darwin's bastards zsuzsi gartner

Everyone knows how much I love fantasy creatures. When I first heard of the short story anthology Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow (D&M, 2010), it enticed me at first sight. No surprise there.

Edited by Zsuzsi Gartner, Darwin’s Bastards is an anthology of science fiction short stories written by Canadian authors who don’t normally write science fiction—with a couple exceptions. The writers vary in popularity, but the anthology includes some big names, like Douglas Coupland, William Gibson, Lee Henderson, Anosh Irani, Annabel Lyon, and Yann Martel. Yet, I had never read anything by any of these greats. There’s also Adam Lewis Schroeder, a Creative Writing professor at UBC Okanagan who I’d seen read, but never actually read myself. Darwin’s Bastards gave me a wonderful opportunity to get to know their writing, as well as lesser-known writers, and see how they fared with science fiction.

Darwin’s Bastards disappointed me, but not the writing—not at all. I found the title, coupled with Peter Cocking’s cover design, a bit misleading. I was expecting far-future animals, genetic experiment mishaps, aliens. I got none of that—there is only one story with fantastical creatures, and they are little more than backdrop.

That single objection aside, Darwin’s Bastards was wonderful. The stories take place anywhere from an alternate year 2000 to the 2300s, and the type of future varies even more. Almost all, though, feature a tragedy. Some big tragedies, like a world war in Coupland’s “Survivor,” or the collapse of fish populations in Oliver Kellhammer’s “Crush.” Others are more subtle, like a ban on personal fame in Schroeder’s “This Is Not the End, My Friend,” or god’s absence from the afterlife of Neil Smith’s “Atheists Were Right About Almost Everything.” But most are personal tragedies, like the astronaut who loses the love of his life because he’s away too much in Mark Anthony Jarman’s “The December Astronauts.” What does it say about the state of humanity when almost every writer predicts a sad future?

Short and sweet, Coupland’s “Survivor” was one of the most memorable. During the filming of yet another season of Survivor—this time in Kiribati, a Pacific island nation—world war breaks out. Communications are cut off, and the crew, without being able to find out more, go home or do anything about it, go ahead with filming the oblivious cast. But resources soon run out, the cast catches on to the tragedy, and Survivor turns into an actual fight for survival.

Irani’s “Notes from the Womb” stood out as the only story written in an unconventional format. A hyper-intelligent telepathic fetus—what every fetus is, until it is born?—records 127 thoughts during its term. Most of them are only one to three lines long, but each is powerful by itself and tells a piece of a touching story of love and hopelessness. Take number 122, for example: “If I am a tiny, ignorant fetus, how come I know the square root of death?” The story ends with birth, the figurative “death” of a fetus.

Darwin’s Bastards is proof that science fiction—and other so-called genre fiction—can be as good as what we call literary. The extreme situations that science fiction writers keep in their arsenals are in fact ideal for discussing the true nature of humans. And what is fiction—especially literary fiction—if not a study of human nature?

← View older posts.