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Northern Stars: The Anthology of Canadian Science Fiction
edited by David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant
Tor Books, 383 pages

Northern Stars: The Anthology of Canadian Science Fiction
David G. Hartwell
David G. Hartwell is an editor at Tor Books, as well as being a highly-respected author in his own right. He wrote Age of Wonders (1984), and has been editor/anthologizer of such works as The Dark Descent, Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, and the new annual volume, Year's Best SF.

David Hartwell Website
ISFDB Bibliography
The New York Review of Science Fiction
The Golden Age of Best SF Collections: A Chronicle
SF Site Review: Year's Best SF 3
SF Site Review: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Mark Shainblum

First of all, a disclaimer: I'm not entirely a disinterested bystander when it comes to Northern Stars. I was there when Glenn Grant pitched the idea to Tor Books senior editor David Hartwell at the Con*Cept science fiction convention in Montreal in 1993, and I provided some research material to the project along the way. Moreover, one of the stories in the anthology, Lesley Choyce's "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer," originally appeared in the second issue of Orion, a semi-professional SF 'zine I published way back in 1983.

The Canadian science fiction scene is so relatively small that it's inevitable that I would have had some connection to the project at some point. Virtually anybody familiar enough with Canadian SF to write this review would be faced with the same dilemma.

That being said -- and with my biases out in the open for everyone to see -- it's really impossible to overstate the importance of this book, especially when you consider how far Canadian science fiction has come over the last decade or two. By the late 70s, Québécois authors were carving a niche for themselves in the francophone world (today Quebec and the rest of French Canada arguably produce more French-language SF than France itself, with one-eighth the population), but Anglo-Canadian SF books were so thin on the ground that there was legitimate doubt one could even speak coherently about "Canadian SF."

In fact, TorCon II, the 1972 World Science Fiction Convention held in Toronto, couldn't muster enough Canadian SF writers to fill a room. Virtually all the programming on the theme was theoretical: "Is there a Canadian science fiction?," "What might Canadian science fiction look like if there were such a thing?"

By contrast, the 1995 WorldCon held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, boasted literally dozens of panels on Canadian SF, was the site of the General Assembly of SF Canada -- the association of Canadian SF writers -- and hosted the Aurora Awards, Canada's national science fiction and fantasy award. None of these things would have been imaginable even a decade earlier. The idea that one day the largest American publisher of science fiction would fill a 383 page book with nothing but Canadian science fiction and fantasy was so beyond inconceivable as to be fantasy itself.

But here it is -- and replete with some of the best SF to be published anywhere in the last ten years. Honest! When you have writers as powerful and as diverse as William Gibson, Judith Merril, Spider Robinson, Terence M. Green, Elisabeth Vonarburg and Yves Meynard between the same covers, there is simply no way you could have a bad collection, regardless of nationality. But it is within the diversity of these voices that the strength of modern Canadian SF -- both French and English -- really shines.

Canadian SF never had a pulp era, and therefore doesn't suffer from an artificial bifurcation from so-called "mainstream" literature. At least two of the authors represented in Northern Stars, Phyllis Gottlieb and Heather Spears, are also winners of the Governor-General's Award -- Canada's most prestigious literary award. Both Gottlieb and Spears are highly regarded as poets outside the SF sphere, and they bring that poetic love of language to their science fiction. If Canadian SF has a strength, it's the high literary quality of most of the writing. If Canadian SF has a weakness, it's the relatively weak plotting and "sense of wonder" which is so characteristic of the American form. Like mainstream Canadian literature, much of Canadian SF is about surviving rather than triumphing; it's about riding the waves of technological and social change rather than shaping them.

This becomes absolutely clear when you note a single fact in Northern Stars; only a handful of stories in the collection -- most of the stories translated from the French and Glenn Grant's own "Mimetic Drift," among them -- are actually set in a future Canada, and only Spider Robinson's "User Friendly" has anything to say about Canada at all. If America is about progress and the future, then Canada seems to be about the present or about the future so distant that we no longer play a part in it. This is a peculiar Anglo-Canadian blindness, a strange resistance to the reality of our own impending future.

Nevertheless, as a primer on where Canadian science fiction and fantasy stood in 1995, Northern Stars is unbeatable. And, once you become familiar with the landscape and style and mythos of this strange northern land, you can move on to domestic books like the annual Tesseracts and Northern Frights anthology series. More, Tor is promising a follow-up volume -- Northern Suns -- in 1999.

Copyright © 1999 by Mark Shainblum

Mark Shainblum is the co-editor of Arrowdreams: An Anthology Of Alternate Canadas (Nuage Editions, 1997) the first anthology of Canadian alternate history. A veteran of the comic book field, Mark co-created the 1980's Canadian superhero Northguard and currently writes the Canadian political parody series Angloman, both in the form of a paperback book series and as a weekly comic strip in the Montreal Gazette. He lives in Montreal with his computer, his slippers, and a motley collection of books.

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