Upcoming Interview About Nelvana of the Northern Lights with Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey on Friday September 27th

Have you ever heard of Nelvana of the Northern Lights? Did you know that Canada had one of

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

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

the first superheroines, predating other women in superheroic roles like Wonder Woman, and paving the way for women in comics? Since so few people know about the history of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey were inspired to do some archival research and resurrect Nelvana like so many characters from the comic books themselves who are brought back out of the darkness into life.

Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson were inspired by their research to re-release the classic Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics, and since Nelvana is such a fascinating character, I asked them if they would be willing to share some of their insights with us.

Check out our upcoming interview on Friday September 27th and hear about the connection between the Group of 7 artists and Nelvana’s creation, the portrayal of Nelvana’s connection with northern indigenous people in Canada that were rarely depicted in comics of the time, the potency of a pacifist superheroine at a time of war, and the power of this series to blend sci-fi, crims tories, adventure, and humour comics. Ms. Richey and Ms. Nicholson went through a similar excitement at the discovery of Canadian comics to what those of us who love comics have gone through when suddenly they discover that Canada IS INDEED part of the comic book world, and they took steps to bring that joy to others by resurrecting this figure from Canadian comic history.

Rachel Richey: “It’s been my prime directive to make people aware of Canada’s comics industry.”

Hope Nicholson: “After 31 issues headlining the series Triumph, the series came to an end and Nelvana faded from history. At the time, she had her own graphic novel and merchandise available for purchase, making her one of the more recognizable characters of that time period.”

Rachel Richey: “When I found out what the Archives had I essentially begged them to let me catalogue it.”

Hope Nicholson: “Around 6 years ago, even though I was obsessed with comic books, I had no idea that Canada had its own history with the medium. Finding out about the Canadian Golden Age, thrilled and angered me. These comics are amazing, why were they been pushed into an obscure part of history, they sold millions of issues across Canada!”

Rachel Richey: “Nelvana in particular is a favourite, how could it not be? She’s righteous and intense. She’s a babe! She’s tough and interesting, not a run of the mill hero. She’s honest.”

Rachel Richey: “What is so amazing about Nelvana is that she had Canadians’ attention to be anything she wanted.”

Hope Nicholson: “Even though her powers can be used to injure, she’s a pacifist and is strongly sympathetic to the horrors of war.”

Rachel Richey: “My favourite thing about Nelvana is that she is independent… For the 31 issues, she’s pretty much business and I really think this is a positive role model for women reading comics, and also young girls, who are presented with a singular role model unhindered by excessive romance and more about positively caring for other people and the environment.”

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

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

Hope Nicholson: “I like that it doesn’t stick with one genre. We’re a nation where our literature often blurs the lines of expectations. We usually can’t do superheroes unless they’re parodies, because of the strict superhero genre is confining and inaccessible to us.”

Rachel Richey: “Comics are a beautiful form of literature and storytelling. Beyond the fact that these comics are so original to Canada, they are part of an extremely interesting time in Canadian history.”

If you are interested in the history of Canadian comics, women in comics, or the awesomeness of superheroic figures, you will definitely not want to miss this interview on Friday September 27th!

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Collecting Canada

A review of Imaginarium 2013: The Best Canadian Speculative Fiction Edited by Sandra Kasturi and Samantha Beiko (ChiZine Publications, 2013).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover image of Imaginarium 2013 courtesy of ChiZine Publications. Art work by GMB Chomichuk

Cover image of Imaginarium 2013 courtesy of ChiZine Publications. Art work by GMB Chomichuk

Imaginarium 2013 was even better than Imaginarium 2012. With more diversity of authors, I found myself introduced to a large number of authors I had never encountered before. The collection had a wider scope and included a wide number of works with varying styles and thematic foci. This collection included works of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and various blends and warpings and re-imaginings of those genres.

Varying between poetry and short stories, this collection captured an essential essence of Canadian speculative fiction – the Canadian comfort with grey areas both in plot and character morality, a willingness to explore things that are generally left ignored by the general population, the desire to not just represent oppressed people, but to revel in that outsider dialogue.

This collection brings together works that evoke questions, challenge the reader to expand their consciousness and think outside of the easy answers that society tries to provide and instead calls upon readers to interrogate these easy answers and find out the implicit complications in them.

Reading this volume will provide you with a whole range of new authors to read and explore.

To find out more about Imaginarium 2013, visit the ChiZine Publications website at http://chizinepub.com/books/imaginarium/imaginarium_2013.php

To read reviews of individual stories from this volume, visit:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/instead-of-lets-pretend-lets-become

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/cold-war-superheroes-frozen-in-suffering

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/perfect-bodies

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/protagonist-problems/

Upcoming On Air Interview with Douglas Smith

I recently had an opportunity to talk to Douglas Smith in the Trent Radio Studio about a variety of subjects. Check out his insights in an audio file on Speculating Canada on Friday August 16th and have a chance to hear about Mr. Smith’s insights on writing and social justice, werewolves, disability in SF, myths and legends, and blurring the boundaries between horror, science fiction, and fantasy.

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Mr. Smith has twice won the Aurora Awards and is the author of the collections Chimerascope and Impossibilia. Check out our interview and download it as a podcast so you can listen to it while you are out.

Douglas Smith and Alissa Paxton in the Trent Radio Studio

Douglas Smith and Alissa Paxton in the Trent Radio Studio

Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

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

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

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spec Can: What inspired you to write SF?

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

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rouge Noir

A review of Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues (Ace, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

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

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

Once again Robert J. Sawyer b(l)ends genres, adding a touch of detective noire and paleontology to science fiction. Set on Mars of the future, where gold and other precious minerals are easily replicable, Red Planet Blues portrays a human society that has invested their interest in Martian fossils, the new markers of wealth. Rare and unable to be replicated, these fossils are valued not only for their uniqueness but also for the underlying fact that they prove that we are not alone in the universe… even though indigenous Martian life has expired.

The town of New Klondike, Mars, has become a frontier town like those inspired by the gold rush on Earth, and like many frontier towns, New Klondike has an element of lawlessness and corruption. Alex Lomax walks these mean, red streets in classic gumshoe style, seeking out secrets for his clients and exposing the criminal underbelly of the city and the little seeds of corruption in those around him.

Identity is not an easy thing in this future world – with the invention of technology for “transferring”, moving one’s consciousness into a simulated body, the personal is flexible and unrelated to the body. Traditional biometric means of determining identity are obsolete for those wealthy enough to transfer. Like the society of the present, identity issues have become a huge issue for the future and people rely on complex passphrases instead of simple passwords. Genetic forensic techniques are obsolete when it comes to bodies that aren’t biological and therefore leave no biological traces behind, no DNA to analyse. Finding out “whodunnit” requires a lot more legwork and a deep grasp of the human consciousness and human greed… something Lomax shares to a degree with the people he pursues. Without a DNA magic bullet, psychology becomes a greater key to finding out the root of the criminal mind.

Our modern society’s fear of identity theft is magnified in this novel, where, it is discovered, transfer bodies can be hacked and one’s innermost thoughts can be revealed. Transfers can even be made in the image of other people – copying their facial features, body, and tone of voice. So appearance is no longer a means of distinguishing a person. Biometrics can’t be used to determine identity because the transfers are non-biological. They can’t be finger-printed, retina-scanned, or DNA tested. Identity has become flexible and something that can easily be taken. And passphrases don’t work if a copy can be made of one’s cognition when they are transferred to a new body.

Sawyer also plays with the modern fascination with identity and appearance. People who decide to become transfers feel an almost compulsive need to “upgrade” their bodies, changing aspects of their appearance to fit with society’s ideals around bodily perfection. Characteristics are smoothed out to get rid of all of those self-perceived bodily flaws. This is plastic surgery taken to the extreme, where the entire body becomes molded and changed under the hands of societal ideas of attractiveness.

Identity itself is flexible and transfers can not only change superficial aspects of their appearance, but aspects of appearance that we attach tremendous ideas of identity-formation to such as gender, and race, illustrating how illusory these categories are. With synthetic human beings around, even the nature of humanity itself becomes a debatable category, questioned, interrogated… and ultimately legally defined. A court case has ruled transfers to be human and therefore they are strictly identified as individuals.

Unlike the detective in Red Planet Blues, Robert J. Sawyer uses his novel as a means to open questions, rather than answering them, challenging his audience to debate and speculate on issues of identity and human experience rather than forcing readers to accept his conclusions. Sawyer calls on readers to open their minds to new possibilities of what it means to be human and what it means to be a human separated from our Earthen home.

You can explore Robert J. Sawyer’s website at http://www.sfwriter.com/ and see what upcoming projects he is working on. To find out more about Red Planet Blues, visit http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781101622216,00.html?Red_Planet_Blues_Robert_J._Sawyer

Interview With Karl Schroeder

An Interview With Karl Schroeder
by Derek Newman-Stille

Karl Schroeder is the author of several novels including “The Claus Effect”, “Ventus”, “Permanence”, and The Virga Series. In the following interview, much as in his fiction writing, Mr. Schroeder asks his readers the tough questions, calling on them to question their limited views of reality and helping readers realise that they have a role in making the world a better place. He calls on us to think about a possible future in which humanity develops better decision-making capacities. I hope that you find this interview as enlightening as I did.

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

Karl Schroeder:  I’m an author and futurist based in Toronto, though I was born and raised in the prairies. My family comes from the same southern Manitoba Mennonite community that A.E. van Vogt came from. In 2011 I acquired a Master’s degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation; as well as writing SF, I consult about technology and social futures for clients such as the provincial and federal governments, and the military.

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

Karl Schroeder: No, and yes within limits. If you’re writing novels of character, then letting your heroes and villains take on lives of their own is good. If you’re writing any other kind of story, character, like setting, plot and style, is subordinate to what you’re trying to communicate. Characters should seem real to the reader, just as the settings and situations you write about should seem real; but there’s no advantage in them seeming real to you.

As with everything else to do with writing fiction, you must remember that it’s not a sign of success if you get swept away by your own storytelling; that’s actually a sign of poor discipline. If your characters are taking on lives of their own, you’re too close to them and need to step back to objectively assess whether they’re properly serving the story you’re trying to tell. If they are, then great. If they’re not, then you probably need to rein them in.

This probably sounds cold and heartless to beginning writers who feel that there’s something romantic about writing. The fact is, you want your readers to feel the romance of storytelling, but it’s utterly unnecessary—and often counterproductive—if you do.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write Speculative Fiction?

Karl Schroeder:  No one thing; there was no Damascus Road moment that made me a writer. Above all, it was my family, and specific incidents when I was growing up.

My mother published a couple of novels when I was very young, so I grew up with these in the bookshelf. Becoming a writer was obviously a viable option. My brothers and sister also inspired me at different times with their creativity and the possibilities of storytelling.

To give just one example of the many small events that pushed me into being a writer: when I was about eleven my dad brought home a big roll of brown wrapping paper from work. My brother and I unrolled this on the basement floor and began covering it with doodles, art—and cartoons. From there I started filling notebooks with short graphic novels, and after a couple of years of that, began writing in prose. I started my first novel when I was fourteen, and I finished my first one when I was seventeen.

Spec Can: In what ways does your Canadian identity influence your writing?

Karl Schroeder: I’m sure there’s lots of ways that being a Canadian influences me, but somehow the question seems odd. Do we ask American authors how being American influences their writing? Or British authors how being English influences them?

One clear discovery I’ve made is that I was never influenced by certain key authors who loom large in the reminiscences of some American SF writers that I know. I never read Heinlein, for instance. –I tried. His attitudes and politics were too alien to me, even at age fifteen, for me to feel comfortable in his stories. On the other hand, I was avidly reading Stanislaw Lem at that time, so I never missed Heinlein.

Nowadays, my Canadian identity—like my Mennonite background—probably shines through most in my attitudes toward violence as a valid political tool. I.e., it isn’t one. I do write ripping pirate yarns, such as the Virga books, but those are cartoonish in their depictions of war. When I’m serious—as in books such as Lady of Mazes or the forthcoming Lockstep—I am careful to present nonviolent paths to resolving conflict as the superior option.

Spec Can: What do you see as distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction?

Karl Schroeder: The fact that it asks itself what makes it distinct.

Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in changing the way people think about the world around them?

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.

It’s important to know that the style of thinking SF promotes isn’t limited to science fiction. If you read current thinkers such as Timothy Morton, for instance, you’ll encounter the same strangemaking process, but highly honed for specific purposes and politically and socially pertinent.

Spec Can: Your work alternates between various Speculative genres. Is it tough to alternate between genres? Are these genre categories that separate?

Karl Schroeder: Genre is a marketing tool. I don’t think in terms of genre, only about what ideas I want to communicate (or strange-make). This determines the kind of story it’s going to be. I’d say the only reason that my novels have, to date, all been science fiction, is that I’ve had particular things to say that SF is optimized for.

I could simultaneously write a hard SF novel and a fantasy epic, without the stories interfering in any way with one another.

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

Karl Schroeder: Describe the real world.

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: it’s not actually that they lack some magical gene or other that wizards have (like the midichlorians in Star Wars); it’s that they literally can’t see the magical in the world around them. 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. (And by the way, having the Force be created by midichlorians makes the Star Wars universe a very muggle place.)

In contrast, there’s some very interesting philosophy these days that goes way beyond realism to engage with both science and society in new ways. Bruno Latour is a good one to read for this: his Irreductions presents the idea that everything, from atoms to Santa Claus, is equally real: nothing can be reduced to anything else… and, anything can be reduced to anything else (if you’re willing to put in the work to connect them). As an artist, that’s much more like the world I live in than any realist world.

Spec Can: You collaborated with David Nickle in writing The Claus Effect. What is it like to collaborate with another author? What were some of the benefits and drawbacks?

Karl Schroeder: Collaboration is easy, with the right person. Also, attitude is everything. David and I wrote The Claus Effect for fun and we weren’t under contract. The deadline was tight, though: three days, because we were doing it for the Three-Day Novel Contest, which was held over labour day weekend. That explains some of the zany energy in the book, because parts of it were written at 3:00 a.m. on some very questionable formulas of caffeine and sugar.

Spec Can: In The Claus Effect, you tackle the issue of over-consumption around the holidays. What inspired you to write about the figure of Santa Claus and, in particular, the concept of greed surrounding the holidays?

Karl Schroeder: Oh, Lord, there was no cunning calculation to this! We were just both sick and tired of the overcommercialization of the holidays, and Santa is the perfect symbol. Anyway, anything precious gets distorted when filtered through David’s mix-master of an imagination; it didn’t take us long to come up with our present vision of Santa once we turned our attention to him. Maybe a minute.

Spec Can: What ideas of the mythic do you bring into your work? And what role can the mythic have for the modern Canadian audience?

Karl Schroeder: What we lack today is a mythic dimension of the real. There’s plenty of sense-of-wonder available from fantasy, but why should we have to escape reality in order to experience the mythic? Much of my work consists of examples of things that are perfectly possible, but as magical as anything you can find in fantasy. My world of Virga is an example: it’s a steampunk, gaslight environment complete with pirates and conspiracies, ancient monsters hiding in the forgotten corners of the world… and it’s a zero-gravity world where the hero rides around on a wingless jet engine with handlebars and a saddle on it. All perfectly possible.

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

Karl Schroeder: Everyone in the world today is caught between what they believe to be true, and what they know to be real. We’ve been taught that the real is not the realm of magic or of the imaginative. In fact, most of us are utterly incapable of reconciling what we believe to be true and what we know to be real. But if I said that for the most part, what I believe is true is also what know to be real; that for me, reality is the realm of the imaginative, and that magic and wonder dwell here with us and not in some separate realm… well, would you believe me?

Return again to Virga, and to the picture of Hayden Griffin arrowing through lemon-coloured skies on a wingless jet—or to Spire, a thousand-year-old, open-ended cylinder twelve miles wide rotating to provide gravity on its interior surface. Ancient, bits falling of it, holes in its surface known as airfalls, and strange isolated estates where ancient families enact eccentric rituals and shoot anyone who strays onto their decaying little patches of real estate… In the Virga books, the mythic dimension is explored by strictly obeying the rules of Newtonian physics. Spire is entirely at the mercy of Newton’s laws, which is what makes it so strange a place.

I wrote the Virga books to illustrate just how much novelty and wonder were still possible within science fiction with just what we knew a hundred years ago. The so-called ‘ordinary’ is an inexhaustible wellspring of wonder. To know that is to be comfortable living in this world.

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

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.

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.

It’s ironic and sad that people within the science fiction community can imagine any future—ones where robots run amok, where nanotech eats the planet or biotech creates new species or aliens arrive… any future, except one in which humanity redesigns and improves its ability to govern itself. This is a ridiculous blind-spot, a very telling prejudice toward what we think is possible; it’s a remarkable and disappointing failure of our collective imagination. So that’s what I want to address in my new work.

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to our interview, any ideas or thoughts to close our discussion?

Karl Schroeder: Let me deploy that old, inflammatory question: are you part of the solution, or part of the problem? 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? Is Terminator your only model for computer-assisted decision making? Or are you tracking developments like dotmocracy, statistical demarchy, decision support software and the iPhone SuperPAC app? Because to those of us following such developments, the future looks entirely different than it does to mainstream SF—even, dare I say it, any SF of the present generation.

I’ll retract that statement when I’ve read a novel that shows how new governance systems and methods solve global warming.

I want to thank Karl Schroeder for being willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada and for asking readers tough questions, and questions that need to be asked.

As an educator who uses Speculative Fiction as a way of helping students to question taken-for-granted notions, I, personally, really appreciated Mr. Schroeder’s interest and incredible ability to evoke questions in the minds of readers and help us to expand our worldview. 

Upcoming Interview With Karl Schroeder on Wednesday, January 23

I first heard Karl Schroeder talk at The Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2009 and have looked forward to the opportunity to talk to him. I am pleased that I will be able to share that conversation with all of you readers on Wednesday, January 23, when Karl Schroeder talks about his work consulting about technological and social futures, the role of SF in promoting non-violence, the flexibility of reality, collaborative writing, and the potential of SF to help readers to question the world around them and develop better methods for decision-making. This is definitely an interview that opens up new worlds of experience for readers.

Here are some teasers from our upcoming interview:

Karl Schroeder: “Nowadays, my Canadian identity—like my Mennonite background—probably shines through most in my attitudes toward violence as a valid political tool. I.e., it isn’t one. I do write ripping pirate yarns, such as the Virga books, but those are cartoonish in their depictions of war. When I’m serious—as in books such as Lady of Mazes or the forthcoming Lockstep—I am careful to present nonviolent paths to resolving conflict as the superior option.”

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.”

Karl Schroeder: “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: “I could simultaneously write a hard SF novel and a fantasy epic, without the stories interfering in any way with one another.”

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).”

Karl Schroeder: “What we lack today is a mythic dimension of the real. There’s plenty of sense-of-wonder available from fantasy, but why should we have to escape reality in order to experience the mythic? Much of my work consists of examples of things that are perfectly possible, but as magical as anything you can find in fantasy.”

Karl Schroeder: “Everyone in the world today is caught between what they believe to be true, and what they know to be real. We’ve been taught that the real is not the realm of magic or of the imaginative. In fact, most of us are utterly incapable of reconciling what we believe to be true and what we know to be real.”

Karl Schroeder: “I wrote the Virga books to illustrate just how much novelty and wonder were still possible within science fiction with just what we knew a hundred years ago. The so-called ‘ordinary’ is an inexhaustible wellspring of wonder. To know that is to be comfortable living in this world.”

Karl Schroeder: “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.”

Check out Speculating Canada on Wednesday, January 23 for Karl Schroeder’s philosophical insights as well as his thoughts and speculations about the writing process. This is definitely an interview that will challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of the way we define reality.