Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy

by David Ketterer,
228 pages,
ISBN: 0253331226

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First Word on the Subject
by R Hadji

UNTIL QUITE recently, the suggestion that a peculiarly Canadian science fiction and fantasy exists would have met with a response similar to that of the apocryphal Portuguese navigator who first overlooked these shores: ca nada (nothing here). There have in fact been more than 1,200 such works since 1839, and David Ketterer's chronological overview maps out what has hitherto been terra incognita to all but a few. He is well suited to the task, being an internationally respected scholar in SF studies, as well as having contributed a pioneering article on the subject to the Oxford Guide to English Literature some 10 years back. French and English, CanLit and pulp SF, adult and juvenile, all are gathered between these covers, albeit the broad range of material seems less to form a distinct genre than to indicate a recognizable presence within a larger body of fiction: a familiar voice from the attic, to paraphrase Robertson Davies, faint at first but growing stronger.

Ketterer makes no understatement in saying "it is not easy to draw conclusions from the very disparate material ... that this book surveys." He makes a good start by defining his terms for the maddeningly nebulous science fiction and fantasy, then wades into the densely packed mass of data wielding a saving sense of proportion. He selects seminal authors and works for detailed critiques, while relegating dozens of "relevant Canadian texts" to brief notations. In its exhaustive thoroughness, Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy sets out an indispensable resource for future scholars, yet the dry recitation, particularly in the earlier sections, may daunt all but the dedicated. Surveys, however, must cover the muskeg as well as the mountaintops.

Ketterer has no difficulty identifying works of merit within Canadian speculative fiction, from James De Mille's A Stiange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), which is "as much an originator of Canadian SF as Frankenstein is of world SF," to Howard O'Hagan's Tay John (1939) and Wayland Drew's The Wabeno Feast (1970), both of which incorporate a mythic sense of "primeval Canadian landscape." Ketterer acknowledges the underrated Phyllis Gotlieb as a "key figure" in defining a Canadian sensibility within the SF field, going so far as to state that "...from the sixties to the early eighties, [she] was Canadian SE" If so, it was a splendid isolation, as so many of her "Canadian" contemporaries were clearly expatriates working in the United States, or American and British emigrants working in foreign markets.

Perhaps the most novel feature of Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy is the revelation, at least to an anglo readership, of an enduring tradition of fantastique fiction in Quebec that often seemed a step ahead of developments elsewhere in Canada, culminating in the emergence of a dynamic science fiction Quebecois in the mid-'70s. Many works cited will be unfamiliar to all save bilingual specialists, yet their inclusion is essential to any proper understanding of the material. Between these covers the two solitudes are, if not matched, at least well met. It is interesting, and ruefully familiar, to note that, while regional distances and differences perpetuated a cross-border axis in English-language SF until quite recently, a sense of Quebecois identity coalesced some 20 years ago around the SF journals Requiem/Solaris and imagine..., soon giving rise to a fully professional infrastructure.

The latter half of Ketterer's study is largely devoted to the upsurge, in both quantity and quality, of Canadian specutative fiction in the mid-'80s, when such works as William Gibson's Neuromancer, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Elisabeth Vonarburg's Le silence de la cite, and Guy Gavriel Kay's The Summer Tree, to name but a few, garnered international critical and popular acclaim. Ketterer suggests that this sudden viability of genre fiction may be "largely attributable to the dissolution of the realistic paradigm." While Ketterer's analysis may account for an increased willingness within the mainstream to explore non-realistic modes, it does not adequately explain the unprecedented proliferation of young professional speculative fiction writers, many of whom acknowledge market forces far more than aesthetic considerations. The writers themselves may well provide the answer to the researcher insightful enough to discern a pattern in their common experience.

Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy is by no means the last word on the subject; rather, it is the first, the starting point to further studies. The incidence of factual error is low over all (though "the late Frank Shuster" may be surprised to hear of his premature demise), and the conclusions drawn are balanced and sound, if open to question. As indeed they should be. Ketterer has produced a standard reference that will be supported, contradicted, supplemented, corrected and, eventually, superseded. Like its subject, what it will not henceforth be is overlooked. Ca nada no more.


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