Canadian Speculative Fiction

Afterword from Tesseracts5

An original anthology of
Canadian speculative fiction
Edited by
Robert Runté and Yves Meynard
December, 1996.

Tesseracts5 cover

Trouble Down the Mine

One of my colleagues, philosopher and musician Jane O'Dea, recently put it to me that artists are our civilization's canaries. Just as miners used to watch their canaries for signs that the air was becoming unbreathable, we rely on the keener sensibilities of our artists to recognize and articulate the danger signals before the rest of us have even recognized the potential trend. Reading the over four hundred submissions toTesseracts5 provided me with a pretty good overview of how Canada's speculative fiction writers view the world, and what they seem to be saying is, there 's trouble down the mine.

I mean, it's not as if Yves and I deliberately set out to choose the most bleak, depressing, downbeat stories we could find. Quite the contrary. But in contrast to mass market American sf which still largely embraces a belief in technology, progress, and the American Way, Canadian writers seem to have little faith in a bright tomorrow. They have seen the future, and it is run by Westray.

Partly, this underlying gloom reflects hard economic times: More and more citizens are living lives of quiet desperation as rapacious corporations lay off workers and governments cut funding to education, culture, and social programs at the very moment these protections are most needed. Partly, the loss of optimism reflects basic demographics: The baby-boomers -- whose disproportionate numbers have for fifty years dictated which themes will dominate popular culture -- have now reached middle age and their own mid-life crises. Partly, the growing negativity represents a reaction against the false optimism of the 50s and 60s: We know now that that era's "progress" was premised on unsustainable growth, and a technology that creates more problems than it solves. Perhaps most significant of all has been a growing disillusionment with our civilization's core values: Our view of the nuclear family, for example, has gone from Father Knows Best to the talk show's exposé of incest, abuse, and exploitation.

Whatever the underlying cause, Canadian writers seem to have tapped into a particularly rich vein, a seam of coal so dark that it can power the imagination in a way that sunshine and light never could. What is most striking about this vision is that no matter how dark the story, there is nevertheless often a subtle undercurrent of resigned optimism. Canadian writers may tend to start from the premise that things are awful, and about to get even worse, but their protagonists always seem to rise to the occasion -- to cope and endure. In Canadian sf, whether our heroes ultimately succeed is less important than that they undertake the struggle, that they find life and dignity in facing whatever confronts them. This contrasts sharply with the usual American motif in which winning is everything, in which the hero is a hero because he triumphed over impossible odds. American sf requires a happy ending because only a successful conclusion can justify the adventure 's hardships, and erase the pain of struggle. In Canadian sf, the struggle itself is what is important; because life is struggle, and when it 's over, it 's all over.

It behooves us, in these dark times, to listen to what our writers are trying to tell us. The appeal of Canadian sf lies in the recognition that things are not necessarily going to get any better than they are right now, but that we have it within us to cope with even worse. Instead of providing us with the easy -- and necessarily fleeting -- escape from our mundane lives found in most other mass market sf, Canadian sf empowers its readers by presenting us with a dark imagery more appropriate to the modern age: 'participaction ' as heroism; the bystander as adventurer; and the decline of civilization as 'interesting times '.

Fishing With A Bigger Net

Or at least, that was the trend I saw in this year 's submissions. Of course, by the time one has identified the current trend, the artists have already moved on (else what worth their role as visionaries?), so it would not surprise me in the least if future volumes in this series were filled entirely with humorous adventure stories or romantic poetry. Which is one reason a new editorial team is appointed each year. One of the drawbacks of a continuing anthology is that they often fall victim to a self -fulfilling prophecy: Writers examining the previous edition may assume that the publisher is looking for more of the same, and self-censor their submissions to conform to what they believeis that editor 's particular tastes. If Tesseracts is to be a true national showcase, however, it must reach beyond any one editor 's vision to encompass the full range of speculative fiction produced in this country. By appointing new editors each issue, Tesseract Books ensures that over the course of the series, the reader has the opportunity of samplimg the best of everything Canadian sf has to offer.

This is also the reason the Tesseract anthologies are always co-edited. An attempt is made to balance each editorial team for gender, region, and style to ensure that each volume is selected using as broad a net as possible. In the case of the current volume, Yves is from Quebec, I 'm from Alberta; Yves is an award -winning author, I 'm an academic. True, Yves and I are both male, but that balances the two females (Quebec novelist Elisabeth Vonnarburg and Governor General Award-winning translator, Jane Bierley) who co-edited TesseractsQ , the anthology of Canadian francophone sf in English translation, so it all comes out right in the end. Similarly, because neither Yves nor I are particularly comfortable editing poetry, the publishers made a point of seeking out an sf poet as one of next year 's co-editors: prize -winning Toronto poet, Carolyn Clink. While that would normally imply her co-editor be from the West, another exception seemed in order, given that Carolyn 's husband is none other than Nebula and Aurora winning author, Robert J. Sawyer. As one of Canada 's most successful sf authors, Sawyer was a natural choice to co-edit Tesseracts6 Submissions for Tesseracts6 will have closed by the time you read this, so I can also announce that the editors for Tesseracts7 will be Alberta author Paula Johanson and Quebec novelist Jean-Louis Trudel.

But You Should Have Seen The Ones That Got Away

Of course, the other reason for having two editors has nothing to do with providing a variety of perspectives: It 's so that each co-editor can blame the other whenever we meet one of the authors whose stories we had to reject. One of the greatest frustrations of editing this anthology was that we could only chose 35 stories and poems out of the more than 400 submitted. Every editorial team since the series began has complained that they had enough excellent material to fill another two volumes; but the page limit must be adhered to, and many wonderful stories had to be turned away. Many of these will find homes in other markets, especially now that Canada has at least three nationally distributed sf magazines: On Spec, Transversions, and Paradox. But it really hurts to have to say no, especially when many of the rejects are arguably just as good as those that made it in.

Naturally, the editors try to select the best, but quality is only the first criterion; nearly equal in importance is balance. For example, we received over forty stories (nearly 10% of the total) addressing the issue of physical or sexual abuse. Many of these were excellent, even outstanding, but much as we might have wanted to, one simply cannot fill the entire anthology with stories on a single theme and still present a representative sample of Canadian sf. (I was seriously tempted to organize a separate theme anthology around the issue of abuse, and we certainly had enough quality material to do it, but who would buy it? You thought this collection was bleak? My god! You have no idea what bleak is!) Thus, having selected three stories from this set that best fit with the rest of our anthology, we had no choice but to send the rest back, even though they were in nearly every respect as good as the ones we finally chose.

This, then, is the corollary of my original point that great writers tap into, and give voice to, current and future trends. Although each author 's treatment of the theme is unique and original, they are often mining the same vein of ore. What are the odds, for example, that two of the stories that made it into this year 's collection would both have "Dalai Lama" in the title? Indeed, there were a number of submissions that invoked Eastern religions, but is this just a coincidence, or does it reflect some actual shift towards cultural pluralism in a traditionally Eurocentric genre? Another apparent coincidence were a couple of fantasies which featured grandfathers sacrificing themselves to save the young protagonist. Then I realized that this was yet another aspect of the abuse theme: As we come to mistrust the nuclear family, grandparents re-emerge as the child 's only potential guardian.

Another common theme, though generally less well executed, was a rash of stories featuring some combination of prison and the new virtual reality technologies. I 'm inclined to class this one as an instant clichˇ, one of those ideas whose time has already past, but how could any of these authors be expected to recognize that fact unless they saw for themselves the other twenty-five submissions with nearly identical plot lines? There were even a couple of stories about something else entirely, but whose tone or style or vision overlapped with this group so that they felt like moreof the same, and were rejected. But how do I explain that to someone who wasn 't there? I mean, other than saying, "That had nothing to do with me, that was Yves!"

Lessons Learned

So, I at least, will never look at a rejection slip the same way again. I realize now, as no one who hasn 't taken a turn as editor ever could, just how big a role luck plays in all this. A writer can never know exactly what else an editor has on his or her desk at any particular time: One month there may be nothing but dinosaur stories, so "Commander Dino in Space" isn 't going anywhere; but a year later, a light comedy piece like "Commander Dino" could be exactly what the editor needs to balance out an otherwise overly serious issue. The important thing is to tap into something real, to get there first, and to keep the manuscript in circulation until it sells.

Which is not to suggest that all 400 submissions received were publishable; selecting the top 100 for our initial short list was fairly straight forward. Of the 300 initial rejections, less than 15% were actually poorly written, and even most of these seemed to be by potentially talented but inexperienced writers. A much larger percentage, say roughly half, were adequately written but had some particular flaw that forced their rejection: a good opening and middle, bu weak ending; or an excellent plot but a weakly developed setting; and so on.

(An aside to beginning writers: The most common flaw I encountered was expository lump, that annoying interruption in the action where the author feels it necessary to explain every blessed detail of the story 's background to the reader. You all know the scene I mean, where the dumb blonde asks our scientist hero how the warp drive works, and he obliges with a twelve paragraph treatise on physics. Such expository lumps not only destroy the flow of the story, they introduce an unnecessary challenge to the reader 's suspension of disbelief. Most readers could care less about the technical details of the Warp drive, but if the writer insists on telling them, they will pick that explanation to pieces. It is even worse when a writer tries to fill in some future history, since we all have our own models of the world and will brook no explanations whose politics are opposite our own. Worst of all, to create a situation in which one of the characters has a credible excuse for explaining all this unnecessary background to the reader requires such contortions that the story is invariably destroyed. Why for example, is our hero lecturing the other characters on the history of their own society, when logically they would already know all this themselves? Sorry, it won 't fly.

If you haven't written much sf before, it may be worth your while to track down a copy of Lin Carter 's 1957 short story, "Masters of the Metropolis". This brilliant satire has an average citizen getting up and going to work on a normal working day, but is written as if it were a futuristic hard-sf story. The workings of the toaster and the subway escalator are described in meticulous detail, with the oft repeated refrain, "and all this untouched by human hands!" After reading Carter 's story, no writer can fail to realize that the characters in their future or fantasy setting would take the world around them just as much for granted as we do ours. Consequently, it is neither credible nor necessary to get the characters to explain the world to the reader.)

For many of the stories in this half of the pile, I might well have been tempted to ask for a rewrite, had the opportunity been available. Unfortunately, the tight time lines for an annual anthology, and the constantly changing editorship precludes this option, even if we hadn 't already had a surplus of top quality entries. But one cannot help but feel that there is a vast army of talented writers waiting in the wings, just one or two rewrites from adding their voices to the national choir.

Finally, the other half of those that didn 't make the short list were the competently written, but routine stories. I can offer these writers little advice, because these stories often had no identifiable flaws, I simply didn 't find them memorable. Partly this is a matter of taste and chance, partly that no one writes winners every time. Undoubtedly many of these writers will see publication soon, if they haven 't already. I was frankly amazed that this group made up such a large proportion of the pile. I had no idea that there were so many promising writers entering the field. Twenty years ago I was hard pressed to identify half a dozen Canadian sf authors. Ten years ago, there were maybe 40 publishable sf authors, and another 50 or so developing in the wings. If the submissions to Tesseracts5 are any indication, both those numbers have doubled again. Clearly, Canada has now reached the critical mass of authors necessary to sustain an annual anthology, and Tesseracts has adopted the policy that-- all other considerations being equal -- 20% of each volume will be devoted to new authors. If that seems unrealistic, consider that almost half of the stories you have just finished reading are by authors published here for the first time. However dark the vision of our writers, the future of Canadian speculative fiction itself has never been brighter.

© Robert Runté, 1997.