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The Old Pemmican Factory

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2006 by Robert J. Sawyer

A special report on Canadian SF for the January, 2006, issue of Locus, the trade journal of the Science Fiction field.

Damon Knight had a great name for the American commercial SF genre: he called it the Old Baloney Factory. Well, as with so many things, we have a branch plant of the U.S. parent company here in Canada — call it the Old Pemmican Factory.

The seminal text — the book that spawned the Old Pemmican Factory — was the 1994 anthology Northern Stars, edited for Tor by New York's David G. Hartwell and Montreal's Glenn Grant, in honor (and honour) of the fact that the World Science Fiction Convention was coming back to Canada for the first time in twenty-one years.

I vividly remember David Hartwell exhorting me, and everyone else in Northern Stars, to hustle copies to anyone we could during the Winnipeg Worldcon. "A book like this needs a push," Dave said.

Except, it turned out, it didn't; not in Canada. Despite a dustjacket that screamed American stereotypes of the Great White North — with a moose on it, no less! — Canadians snapped up the book, and not just at the con. Northern Stars sold as well in the States as any anthology in the genre (and was even picked up by the Quality Paperback Book Club). But it sold spectacularly well in Canada, reaching not just the core-SF audience but a wider mainstream audience, too (with many thanks due to H.B. Fenn and Company, then and now Tor's Canadian distributor).

David Hartwell and Tor publisher Tom Doherty took sharp notice of this, and suddenly Tor was aggressively acquiring authors who lived in Canada. They already had Spider Robinson, and they added Phyllis Gotlieb (at its founding, the only Canadian member of the Science Fiction Writers of America), Candas Jane Dorsey, Terence M. Green, Matthew Hughes, Donald Kingsbury, Scott Mackay, Robert J. Sawyer, Karl Schroeder, Peter Watts, and Robert Charles Wilson (the only one not edited by Hartwell — Bob works with Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden; Tor also publishes Cory Doctorow, but he emigrated from Canada in 2000, two years before they published his first novel).

Despite the Canadian fixation on the term "speculative fiction" (perhaps in hopes of fooling national and provincial arts councils into giving the odd grant to an SF writer), the preponderance of hard SF and space opera, especially by the more prolific names and among their more recent works, is hard to miss; indeed, as I write this, Analog is serializing Karl Schroeder's latest novel, Sun of Suns.

More than a decade after Northern Stars, Tor still publishes most of the Canadian SF out there, although, in the interim, two Canadians have won the Warner Aspect first-novel competition: Nalo Hopkinson and Karin Lowachee. They've both risen to prominence in and out of Canada, their home-turf success doubtless in part because H.B. Fenn is also Warner's Canadian distributor — the expertise Fenn gained in promoting the early Tor Canadian authors benefited these more-recent arrivals.

Granted, Nalo isn't a hard-SF writer (but, then again, Warner no longer markets her as SF; she's packaged as mainstream now), but Karin writes space opera. Outside of Tor and Warner, the major Canadian SF writers are Julie E. Czerneda (DAW) and James Alan Gardner (Eos), also purveyors of quality space opera, and, of course, William Gibson, whom I classify as a hard-SF writer (but who isn't marketed as SF anymore anyway).

So, if you like hard SF and space opera, check out the products of the Old Pemmican Factory — which, despite the occasional misleading cover, are almost totally moose-free.

Robert J. Sawyer's latest novel is Mindscan.

More Good Reading

More about Canadian SF
Random Musings index
Encyclopedia Galactica entry on Canadian Science Fiction
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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