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Book Reviews

Violent Stars

by Phyllis Gotlieb

The Dragon’s Eye

by Joel Champetier

Northern Suns

by David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant, eds.

Canadians have never been a people to harbour imperial ambitions. We’re an offshoot of one failed empire and the neighbour of its successor. When it comes to the arts, Canadians are cultural chameleons, quietly absorbing outside influences, then beating the sources at their own game. Nowhere is this more evident than in the burgeoning field of speculative fiction (hereafter abbreviated to SF). Created largely by British and American men, and with decidedly downmarket pulp fiction roots, it’s been infiltrated by Canadian writers in the latter part of this century.

The main things that distinguish Canadian SF from its British and American counterparts are the substantially larger role women writers have played in its development, the willingness of established mainstream authors to dabble in it, and the existence of two distinct literary subcultures, English and French. The smaller writing community here also allows Canadian writers more room to experiment with subgenres. It’s a painful fact of publishing that when there’s big money and a big audience involved, there is also more pressure to stick to formula rather than risk an expensive flop. The American scene, with its “churn-’em-out,” multi-sequel mentality, is the main source of the mediocre hackwork that gives SF its bad reputation in literary circles. The higher quality of Canadian SF also reflects the maturing of the audience, which has now expanded far beyond its original post-pubescent male fan base.

Violent Stars is the latest novel from SF veteran and acclaimed poet Phyllis Gotlieb. Gotlieb was one of the first SF writers to bring a literary sensibility to the genre, and also one of the field’s first high-profile women. While her output has been modest compared to other writers of her generation, she is universally acknowledged as the grande dame of Canadian SF.

Violent Stars is a sequel to last year’s Flesh and Gold, her first novel in nearly a decade (she published a collection of short stories, Blue Apes, in 1996). Violent Stars takes place on the planet Khagodis, home of a race of telepathic reptilian humanoids. An intergalactic ambassador and his adopted daughter end up as hostages in a gang war, the result of a long judicial campaign by the Khagodi against Zamos, an Earth-based crime syndicate specializing in commercial brothels and cloned slaves, and the Ix, sinister aliens who are Zamos’s partners and enforcers.

A number of characters from Flesh and Gold make repeat appearances: Skerow, the Khagodi woman judge, Ned Gattes, former “pug” (pugilist) and sometime Galactic Federation agent, and Spartakos, a sentient android. The story is compelling, and the imagery – shape-shifting gold robots, multi-species exotic dancers, and aliens that emit strobe-like flashes – owes a debt to 1960s psychedelia. But those who haven’t read Flesh and Gold might find the profusion of aliens and warring planets here confusing; the background of this particular universe is set out in more detail in the first book.

A more traditional vision of the future is portrayed in Aurora Award-winning Quebec author Joel Champetier’s The Dragon’s Eye, a 1991 novel recently translated into English. I’m looking forward to translations of Champetier’s other work because The Dragon’s Eye is a superb, classic SF adventure story. It’s set on the planet of New China, a colony populated mainly by rural Chinese from Earth, trying to rebuild their culture away from the pernicious Western and Japanese technocratic notions that polluted old China. The novel’s title is the name given to the system’s extra star, a blue-white dwarf that floods the planet with extra UV radiation several times a week, making agriculture difficult and threatening the population with blindness and radiation burns.

The protagonist is Rejean Tanner, a Mandarin-speaking European spy sent to infiltrate the New Chinese main continent in search of a highly placed mole who’s disappeared. The spies are based out of the European Free Trade Area, an open economic zone on a nearby island, site of the European embassy and target of New Chinese separatist groups who want all Earthly influence out of the colony. Tanner’s appearance is cosmetically altered to look Asian, and he takes Jay Hamakawa, a Japanese agent of uncertain political sympathies, along with him. A war breaks out between New China and Earth in the middle of their mission and they suspect their boss may be plotting against them. The story’s atmosphere has a faint overlay of noir, coloured by Tanner and Hamakawa’s descent into New China’s demimonde, and there’s a (predictable) romantic subplot, but Champetier doesn’t let it get in the way of the story. The plotting is tight, the narrative fast-paced, the setting richly detailed, and the novel very readable.

For an overview of the current SF scene, nothing beats a good anthology. Northern Suns, the second compilation of Canadian SF from American anthologist David G. Hartwell and Canadian writer and critic Glenn Grant, is a stellar collection of fantastic tales by 21 Canadian writers, including CanLit stalwarts and young up-and-comers, representing a diverse array of styles and genres: alternate histories, vampire tales, cyberpunk, folklore, and classic SF.

The big names in the collection are Margaret Atwood, the late Robertson Davies, and W.P. Kinsella. Atwood’s story “Freeforall,” first published in the Toronto Star, gets Northern Suns off to a strong start. Davies’ contribution is from his 1982 collection of ghost stories, High Spirits. “Offer of Immortality” features an odd little manikin right out of a European fairy tale, who claims to be 400 years old and the possessor of the secret of eternal life. Kinsella’s “Things Invisible to See,” the weakest of the three, is a lightweight yet whimsical tale of a drifter hired to vacuum alien cultural influences out of North America’s first shipment of Japanese cars.

Worth noting among the newer writers are Sally McBride, editor of TransVersions, who tells a poignant tale of interspecies love with “The Fragrance of Orchids,” and Caribbean-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson, whose “A Habit of Waste” explores self-inflicted racism: a black woman who’s had herself put into a mass-produced white body sees a woman proudly “wearing” her old one on the streetcar, and wonders why she didn’t appreciate it more when it was hers.

Francophone writers make a strong showing as well. Alain Bergeron’s alternate history “The Eighth Register” posits a North America settled by the Holy Roman Empire, in which rival monasteries debate theological arcana with the aid of proto-computers. And Charles Montpetit ponders the future of Franglais in “Beyond the Barriers,” in which Montreal is overtaken by an epidemic of “Babel Syndrome,” a mental disorder causing people to lose the ability to distinguish between languages and start speaking multilingual gibberish.

Northern Suns shows beyond a doubt that when it comes to Canadian SF, resistance is futile.