restricted access Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (review)
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Reviewed by
David Ketterer. Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. 206 pp. $27.50.

David Ketterer's Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy traces the history of both forms in both French and English from the 1839 publication of Napoléon Aubin's Mon voyage à la lune to the present, assesses the factors underlying that history, and postulates what might be particularly Canadian about both this process of development and its attendant products. As Ketterer concludes, Canada's geographic placing and colonial legacy, its continuing identity crisis, and its consciousness of "otherness" all contribute to "the appreciation of contexts" essential to science fiction and the "deconstructive inversions of inner and outer" (itself a "very . . . Canadian" maneuver) basic to fantasy. The "result . . . at its best" is a body of works notably—to quote only a few of the final terms of praise—"open-minded," "tolerant," "subversive," and "richly ambiguous."

At its best, Ketterer's study adds substantially to our understanding of these best works and the processes of their production. Two criticisms, however, seem in order. First, the study blurs the very terms on which it turns. The early and briefly postulated distinction between science fiction as a "metonymic" portrayal of "consequential other worlds" and fantasy as a "metaphorical" portrayal of [End Page 952] "hermetic other worlds" is not clearly argued. "Fantasies presenting impossible situations," we are told, "usually belong in the hermetic other worlds category" or, paraphrased, fantasies presenting fantasy are usually fantasies. Nor are definitions and their application clarified in the discussion of particular texts. When, for example, a detective novel is considered as a fantasy because it is "set in an imaginary Québec," Ketterer operationally asserts a definition of fantasy that includes all literature (always set in the imaginary) and thus cannot serve to differentiate one form from another. This is also a definition he earlier promised to exclude from his study.

Second, Ketterer's determination to say something about virtually every work of science fiction/fantasy produced in Canada results in many bare-bones synopses of dubious value. Why even note that Alter Ego "is a thriller about a mad McGill scientist's attempts at matter transmission" while (from the same page) The Immortal Soul of Edwin Carlysle is the "story of a man who uses science to unlock the soul's secrets"? Or, an inverse but related matter, Sheila Watson's The Double Hook, one of the founding texts of modernist English Canadian fiction, receives the same brief summary as several admitted "potboilers" noted in the succeeding paragraph. Of course, one can always second guess another's allocation of critical attention. But I do find it dubious when Louky Bersianik's L'Euguélionne, to my mind the most resonant fantasy yet written in Canada, receives only brief mention as an interesting but often "simplistic" and "polemic" critique of patriarchal society and sexist language, when neither Jack Hodgins nor Jovette Marchessault are noted at all. The reader, I think, would have been better served by more selective and sustained assessments of significant (however determined) texts, such as the sections on Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, William Gibson's Neuromancer, and Howard O'Hagan's Tay John (the major narrator of which is Jack Denham, not Jack Denton).

In short and to conclude, although Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy is too much a sketchy mapping of the "here there be other temporal dimensions" variety, Ketterer is still to be commended on the extent of the territory he has traversed and the degree to which he has conveyed the general lay of this literary land. [End Page 953]

Arnold E. Davidson
Duke University