Northern Dreamers:
Interviews with Famous Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Writers

254 pages,
ISBN: 1550822063

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Talking Speculative Fiction
by Mark Wegierski

As is appropriate for a work about speculative fiction, Northern Dreamers is a rather rare form of book-a collection of interviews. The term "speculative fiction" seems to be a Canadian innovation, a convenient catchword for describing science fiction, fantasy, and horror, as well as any combination thereof. Science fiction is a genre which allows us not only to speculate on, but also to cope with the onrushing acceleration which characterizes late modernity; fantasy typically offers us nostalgic invocations of a world of "less noise and more green", of high heroic ideals, to which our own world stands in sad contrast; horror delivers sharp jolts of thrills to us oversatiated late moderns.

Edo van Belkom, the interviewer, is himself a fairly well-known and respected player in this field, particularly in horror writing where he has published over 100 short stories. His most popular novel is Wyrm Wolf, a Bram Stoker Award finalist.

The authors, who appear in alphabetical order, are Nancy Baker, Lesley Choyce, Michael Coney, Charles de Lint, Candas Jane Dorsey, Dave Duncan, James Alan Gardner, William Gibson, Phyllis Gotlieb, Terence M. Green, Ed Greenwood, Tanya Huff, Monica Hughes, Guy Gavriel Kay, Nancy Kirkpatrick, W.P. Kinsella, Spider & Jeanne Robinson, Robert J. Sawyer, Elisabeth Vonarburg, Andrew Weiner, Michelle Sagara West, and Robert Charles Wilson. While this list may mean different things to different people, and while van Belkom gives little indication of how he arrived at it, the main criterion seems to have been the recognizability-factor.

The interviews follow a similar structure: what got the author interested in writing these genres; how the first short story or novel was sold; a discussion of the author's works and respective place in the genres; and, finally, works-in-progress or future projects.

Among the more prominent figures are William Gibson (who is credited with coining the term "cyberspace" and playing a major role in the Internet revolution), W.P. Kinsella (whose book, Shoeless Joe, became the hit baseball movie, Field of Dreams), and Robert J. Sawyer (who is the winner of nineteen major national and international science fiction awards and a tireless activist on behalf of Canadian SF).

In a development attesting to the increasing prominence of Canadians in speculative fiction, Sawyer was recently elected President of the SFWA (Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), the main professional body for both Canada and the U.S. His prolific output of so-called "hard SF" (well-researched extrapolation, usually of the near future) includes ten novels, including Illegal Alien and Factoring Humanity. He also co-edited (with his wife, Carolyn Clink, a recognized writer herself) the Canadian SF anthology, Tesseracts 6, and maintains a massive website. Sawyer comments in his interview: "As for a general prejudice against SF, it's still there, in spades... [T]here's a real tendency for SF to be pooh-poohed by the literati. In fact, I got tired of being told I wasn't literary...in large measure because I've never had a government grant...."

William Gibson's Neuromancer presents a vision very similar to that of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (loosely based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and was popular for a number of reasons. First, it just caught the wave of the emergence of the Internet. Second, it showed the path by which "computer geeks" could become "cool". Third, its strong human characters and emotions build a sense of a "gritty" and highly "lived-in" future that is both grunge and techno. Gibson would argue "that science fiction is actually always about the present or about the period in which it was written".

Probably the least known of the interviewees (except to "Dungeons and Dragons" enthusiasts) is Ed Greenwood, the creator of one of the game's "worlds", Forgotten Realms. Elisabeth Vonarburg, whose works are originally written in French, is the one representative from Quebec. Phyllis Gotlieb was for a long time practically the only well-known Canadian SF author. When asked about being seen as a more literary writer in the science fiction field, she remarks, pithily: "Yes, I can't help it. The love of words extends to it and I can't help being `exquisite.' And I have about 350 people who love my work, so I never had really good sales." Judith Merril, the doyenne of Canadian speculative fiction who passed away in 1997, would have greatly enjoyed this book, suggesting as it does that the genres have reached a certain degree of maturity.

If there is one major theme that runs through most of the interviews, it is the struggle for these genres to receive more mainstream support and respect. What are possibly among the greatest English-language works of the twentieth century, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, could be classified as speculative fiction; however, they are so effective that they are conventionally said to transcend the genre and become "high literature". In a famous address to a U.S. Navy graduating class, Robert Heinlein denounced the idea that these two works could somehow be construed as not being true science fiction.

Edo van Belkom's book also highlights interesting contrasts between Canadian "literary writing" and Canadian speculative fiction. Speculative fiction, which has far less government support and fewer subsidies, is more vital. The requirement that speculative fiction stand or fall based on its popular appeal has actually contributed to its well-being. As van Belkom points out, the three best-selling novels in Canada have been Gibson's Neuromancer, Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale-though it should be mentioned that Atwood apparently eschews identifying her dystopia as science fiction.

One may conclude from the appearance of this collection that Canadian speculative fiction is alive and well and flourishing. One probable reason that these genres do so well here is that Canada itself is going through an accelerated process of change. Canada is a place where the new world floods in, while the old world is ebbing away quickly. This may also be the reason that so many expatriate SF authors from the U.S. and Britain have found Canada so attractive. 

Mark Wegierski is a freelance writer who has published in Telos, The Next City, The World & I, and This World, among others.


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