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TesseractsQ, edited by Elisabeth Vonarburg and Jane Brierley, Tesseract Books, 1996, 393 pp.

Tesseracts5, edited by Robert Runté and Yves Meynard, Tesseract Books, 1996, 352 pp.

TesseractsQ and Tesseracts5 were published within one month of each other as the first titles in the Tesseracts series of anthologies to be published by Tesseract Books in its new incarnation as an imprint of The Books Collective. Tesseract Books has done great work supporting Canadian science fiction and fantasy, and the ongoing Tesseracts series is a large part of that. Tesseracts5 is set up as a part of the ongoing series, which only makes sense considering the numeral, while TesseractsQ is intended as a showcase for the English translations of as much Quebec SF as possible. Of the two, TesseractsQ is the stronger collection, with more substantial stories, but this is partly a function of the time span it covers. Tesseracts5 collects what was written since Tesseracts4, while TesseractsQ is meant to cover about 20 years or so of Quebec writing.

TesseractsQ starts off with what is by far its strongest story, “The Scalemen” by Yves Meynard. Meynard’s story is the exact kind of surrealism that appeals to me most deeply; a similar book might be Kim Stanley Robinson’s A Short Sharp Shock. “The Scalemen” is the story of a group of people living on the back of a vast and super-sentient whale-type creature simply known as Leviathan. As Leviathan swims through the oceans, for whatever inscrutable reasons it possesses, the people make do with their lives, trading with the occasional shorebound tribe, and, as happens in a memorable sequence, climbing inside Leviathan’s blowhole for safety when it needs to dive underneath the water.

The main character of the story is a man named Jorn, who seems to be a little more thoughtful than the other scalemen and scalewomen. He might be destined to become the next prophet of the tribe, replacing Kerrek, the man who currently wears the Communion helmet when Leviathan wants to communicate with them. Near the beginning of the story, Jorn witnesses a Changing, as an older scaleman fulfills the name of their people: he loses his life as he changes into a man-sized scale for the covering of the Leviathan. Jorn tries to rebel against his fate, the inevitable fate of all of his tribe, with dire consequences for those onshore nearby.

Meynard’s writing vividly evokes the world of the Scalemen, creating a milieu, complete with history, debate, different tribes of people, and amazing creatures. All of this is in the context of fantastical story that feels incredibly fresh and convincing; this story is about as far away from the Tolkien clones that litter the genre of fantasy as could be imagined. Perhaps it’s not even fantasy, only a primitive tribe on some other planet, with the story consistently told from within the point of view of an indigenous person. In either case, the story is a joy to read because of its originality and polished writing. And it also has something to say, implicit in the relationship between the Scalemen and the Leviathan.

After reading “The Scalemen,” I wanted to find out what else Meynard had written. I discovered that his novel The Book of Knights has just as many strengths as this short story. Highly recommended. Yves Meynard is also the co-editor of Tesseracts5 (see my review following).

Few of the stories in TesseractsQ could be classified as typical science fiction, and even the story that might most easily be put under that category, “Heart of Iron” by Joel Champetier, has its own take on its subject. Champetier’s story is about the danger faced by the planet when a black hole ends up somewhere in the earth’s core, an idea reminiscent of Brin’s Earth. But Champetier is more concerned with the psychological state of his characters, and even though there is a fair amount of geology involved in the story, the portrait of people under extreme psychic duress is what remains most memorable about the work. Another example of this subversion of science fiction conventions is Jean-Louis Trudel’s “Contamination,” a disquieting examination of xenophobia.

Most of the works in TesseractsQ are closer to Meynard’s “The Scalemen” in their sense of story, although none quite so effective. There are a number of dystopias present, mostly with an emphasis on the personal experience, like Michel Martin’s disturbing “Geisha Blues.” Other stories focus on a society to give us a sense of how others might live; Elisabeth Vonarburg’s “Bird of Ashes” is an example of this, an excellent anthropological story reminiscent of some of Ursula K. Le Guin’s best work.

Some of the other stories have been collected in other anthologies, like “Reve canadien” by Jean Pierre April and “The Eighth Register” by Alain Bergeron. April's story is a wild historical fantasy, and Bergeron’s a somber alternate-type history in the vein of Robert Charles Wilson’s Mysterium.

TesseractsQ also includes stories by Michel Lamontagne, Francine Pelletier, Esther Rochon, Denis Cote, Agnes Guitard, Jean Pettigrew, Marie-Claire Lemaire, Daniel Sernine, Andre Carpentier, Rene Beaulieu, Roger Des Roches, Claude-Michel Prevost, Bertrand Bergeron, Jean Dion, and Annick Perrot-Bishop.

Jane Brierly, the co-editor of this volume along with Elisabeth Vonarburg, is a noted translator. She translates six of the stories in TesseractsQ; the other translators are Donald McGrath, Wendy Greene, Howard Scott, Lucille Nelson, Michael Bullock, Phyllis Aronoff, and Neil B. Bishop.

Like TesseractsQ, Tesseracts5 starts off with its strongest story, in this case "There is a Violence" by Sally McBride. McBride uses the setting of an art gallery to examine the relationship between humans and the Raqaa. So far we have been friendly with the aliens, but an exhibit of their art reveals traits of their species they would rather keep hidden. It's an effective story, vividly written, and memorable.

The anthology has a number of other strong stories. Karl Schroeder contributes "Halo," a family story set in the asteroid belt, as a colony faces possible doom. "Windigo" by John Park is a story of betrayal and sacrifice in a frozen landscape. Most of the other worthy stories I happen to have read in other contexts, like Andrew Weiner's "Messenger" and two rather bleak stories, "All Good Things Come From Away" by James Alan Gardner and "Bethlehem" by Peter Watts.

Tesseracts5 has a surprising number of stories that don't quite work. Perhaps this is a function of the average length: while thankfully there are no short shorts (2-4 pages in length), the anthology has quite a few shorter stories, around 5-9 pages in length. Most of the stories of this length simply don't have the room to explore their respective premises, in sufficient detail or for enough of an emotional payoff. The exception is Dale Sproule's 7-page "Memory Games," which examines the consequences for an intimate relationship when aliens start replacing humans with less mindful morphs. Some of the longer stories in the collection are simply too gimmicky, like Jan Lars Jensen's "Domestic Slash and Thrust" and "The Unshackling of Thumbs" by David Nickle. For me, the biggest disappointment of the book was "Readers of the Lost Art" by Elisabeth Vonarburg, usually a painstaking and interesting writer. The story tries to make a virtue of explicit violence, and fails miserably.

Tesseracts5 also contains stories and poetry by Francine Pelletier, Marlene Dean, Sansoucy Kathenor, Cliff Burns, Jean-Louis Trudel, Candas Janey Dorsey, Sandra Kasturi, Keith Scott, Tracy Halford, Michel Martin, Michael Coney, Ian Driscoll, Jocko, Peter Such, Paul Stockton, Eileen Kernaghan, Annick Perrot-Bishop, Daniel Sernine, Mary Choo, Natasha Beaulieu, and Heather Fraser.

Both TesseractsQ and Tesseracts5 suffer from a few pesky problems with their layout. The font is a little bit too small and the margins much too cramped. TesseractsQ is the worse of the two, perhaps because it tries to contain "20 Years of the Best Quebec SF" according to the front cover copy. I like to keep my books in good shape, so I found it particularly frustrating that the text of TesseractsQ ran so close to the fold of the page, thus forcing me to crack the book open in order to see the whole line. Both of these books also have another problem in the layout: the small margin on the bottom of each page is used to print the title of the book, and not for information about the story. Tesseract Books fixed up all of the font and margin flaws by the time of Tesseracts6, but it wasn't until Tesseracts8 that the author of the story would be included on the left-hand page and the title on the right (in the top margin in the case of that book). Again, I realize this sounds petty, but it did make the tasks of reading a collection of short stories harder, tasks like flipping ahead to see how many pages were left in a certain story, finding a story that I liked the first time, and so forth.

Apart from these minor problems with the physical readability of the volumes, both are books that any fan of Canadian writing should have on their shelf, especially TesseractsQ and its extensive collection of Quebec SF.


See my reviews of the other entries in the Tesseracts series.


Last modified: March 4, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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