reviews.gif (7345 bytes)


Edited by David G. Hartwell
and Glenn Grant



382pp/$24.95/April 1999

Northern Suns

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Quick, name a Canadian SF author. William Gibson, Robert J. Sawyer, Spider Robinson, Charles de Lint? None of those authors appear in the pages of Northern Suns, the new Canadian SF anthology edited by Glenn Grant and David Hartwell. Instead, this book, a follow-up to 1994’s Northern Stars postulates, and proceeds to demonstrate, that Canadian science fiction is experiencing an enormous growth, mostly unrecognized outside Canada’s borders and only relatively recently recognized within. Mssrs. Glenn and Hartwell point to such Canadian magazines as On Spec, imagine and Solaris, as well as the anthology series Tesseracts to support their contention. Furthermore, a comparison of the table of contents of Northern Stars and Northern Suns reveals that there is no overlap among the author lists.

One of the questions Grant addresses in his introduction is how Canadian SF differs from American or British SF, the two countries which provide the vast majority of SF read in the world today (whether in English or translation). The difference, he explains, is simple. Canadian SF comes out of a bilingual environment, and even if a specific author doesn’t read French or English, their writing is still influenced by the SF written in the Canadian sister tongues. Grant also points to the lack of Canadian SF magazines as a positive sign. Until recently, the only two magazines were Francophone. In order to publish SF in an Anglophone magazine, it had to masquerade as "literature" with science fictional pretensions. This, he feels makes Canadian SF more "literary" than SF in the rest of the English-speaking world.

One quibble with the cover of this book. Above the title, the book notes it is the "New Collection of Canadian Science Fiction." While it is referring to itself as being a collection more recent in vintage than other science fiction collections, it can be easily assumed to be referring to its contents, all of which are reprint stories dated back as far as 1982. While not blatantly false, this blurb is somewhat misleading.

The selection in Northern Suns contains works which originally appeared in both English and French, although the French works have been translated into English to allow their dissemination to a wider audience. One does wonder if there are any plans to publish Northern Stars and Northern Suns in a French edition, which only seems fair and logical.

Margaret Atwood is certainly the best-known author whose work appears in Northern Suns. Based on that alone, her story "Freeforall" is a good choice for leading off the anthology. Unfortunately, the sexually diseased dystopia Atwood posits is depressing. Fortunately, it doesn’t set the tone for the entire book.

Eric Choi’s "Divisions" postulates a Canada in which Québec has elected to separate from the rest of the country. The story examines the issues of property and intellectual ownership almost as if it were discussing a divorce. Although Québec’s demands seem exceedingly reasonable at first, Jennifer Simcoe, the Canadian negotiator, quickly realizes that if she grants them, she’s likely to lose much more than it appears.

The first Francophonic story in the anthology is Alain Bergeron’s "The Eighth Register." Set in an alternate world in which the Roman Empire never fell, but adopted Christianity, Bergeron focuses on a seminar about historiosophy, held in his world’s equivalent of Canada. This permits Bergeron to realistically discuss ideas of history as well as the events which differ between his world and our own. Bergeron creates an interesting, if not entirely plausible, world which the reader would hope to see further developed.

Robert Boyczuk’s "Doing Time" is the story of a co-dependent man who is serving out a jail sentence for murder. In his small cell, he continuously replays the events leading up to his arrest while he suffers withdrawal from the partner he had thought he controlled. Darker and more experimental in tone than the majority of the stories includes, "Doing Time" ultimately works in its attempt to establish a dark mood.

In "The Fragrance of Orchids," Sally McBride postulates a relationship between an alien and a human and examines what it entails.  Since the alien, Seule, was raised by humans since an infant, it also gives McBride the opportunity to question what makes a person human and whether it is a matter of genetics or environment.

Scott Mackay tackles alternate history in "The Sages of Cassiopeia," a story about Tycho Brahe and the origin of the science of astronomy in this story which is a mixture of the history of Galileo and Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon.   While Mackay never really addresses the question of how Magnus Brahe's intelligence is raised by the supernova of 1572, he partially makes up for that lack by looking at the battle between a fledgling science and a dogmatic Church.  He raises many issue which the story indicates he could address at greater length if he were to choose to lengthen "The Sages of Cassiopeia."

Jan Lars Jensen looks at the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own actions in "Domestic Slash and Thrust." Lausanne is a knife designer who is trying to create an idiot proof electric knife to avoid its users from inflicted harm on themselves when they use it. Although (one hopes) the world he portrays is taken to extremes, he manages to get across his point that each person must take responsibility for their own actions, a moral which may seem obvious but also seems to have been missed by many people.

A cluster of worlds is the setting of Karl Schroeder's "Halo."    This short story tells of an effort to further colonize these worlds which is interrupted when one of the cyclers goes rogue, attempting to eradicate life on the Halo worlds.  Schroeder mixes scenes of the attempt to stop the rogue cycler with images of Elise Cantrell's familylife, to give the importance of stopping the space operatic themes by implying the effect they will have on a domestic family.

Nalo Hopkinson, the winner of Warner’s recent first novelist contest with her novel Brown Girl in the Ring, contributes the story "A Habit of Waste" to this anthology. As may be gathered by the title, this story is about the modern culture of waste, although Hopkinson links it to the similarly modern ideas of the attainment of beauty. Cynthia has turned her back on her parents’ Trinidad ways, even going so far as to "download’ herself into a White body. When she brings some groceries to a poor man, she learns to real meaning of Thanksgiving is a wonderfully written holiday story.

Best known for fantastic baseball stories like Shoeless Joe, which was made into the film "Field of Dreams," W.P. Kinsella turns his attention to the real reason Japanese products have become so popular in North America over the past few decades in "Things Invisible To See." Although very short, this story demonstrates Kinsella’s humor with an unexpected ending as his main character sets about vacuuming out the first shipment of Japanese cars to arrive in North America.

"The Dummy Ward," by David Nickle, discusses much of the same theme as Jensen's "Domestic Slash and Thrust," looking at the way robots and automatons are used in order to better the lives of humans.  In this case, Nickle specifically looks at the use of more sophisticated crash-test dummies to ensure that automobiles are as safe as they possibly can be.

"Perhaps the most striking thing about Canada is that it is not part of the United States." This obvious, but often overlooked statement which opens Michael Skeet's story "Close Enough to Home" perhaps best sums up the need for an anthology like Northern Suns. Despite many surface similiarites, Canada has a separate culture, language, political system, etc. than its southern neighbor. In fact, Skeet makes the US Canadian, at least in part. His story is set in the 1850s during the Civil War. The Louisiana territory became British in 1802 and part of Canada when it became a nation in the 1840s. All this is background to the story which tells of the search for a St. Louisian constable for his estranged brother through the war-torn Confederacy. In his travels, he is captured by deserters and held with a Federal colonel. Although the ending is telegraphed, the story works well as both a piece of fiction and alternate history, although it could have been longer and come to a more complete conclusion.

Although Grant describes Nancy Kilpatrick’s "Farm Wife" as an horror story in the introduction, the short piece about a farmer’s wife on a secluded farm has more of a humorous bent than an horrific one despite Kilpatrick’s detailed description of the strange disease which is afflicting the farmer.

As noted, bi-lingualism is one of the things which sets Canadian SF apart. In "Beyond the Barriers," Charles Montpetit looks at the question of multi-lingualism as a curse rather than a benefit. Instead of bringing people together, the knowledge of different languages is seen as a disease which needs to be combated. It is done well in the form of interviews, television excerpts, etc. An interesting point is that "Beyond the Barriers" is one of the minority of stories in Northern Suns which was originally published in French.

"Bugtown," by Ursula Pflug, is another dystopic view of Canada’s future. Told from the point of view of one of the dispossessed, life centers on the use of drugs to take people away from the general squalor in which they live their lives.

While Derryl Murphy’s "The History of Photography" is a look at the creative process, in this case focusing on photography, Murphy expands the work by integrating a brief history of photography into the story. While the historical portions of the work are the most interesting, the creative parts of the story are where Murphy concentrates his emotional punch.

Although "Craphound" does contain an alien, the science fictional elements of the story seem hardly to matter, almost as if Cory Doctorow put them in as an afterthought.  This tale is about the people who buy junk at garage sales, auctions and flea markets in the hope of selling it to other people who will find it more useful.   Doctorow's alien could as easily be a human from a different culture as an alien.   The story does work and its setting is quirky enough to set it apart from other stories.

Wesley Herbert's "Twilight of the Real"  is a cyberpunk-meets-detective-noir story set in a dark and dytopic future.  The main character's life seems to be entirely at the beck and call of "Tin Star," an enforcement agency and his small amounts of free time consist almost entirely of having sex with automatons.  When he isn't working on a case, he finds himself in suspended animation until Tin Star needs him again.

Along with Margaret Atwood, the late Robertson Davies is probably the best known author in Northern Suns. His story, "Offer of Immortality," is a lightweight humorous tale which is reasonably self-deprecating about a Toronto college and its rather strange, vinegar-drinking guest. Although Grant notes that it is only border-line science fiction, the story falls as much into the SF genre as any of the other tales, and works better than Kilpatrick’s entry to this collection.

It is not surprising that John Pierre April’s "Rêve Canadien," originally written in French, is another story in which bi-lingualism plays a major role. In this case, the comparison is between the bi-lingual culture of Canada and of Cameroon, although the origins of their languages, in both cases English and French, are very different. April writes with a reasonably disjointed literary style which plays against any sort of straight-forward plotting.

The last story in Northern Suns was written by Geoff Ryman.  Although born in Canada, Ryman hasn't lived there since he was eleven, and has lived in the UK for the past twenty-six years.  Nevertheless, he, Grant and Hartwell consider him Canadian enough for inclusion in Northern Suns with his 1994 novella "Fan."   This story looks not only at the issues surrounding fandom, in this case a music fan, but also questions the role of artificial intelligence in a very mater-of-fact manner.

Northern Suns ends with John Clute’s essay on Canadian SF, "Fables of Transcendence" and a listing of some of the recent winners of Canadian SF awards. While this last provides the reader with some titles to look for, perhaps more useful would have been a bibliography of Canadian SF collections, the previously mentioned Tesseracts series, the small-press published Arrowdreams and similar works for the reader to track down. Clute’s essay, originally published in a collection of essays linked to an exhibit of Canadian SF in 1995, attempts to define how Canadian SF differs from, specifically, American SF. In making this comparison, Clute does a disservice to the twenty-one stories which precede his essay, for he implies that they are rebelling against the American model of SF rather than creating something of their own.

Author Story
Margaret Atwood Freeforall
Eric Choi Diversions
Alain Bergeron The Eighth Register
Robert Boyczuk Doing Time
Sally McBride The Grances of Orchids
Scott Mackay The Sages of Cassiopeia
Jan Lars Jensen Domestic Slash and Thrust
Karl Schroeder Halo
Nalo Hopkinson A Habit of Waste
W.P. Kinsella Things Invisible to See
David Nickle The Dummy Ward
Michael Skeet Near Enough to Home
Nancy Kilpatrick Farm Wife
Charles Montpetit Beyond the Barriers
Ursula Pflug Bugtown
Derryl Murphy The History of Photography
Cory Doctorow Craphound
Wesley Herbert Twilight of the Real
Robertson Davies Offer of Immortality
Jean Pierre April Rêve Canadien
Geoff Ryman Fan
John Clute Fables of Transcendence (essay)

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