edited by Claude Lalumière
Best to get the potential conflicts of interest out of the way first; I know Claude, and submitted a story to this anthology. It didn’t get in, but my girlfriend also submitted a piece which was accepted (Claude didn’t know she was my girlfriend at the time). Such, I suspect, is the claustrophobic world of Canadian publishing.
This volume of the long-running series of Tesseracts anthologies, which feature Canadian science-fiction stories, has a special focus on the novella. Each of the stories is at least ten thousand words long. That’s a rarity, and nice to see right off the bat.
Even better, to my mind, all of the stories seem to hit what they’re aiming at. They do different things, and which you like best will probably depend upon which project you’re most sympathetic to; but what they do, they do well. For me, leaving Grace’s story “Intersections” out of the equation (which I really do think is a lovely work), the stand-outs were E.L. Chen’s Arabian Nights update “The Story of the Woman and Her Dog” and David Nickle’s bitter media satire “Wylde’s Kingdom”. Chen’s is probably the most structurally inventive story in the anthology, while Nickle’s is to my mind the best at sustaining a specific voice and tone.
Are there any consistent themes through the book? Are there any specifically Canadian approaches? Actually, in some ways, I’d argue that the book is most notable for its avoidance of typical Canadian themes. The father-and-son generational conflicts which seem to me to dominate much of Canadian literature are nowhere to be found; equally, the traditional man-versus-unbreakable-nature theme isn’t really present, especially in its usual form of settlers breaking a hostile land. Northrop Frye’s ‘garrison mentality’ (colonists alone against a harsh wilderness) is notable by its absence, with the arguable exception of “Wylde’s Kingdom”, which really inverts the whole concept by presenting a nature thoroughly disrupted and exploited by human agency.
At the same time, nature is strongly present in the anthology in the form of animals; but these are animals which in one way or another blend into the human. “Intersections” is probably the only story without an animal presence. Humans and mammoths share mentalities in Derryl Murphy’s “Ancients of the Earth”, Michael Skeet and Jill Snyder Lum give us fox spirits and a surprisingly talkative tanuki in “Beneath the Skin”, Chen has men and women changing into dogs and goldfish, Randy McCharles’ story “Ringing the Changes in Okotoks, Alberta” has witchcraft linking a man and a goat, Gord Sellar’s super-hero tale “Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang” includes a Japanese cat-woman, and “Wylde’s Kingdom” is the story of a man hunting and being hunted by a giant squid — with, inevitably, a hint of empathy between hunter and hunted towards the end. So perhaps this anthology represents a new Canadian mentality; no more of the garrison, no more of the conflict between man and wilderness, now our stories are those of man and nature merging.
Further: based on this book, Margaret Atwood’s thesis in Survival, that Canadian fiction is dominated by victims whose stories are simply about living through tragedy, can be discarded. Only “Wylde’s Kingdom” seems to fit her template, and even that’s debatable. The characters in these stories typically learn how to take control of their lives; how to grow out of being the victim. Atwood aside, there is a stereotype of bleakness in Canadian fiction, of pessimism and darkness — but, by and large, that sterotype finds no reflection in this anthology.
So instead of dreary stories about European immigrants breaking the land, we have a wildly multicultural selection of stories. Sure, “Ancients of the Earth” takes place in a northern frontier town in the nineteenth century, but it has a conclusion different from any trope of Canadian literature I know. Other stories are set in feudal Japan, in Korea, in a small Albertan town influenced by Celtic witchcraft, or in a Toronto inflected by a wealth of different cultures — and Chen's Toronto, as I said above, is most defined by The Arabian Nights, itself a polyglot collection of tales from different lands, reflecting the multicultural environment of Toronto.
So Tesseracts Twelve may signal, ultimately, a change in Canadian literature to mirror the changes in the country itself. Where the country has seen its demography shift, has managed with surprisingly little strain to incorporate a wealth of voices and cultures within itself, has changed its traditional narrative of its own founding and development, the book suggests new themes for Canadian writing, new models for its story. Hints of the old are still there, certainly, as they should be, but not given the stress they might have carried in the past — for a Francophone (however bilingual) to edit a major English-language anthology, for example, likely would have been noteworthy ten years ago, and I think certainly would have attracted comment twenty years ago or more. I haven’t noticed that so far. One hopes this is a good sign. One hopes that the promise of Tesseracts Twelve is borne out in the stories yet to be written in this country. At the very least, this is a good start on the literature of Canada’s future.