Culture & Conversation

The Melancholia of a Comfortable People

The fifteenth in a long-running series of anthologies of original Canadian science fiction and fantasy, Tesseracts Fourteen: Strange Canadian Stories is dominated by tales aspiring to a dark, and occasionally horrific, tone. Editors John Robert Colombo and Brett Alexander Savory both note a preference for bleaker writing, which at least resulted in a unified feel to the book. Unfortunately, few of the stories here are really successful, and as a whole the anthology suffers from too little diversity.

Tonally most of these tales feel very similar, and are structurally and stylistically unadventurous. Language is mostly ordinary, point-of-view seems mainly chosen with an eye to getting the story told efficiently, characters are simple and rarely developed. Over the course of the book, this results in monotony; the reader’s never surprised.

Still, you can’t say the anthology pretends to be something it’s not. Colombo says in his introduction that “The prose in the collection, while vivid and vital, is in no way experimental or subversive or demanding.” The statement could have been extended to include the structure of the stories as well. But where Colombo finds the prose “vivid” and “vital,” I would say it’s on the whole flat, even pedestrian.

That’d be forgivable if the stories worked as tales. For the most part, though, they don’t have strong enough narratives to be really engaging. Patrick Johanneson’s “Heat Death: or, Answering the Ouroboros Question” and Catherine MacLeod’s “Hydden” both lack any significant conflict to drive their plots. The same could be said of Jerome Stueart’s “One Nation Under Gods” and Suzanne Church’s “Destiny Lives in the Tattoo’s Needle,” though Church at least nods in the direction of a dramatic situation, and Stueart’s attempt to grapple with issues of faith and history allow his story some thematic development. Jonathan Seville’s “Grandmother’s Babies” combines some dubious racial and sexual politics (“His driving skills were definitely oriental but we reached the fertility clinic in one piece”) with flat characters, poor prose, and an uninvolving plot; I’d like to think it was meant ironically, but could find no hint of that in the text.

On the other hand, with twenty-three writers represented in the book, there are some highlights. Daniel Sernine’s “Nights in White Linen,” translated into English by Sheryl Curtis, is a remarkable tale of ghoulish atavism at the Université de Montréal; Matthew Moore’s tale of a Canada under invasion, “The Machinery of Government,” is tense and effective, working a sense of scale into a strong character piece. Claude Lalumière’s “Vermilion Dreams: The Complete Works of Bram Jameson” is an exception to the book’s pedestrian approach to form, a complex hallucinatory interweaving of influences including Jack Kirby, Michael Moorcock, and J.G. Ballard through the form of a fictional book catalogue. The anthology includes poetry, a good choice, and Sandra Kasturi’s nine poems, collected here under the title “Beautiful With Want,” seemed to me to be especially strong.

But in the end the book is simply too unsurprising. Genre literature uses conventions, but is not itself necessarily conventional. Most of the stories in Tesseracts Fourteen are just that. Too many are thematically empty, with only occasional gestures in the direction of meaning. They’re dark, if you like, but it’s an unearned darkness, a flat irony. It’s a smug Canadian depression, the melancholia of a comfortable people in a comfortable country feeling a bit down because the nights get so long in winter.

Matthew Surridge is a Montreal-area writer. His criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette and The Comics Journal.

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