Darwin’s Bastards

Ed. by Zsuzsi Gartner

When Edmund in King Lear invokes Nature as his goddess and questions why he should be branded a bastard despite having dimensions as compact, a shape as true, and a mind as generous as “honest madam’s issue” he strikes us as a man ahead of his time. Today we’re more comfortable with the idea of nature as lawgiver and the human race as only the successful end result of a series of genetic accidents, and less concerned about questions of social legitimacy. But the story has also grown more complicated. The goddess Nature has, in Zsuzsi Gartner’s words, mated with “humankind’s aspirations to godlike dominion over all of creation” to produce an alien and threatening new world of “genetic engineering, cosmetic pharmacology, avatar sex, Google-brains, melting ice caps, and everything virtual, nothing private.” And in such an environment, “aren’t we all Darwin’s bastard children?”

Happy to go with the cultural flow, this exotic and up-tempo collection of speculative writing – to give it a nice, amorphous title – interbreeds traditional genres like SF, detective fiction, and dystopian satire for a fun look into twenty-three different bastard futures and alternate realities.

“Fun” is not usually a word we associate with a lot of Canadian literature, but editor Gartner uses it in her introduction as shorthand for “entertaining and provocative, punch-drunk on language, fizzing with ideas.” And so in these pages fetuses talk, robots have sex (and babies), the dead are (frequently) resurrected, stars are drawn from the sky, and celebrity has been made a crime. In terms of technique the storytelling tends to be staggered and disjunctive, frequently slipping in and out of different voices and points of view while shuffling time frames.

In other words, it’s writing that keeps you on your toes.

The line-up Gartner has assembled is pretty much a who’s who of younger Canadian writers (with a bit of a West Coast tilt), including names like Yann Martel, Annabel Lyon, Timothy Taylor, Heather O’Neill, Lee Henderson, Stephen Marche, and Sheila Heti. Among the more established names, William Gibson contributes a new story about disembodied spirits in Kitsilano and Mark Anthony Jarman does what he does best – writing about relationships on the rocks – even if this time it’s on the moon.

But if this book has a father, or at least a spiritual godfather whose influence can be traced through the literary DNA of tone, subject matter, and style, it is that avatar of pop-culture bastardization Douglas Coupland. Coupland’s keynote story “Survivor” has him returning once again to what has been a career-long eschatological obsession as the crew of the eponymous reality show scrambles to outwit, outplay, and outlast the other human remnants left over after a global nuclear conflagration. And there is no mistaking the Couplandesque – the vague religious musings, the mysterious workings of celebrity and fame, the cartoonish violence – in stories like Pasha Malla’s “1999” (which has the artist formally known as Prince as the only man left alive after a millennial plague), Neil Smith’s “Atheists Were Almost Right About Everything” (wherein the victim of a school shooting gets adjusted to life in heaven), and Matthew J. Trafford’s “Divinity Gene” (a story about the Jesus code made flesh).

As interesting as all of this is, and I don’t think there’s a really bad story in the mix, the real treats in Darwin’s Bastards come from some less familiar names. Stories by Buffy Cram, Oliver Kellhammer, and David Whitton stand out as entertaining and provocative speculations on class, the environment, and corporate imperialism – issues that make them seem more contemporary than futuristic. But that is the effect all of the best projective fiction has.

In a new digital world fiction itself is going to have to adapt and evolve, become more of a multimedia mongrel, in order to survive. The key will be its ability to connect with an audience. From the evidence collected here, these bastards seem to have the right genes for that.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 6, 2010.

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