Number 15, February 1996
That A Party!
The View From A Chair
News From The Merril: Bureaucratic Dysfunctions and
It Came from
the Slush Pile, and other tales of Northern
The Writer’s Workshop Meets (and yet has no name)
More Buried Treasures
to SOL Rising page
The votes are in... the
Science Fiction Heritage Costume Party was a major success!
After The Merril Collection of Science Fiction,
Speculation and Fantasy spent the summer packing the collection, shipping
it from 40 St. George to its long awaited new home at 239 College St., then unpacking everything‑including
the mice‑it was time to celebrate. And we did‑with THE PARTY OF
And what a party... Planning began back in February of
1995, with a long list of "what are we going to do to celebrate the opening"
suggestions being produced, pondered, discussed and decided upon. Having
established what we were going to do, the planning committee then set to
with all the zeal of the Allies planning the invasion of Normandy.
We had to decide on ticket price ("how
much?!?") and how many tickets we were likely to sell, which dictated
whether we could have a really big bash, or just a medium‑sized one.
Food—that was easy. We'd
have some. (Okay, it wasn't that easy.)
Liquor—of course. That meant a liquor license.
And a bartender (or maybe two). And ice. And glasses... you get the idea.
(We observed that the beer we chose as "premium beer" went rather
better than the usual Labatt's and Molson's. We
make note of this for future reference.)
then led to turning the decorations into a fundraiser, which meant we had
to have prizes, preferably donated, which then meant we had to find
Prizes for the costume judging.
Entertainment. We decided on Nash the Slash (Hugh's
number one choice). Negotiations. Timing. Fee (ouch! let's look at that budget again.)
Invitations. Tickets. Flyers. Speaker's Corner at City-TV.
Setting up on the day (have you ever tried to stick
tiny little pieces of paper into hundreds of balloons with zero hour approaching
faster than you'd like and your happy helpers falling like flies from
exhaustion? Try it some time. You'll learn a lot.) Tables. Tablecloths.
Chairs. Glasses (more glasses?). Plates. Cutlery. Napkins.
Thousands of details.
Slight panic created when TPL was obliged to change
its official opening date from library Week (beginning October 14th) to
sometime in November; we decided to stick with "our day" (we just
Another moment of panic when it seemed likely our
founder, Judith Merril, would not be able to attend due to a prior commitment.
We were pleased when she was able to attend after all. Judith, the Friends'
chair Hugh Spencer, and TPL's CEO Gabriele Lundeen (who was sporting enough to come in costume!)
provided the opening remarks to our event.
Nash the Slash, in his guise of the Invisible Man,
performed a set accompanied by spectacular special effects. (His version of Holst's
"Mars" from The Planets was my personal favourite‑ed.)
Michael Skeet inflicted (at our request, of course)
his infamous Fanthorpe "Turkey" reading on the guests.
The favourite this time, outdoing The Alien Ones (popular at past WilfCons), was the excerpt from March of the Robots... where most people actually paid to hear
more... the agony was exquisite... and these pesky ellipses kept fuming up
in Fanthorpe's text, to the delight of the
audience.(dot, dot, dot)
The Balloon Pop was fun and frantic (remember all
those tiny little bits of paper?). Of course, you can't have helium filled
balloons without some of them disappearing into the upper stratosphere, and
since nobody wanted to miss a chance at a prize, some really tall guys were
enlisted to fetch them down.
And then there were the costumes. Not many (not as
many as we'd hoped), but enough to illustrate our theme of "Science
Fiction Heritage." At the end of the evening, the best costume, hands
down, was Gordon Black's "The Traveller"
from H.G. Wells The Time Machine. Second
place was Mici Gold's Miss Northern Frights. The Bride of Frankenstein, being MC, did
not participate in the event (alas!).
The collection staff led tours through the building
for guests, giving them a privileged showing prior to the building opening
to the public on October 16th. John Millard, co-chair of the Building
Committee, Executive Committee member, and a First Fandom alumnus, was the
first official signee of the guest book.
Among the more interesting elements of the building
(apart from the griffins, of course) was the echo dome in the basement.
Another nice touch was the torches going down the stairs to the basement.
Those and the pillars around the echo dome gave a dungeon-like atmosphere
to the space, appropriate for the occasion.
Also participating in the event were ICE, computer CD
developers, and Inforamp, an internet service
provider, each giving demonstrations of their products.
Hugh Spencer, co-curator of the National Library's OUT OF THIS WORLD/VISIONS D'AUTRES MONDES exhibit, brought
slides taken at the exhibit, which ran continuously throughout the evening.
It was the best attended Friends event ever, with over
ninety people in all.
The Executive Committee wishes to thank Gabriele Lundeen for attending this very important event in the
history of the Merril Collection. We also wish to thank TPL staff Brigitte
Richter, Jennifer Blunt, and Mary Anne Cree for coming (with special thanks
to Brigitte for generously donating the griffin pins she had won in the balloon
pop to our door prizes).
A thank you also goes to collection staff Lorna Toolis and Mary Canning, who indefatiguably
took guests on tours of the building (and stress-testing the elevator, by-the-by).
A number of other thank yous
are also in order:
To Anne Dixon and Karina Rammell from Toronto
Trek 9, and Joanne Smith and Wayne Campbell, who volunteered their time
and services to help us out;
To Nash the Slash, for an excellent performance;
To Tony Collins, our ARF trained bartender, who is
also a custodian from Northern District Branch, and who cheerfully joined
in the fun by running the bar in costume;
To Karen Fleming, TPL staff, who exerted herself in
getting our liquor license;
And a very special thank you to you, the
Friends of the Merril Collection. Without your long‑standing support
as an active member of the Friends,
your participation in the Building Committee, and your attendance at Friends' events, we could not have had THE
PARTY OF THE
DECADE. Your continuing interest and support are a vital part of
what being a "Friend" of the Merril Collection is all about. We look forward to sharing the future
with you, with new beginnings, with new directions.
The Executive Committee wishes to thank all those who
generously donated to the Science Fiction Heritage Costume Party:
- Future Shop
- H B Fenn
- Toronto Public Library
- Jamie Fraser Books
- Steven Temple Books
- Ad Astra ConCom
- Quarry Press
- Atlantis Films
- Raymond Alexander
- Mary Canning
- Robert Hadji
- Don and Jean Hutchison
- Loma Toolis
- Theresa Wojtasiewicz
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The View From A
by Hugh Spencer
This view is from a long way off.
Adelaide, Australia. December 1995. The museum I
intended to visit is closed for "summer hours" so I am standing
in the middle of the university campus with not much to do except melt in
A teenage girl, and what looks
like her little brother, come up to me to ask if I know the way to a coffee shop
that's supposed to be in the vicinity.
It has happened again. My museum work requires me to
travel to other countries on a regular basis. Everywhere I go people ask me
for directions. Los Angeles, London, Vienna, Hong Kong. Even in places like Singapore or Korea where I am an obvious
foreigner, people seem to think I would be a good person to get orientation
People who know me understand that this is not the
Sometimes I wonder why this keeps happening to me. I
used to think it was because I was such a friendly, approachable person.
Anxious and able to help anyone.
Anxious to help, certainly. As for able—people who know me
understand that this is not the case.
Back in Adelaide. Heading into the KNOWN SPACE
BOOKSTORE, looking for Australian SF, I finally arrive at a plausible
I am a SCIENCE FICTION PERSON (SFP for short). This is
something a little different from being a science fiction fan. An SFP is
more of an existential condition than that of being a fan. You don't just
love SF; to some extent you are living
My life is a little like a science fiction story. I
circle the planet in sub-sonic jet aircraft (that Tom Swift would kill
for), dropping in briefly to communicate with different cultures. I'm going
to start my office memos with the phrase "Captain's Log" pretty
As an SFP, I am evolving into a literal Citizen Of The
Planet with a direct global perspective. People keep coming up to me for
directions because they innately sense that I have seen the most streets in
the most cities in the world.
My theory starts to break down at this point because
although I've seen a lot of these places, I can never remember how to get
around in them.
I know a lot of other SFPs.
They include the people who were playing "STREK" on the high
school computers back in 1974 (years before we even knew about Pong); the
woman who was using the internet back in 1979 when she was working at the
Royal Bank (she had her own interest group 15 years before everyone else
was logging onto the net); and the retired NRC telecommunications engineer
who built his first crystal radio from instructions in Hugo Gernsback's Electrical
These people are all SFPs. I
think it has something to do with personal time warps. I don't necessarily
think that SFPs are superior to other people, but
I do think we might be sitting on slightly higher rocks. So we sometimes
have a responsibility to share the benefits of the resulting unique
And the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Fantasy
and Speculation is a unique resource in
substantiating the SFP perspective and generally cultivating a much needed
sense of wonder in the word.
All of the above is a very roundabout way of saying
that work on the programmes and events we've been
talking about in previous newsletters is
proceeding. Our youth literacy work is in development. We are also
negotiating with possible partners for creating digital records of the rare
audio collections at the Merril. But we desperately need more people to
work with us.
To quote one of the scariest lines in the old Orson Welles' War of
the Worlds radio broadcast: "Is there anybody there?"
SFPs? Fans? The interested and the
The directions are right here in this newsletter. Much more
reliable than asking a stranger on the street...
(P.S. I did find some great Australian SF in Adelaide: Aurelius Magazine and the Alien Shores anthology.)
to top Home
by Lorna Toolis
It is the end of a long day. Up until. Now the high-stress
point of the day has been dealing with an aggrieved patron who doesn't care
for the new layout. “But I always enjoyed being able to listen to
your personal phone calls,” he tells me. The workroom, it appears,
has taken away all of the fun.
Most of the public love the new building. They love
the griffins, they love the way light falls through the entire building, they love having a building in their area. The staff are also very taken with the new facility. Before,
when it was so cold that our hands and feet were numb, it was because the
boiler didn't work. Now it is because we are still trying to achieve a
balance between the temperature that is best for the books and one that
allows patrons to sit and read without having to bring their quilts.
The Small Child looks at me trustingly. As in all the
very best Len Norris cartoons, he is small, with tangled hair and pointed
ears and toes. He smiles at me and whips a diskette out of his pocket,
which he then presses into my hand.
"Please miss, make me a copy of your card
catalogue," he says.
“Ahem, oo... er...” I say. I can feel my face turning red and
the tips of my ears burning. Taking the S.C. by the hand, I lead him over
to the card catalogue, six light oak cabinets containing 250,000 cards,
representing over 30,000 books and a huge number of short story entries. I
explain its function, also that it does not download
onto a diskette. He looks at me disbelievingly.
"Search by hand?" he says, incredulous.
Actually, in the days of my youth we used to chisel
the cards out of slabs of slate, lovingly quarried by retired librarians
with a passion for stonework. Later we became soft, and took to using clay
The child has at last absorbed the concept of a paper
card catalogue. Obviously, we can't mean this to exist. Obviously,
therefore, we are doing something about it. We will whip a scanner in
tonight, run the 250,000 cards through, and have the catalogue up and
running with no problems by morning.
I clear my throat. I hate to disappoint the S.C. I
could explain that the catalogue was delayed while we got the new building
for the Collection, but the small patron is only interested in results, not
history. I could explain that in order to convert the catalogue it will be
necessary to achieve some sort of modus vivendi
with the Cataloguing Dept., and, alas, they love us not. Rumour has it that they are laying in food for a seige.
"We are certainly going to put the catalogue on
line," I say firmly, "As soon as possible." I won't even
think about the whole issue of funding. After all, fantasy is my life.
"In the meanwhile, maybe you should just ask."
He looks at me even more doubtfully. "Ask?"
"Mostly, we remember," I tell him. He nods
agreeably, entranced by his enhanced understanding of how people lived in
the Dark Ages.
"I want books on phonetics," he tells me. "That's
Back to top Home
It Came from the Slush Pile,
and other tales of Northern Frights
by Don Hutchison
this old world contain enough real horror without our inventing more?
Those were the questions asked by way of introducing Canada's first original dark fantasy
anthology series. As editor, I answered my own question by voicing a
somewhat simplistic (and calculatedly disarming) theory that fear can be
fun... vicarious fear, that is. I also stated that one of the main reasons
for the series was to supply a new type of market for Canadian short-story
But there is more to Northern Frights than simple spookery
or a chance for authors to sell stories.
Like science fiction, dark fantasy is often given a
bad rap by people who react to labels, confusing fiction with film. Horror
films go for the gush of blood, the cheap shock. But, contrary to some
opinions, horror fiction is not
written by demented troglodytes who like to pluck the wings off house
flies. Like the best of science fiction, the best of dark fantasy evokes a
sense of wonder by reinventing mythic landscapes. At its best, it is a
serious literature. (One might say deadly serious.) It speculates on what
may lie beyond our mortal miseries. It deals with life, death, good, evil,
love, hatred, decay, rebirth, God and the devil. And sometimes, of course,
it is only fearsome fun, a kind of Hallowe'en
frolic for the child that lurks in all of us.
So why not Northern
Frights? In the early nineties, Canadian SF was alive and well due in
no small part to the availability of groundbreaking markets like Tesseracts and On Spec. Since science fiction and fantasy (dark or otherwise)
have long been fellow travellers, I reckoned that
it was time somebody designed a vehicle solely to show off Canadian
literature of a darker, more fantastic nature.
The question remained, who would publish such a book?
And would the writers be there to service it? I was lucky on both counts,
proving‑at least to me‑that Northern
Frights was an idea whose time had come.
Thanks to an enthusiastic friend, I was introduced to
a maverick publisher out in Oakville, Ontario, who thought that Northern Frights was a fine idea.
You have to know Howard Aster to know that he has a quick mind and likes to
make instant decisions. Howard had no acquaintance with the genre, but he
often takes chances with material that more timorous souls might shun. He
not only liked the concept, but asked if I could develop it as a series.
Since that was my original dream, we met and shook on the project. There
remained only one small problem: I needed some stories good enough and
numerous enough to fill a couple of hundred pages.
In case it appears that all this came fast and easy, I
have to backtrack by stating that Northern
Frights was a title and a dream that I had nursed silently for many
years, ever since I worked as contributing editor on Borderland, the small press dark fantasy magazine published by
Raymond Alexander and edited by Robert Hadji back
in the mid-eighties.
Borderland did not require its stories to
be written by Canadians or be set in Canada (perhaps an impossible
restriction at the time), but it did reflect a Canadian sensibility that I
dreamed might someday result in a publication dedicated entirely (or almost
entirely) to dark imaginings by Canadian writers.
That was the idea behind Northern Frights. Originally I thought that the first volume
might have to feature reprint material. I had assembled a number of
suitable stories by the likes of A. E. van Vogt, H. Bedford Jones, Algernon
Blackwood, and even Robert Bloch‑expatriate Canadians or foreign
authors who had set horror stories in these environs. As for original
material, I knew I could count on friends like Garfield Reeves-Stevens,
Shirley Meier, Galad Elflandsson
and Karen Wehrstein to supply strong stories, but
that would account for only a small amount of the requisite contents. I
placed market requests in Locus
and Science Fiction Chronicle, but
time was of the essence since we wanted to get the first book out for the fall
of '92. Along came Lorna Toolis and the Toronto
Public Library's Merril Collection to our rescue. Loma arranged for a
meeting with a number of local authors who had expressed interest in
writing dark fantasy. Many of these writers placed stories in the book. A
few had manuscripts just waiting for such a market, and others came up with
new material that filled our requirements.
After that came the flood: dozens of unsolicited
manuscripts arriving almost daily, the odd story submitted by a familiar
name, but larger quantities from would-be writers of varying talent. At
first the experience was a heady one. I opened each envelope with the
tremulous expectation of an editor at Viking or Knopf about to discover a
new Stephen King or another Peter Straub.
Alas, as the manuscripts piled up, excitement cooled
down. I was now not only an editor, but also the not-so-proud possessor of
an honest-to-God "slush pile" of yet-to-be-read manuscripts.
Mysteriously, it was a pile that never seemed to
diminish, no matter how many hours of Herculean reading was accomplished.
It wasn't that there was a lot of really bad material. It's just that so
much of it was... well, ordinary. The best editorial practice, I have been
informed, is to read the beginning of a story, perhaps flit to the end, and
if you still like what you see, give the middle a shot or two. I couldn't
handle it that way. Call me crazy, but I found that I had to read the whole
damned thing. Some stories, of course, I did place on "fast forward."
Eventually, my own reading for pleasure took a back seat to plowing through
more and more fabricated frights as they plopped ominously through the old
There was one other thing I didn't reckon on. All the
unused stories not only had to be returned, but had to be accompanied with
sympathetic reasons as to why they didn't make it. Perhaps it's just a
weakness in my nature, but I quickly found that when it comes to rejection,
giving is almost as bad as getting. Eventually, however, we did come up
with seventeen stories and a poem, and Northern
Frights was launched upon the unsuspecting world.
With three Northern
Frights books out there, a Northern
Frights audio tape, and a fourth book gestating as we speak, I'm often
asked just what I feel constitutes Canadian horror and dark fantasy. What
makes it distinctive from similar material published elsewhere? For one
thing, I think the Canadian muse of the macabre is more subtle, more
ambivalent, just like us. Our stories usually have a strong moral
grounding, a greater human subtext, even though the coldness and isolation
of our environment is given eerie prominence.
As for the genre itself, it appears that we have more
work to do before all accept it as "respectable." One of our
book's top writers tells me that his mother picked up a copy of Northern Frights 3 at her local Smithbooks. She purchased a volume of Bible interpretations
at the same time‑just so the clerk wouldn't think she was too
Back to top Home
Workshop Meets (and yet has no name)
by Michael Skeet
The Merril Collection has from its inception sought
contacts with the SF writing community. In at least one case, though, the
word "community" has a couple of meanings. One segment of the Toronto speculative writing community
has a relationship with the Collection that is close both emotionally and
The Cecil Street writers' group meets on a
weekly basis just around the corner from the Collection's new digs on College Street. And since its foundation
this group has used the Collection both as a resource and as an archive for
its members' writings. It's a relationship that has proven fruitful for
both groups. And it's a relationship that begins‑as does so much
relating to the Collection‑with Judy Merril.
In 1986, Judy organized a week-long writers' retreat
at Peterborough's Trent University. The retreat was Judy's
method of introducing the Milford style of writers' workshops
to this country. The retreat brought together writers from across Canada; it also marked the
beginnings of a growth of community that eventually resulted in the
founding, three years later, of SFCanada, the
national SF writers' group. It also made a workshop convert
of at least one of its attendees, a beginning writer named Michael Skeet.
At the same time, Judy was also embarking on a period
as a Toronto Public Library Writer In Residence. In this role, Judy acted
as advisor to Torontonians who presented her with their fantasy or SF
manuscripts. Greater love hath no writer than to spend an entire year
perusing the output of aspiring but in many cases untrained tyros. In
Judy's case, fresh from a very positive experience at Peterborough, one result of her reading
and advising was her conclusion that the most promising of the writers who
had submitted material to her should be brought together, the better to
encourage their continued development.
Accordingly, on a September evening in 1987, a diverse
group of somewhat unsure individuals gathered in an office above a German
travel agency on Spadina Avenue. Judy introduced the writers,
none of whom had met before, to each other. She explained what a workshop
was and how it worked. She advised them that the office in which they sat
had been borrowed for the evening only, and it would be up to them to find
a meeting place from hereon in. She explained that she did not believe in
the so-called "mentored" workshop, whereby an established writer
lords it over the beginners in the hope that some of the genius will
transfer by some spiritual osmosis.
Then she left. The writers were abandoned to make
their way or not, as their own determination dictated.
With a few exceptions, the group formed that evening
has been meeting every week since. By a wholly unscientific estimate, over
350 manuscripts have been copied, distributed to members, analyzed,
critiqued and commented on in that time. Some 325 litres
of diet cola, 280 litres of diet ginger ale, and
at least seventeen litres of beer have been
drunk, and approximately eleven kilograms of chocolate have been consumed‑along
with one memorable bag of chicken-flavoured
cookies (better you shouldn't ask).
Oh, yes. The workshop has also produced a number of
writers who have taken their place among the new generation of Canadian
genre writers: Dave Nickle, Karl Schroeder, Cory Doctorow, Allan Weiss, Keith Scott and Edo van Belkom, among others. (Keith Scott has to possess some
kind of record for being the longest-developing rookie writer in SF. His
first story was published sixty years ago, his second
"publication" was a radio play broadcast in 1969, and he began to
sell SF on a regular basis in his late sixties.) When the group formed in
1987, only two of its members had published SF stories. Now only two have
yet to crack the publication barrier.
More important than enhancing credits and CVs,
however, the workshop has helped its members grow as writers. It hasn't
been so much the barrage of helpful (and politely vicious) criticism of the
writers' own works that's done the trick. But eight years of analyzing
other peoples' work for flaws has helped every member become more aware of
the appearance of those flaws in his or her own work. If only out of a
strong desire to avoid being hammered by well-meaning but savage companions
at the weekly workshop sessions, the members of the workshop group have
striven to improve their writing. The hard work has paid off.
A description of a typical meeting might prove
illuminating. The week before, the group's members will have agreed on a
story to be workshopped; copies of this story are
then handed to the members, who have the intervening week to read the story
and mark it up, in the fashion of a particularly blood-thirsty editor. Each
member prepares a set of comments on the story, which are either written on
the back of the final page or on a separate page appended to each member's
copy. At the appointed time, the group's members arrive. Well, some of
them, anyway. About forty minutes after the appointed time, when everyone
who is going to show up has arrived, and the attendees have filled one
another in on the latest gossip, the workshop session begins. One by one,
group members critique the story, using their notes as a basis for what
only seem to be spontaneously vicious attacks. In fact, all criticism is
relentlessly fair for all that it is cutting. (We advise against trying
this at home.)
A crucial aspect of the meeting's structure is that
during the workshopping portion, only one person
is allowed to speak at a time. This means that the poor victim, whose story
is being so relentlessly torn asunder, is not allowed to raise voice in
anguished protest at this treatment. Nor are other voices, dissenting or
otherwise, allowed. One person speaks; the others listen. This works, we
think, because we are Canadian and therefore genetically polite (or
"@#$%!! polite," as Judy has been known
to describe it). But it is crucial because it keeps what could be a very
damaging activity on a cool, professional level. It helps the group to
remember that the primary purpose of the workshop is to help one another
improve as writers.
Once all group members have verbally critiqued the
story, the poor author is at last allowed to speak. This is commonly known
as the "rebuttal" phase, because (at the beginning at least) it
so often consisted of a wounded writer splutteringly
attempting to explain what it was that he/she had actually intended the
story to be about. As the group has progressed, the "rebuttal"
has come to involve a more serene summing up of points on which the writer
agrees with his/her critics, with the other points generally left to
decompose in embarrassed silence. After the
rebuttal, the formal aspect of the meeting rapidly breaks down, as group
members animatedly discuss possible ways in which the story could be
improved, or how they would have written it differently (and, it goes
without saying, better). At this point, the meeting usually leaves the cool
confines of the Cecil St. Centre basement and makes its way to a less
formal spot, usually someone's nearby apartment, where various consumables
await and the second-most important part of the evening, the dissemination
of gossip (the mortar of the writing community), begins.
Because the group's meeting place is so close to the
Merril Collection's old and new homes, it would have been inevitable that
the group form a close relationship with the Collection, even had one of
its members not been married to the collection head. Very shortly after the
group was founded, the Collection volunteered itself as a repository for
the group's archives. Since then the library has served both as archive and
unofficial second home to the group collectively and its members individually,
many of whom spend a good deal of time there researching or catching up on
developments in the SF field. And as conscientious members of the Toronto
writing community, members of the Cecil Street group can always be found
attending functions sponsored by the Friends. (The group has also provided
the Friends with several members of the executive over the years.)
The group founded by Judy Merril had ten members.
Members have come and gone over the years, but the membership still stands
at ten, and half of the current members were part of the original group. It
is unlikely that any other group of Canadian writers has met so
consistently over such a long period of time‑nor is it likely that
any group has gone on so long without ever being able to agree on what to
The absence of a name for what some people (though
seldom group members, and then never for the record) call the Cecil Street
Irregulars was, in the long-ago past, a matter of some concern. In 1987 Toronto was home to a writers' group
called the Bunch of Seven. (There were nine members, but that's another
story.) Minneapolis housed The Scribblies. Out in Idaho resided the Moscow Moffia. Clearly, in order to be taken seriously a
writers' group had to have a name.
The only problem was that none of the Cecil Street group could agree on what
made an impressive-sounding name. The various suggestions proposed in all
seriousness in the late eighties are so embarrassing in the context of the
nineties that it's probably better that they not be
mentioned. Suffice it instead to say that since no name met with unanimous
approval, and since the proudly leaderless group would not allow a name to
be imposed by anything less than unanimity, the group has never been called
anything other than some variation on "those people who meet in the
basement of the Cecil Street Community Centre."
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it's been
suggested more than once that this absence of a name is actually a
perfectly appropriate mirror of the classic, chronic Canadian confusion
about national self-identity. Many members of the group have now adopted
the lack of a name as a form of identity in itself, and fiercely reject all
new efforts to come up with a name that looks good on a t-shirt.
Some of the stories which passed through the workshopping process and were eventually published are:
Allan Weiss, Tesseracts4,
Beach Holme. (Anthology)
Ball," Michael Skeet, Tesseracts3,
Porcépic Books. (Anthology)
Little Vampires, Barnes & Noble. (Anthology)
Pools of Air," Karl Schroeder, Tesseracts3,
Porcépic Books. (Anthology)
Progressive Apparatus," Hugh Spencer, On Spec (Summer 1994). (Magazine)
Sloan Men," David Nickle, Northern Frights 2, Mosaic Press
(Anthology), and Year's Best Fantasy
and Honor, 1994. (Anthology)
"The Toy Mill,"
David Nickle and Karl Schroeder, Tesseracts4, Beach Holme. (Anthology)
Keith Scott, On Spec (Fall 1991).
Michael Skeet is
a writer, a broadcaster and a film critic for CBC Radio living in Toronto. His fiction has been published in both Canada and the U.S. His most recent fiction publication is "Scout,
Experimental" in the Spring 1996 issue of On Spec.
to top Home
by Allan Weiss
The explosion of Canadian SF in the late 1980s may
have left some people with the impression that very few writers before then‑notably
A. E. van Vogt and Phyllis Gotlieb‑wrote
for the American market, especially during the rise of the Unending Series
in the 1970s. In the last article, though ["Buried Treasures,"
SOL Rising #13, May 1995], I
discussed the work of Edward Llewellyn; another prominent writer of series
novels was Crawford Kilian, whose Brother Jonathan I mentioned last time as well. He has
produced a number of novels in his Chronoplane series,
which postulates that one can jump back and forth between different periods
in Earth's history. These periods have been colonized, leading to conflicts
with the Agency for Intertemporal Development and
indigenous peoples. The premise also lends itself to fairly conventional
plots of the superman-versus-the-Empire variety, wherein characters
assisted by beautiful but strong female sidekicks demonstrate the
perfection of their stratagems against treacherous Higher-Ups. On the other
hand, Kilian's Eyas (1982) is a distant-future novel that raises questions about
predestination and free will. The hero named in the title suffers from the
superman syndrome, and the novel's ending is somewhat rushed and not
altogether clear, but Kilian shows his skill at
creating "aliens" (if future Earth-dwellers can be so labelled) and action sequences, as well as dealing with
the implications of technology.
A nearer future is the setting of Helene Holden's
powerful After the Fact (1986).
The situation is not explicitly described, but we gather that Quebec has become independent after
the election of a socialist, perhaps even Communist, separatist party.
Anglos have become refugees, and the economy is in a shambles (I say nothing
about current events). The hysteria and desperation are effectively
portrayed, shown through the eyes of a woman on the run with her daughter
and boyfriend, and those of a woman in the village where they try to hide
out. A very interesting comparison could be made between this novel and The Handmaid's Tale, in their use of
a woman's first-person present tense narrative point-of-view, the theme of
changed names/identities, and the witch-hunt atmosphere established. (It's
a comparison I hope to make in some future article.) Given that Atwood's
novel was published in 1985, it's doubtful Holden
read it before writing her own work.
Another dystopian work is
Jim Willer's Paramind (1973). Thomas Kasgar recounts his
work on advanced computers and his growing realization that these new
models have achieved the ability to think for themselves. He cannot
convince his superiors at ITM [sic] that they have produced an artificial
intelligence, and so he takes his message outside his company, trying to
prevent a complete computer takeover of the world. Or is the new series of
thinking computers simply the next step in evolution?
Among the early works is Robert Watson's High Hazard (1929), an entertaining
novel about a lost world in the far north-one of the very few works of
Canadian SF with that setting. Sensitive readers
may be disturbed by the strong language, as in this exchange between the
hero, Eric Gilchrist, and the villain, Earle Sangster:
"Damn you for an interfering lout!" [Sangster] exclaimed angrily. "What in the hell are
you poking about up here for?..."
"It isn't any of your business what or why. And
no man calls me a lout, Sangster, without apologising immediately, or taking the consequences,"
retorted Eric quickly.
Sangster later calls Eric a
"Nosey Parker" and declares, "What your interfering kind
needs is a good lambasting." Watson's description and narration of the
action sequences are considerably better than his dialogue. The modern
reader who can get by the racism and sexism of the novel will find it a
most enjoyable Canadian version of H. Rider Haggard's
Frederick Philip Grove is known to CanLit
specialists for his prairie novels. But he also wrote one work of fantasy, Consider Her Ways (1947), about a
scientific expedition of ants traversing South and North America in search of new knowledge
and territory. The ants encounter vicious new species of ants, and the even
more vicious and dangerous species known as humankind. Grove had translated
[Jonathan] Swift's works into Swedish, and so was aware of the satiric
possibilities of fantastic travel narratives. He exploits these
possibilities in his thinly veiled or explicit attacks on such targets as
materialism and literary criticism. My own particular favourite
passage concerns the meeting between some of antkind's
greatest scientists and a car:
Sixty-six great scholars, every one a leader in her
field, and collectively perhaps the greatest and most amazing aggregate of
learning that had even been assembled on earth, were reduced to a greasy
smear on a highway! The futility of it all! The utter senselessness!
It is not common knowledge that Canadian fantastic
literature has often been very funny. We don't think of Canadian writing
generally as humorous (that's because few have read very much beyond
Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and W. O. Mitchell, although even
then...). But if we remember that Canadian SF writers, especially during
the early days, often wrote for satirical purposes the humour
we find should not be all that surprising.
One novel that fully deserves the label of a
"hoot" is Robert Green's The
Great Leap Backward (1968). It is set in Toronto in 2021, when machines have
taken over everything, including their own repair and upgrading. The result
is that elevators go faster than ever‑so fast they're completely
unsafe, and passengers must strap themselves in to avoid serious injury.
Moving sidewalks have similarly seen a progressive increase in speed, so
that only futuristic versions of teenage "hotrodders"
are prepared to brave the fast lane. Countering the machine dominance is an
anti-technology movement that has set up nudist colonies in outlying areas
like Richmond Hill.
On the French side is Jean O'Neil's Giriki et le Prince de Qucan
(1982). The Archangel Gabriel arrives in Montreal to announce to the narrator,
a writer, that a Prince of Qucan (i.e. Quebec) has been chosen, and he
needs a bride. The woman chosen to be his Princess is known only as Giriki, which proves to be the postal code of one of
the writer's greatest fans: G1R 1K1. He seeks out and finds the woman, only
to fall in love with her himself. But he agrees to let her live out her
destiny, and in a hilarious scene some of the greatest figures in history
appear to attend the wedding held in Montreal's Olympic Stadium. As I
mentioned in the paper I presented to the academic conference at Can*Con,
before the wedding Jesus has some fairly raunchy exchanges with Mae West;
when it comes to Pope John Paul II, however, the two find they have very
little to say to each other as they try to make their way through the
They met briefly, maybe too briefly, in a crowd of
guests at the entrance to the stadium.
"It's pretty tough going," said John Paul II
"I've seen worse," replied Jesus.
And that was it. (My translation‑AW.)
Concerning the political situation in Quebec, see also William Weintraub's satiric The
Underdogs (1979), about the rise of an Anglo terrorist group in a separate
I've been focusing on novels, but there are numerous
periodicals and short stories that deserve a look. During the 1940s a number
of pulp magazines were published in Canada, mostly made up of reprints
of stories appearing in the American pulps. But some published mainly, or
at least a few, Canadian works. The story of the Canadian pulps is well
covered in John Robert Colombo's Years
of Light, his study of Leslie A. Croutch and
the fanzine he published, Light. I might mention one prominent
domestic publication, Uncanny Tales (1940-43),
edited by Melvin R. Colby and possibly Thomas P. Kelley. Kelley was Canada's premier pulp fiction writer
of the day, apart from van Vogt, and a number of his stories and novels
appeared in Uncanny Tales, often
under pseudonyms. Other Canadian writers appearing here and elsewhere
during the 1940s included C. V. Tench and Leslie
Gordon Barnard. The stories are often thoroughly derivative, like Kelley's
almost plagiaristically Lovecraftian
“The Shaggy God” (Uncanny
Tales 1 [May 1941]), and at times unintentionally funny, as in the
bizarre understanding of absolute zero in Tench's
“Compensation” (Uncanny Tales
2 [Dec. 1941]).
It's always fun‑and perhaps a little cruel‑to
seek out the early publications of well-known authors. Early stories by
Charles de Lint and Charles Saunders can be found in the small magazines Dark Fantasy and Copper Toadstool, both available at
the Merril Collection. The Merril also contains a compute run of Bakka Magazine, the fanzine put out by
the store in the 1970s, wherein one can find—in Issue #6—a
story by Elwy Yost.
One genre that Canadian writers have made distinctly
their own is the animal fantasy: stories about rational, and often named,
animals. Charles G. D. Roberts was our most important practitioner; others
included W. A. Fraser, whose Mooswa and Others
of the Boundaries (1900) is a "simple romance of a simple people,
the furred dwellers of the Northern forests" (author's introduction).
Recent stories of note include those of Lesley Choyce, best known as the editor of Pottersfield
Press, one of the few SF publishers in the country. His collection The Dream Auditor (1986) contains a favourite of Lorna's [Toolis,
the Merril's Collection Head], “Buddha at
the Laundromat,” and a favourite of mine, “The
Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer.” Andrew Weiner's marvellous collection Distant Signals and Other Stories (1989) contains “The
News from D Street,” while Terence M.
Green's The Woman Who Is the Midnight
Wind (1987) is noteworthy for “Ashland, Kentucky” and “Legacy.”
Of course, anyone seeking early short gems should consult the two earliest
anthologies of Canadian SF: John Robert Colombo's Other Canadas (1979) and John Bell
and Lesley Choyce's Visions from the Edge (1981). In the latter, check out H. Percy
Blanchard's novella “After the Cataclysm,” and Laurence
Manning's Stapledonian “The Living Galaxy.”
I ended the last article with an example of Canadian
SF's best kept secret, and will end this with another. Robert A. Smith's The Kramer Project (1975) has its
moments, mostly at the end, but the bulk of it is a series of conversations
between undeveloped characters. The Soviets have developed a serum allowing
humans to connect their minds directly into the computer network, and are
attempting to dismantle the United State's defense system. The novel
could have been a good thriller had it not been for the nonexistent
characterization and the Rod-and-Donish, plot-driven
dialogue. In fact, the most credible dialogue comes from the experimental
chimp named Jerry on whom the Canadian research team is working; using his
plastic symbols, he spells out such lines as: "JERRY PUSH KRAMER INTO
That should do for now.
Allan Weiss is a
writer and teacher living in Toronto. As co-curator of the "Out of This WorldlVisions d'autres mondes" exhibit at the National Library of Canada, he compiled an extensive bibliography of Canadian
science fiction from which "Buried Treasures" (appearing in the
May 1995 issue of SOL Rising) was born.
"More Buried Treasures" brings to light more works from that
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