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Fourth Edition
Edited by Robert Runté


A Very Brief Introduction

by Robert Runté

NOTE: This essay is reprinted from the third edition (1989) and has yet to be updated.
Canadian sf is in the midst of explosive growth. In the last two decades Canadian writers have gone from a nearly invisible minority in sfWA to a clearly defined presence in the genre. Since 1979 there have been 10 major Canadian sf anthologies and over 100 novels. 1979 saw the publication of the first major bibliography of Canadian science fiction and fantasy. 1980 saw the first Canadian Science Fiction And Fantasy Achievement Awards (now the Auroras), presented at the first national Canadian sf convention (CanVention). The first Canadian sf newsletter was published in 1981. The first national sf writers' workshop was held in 1986. The first credible Canadian sf imprint was announced in 1988. Each development has created new opportunities for both writers and readers, as Canadians become aware of their contributions to the genre and the distinctive voice of Canadian literature.

The roots of the current explosion in Canadian sf may be traced back to Other Canadas: An Anthology of Science Fiction And Fantasy, edited by John Robert Colombo (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979). This was the first anthology of Canadian science fiction, and included excerpts from 4 novels, 17 short stories, 27 poems by 13 poets, 2 critical essays, 1 "prophetic" essay, 1 film script, and a brief annotated bibliography. As with any anthology, the quality of the material was uneven, but it did provide an excellent overview of Canadian sf and fantasy, including a good deal of historical material unavailable elsewhere.

The same year, Colombo collaborated with Michael Richardson, John Bell, and Alexandre L. Amprimoz on CDN sf & F (Toronto: Houndslow Press, 1979), the first major bibliography of Canadian science fiction and fantasy. An 85 page trade paperback, it lists over 600 books.

Both books generated a good deal of controversy when they were originally released. On the one hand, critics complained that the definition of "Canadian" adopted by Colombo and associates was too broad. As one critic put it, anyone who had flown over Canada in a rocket was claimed as "Canadian" and included in both the anthology and bibliography. Colombo argued that since both were pioneering works, it was better to err in favour of inclusion rather than risk missing someone. Colombo further claimed that we could learn almost as much about our national identity from the work of non-Canadians writing sf/F about us, as we could from the home-grown variety. Most critics, however, dismissed the inclusion of works by foreign nationals as mere padding, an attempt to make our contribution to the field seem larger than it really was.

On the other hand, these two works provided ammunition to Canadian nationalists who argued that there was a distinctive Canadian science fiction. Padded or not, a bibliography with six hundred titles came as a major shock to most Canadians, who up until then would have been hard pressed to name even two Canadian sf authors. As part of our national inferiority complex, most Canadian sf readers simply assumed that science fiction was something written by and about Americans.

Furthermore, by analyzing the stories collected, Colombo identified four characteristics of Canadian speculative fiction in his preface to Other Canadas: (1) the "Polar World"; (2) the "National Disaster Scenario"; (3) the theme of the "Alienated Outsider"; and (4) the "prevalence of Fantasy over Science Fiction".

The first may be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that practically anyone writing about the North Pole was considered by Colombo to be writing "Canadian" science fiction, but the other three are certainly characteristically Canadian.

Canadians have never really believed that this improbable country could work, so the "National Disaster Scenario" is almost second nature: pieces of the country are always threatening to separate, fall to the Americans, run out of energy, be eaten by glaciers, or otherwise fall apart.

Similarly, with practically every Canadian belonging to a minority group different from that of their neighbours, the "Alienated Outsider" is all of us. About the only thing Canadians have in common is the vague feeling that whatever is important in the world, it isn't to be found here.

The "prevalence of Fantasy over sf" is similarly explained by the fact that, unlike the nation of pragmatic technocrats to the south, we tend to be more concerned with preserving our past--our separate cultural heritages--than with our somewhat dubious future. Perhaps we take to fantasy because many of us are haunted by the ghosts of our ancestors (who are doomed to wander the great Canadian wastes forever asking, "Who am I, what am I doing in this wretched wilderness, and what exactly is a Canadian anyway?!") We are relative newcomers to industrialization and so it is only recently that Canadian writers have embraced the technological hardware which is the mainspring of science fiction. This may now be changing, as writers like William Gibson redefine what technology is about.

[As an aside, "hard" sf is arguably an American genre. For example, the quintessential story in John W. Campbell's Analog (for over 30 years the dominant American publisher) had an engineer land on a planet, be confronted with a technological problem, solve it, and thus make space safe for America. The British, by contrast, tended to write more downbeat, dystopian fiction, with only the occasional foray into "Empire" sf. The "New Wave" sf of the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, found its home in the British magazine, New Worlds. Until the recent renaissance, Canadian sf tended to read as if written by a British author who had taken an American correspondence course from the Famous Writers' School, but failed for not including enough sex and violence.]

One other observation which emerged from Colombo's work was that Canadian authors moved easily from the mainstream to sf and back again. Practically every Canadian author has written at least one sf story. In contrast, few American mainstream authors attempt to write sf, and American sf authors often find it impossible to break out of sf ghetto and into the mainstream. This sort of stereotyping has never been a problem for Canadian authors, perhaps because being a Canadian is itself a marketing category. Isolated in the Canadiana section, there simply wasn't room for a separate sf shelf.

The downside of this was that few Canadian sf readers were aware of Canadian sf, since it was seldom marketed as sf. Until the publication of Other Canadas brought several of these stories together in one volume, they languished unread in various Canadian small press literary magazines. The upside was that Canadian sf included a higher proportion of "respectable literature", being written by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Phyllis Gotlieb, Margaret Laurence, and Steven Scobie.

The next major push in the current Canadian sf boom was the publication of Tesseracts in 1985. (Victoria: Press Porcépic) This original anthology edited by Judith Merril contained short works by 30 Canadian authors. Not only did it make us aware of how many writers we had working in the genre, it struck a responsive chord in many Canadian readers: this was sf as it reflects our culture, our issues and themes, our Canadian consciousness. A critical success, it was a Canadian best seller and quickly sold out. This first issue of Tesseracts launched the careers of several of our best new writers, and remains a "must read" for any Canadian. A mass market paperback edition is planned for 1989 release.

A second volume, Tesseracts2, edited by Phyllis Gotlieb and Doug Barbour, came out in 1987 with another 20 stories and 4 poems. Although not as well received as the first volume, it was still a critical success and sold well.

Encouraged by this success, Press Porcépic announced a new sf line in 1988, starting with a mass market edition of Tesseracts, an English translation of Elisabeth Vonarburg's award winning novel, Le Silence de la Cité, and a collection of Candas Jane Dorsey's short stories, Machine Sex. This new Tesseracts Books imprint, later transfered to the Books Collective (Edmonton), provided a steady market for Canadian sf, and helped push it into the limelight where it belongs.

The Aurora Awards (originally the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Achievement Awards, nicknamed the Caspers), founded in 1979, are also an important indicator of the Canadian sf boom. Ten years ago many Canadians scoffed at the early Auroras as narrowly parochial (even though the Americans, British, Australians, Germans, Japanese, etc., had all had their own national awards for decades.) and questioned the need for an award when there were so few potential recipients. By focusing attention on Canadian sf, however, the Auroras have contributed to the recognition of the large (but formerly invisible) Canadian contribution to the genre, and perhaps even to the actual growth of the Canadian presence. Today the Auroras have been expanded from one award to ten, and there is no shortage of quality material vying for nomination.

Note: The preceeding was reprinted from the 3rd Edition (1989) and has not been updated. An update is forthcoming.

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