cover image The NCF Guideto
CANADIAN
SCIENCE
FICTION

and Fandom

Fourth Edition
Edited by Robert Runté

backhomenext


CANADIAN sf BOOK REVIEWS
by various reviewers

Index

Reviewed by Keith Soltys, reprinted from NCF Reviewed by Paula Johanson, reprinted from Under the Ozone Hole

John Robert Colombo (editor) Friendly Aliens

Hounslow Press [124 Parkview Ave., Willowdale, Ontario M2N 3Y5] 1991, 181 pp.

Author and anthologist John Robert Colombo has long been interested in Canadian science fiction and fantasy. He has compiled and edited the first anthology (Other Canadas) and the first bibliography (CDN sf & F) of Canadian sf and fantasy as well as Not To Be Taken At Night, a collection of Canadian tales of mystery and the supernatural, and Years of Light about the Canadian fan Leslie Croutch.

Friendly Aliens is a companion volume to the earlier anthology, Other Canadas but takes a somewhat different tack. It's an anthology of sf and fantasy written by non-Canadians and set in Canada. As might be expected, the view of Canada presented in these stories is decidedly strange. Colombo says in his introduction that Canada is seen as a dark and haunted land populated by mythic and often deadly creatures. August Derleth's "The Thing That Walked On The Wind" is based on the myth of the Wendigo while Chelsea Quinn Yarbo's "Swan Song" uses Scandinavian myths to chilling effect.

The vastness of the north invites tales of lost races as in A.E. Merritt's "People Of The Pit" and John Russell Fearn's "Arctic God". Not all the settings though are uniquely Canadian. Vincent Starrett's "The Tattooed Man" could just as easily have been set in New York as Toronto.

Stories by Algernon Blackwood, Jack London, Robert W. Chambers, H.F. Lovecraft, George Allan England, M.P. Shiel and James Tiptree are also included. Few of the stories have much literary merit though they remain interesting when placed in historical context. Colombo has thoughtfully included a brief bibliographic and biographic introduction with each story.

Only two of the stories are from the 1970's, while the earliest, Jack London's "A Relic Of The Pliocene", dates from 1901. The anthology might have been more readable had Colombo tried to include some more contemporary material.

Colombo has also included a 1942 essay by Donald Wolheim called "Wither Canadian Fantasy". Wolheim says that Canadian sf writers should try to create a different kind of sf from that being written in the US or Britain "Canadian science fiction thus must find itself. It must learn to create its own vision based on its own tomorrows; it must think out in advance the features of its world during the next centuries. Sing of the triumphs that shall come when that frontier is crossed and conquered. Canadian writers must cease trying to imitate American or British writing, they must find themselves and use the vision which Canada itself supplies them." It's been forty years since that essay was written but the points that Wolheim raises are still being discussed today in the pages of this and other magazines.

As an anthology of fiction, Friendly Aliens isn't very successful. Most of the stories are either bad, or dated, or both. It's much more interesting as a collection of historical curiosities and if your interests lie in this area, then give it a try.

[Reviewed by Keith Soltys, reprinted from NCF Vol 1, # 6, January 1983. A shorter version of this review appeared in the May 1982 issue of Science fiction & Fantasy Book Review.]

Return to Colombo in Author Listings


MICHAEL CONEY CAT KARINA

Ace., New York, 1982, 294pp.

I suspect that readers may be put off by books that cross over clearly defined genre lines --- if the manuscripts ever get past the publishers in the first place. That would be unfortunate if it caused them to miss books like Michael Coney's latest novel, Cat Karina. Its setting (the far future) and background, elements (genetic manipulation and lost technology) make it sf, but in tone and style it owes much more to fantasy.

About 125,000 years in the future humans share the Earth with the specialists, a number of genetically engineered races. The specialists include the cai-men descended from the shrugleggers descended from some long forgotten race, and the cat-like felinos. They live together relatively peacefully in a social system that has remained stable and technologically stagnant for thousands of years.

Towns are linked together by windpowered ship-like vehicles riding wooden rails. One day Karina, a young felino, falls from a sailcar and breaks her leg. She is rescued by a mysterious. Human woman who heals Karina and tells her that she will play a major role in the history of the various races.

Meanwhile, a young human engineer rebels against the age old prohibition against using metal and builds a sailcar faster than a running mule. This threatens to upset the delicate balance of power between the various races. Karina’s father leads a bloody rebellion by the felinos and Karina finds herself caught up in a series of events that eerily echo the prophecy of the mysterious woman.

Coney has made intelligent use of myth and legend to give Cat Karina a richness and resonance that no plot summary can convey. This is matched by the inventiveness and detail of his setting. The following describes the tump, an elephant-like food animal:

"The Song of Earth makes little mention the tump. It is not a flamboyant animal. It does not capture the imagination of the listener in the way that the kikihuahua space bats do, with their thousand kilometre wingspan; or the beacon hydras whose roots have been known to permeate an entire planet and throw it into a new orbit. No, the tump is a dull lump of meat. On the happentrack of our story it is doomed — although, as you will hear, there are happentracks on which the tump thrived and multiplied."

The emphasis on myth and legend does tend to distance the reader from the characters. They become archtypes rather than real people and this, coupled with a number of narrative shifts, weakens the impact of the book. A tighter focus an Karina would have avoided some of these problems.

There are some interesting similarities between Cat Karina and Crawford Kilian's Eyas. Both books share the setting of a distant future Earth, peopled by multiple races arising from genetic engineering. Both assume that mankind will go to space and return, abandoning technology for a pastoral existence. Both are vividly written and inventive. Eyas is wider in Scope while Cat Karina has a denser and richer narrative. There are also, parallels between these two books and Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun and Terry Carr's unjustly neglected Cirque. Perhaps we are seeing here the birth of yet another sub-genre of sf.

I enjoyed Cat Karina, with some reservations.

Michael Coney is a British-born author now living in British Columbia. Of his previous novels, I would particularly recommend Charisma and The Jaws That Bite, The Claws That Catch.

[Reviewed by Keith Soltys, reprinted from NCF Vol 1, # 6, January 1983. ]

Return to Coney in Author Listings

William Gibson, Count Zero

Arbor House, New York, 1986 (Also serialized in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Jan.-March 1986)

William Gibson gained a lot of attention last year when his first novel, Neuromancer, won the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards. It was almost certainly the best first sf novel since Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. Now he's followed it up with a strong second novel, Count Zero, recently serialized in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (their first serial) and soon to be published by Arbor House.

Count Zero isn't really a direct sequel to Neuromancer, though it takes place in the same setting a few years later. Once again Gibson explores the strange world of the 'cowboys', computer hackers who explore the Net, the consensual hallucinatory experience of mind linkage with the world's linked databases.

Gibson expands his scope somewhat here, telling the story from the point of view of three difference characters. Turner is a corporate mercenary recovering from a near-fatal attack when he is summoned to assist in the corporate defection of a computer scientist who has developed the first successful bio-chips. Meanwhile, Bobby Newmark, a young cowboy, almost dies on his first journey into the Net when he is rescued by a mysterious, virginal figure. In Brussels, Marly Krushkova, the former owner of a Parisian art gallery, is summoned by Josef Virek, one of the world's wealthiest men, who wants her to discover the source of a strange, haunting, art work. All three main characters become linked through the mystery of just what saved Bobby from death on his trip into the Net.

Like Neuromancer, Count Zero is fast paced, and told in a style that mixes elements of Hemmingway, William Burroughs and Dashiel Hammett. Gibson has Heinlein's knack for building up a convincing picture of a world from a few well chosen details. The novel's opening paragraph provides a good example:

"They set a slamhound on Turner's trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street named Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. It's core was a _kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT."

I didn't get the same kind of rush from reading Count Zero that I did from Neuromancer, though that's probably due to the familiarity of the style and setting. I did read it through in one sitting, it's a compulsively readable novel. It doesn't break new ground but it does show a growth in Gibson's skill as a writer and bodes well for his future.

[Reviewed by Keith Soltys, reprinted from NCF]

BACK to Gibson entry in Author Listings list.


Crawford Kilian Eyas

Seal. Books, Toronto, 354pp.

The passage of ten million years has wrought many changes on the Earth and its inhabitants. Vancouver Island is an island no longer; a narrow channel separates it from the mainland to the South and the Straits of Georgia are a tranquil bay. Several tribes of fishermen live in villages scattered around the bay.

One day a fisherman spots a strange ship racing through the channel from the ocean hotly pursued by another ship. The ship sinks with, only three of its crew being rescued: a noblewoman, a young boy and a baby. The boy, Brightspear, is heir to the throne of- the Suns, his people from the south. He and Eyas (the baby) grow up in one of the fishing villages until Brightspear tries to rape a young girl ant is banished from the tribe. He returns some time later at the head of an army of the Suns; having regained his heritage he is bent on revenge

Such a brief summary makes Crawford Killian's Eyas sound like one of the many formulaic heroic fantasies currently polluting the newsstands. In this case appearances are deceptive for EYAS is a fine solid science fiction novel. Kilian does use many of the techniques of the heroic fantasy novel — the enmity between fosterlings, the epic quest, the setting in the decadent remnants of a great civilization — but there is no magic and the few elements of the fantastic are used sparingly.

Eyas and Brightspear battle each other in a quest for control of a continent peopled by the creatures of mythology: centaurs, the winged Windwalkers. and the feline lotors.

Guided by visions from the dead, Eyas eventually leaves the Earth to visit the long lost Skyland.

Kilian has pulled off a neat trick with this book. A book, that is, at first glance an epic fantasy gradually metamorphosizes into a hard science fiction novel. Eyas shares some elements of Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle -- the epic scope, the richly detailed setting, the dead guiding the living in dreams — but in Eyas the science fiction elements become much more prominent.

The one major flaw of the book is length. Like Silverberg, Kilian has a tendency to get caught up in the wonders of his newly created world. Unlike Silverberg, he isn't a master of prose style and doesn't quite pull it off. If the book had been 25% shorter it might have been a lot more than 25% more effective.

As it is, Eyas is more than mildly entertaining but less than a masterpiece It does show definite growth in skill over Kilian’s earlier two books, The Empire of Time and Icequake.

Crawford Kilian currently teaches English at Capilano College in North Vancouver. He has written children's books, radio plays and a highly regarded history, Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia.

[Reviewed by Keith Soltys, reprinted from NCF Vol 1, #6, January 1983]

BACK to Kilian entry in Author Listings list.


Crawford Kilian Tsunami

Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, BC; 218 pp.; hardcover; ISBN 0-88894-366-0

Crawford Kilian is a Vancouver writer who is best known in sf circles for his novels The Empire of Time and Eyas. Commercially, though, a disaster novel, Icequake is probably his best known book.

Tsunami shares the same setting as Icequake but is not a direct sequel. Sometime in the near future the core of the sun has gone out. The ozone layer has been wiped out by solar flares. Whites risk almost instant sunburn and blindness from the high ultraviolet levels.

The story begins where Icequake left off, with the melting of the antarctic icecape and the protagonist on the Bay Bridge in San Fransico watching a tsunami roll over the Golden Gate. The wave wreaks havoc on a city already damaged by recession and food and energy shortages. The crew of an oceanographic vessel try to organize a mission to salvage the oil from a sunken tanker. Kilian intercuts their story with that of a group of Hollywood movie people who set up a stronghold much like that in Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer. In their struggle to survive they develop into a quasi-feudal fiefdom fighting the oceanographers for the oil.

Kilian paints a grim and all too plausible picture of a society brought to its knees by a series of natural disasters. (Perhaps his living in Vancouver has influenced him for that city fares much better than San Francisco.) Yet he's created characters who refuse to give up hope. Like some of Heinlein's characters they are ordinary people thrust into abnormal situations; people who discover that they may die but at least they are going to die trying.

The scope of this novel isn't as wide as Kilian's last novel, Eyas. Like that book it shares the author's eye for detail and strong characterization. Kilian is a writer worth reading and Tsunami is a cut above the usual hackwork that characterizes the disaster novel genre. It's fair to say that based on his four sf novels to date that he's one of the best sf writers to come out of Canada.

[Reviewed by Keith Soltys, reprinted from NCF]

BACK to Kilian entry in Author Listings list.


Judith Merril, Tesseracts

Press Porcepic, 1985, 292 pages.

There have been other anthologies of Canadian sf but Tesseracts is the most ambitious and the first with a national scope to concentrate on contemporary writers. It's a measure of the growth of Canadian science fiction that an anthology like this should not only be possible but is a commercial success.

It's only fitting that Judy Merril's first anthology in seventeen years should be an anthology of Canadian sf. Merril moved to Canada in the mid-sixties, helped to found Toronto's Spaced Out Library,[now the Merril Collection -Ed.] and has been a prominent figure in Canadian literary and science fiction circles ever since.

Tesseracts is a handsome book, a quality trade paperback with a striking cover, containing stories and poems by 31 writers. Merril has selected from a wide range of sources. The commercial mainstream of science fiction is represented by reprinted stories by Spider Robinson, William Gibson, Michael Coney and Phyllis Gotlieb. Many of the stories and poems come from the literary "little" magazines. About half of the contributions are published here for the first time and several were translated from the French..

Readers expecting an anthology of commercial mainstream sf are going to be in for a surprise, though anyone familiar with Merril's anthologies from the 1960's will feel right at home here. There are a wide variety of styles, themes and ideas and more than a few stories that would have been called experimental a decade or two ago.

In her afterword Merril relates a conversation with her daughter who said, about science fiction, "It's the only place where you can do any useful thinking about the idea that there might not be a future". Merril goes on to say, "And of course that's what most of this book is about: the children finding ways to grow up, the parents trying to help them. I didn't plan it that way; it's just that those were the stories that seemed to work."

Two of the book's strongest stories fit this theme. Elisabeth Vonarburg's 'Home From the Sea' and Terence M. Green's 'The Woman Who Was the Midnight Wind' feature strong portrayals of parent/child relationships in a difficult world. [Editor's note:See also Paula Johanson's article Parent Child Relationship in Canadian sf.]

Other writers rely on humour or pointed satire. Benjamin Freedman's 'On the Planet Grafool' and Robert Zend's 'An Adventure in Miracle Land' turn common ideas on their heads, with pointed effect. Susan Swan's 'The Man Doll' is a wickedly funny look at the relationship between the sexes.

It's unfortunate that the best known Canadian sf writers are represented by reprints, though Merril has selected strong stories. William Gibson's 'Hinterlands', Spider Robinson's 'God is an Iron' and Phyllis Gotlieb's 'Tauf Aleph' are all representative of the authors' best work.

Tesseracts should get high marks as a literary event. The book was launched at Harbourfront's prestigious International Festival of Authors and has received a good deal of media attention. It will no doubt become a staple of Canadian sf and Canlit courses. Yet, I found it something of a disappointment as a reading experience. Too many of the stories seemed to bog down in self conscious stylistic devices that tended to alienate from the story they were trying to tell.

Still, Tesseracts gives good value for the dollar. It's an important book that deserves to be widely read.

[Reviewed by Keith Soltys, reprinted from NCF]

BACK to Merril entry in Author Listings list.


Judith Merril Daughters of Earth

McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1985, 383 pages

Merril's skill as an anthologist has tended to overshadow her reputation as a writer. As well, she hasn't been prolific in recent years. She has written some stories that truly deserve to be called classics and now her best work has been collected in a volume called Daughters of Earth.

In the title story, and in stories like 'That Only a Mother', 'The Shrine of Temptation' and 'Peeping Tom', Merril shows an empathy and skill with characterization that few writers in the genre can match. This is a valuable and long overdue collection.

BACK to Merril entry in Author Listings list.


back home next


This page last updated: June 21, 2000

.