[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Is Canadian SF Different From American SF?

A Tale of Two Stories

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer

Is Canadian science fiction really different from American SF? As a way of answering that, let me tell you about two short stories I wrote.

The first was for the American marketplace: Mike Resnick emailed me, asking me to do a story for an anthology he and Marty Greenberg were editing for DAW called Dinosaur Fantastic. This book was to be completely and unabashedly commercial: DAW was timing its release to coincide with the premiere of the movie Jurassic Park in a blatant attempt to cash in on dinomania.

I agreed and wrote a story. Not only did it fit Mike's parameters, it so neatly exemplified what he and Marty wanted for their anthology that they chose to use it as the lead story in the book.

The same story has since been reprinted in other equally commercial anthologies, including Ace's Dinosaurs II, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, the latter of course, being the single most-honored American SF editor of the last decade. In addition, the story garnered honorable mentions in both Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction and Datlow and Windling's Year's Best Fantasy And Horror, both published in New York.

Clearly, this story succeeded at precisely what it was created to do: fulfilling the needs of the American marketplace.

I wrote another story for the Canadian marketplace. I set it in Alberta, and had it deal with such things as the erosion of the Canadian social-safety net and the Canadian aversion to capital punishment. I submitted this one to On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of Speculative Writing, Canada's leading English-language SF magazine. And, of course, I submitted it without my name on the manuscript, as On Spec required at that time. It went through blind judging, but nonetheless was selected for the magazine.

And, indeed, when it came time for On Spec to put together its "best of" anthology, On Spec: The First Five Years (published by Canada's leading small-press literary-SF publisher, Tesseract Books), my story was included. Meanwhile, when Tor was putting together its Northern Stars: The Canadian Science Fiction Anthology, editors David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant (the latter of Montreal) chose to use this typically Canadian story, as well. More: this story went on to win both the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Award ("the Aurora") for Best Short-Form Work in English and the Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story of the Year.

Clearly, then, just as the earlier story had succeeded precisely and specifically at catering to the American market, so had this later story succeeded precisely and specifically at catering to the Canadian market.

Except . . .

Except that there aren't two stories. There's only one: "Just Like Old Times." It appeared in Dinosaur Fantastic published by DAW in July 1993, and it appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of On Spec.

This story didn't just sneak into the U.S. market. Rather, it perfectly fit what the American editors needed for a very commercial project; otherwise, it wouldn't have been their lead story. And this story didn't just sneak into the Canadian market (and, with blind judging, there's no way it was selected for whatever marketing value my name has); rather, it perfectly fit what the Canadian editors needed for their literary magazine.

What's that, you say? One data point does not a case make? Well, I did pretty much the same thing again this year: I won the short-fiction Aurora Award for "Peking Man," a story written for — and, again, chosen as the lead story in — the very commercial U.S. anthology Dark Destiny III: Children of Dracula, published by White Wolf.

Then, of course, there's the fact that Canadian Jack Whyte handily sells the exact same books to both Penguin Canada and Tor USA; that Toronto's Guy Gavriel Kay manages to sell the exact same books to Penguin Canada and HarperCollins USA; that both Doubleday Canada and HarperCollins Canada each offered me (although I turned them both down) five-figure advances for Canadian rights to the exact same book I was selling to Tor; that Nova Scotia's Pottersfield — one of Canada's oldest literary presses — just bought a short-story collection from Toronto's Andrew Weiner, gathering together stories first published in American magazines such as Asimov's and Amazing; that Quarry Press, another leading Canadian literary publisher, is about to release a collection of Ontarian Edo van Belkom's SF/F stories, all originally published in U.S. magazines; that Edmonton's Tesseract Books reissued Dreams of an Unseen Planet by B.C.'s Teresa Plowright, originally published by Arbor House USA; that Vancouver's Sean Stewart sold the exact same manuscript for Passion Play to Ace USA and Tesseract Books Canada; that Chicoutimi's Élisabeth Vonarburg managed a similar feat with books for Bantam USA and Tesseracts. That . . .

Is Canadian SF really different from American SF? Not in any gross sense. Remember, in the 1990s, Canadian SF encompassed everything from the cyberpunk of William Gibson to the space opera of Phyllis Gotlieb to the literary tales of Terence M. Green to the Sturgeonesque writings of Robert Charles Wilson to the hard SF of Robert J. Sawyer to the humorous SF of Spider Robinson to the Heinleinesque work of Donald Kingsbury to the lyrical work of Heather Spears to the philosophical work of Sean Stewart to the military SF of S. M. Stirling . . . (And, of course, there's the fantasy work of Charles de Lint and Tanya Huff and Guy Gavriel Kay and Michelle Sagara West and . . .). Yes, some of the writers mentioned above have since moved out of Canada, but the work they did while living in Canada is presumably considered to be Canadian. I wouldn't begin to know how to categorize all of the above under a single rubric, let alone be able to say that this complex, variegated array of work somehow is qualitatively different from the complex, variegated array of work done by those south of the border.

Of course, Canadians may write about different things, or take a different view on an issue than an American might. My novel End of an Era told of a decidedly Canadian attempt to do big science on a shoestring budget; my Far-Seer clearly fits neatly into Margaret Atwood's view that the central Canadian literary motif is the struggle against a harsh landscape that is trying to kill you; Far-Seer's sequel, Fossil Hunter, takes a decidedly Canadian approach to politics, as does Starplex; and, of course, Frameshift is at least partially a paean to socialized medicine. But do those things have any impact on whether the books will sell in the States? Of course not.

Still, one does hear the claim that Canadian SF is so different from American SF that it can only be published in Canada; the claim is often followed by a disdainful sniff implying indeed that Canadian SF is in fact better than the American brand. The assertion is that there's some ineffable Canadian voice that doesn't go down well internationally (the experiences of Pulitzer Prize-winner Carol Shields, New York Times bestseller Margaret Atwood, or all the Canadian writers whose books have been adapted by Hollywood notwithstanding).

But the only people who earnestly make this claim seem to be the ones who can't sell to well-paying markets. Surely the truth is that these particular Canadian SF writers don't write well enough to command higher rates; Canada, after all, has no SF short-fiction markets that meet SFWA's standards of professional pay.

The "Canadian SF is different" excuse is really just another form of the sometimes-heard "all the really inventive work in the SF field appears in the semiprozines" excuse put forth by American writers who've managed penny-a-word sales but can't seem to crack any major market. It's just a comfortable way of avoiding having to face up to their own artistic shortcomings.

Good stories are good stories. Period.

More Good Reading

More about Canadian SF
Random Musings index
Encyclopedia Galactica entry on Canadian Science Ficiton
Ten recommended Canadian SF novels
Northern Lights: ten years of news notes about Canadian SF authors.
Entry on Rob from Canadian Who's Who

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