Canadian SF: What is it? Can It Be Defined?

As both a Canadian and a science fiction author, you’d think I’d be able to define what it means to write Canadian SF. But, like hundreds of other authors — many of whom gather on the first Thursday of every month to debate all aspects of Canadian literature on Twitter under the #CanLit hashtag — I can’t. Not easily, at any rate, though as a keen debater, I am always happy to discuss it.

As both a Canadian and a science fiction author, you’d think I’d be able to define what it means to write Canadian SF. But, like hundreds of other authors — many of whom gather on the first Thursday of every month to debate all aspects of Canadian literature on Twitter under the #CanLit hashtag — I can’t. Not easily, at any rate, though as a keen debater, I am always happy to discuss it.

When we think of Canadian literature, many people hearken back to what they were taught in grade school — survivalist literature about wheat fields and grizzly old women, boy versus polar bear, gritty urban drug-consuming teens in the tough streets of 1980s Toronto, men forging the steel spine of the nation with the expansion of railroads. The Garrison Mentality concept promulgated by Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood — the idea that characters are always looking outwards and building metaphorical walls against the outside world — comes with the assumption that it makes up a part of the Canadian identity because Canadians fear the emptiness of the landscape and the oppressiveness of other nations. Not to dismiss it out of hand, but I feel that this definition of Canadian literature is too narrow to encompass everything Canadian writers are creating. Sure, it’s a subgenre of Canadian lit, but it’s hardly representative of what all of us are writing. And before anyone accuses me of hypocrisy, yes, I will admit to having a few SF novels that fall into the category. But not all of it.

Canadian literature seems to come in two flavours: relentlessly, unabashedly Canadian — “Yes, I write just like every other North American, but I’m Canadian. See? I put a Mountie in my story.” — or chameleon Canadian: “Yes, the book is Canadian and so am I, but you know, I didn’t feel the need to show it.” (Which can either be translated as I don’t want you to know I’m Canadian, and I don’t want your judgment of the book to be influenced by an obligation to tout it because it’s Canadian OR I don’t want you to know I’m Canadian, I’m ashamed.)

But without resorting to caricature, how do you mark something as distinctively Canadian? Rob Shearman, a writer of renown in the UK and the author of the celebrated Doctor Who episode “Dalek,” once told me that the Doctor could never grace our shores because “there isn’t anything iconic enough in Canada to use in an establishing shot. Everything you have looks like somewhere else.”

He was proven right a mere three days later: A filmmaker friend and I had uploaded a video to YouTube that spoofed the location of the mysterious, still-missing Torchwood Four — a companion to an essay on Doctor Who and Canadiana that I presented at the University of Cardiff. We had set the video under the CN Tower, using long shots taken on Toronto Island and at the Steam Whistle Brewery just south of the iconic structure as our establishing frames. We had to close the comments when a fight broke out about where the video was saying Torchwood Four was secreted: Seattle or Shanghai. Yes, that’s right — Shanghai. The tower had been mistaken for both the Space Needle and the Pearl Tower.

And there aren’t many better options. The Rockies? Looks like Colorado. The Prairies? Wyoming. The arctic? Alaska. A lobster fisherman? Maine. Niagara Falls? Victoria Falls in Brazil. The Toronto city hall? Looks like a flying saucer; or where Johnny 5 became an American citizen. If you’ve got a modern setting, you can use the Maid of the Mist, the iconic Mountie uniform, or a Canadian flag, but those are hardly representative of the Canada we all know, the breadth of the whole country, and the lives that Canadians lead every day.

My concern is that Canada itself isn’t quite sure what “Canadian” means. We are wobbling along a tightrope line, unsure how to discuss or create an icon that stands for all of us when we are a nation of immigrants and colonialists, First Peoples and the colonized, the white, the black, and the everything in between. We are a nation that refuses, in and of itself, to label. At the risk of getting pelted with Timbits, I often say that Canada has a National Identity of Absence. That is, we define ourselves by what we are not. Look carefully at the words of the legendary “I Am Canadian” commercial and you will see a rhetoric of not-ness. I am not a lumberjack; we are peacekeepers, not police; we speak English and French, not American, and we pronounce it about, not aboot.

Maybe the only positive statement we can make about what is Canadian, and therefore what is Canadian science fiction, is “that which is written by a Canadian.” Seems a bit cheap to me. I mean, can we really accept hegemony standing in for artistic intent?

But then, the place that I grew up, the hegemony that I am immersed within, the experiences I have had and the beliefs that I have been bequeathed — they shape me. And that place was Canada.

I personally wouldn’t call Triptych quintessentially Canadian, but it has certainly been labelled as such. And why? There are no beavers. No moose. No Mounties. No hockey games (though there is an argument about the relative merits of hockey over rugby). No wheat fields. No lobster fishermen. No noble savages.

But there is a nation of immigrants, forced into a place they want to call home and cannot. There is segregation, there is empathy, there is multiculturalism, there are mixed marriages. There is a farm in rural Ontario and a person struggling to locate an identity for themselves amid a swirling mass of humanity that is fundamentally different from their own upbringing. It is a book about colonialism, compassion, and consequences; about peacekeeping and policing, as the commercial would put it. Does that make it Canadian?

Or is Canadian work Canadian because it can’t be pinned down? Is that the magic of Canadian literature — that it can be anything and everything? Undefined and undefinable? Or is that just Canadian Orientalism, romanticizing our own past?

See? Tightrope walking.

Perhaps Canadian identity is less one of absence and more an identity of shared experience. And maybe Canadian literature is inherently survivalist after all — maybe it really is all Garrison Mentality writing. Yes, surviving a harsh winter is a cliché of the genre, but surviving immigration, maintaining a culture, struggling through emotional turmoil — these are all kinds of survival, too.

The Canadian story is about standing up and saying, “No, stop it. This isn’t good enough. I exist and I have the right to! And I will fight to prove it!” We are the nation that other nations pat on the head and call cute, that others dismiss; but we are also the nation that kicked ass at Vimy Ridge, the nation that protects the innocents of the world, a nation of environmentalists, entrepreneurs, cultural icons and warriors, and a nation of inventors. We are a nation of people who fight, in little ways, every day, to make the lives of our fellow citizens better, happier, more enriched, more secure.

And that is what we see in our literature and — here’s the best part — especially in our science fiction. Calculating God, The Year of the Flood, In the Company of Others: these are some of the most talked about works of Canadian science fiction, and they all, in the end, can be boiled down to that same theme — the fight to be better, to do good, to help the world by helping oneself and one’s community.

Is that the definition of Canadian SF? Well, I think it’s too soon to tell. Call it a cop-out if you will, but we are a baby nation. Japan has had thousands of years to define what is and is not “Japanese.” England has been at it since at least the tenth century, and Italy even longer. Even the United States of America has had a leg up on us, especially with their melting-pot approach to immigration and the way their own culture is distilled and fed back to them via their burgeoning media.

Canada is a mere infant in comparison, a sweet, unassuming toddler with curls and curiosity and a genuine desire to go out onto the world stage and just do good.

And perhaps that is the most Canadian thing of all — the desire not to demand, not to declare, not to be decisive. Maybe it’s that polite thing that we’re so famous for — “Oh no, no,” we demur. “No, that’s okay, just enjoy the story and don’t worry about categorizing it. That’s just fine, we don’t mind.” Perhaps we are Canadian because we are merely content at being present and letting others make of us what they will. In the meantime, we will continue to do our good, write our stories, embrace our myriad of regions, cultures, languages, religions, and traditions, and kindly point out to the rest of the world that the art we make, the science fiction books we write, well, they’re pretty darn good stories, eh?

J.M. Frey is the author of Publisher’s Weekly starred novel Triptych (Dragon Moon Press, 2011). She is also a voice actor, fanthropologist, and a professional geek.

See Editor D.F. McCourt’s interview with J.M. Frey and her take on soft vs. hard science fiction in AE #4.

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