Anthologies of themed short stories carry a significant risk: if the theme is too rigid or overpowering, the stories themselves may be hampered or crippled. Conversely, if the theme is too loose, any sense of cumulative power may be lost, resulting in just another collection of stories, albeit one that carries with it a vague sense of unmet expectations. Two new volumes of Canadian speculative fiction each manage to find the crucial balance, resulting in collections in which the stories are not overshadowed by the theme, but rather gain power from the unity at their centres.
As co-editor Lukas K. Law writes in the introduction to Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, the book explores “the thinness of the line between mental health and mental illness.” It’s a noble purpose, and one that allows the editors to incorporate a panalopy of voices and approaches. This results in some excellent storytelling.
The volume leads off with “The Culling,” a powerful story from Kelley Armstrong, in which a society addresses scarcity – “the water drying up and everything dying with the drought” – by culling those deemed infirm or disabled, including people suffering from mental illness. “Carnivores,” by Rich Larson, is a crime story in which the main character is a Neanderthal hybrid “from the Bangkok biolabs.” In “Dallas’s Booth,” by Suzanne Church, the eponymous character, unable to leave his apartment, eavesdrops on the conversations in the phone booth outside, eventually finding himself drawn into a situation that demands a response he may not be able to enact. In “Tribes,” A.M. Dellamonica draws together West Coast First Nations mythology, ghost stories, and multicultural relationships within the context of a high school in which one ostracized student is killed each year, an informal sacrifice to the “haunts.”
The stories in Strangers Among Us are as varied in tone and approach as their authors. The power of the collection derives from this variety; while each story can be read in isolation, the assemblage of outsiders feels, on a whole, exultant. There is, indeed, strength in numbers, when each individual is accorded space and respect.
In contrast, the stories in Clockwork Canada generally share a similar tone, an exuberance and optimism occasionally at odds with the consequences of the technologies they explore. These stories of clockworks, airships, mechanical limbs, automata, and steam are, overall, an unfettered delight to read.
Brent Nichols’s “The Harpoonist” is a steam-hero origin story set in a recognizable Gastown section of Vancouver; Michael Wojcik’s “Strange Things Done” features a young woman pursuing a mysterious prospector during the Yukon gold rush, putting a Canadian spin on many steampunk conventions. (You have to love a story that alludes to Robert Service in its title.)
This is not, however, just a collection of steampunk from Canadian writers. The more powerful stories use their stylistic apparatus to channel their narratives toward deeper themes, particularly having to do with the nature of Canada itself. As Dominik Parisien writes in his introduction, “Canada is often described as a mosaic, sometimes as a patchwork. I would add that it might also be described as a great lumbering automaton; it is an absurdly large mass, a construct made of widely different cogs and gears that sometimes work together and sometimes don’t.”
The highlights of the collection include Holly Schofield’s “East Wind in Carrall Street,” in which a faux clockwork lion (supposedly a full automata, but actually driven by young Wong Shin, who hides within) serves as a catalyst not only for a partial triumph of will, but also the development of a relationship that spans the cultural divide in Vancouver’s proto-Chinatown. Shin himself extends the metaphor of Canadian identity, saying, “Canada was more like the many colours of vegetable fried noodles – a mixture of everything but a blend of nothing.”
The full potential of steampunk alternate history comes to the fore in Rati Mehrotra’s “Komagata Maru,” which re-imagines the circumstances of the ill-fated ship’s arrival at Vancouver. Yes, it’s a bit of obvious wish fulfillment, but nevertheless represents an exhilarating imaginative redress of one of the darker chapters of Canada’s immigration history.
While the immersion in steampunk tropes and milieux will no doubt be enthusiastically embraced by devotees of the genre, Clockwork Canada isn’t insular, and will welcome most any reader possessed of an adventurous mind.