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Canada in Conversation – SFF from the Global South to the Meeting Point of all Worlds
By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
Discussants: David Perlmutter (DP); Robert Runte (RR); PA Cornell (PA); James Dick (JD); Jen Frankel (JF); Colleen Anderson (CA); Emad El-Din Aysha
Please introduce yourselves, accomplishments and aspirations and everything. Don’t be shy, nobody is going to judge you here.
DP: My name is David Perlmutter, and I am a fiction and non-fiction writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
As a non-fiction writer, I specialize in discussing and analyzing popular culture, with a particular emphasis on animation. On that latter subject, I have written two books: America ‘Toons In- A History of Television Animation (McFarland and Co.) and The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows (Rowman and Littlefield), both available from Amazon and other outlets, including the websites of their publishers.
As a fiction writer, my work ranges between the various subdivisions of speculative fiction. Much of it, inspired by animated programs, involves anthropomorphic (“furry”) characters and/or middle school or young adult characters, combined in some cases with superheroics. I have self-published several books through various outlets, and have also published much material on Curious Fictions, Medium and Vocal, among other places.
RR: I’m currently Senior Editor with EssentialEdits.ca and was formerly Senior Editor for Five Rivers Publishing, a small Canadian press, where I was the acquisition and developmental editor for thirty books, primarily science fiction and fantasy. I was also a university professor for over twenty-five years, but am now retired.
I have won three Aurora Awards (Canadian SF&F) for my literary criticism and my promotion of Canadian speculative fiction. Along with a number of articles on Canadian SF&F, I edited/published New Canadian Fandom the national SF&F newsletter for a few years, and produced the NCF Guide to Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (the last update in 2003). I’m best known for arguing that Canadian speculative fiction is distinct from American mass market SF&F—though that may be less true recently, with the emergence of self-publishing, as most Canadian self-published authors often write for the American mass market and so often follow American trends, American tropes, themes and so on to maximize sales.
My own fiction has been published in over forty venues and thirteen of my short stories have been reprinted, four in ‘best of’ collections, such as Canadian Shorts II and three of my stories have been made available in audio.
I had one story published in 1989, but really only started writing seriously after I retired from being a professor—being a prof meant living in the “publish or perish” academic world, so no time for writing fiction. And few writers make as much or have as secure an income as a tenured professor, so I quite consciously made the decision to become an academic rather than a writer. (I was friends with Candas Jane Dorsey and greatly admired the guts it took for her to go full-time writer and live a very modest lifestyle, while I opted for a government job and then academia when really, I wanted to be a writer.)
I think I’ve netted about $800 from my fifty published stories so far. I made a bit more from story sales, but then it costs money to submit stories –$3.00 to $5.00 per submission is typical on Submissible which is a common online portal for magazines and anthologies. Since it often takes several tries to sell a story, such fees quickly mount up.
Before I got a job as a professor—and getting married and having a family—I was heavily involved in SF fandom. I published 149 issues of various fanzines, ran the local SF club, spoke at conventions and so on, culminating in being Fan Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1996. With the exception of my four Guest of Honor experiences at conventions, all these activities cost money rather than generated income.
PA: I am a Chilean-Canadian SFF short fiction writer with publications in several professional anthologies and genre magazines, including Galaxy’s Edge, Cossmass Infinities, and Canada’s Little Blue Marble. I have also published some non-fiction and worked in non-fiction for several years both writing and copy editing for a Canadian design magazine. A full bibliography of my fiction and recent non-fiction publications can be found at my website pacornell.com.
I have been writing SFF for most of my life, but first started publishing my work in 2016. I’m currently an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association, and am a 2002 graduate of the Odyssey writing workshop.
JD: My name is James Dick. I’m an actor, writer, screenwriter, and director from Toronto, Ontario. I’ve been writing my entire life but only started sending my work to publications in 2019. As of this writing, I’ve accumulated nine publication credits for work that has appeared or is soon to appear in Canadian, U.S., and U.K. magazines. My goal as a writer is currently to acquire a handful of professional publishing credits in short fiction markets before attempting to publish my first novel. Outside of writing, I study Media Production at Ryerson University; a program which helps inform every aspect of my writing process.
JF: I’m Jen Frankel, a screenwriter and author who dabbles in acting and songwriting. I’ve had a good last few years for publication despite Covid, or maybe because of all the isolation and staving off boredom. Most recently, I edited a feminist sci fi anthology by Marleen S. Barr for Dark Helix Press, and was accepted for a Christmas anthology from the UK. I’ve won a bunch of awards but you’re only as interesting as your last credit in this business, so I’m always looking for places to show off my work and attract new readers.
CA: I have a BFA in Creative Writing but have been writing fiction and poetry even before the degree. My work has been widely published in five countries and I’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Aurora, Rhysling and Dwarf Stars awards, and longlisted for the Stoker Award in fiction. As a freelance editor, I co-edited Tesseracts 17 and Aurora-nominated Playground of Lost Toys. Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland (Exile Publishing) was my solo anthology. I have served on the Stoker Award and British Fantasy Award juries, and am current VP of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). I have guest edited SFPA’s Eye to the Telescope, and chaired the Elgin Awards for best book of poetry. My work has appeared in magazines and anthologies online and in print. Some of the venues are Best Indie Speculative Fiction, Pulp Lit, Penumbric, OnSpec, Shadow Atlas, HWA Poetry Showcase, Cemetery Dance and many others. My second fiction collection, A Body of Work (Black Shuck Books, UK) is available online. My poetry collection, I Dreamed a World, is forthcoming from LVP Publications in May 2022. www.colleenanderson.wordpress.com
Who are the big names in Canadian sci-fi and fantasy, apart from yourselves of course. And can you actually make a living off of it? As an Egyptian, I simply have to know.
DP: The pioneer of modern SF was unquestionably A.E. Van Vogt, who was active primarily in the 1940s and 1950s. His short stories and novels, such as “Slan” and “The World Of Null A”, were extremely popular in their time and are still highly regarded.
Some of the major living writers in SF and Fantasy in Canada today include Robert J. Sawyer, Robert Charles Wilson, Tanya Huff, James Alan Gardner, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Nalo Hopkinson, Charles De Lint, Guy Gavriel Kay, Peter Watts, Gemma Files, Madeline Ashby and a very long list of others. Canadian authors are regularly short-listed for awards, both our own domestic genre fiction prizes and international ones.
RR: Margaret Atwood is Canada’s most famous living writer, period. She has always written SF but has a complicated relationship with fans. I have no problem with her because when she denied writing science fiction, it was because she was using a very specific definition from academia, rather than common usage. She’s fine with saying a lot of her work was speculative fiction. Her stories appeared in the early Tesseract (Canadian SF&F) anthology series. Her The Handmaid’s Tale is huge right now and she obviously makes a living at writing, though much of her work is feminist Canadian Literature (‘CanLit’ for short). I would argue the line between CanLit and Canadian SF&F is very thin because there was so little of each that Canadian authors moved easily between the two categories in Canadian publishing; whereas American authors were typecast as genre or literary authors and it was almost impossible for them to convince publishers to let them cross genre boundaries unless they used a pseudonym. And Canadian SF&F tended to be more literary than mass market American SF, so Canadian publishers didn’t have as sharply defined genre distinctions as the American market.
Robert Sawyer is likely the most commercially successful author with novels, TV concepts/scripts (e.g., the Fast Forward series on ABC) and winner of multiple awards. He is a great story teller and an ideas man. His books extrapolate some current trend and takes the reader through all the subtle implications of how it might unfold; or he thinks through the big picture concepts: the origin of viruses, a parallel world where Neanderthals rather than homo sapien sapiens prevailed, intelligent dinosaurs, and so on. He definitely makes a living as a writer, though that’s supplemented by his public speaking and he’s said many times he makes more money from not writing TV (i.e., writing work that gets bought but not produced) than he does from his many published books.
Guy Gaviel Kay is Canada’s top and most literary high fantasy author. He is a Tolkien scholar, so his first three books were a very Tolkienesque trilogy, but set in Toronto—which I didn’t feel was sufficient to make it particularly ‘Canadian’. His fourth book, however, was arguably where Canadian fantasy begins as a distinct genre. Tigana is about national identity and what happens when a people lose that (in this case, by a spell cast by a vengeful wizard). American and other audiences can read it as a brilliantly written fantasy novel of the resistance against the evil wizard, but the underlying theme of “loss of national identity” is a key one for many Canadians who feel they live in the shadow of the great empire to the south. His subsequent novels are all written from a uniquely Canadian perspective but have universal appeal. I feel the Lions of Al Rasson, for example, is one of the best (and least preachy) books ever written about racism/religious bigotry.
Charles de Lint is Canada’s top urban fantasy author—arguably the best urban fantasy writer there is. I believe he is a full-time writer.
Karl Schroeder is my personal favorite SF author. His novels are brilliantly written space adventure space novels (e.g., the Sun of Sun series, for example) but often have a underlying critique of capitalism (e.g., Permanence) or current social issues (e.g., Lady of Mazes extrapolated the future of Facebook a full decade before there was a Facebook.)
Matt Hughes is an under-rated Canadian SF&F author, frequently compared to American Jack Vance. I frequently refer to him as a “national treasure” because he is amongst the best we have. He is also an award-winning mystery writer. He made his living primarily as a speech writer, with SF only on the side. He is currently retired and writes SF&F full-time.
Cory Doctorow is hugely important Canadian author. He’s done critically important YA novels but also pioneered releasing books digitally and being active on social media. He makes a living as a writer, journalist, blogger, and critic.
Candas Jane Dorsey is the most important feminist SF writer in Canada. Her two SF novels and several collections of short fiction had a profound effect on Canadian SF and I would say feminist American writers. She also had an important impact on Canadian SF by running the major Canadian publisher (Tesseract Books) for a decade, giving many Canadian writers their start or translating Quebec authors from the French, or etc. I got my start as an editor reading slush for her Tesseract imprint. She was the first to publish Sean Stewart, for example, who went on to hit New York Times list and win an Emmy and so on. Dorsey made a modest living as an author/editor/speech writer etc., but her income from SF was only one stream among many. Her primary income for the last couple of decades would have been as a grammar instructor at one of the universities, and these days she’s writing mystery (a hit series) instead of SF. Her novel, Black Wine (1996), is often included in college SF courses not just for its feminism, but her stylistic tour de force.
The late Dave Duncan was a highly prolific and successful fantasy (some science fiction) author with over 65 traditionally published books. He made a good living as a writer. His best-selling series was The Reluctant Swordsman but my personal favorite is the Man of His Word series. His King Blades series also has its own fanbase.
William Gibson wrote Neuromancer (essentially co-inventing cyberpunk and the future of the internet) while a Canadian, so we often claim him. Same with Sean Stewart who hit it big in the USA but got his start here in Canada. I think both benefited from living in Canada so that they could have an outsider view of American culture and addressed themes that maybe come more easily to Canadians.
Kenneth Oppel and Arthur Slade write SF but are known more as Young Adult writers and therefore as CanLit authors. Both are full time.
In horror, I think it would be David Nickle, Edo Van Belkom, Helen Marshall (though she has now relocated to Australia, where she is a university professor). Tanya Huff writes some horror (she had a TV series, Blood Lines, there for a bit) but I think of her as an SF&F writer. Mark Leslie writes horror but also works as a book nerd (a writing and self-publishing coach; he used to work for Kobo, currently works for D2D, etc). And of course, David Cronenberg is a leading horror filmmaker, but film is a different community here.
There are many other Canadian SF writers but many of them fell off the map when their publishers failed. Chizine was an unreasonably successful publisher which created an entire generation of horror and dark fiction writers—I wrote articles describing them as a new Canadian school (i.e., subgenre) of horror. They all knew each other and formed this incredibly successful circle of writers—until abruptly Chizine imploded when it turned out some writers were not being paid, and there were accusations of sexual harassment etc. Five Rivers (the publisher I edited for) closed suddenly when she had family issues. And so on. When these small but important niche publishers folded, those authors had to find new homes or reprint their books themselves (thus disappearing into the avalanche self-published books, virtually indistinguishable from vanity self-publishing). New publishers are emerging, and some of the smaller established SF presses, like Tyche Books, continue on, but their books are hard to find since the Big Four publishers completely dominate store shelves.
For years, there were only one or two Canadian SF magazines (On Spec, now in its 37th year, and Neo-Opsis magazine) but recently there has been an explosion of new Canadian magazines and anthologies, so suddenly there are a great many new names in the field. I don’t think any of them are necessarily making a living that way yet, but many are excellent writers. When you ask for the big names in Canadian SF, it’s easiest to mention the established authors with a long track record, but the next generation are probably where the action is now. Being old, I confess I am not as up on these young’ens as I should be.
PA: The big names that come to mind in Canadian SFF are people like Robert J. Sawyer, Cory Doctorow, Julie Czerneda, Charles de Lint, and some might include Margaret Atwood in there, though she personally doesn’t consider herself to be a SF writer. William Gibson is also considered to be part of Canada’s contribution to SFF by some, despite his being born in the U.S.
JD: Alfred Elton van Vogt, Margaret Atwood, William Gibson, Robert Charles Wilson, James de Mille are just a few authors I’m familiar with through various science fiction courses I’ve taken at University. As for making a living off of it, I would guess that, as with any writing profession, you have to be very good and very lucky to be able to do that. Most of the writers I’ve spoken to or heard of don’t make a sustainable living off their work and have a “day job” to support themselves. For instance, I work at a butcher shop in Toronto as my primary source of income and I fully intend to find a job in media to support myself when I graduate from school. I don’t plan to make a great deal of money as a writer.
JF: I have to admit that I don’t really follow Canadian writers or writing very much. I know you’re going to ask us about William Gibson, and he’s very typical of the reasons I was turned off a long time ago from getting excited about speculative fiction in Canada particularly. We are really good at claiming as Canadian writers that barely count as citizens, or only lived here for a time, and forcing others to seek representation and publication outside the country because we do so little genre publishing here. Margaret Atwood is considered our foremost sci fi writer, because she’s also considered literary, ie “good” writing. The authors that I most respect are those who’ve carved a career out despite being Canadian like Tanya Huff who is internationally loved but doesn’t get any love from the lit community in her own country. I agree with James about the potential for making a living. One guy I know who does is Douglas Smith who not only is a fine sci fi/fantasy writer but wrote a whole book about leveraging your short stories to make a living in the writing game. I’ve had more success since reading it than ever before in my own career, but I’m a LONG way from paying my rent.
CA: I guess the big names would be Charles de Lint, William Gibson, Karl Schroeder, Robert Sawyer, Elizabeth Vonarburg, Cory Doctorow, Tanya Huff, Candas Jane Dorsey, Gemma Files, Silvia Moreno Garcia and probably some I’m forgetting. I’m also not up on new big names so I’m sure I’m missing quite a few.
There are a few people making a living off of their writing but the majority of us must supplement our writing careers with a full time job or spousal support. We make money but not enough to live comfortably. When you consider that in most cases if you’re getting an advance from a big name publisher, that it hasn’t increased compared to the cost of living. You could write four successful books a year and not make a living. There are many more writers these days and fewer big publishers so the pool is full.
How is SF organized in Canada? Do you have sci-fi associations and conventions and dedicated fanbases like they do in the US for mega franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek?
DP: Yes, although, like many others recently, they’ve had to be curtailed or held online recently, although I hope to attend them in person eventually again. The one I am most familiar with is KeyCon, held in my home of Winnipeg, Manitoba. There are quite a few others held in other cities across the country in different provinces. We also have the Association for Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is more academically oriented. The central professional association is SF Canada, of which I have been a member for several years.
There are strong fan bases for the franchises here as well, although they tend to affiliate themselves more with the larger American and British fanbases.
RR: Yes, all of that.
SF Canada is the professional SF&F (and horror) association. It includes many writers, and some editors, publishers, scholars, comic book writers/artists, librarians—any professional in the field. SF Canada was founded in 1989 at Context’89, one of the many SF conventions and is still going strong. (I was one of the founders and I’m currently on the Board again.)
The Aurora Awards (fan voted) are run by Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association. There are also the Canadian juried Sunburst awards.
Canvention is the national convention, which rotates between East and West; it piggybacks on top of regular regional conventions who bid for Canvention two years ahead and their bids voted on by CSFFA members. In theory, folks who are thinking of going to a convention on the other side of the country may chose Canvention year.
Regional conventions come and go as organizers burn out. V-Con (Vancouver’s annual convention) for example is teetering on edge of collapse after 45 or 46 years. But When Words Collide (Calgary, Alberta) is now in its 11th year and is going strong (though it’s a multi genre convention including mystery, romance, poetry, screen writing etc. It was founded and is run by people who started out running SF cons, so it’s still dominated by the SF community.) NOTE: 2023 is the final year for When Words Collide, as the founders have decided to go out on a high note. CanCon: “The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature” is the Ottawa convention and it focuses specifically on Canadian SF&F (Ottawa being Canada’s capital). It’s smaller and attracts Canadian scholars and writers as well as fans to talk about the Canadian genre.
There is also the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy which tries to be annual. The conference has one scholar and one writer guest each year, and a bunch of other scholars who speak on panels.
SF clubs still exist, though again, they’re in decline. Too much competition from Facebook et al. I was part of the Edmonton Science Fiction and Comic Arts Society that was a major player in fandom in the 1970s and 1980s. Osfic is the Ontario club. And so on.
There are Star Trek clubs and conventions, gaming clubs and conventions, Expos (for profit conventions run by professional convention runners, not fans) that include all of the different fandoms, and so on. Whatever you can find in the States is in Canada also.
A lot of SF&F fandom has gone digital, though, so not many physical fanzines, or clubs, and fewer and smaller conventions than there used to be as people go to Facebook pages or etc. instead.
PA: I don’t think it’s quite as big as in the U.S. We do have some associations like SF Canada and the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association which runs Canada’s Aurora Awards. As for conventions, there’s Can-Con and Ad Astra. Larger cities like Toronto and Vancouver tend to host fan conventions for things like the franchises you mention.
JD: In my experience, there aren’t a great deal of good sci-fi publications in Canada, at least that pay professional rates.
JF: We’ve had a number of successful franchises in recent years like Orphan Black, Lost Girl, and Blood Ties (based on Tanya Huff’s work) that have had followings and presence at conventions. Prior to COVID, I was a regular guest or panelist at sci fi, fantasy and horror conventions, mostly in Ontario and Quebec. Watching fandoms take off is always fun, especially with something unconventional like Carmilla from Canada’s Shaftesbury, which started off as a web series and graduated to TV. It really struck a chord with the gay community and was really groundbreaking. There are also lots of classic sci fi series that maintain a fanatical if smaller fanbase, like The Starlost (1973) and Lexx. Aaaaaand I think I’ve actually answered something other than this particular question! There are professional guilds for sci fi writers and general writers associations that have genre writers as part of them. But the actual number of publishers that handle spec fiction is vanishingly small so they don’t have much clout.
CA: Star Wars and Star Trek are more on the end of movie franchises and their spinoffs. If we’re looking at fiction, which is not movie based, then we do have conventions as well. However, Canada’s fan scene is very much flavored by the larger publishing machine of the US. Few Canadian fans will actually even know who their Canadian authors are, even in their own cities. There are exceptions to this where there are very strong writing/fan communities but it differs by area and I cannot speak to all places. There are several reasons why we hinge on the greater, US publishing machine. With our much smaller population, we also have fewer publishing houses and in recent years, those have diminished. SF is pretty much influenced by the US publishing giants and we’re just following along. Canadian publishers do not make a great dent into the fan mindset. In fact, I could name Canadian book publishers on one hand and magazines on the other. Some of the few conventions we have may also be more RPG or media oriented (as in Star Wars or Star Trek) and less about local authors. It’s a sad reality that if you aren’t a big name author, people will likely not even know you’re selling books next to them.
Are there institutes like the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at Kansas University, helmed by the dearly departed James Gunn (1923-2020) from the golden age of SF?
DP: The closest thing to that is the Merril Collection at the Toronto Public Library. It is based on a collection of materials donated to the TPL by the author, editor and critic Judith Merril when she passed away.
RR: In addition to the conferences mentioned above, there is the Merril Collection, a library dedicated to science fiction and fantasy. It attracts a lot of scholars as it is one of the world’s leading research collections of speculative fiction and popular culture.
Almost all the major universities now have courses on science fiction, many have several with different subtopics. Those professors would then be involved in related scholarship and attend ACCSFF.
JF: I honestly have no idea. We have the Merril Collection in Toronto which is one of the largest spec fiction repositories in the world with something like 80,000 works. And we have our answer to the Hugo Award, the Auroras. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of them! We do have university courses dedicated to all sorts of sci fi subjects, and some of them focus specifically on Canadian work.
CA: I cannot speak to other institutions and places where Nalo Hopkinson or Candas Jane Dorsey have taught are sure to view speculative fiction with a liberal mind. Vancouver (and BC) has not been so open in the past to speculative fiction. Again, this may have changed as I have not been involved in a university/college in quite a few years. And yes, I did go to the CSSF in Kansas and it was a great workshop.
There is the Sunburst Awards but that is only for recognizing fiction and not a center of study. I’m unfamiliar with any such institution in Canada, though there may be some programs through a few universities.
Was Canada part of the golden age (1938-1946) of SF?
DP: The aforementioned A.E. Van Vogt was the main Canadian involved then, as he published regularly during that time. There were odd others, but they tended not to publish more than a handful of stories, so they are not as well remembered.
RR: Absolutely. A.E. van Vogt, a major golden age writer, was Canadian. And there were a number of Canadian pulp magazines that published SF. I’m not the expert on that though: the experts would be Allen Weiss at York University and Jean-Louis Trudel for Quebec.
JF: I was going to let James take this one, but I don’t think either of us know. I expect we were, but Canada has tended not to enshrine genre fiction or pay it much attention.
CA: There was not much of one in that era that I know of. Phyllis Gottleib may have been writing then but there were not many authors. Judith Merril was another but I’m really not familiar with that era.
Please, each of you by yourselves, tell me how you distinguish science fiction from fantasy from speculative fiction?
DP: Speculative fiction is the umbrella label for all literature dealing with the fantastic. Science fiction deals specifically with the application of science and technology to create solutions to (or problems related to) events in the future or the present, based on existing science and technology. Fantasy involves narratives that, while seemingly having the appearance of realism, are actually based around ideas that are non-existent in the “real” world (e.g. magic).
RR: Speculative fiction is all fiction which is not entirely ‘real’ (something that could happen now or could have happened in the past) so subsumes science fiction, fantasy, horror, slip stream, magic realism, etc. It’s the broad category. However, the connotations of using speculative fiction rather than something specific like science fiction is that speculative fiction covers the more literary end of the field of SF&F. SF can stand for either science fiction or speculative fiction so if a magazine says it’s looking for SF it probably means all SF&F&H. If it says “speculative fiction” it might mean any SF&F&H or it might mean more literary SF; in contrast to “Scifi” which is the term generally reserved for Godzilla movies and junk monster books etc. (or used by the uninitiated public for science fiction).
Here, I’ll include the chart I had in the NCF GUIDE TO CANADIAN SCIENCE FICTION back in the 1980s—bit dated now as new niches have been identified by Amazon et al (like paranormal romance) to market self-published etc.
PA: For me Science-Fiction includes science in some form. It can be hard SF or soft SF but the science should be there. Fantasy, on the other hand, doesn’t need to include science. It tends to be more “magical” in my opinion and not necessarily grounded in what we understand as science. Scifi-fantasy of course has elements of both. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, speculates on what could be and that can take the form of science-fiction, fantasy, or horror.
JD: I tend to put both fantasy and sci-fi into the category of speculative fiction, the reason being that both genres are used to explore worlds where biology, society, and even physics are different from our own. To me, speculative fiction is anything that asks the question “What if things were this way instead of that way?” Then, between sci-fi and fantasy, the distinction for me is how the hypothetical scenarios play out; through science/technology or through magic.
JF: The worst thing I’ve heard about how Canada views different types of fiction is that “genre” in terms of film means horror, and nothing else! That makes for a ton of confusion, believe me. For myself, fantasy tends towards the magical, ie the extra-scientific, and sci fi explores the future of society and technology. Spec fiction for me is a catch-all of anything that isn’t 100% real world. I’m not particularly attracted to microdivisions of classification, like when publishers start coining terms like “hope-punk.”
CA: Speculative fiction is the umbrella under which all other genres fits. The genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror fit under that speculative umbrella and then each of those break down to various subgenres: body horror, Lovecraftian (weird) fiction, steampunk, cyberpunk, solarpunk, urban fantasy, psychological horror, etc. The line is often blurred on SF or fantasy. If it has machines/technology that possibly could exist, it’s often SF, but if it involves magic, mysticism, or strange beings, it’s often fantasy.
Is steampunk fantasy or SF? It can be both or either, dependent on the world. The Netflix show Carnival Row was an example of fantasy in a steampunkish (i.e., Victorian steam era) place, but a Sherlock Holmes film that has interesting engines might be SF. But wait, does that engine suck in the souls of the dead to use as energy? There are many versions of cross-genre fiction. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate but you can still call it speculative.
With your country’s French connection, via Quebec, do you all have access to surrealism in cinema and literature? Do you have access to Latin American SFF?
DP: French culture has always been primarily appreciated within Quebec, but its influence has been felt periodically in the English-speaking world through translations. Latin American culture has become more influential recently, with immigrants from Central and South America becoming more prevalent in Canada and its culture, including the SF community.
RR: Most English Canadians are only vaguely aware of the genre in Quebec. Some Quebec SF&F has been translated into English, so Elizabeth Vonarburg, Yves Meynard, Jean-Louis Trudel, Joel Champetier, Claud Lalumiere are names some English Canadian fans would recognize.
Many Canadians would know 100 Years of Solitude etc. so the literary end of Latin American SF&F that’s been translated into English. A lot of North American SF&F writers will be familiar with magic realism, either from the original Latin American or New Wave British movements, or more likely now, from the many examples of North American writers working in those genres. Surrealism and Dada etc. has a following, but is not mass market.
JD: We definitely have access to surrealism in cinema and literature, and it doesn’t just come from Quebec. Surrealism pops up in Toronto film festivals all the time. I occasionally write reviews for such film for my critics collective, Bitesize Breakdown, on Instagram. Latin American SFF has begun to make inroads into Canada through professional publications like Augur Magazine, which puts out great tales of magical realism.
JF: French culture is quite separate from English; I remember watching a lot of Quebec cinema when I was younger but it’s been a long time. I see very few Quebec novels translated and promoted in English Canada. It’s kind of sad! I don’t have a clue what’s happening there. I’d say that with Canada’s obsession with literary over popular works, you’d expect us to promote more surrealism and other more high-brow subject matter but I don’t see it happening. I love magic realism, but I found most of that through my explorations of world culture not because it was recommended by Canadian sources.
CA: There is a thriving community of French-Canadian speculative writers but many of them write only in French. Yves Menard, Jean-Louis Trudel, and Elizabeth Vonarburg are a few French-Canadian writers who have become known in the English language as well.
Latin American magic realism has been available through publishers for several decades. We read surrealism and some of us write it as well. Guillermo del Toro’s films touch on this and really, anything being produced in the world, in English, is available. French as well, but probably more limited outside of Quebec.
As the lonely Britisher in this conversation I want ask about the nature of written SF in Canada. It’s been said, in England at least, that American science fiction is all about outer space exploration and meeting alien races and visiting exotic planets, on the model of the frontier and encountering native populations, whereas British SF is very humdrum and earthbound and dystopian. Which characterization fits Canadian SF better, or is it its own beast?
DP: Canadian SF has usually been about looking at ourselves through the lenses of others, such as American or British perspectives, or the fears and concerns related to isolation, within the vast wilderness of the country or the social dislocations of urban living. Up until fairly recently, there was not much of a domestic environment for Canadian SF, due to a limited number of magazines and book publishers, so Canadian authors really had to conform to the standards set by the American or British editors and publishers if they wanted to succeed. However, in the past three decades, the magazine and book publishing markets have grown exponetially high, and Canadian SF writers have a chance now to build attention with both domestic and international publishers.
RR: I have argued that Canadian SF is its own beast, though as mentioned above, that’s more a historical perspective than necessarily the current trend. But some quick comparative history:
American SF, as invented by radio engineer Hugo Gernsback (1926) and dominated in the next generation by editor John W. Campbell (because Analog was the highest paying market, so writers wrote for Analog first) for multiple decades/generations was about an engineer arriving on a planet, discovering a problem, and solving it through his superior ingenuity to make space safe for America (or its future planetary equivalent) and democracy. Campbell’s preferred ‘alpha male’ protagonists—even when they were female, they were alphamale types, just in a dress)—were heroes by dint of their higher intelligence, greater physical strength and moral superiority. They were always the ones in charge and won through to their goals by overcoming obstacles in conflicts of man against man, man against nature, and occasionally, man against himself. If a story didn’t have conflict, it wasn’t a story. Campbell, like Hugo Gernsback before him, believed in the ideology of “progress”: newer is inherently better, bigger is better (i.e., growth is a fundamental good), and the future is bright as technology will solve all our problems. Capitalism and democracy were unquestioned and the inevitable outcome of modernization, progress, and any future extrapolation from present day America. The stories always have happy endings, the hero a clear unambiguous winner. (British SF, I suggested, were more willing to have unhappy endings.)
Canadian SF was the complete opposite.
Canadian heroes aren’t alpha males. Canadian protagonists were just average folks who get caught up in events they can’t control and often don’t completely understand. They are not in charge, not the commander of the mission or head explorer, they’re the guy working in maintenance, or the janitor maybe. We don’t have the Space shuttle, we’re the guys who built the Canadarm, you know? Often, our protagonists aren’t even involved, but are mere bystanders (like our self-image in the real world as watching events in America but thinking nothing much exciting ever happens here). The bystander protagonist, in contrast to the hero leader, allows for our character to be the sardonic observer, critiquing social norms or the actions of the hero, etc.
Canadian stories didn’t always have happy endings like the Americans or unhappy endings like the British—Canadian endings are often ambiguous. Canadian protagonists end up somewhere other than where they started, but you’re hard put to say if they’re better off or worse. They change, but is it growth?
For example, I loved Leslie Gadallah’s Legend of Sarah. The hero is the anthropologist sent from the technological society to study/manipulate the neighbouring medieval society… but he’s immediately denounced as a spy, so not the competent hero. His girl-friend tries to organize a rescue mission, but she gets so caught up in the politics of lobbying for a rescue, she sort of gets distracted and he gets put on the back burner. When the rescue mission finally arrives, they break into the wrong jail. The fact that there is a rescue attempt convinces his captors that he is a spy, just when they were about to let him go. The hero succeeds because the bad guys are even more incompetent than his side; and he never achieves his goals because they turn out to have been the wrong goals. He changes his attitudes towards the locals and they work together. The heroine, a local girl who falls in love with the spy, doesn’t get close to him, but instead meets a nice local boy. The hero’s ex-girlfriend ends up in politics. Nobody gets what they thought they wanted or ends up where they were aiming, but it’s all sort of okay, maybe.
Or take Gadallah’s The Empire of Kas series. The sad sack of a protagonist in the first book wins all his ‘battles’, but they turn out to be the wrong battles and completely pointless. Everyone in the first book completely misses what’s really going on, and they’re all fucked in the end. In the second book, the protagonists get it right and save the day, but they all die doing it. So is that win or a loss?
Or take H. A. Hargreaves famous “Dead to the World”, in which a computer error lists our ordinary protagonist as dead. He spends the entire story trying to get the bureaucracy to acknowledge that he exists, and fails… but ultimately realizes he prefers being ‘dead’.
Canadian speculative fiction rejected the ideology of “progress” and “technological determinism” much earlier than American SF. Phyllis Gotlieb’s Sunburst (1964), for example, was the first anti-nuclear SF novel. There is lots of dystopian American SF now too, but Canadians got there first.
Canadian SF also puts more emphasis on setting, perhaps, than either American or British. Like the British, Canadians don’t do a lot of stellar empire stuff because, just as the British know that running an Empire is kind of difficult, Canadians know that holding a country the size of Canada together is really tough, it’s so hard for us to believe interstellar empires are possible. Since we have winter here (stepping outside, the air tries to kill you when it’s minus -40 out) we are perhaps more aware of the environment than someone living in California. So distance and climate are things Canadians feel shape us, whereas American SF is about man shaping the environment and defeating distance.
I’ve also argued that Canadian SF tends (tended) towards the more literary end of the speculative fiction spectrum. It’s not because I think Canadians are inherently better writers, but that anyone who was more commercial fiction oriented wrote for the American market—we readers wouldn’t even know they were Canadian because they sell to the American SF publishers. Canadians who wanted to sell CanLit to American publishers found they couldn’t because American genre publishers weren’t that interested in introspective fiction or slow, talky literary work, etc, whereas Canadian publishers weren’t interested in publishing genre fiction, but wanted literary work. So Canadians who sold SF to Canadian publishers were on the far literary end, like Margret Atwood or Lesley Choyce or etc.
But all of that is ‘history’. It’s almost impossible to track trends today because self-publishing is just an avalanche of data. Many Canadian authors these days are trying to sell to the American mass market so are busy chasing the trends in American SF; and a lot of Canadians grew up watching Star Trek and Star Wars, so if those were there influences, is there any distinctively Canadian SF anymore? Maybe not. I can make a case that my favorite authors are still writing distinctly Canadian SF, but they are, like me, getting pretty old. The next generation are more literary, more woke, more evolved than our old pulp SF origins, but is that distinctly Canadian, or is that true of American and British and Australian SF as well?
PA: I don’t know that there’s any one kind of “Canadian” quality when it comes to SF. Canada is a very diverse country and writers of SFF tend to cover all the above-mentioned subjects and more. It really just depends on the author.
JD: Canadian SF is very much its own beast. My experience with it is that it deals very heavily with identity, politics, identity politics, and societal shifts. Every Canadian sci-fi writer explores these themes differently, and it’s led to some really fascinating experimental stories like the kind you’d find in Robert Charles Wilson’s books or A & E Science Fiction Magazine. If I had to guess, I think Canadian writers are driven to explore these themes because of our complex cultural heritage and relationships with indigenous and immigrant peoples.
JF: I’m just happy when Canadian genre fiction decides to be its own beast, and tells a good story well. We’re afraid of exploration here, I think, and despite not wanting to be like the overpowering American voices from the south, we often mimic what we see. The flipside of that is that when Canada innovates, we might not pull it off entirely successfully, and a successive iteration of the same idea ends up produced in the States. Canada has had more satisfying results sometimes with European co-productions, like Orphan Black with the UK. Our own voice tends to be a little insular, a little confused, and a little vague.
CA: I’d say that these descriptions tend to be very narrow and based off works that are made into movies or TV shows, though perhaps there is a certain core of truth in some regards. But you will always be able to find exceptions written by authors residing in each country.
One element that often infiltrates Canadian fiction and movies, whether speculative or not, is that of the landscape. Canada is a vast country with a small population and the landscape can kill. Pitting people against nature is a very… natural thing in Canadian fiction. However, when it comes to speculative fiction, I think there is great diversity. Canada has been called a cultural mosaic and in reading the various fiction and poetry by Canadian authors, there is a great range from the dystopian to the planet spanning, exploratory tales.
I think it becomes harder these days to push any country into a particular flavour as there will always be outliers and we have access to fiction from most places in the world.
So please give me the lowdown on Dark Helix Press. How well have you done so far and what inspired you to set up the publishing house to begin with? And how well received has Trump: Utopia or Dystopia (2017) been, particularly in the US?
JF: I’ll take this one since I’ve been involved with the Press and James hasn’t. Not yet anyhow! My involvement has been as an editor or co-editor primarily, although one of my stories was featured in the anthology Futuristic Canada. I think publisher J. F. Garrard is providing a very important outlet for Canadian spec writers, and her stress on diversity of voice and viewpoint is not just timely but makes for great storytelling. I want to see her succeed, and more presses like hers starting up in this country. We lost ChiZine, one of Canada’s only spec fiction publishers, a few years back (scandal!) and there is a need for more like Dark Helix.
Canadian television I presume is modeled on British television with the BBC, so there should be lots of documentaries, science shows and educational programs. Is this in fact true and does it help make SF popular among the young?
DP: Yeah- the CBC is quite good at doing that, but whether young people are paying attention to what they do now is anybody’s guess.
RR: Not really. That description more accurately describes TVO (TV Ontario) the Ontario educational channel and The Knowledge Network (British Columbia) There were similar channels in other provinces for a while, but are gone now.
The CBC has Canadian news and a few science and educational programs but its role has been greatly curtailed by online streaming services. I can’t actually remember when I watched CBC, other than the Great British Baking Show. Netflix, Apple, etc. etc. is what people watch instead of broadcast TV these days. The CBC is very active in podcasting educational and science shows which can be downloaded anywhere in the world. Quirks and Quarks is the lead science news broadcast, but they have a lot of good podcasts. (As an author, you might appreciate “We Regret to Inform You” and inspirational podcast about rejection. J )
PA: I don’t know if Canadian TV was modeled after British TV. We might have elements of that. These days, however, like most of the world I think Canadians tend to rely on streaming services like Netflix. I think the TV we watch tends to come from all over the world, but particularly from the United States. Some are also from Britain. I don’t know that we have any more educational programs or science shows than the rest of the world, so I can’t say if these have any impact on young people. As a mother of three, I’d say the youngest generation right now is influenced more by what they see on the Internet than what they might watch on TV. When I was growing up, it was different, but what we were exposed to through TV (and movies) tended to come primarily from the U.S., with some things from Britain, such as Dr. Who. There was educational programming then too, but I can only speak for myself when I say that while that helped instill in me an interest in science, I wouldn’t necessarily consider it one of my biggest influences when it comes to my own fiction writing.
JD: I think the television you’re referring to is the CBC, which was indeed originally modeled on the BBC. Our documentaries are mostly historical, focused on Canadian heritage and figures. The reality is, most of our exposure to science and science fiction comes from spillover from the United States in the form of shows like Stargate: SG-1, The Expanse, and Star Trek.
JF: When I was growing up, TVO (TV Ontario) produced exactly that kind of slate and also picked up tons of British cartoons and programming like Doctor Who. Now, there’s no money for production, and we do mostly news and digest programs there. It’s going to sound wild, but we have, in a way, the same issue with a limited number of channels in this country like the UK does. BBC1, BBC2, ITV, right? Here, even though there are nominally several major broadcasters, the money to make TV comes from a single source, the Canadian government, through a system of “envelopes.” I can digress, but it will be depressing…
CA: Our TV is not very much modelled on British TV, except perhaps the CBC show. Perhaps for a few things. I’d say Canada developed its own way and was probably influenced by the US, the UK and some European countries as well. I cannot speak to science and educational programs but Canada has produced some very original SF series, such as Orphan Black.
Canada, especially greater Vancouver and Toronto has many film studios and whether a series is written elsewhere, many are produced here. Separating which are written by Canadians and are influenced by Canadians will take an expert that I am not.
The BBC is also legendary for its SF, everything from Doctor Who to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Red Dwarf. Are there any long running ready-made equivalents on Canadian TV?
DP: Not very many. One big reason for that is that Canadian TV has always been fairly cash-strapped and insular in its nature. The most notable thing I can remember was a major failure. Harlan Ellison’s The Starlost was produced as a TV show for CTV in Canada, but Ellison was so incensed at the poor results that he took his name off his pliot script. Ben Bova, who was working as a technical advisor, ended up writing a quite revealing roman-a-clef about what went wrong in novel form. That kind of stained Canadian TV’s reputation when it came to doing fantasy-based television for quite a while.
RR: CBC TV, nope. A fair bit of American SF is produced in Canada, though. There are Wikipedia entries about that, but nothing inherently Canadian.
CBC radio used to have a fair bit of SF, but those days are gone. The radio drama department was dismantled. I think the last SF show on CBC radio was Canadia: 2056, a satire in which an American is assigned to the Canadian space fleet and is slightly horrified to find out that their role is to maintain the toilets on the American fleet
JD: In my experience, most Canadian audiences are drawn more toward U.S. and U.K. productions like Doctor Who and The Expanse. Funny enough, major U.S. productions like Star Trek: Discovery and The Expanse shoot in Toronto, with Canada contributing many of its top acting and production talent to these programs. As such, many Canadians feel adoptive and protective of these foreign sci-fi properties because we see our friends and family working on them. I have several friends and acting teachers who’ve appeared on The Expanse alone.
JF: Agreed. We have a show that takes off every now and then, but there’s not a lot of money for the kind of slick programming that comes out of the States.
CA: Murdoch Mysteries is more a Holmesian police detective show but could be considered part of this. Orphan Black was a very successful series filmed here with Canadian actors. I can think of Killjoys, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, and I think the Highlander series was Canadian.
Do you have any equivalents to Game of Thrones or Harry Potter?
DP: Not that I can think of at the moment.
RR: On CBC or CTV? Not that I can think of.
Lots of book series of course.
JF: Well, wink wink, it was a Canadian press that originally took a chance on J.K. Rowling! Otherwise, we don’t do a lot of epics here.
CA: Maybe. I don’t watch TV but who does anymore. We have stations like Disney, or Netflix or Crave so it’s getting hard to discern what is Canadian and what isn’t.
Does science fiction fare any better in the Canadian movie industry? David Cronenberg, titanic force that he is the genre field, has had to make most of his movies in the US. Is there anybody like George Lucas or John Carpenter in Canada proper?
DP: Canada’s film industry is miniscule compared to that of other countries, and always has been. For most projects, you are dependent on funding from the government to give you budgets for movies, and the bureaucracy at work can be labyrinthine. There are very few influential film directors in Canada, and, besides Cronenberg and Guy Maddin, who has managed to carve out a successful career working in Canada alone, most of them don’t do speculative things.
RR: I can’t pretend to know much about the movie industry. There have been some Canadian SF, but nothing much I can think of off-hand…except The Shape of Things to Come (1979) which I believe has a credible claim to worst SF movie ever made. A careful reading of the credits at the end reveal that the movie was produced by a random bunch of guys taking advantage of Canadian film tax credits as a tax dodge—so dentists or whatever, not professional film people. They hired some great Canadian actors, but the writer must have been on drugs, or the script lost pages, and everything done in one take with no direction. Ghastly. It was actively painful to watch because some of those actors I’d seen on stage and were way better than this movie.
I’m sure there are some great Canadian films… but it’s hard to tell what’s actually Canadian, and what’s American filmed in Canada, if you follow me.
PA: I don’t think Canadians think of this country as a “melting pot.” That seems to us a very American way of thinking. That “ideal” of people coming from elsewhere to form part of a monoculture seems foreign to us. Canada is more like a quilt in that we take in people from all over the world but welcome their culture as a piece of what it means to be Canadian. It’s not just one thing, and I speak as an immigrant to this country. Being Canadian means you can have more than one aspect to who you are, and that includes your background, whatever it may be. I think that is reflected in Canadian literature because we have such diversity of culture and experience in our country and each author approaches their stories coming from their own unique and often multi-faceted perspective. I feel like that enriches us all since you can step into a different point of view with every story you read.
JD: Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker I have to talk about here. He’s a Quebecois director who started off making contemporary character dramas, but after becoming recognized in Hollywood, he’s since started making extremely high-quality sci-fi films like Arrival and Dune. He has an incredible eye for detail and is extraordinarily meticulous in his work. Going back in time a little bit, James Cameron is another Canadian director who made it big in the States, and did so through science fiction films like The Terminator. As for directors who’ve made big-budget, blockbuster science fiction films in Canada, I can’t name any, and I think the reason for that is that we don’t have the same budget for film that the States does. Fewer projects are selected for production each year, and Council Grants and other funding are more likely to be awarded to stories that support Canadian narratives of culture and friendship than sci-fi.
JF: It’s really sad that most well-known Canadian directors like Cameron and Cronenberg have hardly ever made a “Canadian” film. Norman Jewison founded the Canadian Film Centre, but not much of note has come out of it. There never would have even been a Norman Jewison if he had come up through the CFC, I think. Despite that, you almost have to go to the Centre to get a start in the Canadian film industry, and to get in, you almost always have to have industry connections. It keeps us very limited for new ideas and for the pursuit of excellence in storytelling, when it’s basically a lot of inbreeding… That sounds harsh, I know, but I’ve literally been hearing the same conversation and the same complaints about the Canadian arts scene since I was a kid, and nothing ever seems to change.
CA: Well, David Cronenberg gets a special place as weird, and horrific and surreal all on his own. But don’t forget, James Cameron (Avatar) and Denis Villenueve (Dune) are big not just as Canadians but beyond.
On the topic of David Cronenberg, whether you watch Shivers, Videodrome or The Fly or even movies like Eastern Promises, you can’t help but notice certain constants and themes, such as integration and assimilation and ‘othering’. You could say much the same for American SF and pop culture but it seems more deeply ingrained in Canada. Do these themes ever enter into your own writings? Is Canada the veritable melting pot and is that readily reflected in its literature?
DP: Oh, certainly. Canada likes to pride itself on allowing immigrants from other countries to be “themselves”, rather than being forced to become Americans, and we consequently make a big show of being “tolerant”. But, at the same time, our history is full of barbaric acts of racism and forced assimilation that we are only coming to grips with now, in particular the treatment of our Indigenous peoples.
Fear of the “other” is not exclusive to Canada, of course, but it was amplified by our history. This was a country torn out of the wilderness and forced into existence as farms, towns and cities, transformed from what it had been to what it is now in a rough way. Those who helped accomplished this took pride in their accomplishments, but they were extremely smug about it, and their descendants still are.
My own work deals with this primarily in trying to imagine animated cartoon characters as real beings, and whether or not they would exist well in the real world. These creatures are complete nonconformists who are often able to defy the boundaries of science, physics and logic in what they do. How would they fare in situations that they could NOT work to their advantage so easily? They are, I think, possibly the ultimate way in which we can “other” people even if they appear harmless and non-threatening.
RR: To be truthful, I’ve never watched a Cronenberg film, because I’m not into horror at all.
The themes of ‘othering’ are huge in all Canada literature because the “alienated outsider” is all Canadians. First, because most Canadians are immigrants at some remove, and unlike the American melting pot, Canada’s central mythos is “multiculturalism” so the theory is we all keep our heritage alive—which means you and your neighbour are probably from different cultures. There’s quite a bit of Canadian SF that deals with alienation.
JD: My father once described Canada as “the melting pot that wants to be a mosaic”, and I think that’s true. Canada has a narrative that the various cultures that comprise it are all deeply valued and have a voice, when in reality, that’s not true; we have prejudices and racial tension the same as any other country, but in my opinion, these tensions are becoming more inflamed in Canada. This is something I would like to examine in my future writings.
JF: Canadian culture is ruled centrally because we only have public money supporting it, as opposed to the States where private money and profit create the necessary capital. The old joke is that Canadians define themselves by what they’re not. My joke is that the Canadian chicken crossed the road to get to the middle. We have a lot of fear in this country, and it’s largely the fear of being criticized for not being on the right side of everything: race, gender, generosity, morality… We like to let someone else try something and stand back to take it apart. Doing something palatable is preferred to being brave. We want to be inclusive and representative, but that’s ended up having the effect of keeping different parts of society in their own separate boxes. Indigenous people have to write about being Indigenous. Black Canadians have to write about the Black experience. We’re reinforcing limitations a lot of times by trying to allow everyone to have a voice, but filtering those voices through narrow expectations of what they should be saying.
CA: My writing, in poetry, often look at the othering of women or mythical beings. My stories often focus on moral dilemmas, but I write many stories from a more universal “she” or “you” or even a city that could be anywhere. I have written a very specific Vancouver story about fungal mold and there was definitely an othering that happens there.
I’ve been working on a collection of near future, dystopian climate fiction and each character is pretty much alone, so I guess it might be true that they are dealing less with assimilation and more with othering. Or, they feel othered and have to come to terms with integration in a new world.
I’m also thinking about you David and your Toontown stories! You wouldn’t happen to be a fan of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while we’re on the topic?
DP: Yes. I think it helped set me on the path to my current writing. There’s always been a part of me that has wanted to see animated cartoon characters as “real” beings, since they seem much more “real” and believable spiritually than many actual human beings.
Are women better represented in works of SF and fantasy in Canada compared to the US? I’m getting this concern from Marie Lathers’ path breaking book Space Oddities: Women and Outer Space in Popular Film and Culture, 1960-2000 (2010), with women being consigned to secondary nurturing support roles in television and cinema until Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979), in part because of the frontier mythology that was superimposed onto outer space. This may not apply to written SF in the US but its’ worth sniffing out elsewhere. Thank heavens Egyptian and Arab SF is good on this regard, as I’ve argued elsewhere.
Any comments? Do you have frontier mythology and cowboy epics in Canada to begin with, or do you all watch (cynical, sassy) spaghetti Westerns?
DP: First, on the female perspective, things have changed a lot recently because of more women being involved shaping the image and culture of SF globally, as writers, editors, publishers, convention managers, advocates, etc. So naturally you’re going to see a shift towards female centric narratives, because women know themselves better than men do and can portray themselves and their lives more realistically. There’s quite a number of them active now (I mentioned a few earlier) and their work is highly regarded, by myself and many others.
Whereas, on the frontier side, Canada never developed the sort of Wild West culture America did, in part because the Northwest Mounted Police (now the RCMP) did such an efficient job of maintaining justice in the more “lawless” parts of the country. The part of the country that could be closest to maintaining a “frontier” approach to thinking socially and politically would be Alberta, since they have a thriving ranching industry and a nose-thumbing attitude towards authority that resemble those of Texas in America.
RR: I couldn’t really say nationally. In my local circle, women have always represented 50% of the fans and authors.
The frontier mythology is again, the opposite of the American here.
In the US, the Western frontier was about rugged individualism, with the myth of the gunslinger shooting it out in the streets at high noon. (In reality, guns were too expensive for the average citizen.)
In Canada, the North West Mounted Police arrived in the West before the settlers, so law and order was firmly established when they arrived, so the Canadian myth is about community and orderly settlement. Of course, both nations displaced the Indigenous population. The NWMP was formed precisely to put down Indigenous and Metis revolt, so weren’t really that much better than the Americans, though under President Jackson, treatment of Indigenous populations was much more genocidal.
CA: We have many strong female writers now and I can tell you that we don’t write women as background characters, though of course there may always be some. I don’t think I would even know how to do this and would have to consciously create such a character to be a specific foil in a story.
Gemma Files wrote an amazing dark trilogy called the Hexbreaker series. Full-on western with gay main characters and a dark death goddess. No spaghetti came near those books. Overall, the days of Westerns died off in TV and fiction but I’m seeing a resurgence with Westworld, and a few other more modern cowboy series. They’re not speculative overall but mythologies tend to cycle.
JD: I started drafting my answer to this question with “I’m going to let Jen answer this,” but realized that “let” sounds pretty patronizing and chauvinistic, so I stopped, told Jen about it, and we had a good laugh. I’m very eager to hear her take on this. I’ll just say briefly that I think women are represented better than they have been, but there’s still a long way to go. In my view, they won’t have equal representation until they have the same emotional, ethical, and intellectual range as their male counterparts.
Secondly, Canada once had a very strong frontier mythos, propagated in part by the television programs we received from American during the Golden Age of Hollywood, but in recent years that mythos has been broken down by acknowledgement of the many acts of genocide the Canadian government perpetrated against the First Nations. The Westerns we enjoy now are typically ones that incorporate those acknowledgements into their stories. Canada itself doesn’t produce many such films and TV shows, but it frequently hosts such productions from the US.
JF: Ugh. I wish we didn’t have to have this conversation at all. No, I’d say that overall, women are not well represented in terms of numbers although individual women have been very successful. When I was reading the slushpile for Amazing Stories, there were four or more times the number of male writers submitting. A lot of them were writing female main characters, which I guess is a positive development? But in order for things to change, it’s not about what women do as much as it is about men giving them space to do it. Almost everyone at the top in cultural industries is either male or was promoted by a man, and often because they fit in, not because they challenged the system. Men seem to feel that they’ll lose something if women get more opportunities, even fictionally! But I know that as a woman myself (yes, yes I am) I am always drawn to stories where I can see myself, and most often that means at least one female lead. I prefer female leads instinctively, and while the playing field IS shifting to include a greater range of female characters and more female-led casts, you don’t get many shows like The Expanse where women have full agency and are complex, interesting, and worth following. It hurts me to the core when a Canadian show is more regressive than its American counterparts and features fewer female characters, like the immensely popular Murdoch Mysteries. You have me very curious to explore Egyptian stories for your greater gender parity!
As for frontier myths, we need so many more! There’s a chance in Canada to remake that genre entirely since we don’t have the same history of making nasty cowboy and Indian movies here. The RCMP, Christian genocide against the Native peoples, the Hudson’s Bay company, fur trading, the Inuit and their approach to survival, Indigenous husbandry of natural resources… we can start with a clean slate and tell important and transformative stories if we choose, without having to overcome a century of racist filmmaking and writing, and digging into real history and the stories that come out of it.
Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle laments the extermination of African tribesmen at the hands of the Nazis, and you ‘feel’ he is talking about what happened to the Native Americans in his own country/continent. Barry Longyear has a wonderfully anti-colonial story called Savage Planet, where a mega corporation is teaching the superiority of the human race to a native alien species in an effort to destroy their self-confidence and lead to their extinction. (The textbook they use is called Manifest Destiny and the schoolteacher gets wise to this and turns education into a tool for revolution). Are there any equivalents of this in Canadian SF?
DP: There are a few anti-imperialist works, which may have been a reaction to our position within the British Empire. A.E. Van Vogt dealt with overbearing empires and the abilities of unique individuals to resist them in his novels. And more recently, Indigenous authors have begun to create works that question the legitimacy of the Canadian government’s actions towards them in the past, as well as the manner in which the wider media has stereotyped them.
RR: I didn’t feel Dick thought about Native Americans particularly. It’s an American blind spot.
I can’t off hand think of any of my generation of Canadian SF that dealt with Indigenous issues (it’s been a blind spot here too!), but of course that’s changing. There is a definite movement towards inclusiveness and seeking out neglected voices across North America, so slowly, slowly, there are First Nation and non-white (and non-male/non-CIS) writers bringing in their perspectives. I have to confess I’m not on top of all of that so can’t give you an authoritative answer.
Canadian SF has its share of Black writers, though. Nalo Hopkinson and Charles R. Sanders come immediately to mind as major figures.
CA: I’m sure there are but I cannot think of any at the moment.
JD: I’m not familiar with any major Canadian sci-fi equivalents of these works, but I have read some wonderful stories in Augur Magazine that are similar. Augur is a publication that is very interested in counternarratives and challenging social preconceptions, so much of the work they put out is speculative fiction focused on indigenous heroes and stories.
: We have a problematic relationship with our own reputation in white Canada, where we are constantly facing the vast gulf between Canada as a progressive, tolerant, peace-keeping nation and our history as an abuser of the Indigenous population, our terrible record on race relations, and our crimes against the Asian population during World War II, just for a few examples. We love to see ourselves as the world frames us, as an exemplar of a “good” nation, but we don’t have a good record of self-reflection in non-fiction or sci fi. No one in academia wants to say anything in prose that could be construed as racist, and since our sci fi works seem to come out of the literati, they seem to avoid anything that could reflect badly on Canada as an actor in history or the present by ignoring both. I’m not aware of any work that deals with our own sins even obliquely. For us, sci fi is centred on being set in the future, not on ideas. I’m a little curious about Evan Winter as a writer who might break that paradigm.
Is there such a thing as ‘aboriginal’ art and literature in Canada and does it make its way into genre works? You’ll have to excuse my ignorance of the political as well as artistic scene in your country.
DP: Very much so. It’s become particularly strong in more recent years, as Indigenous people have asserted themselves more directly and firmly in the country’s way of life. As a result, you have narratives specifically geared for children and young adults of these groups, as well as adult authors such as Drew Hayden Taylor, Thomas King and Richard Van Camp taking various obvious genre based tropes and ideas and applying them to how Indigenous people would experience them.
RR: Of course we have Indigenous art and literature. Initally, there was a strong divide between Indigenous art/writing and genre fiction.
First phase: It’s natural when a people are trying to reclaim a suppressed culture that the initial impulse is to “preserve authentic Indigenous culture” so an assertion of art / (oral) literature as distinct and outside the mainstream of Canadian culture. The problem with that approach long term is not just it’s effective exclusion from the mainstream, but also “preserving” = freezing that culture at one point in time (like say the Amish) rather than growing, changing and moving forward like a living culture.
In the second phase, First Nation artists (such as Joseph Jacobs, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Carl Ray, Allen Sapp and Bill Reid) extrapolated that revived authentic art forward into contemporary movement… that art then crossed over into Canadian mainstream. I think the same thing is true of the literature. So from oral tradition, to contemporary First Nation writers moving into the CanLit mainstream. However, I would argue that First Nations writers bringing in Indigenous voices to CanLit were coming in from the opposite side of CanLit (the literary end, if you will) then the CanLit genre divide. I can’t think off hand of many first nation writers contributing to Canadian SF&F. I am aware of a lot of cultural appropriation where Canadian SF&F authors thought it was fine to steal First Nation motifs/legends/myths to base their fantasy on, but hopefully, those days have now past.
We’re only now entering the third phase where Indigenous voices are entering genre fiction with their own contributions, reclaiming that space from the appropriators. Part of a larger trend (broader representation from minority/immigrant/excluded cultures, LBGQT+, class, etc. populations) with the next generation trying to be way more inclusive. Editors as well as writers for the recent explosion of new genre magazines in Canada seem to be much more diverse than the “white-male-only” stereotype of genre fiction of my youth. About time, or long past, I should say.
PA: Canada definitely has Indigenous art and literature, and Canadian SFF includes Indigenous authors who write from their own culture and lived experiences.
CA: There are First Nation/Indigenous writers who are writing speculative fiction. I’m quite ignorant of who they are or their works but here are a couple names I’ve heard: Eden Robinson, Cherie Dimaline, and Nathan Adler who was in Playground of Lost Toys that Ursula Pflug and I edited.
JD: Actually yes! In Canada, we would call it Indigenous or First Nations art and literature, and in the last few years, there’s been a great push to have native writers’ genre work recognized. In the same way that Afrofuturism has become a subgenre of science fiction, Indigenous Futurism is rapidly making inroads in Canada. Indigenous Futurism is a genre that depicts peoples of indigenous descent as having agency and a presence in the future.
JF: We have some fabulous magical realism in the public sphere from Indigenous writers, and work in other speculative genres as well. The problem seems to remain that the funding agencies and publishers/producers keep First Nations writers “in their own lane” if they want to get money to finance their visions. In other words, if you already have an identity as an Indigenous artist, it’s supposed to be … confusing? Double dipping? If you take money as a sci fi writer too. There’s also a paucity of financing going to any genre, which only adds to the roadblocks.
What is political correctness like in Canada and how does it affect genre literature and art? Do you even need it with your inbuilt constitutional safeguards when it comes to hate literature?
DP: Mainly in two ways. The calling out of racist behavior and speech is common, in particular that of white people directed towards minority races, in a way that is far more common than it once was. There is also a desire for authenticity, that someone, for example, claiming to be Indigenous should actually have Indigenous heritage and Indigenous privileges granted by the government. If it is real, there is fallout. A television series based on a speculative fiction-tinged series of books about an Indigenous boy got cancelled because the prime mover, who claimed to be Indigenous, was not nearly as Indigenous as she claimed to be.
RR: Politics in Canada are generally a bit more civilized than in the US, but increasingly Canadians are watching Fox News and other American propaganda sites, and the Neoliberal (read, Reaganomics/Republican ideology) is making itself felt. Writers are naturally in the forefront of resisting, satirizing, extrapolating trends etc. For example, I mentioned Karl Schroeder above as someone who includes a critique of capitalism, such as his indictment of micropayments and intellectual rights in the novel Permanence, in which the planet is losing its atmosphere because it can’t pay the royalties for the terraforming tech. It’s strictly background to the excellent adventure narrative, not at all intrusive in the story, but I couldn’t use an ATM machine ever again without thinking about that book and being furious at capitalists. J Similarly, Guy Kay’s fantasies often critique imperialism, colonialism, or racism or sexism or bad leadership without directly referencing current events. A lot of the newer writers are much more direct in their #Metoo themes or Black Lives Matter or etc. These tend to be global movements, though, not strictly Canadian.
CA: It can get out of hand. There are constitutional rights and then there is fiction. You might have a bigoted character but your writing shouldn’t be bigoted. People sometimes forget the difference. It is one reason we can write SF and fantasy: it allows you to portray societies and situations that may be like something that currently exists but it removes the finger pointing while still highlighting the issue.
JD: Oh boy, do I have a lot to say on this one. Here’s the thing about free speech in Canada: unlike in America, free speech is not enshrined anywhere in our Bill of Rights, at least not to the same ironclad degree it is in America. Because of that, it’s much easier for the government to stamp out words, phrases, or even entire written work by branding them as hate literature when they clearly aren’t. On top of that, political correctness does seem like it’s getting out of hand in Canada; certain written works won’t even get published if they don’t meet a certain degree of politically correct terminology. While I understand that, I think that writers need to be free to be politically incorrect when their stories require it. For instance, if I write a bigoted character, they need to be able to say bigoted things without being censored. I can’t make a comment on racism and prejudice if I don’t have a character who’s allowed to be racist. Furthermore, excess political correctness and censorship in Canada can, and has, prevented open, public discourse on acts of genocide and major societal shifts. The biggest example of this I can think of is the ongoing genocide against the Uygher Muslims in China. If I were to say the words “China is committing genocide against a minority population within its borders,” there’s a very good chance I’d be labeled a racist towards the Chinese.
Come to think of it, how are Arabs and Muslims portrayed in Canadian SFF? I hope it’s better than what you get in Homeland and 24?
DP: Considerably better. They have integrated well into our society and are active in many parts of the media, including as media journalists. For a number of years, the CBC ran a popular sitcom called “Little Mosque On The Prairie” which dealt with the lives of Muslim people in a small Canadian town. There are some, however, who have committed racist acts towards them and murdered them, but they are few.
RR: I can’t recall off hand any Canadian SF&F with references to Arabs or Muslims. In general, Canadians side with Israel, but increasingly, there is criticism of Israel and sympathy towards Palestinians. No sympathy towards Iran or Iraq etc., and I’d say Islamophobia is alive and well in Canada, but to a much lesser degree than in the US. Canadians are watching Homeland and 24 the same as Americans, so a lot of that propaganda is effective, but there is also a strong liberal streak in Canada about religious tolerance, multiculturalism, and so on that offsets that to some extent. The stereotype of the polite and tolerant Canadian is of course a myth, but we believe in our own stereotype enough that at least most Canadians know better than to say racist things out loud—though after the Trump years, I judge this to be eroding.
CA: I’m not familiar with those works. I’m also unable to answer this in much detail. I’m often reading in the realm of US published works (even if by Canadians) and I have not seen many portrayals. In fact there was a story in the Tesseracts I co-edited with Steve Vernon. The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Patricia Robertson is a Arabic medieval fantasy and takes place during Ramadan.
JD: I would say probably? In terms of the kind of characters that you see, as opposed to in America, they’re better represented. But if you’re talking about representation in terms of the numbers, I’d say it’s still vanishingly small in Canada. Based on the writers I’ve read.
JF: When I read this question, my first thought was, are they? At all? I kind of think we produced “Little Mosque on the Prairie” and said, “There. We did Muslims.”
Did any of you notice the conspicuous absence of important or numerous Asian characters in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017)? This is in marked contrast to the original 1982 cult classic.
RR: Again, I’m guessing that question wasn’t really addressed to me. I did not see the absence of Asian characters particularly significant in the 2049 version because it was set in a different locale: desert rather than downtown LA.
CA: The original seemed to be placed in an Asian city. I did see 2049 but I don’t remember much about it.
JD: I did notice a conspicuous absence of Asian culture and motifs in the new Blade Runner. At first I couldn’t understand this omission given how prominent they were in the original, but after some thought, I’ve come up with a troubling possible answer. It’s conceivable that Villeneuve and the producers believed they were avoiding controversy and allegations of racism by deliberately omitting Asian imagery from the dystopian setting of Blade Runner. I don’t know if this is the correct answer, but it seems quite possible to me.
JF: I think James is onto something there – it’s a very Canadian mindset to avoid seeming racist by avoiding talking about race or casting outside “traditional” boxes. Which of course is about the most racist thing possible… When I watched Rings of Power and The Wheel of Time, I actually sighed with relief every time a person of colour appeared in the cast. And shook my head at the trolling and complaints – who says elves are Caucasian?
Makes you worry about the new Dune movie he’s doing, and that franchise hasn’t been right since Alejandro Jodorowsky wasn’t allowed to pursue his surrealistic vision of the classic Frank Herbert novel.
RR: I liked the Dune movie for what that’s worth.
CA: Well, Dune did have people of colour. Were there Asians? I’m not sure there were.
JD: As for Dune, the absence of Asian stars is not surprising at all. Dune is a financial gamble for any studio, and so any studio backing it will demand known, bankable stars from North America and Great Britain. This seems ironic to me given how ahead of its time the novel was. The invitation to create a cast that reflected the book was there, it simply wasn’t accepted. Dune’s apparent financial success has likely further hindered such advancement of Asian performers in the future; studios are less likely to stray from their usual casting patterns as a result of Dune’s success.
JF: Okay, I haven’t seen the new Dune yet, but I was struck in the trailers at how much it looks exactly like David Lynch’s version! And I know a lot of that design was borrowed from Jodorowsky but still. I actually like the Lynch version. I thought it did a good job of capturing the sense of the books. I don’t know much about Villeneuve as a philosopher, but yes, there was a lot of cultural richness (especially the Neo-Asian ambiance) missing from his Blade Runner. I don’t know how much of that was just finding his feet in Hollywood. Canadian filmmakers come from a deprivation mentality: how do I make this cheaper? What can I cut out? Whereas Hollywood is looking to spend money: we need a car chase! Let’s do an explosion! I’d also have to say that French Canada is generally speaking more openly xenophobic and racist than English Canada. There’s an entire political party that makes racism a cornerstone of its policies. No idea though if that has any bearing on Villeneuve’s choices!
You can’t talk about Canadian SF without talking about the giant that is William Gibson, although technically he’s an American. Does Canada have its own local brand of cyberpunk? Is ‘high tech, low life’ a maxim the average sci-fi buff in Canada knows by heart?
DP: Gibson is American by birth (coming originally from South Carolina), but his living and working in Canada influenced his development of cyberpunk, and those Canadians who try to write in that subgenre know it. Certainly my image of Vancouver has been shaped by his usage of it to project a far tech future image.
RR: I’d say no. Canadian SF has its share of cyberpunk, but I’d argue that it’s not the ‘cyber’ element that is what makes something American or Canadian. I would argue that Canadian cyberpunk is likely to have the characteristics I mentioned above—a hero that is not an alpha male (or a female warrior who is basically the alpha male regardless of gender) but someone caught up in events; that they may be more bystander than leader, that setting may be more key (though setting of the cyberworld defines the genre, a Canadian element of Gibson’s work perhaps) and so on. I do detect a slightly greater attraction to other punks (steampunk, fairypunk, etc. etc.) with Canadian editors/writers, but it’s not definitive.
PA: I love cyberpunk and you can’t mention that subgenre without thinking of Gibson. But he wrote those early cyberpunk works a long time ago when cyberspace was new and futuristic. These days even William Gibson is writing different fiction from that. I’m not saying cyberpunk is dead, just that I see it transforming with the years as it should, because we have different concerns in this century, so you’re seeing things like solarpunk, hopepunk, and lunarpunk that stem from there, and that’s great to expand on that subgenre of science-fiction and branch off in ever new directions, which is exactly what you want SF to do.
CA: I’d say we all know it. It comes out in films as well. That Mad Max style world has become its own trope.
JD: I think cyberpunk is represented by individual Canadian authors, but to me, it doesn’t seem like there’s a definitive brand of Canadian cyberpunk. That’s a real shame, given our country’s complex inter-cultural relationships and emerging technologies. Any country that can design a giant robot arm for use in space has no excuse for not having a vibrant cyberpunk scene. As for the ‘high tech, low life’ maxim, I haven’t yet met a single Canadian familiar with the expression outside of a classroom.
JF: I read Neuromancer, and have to admit it probably would have gone over better when I was in my teens! My current exposure to Gibson is through the TV adaptation, The Peripheral, and I’m not really getting into it. I think so much has grown out of Gibson’s work that I’m left a little underwhelmed by the original. I’m thinking of shows like Upload, which touch on many of the same scientific concepts but maybe do a better job of characterization and feel more relevant to me.
Watching the Mexican sci-fi movie Sleep Dealer (2008) you came to understand the latitudes of cultural imperialism from the US to its neighbouring state, exemplified in the reality TV show they watch. Is this is a problem in Canada too?
RR: I haven’t seen Sleep Dealer, but as mentioned previously, Tigana was the great Canadian novel about national identity and coping with the neighbouring empire.
As for cultural imperialism, many Canadian writers are aware of the issue, but it’s more common perhaps in work by my generation than the current generation which is more global in its orientation.
CA: The cultural imperialism of the US in films, oh yes, it’s there. I remember when David Brin’s dystopian The Postman was shown in Canadian theatres. There was supposed to be the touching moment of the kid holding up the letter and the postman flies by on his horse, but he stops and turns back to grab it. It was very American and the whole theatre burst out laughing. War movies (many of them) always have the Americans saving the day but as my mother used to like to point out, they came in at the end of the war. Aliens always land in the US or take the White House. I think we see this less in fiction but when the movie moguls grab hold of a script they paint it liberally with American patriotism that makes the rest of us gag.
JF: There’s a classic Canadian film called My American Cousin (1985) where a young Canadian girl’s desire for adventure starts to come true when her cool cousin arrives from the States. That’s pretty much what our relationship is with our overpowering, overwhelming neighbour. There’s a joke in Canada about not being able to make it here, going abroad and not making it there either, then coming home and becoming famous because you’re “not from here.” We’re hyperaware of our reputation as a polite, obliging, slightly boring and ultimately “empty” country where open spaces are featured as much if not more than our urban areas. Our urban spaces have been colonized by American productions to represent US cities! It’s to the point where if the terrorist or murderer is Canadian (or even flees here to hide out) I consider it a badge of honour.
JD: I think it’s a problem that Canadians don’t know about, but should. Ever since we started picking up American radio and TV programs, we’ve been heavily influenced by the States. The fact I know more about dealings in the American senate and nearly nothing about those in the Canadian one is testament to this.
Do Canadians believe in Bigfoot, the Lock Ness Monster and UFOs? Was there ever a flying saucer scare in Canada and accompanying alien invasion movies?
The last time they had alien contact-invasion epics in British SF as at the time of Village of the Damned (1960) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967)!
DP: Those of us who write speculative fiction do, at any rate. We also have more localized cryptozoological creatures, such as the Wendigo of Indigenous lore, and Ogopogo, the domestic Loch Ness equivalent in B.C. And several of Cronenberg’s movies are subtle alien invasions set specifically in Canadian locations.
RR: It’s part of Canadian popular culture as much as American, but Canadians tend to be less loony. For example, the key investigator of UFOs here is Chris Rutkowski who is sort of scientific in his approach. If you want the Canadian attitude to UFOs in SF&F, I recommend Night Eyes by Reeves-Stevens.
Bigfoot is Sasquatch in Canada; the Loc Ness Monster equivalent is Ogogopogo in BC.
PA: I can’t speak for all Canadians on this. I think we’re open-minded as a culture but whether these are solid beliefs held by a majority of Canadians, I can’t say. I don’t think we ever had a flying saucer scare. To my knowledge, there’s no Canadian Roswell and if there is, it’s not common knowledge.
CA: Well Nessie, as we call the Loch Ness monster is one of our fun myths and my Nessie story “The Search” came out in Pulp Literature last year, but I doubt most people believe in these. We get a lot (most of) our TV shows from the US so if there’s a scare it’s everywhere. We get the films. It’s the new fad.
In one sense there are always US invasion movies because the US needs to always have an “other” to fight, whether it’s Indians, Nazis, aliens or terrorist. I don’t think the US can do without it in its cultural mindset.
JD: We have our fair share of UFO fanatics, but we’ve never really experienced a boom in sci fi programs like the ones that happened in the States or UK (unless you count those same programs being repeated in Canada).
JF: What, you mean you don’t know about Ogopogo? We honestly need to delve further into our native mythical creatures. There’s a ton of richness there that we’ve barely exploited from the Loup Garou (a kind of Quebecois werewolf) to our long relationship with the Sasquatch. There are also a ton of amazing folk tales that get short shrift, from witches tormenting a doctor on Long Point in Ontario to ghost ships off the Atlantic coast. Canada gotta get her freak on!
Come to think of it, are they prone to conspiracy theories, like their cousins to the South? Was there a ‘red scare’ or ‘yellow peril’ in Canada? And did anybody in Canada like Prometheus (2012) with its updated flying saucer, chariots of the gods mythology?
DP: We do have minor conspiracy theories, but they can never tread water the same way Americans can. However, there have been periods in the past which showed markedly pro-English and anti-minority attitudes, which led to racism, murder and property dispossesion. This was felt most keenly in the treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.
RR: Not really, no. The American conspiracy theories slop over the border so there are Canadians who believe those things to the same extent, but education levels are still higher here, the evangelical movement lower, so politics and discourse are still dominated by Enlightment models of logic and reasoning and evidence, rather than identitarian politics.
JF: What I can tell you for certain is that Canadians are likely to nod when you tell them something outrageous and say, “Yeah, I can see that happening.” We will believe a lot of crazy stuff. But we probably won’t get too excited about it. If aliens invaded, we’d see if they needed to sign up for health care. We also have a former Defence Minister who’s on record about believing in UFOs. https://video.vice.com/en_ca/video/paul-hellyer-in-real-life/55cb74d31ce00c683baee7df
JD: Man, you should meet my brother, haha! Our conspiracy theorists are not focused on ethnic or ideological conspiracies. They’re more focused on the idea that our Government is actively trying to take away our freedoms, and that our prime minister is in the pocket of foreign regimes. Of course, many of these conspiracies do have a kernel of truth to them, but the ones who believe them tend to blow them out of proportion. When it comes to conspiracy, I echo the words of William Gibson from his novel Pattern Recognition: “More important than asking what is possible is asking what is reasonable.” As for Prometheus, I don’t think many people thought highly of it. It had a great central premise, but poor execution.
To finish off, let’s talk soft power and public diplomacy. The US has been going downhill in that department, more so recently with what happened on Capitol Hill on January 6. (The Trump dystopia book pretty much saw it all coming). The Oscars went by almost without notice too, with Third World contenders like South Korea and Iran winning repeatedly in previous years. Don’t you think it’s about time that Canada began making use of its own pop culture produce and started pitching itself to the world with its own model of melting pot society?
The UK, tiny country that it is, produces a third of the world’s pop music and is well known everywhere for the BBC and for its classic movies and literature and with the internet at your disposal, the sky’s the limit. Any thoughts? And is patreon and online self-publishing helping in this fight?
DP: If it were possible, we could. But we would have to find ways of not having the government fund all or most of the cultural projects of the country, since their veto power holds back a lot of what could be done in that regard. We would also need to create very firm private enterprise streaming services like Netflix but exclusively for Canadian content, because the international ones aren’t cutting us any favors.
Self-publishing, of course, I believe in, since that’s how I got my fiction books published when nobody else was interested. And I have a presence on Patreon, as well, if anyone’s interested in following me there: https://www.patreon.com/davidperlmutter. I kind of need all the help I can get financially right now.
RR: Again, many Canadian writers are now writing American SF&F to try to become more commercial; those who are still writing identifiable Canadian content remain pushing Canadian values as they always have, and those values come into or go out of vogue as they always have. I would argue that Canadians were critical of progress and into dystopias long before they became popular in the US, but then that became a trend in American SF too, so some Canadian writers (Atwood) became popular. Multiculturalism remains a non-starter to Americans, and fell apart in Yugoslavia (once the other successful example) so is it something Canadians could push? Probably not successfully as rampant nationalism (Brexit etc.) serves the interests of the ownership class and authoritarianism, so as democracy fails universally, hard to see how multiculturalism can succeed.
The UK has the advantage of colonial market structures that still work in its favour. Its English is understood widely, while regional English doesn’t always translate elsewhere. Copyright and publishing is tightly controlled by large global corporations that favour UK, but self-publishing will eventually create new structures that will give other peoples a stronger voice. Part of the current trend to greater intrusiveness.
CA: Well, the UK is tiny geographically but outstrips Canada on population by far. Our population could fit into California, and Canada doesn’t have the centuries of “Empire” that the UK had when it was conquering the world. Instilling that Britishness everywhere is one reason people like their tea and BBC. Canada is the mouse that roared. We’re not big on the world stage. We try, and we’re known for our comedians, our animators, our landscapes and our female singers. But we’re swimming mightily upstream to be recognized as writers in our own right. Some of us make it.
JD: This question makes a couple of assumptions I think I need to address before I answer it. First: Canada has its own model of a melting pot society — I mentioned in an earlier question that Canada has very serious cultural and racial tensions it’s currently trying to work out. I don’t think the country is ready to even talk about its own model of a melting pot society, let alone adopt it and pitch it to the world. Second: It’s time for Canada to start using its own pop culture produce on the world stage — Lately, I don’t think Canada has had any pop culture produce strong enough to leave a mark on the world stage. We would need to completely revamp our artistic scene before we started producing creators strong enough to do that. All of this is to say that I’m not sure Canada is ready to get noticed.
Historically speaking, a country’s size has never been a great indicator of the cultural impact it can have. The British Isles and Japan are of similar size, yet Britain has had a much broader impact on world history. It all comes down to choices that the rulers of these island nations made. As for patreon and self publishing, I share editor Neil Clarke’s doubts about their longevity. Clarke wrote about how these initiatives live hand-to-mouth. I don’t know that they can seriously compete with government-backed publishers and programmers.
JF: I think if you’re a writer with something to say, something that actually has the ring of truth to it, something that’s fearless and touches hearts and changes minds, self-publishing and platforms like Patreon are essential, and the best game in town. When you’ve started to speak out, you might be able to attract financing from a more traditional source. This is true not just in Canada but in America and across the globe. You just have to look at someone like Alison Gill and MSW Media to see a bunch of grassroots creators making a difference, and supporting themselves through listener contributions. Substack is helping too – unless it ends up like Medium where the signal to noise ratio has gone supersonic… I know there is a hunger out there for guidance as well as for intellectual stimulation, great stories, and relatable characters. Sometimes, the gatekeepers are those least able to make a decision about what the “people” actually want!