Tag Archives: science fiction

Ad Astra 2013

Ad Astra is a speculative fiction convention in the outskirts of Toronto (specifically Markham) that I’ve attended now for several years. (2012 and 2009 recaps). Last year they moved to a new hotel for the convention, and it looks like they’ve started to fix some of the problems with last year’s event.

There were fewer tracks of programming this year, which was helpful. This reduced the heavy load on the elevators from last year, and made panel decisions easier.

Panels scheduled in the smaller rooms on the lower level were a real problem for me, as the rooms seem designed to devour sound. There are no microphones or speakers, and the panelists tend to be soft spoken. I had to bail on one panel because the sounds of people in the hall were far louder than the people at the front of the room.

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Book cover for Triggers

Book review: Triggers by Robert J Sawyer

I recently finished reading Triggers, the latest novel by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J Sawyer. After the television adaptation of his novel Flashforward, there was an obvious desire to tap into a larger market of potential fans. Many of Sawyer’s earlier novels had elements of suspense, but none could ever truly be called a thriller. They have all been heavy on the philosophical issues, exploring ideas and thoughts on the meaning of humanity.

Book cover for Triggers

Triggers is the combination of this philosophy on the human condition, mixed with high stakes action. Sawyer manages this quite well. While Sawyer’s message is as positive as always, the comparison to Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers is more relevant than ever.

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Ad Astra 2012

I’ve attended Ad Astra, a Toronto science fiction convention, for several years now. As the Don Valley Parkway was closed for maintenance this weekend, the change of venue from the hotel used over the last few years was welcome.
The convention floor was much more accessible, without the insane number of stairs everywhere, like at the previous convention centre. However, the venue space for vendors was insufficient. The main vendors room had four or five booksellers, including Bakka Phoenix and Chizine Publications. Other vendors had tables lining the hallways. When customers stood outside their tables, walking down the halls became difficult.

Steampunk cosplayers at Ad Astra

In addition to the Steampunk cosplayers, this year a number of vendors were selling Steampunk accessories.

The convention seemed a little emptier this year. Toronto Comicon was this weekend as well, which certainly didn’t help. The programming on Saturday appeared to be hit or miss. At some times, three panels of interest were scheduled at the same time, while at others, nothing of interest was going on. Those were the times where I like to circle the vendors room, but it didn’t take nearly as long this year.

Perhaps the most engaging panel was one on criticism, moderated by Adam Shaftoe. It was nice to meet him in person for the first time. It’s always interesting to see who has twitter notifications enabled in a panel. After I mentioned him in a tweet, I could see him scanning the room to find me. The panelists had a good discussion, about the advantages and disadvantages of ARCs and blog monetization. The best advice was from Ryan Oakley. No, not this, but rather that reviewers shouldn’t worry about the feelings of the author. Consider the work alone. Assume a certain level of professionalism on the part of all parties, and follow Wheaton’s Rule: Don’t be a dick.

I really enjoyed attending a few readings. Suzanne Church read from her Aurora nominated story The Needle’s Eye, which was really moving. Marcy Italiano read her short story Dance at my Funeral, a great story about a final farewell. Where S

Later I attended a reading by Matt Moore, Derek Kunsken, and Marie Bilodeau, who read to an engaged audience. Matt had the other authors help read parts of his story Ascension, a story about telepathic zombies. Marie read her Aurora nominated short story The Legend of Gluck, in which a rotten skull is dragged around. Not to be outdone, Derek read from his Aurora nominated story To Live and Die in Gibbontown, which was published in Asimov’s. Matt then finished off with a Lovecraft inspired story Delta Pi. The East Block Irregulars writing group is well represented by these authors.

I’m not sure which story I enjoyed best. The reading of Ascension was spectacular, and any story where the characters are monkeys will have my attention. Despite his disclaimer that this was his first public reading, Derek was funny and engaging. Finally, of you’ve not attended a reading by Marie, you’re really missing out. A French accent and rotting sorcerer brains? A winning combination!

To wrap up the night, I attended the start of the Chizine party, where Michael Rowe graciously signed the copy of Enter, Night I picked up in the dealer’s room. Chizine made out like the piratical bandits they are in the Aurora nominations, and this modern vampire novel, set in northern Ontario in the 1970s, was one of them. All too soon, I had to depart. It was a good day, and it was nice to see everyone again.

Aurora Award Finalists

The finalists for the Prix Aurora Awards has now been announced.

While I’ve only read two of the nominated works for Best English Novel so far, (Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer), I’ve read the previous two novels in the series by Hayden Trenholm (nominated for Stealing Home, previous novels reviewed are Defining Diana and Steel Whispers.), and have attended readings by Sawyer, Trenholm and Marie Bilodeau for their nominated works.

I’m also pleased that Suzanne Church (a writer here in the Waterloo Region),  Matt Moore, and Hayden Trenholm are finalists for Best English Short Story. Sawyer is also a finalist for Best English Poem, as are Carolyn Clink, and Helen Marshall.

Douglas Smith (of whom I’ve mentioned the story Radio Nowhere from the Campus Chills anthology) has a nomination for Best English Related work for his collection of stories (Chimerascope), and John Robert Columbo and Brett Alexander Savory are finalists for the Tesseracts Fourteen anthology.

There’s a good article in the Metro News about an Ottawa based group of writers named the East Block Irregulars which includes Trenholm, Moore and Bilodeau which shows how a great group can challenge writers to excel. All of the members of the group have reason to be proud of these accomplishments.

Matt Moore holding Steel Whispers

A photo of SF writer Matt Moore holding his colleague Hayden Trenholm’s novel Steel Whispers. Both Moore and Trenholm are nominated for Best English Short Story.

The Last Man

Mary Shelley is primarily known for writing Frankenstein (1818), and while many people think themselves familiar with the tale, their knowledge is usually based on the many play and film adaptations, rather than the original literary text. In the Billion Year Spree: The History Of Science Fiction (1973), Brian Aldiss argued quite successfully that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel. Certainly the creation of a manufactured being, based to some extent on the science of the day should qualify as such.

How then should we examine Shelley’s later novel, The Last Man (1826)? While I don’t believe that it really qualifies as science fiction, many of the themes Shelley includes are familiar to a modern audience. This post apocalyptic tale will seem familiar to readers of modern anthologies such as Wastelands, edited by John Joseph Adams. Stories like The Last Man bear a strong similarity to works by Stephen King, such as The Stand (1978), where a global catastrophe has depopulated the earth. Unlike King’s novel, Mary Shelley’s story lacks the supernatural elements, aside from the narrative framing device. Shelley mourns for a lost world, just as she mourned for her husband and child. As she notes in her novel, “all things proceed, decay, and perish”.

Much of her novel can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Many of the characters seem based off those in her life. The story is a kind of momento mori, memorializing those who proceeded her. In many ways, The Last Man deals with death and emotion in a far more sophisticated way than Shelley dealt with this issue in Frankenstein. While Victor Frankenstein is unable to express grief or true remorse for anyone, in The Last Man, Lionel Verney memorializes the entire world, saying that “my thoughts were gems to enrich the treasure house of man’s intellectual possessions; each sentiment was a precious gift I bestowed on them”. Verney becomes a kind of living monument to the peoples of the earth.

This theme can also be seen in Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend (1954), for which the movie adaptation starring Will Smith utterly fails to conclude in a satisfying manner. In Matheson’s novel, Neville is also a “last man”, fighting for the memory of mankind.

While Shelley’s The Last Man may not fully qualify as science fiction, the themes she used have formed a groundwork for authors who have worked inside and outside the genre ever since.

The Fiction of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer published his first novel in 1990, but his first SF publication was a short story called If I’m Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage, in 1981.

I don’t remember when I first started reading Sawyer’s fiction, but I do remember his time as the Edna Staebler Writer In Residence at the Kitchener Public Library, in 2006. During his first appearance, I also met Paddy Forde, Suzanne Church and James Alan Gardner, all local authors in Waterloo Region.

Rob is often one to talk of how perseverance is one of the great assets of a writer. The ability to keep cranking out the words, and the stories, day after day, is one of the signs of a writer. His addition to Heinlein’s rules of writing is simple: keep writing.

Clearly another important part of Rob’s success is his great skill as a communicator. Not only does his writing express a sense of clarity, but his interaction in person is phenomenal. He has a strong, projecting voice, which is great for public readings. His degree from Ryerson is in Radio and Television Arts, where he specialized in screenwriting, which doubtless helped him land so many guest appearances on television. He also had the opportunity to write the screenplay for one of the episodes of the ABC Flash Forward adaptation of his novel.

When talking with Rob at conventions, he shows an earnest interest in what others think, even when it’s some mindless fan (namely myself) uttering a spontaneous, unplanned question at a reading, with no real relevance to the story at hand. Rob is quick to deflate the question with a simple but humourous response, and then follow up later. For those wanting to know: “The reason in WATCH that the CSIS agents flew from Ottawa to Toronto then drove to Waterloo is that the first flight from Ottawa to Toronto arrives at 7:00 a.m.; the first flight from Ottawa to Waterloo arrives at 8:30 p.m. — and the Toronto airport is less than 75 minutes from Caitlin’s school, so you get there earlier by doing it the way I described in the novel.”

Rob’s fiction is based on important, contemporary issues, often dealing with morality. Whether it’s the rights of the consciousness transferred into an android body in Mindscan, or that of a nascent AI in Rob’s latest Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, Rob raises ethical issues which arise due to advances in modern technology.

It’s quite appropriate when Rob is held up as the answer to the techno-thriller. Often in American SF, technology is shown as being inherently chaotic. Cloned dinosaurs escape, robots travel from the future to kill a boy who would grow into mankind’s greatest leader, etc. Instead, Sawyer brings us aliens who say “take me to your paleontologist”, exploring issues of faith and morality in a compelling and respectful way.

Some of his greatest short stories, such as Shoulders of Giants, do not contain an antagonist at all, but are instead testaments to the pioneering spirit. Others, such as Just Like Old Times, examine a Canada where state-sponsored euthanasia transfers the consciousness of convicted felons into people (and dinosaurs) from the past.

Rob’s stories are designed to provoke thought, to question beliefs, and to raise awareness of the role science plays in modern society. Keep up the good work.

Reflections on the Past Year

While the beginning of January may seem to be a more appropriate time of year for reflecting on the past year, performance review time in the office tends to be mid-February. Despite some challenges, I think this year was quite successful, both in the workplace and outside work.

During August, I presented a paper on Paddy Forde’s novella “On Spirit” and Rob Sawyer’s short story “Just Like Old Times” at the Social Science on the Final Frontier academic conference at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. It was a nice little conference, and it was nice to see Rob Sawyer and Julie E. Czerneda at the conference. This was my second academic paper presented at a conference, and was a lot of fun.

During the year, I didn’t accomplish much fiction writing, something which I’m planning to remedy. Part of my problem in the past year is that I haven’t made the time to write. I’ve proven to myself that I can now write 250-500 words a day for blog posts, in addition to my coursework assignments. I’m going to see if I can add fiction writing to these word counts in the next few weeks. If it doesn’t seem to be working, I may decide to reduce the size or frequency of my blog posts. It’s something that I’ve been struggling with.

I’ve done some nice improvements around the home this past year. I’m particularly happy with my garage, now that it’s been organized. Previously, neither car would fit inside. Now, both can fit inside, as well as my snowblower. Yes, this is a first world problem, and I’m aware that I’m contributing to urban sprawl, etc. It’s a beautiful property, with a very large backyard for spending time with the family, but city transit doesn’t come anywhere near here. The way things stand, I’m just not willing to consider alternative ways to get to work.