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Letters in Canada 1997 Fiction 1 I AJAY HEBLE In last year's 'Letters in Canada' essay on established fiction writers, I pointed to the ways in which many of the texts under consideration engaged with matters of history. Memorable for their compelling attempts to interrogate the assumptions governing dominant models of knowledge production, many of these texts turned to the past in an effort to raise salutary questions about power, identity, nation, and representation. A number of books in this year's crop of texts by writers who fall into the 'new fiction' category, interestingly, exhibit the opposite tendency: instead of imaginatively reconstructing the past, tl)_ese texts demonstrate an involvement in documenting the history of the future. While this shift in focus may seem new and unexpected, out of whack with recent trends in Canadian literary history, the tum to the future serves for these writers as a point of entry into some familiar- and pressing- social concerns. Indeed, the focus on the sociat ethico-politicat and institutional consequences of our technological age, of our current models of conduct and behaviour, and, more generally, of human greed, power, and arrogance gives these works of fiction a startlingly familiar kind of cultural edge and resonance. 'Postcolonial,' perhaps, is the term that bestbegins to describe that edge, but I am somewhat reluctant to bandy about such a loaded word without the benefit of proper context and debate. Let me, for the moment, offer a working definition, one that seems relevant for the context at hand. It's from Satya Mohanty, who, in an important essay on multicultural futures and 'the challenge of otherness,' asks us to think of postcoloniality as 'the process of unlearning historically determined habits of privilege and privation, of ruling and dependency.' Now the novels I have in mind are not all concerned directly with the experience of colonization. They do, however, focus on the non-compliance with which aggrieved populations can confront institutionalized forms of coercion and domination. In turning to examine the history of the future, these novels seem implicitly to be reminding us that we live in an era of widespread inequality and privation, an era in which insurgent knowledges struggle for public legitimacy only to be met with various forms of institutional intolerance and containment. 236 LETTERS IN CANADA 1997 The most powerful of these books is Ronald Wright's astonishing A Scientific Romance (Knopf Canada, 312, $29.95), winner of the 1997 David Higham Prize for best Conunonwealth fiction debut. Wright is well respected as an internationally acclaimed, award-winningnon-fiction writer, the author o( among others, Stolen Co11tinents and Time among the Maya. Perhaps best known as an accomplished travel writer, Wright, in this his first novel, turns (perhaps unsurprisingly) to a form of travel to provide an impetus for his plot. In this grim. apocalyptic tale, Wright uses the motif of time travel commonly identified with science fiction, and he gives it a kind of - well, yes - postcolonial edge. Set in 1999, on the eve of the new millennium in London, England, the novel begins with a museum curator, David Lambert, writing to his old friend Bird - named after jazz great Charlie Parker- explaining how he has been forwarded some information about the return of H.G. Wells's time machine from the nineteenth century. Lambert explains that he has come across a letter from Wells insisting that the fabled time machine was not a fable at all, but that a voyage into the future has, in reality, been made. Tempted initially to dismiss the letter as part of an elaborate hoax or millennium hysteria, David soon discovers that Wells was speaking the truth. When the time machine does appear (exactly as Wells, in his letter, said it would), and David is there to witness its landing, he tells us that 'Terror lay in its realism, its juxtaposition ofnormal and impossible.' While initially attracted to the device because it might offer the opportunity to go back in time and engage in 'life repair,' to restore truncated lives and to rebuild his own, David opts rather to go fmward to the middle of the new millennium. Instead of the sleek new...


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