“Out of this forest of mixed motives, out of this nation of enclaves, there has been coming for years now a fine, varied, growing, unique literature of speculation.”
— Candas Jane Dorsey
Northern Stars, first published in 1994, to coincide with the Canadian-hosted World Science Fiction Convention, begins and ends with two essays on sci-fi in Canada by figures pivotal in the development of this literary niche in the Great White North — Judith Merril and Candas Jane Dorsey. In the opening essay, reprinted from the afterword to Tesseracts, the first major anthology dedicated solely to Canadian sci-fi authors, which Merril edited in 1985, she lays out the explosive history of how the genre came from having barely a couple representative writers in the country before the ’70s to her receiving over 400 manuscripts from around 140 active sci-fi writers when she sent out a call for submissions to Tesseracts.
Even though she claims to be a “poor scholar, […] not at all a historian”, her account of key moments in Canadian sci-fi history, such as the declaration of science fiction to be a suitable pursuit for scholars by the Modern Language Association in 1968, her establishment of the Spaced Out Library at the Toronto Public Library in 1970, and the publication of North by 2000, by H.A. Hargreaves in 1975, widely seen as the first book specifically labelled as Canadian Science Fiction, is lucid and informative. With the historical foundations of Canadian sci-fi laid out, the anthology opens up into a rich collection of futuristic landscapes, impressionistic vignettes, chilling accounts and twisted fairy-tales, all carefully chosen to provide the best overview of contemporary Canadian science fiction.
In line with all fiction in this genre, most stories tend to take some “what if” idea and grow human life around them, exploring the stories that would emerge if people inhabited a world somehow different from our own. In “Mother Lode”, Phyllis Gotlieb places her characters in a gargantuan living spaceship used to mine precious materials scattered around space, and delves into what would happen if these living machines had the capacity to develop an emotional bond with the crews manning them.
In “Under Another Moon”, a story that straddles the line between sci-fi and fantasy, Dave Duncan lays out a world in which every person changes sex as they grow — starting from sex-less children they become women as they age, turning into men after menopause and finally reverting to their original sex-less state as they turn into “elders”. The spectrum of “what if” ideas explored in this anthology is truly impressive and encompasses both the hard sciences and the soft.
Tonally, the anthology offers a lot to choose from. While quite a few narratives are focused on contemplative characters brooding over the unenviable necessities of surviving in the desolate landscapes of the future, they’re balanced by stories that talk of hope, compassion, and the possibility of love in loveless environments. In Robert Charles Wilson’s “Ballads in ¾ Time”, two human beings born in test tubes and condemned to a life of slavery defy their master and break out of their fate to carve out a small niche of happiness in a cold world that is indifferent to their suffering. A few chapters prior, Andrew Weiner’s “Distant Signals” provides a warm-hearted tale of the unexpected revival of an obscure, forgotten TV show that, at the time of its original airing, had failed to garner anything resembling an audience on Earth.
While many stories ask the reader to take them at face value, some are obviously meant to be satirical. In “User Friendly”, Spider Robinson plays on the stereotypical dichotomy between the self-importance of Americans and the altruistic kindness of Canadians in a story about an American driving half-way across the continent to visit his old Canadian roommate after a tragic set of events. Meanwhile, Michael G. Coney’s “The Byrds” features a hilarious account of how a seemingly senile grandmother inspires a whole town of people to take to the skies with anti-gravity belts and pretend to be birds, in prose that manages to be witty without being too full of itself.
A running question that every second story in this anthology asks is what kind of society the looming cataclysm of global warming is likely to leave behind. While the authors have different ideas about how devastating climate change is likely to be, most agree that the planet will be completely unrecognisable after it rears its searing, post-global-warming head. Interesting regional perspectives show up in the work of authors who place these narratives in North America and explore how contemporary relations between Mexico, the United States and Canada, as well as inter-Canadian tensions, will shape this future. Disconcertingly, not a single one envisions the US surviving the ravages of climate change as a cohesive society…
Despite being distinctly Canadian sci-fi (“We have a penchant for “mood pieces” that some conflict-obsessed American editors have been known to reject as “nonstories” in which “nothing happens”), most authors contained in this anthology do not veer away from the allure of depicting their futures as being run by sinister, authoritarian, inhumane forces, a staple idea that seems to be on the minds of any author imagining the future, no matter their country of origin. In Eileen Kernighan’s “Carpe Diem”, this force requires people deemed unhealthy to be put to death, their body parts scavenged for bits and pieces of still-healthy tissue. Claude-Michel Prevost, in a diary-style account of a fictional Greenpeace activist, embodies this force in a paramilitary megacorporation bent on stripping Canada of all green life.
Disaffection, alienation, a search for lost compassion, and the mechanical, cold reality of passionless sex are just a few of the themes linking many of the stories contained in Northern Stars. Far from feeling constricted by the geographical limitation of having only Canadian sci-fi stories, this anthology shines through with diversity in both form and content, serving as a great overview of contemporary Canadian science fiction as it stood in 1994, a must-have for any literature nerd worthy of that title.
“In short, Canada itself is a continent-spanning megaproject on a truly science-fictional scale. Perhaps Canada is a work of science fiction.” — Glenn Grant. (Correction:
PopMatters had erroneously attributed this quote to Judith Merril when this article originally published.)