Reviewed by Robert Runte
Canadian speculative fiction (roughly: magic realism, slipstream, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and so on) has been going through a bit of a renaissance lately. This is most easily seen in the proliferation of literary magazines and anthologies devoted to Canadian speculative fiction: Speculative North (the newest magazine), Augur, Lackington’s, Anathema, Kasma, Unnerving, AE, Neo-Opsis, On Spec (the oldest magazine, at 31 years), and anthology series from Exile, Renaissance, Tyche, and Laska Media, are all producing excellent and surprising work.
Into this mix comes the online magazine, Polar Borealis, edited by publisher Graeme Cameron. Cameron’s primary purpose is to give voice to new and emerging Canadian writers. “To get published you have to write better than the pros” Cameron notes, “because professionals have the advantage of a confirmed readership.” Publication in Polar Borealis is often the contributor’s first sale, though Cameron does include some pros to leaven each issue. Rainwood Press, run by acclaimed Canadian author and poet, Rhea Rose, then decided to highlight the best of this new writing in Stellar Evolution.
In selecting the best from Polar Borealis, Rose has also ended up with a broad cross-section of the Canadian genre. There are several straight-up horror stories here, a couple of post-apocalyptic tales, some traditional science fiction, some modern fantasy, weird romance, and even a story with cats. In short, something for everyone. The quality within any collection necessarily varies, but there are no real lemons in this one. Most entries are at least interesting and some are gems.
Jonathan Sean Lyster’s “Target Market” is one example. The premise is artificial intelligences using deep-learning to master writing best-sellers (a trend writers would do well to attend to more closely) taken one step into the future. Although this is a simple ‘idea’ story, it is perfectly crafted, the peaceful domestic setting foreshadowing and driving home the conclusion to give it real impact. I could easily use it to illustrate story structure in my next workshop.
Another is Steve Fahnestalk’s “Jabber”, a tidy little horror tale about family dynamics and alienation made manifest through alien invasion. There’s nothing flashy here or profound, no advance on say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it is executed well and has a cute ending.
Definitely not cute is Chris Campeau’s much darker horror, “This Round’s on Me,” a creepy mood piece about the dangers of going to pubs not rated in the guide books.
Neo-Opsis editor, Karl Johanson has a clever piece on relationships, love, and the nature of hate. “Hate Doesn’t Always Come Easy” has an undercurrent of humour, some implied zombie action, and a folksy philosophical thoughtfulness that makes it an engaging read.
Stylistically, the story that stands out is Akem’s “Wing Shop”, a fantasy about selecting one’s wings for the afterlife. Whereas almost every other story told in the second-person has led me to fling the offending journal across the room—second-person being inherently annoying, pretentious, and entirely unnecessary—here we have the exception to the rule. There is no other way this could have been written and Akem pulls it off both effortlessly and beautifully. This is definitely a voice we will be hearing more from.
Poetry is usually under-represented in SF collections (if present at all) so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that each prose selection here alternates with poetry pieces. Unless one subscribes to something like the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association’s Eye to the Telescope, the chances of stumbling across speculative poetry are limited, since most literary journals do not accept genre and genre magazines tend not to do much poetry. Take, for example, Richard Stevenson. He is a widely published Canadian poet with over twenty traditionally-published books of poetry but “Hexham Heads” in Polar Borealis may be his first appearance in a speculative fiction magazine, even though a lot of his poetry utilizes SF motifs (e.g., his Why Were All the Werewolves Men? collection).
Also great fun is the irreverent “The Devil’s Riddle” by Taral Wayne and Walt Wentz, a conversation between the Devil and Christ in traditional-style verse.
My favourite, poetry piece though, is J. J. Steinfeld’s “In a Small Earthbound Room”, which is a completely self-contained ‘first contact’ story. The story is set in a rundown rooming house, so works as both SF and social commentary.
Of course, one could just read all fifteen issues of Polar Borealis—because there are a lot more where these stories and poems came from—but Rhea Rose has complied a balanced selection that shines a light on some promising new writers.
Stellar Evolutions: The Best Stories and Poems of Polar Borealis Magazine’s First Fifteen Issues is published by RainWood Press.