Canadian SF: Can You Hear Us?

November 25, 2010

One of the more interesting (and heated) panels I attended at SFContario focused on the issue of Canadian speculative fiction. That is to say, both spec fic written by Canadian authors, and that which has a distinctly Canadian “voice,” whether or not the setting/characters/plot is Canadian. 

The general consensus seemed to be that it can be tough to be a Canadian writer. One author on the panel, Alison Baird, shared that she has had to change Canadian settings to American ones in order to appeal to publishers. Similarly, Robert J. Sawyer has changed endings to suit American editors, since, as he says, “American SF has happy endings, Canadian SF has sad endings, and British SF has no endings at all.”

 Admittedly, a Canadian publisher would probably be sympathetic to a Canadian voice, but the fact is, both our population and publishing industry is a fraction of the size of the USA’s. It pays to look south, but is it worth stifling the Canadian voice?

Frankly, as long as it’s good SF, I’ll read authors and books from anywhere in the world, from Canada and America, to the UK and New Zealand, to South Africa and China, to Iceland and Mexico. That being said, I am perhaps more sympathetic to Canadian books, more willing to give them a chance, if you will. I think some of this does have to do with national culture. Living beside a giant, dominant, very loud country (no offence), we are generally taught to trumpet and treasure whatever makes us distinct. I’ll be honest, if there were more books with definitively Canadian settings and characters (the opening of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree comes to mind), I would be happy, and I would probably read them, even just to give them a shot.

But back to one of the more contentious issues: if Canadians are having to change certain aspects of their works to please American publishers, does that mean that America’s not interested in our culture, or does it mean that our publishers aren’t interested in our SF? The “literary tradition” of Canadian literature is well-established, and as I mentioned above, we tend to cling to our traditions as protection against being utterly consumed by American culture. Thus, the time-honoured traditional “CanLit” (i.e. dysfunctional families in the woods) does tend to be favoured over SF.

However, I grew up reading books set in London and New York, and it didn’t warp me or make me any less Canadian. Although I always felt a vicarious little thrill when a book was set in Canada (which Alison Baird says is why she tends to keep a Canadian setting), I did kind of like learning about other countries through stories. So yes, I am a little irked when Canadian-written crime thrillers typically end up being set in New England, because our legal system is different from the States’ “and we don’t want people [i.e. American readers] thinking the author got details wrong.” Why can’t readers of different nationalities accept that it’s a Canadian court case with Canadian legal procedures?

Let me be clear: we like America. And yes, part of our issues in getting our SF published lies with the size/interests of our own industry. But should we strive to become more “American” in our writing? I don’t know. For all our similarities, there are huge differences between a country in which “Liberal” is a bad word, and one in which it’s a fairly moderate party. There are differences between a country where universal health care is a contentious issue, and one in which it’s pretty much a given. Despite what people think when we go abroad, we’re not the same. Ideally, we’d make a nice little harmony together: two distinct voices playing off of each other, balancing each other, and illuminating each other, with a few solos here and there.

Of course, all this fretting about cultural preservation and national voice is pretty typically Canadian anyway.




  1. Interesting stuff. I say hold onto your distinctive voice and don’t compromise by changing your setting to make editors happy. Canada is a huge country, with plenty of great places, and I for one as an American would like to read more stories set in Saskatchewan, which in my mind is the coolest-sounding province name.

  2. I enjoyed reading books set in Canada, like Susannah and Susannah Rides Again. Fun seeing new places like the Yukon and learning about the Mounties.

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