Canada and Speculative Fiction

My passion for speculative fiction takes a variety of forms, one of which is my Xbox. Last month I finally started playing Mass Effect 3, and I was surprised to find that the game’s prologue takes place in 22nd-century Vancouver. The time spent there was brief, but it was nice to see some action set in good old Canada.

Afterward, I thought: why was I surprised to see the game start out in Vancouver? I realized that it’s because of how rare it is for speculative fiction to be set in Canada. I can’t think of a sci-fi or fantasy game that takes place in Canada. The only novels involving Canada in either genre that I’m aware of are The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), The Night Eternal (Del Toro/Hogan), and the WWW series (Robert J. Sawyer). And while a number of TV shows and movies of a fantastic nature are filmed or produced in “Hollywood North” (aka Vancouver or Toronto), there is very little that’s actually set in these cities.

So why is this? There are amazing Canadian actors that have lit up speculative fiction on the screen. Some of the best speculative fiction authors around are Canadian – Steven Erikson, S.M. Stirling, and Guy Gavriel Kay, just to name a few. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the comic series it’s based on, takes place in Toronto. So why aren’t more stories set here?

I think it’s for the same reason why most popular fiction in any genre (beyond literary) isn’t set in Canada. And our status on the world stage of late. People don’t take Canada seriously. As far as most people are concerned, nothing exciting really happens here. The excitement is in the United States, Britain, Japan, and elsewhere. To the world, and even to most of our own people, we’re all a bunch of generally nice people that live ordinary lives, and it’s nothing compared to what’s going on beyond our borders.

But the big issue is that there is excitement here – just read the news. And writers are a huge component to helping people realize this. Writers make New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and Tokyo look like these thrilling locales full of car chases, terrorist attacks, and alien invasions, when in fact these places are basically no different than Toronto or Vancouver. So why not set the next great horror novel in Ottawa? Or have the next Harry Potter raised in Edmonton? Why can’t Canada be another setting for the fantastic?

As much as I hate to use him as an example (for several reasons), we need more speculative fiction writers to do what Robert J. Sawyer did in his latest trilogy, where the protagonist lives in Waterloo. If this Ontario city that a lot of people have probably never heard of can be a setting for a science fiction trilogy, then why not the rest of the country?

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2 thoughts on “Canada and Speculative Fiction

  1. It’s true, and Vancouver almost doesn’t count since it’s probably as much an in-joke among the game designers as a sincere desire to represent Canada or necessity to set the game’s story there, since a lot of games are designed in Vancouver, not unlikely Mass Effect. Which reminds: what’s ironic about all this is that a lot of the big blockbuster movies, in which all these exciting events like the ones you mention take place (end of the world, superheroes flying through the streets, etc.), *DO* take place in Canada (again, Vancouver in particular), in physical reality, that is: they’re shot there, then spun to look like American cities. Reminds me of this Douglas Coupland-screenwritten movie “Everything’s Gone Green” in which a plastic palm tree that’s supposedly been in virtually every movie with a palm tree in it keeps showing up everywhere and being used to transform the place into LA or something.

    It’s always a double take to hear Canada mentioned in art, even if it’s by a Canadian. I admit myself to having experienced anxiety to name Canadian locales in my fiction writing, often instead opting not to specify any location at all. In one story I published, “Canadian Thanksgiving” is specified, and oddly it still makes me wince a little. There’s no rational reason for that response — only a national one; for indeed I think part of the problem is Canadiana, and the idea of a “Canadiana”, itself. When something is “Canadian”, it always seems like it’s trying too hard to be Canadian. Which it is, since most of Canadian nationalism is about defining Canada in binary opposition to the States, and self-ironically as an underdog. Writers like Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood (in both her criticism and fiction) made part of their careers doing this, theorizing a Canadian “identity,” and now that that stuff has gone rather stale, anything straining to be Canadian still reeks (to me, anyway) of that same, very official national Canadian identity project of the ’70s and ’80s of which Frye and Atwood were a part (still is a part, in Atwood’s case). My own sense is that, in a similar way that, as many Canadianist literary scholars judge, Canada “skipped over” modernism and went straight from a Victorianism to a postmodernism, Canada came too late to national identity: the National Identity Project began self-consciously and in earnest just at a time when globalization was rendering nationality more and more irrelevant. The big Canadian cities are now as strikingly cosmopolitan as any other.

    Anyway, for fun, some recent (and less recent) things in Canada that have made international news: the Ottawa OC transpo strike, psycho who sent limbs to Conservative Party, Montreal student protests, shooting at Parti Quebecois victory rally. Ironically, these last three things happened in Quebec, though. (Funny story: my expatriate sisters living in the States informed me that some American media mis-reported the shooting as an attempt on our Prime Minister.)

    Also, another addition to your list: Canada is mentioned in one episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex, where the plot centers around a Canadian ambassador’s son (in Japan). I’m told Canada is mentioned more in the Manga series.

    Alas, I appear to have latched onto another of your blog posts in lieu of my own blog and in want of procrastination.

  2. Don’t forget about that thing with the needles in Sherbrooke and this pipeline debate in Alberta. Interesting and newsworthy things happen in Canada all the time, and yet nobody takes us seriously!

    I agree, though, that inserting Canada into a work of fiction can sometimes seem forced. It’s as though some Canadian authors feel like they have to show loyalty to their country, or that they’re laboring a point. And as much as I enjoy certain literary fiction, that can’t be all Canada is good for. Granted, setting a story in Canada is less about nationalism for me and more about simply using a cultural and environmental landscape that has just as much potential as other places in the world. Like you said, our cosmopolitan cities are no different than New York or Paris, so why not have more genre fiction set there?

    I’m not going to touch modernism or postmodernish because that’s outside my comfort zone. And yes, you should spend some more time on setting up YOUR blog so I can throw some commentary there. Though I appreciate the time you spend responding to my inane posts, since no one else has bothered to yet 🙂

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