Earlier this month I had the privilege of sitting on a panel at SFContario 6 provocatively entitled “Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy: Does Such a Thing Exist?” As the editor of Canada’s only SFWA-accredited science fiction market, I can understand why they invited me to participate, but secretly I knew that I was not particularly well equipped to answer the question.
The elephant in the room when it comes to all Canadian media and culture is the behemoth to our south. When the vast majority of Canada’s genre writers are consciously writing for an American audience, what room is there for a cohesive Canadian identity. Even this magazine, with its mandate to be by Canadians for Canadians, has more American readers (37% of total readership) than Canadian (21%). The result is that — much like Canadian actors, comedians, and professional wrestlers — most readers are entirely surprised to discover that a favourite author is Canadian. There is no way of knowing.
Certainly, based on the stories we publish in this magazine, there does not seem to be a clear common thread. One week we are reading about deep space time travellers trying to save a doomed space station and the next about elderly superheroes in the streets of Toronto. But I think, if one looks deep enough, there is some commonality after all.
Canadian science fiction, like Canadian literature in general, is grounded in themes of isolation, survival, and community. We have touched on this issue before, when we talked about how these traditionally Canadian themes are prevalent in the genre overall, but I think they are even more pronounced in Canadian science fiction specifically.
Canada, like space, is a cold and lonely place. It’s a place where a connection with those around you is necessary not just to salve the need for human contact, but also to provide a crucial buffer against the dangers of the environment. It’s a place, importantly, where the smallest social issues can be wrought larger than life due to the fundamental and vital importance of keeping those bonds strong.
Canada is also a society that, for these reasons, places a great emphasis on playing nicely together and on understanding the way we can work to make a whole stronger than its parts. The socialist tradition is very strong in this country, and one spin-off effect of that is that we are very interested in the way any large-scale change affects society as a whole.
In Canadian science fiction, heroes are rare. We don’t have a militaristic tradition, nor even a tradition of rebel outsiders, where obstacles are overcome once and for all. Instead, we see worlds where things are going wrong, and a small group of people fight long enough and hard enough to make some subset of those things go right for a little while. But the victory is never permanent or absolute. And the flaws of the protagonists are as much an ingredient in the pyrrhism of that victory as anything else.
For this reason — and despite the large volume of earlier science fiction by Canadians — I hold up The Handmaid’s Tale as the true jumping off point of Canadian Science Fiction. In this work, we see a brutally broken society, a dystopia in which everyday survival is the challenge and the protagonist cannot spare a moment to worry about the larger picture. And yet, as readers, that larger picture is so much of what we take away from it. We see the ways society can be twisted from a righteous path by the smallest, most believable alterations and we see the consequences as depicted through the most banal interpersonal relationships.
Of course, even this is hardly a Canadian monopoly. Among the classics, both 1984 and A Brave New World fit this mold. Although it is worth noting that both Orwell and Huxley were Englishmen, and Canadian science fiction, much more so than American, inherits a lot from the British tradition. Even so, I feel that the Canadian interpretation, as seen also in the work of Peter Watts and Nalo Hopkinson, is more human and, in its way, more desolate.
I think, in the end, the thing that might most impel Canadian writers towards a common ground, despite the constant dilution of our culture by cross-border osmosis, is not so much any longer the shared experience of a cold and heartless environment, as it is an exposure to Canadian literature growing up. No American reads The Stone Angel or I Heard the Owl Call My Name in school, and yet every Canadian does. These books stay with us; they burrow deep inside us and force us to identify with the Canada that was, the Canada that predates the Internet and broadcast television. It’s a Canada where the United States is so far away that it may as well not exist.
And though that is very much not the world we live in today, it seeps into our bones through our shared cultural heritage and makes itself known in our fiction, science or otherwise. So, yes, I do believe Canadian science fiction is a thing, even if it does a very good job of masquerading as just, you know, science fiction.