Five Canadian speculative fiction titles for literary readers
Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town: Alan’s father was a mountain and his mother a washing machine, and he lives in Kensington Market, blanketing the neighbourhood with free pirate WiFi, trying to protect Mimi, the winged girl next door, from her abusive boyfriend, and defending his youngest brother, who is a set of nesting dolls, from their dead, wicked sibling—who’s been resurrected and is coming for him.
And all this, which should feel chaotic and undisciplined and wild, fits seamlessly into one of the most sobering, moving, beautifully crafted books I’ve ever read, rawly, complicatedly emotional and luminous, with a million true and contradictory and conflicted things to say about protection, acceptance, and the past.
Nalo Hopkinson, The New Moon’s Arms: Hopkinson’s most recent adult novel — she’s branched into young adult for her latest — is kind of note-perfect. Calamity, who is almost the modern Caribbean equivalent of Hagar Shipley, is going through menopause, and with each hot flash she "finds" something lost: a pin, a toy, a cashew orchard – and then a baby with webbed fingers who's drawn to the sea. Her decision to foster the baby dredges up her own past as a single mother, reopens the scabs on her relationships, and forces her to finally deal with all the things, and people, and chances she's lost.
The New Moon's Arms is one of the most densely woven – and sometimes, sharply funny – character studies I've ever read, and it's one of those books that's truly alive: spilling off the page, frothing 'round your ankles, tugging on your jeans alive. Highly recommended.
David Nickle, Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism: Written in clear, dryly flippant prose with a distinct edge of the Prairie Gothic, Toronto-based writer and journalist David Nickle’s first novel is a tightly-woven, sharp, thoughtful historical that tackles eugenics, the perils of utopianism, ideology, blind faith, the perfectionist urge—and, well, monsters. And while the monsters are truly monstrous, the people are frequently yet more monstrous, and the hows and whys of that are Eutopia’s main concern.
Eutopia is the best kind of horror novel: one where the disquiet comes from the most mundane and terrible flaws of human nature instead of the kind of monster you can lock on the other side of a door; where it’s not so easily dismissed when we close the cover and return to real life.
Sean Stewart, Resurrection Man: Sean Stewart doesn’t live here anymore, but he grew up in Edmonton and Vancouver, which means we get to claim him. And his books are each breathtaking, delicate, sharply powerful novels which are also completely fatally flawed—and each in a different way. It does not stop me from loving them.
Resurrection Man was the New York Times best science fiction book of the year when it came out in 1995, and it deals with some of the perennial Stewart topics: families, and the shattering and mending thereof; what to do when you discover you’re really a rather bad and selfish man; getting your balance in a world that’s broken; putting the broken right. It is not easy to find these days, but it is beautiful, and well worth the finding.
Robert Charles Wilson, Spin: Spin renders some of the most central science fictional tropes in the genre through a very personal—and very Canadian—sort of lens: It focuses less on how the hero-scientist archetypes of its world grapple with and solve the mysterious phenomenon that has blocked out the sky and slowed Earth’s rotation to a crawl, but how that event impacts, strains, and remakes the relationships between three children who watch it happen from their suburban backyard as they grow and grapple with their changed world. Spin is classic science fiction, but with a character-based focus, and it has a deft and subtle hand with details and the nuances of the most enveloping love-hate friendships.
The winner of the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel, one of science fiction’s top awards, it’s ostensibly the first of a trilogy, but reads perfectly well as a stand-alone.
Five Canadian literary titles for speculative fiction readers
Catherine Bush, Minus Time: I might not be coherent on this book. I read it first at thirteen or fourteen, and the way it tells you things in the silence between protagonist Helen's words, the way the huge, airless spaces between her childhood and adulthood, her present and her future, herself and her brother fled to Montreal, her father saving other people's children from earthquakes in South America, her mother, one of the first long-term astronauts, orbiting her in space – I cannot be coherent on this book. It snuck in and it's twined up with my own breath.
It is, though, a book about the future; a book with a whole lot of unexplained, not-necessary-to-explain twists in reality going on along the edges and complicating Helen's life as she decides who she wants and needs to be. This book is structured a bit like the navigation of a quantum collapse, and for a while, all those possibilities are alive and walking and breathing out in Helen's 1990s Toronto. It's a metaphor. Or a science fiction novel. Or both. And if you can observe it on both levels at once without breaking the waveform down to one state, it's quietly glorious.
Sean Dixon, The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn: This book is alive with fabulous reality: fire-spinners, vengeful ghosts, underground rivers, construction equipment fights, Kensington Market as a half-magical haven, long-lost family, duels, mafia connections, murder, mayhem, true love. It is The Princess Bride of CanLit fiction. It has everything, and most of all, it has the pace and spirit and spark of the best fantasy adventure novels, lighting up the here-and-now with dark wonder and pure delight.
Emma Donoghue, Room: Room is a difficult novel: a wonderfully written, flinch-riveting, deeply disturbing story about the escape of a kidnapped woman and her five-year-old son from the underground room her kidnapper and rapist has held them in for years. Why I think science fiction and horror readers would appreciate it? It’s written from the perspective of the five-year-old boy, Jack.
There’s a logic in Jack’s explorations of his world — both the small world of Room, where they live, and then the larger one, and the world of emotional fallout and strain he inhabits in both — that’s peculiar and methodical and wholly natural. The sense he makes of the people around him, the hypothesizing and misunderstanding and revision as he fumbles his way to a sense of the world, is incredible to watch: Jack’s situation may not be science-fictional, but his method and perspective is.
A first-contact story, one explorer large, with the alien world that is normative adult society.
Suzette Mayr, Monoceros: Suzette Mayr is no stranger to genre fiction: she's published novels through Arsenal Pulp, and now she has written a Giller-longlisted book about one gay teenager's suicide and the ways it ripples through a community that is, on a certain level, actually about unicorns.
You can tell Mayr comes out of a genre background: Monoceros is rife with Star Trek references and opens with a quote from the old Wonder Woman TV show. And while it can be read as a reply to all the small-town novels or coming-out novels there are, it can also be read as a reply to The Last Unicorn or Jane Yolen, as Faraday, still a virgin at 17 and obsessed with unicorns, pushes stoically through all the adult confusion around her like Peter Beagle's Molly Grue, asking, accusing: Damn you, where have you been? How dare you come to me now?
This is a gorgeous, painful book, and it is one of the rarest things: A book that is perfectly genre-bilingual and can be read in either tongue.
Timothy Taylor, The Blue Light Project: The Blue Light Project is, structurally, a hostage thriller: A nameless, faceless person takes control of a reality TV studio and its dozens of child contestants, and asks for nothing but an interview with a disgraced investigative journalist. Around this revolve a former Olympic runner with a missing brother and a street artist/technologist named Rabbit, and legions and legions of riot police, ever-present, ever-waiting.
What it is when you add all those together is a classic dystopian novel: a nameless city, the hints of exploitation everywhere, a sharp division between official and unofficial activities, pervasive technology, and…mysteries, hiding in the corners, if you dare to look in the corners. The fact that it takes place here-and-now is, in how the book's constructed, almost incidental for a dystopian fiction reader.
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