OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
NORTH BY 2000+: a collection of speculative fiction by Henry A. Hargreaves.
Published by Five Rivers Chapmanry, Neustadt, Ontario, Canada, in 2011.
Edited by Roberte Runté.
Robert Runté reveals this collection, originally published in 1975, was the first anthology to be marketed as Canadian science fiction. Until he heard Hargreaves read aloud the first story, Dead to the World, it had never occurred to Robert that Canadian science fiction had a voice of its own, was in fact different.
Every Canadian SF fan should read this anthology. Though Canadian SF&F goes as far back as A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James de Mille, 1888, this book marks the beginning, the debut as it were, of modern Canadian science fiction.
Robert adds that, if some of the hard SF elements seem a bit dated by now, think of the Canada described in these stories as a parallel, alternative Canada used as a backdrop for eternally relevant observations on the nature and mindset of Canadians. Better yet, just enjoy the stories!
Dead to the World
Lamberth, Ontario, sometime in the twenty-first century. Joe Schlitz, a worker who does more than just punch buttons, is having a great time till his I.D. card no longer functions and he is unable to pay for anything, be it object or service. Worse, every time a robot checks his I.D. it informs him he is dead and would he please wait for the Morgue attendants. Though he doesn’t know it, the master computer which runs Americanada has somehow slipped his punch card into the wrong slot and this is the source of his troubles.
Reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, and more than a little Kafkaesque, this tale of increasing frustration and growing danger resonates in part because it seems so prescient. The only thing missing is a series of phone calls to useless “experts” in India, though something nearly like that does place. Suffice to say, a problem with the ruling bureaucracy can only be made worse through consultation with said bureaucracy. What’s a poor Prole to do? Turns out there’s a rather elegant solution to the problem, and a liberating one at that. Bit of an eye-opener for them as used to kowtowing to authority figures.
This takes place in the same world as the previous story. The master computer which runs Americanada has appointed Benjamin Scroop “Spiritual Advisor” to the inhabitants of Tundra City, a newly-built mining camp near the shore of Hudson Bay, a camp nearly as sterile and vapid as the great cities further south, yet large enough to provide individuals with their own rooms as opposed to the crowded bunk bed norms the majority of the human race endures. All is not paradise, however, as regulations prevent a WC being installed in his room despite his rank, not to mention prohibiting him from ministering to his flock, or even bringing in sacramental wine. Add to this Tundra City is a hotbed of “Old” Canadians who resent everyone different from themselves as a hostile intrusion not to be tolerated. Scroop is one frustrated guy. Then a visiting Sikh religious leader of extreme international political importance ups and dies, and Scroop discovers that regulations prohibit either the disposal of the body or its storage. What to do?
Regulations covering every conceivable piece of minutiae of human activity give the false impression that people are somehow in control of their lives. All those in positions of authority, such as Scroop, know they are in fact quite helpless, and what passes for human interaction is mostly a game of one-upmanship wherein individuals seek to dominate their peers through clever manipulation of the regulations to achieve consequences never conceived by the master computer who framed them in the first place. In essence this is the task Scroop sets himself in order to properly dispose of the dead VIP. A Kafkaesque puzzle to be sure, one that all the other authorities are opposed to solving. Not what you would call an action-adventure story, yet gripping in its way, and ultimately subversive. Necessity is not utopian, not by a long shot, and Hargreaves is keen to point this out.
Station 9 is one of many monitoring the health of the pipeline “that carried Keele River crude south to Dawson Creek and further, to Alberta refineries.” The station’s Supervisor, utilizing Satellite technology, observes a cold spot about 80 kilometres south. Seems insulation has come loose. He sends one of the Roughnecks in a prowler car to fix the problem. Pity about the rising snow storm and the temperature dropping past 30 degrees below zero, but repairs can’t wait.
This story is incredibly topical and relevant today, what with Alberta and British Columbia at loggerheads over a proposed pipeline to the West Coast and the Federal Government forced to buy out the project with more than a billion taxpayer dollars in a desperate (or token?) effort to keep the project alive. The safety and reliability of the technology involved is at the forefront of the argument.
Which makes the technology employed in this story all the more fascinating. The Supervisor can detect any problem along the entire length of the pipeline on an ongoing basis. He can even advise the Roughneck what wildlife is in the area and which way they are moving. The Roughneck also enjoys an environmental protection suit, modelled on spacesuits, that separates him completely and safely from the environment. Even so, he grouses they never get the boots or the gauntlets quite right. In fact his forty years of experience renders him downright paranoid over the reliability of his equipment. No matter how good it is he figures something can always go wrong. Sometimes many things at once for no good reason. That is why the Roughneck’s motto is “Plan for the improbable—never rule out the impossible.” Turns out, he should have done a lot of planning before beginning this mission. Some days it doesn’t pay to fall out of the bunk bed at the start of your shift.
One feature of the Roughneck’s character I thoroughly identify with. He stubbornly insists on thinking of the plummeting temperature in Fahrenheit rather than Celsius. Me, too.
Like the biblical Cain, Jason Berkeley is guilty of a serious crime, but its nature is unknown to him because that part of his memory has been erased. Like Cain, Jason is young, only fifteen years-of-age, and very feral and resentful. Unlike Cain, he is not allowed to wander, but has been imprisoned within both walls and technology to a degree beyond his comprehension. What makes matters worse is his knowledge this is but the first phase of his rehabilitation. It seems like a particularly cruel punishment, but nothing compared to what is to come.
In light of the ongoing controversy over the nature of juvenile criminals and what form of rehabilitation works or does not work, the first phase section of the story really shines. Jason trusts no one. All other human beings are just “marks” to take advantage of. When shown around the facilities he isn’t motivated by simple curiosity but by the need to know what he can steal and how he can escape. He is utterly and totally selfish and his only concern is to figure out how soon he can get back to his life of scurrying like a rat in the underbelly of the Megalopolis of Toronto. The only emotion he feels is hatred for everyone he meets. After all, they’re responsible for his miserable life, not him. The only one he feels sorry for is himself. Never in a million years would he feel an ounce of empathy for any of his “marks.” In his own mind everything he thinks and does is totally justified. Nobody has any right to stop him. Screw everybody. He absolutely does NOT want to be “rehabilitated.” He knows how to survive, and is terrified they are going to take that skill away from him. People have terms for kids like him, none of them complimentary. He’s the sort people prefer to give up on.
But this is the future, where technology and authority have evolved to guarantee rehabilitation, or so the authorities believe. Jason may be the resourceful super-rat to prove them wrong. It’s hard to know whom to root for. Jason is most definitely a jerk, but yeah, hard life and all that, so easy to feel sorry for him, but not if he matures into something worse. The authorities are more than they seem, too. One can almost feel sorry for them.
Basically, this story is very good at portraying the mindset of all involved and how there are no easy answers. It also offers some interesting suggestions of what solutions, or at least methods of rehabilitation, that advancing technology may lead to. Prescient, in that we have already moved in that direction. But the cynic in me still figures no one has come up with genuine solutions yet. One thing for sure, the story poses the appropriate questions very well.
Tee Vee Man
William E. Baldwin is a Canadian TV repairman aboard an international scientific research space station. Oh, he doesn’t work on the TV set in the lounge, though he can. His job is to repair TV transmission satellites whenever they go on the blink. Trouble is, everyone else on the station is a certified egghead scientist. They think William is a waste of space. They resent talking to him. They even resent giving him orders.
William sets off on his “Bronco” to match polar orbit with a malfunctioning satellite. Nobody bothers telling him that if he doesn’t get gizmo running properly within a certain time a newly independent African nation will go without television. Not a question of missing soap operas. Said government badly needs to transmit live footage of their glorious leader. Thousands of lives are at stake including, unexpectedly, William’s. Repairing a satellite in Outer Space not as easy as it sounds.
This story was published in 1963, the year after Telstar, the first communications satellite, broadcast the first television transmissions from space. Looking forward to the future, yes, in that it envisions a time when it would be cheaper to repair a satellite in orbit than to send up a replacement. More importantly, it prophesizes the vital and necessary function of satellite communication in maintaining political stability. We moderns know that TV is more than mere entertainment, that it has become a propaganda tool which politicians ignore at their peril. And, as usual, the technicians who maintain this miracle of government power are dismissed as nothing more than jumped-up workers who scarcely deserve their wages. Bit of a different story when civil war looms, you would think, but, well, the ending of this story is a bit disheartening and typical of the lop-sided priorities the modern world offers. When it came out this story was a good example of SF exploring the implications of current events. Now a fascinating period piece.
More Things in Heaven and Earth
Alan Hamilton is a senior lecturer at Television Central. His weekly broadcast on the subject of this or that play by Shakespeare involves numerous actors repeating assorted scenes to bring out all of the playwright’s possible intentions, and live connections with hundreds of classrooms where students can ask questions on the air. Alan prides himself on his tightly scripted interpretations and his flexibility on answering questions. Then he finds himself posing questions that aren’t his. Seems a powerful telepath is interfering with the broadcast for reasons unknown. Worse, someone is attempting physical sabotage.
At first I interpreted this as a subtle yet hilarious spoof of the minutiae-based bickering that goes on behind the scenes at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (I have a certain situational-awareness based on the tales of a CBC TV producer my mother was friends with). However, the introduction of the telepath, the hunt for same, and the difficulty of coping with someone who cannot only read your mind but also use your thoughts to direct your actions makes this a remarkable survey of what a functioning telepath would mean to the lives of ordinary people. That the purpose of the telepath is to reveal “the truth” about Shakespeare as opposed to, say, conquering the world, makes it all the more credible. Granted, the story being long, it’s a bit of a slog to get through, especially with someone like me who studied Shakespeare in High School but never since, apart from a few movies, but the extreme attention to detail is part of the charm of the story. Some people are obsessed with Shakespeare. Who knew? The importance of the story lies in its exploration of the true threat telepathy poses, and perhaps its value.
“Fore” – Eight – Sixteen
Four young grad students are nuts about golf. So, naturally, they loved Allan Shepherd’s No. 6 clubhead drive on the Moon. One of the students, Hartley, announces his ambition is to beat Shepherd. The others laugh at him. Time passes. They all become CEO’s of leading high-tech companies. Once a year they meet at the old Victoria Golf Course near Edmonton for a nostalgic game. Then Hartley makes an announcement. He’s figured out how to drive a golf ball over 10,000 yards. Do the others want to play?
Needless to say, this is a light-hearted story that will appeal to golf fen everywhere. After all, Al Shepherd once commented that, thanks to his “drive” on the Moon, for the rest of his life he never had to buy a drink at any Golf Course Clubhouse. People lined up to pay for his drinks. The attraction of this story is not just the basic concept, but all the underlying details that make it appear the concept is practical and feasible. It’s a wonder it hasn’t been tried. Perhaps the major Golf Tournaments could offer a cash prize to the first team to accomplish it.
First came the dispute between central and Western Canada, then the Islamic Wars, the world economic collapse, and finally WW III in 2020. The old man knows what happened in his youth. He wants to write a book about it. No one in his village cares. They think he’s a useless relic of the past.
Everyone has gotten used to an age of self-sufficiency amid limited resources. They want to look forward to a better future. The last thing they want to do is listen to a “Cassandra” warning that the consequences of the recent past have yet to play out. Is he hindering progress? Or helping them survive? Depends on what lies out there beyond the horizon. One thing for sure, WW III is by no means a solution to mankind’s problems.
In His Moccasins
Daniel Mullin is an unrepentant criminal with no empathy for anyone. Nevertheless, while undergoing spectacularly ineffective treatment he figures out how to contact the crime syndicates and make himself useful once they help him escape.
Another exploration of the criminal mindset and its inevitable immunity to rehabilitation. I remember seeing an interview with a brutal rapist who used to feel bad about what he did. But exposure to Canadian rehabilitation experts convinced him that he was in fact a good person who was only bad when he did bad things. Now he felt pretty good about himself. Raping women was just what he did when he “lost it.” Otherwise he was perfect. Daniel is a lot like that. Except that he never feels bad about himself no matter what he does. This story offers a form of rehabilitation that might just work but, alas, is dependent on technology which does not yet exist. Perhaps in the near future?
The Earth-appointed Governor of the alien Planet Ethlon finds himself in the role of Pontius Pilate. Since he is expected to convert the natives to the teachings of the Christian United Spiritual Society (Earth’s state religion), he faces quite a conundrum.
Pontius Pilate had it easy. His only concern had been political expediency. But the Ethlon Governor’s conscience is dictated by religious expediency, and the consequences of a wrong decision could be terrifying for both races. The fate of their immortal souls may be at stake. A lot to ask of a bureaucrat who just wants to keep and enjoy his cushy job.
The prospect of confronting alien religious beliefs that are something more than mere superstition has been explored by novels such as Jesus on Mars by Philip José Farmer and A Case of Conscience by James Blish. This short story is an interesting take on the matter. Sometimes a bureaucrat has to earn his pay. How would you decide?
Venerian Vector Transit Tales
A short selection of viewing entertainment offered for your eyestalks.
Very much like perusing TV guide in the old days to see if there’s anything worth watching. Only these shows are for radically differently-evolved aliens and are designed to appeal to them and not us. Yet, quite amusing to detect similar levels of banal drama and lack of edification. Might be a universal constant among sentients. A fun story.
Robert Runté Postscript
This is a brilliant analysis of not only the stories in this anthology but of Canadian SF literature in general. I’m glad I didn’t read it until after I’d written the review above because my own analysis is pallid in comparison and hardly worth reading.
Robert definitely makes a good case that Canadian SF is different from both American and British SF. Our protagonists are more like victims than larger-than-life heroes. They tend to muddle through, just like people in real life. And because most of our country is uninhabitable, we understand the true meaning of distance and are far less likely to imagine gigantic successfully-functioning constructs, be they galactic empires or super-cities. Most striking of all, not only do we take alienation for granted, we recognise it can be a good thing. We take pride in being less. And so on. Robert is very convincing. I believe him.
This is a wonderful collection of old-fashioned hard science fiction combined with thoughtful sociological extrapolation that is, in some ways, dated, yet still intensely relevant. Quite a feat!
To sum up: a very Canadian anthology of hard SF dipped in cabin fever.
Check it out at: < North by 2000+ >