Reviewed by Robert Runté
When I say “science fiction,” most people immediately picture Star Trek/Star Wars-style space opera, or at least fiction reacting in some way to developments in the “hard” sciences. Founded by inventor Hugo Gernsbach editing Amazing and solidified by engineer John W. Campbell editing Astounding, ‘hard SF’ remains core to the American version of the genre. Story-telling generally takes priority over lyrical prose in hard SF, and the stories are often idea-focused rather than character-driven.
In contrast, I think of French-Canadian SF as on the more literary end of the spectrum and more likely based on the “soft” sciences, like sociology or psychology. It is therefore a bit surprising to come across a Francophone Canadian writing SF so hard it is positively crunchy.
Michèle Laframboise is a bilingual writer who writes in French but publishes as often in English. Indeed, these days she is making her presence in English felt everywhere. Just this month alone, she has stories in Analog and Asimov’s—arguably the top American markets—as well as Canada’s On Spec magazine. The current release of Five Hard and Crunchy SF Tales presents yet another opportunity to discover her uniquely French-Canadian brand of hard SF.
“Thinking Inside the Box,” is the first story in the collection and the most accessible. Told from the perspective of the alien assigned to deal with a group of touring humans, it provides an amusing example of how one’s cultural assumptions can be problematic and the corresponding benefits of cross-cultural thinking. I was initially distracted by a few minor glitches in Laframboise’s self-translation, but one does not expect perfect English from an alien liaison officer so that ultimately added to, rather than detracted from, the piece. It is really fun.
“Ice Monarch” is a dystopian tale and the most lyrical of the stories here. It has a much more European feel, a certain cold detachment to the narration that immediately distinguishes it from the typical American first-person narration. Ray Bradbury or Kurt Vonnegut might have been capable of writing something similar—had either been trapped in an isolated cabin at the north pole under siege by robotic polar bears and trying to capture that mood on paper. Everything about Laframboise’s icy future makes the reader shiver.
“Closing the Big Bang” is another dystopian future; more action-oriented, but like “The Ice Monarch,” the critique of late-stage capitalism and the evils of technology feels more European than the more conspiracy-oriented dystopias one gets from Americans. In Laframboise’s universe, the conspirators are generally the good guys.
“Women are from Mars, Men are from Venus” is a great little story translated by Sheryl Curtis that nicely illustrates the personal impact of demographics and cultural expectations. I have a no-spoilers policy, so I won’t give away the slow reveal here, but American SF, particularly media SF, could benefit from a lot more stories like this one.
The fifth and final story, “Cousin Entropy,” is the hardest of hard SF. It is all idea with essentially no action. Covering roughly 20 billion years of history, its scope reminds me more of Olaf Stapledon’s universe-spanning novel, Star Maker, than any American author I can call to mind. Laframboise’s disembodied narrator reflects on the heat death of the universe—a fascinating contemplation, but not exactly a Star Wars actioner. It certainly has its “huh!” moment, but there is something uniquely French about the voice here that is both fascinating and a bit alien.
If you’re interested in reading hard SF with a distinctly European edge, or in keeping up with what’s happening in the French-Canadian version of the genre, this is a great place to start. It’s also a great little sampler of five top-end English language magazines/anthology series you might not be familiar with if you are only reading Analog and Asimov’s. I am quite sure we will be seeing a lot more of Michele Laframboise in English, so this is also your chance to be the first on your block to tune in. I consider the ebook five dollars well spent.
Five Hard and Crunchy SF Tales is published by Echofictions.