by Michal Wojcik
I have become my own worst enemy.
Some of you might remember a video I did a while back with Sarah Murray and Natasha Bennett where I discussed, briefly, the idea of “Canadian Speculative Fiction.” Ms. Murray took a look at how Canadian symbols became focal points for texts rather than the story itself, to the detriment of said stories, then I rambled and dithered into a conclusion that the strength of Canadian SF was our lack of tradition and out ability to keep things fresh and unfettered.
I was wrong, to a certain extent.
I’ve recently begun work on a novel and found, to my horror, that my setting and themes were starting to morph into the “northern experience” as told by Margaret Atwood, Northrop Fry, and John Clute. Reading through Out of this World: Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature, while frustrating at times, did shed a great deal of light on the subject. All this time I thought I was writing on the periphery, from the immigrant experience, and soon found my descriptions of the northern woodlands where the story begins were considerably influenced by Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush (1852), and that my main inspiration for landscapes came from 17th century explorer’s accounts of Canada. It comes, I think, from my own tenuous connection to these things: growing up in the Yukon where the forest and the mountains still hem us in our settlements, where a ten minute walk from home can still get you lost in the endless blanket of trees.
The northern experience of the “gothic” forest, struggle against the elements, isolation both physical and social, quiet introspection, these are all the supposed marks of Canadian fiction. I’m starting to recognize them in my current work. And, in retrospect, it’s in my past short fiction as well, if somewhat less pronounced. The actual “Canadian-ness” of this narrative, of course, is a very particular occurrence, yet when Robert Runt and Christine Kulyk write, “Canadian SF tends towards introspective character studies rather than action-adventure,” I can look back at a good number of my short stories and nod. Yes, maybe they have a point, though blood & thunder & high adventure certainly have their place (a series of steampunk short stories I’m working on, for instance, thrive on cussing and wanton destruction).
I have to wonder about this, and about Canadian fantasy in general. What kind of fantasy stories has a “northern sensibility” produced? Guy Gavriel Kay certainly tempers his historio-fantasy adventures with a great deal of introspection, and the haunting wilderness appears in Sailing to Sarantium. Unfortunately, I haven’t read enough Canadian fantasy to really pick up the thread. I’m sure it must exist somewhere, giving our work its own unique identity that I never really believed existed. Until now.
“The Northern Cosmos: Distinctive Themes in Canadian SF” in Out of this World: Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature (Kingston: Quarry Press, 1995), 47.
Michal Wojcik is a fantasy writer currently living in the Yukon. You can find out more about his work at One Last Sketch.