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Must-Read Speculative Writers

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book The Collection Agency Files.

Book Cover The Collection Agency Files

Definitions of speculative fiction abound. Speculative fiction has been called the fiction of ideas, of presenting possible scenarios about the future of humanity, of taking present-day societal trends and extrapolating them for the near (or far) future, and of capturing technological advances and humanity’s approaches to those advances before they’re even a gleam in an engineer’s eye. Among the sub-genres: hard science fiction, dystopian fiction, apocalyptic fiction, climate fiction (fairly new), fiction about time travel.

According to Graham Dunstan Martin in his book An Inquiry into the Purposes of Speculative Fiction—Fantasy and Truth speculative fiction "imagines scenarios that transcend normal reality, but such works always reflect the real world and encourage readers to consider psychic, philosophical, and metaphysical truths or assumptions that we normally pass over without reflection."

Canadian speculative fiction most definitely fits into this set of scenarios and the selection of must-reads could extend for several dozen pages. Aside from my own attempts (including my latest book The Collection Agency Files), here are a half-dozen of what I believe should form the basis of any reader’s approach to Canadian speculative fiction. Some are very well-known (hello there, Peggy); others need a little nudge to get up on stage.


Book Cover Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

We’ve all heard of The Handmaid’s Tale (perhaps a little too often) but here I’d like to suggest the first book in her MaddAddam trilogy. Satirical, funny, and at the same time prophetic, this is the story of genetic engineer Glenn (known as “Crake”). No longer able to stand the violence and uncaring of human beings, he eliminates them from the earth and replaces them with his self-named species—the “Crakers”. The story, told by Glenn’s best friend from before the apocalyptic events and the last surviving human, is in Atwood’s inimitable style: tongue firmly in cheek while presenting ideas of high seriousness using characters that are both believable and incredible. Of course, once you’ve read this, you need to consume the remaining two books of the trilogy: After the Flood and MaddAddam.


Book Cover Venera Dreams

Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment, by Claude Lalumière

Claude is known for his vivid and wide-ranging imagination, one that takes him to unusual places both in time and space. Venera Dreams—a mosaic novel in three sections, a surreal history of a fictional and fantastical European city-state, inspired in part by Venice, The Arabian Nights, and the architecture of Antoni Gaudí—is a perfect example of that imaginative range. The first part, "The Lure of Vermilion," describes the impact of Venera’s lure on various characters. The second, "Adventures in Times Past," ranges from the Roman Empire’s invasion of Venera and an intrigue involving a Veneran spy at the court of the Chinese Zhengde Emperor during the Renaissance to a tale of Salvador Dalí’s ties to Venera and a metafictional exploration of Scheherazade’s relationship to Venera. The final section, "The Secret Histories of Magus Amore," returns to the present to resolve the mysteries of Venera.


Book Cover Brown Girl in the Ring

Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

One of the first feminist speculative fiction writers, Nalo Hopkinson uses a post-apocalyptic Toronto (inner city destroyed by riots and now but a slum while high-ranking officials live in the suburbs) to tell a tale of revenge, magic, spiritualism and eventual redemption. Partly told through the eyes of the heroine, Ti-Jeanne, a single mom forced to live with her spiritualist-healer grandmother, the story connects gang warfare, addiction, privilege, and battling magic (good versus evil). In the end, Ti-Jeanne must confront the leader of the city’s gangs (who turns out to be her estranged grandfather) in a battle where her ancestor spirits overcome his magic. The story ends with Ti-Jeanne accepting her ancestry and culture—and the hope of a better future.


Book Cover Neuromancer

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

If you haven’t read Gibson’s debut novel, you can’t really call yourself a fan of speculative fiction. This novel, winner of all three major SF awards (Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Hugo), features what have become integral parts of daily life: ROM memory, the internet, hackers, virtual reality and AI, to name a few. All this some 50 years ago. The story of low level hustler-hacker Henry Dorsett Case (“console cowboy”) combines advanced technological ideas with a dystopian attitude and a series of fast-paced action-adventures—both in our world and “online”. That combination alone makes it unique and places it within the SF subgenre known as cyberpunk. Interesting now highly advanced technology does little for the hard-wired human emotions and actions: jealousy, greed, revenge, willingness to maim and murder, and an inexhaustible supply of stupidity even in the midst of catastrophe. Sound familiar?


Book Cover the world of null-a

The World of Null-A, by A.E. Van Vogt

And now for something completely different. The World of Null-A, also known as The World of Ā, makes no bones of the fact it uses ideas taken from Alfred Koryzbski’s General Semantics and non-Aristotelian logic (thus, the Ā). Okay, so what can an author do with such ideas? The novel tells the story of Gilbert Gosseyn (pronounced go sane). He lives in an apparent utopia where those with superior understanding and mental control rule. When he asks to be tested to see if he too has mental superiority, he learns his memories are false and he sets out to learn who he really is. In doing so, he discovers that: a galactic society of humans exists outside the solar system; an interstellar empire makes claims to both the Earth and Venus (inhabited by followers of non-Aristotelian logic); and he has extra brain matter that, if trained, can allow him to move physical objects with his mind.


Book Cover The Tiger Flu

The Tiger Flu, by Larissa Lai

Two female heroes, a cyberpunk thriller, and a warning for our times combine in Lai’s novel about a group of parthenogenic women (embryos created from unfertilized egg cells) who have been exiled by patriarchal forces. The women now face organ failure unless they can find a new “starfish” (someone who can regenerate organs and limbs) after the previous one dies from a mysterious flu brought to them by someone from Salt Water City (the patriarchal enclave). Kirilow, a doctor apprentice, goes down to the city where she finds Kora, a “starfish” replacement. However, as Kirilow tries to convince Kora to come with her, they are kidnapped to be used as test subjects for a technology that can “cure the mind of the body.”


Book Cover the Marrow Thieves

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

Métis writer Cherie Dimaline’s award-winning novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic future in which climate change has nearly wiped out humans. Those who remain have lost the ability to dream—all except for Indigenous people. The cure for this dreamless state relies on the bone marrow of the Indigenous. But harvesting the bone marrow leads to the death of the donors. The story line involves a 15-year-old and his friends fleeing the bone marrow harvesters and hoping to be re-united with their families. While set in this apocalyptic future, the story has obvious resonance to what happened to Indigenous children who were stolen from their families in an attempt to erase their heritage and culture.


Book Cover Hominids

While I don’t have space for more full-fledged breakouts, I do think these writers deserve at least a mention when it comes to must-read Canadian speculative fiction. Among them in no particular order:

The Neanderthal Parallax—trilogy, by Robert J. Sawyer

Spin, Axis, Vortex—trilogy, by Robert Charles Wilson

Half World and Darkest Light,  by Hiromi Goto

The Daughter of Dr. Moreau, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau

The Back of the Turtle, by Thomas King

The Mercy Journals, by Claudia Casper

The Marigold, by Andrew F. Sullivan

A Tidy Armageddon, by B.H. Panhuyzen


Book Cover The Collection Agency Files

Learn more about The Collection Agency Files:

Found in a submerged bank vault in New Orleans, The Collection Agency Files is a faux translation from the German consisting of five sections and a fragment of a sixth relating to events that take place during and immediately after the Second World War. Blending historical facts and alternative history themes, it chronicles the creation and subsequent actions of an all-powerful “collection agency” in Nazi Germany and the adventures of one of the agents (Claudius) in the midst of the rapid rise and even more rapid collapse of the Thousand Year Reich. The germ of the idea arose from the question: How did we get to today’s credit crisis? P.S.: If this piques your interest, try The Facility (which features the cloning of Mussolini) or Paradise Island and Other Galaxies (short stories from the past and the future).

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