Post Your Opinion
Opinion - Professionally Pulped
by Terence Green

I'M A CANADIAN, born and living in Toronto. My third book, Children of the Rainbow, was published by McClelland & Stewart in March, 1992. Everything leading up to the publication of Children of the Rainbow, as well as the curious trajectory that followed its release, has certainly provided me with the proverbial front-row seat from which to view the confusion in space and time where Canadian publishing transects speculative fiction. It has, in the vernacular, been a slice, a buzz, a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

And I think it's time somebody set a few things straight.

Admittedly, Children of the Rainbow utilized the literary conceit of time travel - a staple of the SF genre - by having two people displaced in time; nevertheless, to the editors at M&S who acquired and worked on the novel, the book had a distinctly different "feel" from traditional science fiction. I know this because they told me, and we discussed it often, trying to decide how to categorize it, how to present it - to both the book industry and to the readers. Because of this different "feel," and because of its clear anchorage in waters as diverse as those charted by Melville, Defoe, Swift, and even Beckett, there was genuine concern on the part of the editors that it not sink beneath the deluge of American science fiction that rolls across the border in such regular, indistinct waves.

And so in our wisdom, we agreed that the term "speculative fiction" should do the trick - alerting readers, browsers, reviewers, etc., that something slightly different might be afoot. After all, the term already had much widespread acceptance, and many illustrious proponents. Why, even the Toronto public library system boasts the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy -a collection of more than 50,000 items. Its head librarian, Loma Toolis, who is also a teacher and an editor in the field, tells me that there was a real desire, spearheaded by Judith Merril herself, to rename it the Merril Collection of Speculative Fiction, but that in a vote of the library's patrons, the present name won out due to its wider recognizability. In Ottawa, the specialty bookstore dedicated to the field, The House of Speculative Fiction, has been in operation for at least the decade that I have been aware of it. And as long ago as 1957, Robert A. Heinlein, the avatar of American SF, said in a lecture at the University of Chicago: "the term 'science fiction' is now part of the language ... we are stuck with it ... although personally I prefer the term 'speculative fiction' as being more descriptive."

I could bore you with pages of examples attesting to the roots and the growth of the term, among writers, editors, librarians, publishers and booksellers alike. Clearly, many think it an interesting alternative.

But why have so many cast about for an alternative?

And where did this term "science fiction" come from? (C. S. Lewis, in trying to analyse stories calling themselves science fiction, broke the term down into four sub-species, acknowledging vast differences between their intentions and achievements; the highest of these, which is the area of concern here, dealt with the imaginative impulse as old as the human race: to visit strange regions in search of beauty, awe, and terror.) Certainly, H. G. Wells's novels of ideas needed no unique name to describe them when they first appeared.

The fact is that "science fiction" emanated from one Hugo Gernsback, an American, in 1926. He founded the pulp magazine Amazing Stories, and coined the word "scientifiction" to describe its contents. The magazine became an immediate commercial success, and the label quickly evolved to become "science fiction." Gernsback, published stories that are virtually unreadable today - so poorly written and melodramatic are they - with the avowed intention of interesting young boys in scientific careers.

Do you feel the same shudder that I do?

It is difficult to discuss science fiction as a professional publishing field in Canada because it scarcely exists (sporadic forays from small presses: Beach Holme, nee Porcepic; Pottersfield), and the Canadian professional writers continue to publish it in the United States. But US publishing houses deal with it the same way that they deal with every other field: by categorization into genres. Science fiction, horror, fantasy, romance, mystery, western, men's action - even "best seller" is a category preordained by advertising and promotional budgets (& la Ivana Trump). This is the American Way.

The commercial genre that fills the racks of the science fiction section at your local bookstore is Uncle Hugo's grandchild. Or, seen another way, it is like the family-owned business that has grown successfully by offering a specific formula, that caters to a target market in the manner of a fast-food franchise.

Fast food often hits the spot. But it is not the same thing as sophisticated dining. And reviewing who has the best doughnut shop in town, as opposed to determining where one might wish to linger three or four times a year over exotic cuisine, is quite a different process.

Consider: Margaret Atwood pens The Handmaid's Tale, set in the future Republic of Gilead - the former United States, now an intolerable theocracy. In The Memoirs of a Survivor, Doris Lessing portrays a woman witnessing the end of urban civilization from her window. Martin Amis writes Time's Arrow, in which a man awakens from death and lives his life backwards as time flows in reverse.

Likewise, there is a difference between American genre science fiction, and books such as Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, Hugh MacLennan's Voices in Time and even Voltaire's Micromegas. Not to mention Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, J. G. Ballard's Memories of the Space Age, Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, Paul Theroux's O-Zone, C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Brian Moore's Catholics....

There is no label affixed to any of these books. They use time travel, the future, dystopias, alternate worlds, interplanetary travel -all the tropes and conventions of the genre - in telling their stories, and often end up in the science fiction section of your local bookstore. Yet books such as these, with significant literary aspirations, are clearly not within the commercial category known as science fiction. (Even John Updike, writing in The New Yorker, expressed puzzlement when trying to describe Martin Amis's Einstein's Monsters, finally settling on "science fictionish.")

And although the works of Atwood, Orwell, or Amis can be recognized for what they are, it was never as easy for someone like Philip K. Dick, whose books were all labelled science fiction during his lifetime. Only now are they being reissued by Vintage Books in mainstream format.

It's time to shake off Uncle Hugo's American publishing shackles.

A label is merely a convenience, often imprecise; but it is also an admission of distinction. Speculative fiction, simply put, is a different stream, mixing pigments from various genres, borrowing conventions for metaphoric utility, crossbreeding, and ultimately moving away from formula fiction into literature. Call it fantastic fiction, literary fantasy, visionary fiction, magic realism. Call it speculative fiction. Call it whatever you like. Just don't force it to be science fiction as defined by the American publishing industry.

Things just aren't that simple.

And oh, yes....

We were talking about my book, Children of the Rainbow, when we started this. Back to front-row centre.

Review copies were duly sent out and duly received. And the sad truth is that a lot of book review editors and reviewers are still wearing Uncle Hugo's American blinkers. This was not the case at Books in Canada (the reviewer, John Degen, wrote: "the book is most definitely a work of speculative fiction"), and Quill & Quire managed to find someone knowledgeable (R. John Hayes: "This speculative fiction is reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke but is less grounded in science, more in metaphysics, mythology, and mysticism"). At the Globe and Mail, on the other hand, Uncle Hugo's victory over our perceptions must be deemed complete. The book was handed to Jack Bell, editor of the Globe's FAXsummary and InfoFAX who, according to the copy accompanying a review, "finds science fiction a comfort in his declining years."

Rarely have I seen such a hatchet job. The sneering and self-righteous vitriol were astonishing. The review ended with the baroque observation, "And after all, the publisher did label the work 'speculative fiction'-- the literary equivalent of caveat emptor."

I licked my wounds, and life went on. Or so I thought. Within days I had received two phone calls from fellow writers saying that "this guy has done this before." Done what? I asked. Gone on the rampage over the term "speculative fiction" in a previous review.

I checked for myself. It was true. Jack Bell, to the best of my research, has reviewed a total of three books - all handed to him by the Globe's book-review editor as science fiction. He liked one, calling it a 1950s-style juvenile, and ranted about the other two, heaping scorn on the notion that anyone would dare to stray from the term science fiction, using the books as stones to grind his own personal axe. ("Speculative ... that fat and disappointing word.... There is no such genre as speculative fiction ... CanLit bafflegab....")

And thus is all our work as editors, publisher, and writer skewered in Canada's National Newspaper, by the shackles and blinders cited above.

M&S, in spite of its strong editorial enthusiasm for my work, decided that they couldn't sell "speculative fiction" by anyone much under the stature of an Atwood in Canada (even MacLennan's Voices in Time didn't fare as well as hoped), and after the experiment with my novel - within a month of Bell's review in the Globe (and prior to the Books in Canada review) - they decided to pass on involvement with my next book, which they had been sitting on for more than six months.

And so it goes.

Thus, born in Toronto, still living here, I've contacted an American agent and am returning, reluctantly, to the American market. We talk about a recession. We have a recession of perception and understanding here as well. And we are all cheated: publisher, writer, agent, bookseller. And reader.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us