Book review: ‘Darwin’s Bastards’ edited by Zsuzsi Gartner


Darwin’s Bastards

Astounding Tales From Tomorrow

Selected and edited by Zsuzsi Gartner

Douglas & McIntyre: 456 pp., $21.95

Reading Zsuzsi Gartner’s introduction to “Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales From Tomorrow,” you might get the idea that the future’s gotten old. It’s been a while, after all, since Y2K turned out to be a bust, and even longer since William Gibson invented cyberspace.

Given Gartner’s tone of 1990s-style millennial anxiety — her concerns include “[g]enetic engineering, cosmetic pharmacology, avatar sex, Google-brains, melting ice caps, and everything virtual, nothing private” — it might take a moment to remember that what she’s talking about has already come to pass. Luckily, most of the 23 authors here, all Canadian, forgo this brand of shrill alarmism to give us stories that cast sometimes cynical, sometimes melancholy and very often humorous looks at a social landscape not all that different from our own.

These writers include Douglas Coupland, Yann Martel and, of course, Gibson, who in “Dougal Disincarnate” defines the science fiction in which his characters immerse as “[a] mirror. Inversion. […] A place whose time-mirages, if you could see them, might mostly be quite pleasant.”

It’s this mild sense of displacement rather than apocalyptic furor that defines his moody story of a young man separated from his body, relegated to the position of eternal observer in a culture changing in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the election of Barack Obama. Rather than fiery warnings, Gibson delivers detachment. This is the world as we know it — it’s not heaven, but it isn’t exactly hell.

That same immediacy infuses Buffy Cram’s brilliant “Large Garbage,” which, with its “new breed of homeless,” cleverly envisions an alternative to the ever-widening circle of consumption that defines us now. Here, wandering hordes of intellectuals and artists occupy the lawns and hot tubs of those more gainfully employed by banks and advertising agencies. They analyze poetry, argue the finer points of Aristotelian philosophy and perform interpretive dance while the homeowners are at work. “I think these people may have something to offer,” the story’s narrator suggests, as he is slowly won over by this itinerant intellectual mendicancy. “I think, when you find these clues I’ve mentioned, you might also encounter parts of yourself, long-forgotten parts: books you always meant to read, little notes you scribbled to yourself years ago.”

Timothy Taylor’s “Sunshine City” offers another extrapolation on the present, as a hard-boiled detective drops into what have become golf-communities-cum-nation-states. “ ‘Gated community,’ they used to call this kind of place, although golf republic described it better,” he writes, in an observation that rings true for anyone who has spent time in such a place. Taylor’s storytelling is ingenious and his writing often beautiful, as in this riff on the story’s central question of infinity: “[P]ossibly, there was a pattern but it was coded-up inside everyone. Infinity in our bones and minds. Infinity in the fragmentary moment, the glance, the blink of first love or terror. At the doorstep of sleep, in the pixelation of the day, the greying out of senses.”

As for Coupland, he offers a flood of biting commentary in imagining what might happen were the tribes on the reality TV show “Survivor” actually forced to survive (or not, in most cases) after the rest of the planet goes up in a nuclear blaze. Throughout the story, he delivers his trademark brand of social commentary — of Americans, he writes: “Doubtless they all own ‘Forrest Gump’ on Blu-ray and have already asked each other what they want to be when they grow up” — in a voice as snarky and enjoyable as ever.

Although some of the stories here are more original than others and some are more lyrical, the quality of writing across the collection is wonderfully high. “Darwin’s Bastards” may not say much about the future, but it has plenty to tell us about the way we live today.

Watson is the author of “Vidalia in Paris.”