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Book Reviews

Commitment Hour

by James Alan Gardner

Outpost

by Scott Mackay

Icefire

by Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Factoring Humanity

by Robert J. Sawyer

The Book of Knights

by Yves Meynard

Science fiction and fantasy still seem to many Canadians like a recent American import, an industry brought in by expatriate writers like Spider Robinson and William Gibson. In fact, our SF tradition goes all the way back to Nova Scotia’s James De Mille, whose Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder was published in 1888, eight years after his death; he may have written it as early as the 1850s.

De Mille foreshadowed the present state of the genre. He was one of our first professional writers, and he wrote for the American market because Canada’s was far too small. Like many other Canadians who have prospered by telling the Americans what they wanted to hear, De Mille wrote fast-paced, humorous, slightly offbeat fiction. He never mentions Canada in Strange Manuscript, but his Antarctic dystopia is a witty satire on Canadian society. Similarly, many new Canadian SF and fantasy writers say a great deal about their country without ever naming it.

Toronto writer Scott Mackay’s Outpost is a science-fiction answer to Northrop Frye’s question “Where is here?” His heroine Felicitas is a teenager who’s lived all her life in a decaying automated prison on a planet with two small red suns. While she and the hundreds of other prisoners speak English, much of their vocabulary, mysteriously, is Italian. Felicitas is one of a few prisoners who have emerged from a kind of trance, and she joins the others in planning an escape into the unknown world outside. Her entranced fellow prisoners, displaying an extreme case of Frye’s garrison mentality, do everything they can to thwart the breakout. When Felicitas and her allies succeed anyway, the entranced pursue them into a wintry landscape of tundra and forest.

For the most part, Mackay’s story is a long slog through that landscape, with Felicitas trying to reach a mysterious “outpost,” yet another kind of garrison, which offers the only hope of survival and freedom for herself and her comrades. By the time she reaches it, the plot is a hopeless tangle of interstellar wars, time travel, mutant aliens, and gun battles. Having vividly portrayed a Kafkaesque prison world, Mackay runs into trouble trying to explain how it got that way. Still, his characters and setting have an eerie reality, evoked in a spare and effective style.

In the hands of a Tom Clancy or Dean Koontz, the techno-thriller is a popular genre. In Icefire, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (Canadians living in Los Angeles) have clearly studied the masters. The gimmick is a bizarre plot by demented generals to detach the Ross Ice Shelf from the Antarctic mainland, and thereby create a planetary disaster.

Having done something similar to the Ross Ice Shelf in my 1979 novel Icequake, and in the 1982 sequel Tsunami, I must say I was impressed at the technological advances of the past 20 years. While I was content to set off an earthquake, the Reeves-Stevenses settle for nothing less than a timed sequence of nuclear weapons, and the generation of a “soliton” – a monster wave that loses almost no energy as it sweeps north to devastate the Pacific Rim.

The authors maintain a fast pace, yet skid to a halt every time another piece of high tech turns up. Hero Mitch Webber is a U.S. Navy officer, and each of his various weapons, gadgets, and aircraft require detailed descriptions; imagine the owner’s manual for a stealth bomber, with dialogue. Again and again I muttered, “Cut to the chase,” while the Reeves-Stevenses rattled off the stats and invited me to kick the tires of an SR-71. Icefire is slick, it’s brilliantly researched, but it’s utterly silly.

By contrast Robert J. Sawyer, a prolific SF author living in Thornhill, Ontario, does some very interesting things in Factoring Humanity without once invoking a demented general or setting off a nuke. Set in Toronto in the humid summer of 2017, the novel recounts the story of Heather Davis and her estranged husband, Kyle Graves, both academics at the University of Toronto – she in psychology, he in computer science. Heather’s been working for years on a mysterious series of alien messages from Alpha Centauri; Kyle builds ever more intelligent artificial intelligences and inches toward a breakthrough in quantum computers.

But they are more concerned about the recent suicide of one daughter and the other daughter’s accusations that Kyle sexually abused both her and her sister. While the parents try to get to the bottom of the charges, they also try to get on with their careers. Heather finally figures out what the alien messages mean, and uses them to construct a “hypercube,” which carries her into “psychospace.” It’s a surrealistic world (Dali is the inspiration for much of this novel) that turns out to be nothing less than Jung’s collective unconscious – with every human mind, alive and dead, accessible to her.

With less trouble than it takes most people to master Netscape, Heather teaches herself how to find and inhabit any mind on the planet. Once inside her estranged husband’s mind, she learns the truth about the abuse charges. She also learns that the human collective unconscious is staggered by its first contact with the aliens’ collective unconscious.

Sawyer, however, has a bad tendency to put potted lectures in his characters’ mouths. Surely even real U of T profs don’t sound quite this pedantic, especially in exchanges between spouses. But the author has so many ideas to dramatize, and does it so well, that one can forgive him his expository sins and his tedious strings of short one-sentence paragraphs.

In Commitment Hour, emerging writer James Alan Gardner gives us a future in which the members of a rustic society alternate their gender every year before “committing” to one or the other at age 20. Fullin, the narrator-hero, is close to that age and currently male.

Gardner invites comparison with Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant The Left Hand of Darkness, published almost 30 years ago, but Commitment Hour fails the comparison on all scores. His protagonist is a stock character who speaks in a flat colloquial style that evokes 1990s suburban America, and his gender-switching society is crude and implausible. Worst of all, Gardner builds his whole story around how this society got to be this way, revealed in a gory, unbelievable, and disappointing finale. The real story on such a theme, as Le Guin understood, is about what remains when gender comes and goes.

The most striking of all of these new novels is fantasy, not SF. Quebec writer Yves Meynard’s The Book of Knights has elements that Cervantes would have recognized and lampooned: a book celebrating the exploits of noble warriors, a boy who sets off to become a knight like those in the book, a series of breathless adventures in strange lands, and a dramatic homecoming. Yet Meynard brings it off, making something new out of ancient materials.

His young hero, Adelrune, escapes a repressive society and apprentices himself to Riander, mentor to knights. The price is high, but Adelrune pays it, and then goes off to earn his armour and his knighthood. His adventures echo those of medieval romance, but with a quirky individuality: a mysterious seaside cave inhabited by talking snails, a whole nation aboard a gigantic ship, a demonic queen trapped in a playing card, and a toymaker with a mysterious doll. Meynard’s simple style and big ideas make his rather short novel into a kind of pocket epic. Adelrune and many of the other characters are both persons and archetypes, and they stay in the reader’s memory. Apart from Terry Bisson, I can’t think of a current fantasy writer who achieves such original results from such familiar elements.