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State of the Ark: Canadian Future Fiction Edited by Lesley Choyce

Reviewed by Robert Runté

As soon as I heard about this anthology, I knew I had to have it for my collection because I already have Lesley Choyce’s and John Bell’s pioneering 1981 Visions from the Edge, the first anthology of speculative fiction from Atlantic Canada; and Choyce’s 1992 Ark of Ice, a now classic anthology of Canadian speculative fiction (Canada being the ark in question). State of the Ark represents the current state and range of speculative fiction in Canada 2023, including checking in with some of the same authors from the 1992 volume. It is, like its predecessors, an excellent cross-section of the Canadian speculative genre at one moment in time.

At one end of the spectrum, we have traditional space fiction: Robert Sawyer’s “Star Light, Star Bright”, is an approachable story of Dyson spheres, interstellar colonies, and good parenting. Sawyer’s stories are always about exploring the less-than-obvious implications of big scientific concepts and bringing those down to the human level. This short is an example of why Sawyer is arguably Canada’s most successful science fiction writer.

Julie E. Czerneda’s “Foster Earth” is similarly a classic first-contact story: humans trying to figure out how to communicate with The Silent with absolutely nothing to go on . . . and coincidentally, another story about great parenting. I love it!

My favourite SF story, though, is Julian Mortimer Smith’s “Read-Only Memory”, which explores near-future tech to absolutely nail contemporary attitudes and relationships. I’m definitely going to have to hunt down more of Smith’s work.

Jeremy Hull’s “Bright Future” covers the similar ground of virtual technology and relationships, but this time from a parenting angle (hmm, starting to see a trend here). C.J. Lavigne’s “Side Effects May Include” is a sharply Canadian take on medical tech’s relationship with late-stage capitalism.

Other more or less traditional SF entries included Spider Robinson’s story of slow interstellar travel; John Park’s “Hammerhead” other-world colonization; Terri Favro’s “Winter Pilgrimage of the Storytellers”, a multi-world portal novel; and Hugh A.D. Spencer’s “Shoebox or The End of Civilization in Five Objects or Less”, a delightful satire of pompous museum staff, the ill-treatment of freelances, and the comeuppance Spencer (himself, a museum consultant) would wish upon them. Greg Bechtel’s “2115: Notes Toward Nine Stories of the Future” examines recent articles to project nine mutually exclusive punchlines for future fiction.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the stories that lean heavily into CanLit, like Katherine Govier’s “VIXEN, SWAN, EMU, BEAR”. I really enjoyed her writing, which connected each totem to moments in the narrator’s relationships. This story could comfortably have found a home in any Canadian literary journal. If anything, I questioned whether the speculative element was a bit thin, really only appearing in the last page—it felt a little tacked on. I was, therefore, not entirely surprised to read in her bio that the story had indeed originally appeared in Exile Literary Quarterly and the ending was added for this volume. I am not complaining, though! It’s a marvellous piece of writing, and I am always appreciative that our best literary writers are open to stepping across genre lines, which elsewhere are often considered impenetrable. The number and influence of Canadian literary writers crossing over into speculative fiction is one reason our version of the genre is distinct from the mass market American version.

Between these two poles are stories that blur the line between literary and speculative genres.

Élisabeth Vonarburg’s“Terminus” is a parallel world story, but mostly about relationships, identity and self-worth. Casey June Wolf’s “Substance. Light” works some of the same themes, but with an even more poetic bent. Both allude to suicide (so: trigger warning).

Candas Jane Dorsey’s “The Card is the World” a dark--or maybe darkly funny--story plays with literary structure to deliver a commentary on science, suits, and--inevitably--relationships. (And almost as an aside, the invisibility of older women.) Tim Wynne-Jones’“Eternity Leave” has flying saucers, but it is really a story about imagination, the literary life, and a beautiful day. The story nicely balances literal narrative and Wynne-Jones’ whimsical style.

Lesley Choyce’s own “Tantramar: A Love Story in a Time of Crisis” is either speculative fiction if we believe the characters, Canlit if they are delusional. It could go either way, but it works as a love story, so is categorization important?

I judge The State of the Ark an accurate presentation of current trends in the genre. Old writers and new are both represented, the new bringing a hopefully growing diversity of voices. There is an underlying optimism running through all these stories, even the dystopian ones, which is perhaps new. The collection as a whole is more literary than idea-driven, more about the writing than story-telling, which I would argue reflects the growing maturity of the speculative genre overall, even beyond Canada. Better yet, the majority of the stories here straddle these divides to combine the best of both CanLit and SF. There is room for both spaceships and poetic language in Canadian speculative fiction, and even the straight-forward SF all has an identifiable Canadian slant to it.

The State of the Ark is a ‘must-have’ for anyone wondering what Canadian future fiction fares these days.

The State of the Ark is published by Pottersfield Press, 2023.


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