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Northern Suns

edited by David Hartwell and Glenn Grant

(Tor, 382 pages, hardcover, April 1999.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

"Welcome to the Canadian invasion," proclaims Montreal-based writer and illustrator Glenn Grant in his introduction to Northern Suns, the second US-published cover scananthology of Canadian science fiction he has co-edited with David Hartwell.

Canadians, he points out, are showing up regularly in major US magazines and picking up an increasing share of the American genre fiction awards. And they're doing it by writing Canadian science fiction, which Grant insists is different from its southern sibling, although he warns against trying to define it: "If a writer's work doesn't conform to someone's definition of 'typically Canadian SF', does that make [it] less 'Canadian'?" He emphasizes: "I strongly object to the idea that the entire point of publishing a Canadian SF anthology is to define such 'national characteristics.'"

However much it cannot or should not be defined, Canadian science fiction does nevertheless exist, and Grant accentuates the importance of this new anthology: "It's worthwhile to focus on Canadian SF because too many people are unaware that it even exists! It's worthwhile because we must envisage the future for ourselves, and include Canada in our futures; if we don't, we let someone else (i.e. Americans) define our future for us. Canadian SF is worthwhile because we address specifically Canadian concerns which American authors almost never address--and when they do, they get it wrong. When was the last time you read an American-authored story about Québec independence? Especially one that bore any resemblance to reality?" (For example, the portrayal of Québécois in the 1989 American novel Light Raid, by Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice, offended many readers.)

Grant and Hartwell were careful to populate this retrospective anthology exclusively with authors who had not appeared in their earlier Northern Stars (1994). And, of course, the stories had to be science fiction or fantasy.

But what is a science fiction story? In the book's closing essay, Canadian John Clute, one of the most influential science fiction critics today (his recent credits include being primary editor for both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy), tackles this question. Clute describes how, beginning with the American pulp magazines of the 1920s, several previously disparate genres--including (but not limited to) the "Fantastic Voyage" popularized by Jules Verne, the "Rationalized Gothic" exemplified by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the "Scientific Romance" of H.G. Wells--were eventually brought together under the new, all-encompassing term "science fiction."

Despite this potentially rich brew, the majority of early American science fiction stories were lurid space adventures (and, sadly, for the most part poorly written ones). This is a stigma that writers of good, imaginative science fiction have striven to overcome ever since. Grant feels that, historically, Canadian science fiction writers have not had to struggle against this so much. He offers, in his introduction, several possible explanations--some of which are echoed in John Clute's essay--and opines that early Canadian SF was "often not recognized" as such.

There is no doubt that Northern Suns is a science fiction anthology, and a fascinating one. However, I wouldn't be surprised, were it to fall in the hands of a reader unfamiliar with science fiction, if that same reader enjoyed these tales... and didn't identify them as science fiction.

To illustrate: Northern Suns counts among its contributors CanLit alumni Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and W.P. Kinsella. Not science fiction writers? And yet.... Atwood's story "Freeforall" portrays a matriarchal dystopia that provides an interesting and pointed alternative to the patriarchal dystopia of her famous novel The Handmaid's Tale--which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, a prestigious science fiction prize. Kinsella's "Things Invisible to See" was originally published in On Spec, a Canadian science fiction magazine.

Most of the other authors collected in Northern Suns are emerging writers, like Eric Choi, Cory Doctorow, and Wesley Herbert. They may find the path to US book publication eased by their participation in this anthology. Several of the contributors to Grant and Hartwell's previous book, Northern Stars, have since sold novels to US book editors; Grant notes, "No doubt these talented writers would have sold their novels in the States anyway, but I know for a fact that appearing in the book considerably accelerated their sales to Tor."

Among the Northern Stars writers who were welcomed in the US market, we find award-winning francophone Québécois authors Yves Meynard and Joël Champetier. Meynard has been especially active in the US. The Book of Knights, his first American-published novel, was written in English and his short story "Tobacco Words" was chosen for the 1997 compilation Year's Best SF 2. A second English-penned Meynard novel is expected in the near future.

Now, Northern Suns introduces US readers to three other award-winning francophone Québécois authors: Jean Pierre April, Alain Bergeron, and Charles Montpetit. Montpetit's "Beyond the Barriers" is especially pertinent and funny--not to mention delightfully imbued with the spirit of Montreal.

The twenty-one short stories that comprise Northern Suns admirably display the diversity and scope of science fiction and fantasy--regardless of national origin--but do rather conspicuously avoid the traditional science fiction tropes of the far-future tale, the space adventure yarn, the time-travel story, the cosmic transcendence parable, and so forth. For the most part, their topics are quite close to the headlines and to the daily preoccupations of, well, Canadians.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Gazette, Saturday 24 Apr 1999.

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