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2007 06 05
Imagining Toronto | Meet Karen Bennett, Toronto’s Mistress of the Fantastic

You might not notice it, but Toronto's terrain shifts around you continuously. The city glows, lit not by the Sun but by supernovas. Its towers flicker and tumble in the changeable light, rebuilt in new forms, teeming with astral visitors and recombinations of life. Welcome to fantastic Toronto, the city imagined by writers of scifi and speculative fiction.

Your guide on this journey is Karen Bennett, a science fiction researcher and writer (and, by day, editor working for the Ontario government). A three-time Aurora Award winning former editor of Voyageur (a Canadian science fiction magazine), Karen is a regular panelist at science fiction conventions and the creator of Fantastic Toronto, a fascinating and superb online guide to local science fiction, speculative literature, and fantasy.

According to Karen, Fantastic Toronto emerged from an article she was invited to write for the 61st World Science Fiction Convention (Torcon 3), held in Toronto in 2003. This research produced an extensive list of Toronto-focused scifi titles which Karen has annotated extensively and made available to the reading web. If you are interested in fantastic representations of Toronto, Karen Bennett is the ultimate local guide, possessing an encyclopaedic (and seemingly eidetic) recollection of this vast treasure house of local literature.

Toronto readers of science fiction and fantastic literature are familiar with Robert J Sawyer, whose many award-winning works occur at least partly in Toronto and its environs (featured sites have included, notably, York University and the Royal Ontario Museum). But the list of local scifi works stretches much further afield. Fantastic Toronto lists nearly 100 writers and scores of titles, the oldest dating back to 1898. Almost as early is Frederick Nelson's Toronto in 1928, a then-futuristic vision of Toronto) published in 1908 and featuring a hugely diverse range of settings, characters, and alternative versions of Toronto.

In many ways these preoccupations and settings overlap those appearing in Toronto literature as a whole. Many of the locations are familiar: Kensington Market can hardly be made more eclectic than it is already; the CN Tower's regular destruction appears to mirror many Torontonians' ambivalence about this architectural icon; the Bloor viaduct was for decades a beacon for those seeking to exit this galaxy at least. In other ways, fantastic visions of Toronto stretch the city across dimensions other local literature may not, rewriting Toronto's story from the ground up (or down), and in doing so raising vital questions about how far it is possible to stretch diversity and tolerance, technology, governance, and the resources we depend upon.

I had the great pleasure recently of chatting with Karen about Toronto-based science fiction. From her book-lined downtown condo perched above one of Toronto's most storied streets, Karen has a unique perspective on both the city and its fantastic literature. She suggests that Toronto is so richly imagined in scifi because of the city's diverse neighbourhoods and changeable character. A writer can try nearly any kind of environment here, or any set of social, political, ecological, or technological relations, and it will work. Like science fiction itself, Karen suggests, Toronto is a city defined by change and progress. To Karen, too, Toronto is appealing to fantastic literary visions because it is a city of the future rather than a city rooted primarily in its past.

I asked Karen what writers and works she would include in an 'essential reads' list of Toronto-focused scifi and speculative literature. Her suggestions:

Robert Charles Wilson's The Perseids and Other Stories (2000) and The Divide (1990).

Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring (1989) and Hopkinson's Toronto-based stories in Skin Folk (2001).

Terence Green's Ashland series, as well as Barking Dogs (1988) and Blue Limbo (1997).

Gwendolyn MacEwen's Noman (1972) and Noman's Land (1985), mythopoetic versions of Toronto.

and works by O.R. Melling (The Book of Dreams, 2003), Jim Munroe (Flyboy Action Hero Comes with Gasmask, 1999), Darren O'Donnell (Your Secrets Sleep with Me, 2004), among others.

Listening to Karen discuss fantastic Toronto literature, I was struck by the overlap among our personal lists. While, apart from my research on Toronto literature, I do not regularly read scifi (to the bemusement of my husband, who has read just about every science fiction novel ever published and whose large study is lined two-deep in them), my own list of essential Toronto reads also includes both O'Donnell and MacEwen, and I have enjoyed Terence Green's A Witness to Life (a non-fiction novel set largely in the Junction area) and Wilson's Perseids stories (one of which, set in Kensington Market, is chillingly familiar). This overlap suggests that writers' ongoing efforts to imagine Toronto move easily between the familiar and the fantastic because it is in the nature of Toronto itself to do so.

Karen Bennett's Fantastic Toronto website was recently featured by Boing Boing. Among other work, she has also written a fascinating essay. "The Speculative Torontos of Robert Charles Wilson and Robert J. Sawyer." The image, above, is from Karen's website.

[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature and the imaginative qualities of cities.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 06/05 at 11:03 AM

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