Northern Dreamers: Interviews with Famous Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers.
SCIENCE FICTION, fantasy and horror are genres which lean upon, parallel and even merge with utopian/dystopian projects. Take, for example, the comments of Tanya Huff, a fantasy writer, and one of the interviewees in Northern Dreamers who speaks of "the joy of creating an entire world to support the story you want to tell" or the pleasure in "toss[ing] one little thing, say the existence of magic or vampires, and watch the ripples of change spread" (129). Utopianists certainly engage in the same experiences though arguably in an inverse order. Of course, both pursuits also suffer from a sense of marginalization from other forms of fiction and both have been criticized as formula driven.
Edo van Belkom's thoughtful interviews with twenty-one Canadian speculative fiction writers explore the dynamics of imagination that produces the examination of possibilities and implicitly, the costs of the effort to engage in systematic conjecture. Two common themes in particular emerge from these dialogues. One involves the role of existing place and national identity in the creative process. The other involves the role of genre as a medium of expression. Though Belkom does not present his questions in exactly this way, the differences among the writers on these subjects is instructive. Does a sense of place, including identity, inform and enlarge speculative fiction? Or is it a constraining factor that must be overcome? Are genres structures that enhance the creative process or do they inhibit it?
Regrettably the first subject, despite the volume's title, is explored more sporadically. Most of the authors interviewed were not born in Canada. Charles de Lint is from the Netherlands, Dave Duncan from Scotland, Monica Hayes from Liverpool, William Gibson from Virginia. This sample at least suggests a role for a cosmopolitan or expatriate perspectives in speculative fiction. Monica Hughes, for example, came to Canada en route to Australia and stayed. She uses local geography extensively in her science fiction. Here is her account of the locale for Beyond the Dark River: "I just got out the good old Shell map of Alberta. I knew the center was going to be Edmonton, and I needed a Hutterite colony, so I found out where they were south of Edmonton and put my native people not quite as close to the mountains as they are in real life. So I had this dynamic, imaginary triangle and all I had to do was have events move within it. It was wonderful" (139). Dave Duncan argues that setting is crucial in establishing the narrative authenticity of science fiction and fantasy. According to him, the writer needs to "inform the reader of the where and when as subtly as possible: `As I wheeled my Studebaker onto Sunset Boulevard.'" Charles de Lint modeled the imaginary town of Newford which appears in many of his stories and novels on the opposite of Ottawa which he defines as a pretty, enclosed space.
Belkom is more consistent on his questions on genre. Some writers exhibit an open hostility to narrative structures. Candas Jane Dorsey, for example, insists that story-telling is the only relevant categorization of her fiction. Genres are "intellectual things" and "impositions" she learned later in life. The interview with William Gibson is especially informative since Neuromancer was both a genre buster (with its merger of detective and science fiction) and genre enhancer (the invention of "cyberpunk" as a new form of science fiction). Though Gibson acknowledges that he invented the term "cyberspace" as the equivalent of simultaneously inventing the rocket ship and space, he contends that his powers of prophesy are nil and that science fiction as a genre is not a medium for prediction but "about the present or about the period in which it was written" (91). Gibson gives a sanguine response to Belkom's question that genres commodify subcultures and genre authors participate in the commodification of themselves: "It's just what we do as a culture. It's pretty much becoming the main thing we do as a culture" (91). Ed Greenwood, who sold his fantasy fiction to a gaming company that produced it as Advanced Dungeons and Dragon, is actually cheerful about the question of commodification. He knew they were "buying the world, lock, stock and wizard" but was happy to see its transformation.
These writers also explore other aspects of genre writing. To Dave Duncan "fantasy is to fiction what espresso is to coffee, or crack to cocaine." Duncan delights in the freedom of this genre: "Events are not merely foreshadowed but prophesied. Good is good, bad is bad, and never the twain get confused. Other genres may sandbag you with a dissertation on child abuse or gender discrimination but in Middle Earth that is not allowed" (66). Others complain about what they regard as unfair characterizations of their genre such as feminist science fiction as focused on "angry women on horseback." Elisabeth Vonarburg, author of Le silence de la Cite and translator, notes the difficulty of translating science fiction into French: "All that techno-babble comes so naturally to the English-speaker/writer who has always been allowed to invent words, to boot! That's one of the reasons English is so successful, I guess--its adaptability. You take a name, make a verb out of it, an adverb, an adjective, whatever. You can be `Spielberged' in English ... but not in French" (218).
These interviews, of course, provide no definitive response to the issues of place and genre for those who devote themselves to exploring questions of "what if?," but Northern Dreamers would make a pleasant addition to the library of the utopianist as an introduction to those engaged in allied pursuits.
Philip Abbott Wayne State University
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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