women. Atwood’s female werewolves are no longer social victims to a misogynistic masculinity, but are rather reclaiming their power by tooth and claw.

To read Atwood’s poem Update on Werewolves online, visit Thriller Suite: New Poems on Wattpad at http://www.wattpad.com/5346412-thriller-suite-new-poems-update-on-werewolves .

Thank you to Cara for suggesting this poem.