Steampunk Multiculturalism

Steampunk MulticulturalismA review of Holly Schofield’s “The East Wing in Carall Street” in Clockwork Canada; Steampunk Fiction Edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016).

  

Canada’s late 1800s were an era of exploitation of Chinese-Canadian workers. With head-taxes on immigrants from China and the exploitation of Chinese labourers for widescale production, Canadian interactions with their Chinese-originating populations in the 1800s was fraught with oppression. In particular, during the period of technological nationalism, when Canada sought to use technological innovations like the railway to bring Canadians together over a vast geography, Chinese labourers were exploited for construction and a large number of Chinese-Canadians died in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In Canada’s attempt to bring people together, the country reified who it thought could belong and be called “Canadian” by constructing certain populations (such as the Chinese-Canadian population) as disposable and therefore as non-Canadian. 

It is therefore extremely exciting to see a steampunk narrative that explores the experience of Chinese Canadians. In Holly Schofield’s “East Wind in Carrall Street”, the complicated link between Chinese-Canadian interactions with non-Chinese Canadians and the notion of technology are explored. Schofield explores a friendship between Wong Shin, the son of a man who runs a grocery store, and Margie, an aspiring astronomer who lives in a Vancouver prostitution house with her family. Shin and Margie’s families both disapprove of their friendship, each considering the other to be from an abhorrent family. Each family expresses disgust for the other even on the basis of the foods that they eat. Yet, Shin and Margie are able to get rid of some of their familial discrimination to forge a friendship that both find useful and supportive, educating each other and providing emotional support for each other. 

Shin’s father begins to delve into self hatred because of the trick he is pulling on the Chinese-Canadian community of Victoria because he has claimed that he has created a fully automated clockwork lion to dance blessings in front of a store that is about to open. But, he is unable to create a fully automated clockwork lion, therefore having to ask Wong to get inside of the automation and run it through a series of levers. Shin bears the full brunt of his father’s self-loathing. However, through his friendship with Margie, Shin is able to look for opportunities for collaboration and unity that offer possibilities that cultural separation doesn’t. 

Schofield explores the complicated history of Chinese-Canadian and non-Chinese Canadian interactions in “East Wind in Carrall Street”, acknowledging both the Canadian history of racism and simultaneously suggesting the power that cultural collaboration holds.

To discover more about the work of Holly Schofield, visit her site at https://hollyschofield.wordpress.com

To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit Exile’s website at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html

And Dominik Parisien’s website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology

Superheroic Questions

A review of Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny by Mark Shainblum and Garbriel Morrissette (Caliber Press, 1989)

Comic books are often treated as a lower form of culture and considered to be pure pleasure reading without intellectual interest, but comic books, like any other form of text, offer a vision of the world around us and the speculative nature of the format offers us a series of questions to ask about normalcy. The superhero genre, in particular, evokes questions about what constitutes heroism, what makes someone special or different, and comments on the way we look at ideas of justice and moral rightness, which are entirely subjective.

Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette’s Northguard is a figure that offers a critical lens to the superhero genre. He is not the moral guardian who is sure of his rightness and always saving the day, but rather is insecure, uncertain, and cautious in his approach. He does not seek to impose his idea of rightness, but rather dwells in a space of moral question, critiquing himself and his choices. All of this contrasts nicely with the key enemy in the collection Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny, the organizsation ManDes, an American religious fundamentalist group who sees Canada as an embodiment of weakness to the North, too passive, too diverse, and sinful in our allowance of diversity. ManDes is a group that embodies patriarchal misogyny, religious intolerance, capitalist monopolism, and white supremacy.

P.A.C.T. (Progressive Allied Canadian Technologies) has formed in Montreal to stop organizations like ManDes from imposing their corporate control over people and doing social harm. They form a system to keep multinationals in check. In their attempt to provide a set of balances against other corporate powers, they created a device called the uniband, which has the power to reverse the laws of thermodynamics and operate beyond the restrictions of physics… and it can be integrated into the human body. When the person who has originally worked with the uniband and attuned it to his biorhythms is killed, P.A.C.T. ends up finding an unlikely candidate to wear this personal arsenal: Philip Wise, a comic book fan. Philip only asks for one thing: that he be allowed to design his own suit to operate the machine, one modeled after his own superhero fantasies and featuring the prominence of the Canadian flag.

Philip’s uneasy relationship with the flag represents a microcosm of the Canadian uncertainty around embodying ourselves in a patriotic symbol. Unlike American figures like Captain America, that easily wear the flag and represent a certain brand of American patriotism, Canadians on the whole have been a little less certain about a figure that wears his or her patriotism on the outside and Northguard is the perfect character to embody that uncertainty. Before he decides to model his costume after the maple leaf and dress in red and white, he throws the flag down on the ground yelling at it “mean something”, bringing to his own experience of uncertainty to his garb as well as his conflicting need to have the flag mean something for him. In this simple act, Northguard is able to take up an aspect of Canadian identity: the perpetual search for what Canadian identity can mean.

His own interaction with Canadianness also embodies a particular Canadian notion of dualistic identity and the potential for a multicultural reading. Philip is a Jewish Canadian living in Montreal – his identity is powerfully shaped by his ability to simultaneously represent Canadianness and Jewishness, and living in a city that is bilingual and multicultural. The power of his duality is marked nicely in the comic when the maple leaf on Northguard’s mask and chest are both overlaid by the Star of David, allowing the costume to simultaneously speak to Canadian identity and how that identity is made up of a multiplicity of cultures and cultural symbols.

Yet, ManDes sees Canada as weak because of this multiplicity and attempts to play into the perceived insecurity caused by a collective of cultural interests by purposely trying to play Francophone and Anglophone Canadians against each other, perpetrating violence and attributing it to one language group or the other. Northguard resists these attempts both by foiling these plots by also by trying to become bilingual himself, creating a French name for himself “Le Protecteur” and working with a French Canadian superhero named Fleur de Lys, who wears the symbols of Quebecois identity.

Northguard is able to embody the potential of the superhero to be a figure who evokes questions, both in his own morality and in the way Canadians see ourselves. Shainblum and Morrissette turn the Canadian question about “who are we?” into a suit of red and white, featuring a maple leaf that asks readers to keep questioning and to recognise the superpower that exists in the act of constantly questioning our identity and what we can and do represent.

Unfortunately, this collection is hard to come by and I hope that Shainblum and Morrissette are able to revive Northguard in the future.

To find out more about Mark Shainblum, visit his website at http://www.shainblum.com/

 

 

Can Con Updates!

Can Con is coming up soon in Ottawa on October 4-6th (and you can find out more about it at http://www.can-con.org/ ). The diversity of activities this year is absolutely amazing with sessions on writing, academic analyses of literature and literary themes, author readings, book launches…. and even a few singing events (seriously!).Canada Day

Prepare for discussions of AI, comics, enhancing creativity, fandom, astronomy, disease, zombies, future technologies, possession, poetry, humour, horror, law, LGBTQ issues, multiculturalism, mystery, publishing, popular music, gender, genre, and YA fiction among many others.

As many of you who follow my blog will note, there are a few special areas of interest of mine in Canadian Speculative Fiction: portrayals of characters and themes of LGBTQ or Queer people, and discourse about disability featuring highly among them. I am particularly excited that I get a chance to talk about both of them at Can Con this year and I hope to see many of you at these panels. Here are the panel descriptions:

Cripping the Light Fantastic: Disability in Canadian Speculative Fiction

How many spaceships are wheelchair accessible? Do office buildings create light shielding for the undead who might be singed by solar exposure? Can my guide dog be a werewolf? Does one need to simply WALK into Mordor… or can one wheel in instead? SF has an interest in the body, whether it is the augmented body of sci fi, the body horror of the gothic, or the magically altered body of fantasy, and it is worth looking at the way disabilities are portrayed in Canadian SF.

Panelists: Derek Newman-Stille, Tanya Huff, Douglas Smith, and Dominik Parisien

Let’s get Fantastic: LGBTQ or Queer Speculative Fiction

Speculative Fiction is sexy, but so often TV only shows heteronormative relationships. Canadian SF literature seems to be more willing to portray gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgendered, and queer-oriented characters. Let’s take a look at gay zombies, sex-changing aliens, lesbian superheroes, bisexual wizards, and other potential queerings of the fantastic.

Panelists: Derek Newman-Stille, Tanya Huff, and Liz Strange

You can explore all of the panels at http://www.can-con.org/2013/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Can-Con-programming-panel-descriptions-2013.pdf

Check out some of your favorite authors like Robert Sawyer, Tanya Huff, Sandra Kasturi, Chadwick Ginther, Jean-Louis Trudel, Brett Savory, Karen Dudley, Hayden Trenholm, Marie Bilodeau, Violette Malan, Dominik Parisien, Derek Kunsken, Matt Moore, Sean Moreland, Liz Strange, Kate Heartfield, Suzanne Church, Lydia Peever, and many more. This is your chance to meet some really brilliant Canadian Speculative Fiction authors, scholars, and fans and have a chance to ask those questions that have been occupying your minds.

I hope to see you there, and please feel free to come up and chat with me about Speculative Fiction. I always enjoy a chance to have a great conversation about this genre that I love,
Derek Newman-Stille

Interview with Lynda Williams

An interview with Lynda Williams
By Derek Newman-Stille

It is always refreshing and exciting to have the opportunity to talk to a writer who is willing to really interrogate and question the world around them through SF, and I am glad that Lynda Williams is willing to share her insights and observations with readers and help us to step out of our taken-for-granted observations of the world around us. I am happy that she was willing to do an interview here and help us to debate and question our world. I hope that you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed talking to Ms. Williams about these complex topics.

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

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Lynda Williams: I’m a nice middle-class girl who went to university, got a good job, got married, raised three great daughters and once led a grass-roots movement to get internet connectivity for the general public. Anyone interested in more about my work as an applied technologist and teacher of computing is welcome to check out my profile at LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/lyndajwilliams

My intellectual life has been equally important to me as a person. In some ways, I’ve always been an observer of life requiring a conscious effort to mimic what comes naturally to others, and felt most at home in fiction where everything has some kind of meaning. On the whole, in antithesis to the deconstructionist era in literary studies, my goal has been to construct meaning wherever I find pre-existing maxims unsatisfying. Writing is the necessary by-product.

Spec Can: In your Okal Rel Saga you explore two civilizations, the Reetions and the Gelacks, who both descended from Earth populations but were cut off from each other and Earth and culturally drifted over the years. Now, upon re-encountering one another, they are confused by different cultural customs that have developed. What inspired your interest in cultural drift and change?

Lynda Williams: Perhaps it started with the arguments about religion among my fathers’ siblings. They were all religious but could never agree with one another.  It made me think. So I read about dozens of religions. I also joined Amnesty International, became a volunteer crisis counselor and read a lot of anthropology, mythology, history, popular science and stuff like theories of culture and social order down the ages. I remember being deeply impressed by the ancient Greek play, Antigone, in which the heroine accepts a death sentence in order to honor her brother’s corpse, motivated by cultural imperatives that make no sense to a modern reader. But the dilemma is no less real.

Spec Can: What got you interested in the idea of culture contact?

Lynda Williams: Star Trek, originally. The old TV show. I branched out to history where I discovered most of the injustice surrounding culture contacts arose from an imbalance of power. That’s what got me thinking about methods of social control and what might happen if the tribal culture, like the neo-feudal Gelacks, had one kind of power (reality skimming prowess) while the culture that considers itself more advanced and sophisticated, like the Reetions, had another (medical and information science, and political infrastructure). But neither side is more powerful in an absolute way, so they have to work out their differences.

Spec Can: The topic of taboos is one of the areas where the Reetions and Gelacks differ from one another. What interested you in the idea of conflicting taboos and conflicting religious and social patterns? How can this help readers to think differently about cultural and religious difference?

Lynda Williams: I grew up with the Canadian mosaic idea of celebrating differences. Then I encountered things like a father justifying the murder of a daughter over her choice of husband and realized I was not okay with complete cultural relativity. None of the cultures of the Okal Rel Universe are without blemish. Rire is where I’d prefer to live, but Reetions can be obnoxiously superior.  In Part 5: Far Arena, for example, they are so resistant to viewing Gelacks as their equals that not even living in a transparent society prevents them from lying to themselves. Most Gelack cultures discriminate between classes of Sevolite and the Nesaks practice genocide toward “non-eternals”, which means any human less than highborn in the court biological hierarchy.  Yet there are good people in all these cultures, and individuals who think for themselves. My hope is that by examining fictional cultures in conflict, readers might learn to think through situations in their own world on a case by case basis.

Spec Can: The Reetions and the Gelacks each have different ideas about sexuality (the Reetions encouraging acceptance of sexual difference whereas the Gelacks have created a fundamentally homophobic society). What inspired your interest in sexuality? What do you hope readers will take from this interaction?

Lynda Williams: I knew nothing about homosexuality until first year university, where I spent hours discussing it with a couple of gay acquaintances in my favorite study spot, the Raven’s Wing Café. Di Mon became a homosexual the minute I learned a tough guy could be. This move gave the very principled Di Mon, who was already a well-loved main character, the same problem as Amel’s whiny abuser, H’Reth. So naturally it struck me as a perfect thought experiment.  If there’s a message in this for readers it’s a complex one about responsibility for one’s actions while, simultaneously, registering the non-trivial nature of finding oneself on the wrong side of a cultural norm.

My initial interest in sexual differences sprang from something like rebellion against male and female stereotypes. Hence the extremes, among the Gelacks, of Vrellish woman, like Vretla, and Golden Demish men, like Amel.

Spec Can: When I was younger, there were very few science fiction novels that had queer characters (unless they were portrayed as villains). How is this shifting, and what can we do to encourage more representation of LGBTQ characters?

Lynda Williams: Let the LGBTQ characters be fully realized, even if that means they won’t always be perfect role models. I’ve had readers express impatience with Di Mon, for example, because he can’t “get over” his dislike of being homosexual. Really? Given what’s at stake for him? When the idea of Di Mon jelled for me, back in the 1970s and 80s, it was radical to contemplate a gay hero. Now, it sometimes feels as if he’s lost the right to be a character with hang-ups because he has to represent something. If readers need proof that the Okal Rel Universe can also harbor a well-adjusted homosexual character, Ranar is right there. Di Mon is Di Mon, and that’s all there is to it. And Vretla is a female-chauvinist pig who believes there aren’t really any “girl-sla” women, just horny ones suffering a shortage of available males. But we love her anyway. Real people aren’t perfect. Neither are believable characters.

Spec Can: Your work often explores notions of compassion, and, particularly the point at which compassion shifts from being beneficial to almost self-harming. What inspired your interest in the complexities of compassion?

Three Versions of Amel by Yukari Yamamoto.

Three Versions of Amel by Yukari Yamamoto.

Lynda Williams: I think I’ve always admired the combination of great sensitivity and great strength, but recognized it could lead to an undesirable martyrdom.  If I’d discovered Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, at an earlier age, I might have saved myself the work of creating Amel. Amel’s history in the Okal Rel Saga also dramatizes the question of whether science should be used to “fix” people. For example, my father used to hate being on anti-depression medication because it altered his sense of who he was. But he couldn’t cope without it, either. As we become more and more able to directly intervene to change ourselves, medically, the questions Amel and his Reetion doctor, Lurol, dance around in books 1 and 5 will get nothing but more important.

Spec Can: I was at a conference recently where a speaker (Robert Runte) discussed the incredible work that you are doing including and encouraging fan participation in the Okal Rel world that you have created. What inspired you to encourage fan participation and what are some of the benefits of involving fans in the worlds you create?

A photo from Lynda Williams' Teen Years - The origins of the Okal Rel universe

A photo from Lynda Williams’ Teen Years – The origins of the Okal Rel universe

Lynda Williams: The Okal Rel experience evolved out of playing with others http://okalrel.org/i-promised-my-dolls/ , so it invites participation naturally. But it’s a misconception to assume it is easy to get involved. The very first prerequisite is to learn the Okal Rel Universe. It isn’t light reading. And it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I’m arriving at a stage of life where I’m losing interest in complying with marketing imperatives to make out that one’s work is “just like” something better known in order to ride on its coattails, or to define an audience niche and conform to its standards for acceptance. I count among my favorite readers high school students and university professors. What they share is a love of rich cultural settings, intense human relationships, and well-plotted stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic and always emblematic of some dilemma or concern that preoccupied the writer. When I find people among this audience who have the talent and mind-set to play with me, I welcome them. I never called them fans but collaborators. People are welcome to write fan fiction if they want, too. But that’s not the same thing. The benefits? The Okal Rel Universe is nearly as old as I am, and has matured with me under the influence of constant challenge and stimulus from others. It feels like a lived-in place for a reason. And I love collaborating, as an adult, as much as my youthful self loved playing make-believe.

Spec Can: Your encouragement of fans shows that you view readers as valuable participants in the process of creating worlds. Are there any drawbacks or challenges to fan participation?

Lynda Williams: The Okal Rel Saga is the sum of my life’s work of making meaning of my world through fiction. So I am sometimes frustrated to see it branded as a shared-universe as if all that mattered was the rule-book for how to write about Sword Law, or arbiters, or reality skimming physics.  I suppose this is a fate I brought upon myself by blurring the distinction between “pro” and “fan” that writer-culture fights to maintain. At the same time, I am proud of the people who engage with me, from the professional writers and artists to the amateurs who walked a mile with me in the ORU during an important stage of their lives, crossing the “line” between fan and collaborator. I embrace both ways of making meaning. But I sometime cringe at the label “fan” because I fear it may be taken as an insult by the professional participants. The truth, I think, is this: many (but not all) readers have the potential to be creators, but most are discouraged by what pilots in the ORU might characterize as the hard rel of doing any kind of art for a living. So they stop. I can’t help but love the creative engines of the ORU for being a micro-environment where a greater-than-usual diversity of skills, styles and even genres thrive under one “roof”. In the end, like many things about the Okal Rel phenomenon, the role of collaborators in its creation is a complex and evolving business.

Spec Can: In addition to being an author, you also work in higher education at Simon Fraser University. In what ways do these roles complement each other?

Lynda Williams: A day job makes it harder to commit time to promoting one’s work, but it’s a rich source of material. I’ve seen and participated in big changes brought about by information technology, for example, which makes me sympathetic to both Erien’s drive for progress and the resistance of conservative Demish society. The politics of Fountain Court are as much informed by life as a “nobleborn” in post-secondary institutions as by my reading of history. And my crisis centre work was an eye-opener. But my use of real life in fiction is always a mash up. Colleagues, friends and family will be hard pressed to identify themselves in any particular character. It’s the essence, not the details, of a real life problem that I abstract into fiction to examine.

One great thing about having a good day job is the freedom to write what you want. I worked as a professional writer for a few years, as a journalist. It was a great experience. But the Okal Rel Saga was what I always wanted to write and being able to do it as a part-time job meant I could take my time to get it right, over the years.

Spec Can: How is Science Fiction a process of education and learning, and how can it encourage readers to think in new ways?

Lynda Williams: It makes us think outside the box. People can have petrified attitudes about a topic due to past associations which aren’t necessarily part of the package. In science fiction, we can alter the stimulus. We can identify exactly what we want to show the reader and see if he/she has the same reaction without the usual triggers. Take the Nesaks. They loom, throughout the Saga, as the war-mongers who periodically invade the empire. Their religious motivations might suggest a jihad, and, in fact, Part 9 of the saga is called Holy War. But if there’s a touch of Islamic warriors about the Nesaks there is also a touch of American family-loving Christians who believe the rest of the world has got it all wrong. The combination of real family values and militaristic theocracy is something I’ve always had trouble reconciling. But it happens. Readers can weigh what’s right and what’s wrong about it in their reaction to the Nesaks without automatically applying beliefs they might otherwise be unable to avoid falling back on.

Spec Can: Many of your characters have been visited by trauma or have been heavily influenced by traumatic events of the past. What encouraged you to involve characters that are coping with and learning from trauma?

Lynda Williams: I think I needed to believe anything could be survivable when I was young. The more I found out about just how awful “anything” could be, the harder it was to believe. So I invented a hero, Amel, whose job was not only to survive it all but to retain the ability to love. I read up on the topic, a little, and saddled him with some of the problems suffered by abuse victims. I didn’t want him to just get up, dust himself off, and be emotionally whole. Putting yourself back together after trauma is a lot of very hard and scary work. But there’s an opportunity to learn about how to do it, or how not to do it, in studying the lives of characters. Eler, in Part 2: Righteous Anger, is messed up by the implosion of his family over religious and political differences. He reacts by spending the rest of his life poking and prodding people to prove they aren’t what they seem. Di Mon suffered a trauma in the loss of his first lover, Darren, and responds with iron self-denial and devotion to duty which, arguably, kills him in the end. But the interpretation of Di Mon’s suicide haunts the series to its conclusion. Was it a maladaptation to his homosexuality, or a rational act motivated by the desire to die with dignity?

Spec Can: In The Courtesan Prince, the Reetion civilisation is fundamentally socialist and has gotten rid of class divides, whereas the Gelack civilisation is entirely based on class distinctions and has been shaped by a strong belief in the differences between classes. Why did this idea of competing class systems interest you? What shaped your fascination with classes and how they orient societies?

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Lynda Williams: I think I became fascinated by class distinctions because at some fundamental, instinctive level at which most people ‘get’ who is important and who isn’t, I just didn’t. I therefore found myself, from a young age, in the midst of a never-ending social game of hierarchy where I had to keep figuring out the rules. It still bewilders me why anyone would be excited about spotting a celebrity on the street, for example. But I did come with a conceit of my own. My upper class English heritage. Or, at least, the sense of it conveyed by my mother and grandmother. It made perfect sense to me that Oliver, in Oliver Twist, was a different kind of being from his fellow orphans who were what my grandmother would have termed “common children”. How my family managed to simultaneously instill in me an impression that being half-Welsh was a little bit magic, is a mystery, given what the English think about the Welsh. But I do know that one of my early mental images of Amel was as an Oliver Twist kind of character, so obviously better than those around him that it leaps out at the reader, even though it is invisible to other characters. The blindness of social systems, in other words, is revealed by the participants’ failure to see the very truth they most profess to value.

Spec Can: Your work engages with tough social questions and complex ideas. In what ways can Canadians SF ask those tough questions or help people to challenge their social situation and think outside the box?

Lynda Williams: We profess to be above class distinctions in Canada. I don’t believe it. People are always pegging each other in some hierarchy or other. The saving grace, I think, is that there are now multiple hierarchies in which to participate and we can choose which we prefer to take to heart. Just like Ilse Marin, a merely nobleborn woman of the Midlord birth rank, takes pride in being Blue Demish, we can chose to measure our own self-worth in terms of our education level, income, family, professional distinctions, volunteer roles, creative skills, etc.  We can build our identities in our chosen spheres of influence while still respecting other people’s worlds. But to be truly happy, I think, we have to make peace with the idea people just aren’t equal in all things. No amount of wishing is going to make us all equally attractive, strong or smart. Writing about how people negotiate the class system of Sevildom, within and across cultures, gives me toys to play with for dramatizing hierarchy issues of all sorts. For example, in the fourth Okal Rel anthology there’s a brilliant story by M. Alexis Pakulak about a woman who defines herself as a Sevolite, finds out she isn’t, and has to decide whether it matters. In her case, it’s mostly a psychological affair because she’s a Fractional Sevolite, but for this dilemma the question of actual differentiation of abilities wasn’t an important issue. But what if, like Gadar, in my story “Going Back Out”, it is physical? Gadar, as a natural human, will never be able to outfly a highborn. Ann’s answer is “so what!” That only means we need you all the more for Reetion purposes. “Fly for your own reasons,” says Ann. Good advice, not always easy to follow. But there’s something deeply gratifying about pursuing one’s own, particular rel, no matter what.

Spec Can:  In addition to your work as an author, you also are known for running blogs about Canadian SF. What can blogs add to the developing nature of Canadian SF? How can they help people to think differently about SF?

Lynda Williams: For many years, writing was a bizarrely private experience for me, shared primarily with a few special friends. But I wanted to get my characters out there in the world and felt the pressure to promote. Most of the ways of doing this rankled. And, let’s face it, if something goes against the grain of your soul, you aren’t apt to do it very effectively. The pleasure in writing, for me, has always been about creativity and ideas. The heroes. The questions. The larger-than-everyday feel of SF.  Blogging let me extend that preference to a wider public. It’s a social thing for me, letting me collaborate with kindred spirits in a way that feels good. It is also an outlet for my surplus thoughts and idea about life, which prevents me driving my family nuts. I enjoy inviting fellow authors and thinkers to appear on Reality Skimming. And since I’m a Canadian SF author, it is true that a good number of the guests are Canadians but that’s more an accident of overlap than a real intent to focus on Canadian SF. Some writers are fiercely national in their outlook but international in their audience. I’m probably the opposite. A would-be citizen of the world in my outlook, but Canadian by default.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would be interested in including in this interview?

Lynda Williams: Just to thank you for the opportunity to respond to such insightful questions. People keen to talk about themselves are legion. Those game to bring their heart and mind to the task of encouraging another to explore her inward halls of thought are rarer stock.  The Okal Rel Universe is proud to count you among its readers, and I hope additional books in the series have the pleasure of your visitations there. Ack rel.

I want to thank Lynda Williams for being willing to do such deep analyses of her own work and of the world around her. I am honoured that she was willing to let me participate in this interrogation of the deeper issues expressed in her SF and to share this conversation with readers who may be interested in the worlds she creates and the potential of SF to not only create different worlds, but to question this one and encourage readers to be comfortable questioning their own worlds and their own perspectives. 

Creating Community in Isolation

A Review of Julie Czerneda’s Riders of the Storm (Daw, 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille riderss

Displacement is a factor that is prevalent in the lives of many people who have had to leave home for whatever reason. The finding of “home” is a nebulous, complex, and constantly changeable phenomena. Julie Czerneda explores the search for home in a foreign and confusing space in Riders of the Storm. On a planet with three self-aware and hugely biologically different species (the Om’ray, Oud, and Tikitik), agreements exist to keep the balance between these three peoples from shifting. Czerneda focusses on one group, a small band of travellers from the Om’ray who defy social customs by their biological differences. They threaten the balance that the Om’ray seek to maintain by the fact that they are different, that they represent change in a society that resists change and prefers to conceive of existance only in the form of living people (ignoring notions of the past). This small group of travellers are manifesting new abilities beyond the natural abilities of the Om’ray, which include telepathy, healing, collective dreaming.

The telepathy of the Om’ray has created a notion of fundamental racism. Since they are only able to telepathically sense each other, they cast all other non-Om’ray groups as “not real”. They see themselves as the centre of the world and believe that the world only exists where they are. They have created an isolated society both from other races, but also from other periods of time. They see their society as always having been the same, that history does not exist and isn’t worth exploring because it would suggest that things were capable of changing.

Aryl Sarc has been forced to become the leader for her small band of Om’ray, leading them on a journey that they believe to be impossible because it represents the possibility of change, something her society resists, and the necessity of shifting the status quo. Aryl doesn’t seek leadership, but she is a figure who represents change by her very body – she has abilities that are far beyond other Om’ray and the uncertainty within her body makes her more willing to accept uncertainties and therefore willing to confront challenges.

In a society that focusses on static notions of culture (the idea that things don’t change) and has an interest in keeping secrets, Aryl tries to make everything open to her people. She is interested in opening questions in a society that largely accepts things unquestioningly. She and her group of exiles finds an abandoned Om’ray village, one that presents the inevitability that things do, in fact, change. It represents a place for a new start and one that embodies history, opened secrets, and the challenge and potentialities of a new future that is different from the now. The uncertainty of this village, Sona, makes it an ideal place for a changeable people.

The group of exiles have to create a new sense of home in a place that is embodied by history, a history that speaks to them (literally through dreams about the past and figuratively through their need to interpret objects that have remained). Those who have been exiled out of a fear of change, now have to live with change and the flexibility, fluidity, and the general flux that is represented by an uncertain future. They seek to create an idea of belonging in a place that is different, that has history, and that keeps reminding them that things can and do change. They are haunted by the reminder that the land they are on predates them.

Aryl becomes more comfortable with ideas of change and with notions that would have been considered threats to her society. She is able to help her society to accept and be comfortable with ideas of chance. Aryl’s comfort with change makes her an ideal person to speak to people of other races – she is willing to speak to the Oud, the Tikitik, and even a human visitor to her planet. She is not restrained to notions of the Om’ray’s singularity and superior significance. She learns to be willing to accept that those who are “not real”, may in fact just be different and that intercultural communication, although uncertain and potentially confusing, is worth approaching. When trying to approach the Oud and Tikitik, she learns from the human visitor to her world, Marcus, that she will need to take into account both cultural differences and also biological differences since what is biologically normal for the Oud would be threatening for the more vulnerable Om’ray.

As outsiders wherever they end up going, Aryl’s group of exiles create community through their willingness to accept change, to create community through difference and to cooperate with others who their society traditionally resists or views as insignificant.

You can explore Riders of the Storm and other books of the Clan Chronicles series through Julie Czerneda’s website at http://www.czerneda.com/sf/clan.html .

An Interview with James Alan Gardner

An Interview with James Alan Gardner
By Derek Newman-Stille

I have been very lucky to get in touch with James Alan Gardner. As a disability scholar and someone who is interested in portrayals in Science Fiction of people who are Othered, I was extremely pleased that Mr. Gardner agreed to do an interview with me. I hope that readers enjoy our conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it. 

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

James Alan Gardner: I grew up in small-town Ontario, then went to the University of Waterloo to take math. Eventually I got my B.Math and M.Math in Applied Math, writing my master’s thesis on black holes. Just recently, I’ve gone back to UW part-time to study Earth Sciences. In my spare time, I meditate and do kung fu.

Spec Can: What role can Science Fiction have to push boundaries and help people to question the status quo?

James Alan Gardner: Science Fiction is always based on the question, “What would happen if things were different?” The differences can be technological, sociological, or even historical as in alternate history stories, but one way or another, SF deals with worlds that are not exactly like our own. The whole premise of SF is that the status quo is impermanent: it hasn’t always been what it is today, and it won’t be the same in future.

Spec Can: Your novels set in the League of Peoples universe question a lot of the traditions of human society and presents a future that both defies current assumptions about what is “normal” as well as presenting future worlds that continue with our assumptions. What interested you in questioning ideas of “normal” and traditions?

James Alan Gardner: I’m a straight white middle-class male, so the world has never hassled me about “normality”. Maybe that puts me in too privileged a position to say this, but I’ve never understood the concern about what is and isn’t normal. I meet people who are afraid that they’re weird or who brag about being weird, and my reaction is, “Who cares?” (Well, usually, my first reaction is, “You have no idea what weird really is.” Caring about weirdness is pretty darned mainstream.)

So I never deliberately set out to confront tradition or normality. Stuff like that just never occurs to me. Instead, I ask, “What would be interesting? What wouldn’t be cliché?” That may take me to non-traditional places, but not in the spirit of questioning tradition or addressing it at all. It’s just more interesting to do something that hasn’t been done to death.

For example, the whole idea of the League of Peoples comes out of a desire not to do warring interstellar societies. War in space is so old hat. How could I do space adventure stories without war? So I invented a universe where interstellar war was absolutely impossible. Then I followed all the implications to see what would happen.

Spec Can: As a disability scholar, I was fascinated by your novel Expendable and the concept of a universe in the future where people who are disabled or disfigured are treated as an expendable class because they are considered less aesthetically appealing. What inspired this novel? What are some of the issues around appearance and the body that you were hoping to attract attention to?Expendable

James Alan Gardner: For any Star Trek fan, it’s obvious that Expendable was inspired by the redshirts: the characters who got killed instead of the show’s stars. One night, I was writing impromptu—just improvising to see what came up—and Festina’s voice erupted with the first ten pages of the novel, pretty much exactly as they appear in the finished book. I had no prior ideas for any of that material; I don’t know why it was sitting in my subconscious. But once it was on the page, I had to deal with it and make a story around it.

A lot of what eventually appeared in Expendable was informed by issues of privilege. Except for the Explorer Corps, everyone else in the Technocracy navy is shallow and pampered. Later on in the series, I let the “pretty people” have more depth—they’re human, so they have their private pains, despite being born “lucky”—but Expendable was filtered through the eyes of Festina Ramos, and at that time, Festina had a huge chip on her shoulder.

Recently, John Scalzi has come up with a great way of expressing something I was talking about in Expendable. Scalzi said that being a straight white (non-disabled) male is like playing video games on the easiest setting. It’s not that life is problem-free, but that the bar you have to clear is lower. An ongoing issue in the League of Peoples stories is that Explorers are better prepared to deal with the unknown because they’ve faced more adversity than most of the other people in their time.

Spec Can: Commitment Hour presents people who change sex every year until they reach the age of 21. What was it like to conceive of an annual shift in sex for your characters? How did this question the rigidity of gender roles and gendered identities for you?

James Alan Gardner: I really like the alternating-sex set-up of Commitment Hour, but in retrospect I don’t think I used it as well as I could have.

The action was narrated by a character named Fullin who was male during the action of the novel, but who had occasional flashbacks to years when he was female. For the purpose of the story, Fullin’s culture had to differentiate between male and female gender roles—otherwise, there’s no drama when characters have to choose one sex over the other. So male Fullin had to have a different identity than female Fullin. But I went too far in making male Fullin a full-out sexist. If I could do the book over, I’d make Fullin’s male and female personalities different in some other way. That would have allowed me to address issues of gender with more nuance.

I might note that this highlights an important point about writing: the restrictions imposed by your viewpoint character. Writers aren’t 100% confined by the character’s viewpoint—there are tricks you can use to sneak past the character’s limitations—but you can only go so far. Every character is a collection of blind-spots, and that stops them from being able to tell certain types of stories.

Spec Can: In Vigilant, you examine what a society would be like where polygamous (group) marriages are traditional. What fascinated you with the idea of questioning the assumption that all relationships should be monogamous?

James Alan Gardner: I went into Vigilant wanting to write about a democracy. Too often, SF shows future societies that are monarchies or oligarchies; I wanted to write about a real democracy with institutions designed to keep it working well. This led to an interest in the relationship of individuals to groups…so it was a short step to making group marriage the standard family form. It’s more social, less claustrophobic.

The group marriage also gave the narrator Faye a social connection—she’s not a loner, like so many SF protagonists—while giving her more rope to play with, sexually. There are things she does in the novel which would be objectionable in a normal two-person marriage, but which are less so in a loose group marriage.

Spec Can: What is something that you hope that readers will take away from reading your novels?

James Alan Gardner: I hope my readers enjoy spending time with the characters. I also hope I’ve given people things to think about that they haven’t seen before. Finally, I hope that readers have had a few laughs; comedy matters a lot to me.

Spec Can: As an educator as well as science fiction author, in what ways do you see SF as being something that can be pedagogical?

James Alan Gardner: Science fiction and fantasy can deal with the world being changed to an extent that doesn’t happen in other branches of literature. I don’t just mean depicting different kinds of worlds; I mean the process of people actually changing the world. In other forms of literature, characters may make a difference on a small scale, but they can’t be world-changers.

For example, what would a literary novel about Einstein look like? It would be about his childhood, his home life, his psychology, and so on. It wouldn’t be about his big public accomplishments. SF can talk about the big stuff because SF worlds are always subject to change. That’s what we write about: different worlds. So it’s very easy for SF to show entire worlds being changed by the actions of people. That’s a lesson readers should learn.

Spec Can: What do you see as particularly Canadian about the SF you produce? Does your Canadian identity influence your work, and, if so, in what ways?

James Alan Gardner: Being Canadian affects everything I write, though seldom in any obvious way. For example, I think it makes me more quietly optimistic than American or British writers. Canada is far from perfect, but we have experience with peaceful coexistence between different types of people. In a lot of American SF, there’s a subtext that culture war is inevitable unless everyone melts together into the same pot. In Canada, we don’t see that as necessary—individuals can be very different, yet still get along.

Spec Can: Where do you see Canadian SF going from here? What is the future of Canadian SF?

James Alan Gardner: There are plenty of good Canadian SF writers, and more appearing each year. Just to name a few whom I make sure to follow: Robert J. Sawyer, Karl Schroeder, Julie Czerneda, Guy Gavriel Kay, Nalo Hopkinson, Tanya Huff, Peter Watts, and no doubt others who slip my mind at this moment. (You’ll notice that I don’t distinguish between science fiction and fantasy. To me, the family resemblances between science fiction and fantasy are more important than the differences.)

Spec Can: How can the figure of “the Alien” make us think more about ourselves and question the things that we do?

James Alan Gardner: In science fiction, aliens typically fall into one of three categories: totally alien, so we really can’t understand anything they do; pretty much human, in which case they’re mostly like us, except for cosmetic touches; and human reflections, where the aliens are like humans in many ways, but have some substantial difference (e.g. Star Trek Vulcans with their devotion to logic and attempted erasure of emotion).

Often, authors use the third category to make some point about the human condition by exaggerating or eliminating some ordinary human trait. When it’s done well, it can make us think about that trait’s role in our lives and society. Since I’ve already mentioned Vulcans, a great many Star Trek episodes played on the place of emotion in human existence. When is it good? When it is bad? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Spock’s presence made it possible to explore such questions. In fact, Spock’s presence almost forced the writers to keep coming back to the questions, and to make them a central part of the series. The writers had to keep digging, and to keep thinking about the role of emotion in our lives.

Spec Can: As a pacifist, I was fascinated by the idea of murderers being defined as “Dangerous Non-Sentients” by the League of Peoples in your novels – the idea that people who killed were considered not sentient by the League and unable to therefore travel from their solar system. What inspired this idea of the “Dangerous Non-Sentient”?

James Alan Gardner: I’ve already mentioned my desire to write books without interstellar wars, just as a way to avoid doing the same old same-old. The other thing that the League’s influence did was separate humanity into two camps: those who left Earth were those who accepted the League’s version of pacifism; those who remained on Earth were essentially the people who couldn’t bear to put down their guns. As a result, those left on Earth went through a very turbulent time, and order was only restored when one group came out on top (with help from alien partners). This gave me a cake-and-eat-it arrangement: League-imposed pacifism in space, and a much more violent situation for those who stayed on Earth. I could play around with both strands of human culture, and eventually show what might happen if they were artificially separated.

Spec Can: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?

James Alan Gardner: Thanks for asking me to participate!

I want to thank James Alan Gardner for this incredible interview and for all of the insights that he has raised. If you are interested in reading more of his work, you can explore his website at http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim/english/index.shtml

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?