Summer Reading

The Northern Stars

Brian Bethune June 21 1999
Summer Reading

The Northern Stars

Brian Bethune June 21 1999

The Northern Stars

Summer Reading

Brian Bethune

Robert Sawyer’s novel-in-progress—some of which was written during the recent Ontario election campaign that returned Conservative Premier Mike Harris to power—centres on a debate over the existence of God between a giant spiderlike alien and a terminally ill paleontologist. It’s an odd universe, but a very Canadian one—and not just because, as its author laughs, “it drips with Toronto content and anti-Harris feeling.” The national science-fiction style, the writer says, is “more intellectually sophisticated” than its U.S. counterpart. “In American SF, there has always been a drive for happy endings, and even more so, for unambiguous endings,” notes Sawyer. “Here, authors write for a more literate population. We’ve never had clear-cut heroes or villains and the endings are far messier.”

Canadian writers are gaining global acclaim— and fans

Whatever the reason, these are heady days for Canadian science fiction. Major American houses are publishing more of it than ever before, and writers are reaping critical and popular acclaim. Sawyer’s 1998 novel, Factoring Humanity, about two University of Toronto professors and the discovery of a technology that can tap into humankind’s collective unconscious, was nominated in May for the Hugo Award, international science fiction’s Oscar equivalent. Sawyer’s good friend, Toronto writer Robert Charles Wilson, also copped a Hugo nomination for Darwinia, a stunning depiction of an alternate 20th century. That puts an unprecedented two Canadian writers among the five finalists drawn from all English-language SF novelists. (The winner will be announced in September at the World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, Australia.) And Julie Czerneda of Orillia, Ont., and Nalo Hopkinson ofToronto are among the five nominees for the convention’s Campbell award, presented to writers in the first two years of their careers.

It is Sawyer, though, a rumpled and articulate fountain of ideas, who is the genre’s northern star—in fact, one of the hottest SF writers anywhere. In less than 10 years, he has already won a fistfial of national and international awards, and served as president of the New York City-based Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The Hugo nomination is the fourth consecutive for the 39-year-old author who lives

with his wife and full-time assistant, Carolyn Clink, in Thornhill, Ont., just north ofToronto. That streak equals previous runs by two prominent American writers, Orson Scott Card and Robert Silverberg. Six of Sawyer’s 11 novels are still in print in nine languages and his print run has now reached best-seller range for his latest release, Flashforward.

An intricate examination of fate and free will, Flashforward features a Canadian scientist and his Greek associate, whose particle physics experiment goes badly wrong in 2009, somehow shunting all human consciousness 21 years into the future for a period of two minutes. People who like the futures they see set out to achieve them early, while those who are appalled by the visions try to change their fates. For a sciencefiction author, a time-travel motif is akin to an actor taking on Hamlet, a challenge fraught with comparisons with past efforts and loaded with well-known technical difficulties. Sawyer ups the ante by having two futures—2009 and 2030—and keeps his brief predictions soberly plausible. (Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology still don’t work even in 2030, and George Lucas has not finished with Star Wars)

The core of the novel, however, turns on the consensus among most physicists that past, present and future all exist simultaneously. The future, therefore, may be glimpsed but not changed. Sawyer’s ingenious response to that conundrum and his deft handling of his characters’ differing viewpoints make Flashforward a provoking read.

Sawyer’s easy familiarity with leading-edge hard science belies his own arts background. A lifelong resident of Toronto’s northern fringes, he graduated from the city’s Ryerson Polytechnic University in radio and television in 1982. He immediately became a full-time freelance writer, churning out newspaper and magazine articles on personal finance, as well as news releases and speeches. By 1988, he had saved enough money to concentrate on fiction. Despite a taste for mysteries, Sawyer rejected the genre as too restricting in comparison with sci-fi. “The joy of being a science-fiction writer is being able to construct a whole new universe each time—why would you want to do this only once?”

By any reckoning Sawyer is among the most successful Canadian authors ever, making a comfortable six-figure income doing what he loves. But a Hugo Award, he admits, would be a crowning touch. Especially for Factoring Humanity, a superb science-fiction story with considerable cross-over

appeal—“the one I want to be remembered for,” the author allows. So how does he fancy his chances? “I used to call myself the Susan Lucci of SF,” Sawyer laughs in reference to the 18 fruitless Daytime Emmy award nominations garnered by the soap-opera star. “And she finally won this year.”

Other notable recent Canadian science-fiction releases:

More them any other genre, science fiction provides its fledgling authors with magazine and paperback opportunities to hone their craft. James Alan Gardner’s third paperback novel, Vigilant (Avon, $7.99), has propelled him onto The New York Times list of recommended summer reading. Given its page-turning plot and the extraordinary voice he gave his characters, it could prove to be his breakthrough into hard-covers. Gardner may be Ontario born and bred,

but Vigilant’s humans, one million miners invited to the planet Demoth by the bird-like Oolom race, are emigrants from a world called Come-By-Chance. Bearing names like Smallwood, Tobin and Crosbie, his quirky, very sexually active characters talk in a racy Newfoundland-esque slang, sneering at “fiddly-dick” taverns and speculating hopefully on their chances of a “willywag night.” The whole novel, in fact, reads like an extended, and highly engaging, rant by Marg Delahunty.

Not that there is anything remotely funny about Vigilant’s plot. Less than a generation after the humans had arrived, a deadly plague began to devastate the Ooloms, while leaving the miners untouched. “No one stayed sane,” heroine Faye Smallwood recalls decades later, still haunted by memories of mass death, and tortured by guilt that humans had somehow caused the disease. After 20 years of self-loathing, rising at

times to scarring herself with a scalpel, Faye decides to exorcise her demons by joining a planetary watchdog group. As a member of the Vigil, though, Faye soon learns that her old nightmares barely glimpsed the truth.

Toronto writer Phyllis Godieb is a distinguished poet who first turned to science fiction in the 1960s. For some years, she was Canadian SF and now, at 73, is the genres universally recognized grande dame. Her Violent Stars (Tor, $32.95), a sequel to last year’s Flesh and Gold, offers an intriguing plot about the continuing struggle against the Zamos corporation, a human mob family that runs brothels staffed by cloned slaves and their enforcers, the truly creepy insectile lx. But Violent Stars is above all a poet’s novel. The spectre of violence, as much emotional as physical, relentlessly hangs over every character. Lyrical, beautifully written images of lx assassins with bodies that flash strobe lights, shape-shifting robots and telepathic reptiles slip in and out of scenes like visions from an LSD flashback. Godieb’s language lifts her book from exotic thriller to literary achievement.

The Dragon’s Eye (Tor, $34.95) is the first of Quebec writer Joël Champetier’s 10 novels to be translated into English. Originally written in 1991, it’s an intricate, compulsively readable 24th-century spy story. The planet New China, home to a struggling colony founded by rural Chinese dedicated to eradicating Western and Japanese influences, orbits a double star system. One sun, the deadly Dragon’s Eye, irradiates the planet regularly, forcing the inhabitants to take cover when it is in the sky and hindering their ability to pay off a crippling debt to Earth. Amid xenophobic unrest, European agent Réjean Tanner, surgically altered to look Asian, is dispatched to bring back a highly placed mole. The novel’s themes are subtly drawn, and the echoes Champetier provides of the current tension within Chinese society between the Westernized cities and the countryside—clearest in scenes that contrast the abundance of children on New China with the continuing enforced population limits on Earth—make The Dragons Eye far more than a good adventure story. 03