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Book Reviews

Darwin’s Bastards

by Zsuzsi Gartner, ed.

Canada may be the only country in the world where it’s not considered a liability to publish an anthology of dystopian and science-fiction stories that contains hardly any contributions from authors specializing in those genres.

Darwin’s Bastards, a new collection of original speculative fiction stories, is that book, and because it mostly excludes actual sci-fi writers it’s a safe bet that it will receive the kind of critical attention and respect so consistently denied Canadian “genre” authors.

So, no stories by such noted – outside of Canada – authors as Peter Watts, Nalo Hopkinson, Robert J. Sawyer, Charles de Lint, Cory Doctorow, or Hiromi Goto (to name a few). Instead we get a wide selection of authors celebrated by the country’s traditional literary gatekeepers. 

In her McSweeney’s-esque introduction – cue the multiple parentheses, mock academic footnotes, cutesy asides, and arch mixture of high and low tones – editor Zsuzsi Gartner says that she wanted the collection to be “entertaining and provocative, punch-drunk on language, fizzling with ideas.” In other words, she wanted literary stories.

Many of the stories do hit Gartner’s marks. Douglas Coupland’s hilarious “Survivor” imagines a nuclear holocaust that rudely interrupts the filming of Mark Burnett’s iconic reality TV series. Coupland’s pitch-perfect drollness and instinct for absurd detail heighten the story’s mood of savage horror. “There Is No Time in Waterloo” by Sheila Heti is a fabulist take on the unlikely collision of physics and youth culture in Waterloo, Ontario, home to Research In Motion’s BlackBerry empire and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The high-concept story takes its science seriously, using theoretical physics to playfully explore issues of conformity and predetermination.

William Gibson’s “Dougal Discarnate” plays with notions of time and identity while charting out a strange friendship that overlaps the boundaries of the visible world. (A cynical reviewer might conclude that the inclusion of Gibson, the collection’s only true sci-fi writer, has everything to do with his critical acceptance in Canadian literary circles.)

Too many of the stories are either literary explorations of sensitive, reflective characters with a few high-concept narrative apps tacked on or extended riffs on pop and corporate culture. Mark Anthony Jarman’s “The December Astronauts (or Moon-Base Horse Code)” could just as easily take place in any strip of dive bars or seaports on Earth, while Elyse Friedman’s “I Found Your Vox” and Jessica Grant’s “Love in the Pneumatic Tube Era” feel barely committed to their futuristic concepts. Pasha Malla’s “1999” is a riff on celebrity culture that exhausts its concept before the story’s halfway point; Stephen Marche’s “Personasts: My Journeys Through Soft Evenings and Famous Secrets” is too wrapped up in its (admittedly interesting) concepts to work as a piece of fiction.

What’s lacking in many of the stories is speculative fiction’s strong narrative skeleton, which, when constructed properly, affords authors the luxury of exploring highly abstract imaginative conjectures about humanity’s place in the universe while still engaging the reader in an entertaining story. Too often in Darwin’s Bastards, the futuristic and dystopian speculations hang suspended like colloids in slack, unformed narratives.

It’s also pretty obvious that many of the authors have not read very widely in the genre, save for Margaret “Don’t Call My Work Science-Fiction” Atwood’s dystopian novels and a few other well-known books by J.G. Ballard and the aforementioned William Gibson. So we get multiple servings of wacky genetic mutation, ecological-collapse scenarios, and corporate capitalism run amok. The future may very well be defined by such gruesome developments, but too many of the imagined worlds presented here feel second-hand at best.

Adam Lewis Schroeder’s “This Is Not the End My Friend,” Lee Henderson’s “The Aurochs,” Oliver Kellhammer’s “Crush,” and Timothy Taylor’s “Sunshine City” do provide what Gartner seems to have had in mind for the collection: compelling stories that combine the intellectual and narrative pop of the best speculative fiction with the attention to language and characterization often missing from pure genre fiction. By extending the technological, social, and existential imbalances of our age into a dystopian future, these stories – and a few others in the collection – make us rethink our current situation here on Earth. They’re also damn good sci-fi.