Bookends: Classics About the Future
Three must read picks for anyone curious about speculative fiction.
September 1, 2018
You may not have heard of these Edmonton speculative fiction (SF) authors, but you should definitely check them out. All three of these novels blur any clear or “obvious” distinctions between “literary” and “SF” writing – or between “fantasy,” “science fiction,” and “horror,” for that matter – as mutually exclusive genres, which is as good a case as any for using “speculative fiction” as a particularly Canadian umbrella term to describe precisely such genre-bending works. These books are both SF and literary (and Edmontonian) in the very best of ways.
Candas Jane Dorsey
Five Rivers Publishing
Equal parts fantasy and science fiction, beautiful and brutal, challenging and rewarding, Black Wine is set in a secondary world and told through multiple protagonists’ perspectives, telling the story of one woman’s flight from a brutally abusive regime, culture and family; another woman’s quest through multiple countries, cultures and relationships in search of her lost mother; and another’s experience of sexual slavery, revolutionary resistance, and the struggle to create (or perhaps regain) her own identity. Or are they all the same woman? At times it’s hard to tell – even some characters aren’t sure, as one woman says to another “‘I know what they will do to you. To me, I mean. You are me, aren’t you?” – but these mysteries are all answered, eventually. This is also a glorious queer travelogue, where one protagonist’s experience of love and marriage in Sailor Town perfectly exemplifies this book’s ability to challenge our most basic assumptions of what is “normal.” Here, a young woman falls in love and marries into an existing couple, only to find herself discriminated against for her unconventional marriage (since a more “traditional” Sailor Town marriage would be among five people, not merely three) and her race (since she is a “blankie,” pale-skinned in a culture that treats such people as less than human). This world contains both science and magic, sometimes matching up easily with common understandings of these categories, other times not. Add to that a riot, at least one revolution, occasional quotations from obscure “mountain poets” (one of whom we would call Shakespeare), and the novel’s opening image of a madwoman in a cage befriending an amnesiac slave-girl, and you may start to get the picture. But the best way to experience this novel is to read it. And, in doing so, prepare to have your mind blown in the very best of ways. Print and ebook versions can be purchased through fiveriverspublishing.com.
The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad
Narmer’s Palette (paperback); Mystique Press (ebook)
Hamza and Yehat are the titular Coyote Kings of Minister Faust’s breakout novel. Faust calls his work Africentric “Imhotep-hop,” a perfect term to describe his musician’s ear for rhythm and mimic’s ear for voices in this book, which incorporates about a dozen different first-person perspectives, from a hyper-educated English prof to a “Jafaikan” white-kid gangster to the two twentysomething African-Canadian young men at the story’s pulsing heart. Each voice is distinct, yet they all work together to keep the plot humming along as the book traces Hamza and Yehat’s adventures and SF nerdery through a familiar yet fantastical Edmonton. As Hamza falls for Sherem, the mysterious woman of his (literal) dreams, a varied cast of villains, including a former CFL linebacker turned mystic drug dealer, his gang of henchmen (the FanBoys), and Hamza’s nemesis, an ex-friend turned jet-setting English prof, are all hunting for a mysterious package. Through Sherem – who is much more than she seems – Hamza and Yehat are drawn into a tangled web of ancient mystical technologies, magic, deceit and counter-deceit while also confronting their own shared history of trauma and deep friendship. Coyote Kings doesn’t skimp on the SF adventure, with magical and technological battles unfolding across the urban Edmonton landscape, but, for me, the most powerful aspect of this book is the tenderness of Hamza and Yehat’s friendship. The novel’s scenes of such tenderness are precisely as awkward as one might imagine between two twentysomething straight men – neither of whom is particularly good at confronting (or expressing) their emotions – and that rare male tenderness is what lends this frequently hilarious and sometimes dark (did I mention the cannibalism?) story its emotional weight and depth. Seriously, read this book. It’s a great introduction to Minister Faust’s award-winning writing, and you’re in for a deeply Edmo-centric treat. Print and ebook versions can be purchased through ministerfaust.com.
The Night Watch
Each time I reread a Sean Stewart book, I resolve to slow down and try to learn how he does what he does, and each time I fail, gulping down the whole thing in one mad rush. The Night Watch, set in 2074, half in Edmonton and half in Vancouver, is no exception. After the Dream of 2004 drowned globalized civilization in a flash-flood of magic, isolated pockets of humanity have
survived by achieving some balance with the Powers, Gods and spirits that arrived with it. In the former Edmonton, the Southside is a military regime led by a former Angel named (appropriately enough) Winter, who sacrificed his magic to banish the city’s Powers to the Northside. Clinging to the former U of A campus, the Southsiders hire themselves out to other survivor communities as implacable, technologically enhanced mercenaries. Vancouver, by contrast, has become Chinatown, where the Mandarinate maintains a more fluid balance between the region’s various Powers by assigning them representatives in the human government. But when Chinatown hires a troop of Southside mercenaries to defend its borders against the Downtown “barbarians,” both balances are threatened. Sean Stewart spent his childhood winters in Edmonton and attended the U of A before moving to Vancouver, and these deep-felt connections shine through in his vivid depiction of the Southside’s prairie cold, space and Slavonic Christian culture colliding with the equally vivid landscape, climate and culture of coastal Chinatown. But, for all this complex cultural world-building, this is also a deeply human novel, centring on several specific family stories. For an SF reader, the seamless blending of spirits, Gods, Powers and technology is captivating, and the fight and battle scenes are gorgeously written while packing all the explosive punch typically associated with action-adventure SF. Sadly, this book is out of print, but used copies are easily available through several online booksellers like AbeBooks. Delivery may take a while, but, trust me, it’s worth the wait.
This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.