Urban Space and Canadian Identity in Charles de Lint’s Svaha
Although the world-view of most cyberpunk texts encompasses a near future in which nation states are superseded by globalized corporations, this disintegration of nations is usually depicted from the perspective of the dominant technopowers of Japan and the US. Consequently, the resulting heterogeneous urban sprawl described in these writings is still dominated by Japanese and American cultural norms. In contrast, fantasy author Charles de Lint’s only science fiction novel to date, Svaha (1989), imagines a cyberpunk future from a Canadian perspective, an “ex-centric” position that draws attention to the issue of distinct national identities in a globalized world. As Linda Hutcheon notes, “Since the periphery or the margin might also describe Canada’s perceived position in international terms, perhaps the postmodern ex-centric is very much a part of the identity of the nation” (3). De Lint uses this marginalized position to reject the cyberpunk world-view dominated by fluid virtual spaces in which it is increasingly difficult to maintain a stable social or communal identity. Instead, he addresses issues of Canadian identity that are based on the division of physical living spaces by various social and cultural boundaries. De Lint is one of Canada’s best known fantasy authors. His urban fantasies often create spaces that enable encounters among Native American mythology, European mythology, and the urban myths of the contemporary North American city.1 This mapping of collective identity and social space also characterizes his early sf novel.
In “Dis-Imagined Communities: Science Fiction and the Future of Nations” (2002), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay argues that science fiction has shown relatively little interest in the future of nationality in comparison with other forms of social identity such as gender, race, sexual culture, and class (221). He identifies cyberpunk’s characteristic strategy of “Corporate Globalization” as one of the five main ways nations are displaced in science fiction writing. In this case, the displacement occurs because of vitual reality’s destabilizing effect on the physical body and the resulting lack of cohesion in the body politic: “On the corporate globe, self-identification with a territory becomes problematic when physical space becomes virtualized” (226). Csicsery-Ronay admits, however, that this process of “dis-imagining” nations is perhaps more challenging in cyberpunk texts than in other forms of sf, because this subgenre often depicts the period of national disintegration:
Cyberpunk aims to depict the deterioration of the conditions of the present, and nation-states are exemplary forms of human community (and one might say of historical complacency, ripe for attack) in the present. This concern has inspired some unusually respectful responses to nationality. As the near-future of corporate globalization becomes realized, nations and nation-states come to represent bases for resistance. (226)
Yet he moves quickly from this mention of national resistance to complete a more general taxonomy of how nationality is negated in the sf imagination—for example, from the distanced perspective of the far future or following apocalyptic events.
Csicsery-Ronay acknowledges that national identity has a potency and mutability beyond the political control of a national government. He cites Anthony D. Smith’s argument that “nations existed in complex forms before they became the main legitimising concept of the modern state” (221). He does not give sufficient credit, however, to the endurance and continuity of such national identities in the future after the dissolution of the political nation in its current form. He states that “globalist theory does not imagine that the complex loyalties and histories that inspire national consciousness can still have a significant effect on human history—a view currently shared equally by the Left’s internationalism and the Right’s multinationalism” (220). He argues that twentieth-century science fiction imagines a similar break with national politics and nationality as a unifying force: “Where political communities continued to operate, they were replaced by fantastic communities based on abstract principles rather than histories: Male Lands and Female Lands, utopian settlements and the capitalist multinations, Third World worlds, cultures of desire and cultures of repression” (223). This view may suit the galactic empires of space opera, distanced from our contemporary world by huge expanses of space and time, yet it does not suit the social extrapolation of near-future science fiction, such as cyberpunk, which imagines moments of national dissolution or even reintegration. This view also fails to take into account the experience of reading sf, which involves relating these supposedly non-national futures back to our own context in a world still divided into national power blocks.
I believe Anthony D. Smith’s view of national identity as an enduring set of social ties and mythologies offers a better way of mapping the ongoing interaction between the past, present, and future of nationality in science fiction. In “Towards a Global Culture” (1990), Smith states that “many of today’s nations are built up on the basis of pre-modern ‘ethnic cores’ whose myths, memories, values and symbols shaped the culture and boundaries of the nation that modern elites managed to forge” (180). Smith goes on to argue that these cultural images are part of an ongoing and resilient series of constructed identities based on a shared homeland and history. He claims that the globalized future proposed by many theorists is widely diffused in space and cut off from any past; hence it lacks the necessary “world memories” to unite humanity and supersede more cumulative national identities. He writes, “Given the plurality of such experiences and identities, and given the historical depth of such memories, the project of a global culture, as opposed to global communications, must appear premature for some time to come” (180). Smith shows that collective values and symbols are accumulative, not imposed upon a passive population as if upon a tabula rasa. Similarly, science fictional futures are also continuations of our pasts and presents, explicitly and implicitly influenced by such collective identities.
In his article “Imaginable Futures,” Graham Murphy responds to Csicsery-Ronay using the example of Pat Cadigan’s 1998 cyberpunk novel, Tea from an Empty Cup, in which Japanese nationality continues to exert a powerful imaginative force even after the nation in question no longer physically exists. In the novel, Japan has been fractured by a series of earthquakes and has been replaced by the virtual community of Old Japan. The body politic has become dispersed throughout the individual bodies and identities of its members, but the effect is nonetheless unifying. As Murphy states, “Cadigan removes the geographical terrain as the sole signifier of nationality and resituates nation in both mythology and corporeality” (153). In this example, the virtual space so crucial to the cyberpunk world-view is used to reaffirm, as opposed to destabilize, national identity. Svaha provides a contrasting example of how the connection between nationality and shared space can reaffirm collective identity in a globalized world. Unlike Tea from an Empty Cup, de Lint’s novel rejects virtual space, instead focusing on living spaces in the physical world in order to draw attention to the environmental cost of unchecked techno-industrial expansion. In the novel, environmental disasters caused by the escalating greenhouse effect, a limited nuclear exchange between the US and Russia, and corporate expansion have led to a severe lack of inhabitable land in North America.
The emphasis on the Canadian physical environment in de Lint’s text can be demonstrated by a comparison between the first views of the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (BAMA) in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and the similarly named Toronto-Quebec Corridor (TOPQ) in Svaha.The cities of the BAMA are represented digitally:
Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen. Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid white. Then they start to pulse, the rate of traffic threatening to overload your simulation. Your map is about to go nova. (57)
This overload of digital information is in stark contrast to the environmental overload inflicted on the TOPQ:
Later still, he [Gahzee] stood on the roof of a deserted tenement building, looking not at the endless sprawl of the Toronto-Quebec Corridor that ran for a hundred klicks like a river of broken buildings and streets from the southwest to the northeast, nor at the smog-yellow skies that hid the stars and bright light of the moon above him, but back along the path he had taken. (4)
Instead of a fast-flowing digital information network, the physical means of communication and transportation are clogged. The river in the simile recalls the Saint Lawrence River that runs along the eastern seaboard of Canada; hence it would follow the sprawl of the TOPQ almost exactly. This collapses the simile by suggesting that Canada’s major eastern river is itself clogged by urban debris. The environmental and social cost of late capitalism is “brought home” to Canada via this blocked communications network. In addition, the positive image of Canada as a cosmopolitan country founded on a long tradition of immigration (most early settlers used the Saint Lawrence as their main access-way to the country) has also broken down. The country is now isolated, and there is an absence of safe havens and communities implied by the broken buildings and streets.
A fear of contaminated land has merged with a fear of racial contamination. Consequently, instead of fluid movement between cultural groups in a heterogeneous urban sprawl, de Lint’s Canada disintegrates because space is jealously guarded as a means of preserving distinct racial identities. Enclaves based on cultural and racial distinctions are not uncommon in cyberpunk texts. Indeed, Michael Longan and Tim Oakes describe such a convention in reference to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age:
In The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson envisions a post-nation-state world of the future, where countless fragmentations of cultural identity differentiate humanity into spatially discrete tribal zones.… Indeed, one can join the cultural group of one’s choice simply by taking an oath, acquiring the selected dress and manners of the group, and living in the space they have carved out as their own. (39)
Svaha imagines a similar society that is divided into “spatially discrete tribal zones”; the barriers between such zones are, however, far less permeable than those identified by Longan and Oakes. Different ethnic groups live in close proximity to one another but maintain rigid segregation. A person’s place of residence is entirely determined by racial identity. This direct mapping is demonstrated by the nicknames given to different sections of society. The privileged East Asian business workers and yakuza crime operatives living in the Megaplexes are known as “Plex babies” (28). The excluded underclass of mainly white Canadians in the sprawl are called “Squat rats” (7). The First Nations groups are known as “Clavers,” a derisive and aggressive-sounding shortening of “Enclavers” (119). All non-indigenous Canadians are termed “Outlanders,” denoting their exclusion from the Native Enclaves (74). In de Lint’s Canada, one cannot simply become part of a different collective group by “living in the space they have carved out as their own.” This is emphasized by the rigid barriers segregating different spaces, such as the mysterious high-tech force fields surrounding the Enclaves, and the strict patrols and checkpoints restricting entry to the Megaplexes. This disintegration of living space can be read as an interrogation of Canada’s self-proclaimed multicultural identity based on the spatial metaphor of the mosaic.
Segregation of the Canadian Multicultural Mosaic. Concepts of space have an important role to play in constructions of Canadian nationality. It is a commonplace that Canada lacks the dramatic revolutionary history that gives America a proud collective past. Instead, narratives of the Canadian nation stress the constant need to work at national coherence through the continual mapping and remapping of the Canadian territory. In Borderlands: How We Talk About Canada (1998), W.H. New notes that Canada is most often discussed using “boundary rhetoric,” meaning that Canadian national discourse is dominated by spatial metaphors used to describe the country’s socio-political relationships in terms of boundaries, borders, peripheries, and edges (5). Canada, he argues, would be unthinkable without its southern border with the United States, polar border with Russia, Atlantic border with Europe, and Pacific border with Asia. This suggests that the country is hemmed in by more powerful neighbors who could encroach on Canada’s thinly defined territory. New stresses the positive, oscillating flexibility of borders, however, arguing that such boundaries operate more like three-dimensional metaphors than fixed edges. They do not signify a binary “either-or” relationship, but a complex association of “both/and” (5). This appreciation of borders also applies to internal relations within Canada. The fact that Canada has been colonized twice, first by the French, then by the British, means that national narratives have to acknowledge that the land has a layered ownership and identity. Models of the Canadian nation are decentered and based on a permutation of different regional and provincial identities—for example, the “two solitudes” model of Anglophone Canada and Québec; the isolated but prosperous West (Alberta and British Columbia); the Center (Ontario) versus all the other provinces; and certain amalgamations based on a shared landscape and terrain, such as the Maritimes and Prairies.
The most high-profile transformation of this decentered identity into a national virtue came in 1971, when Canada adopted multiculturalism as an official government policy, becoming the first country to do so. Many modern Western nations now claim to be multicultural in some way. Canada has a more specific, officially defined relationship with the concept of multiculturalism, however, as demonstrated by the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1985, which is designed to respect the differences of different cultures within Canada while also claiming such respect as “a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity” that “provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future” (Department of Justice, Canada). Multiculturalism has been adapted into a striking example of border rhetoric celebrating the Canadian multicultural mosaic. The differentiated mosaic provides a positive alternative to the strategies of absorption and amalgamation promoted by the American “melting pot.”
Critics of Canadian multiculturalism, such as Bharati Mukherjee, question the gridlocked rigidity that underpins the idea of the mosaic. Sharmani Gabriel analyses Mukherjee’s view of the American melting pot as a model that enables vital processes of interconnection and intermixing and contrasts it with her view of the Canadian mosaic as a model that enshrines barriers rather than overcoming them. Gabriel states that, for Mukherjee,
the liberal, state-sanctioned discourse of Canadian multiculturalism is underpinned by this very view of cultures as fixed and mutually impermeable. This conception of multiculturalism denies the presence of ambivalence or hybridity through its assertion of superficial pluralism and its belief in the existence of clear boundaries between cultures. In such a “multicultural” nation, differences are organized into neat, virtual grids of distinct ethnic communities, each with its own “culture.” (7)
Svaha shows a Canada that has pursued this rigid mapping of cultural onto spatial divisions to its extreme, leading to the disintegration of the nation.
In de Lint’s novel, the greatest challenge to Canada’s mosaic identity comes from First Nations groups who reclaim their tribal lands and secure them as enclaves, an act that distances Native identities from Canadian multicultural identities. The Native groups collectively refer to themselves as “the People,” derived from the Algonquin name “Anishnabeg,” meaning “original people.” As such, the term “the People” emphasizes the primacy of the Native groups more forcefully than “First Nations,” which has a strong colonial overtone. It is also an ironic comment on the common use of “the people” to refer to the entire population of a country. Whereas it was once a homogenizing term that erased the differences distinguishing individual citizens within a nation, it is now a discriminatory term implying that all those excluded from “the People” are somehow less than human.
De Lint’s future Canada in which Native groups reclaim their tribal lands through the courts is based upon ongoing land claims made by First Nations associations in Canada today. The Multiculturalism Act of 1985 takes care to ensure that Canada’s multicultural policy does not infringe on the autonomy of First Nations groups who have separate provisions at federal, provincial, and local level for the maintenance of Native culture.2 Canada’s multicultural heritage is based, however, on the country’s history as a settler colony and an ongoing tradition of immigration; hence it is implicitly founded on the dispossession of the First Nations from their homelands. The People’s voluntary seclusion in Enclaves is a direct and symbolic reversal of the North American policy of confining indigenous people to reserves, and a rejection of a pluralist mosaic identity that has been imposed upon First Nations’ land.
In Svaha, the ease with which “the Japanese claimed Canada” (20) seems to conform to the cyberpunk trope of future Japanese dominance. Joshua La Bare has noted that Western sf often represents Japan’s emergence from an apocalypse to dominate the near-future economy due to an inhuman-seeming social structure and a fascination with advanced technology. He argues that such representations of Japanese identity mirror our constructions of otherness with all the complex reflections and self-reflections that this metaphor implies. In Svaha, this doubling and reflecting is further complicated by the suggestion that Japan was able to claim Canada because of an already strong Japanese presence both inside and outside the borders that define Canadian identity.
Currently, the greatest number of new immigrants to Canada come from East Asian backgrounds.3 Many settle in Canada’s largest cities such as Vancouver, which has become known as a center of Japanese culture in Canada.4 In addition, Canada’s west coast border is regarded as a significant trade-link to East Asia. Canadian provincial and federal authorities aim to open up this border further and exploit its potential for trade. This high level of East Asian immigration, however, coupled with high-profile business expansion, has provoked fear and suspicion. In Svaha, the dominance of the yakuza is extrapolated from current Canadian fear-mongering that gang networks, such as the triads, are infiltrating East Asian companies in Canada and using the country as a base of operations. These fears culminated in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police conducting the controversial “Project Sidewinder” (1995-1999) to investigate the extent of such infiltration.5
Svaha focuses entirely on the Toronto-Quebec Corridor. This implies that Canadian regional identities (such as those of the Maritimes, the West, and the Prairies) have diminished, most likely because the land has been made uninhabitable by contamination. In addition, it seems that the only vestige of Francophone identity is found in the patois of the squats, “a mixture of French, English, and Asian languages” (10). This is perhaps a realization of current fears that the distinct French-language culture in Canada is being elided by multiculturalism. Despite being a bilingual country with a supposedly equal emphasis on French and English, Francophones are often depicted as only one among many immigrant groups who make up the mosaic. Moreover, French language and culture is commonly represented in geographical terms as entirely contained within the province of Québec, even though there are Francophone Canadians living throughout Canada. Ironically, this subsuming of Francophone identities into the squat patois in Svaha means that French is finally spoken with the same fluency throughout all the Toronto-Quebec Corridor.
The discourse of Canadian multiculturalism is based on ideas of immigration, borders, regionalism, provinces, reserves, and urban zones. In Svaha, however, Canadian society has become segregated according to these imagined spatial distinctions that were intended to preserve a respect for difference, but which can easily become a means of sidelining minorities and ensuring discrimination. Far from becoming a heterogeneous urban sprawl, de Lint’s Canada shows how a nation will disintegrate in its own way, thus reaffirming some of the national differences that the cyberpunk globalized future seems to deny. The mosaic may have become fragmented, but Canada’s self-identity as a place of emptiness surrounded by significant borders and distinguished internally by spatial-cultural differences is reinscribed in the spaces of the Toronto-Quebec corridor.
First Nations Land Ethic: A New Model for Integration in Canada. The desire for a reintegrated social order in the novel is demonstrated by a striking example of urban infrastructure: the CanNational Very High Speed Transit system. This transport network is run by a company that has a nationwide presence and a name that suggests the possibility of a reunified Canadian nation:
The system was operated by CanNational, a consortium of corporations with offices in every Megaplex. To defray the initial building and operating costs, the tunnels included pipelines, power lines, laser and microwave communication channels, and a slower railroad freight system. The various tubecraft stations were open to anyone with the credits to use the system—citizen or squat dweller—with maintenance and policing provided by CanNational’s own cleanup and security forces. The Megaplexes had no jurisdiction in either its stations or freightyards. (185)
This highly organized, ingenious, and relatively egalitarian system of public transport seems incongruous in the midst of the degenerated TOPQ. The brief mention of CanNational seems like an expression of pride in Canada’s utopian potential. It is very similar to that expressed by Glenn Grant in his introduction to the Canadian sf anthology Northern Stars (1994): “this country has been shaped, from its inception, by the kind of utopian dreams one encounters only in the most visionary scientific romances.… Consider the national railroad that stitched together this obviously impossible confederation” (14). The CanNational transport system in Svaha suggests that Canada can be unified by ambitious social projects that link spaces as a means of fostering communal interaction. The CanNational, however, is only an indication that a route to reintegration is possible. After the failure of the Canadian multicultural ideal, de Lint’s Canada needs a new social model.
This social model is based on First Nations’ relations with the land. It is instigated by the main protagonist Gahzee, who adopts a mediator role throughout the novel. Gahzee is sent out of his tribal Enclave on a mission to recover a lost flyer that crashed in the Outlands (another example of Svaha’s emphasis on transportation in the material world, as opposed to the instant navigation of virtual reality common to most cyberpunk texts). Once one of the People has left an Enclave they can never return, making Gahzee’s mission more than a simple chase or caper plot. His permanent exile means his task is also to negotiate the social spaces and relationships of the Outlander world in which he must now reside.
Gahzee’s negotiation of the unfamiliar urban environment is aided by his entries into Dreamtime where he receives guidance from the Kachina-hey, the dream teachers of the People. This Native dream-space might be read as a spiritual alternative to the cyberspace explored by “console cowboys” such as Case in Neuromancer. It could also be read as a response to the casual slippage between metaphors of technology and mysticism in texts such as Gibson’s Count Zero (1986), in which Voodoo beliefs are used merely as a vehicle for ghosts in the machine. Although the Dreamtime is accessed through meditation and not by any technological means, the dream landscape overlaps considerably with the urban landscape, creating a mixed spiritual and social space. For example, when the Kachina-hey come to Gahzee telling him that he needs to embark on a journey to become a “Twisted Hair,” or mediator, he is standing “high on top of one of the abandoned buildings in the TOPQ corridor, looking out across the wounded land” (109). The longer Gahzee spends in the Outlands, the more his dream visions occur in a landscape ravaged by pollution: “The elder led him out of the vast building into a flat square. All around stood buildings similar to the one they had just quit, manufacturing nothing but noise, pouring filth into the air from their smokestacks” (178-79). This indicates how closely the spiritual integrates with the material world, and demonstrates that Gahzee’s mediator role has a strong ecological dimension.
This overlapping of social, spiritual, and environmental relationships within the same space fits with interpretations of the “land ethic” of traditional First Nations cultures. In his collection of essays In Defence of the Land Ethic (1989), J. Baird Callicott criticizes recent romantic characterizations of the human-nature relationship attributed to traditional Native peoples. He argues that in light of recent ecological damage, “traditional American Indian cultures came to symbolize a lost but not forgotten harmony of human beings with nature. This most recent Indian mystique blends nostalgia and optimism” (203). Callicott attempts a more rigorous corroboration of this land wisdom by cross-referencing early historical portrayals of Indian culture with later ethnographic studies and current-day First Nations testimonies. He acknowledges that it is impossible to ever recover a “pure” or “original” Native land wisdom from this complex nexus of accounts, each with their own biases and distortions. Moreover, such a totalizing approach is misleading, as different Native groups have their own structures for organizing relationships with the land. Callicott’s study concentrates only on the Algonkian and Ojibwa groups (in Svaha, Gahzee belongs to an Anishnabeg [Ojibwa] enclave; hence he could be considered to share in this heritage).
Callicott argues that the Algonkian and Ojibwa relationship with the environment was neither a simple animistic reverence for nature nor a utilitarian hunting-farming exploitation of the land, as is commonly believed. Instead it was based on an integrated social system:
The implicit overall metaphysic of American Indian cultures locates human beings in a larger social, as well as physical environment. People belong not only to a human community, but to a community of all nature as well. Existence in this larger society, just as existence in a family and tribal context, places people in an environment in which reciprocal responsibilities and mutual obligations are taken for granted and assumed without question or reflection. (189-90)
Although this is a more complex and sensitive assessment of Native relationships with the land than many romanticized views, it has some limitations. Callicott offers an outsider’s perspective of Native cultures. Although he does not claim to recover “original” Native beliefs, he does try to recreate an interpretation of “traditional” cultural practices, thus relegating the land-ethic to a static past. He makes little mention of how this ecological model might have changed or adapted up to the present day, other than providing a set of “ready-made myths and parables” to help guide modern nations out of their present environmental malaise (“American Indian Land Wisdom?” 219).
Gahzee’s relationship with the land is also depicted from an outside perspective, but one that is more forward-looking. De Lint is not from a First Nations background; hence he approaches Native culture as an outsider. His outsider’s perspective is maintained in the text by the opacity of the Enclave barriers that prevent any close insights into the People’s way of life. Gahzee is the only representative of the People in the text, and his exile means that he is forced to adopt an outsider’s role as well. In the TOPQ, Gahzee meets a young white “Squat rat” called Lisa and he counters her misconceptions of what life is like inside the Enclaves:
That’s not to say we live in utopias…. It’s true our lands are green. Our homes are no longer primitive tents and lodges. Our technologies are as concerned with the clean disposal of wastes as they are with advances. We have cities, integrated with their environment, but we also keep our old traditions. (122)
This can be read as a future adaptation of the land ethic in which the human community is situated in a wider environmental community with the reciprocal obligations and responsibilities that this relationship brings. The land is regarded as a social space, not just in terms of being the place where a society is located, but also in terms of how this society relates to its environment. The future development of the land ethic in Svaha acknowledges that the land is hybridized and cannot be returned to a former “natural” state; hence the People respond in kind with a hybrid mix of spirituality and technology.
The People’s social relationship as part of a wider environmental community is only partial, however. Gahzee’s journey in the Outlands forces him to recognize that such a reciprocal relationship cannot stop at the boundaries of the Enclaves: “Now he perceived them for what they were: not simply lands ruined by their present keepers, but also lands abandoned by the People” (43). Gahzee depicts the People’s voluntary withdrawal as a justified response to past oppression. Yet, paradoxically, this act of separation means that the People are still connected to the rest of Canadian society because their seclusion is regarded as a deliberate and harsh sentence of exclusion by those outside the Enclaves. Gahzee tells Lisa that some of the People wish to pursue such punishment to its conclusion: “In our councils there are those who argue that we must finish what your people have begun—cleanse the world of you and all your works so that we may lead the world onto a new Wheel” (122-23); the interrelation between land and society means any environmental “cleansing” would also entail ethnic and cultural “cleansing.” Gahzee realizes, however, that the People’s merging of technology and spirituality on a land that has a layered identity questions ideas of segregation and cultural purity from inside their own Enclaves.
Gahzee finds that his interaction with Lisa and other Outlanders continues to raise questions about the People’s segregation. He begins to teach Lisa about the beliefs of the People. As a result of this teaching, Lisa finds that she can enter the Dreamtime, first under Gahzee’s instruction and then entirely on her own. Her spiritual journeys show that the most sacred space of the People is also open to Outlanders, which challenges the ideas of racial and cultural purity maintained in the Enclaves. At the end of the novel, Gahzee uses Lisa’s ability to enter the Dreamtime in order to persuade the tribal elders that the People should open their Enclaves and re-establish links with the Outlanders. Initially, the elders are reluctant, and they continue to regard the preservation of the land and the plight of the Outlanders living on it as separate concerns: “This knowledge you have brought can change the way we perceive the Outlanders—it gives us hope that one day the earth shall regain her former glory—but it cannot change our decision” (303).
Gahzee maintains, however, that such segregation is at odds with the People’s view of the environment as social space. In the final chapter, the thriller plot of rival factions each trying to seize the lost flyer is superseded by the hope of reintegration. Gahzee asserts that “I mean to go among the Outlanders … and teach them the path with heart” (301). The word “path” recalls the images of blocked streets earlier in the novel and suggests that Native models of interrelated space, and journeys through such space, provide the means to reconnect the segregated living areas in the TOPQ.
Gahzee claims the deserted Maniwaki Enclave as the base for this new hybrid tribe, indicating that this new integrated social model radiates from what was once Canada. Significantly, the text begins and ends in two specific Enclaves—“Kawarthas” and “Maniwaki,” respectively (4, 301)—that are both situated in Canada and have existing Canadian place names that are themselves Native names. This confirms that the land has a layered identity in which individual locations serve as a reminder of the country they once formed. Vestiges of the land’s old identity are present in its new identity, as it has changed from a tribal homeland to a reserve and National Park, then to an Enclave, and now possibly to a new communal space. This is in accordance with Smith’s view, discussed at the beginning of this article, that collective identities are constructed upon enduring connections to history and homeland; they do not impose themselves upon passive populations as if upon a tabula rasa (Smith 179).
At the end of Svaha, the old Canadian nation is not restored, but a new multicultural tribe is founded in the space that was once Canada. This wider social identity can be compared to the “Pan nationalisms” envisaged by Smith as a more viable alternative to a globalized culture. Smith regards these collectives primarily as social groupings based on a “family of cultures,” as opposed to political or economic units (186). He writes, “Pan nationalisms, by reminding burgeoning states and nations of a wider cultural heritage to which they are joint heirs, help to counteract the fissiparous tendencies of minority ethnic nationalisms and the rivalries of territorial state nationalisms” (186-87). Gahzee’s new tribe is not a regression to former Native ways of life but a reminder that the American continent is connected by a series of indigenous cultures that existed prior to the political boundaries imposed by European settlers. A tribal structure combines local interaction with a sense of belonging to much larger language and cultural groups.6
History Conquered by Geography. There are a number of problems with the optimistic resolution of Svaha, however, that also concern the representation of space and identity in the novel. In their analysis of The Diamond Age, Longan and Oakes interpret the cyberpunk future as “a world where history has been conquered by geography” (39). Csicsery-Ronay makes a similar assertion that in cyberpunk, “the concept of a nation, with its implication of some historical homogeneity through time, has been made obsolete by the dramatic heterogeneity of human, primarily urban, society” (225). Yet the reinscription of Canadian national identities in the urban sprawl of the TOPQ means that the triumph of geography over history takes a different form in de Lint’s novel.
Canadians often define their nation by its lack of a dramatic history on which to found collective memories and myths; instead the country was “[b]rokered into existence by rational men with a rational plan” (Shainblum and Dupuis 8). In contrast to the violent confrontations between settlers and Natives crucial to American frontier myths, Canadian settlers supposedly achieved a less violent and more “legal” dispossession of Native groups. Consequently, the prioritizing of geography over history can be considered part of Canada’s national narratives. Indeed, in Svaha, history is not made obsolete by a fluid, heterogeneous society; it is flattened and represented schematically in an attempt to balance colonial legacies and First Nations’ claims.
Svaha draws to a close with a romanticized image of a coyote howling and a roll of thunder as Gahzee’s tribe establishes their new home. This fits with the novel’s title which is, as we are informed at the beginning of the text, an Amerindian word meaning “the time between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder; a waiting for promises to be fulfilled” (Preface iv). The narrative itself covers a period of only a few days and is structured as a fast-paced caper story, in keeping with the brief moment of anticipation between the lightning and thunder. Despite this linear, fast-moving plot, the “waiting for promises to be fulfilled” also refers to a much longer historical legacy of dispossession and dislocation of the First Nations in Canada. The backstory of how the People came to withdraw into Enclaves is recounted by characters in the text in the form of summaries or “info dumps,” a technique familiar to sf readers. This technique means that the historical narratives become flattened and schematic—for example, Lisa “began to relate the events of the past few days, laying it all out for him [Gahzee] in the same straightforward manner he’d used to tell her about how the Enclaves came to be” (124). The ordered unfolding of spatial relations becomes a metaphor for a supposedly clear and simple historical narrative. This can be compared to the “laying out” of different cultural and racial groups in de Lint’s fragmented Canada. The word “straightforward” emphasizes the idea of geometric structuring in the linking of cause and effect.
Such direct links between consequences characterize Gahzee’s account of the creation of the Enclaves. The chain of events began with the popular success of a First Nations musician who used his fortune to fund education programs for Native students. These programs produced the lawyers and scientists who won back tribal land in the courts and developed the technology needed to seal it off from the rest of Canada. This suggests that the People worked within the capitalist system until they were ready to withdraw and become self-sufficient. When this time occurred, the break with the capitalist economy was made cleanly. The People’s “step-by-step” progression from a rich benefactor to complete self-sufficiency seems reductive, as social and technological change rarely occurs so quickly or so smoothly.
A squat leader known as Ragman offers his assessment of the change in the social hierarchy from an Outlander’s perspective:
Come the big business invasion from Japan and China, it was the blacks that got the shaft again. Only this time the whites went down with them. All they were good for was to scrabble out a living in the squats with the other rats. Chinas too lazy to make it in the Plexes. The criminals that lost their citizenship and got tossed out. (209)
Ragman complains that black people like himself are unjustly oppressed and dispossessed; however, his observation that the whites also also have gone down “this time” conveys a sense of justice that they finally got what they deserved for their years of dominance. There is a strong parallel between the situation of white Canadians and the criminals who are tossed into the squats, indicating that the white society is now being punished for the social injustice it condoned and perpetuated while in power. The phrases “got the shaft” and “went down” imply a diagrammatic representation of the social hierarchy in which changes in status are represented by changes in height.
Gahzee’s, Lisa’s, and Ragman’s narratives suggest that history in Svaha is constructed according to balanced, schematic inversions: reserves to Enclaves; inclusion to exclusion; top of society to bottom of society. This is very similar to the idea of the Wheel of Fortune, in which changes in status are directly linked to changes in height on the wheel; history is represented as a cycle of rises and falls. Gahzee offers an alternative to this structure, but one that is still based on the model of a wheel, when he teaches Lisa about the spiritual beliefs of the People:
“Everything fits onto a Wheel,” Gahzee was explaining.
“You mean, like everything repeats itself? History rolling in cycles?”
“Not exactly, although there is a Wheel of history. But to the People, the opposite of present is not past, but absent.” (137)
This view is based on existing concepts of First Nations medicine wheels and the Midewiwin (medicine society) of the Ojibwa Nation. This structural representation of Native beliefs (“the opposite of present is not past, but absent”) provides a striking contrast with the Outlander society that values historical progress and status.
Although Gahzee is identified as a mediator and teacher of Native spirituality, he does not seem to follow Native models of teaching and learning. In their analysis of how current educational practices in Canada impact upon Native students, Dennis H. McPherson and J. Douglas Rabb state that Native models of education are flexible and indirect. According to McPherson and Rabb, these education practices “may be summed up in words like ‘respect’ and ‘noninterference’” (63). This ethic of noninterference precludes direct instruction:
It is a common remark that if you ask an Elder for advice you will never get a straight answer. You will often be told a story which seems to have nothing whatever to do with the question asked or the problem raised. You are given the autonomy to discover the relevance of the reply and hence to work out the problem for yourself. This is a sign of respect. It is also a method of instruction which fosters independent thinking and self reliance. (63)
In comparison, Gahzee’s teaching seems more didactic. He tells Native stories, but he makes their allegorical significance explicit. When Gahzee is teaching Lisa, he draws the Wheel of the Twenty Count, showing the positioning of each of the numbers and what they represent. Although Gahzee tells Lisa that copying down the Wheel is not as important as developing a subconscious understanding of its relationships, a diagram of the Wheel is still included in the text (141).
The more direct and schematic teaching methods represented in Svaha may be influenced by the fact that de Lint is not from a First Nations background, nor are the majority of his audience. In his Afterword to the 1995 Dark Side Press edition of Mulengro, de Lint states that he conducts careful research into other cultures, “not to be politically correct, but for the sake of veracity. Nothing is worse than the uninformed author; all they do is spread stereotypes and often outright lies.” Gahzee’s explicit teaching methods in the text may be an extension of this authorial concern not to misguide the audience.
There is a didactic emphasis throughout. Inclusion in Gahzee’s new hybrid society of People and Outlanders depends upon learning the spiritual beliefs of the People. As Ragman complains, “Does this mean we all gotta learn about these frigging Wheels?” (305). Although this is a lighthearted joke, it reinforces the idea that entry into this new community is conditional on accepting Native spirituality. Moreover, Gahzee’s new community is called a “tribe,” further highlighting that this society is firmly based on Native models. On the one hand, this is a positive endorsement of Native beliefs, suggesting they are more conducive to forming hybrid communities than Western models of society. On the other hand, the overriding emphasis on Native spirituality raises questions about the extent of hybridity enabled in this community, which is dependent upon a single set of beliefs and practices.
The most problematic aspect of the reintegration of society and space at the end of the text involves Gahzee claiming the Maniwaki Enclave as the base for his new tribe. The fact that this new community is closely identified with a specific area of land fits with the correspondence between territory and collective identities in the text. The founding of this new home hides a more worrying act of dispossession, however. The Maniwaki Enclave is empty because all the residents have been killed by a spore released into the Enclave at the command of the yakuza boss. This spore only targeted the human population, then deactivated, leaving the land free of contamination—a seemingly convenient plot-device intended to clear a space for a new community without its members having to bear the responsibility of dispossessing others. Yet it is ominous that a supposedly reintegrated society takes advantage of land that has been wiped clean of its former inhabitants.
The clearing of the Maniwaki Enclave fits with the schematic and spatial rendering of historical narratives throughout the text. The lives and histories of the People living in the Maniwaki Enclave are conveniently “balanced out” by the new community that takes possession of the land. Indeed, this quick substitution adds an ironic inflection to Gahzee’s assertion that, “to the People, the opposite of present is not past, but absent” (137).
The prioritization of spatial relations in Svaha seems to be a positive attempt to overcome the legacies of past problems that continue to lead to separation and segregation. Lisa distances herself from connections to her past and to her white settler heritage: “We had nothing to do with it. Our ancestors fucked up—but all we’ve ever done is tried to survive in the mess they left us. Why the hell shouldn’t we get a chance?” (302). Her assertion that the Outlanders have suffered enough suggests that the schematic reversals between Enclave and Outlander societies are perhaps a means of balancing out past injustices before a truly integrated community can be formed in the space that was Canada. Yet although Svaha imagines a new social model that reconfirms the primacy of the First Nations in the land from which they were dispossessed, the text risks reducing both Native cultures and historical legacies to a spatial pattern that is as static as the multicultural mosaic.
In “Dis-Imagined Communities,” Csicsery-Ronay writes that the global, virtual future in cyberpunk texts displaces the geographical and historical continuity required for maintaining “a sense of integration with a society larger than one’s mortal self” (226). Yet such displacement does not have to mean the disavowal of specific national identities; it can enable the reconfiguration of this form of collective identification in other times and spaces. As Svaha shows, individual nations tend to disintegrate in their own ways, bringing into focus some of the distinct national differences that cyberpunk seems to deny. De Lint’s novel can be read as a response to the legacy of Canada as a settler colony that prioritizes immigrant identities over First Nations identities. The mosaic model of Canadian multiculturalism that perpetuated static relationships between cultures and their living spaces is replaced by a more integrated model based on a First Nations land ethic in which all communities are connected by their wider social relationships to the environment. Science fiction’s supposed lack of interest in nationality is perhaps due less to a thematic “blind spot” within the genre than to the fact that we, as critics, have only begun to explore the complex negotiations of time (history) and space (geography) that define how we might identify with a nation or nations in the future.
1. For a discussion of how the hybrid space of de Lint’s “Otherworld” enables continual encounters between “Old World” and “New World” myths, see Steven.
2. See Department of Justice, Canada (paragraphs c and d of the section entitled “Interpretation”).
3. According to the 1996 Canadian census, the top two places of origin for recent immigrants to Canada are Hong Kong and China. See Statistics Canada.
4. William Gibson tells how he based his representation of Japanese identities on his experience of living in Canada; he had not visited Japan before writing Neuromancer, but he regularly came into contact with Japanese culture in his home city of Vancouver. In an interview with Takayuki Tatsumi, Gibson says that “Vancouver is filled with young affluent Japanese people…. There are Japanese restaurants and nightclubs that cater entirely to Japanese tourists” (qtd in Ketterer 145).
5. The Canadian government commissioned a review into “Project Sidewinder” that found that the initial report was poorly researched and used inflammatory, fear-mongering language. The project team was required to write a second, more measured and rigorous draft. Although the threat of East Asian criminal gangs infiltrating Canadian businesses is supposedly fairly low, it is still an issue that incites controversy in Canada. See Government of Canada, Security Intelligence Review Committee.
6. In Svaha, there is an indication that the People have already formed a Pan-tribal understanding with other peoples “who maintain their traditions, who care for their world as they might a brother or sister—or a mother” (123). Yet this worldwide connection with other “tribes” privileges indigenous groups as the only ones who can have an ethical relationship with their land. At the end of the novel, Maori, Masai, and Soyot “Twisted Hairs” arrive to support Gahzee’s assertion that such connections should not be limited only to those people who can claim tribal heritage. They endorse his new Pan-national model that radiates from Maniwaki over former tribal connections.
Callicott, J. Baird. In Defence of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1989.
Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “Dis-Imagined Communities: Science Fiction and the Future of Nations.” Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation. Ed. Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. 217-37.
De Lint, Charles. Svaha. 1989. New York: Tor, 1994.
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Department of Justice, Canada. “Canadian Multiculturalism Act.” 1985. 31 October 2005 <http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/C-18.7/index.html>.
Gabriel, Sharmani Patricia. “‘Between Mosaic and Melting Pot’: Negotiating Multiculturalism and Cultural Citizenship in Bharati Mukherjee’s Narratives of Diaspora.” Postcolonial Text 1.2 (May 2005). 31 October 2005 <http://www.pkp.ubc.ca/pocol/ viewarticle.php?id=208>.
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Government of Canada, Security Intelligence Review Committee. “Annual Report 1999-2000.” Report No. 125, Project Sidewinder. 31 October 2005 <http://www.sirc-csars.gc.ca/annual/1999-2000/sec1a_e.html>.
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Ketterer, David. Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.
La Bare, Joshua. “The Future: ‘Wrapped ... in that mysterious Japanese way’.” SFS 27.1 (March 2000): 22-48.
Longan, Michael, and Tim Oakes. “Geography’s Conquest of History in The Diamond Age.” Lost in Space: Geographies of Science Fiction. Ed. Rob Kitchin and James Kneale. London: Continuum, 2002. 39-56.
McPherson, Dennis, H. and J. Douglas Rabb. “Indigeneity in Canada: Spirituality, the Sacred and Survival.” International Journal of Canadian Studies 23 (Spring 2001): 57-79.
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Steven, Laurence. “Welwyn Wilton Katz and Charles de Lint: New Fantasy as a Canadian Post-colonial Genre.” Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Ed. Jean-François Leroux and Camille R. La Bossière. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2004. 57-72.
This article analyzes Charles de Lint’s 1989 novel Svaha as an example of how distinct national identities can endure in the globalized future espoused by most cyberpunk texts. Instead of imagining a generic urban sprawl in which it is increasingly difficult to maintain a stable social or communal identity, Svaha addresses issues of Canadian identity based on the division of living spaces by various social and cultural boundaries. The article begins by assessing Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s argument that science fiction shows little interest in the future of nations, a notion I counter by means of Anthony D. Smith’s claims for nationality as an enduring connection to history (time) and homeland (space) that extends both before and after the current political incarnation of the nation-state. The article then offers a reading of the segregated urban space in Svaha as a response to the legacy of Canada as a settler colony that prioritizes immigrant identities over First Nations identities. In the novel, the mosaic model of Canadian multiculturalism that resulted in the fragmentation of the country is replaced by a more integrated model based on a First Nations land ethic. The article ends by considering some of the problems with the optimistic conclusion of the novel, in which space is used to overcome historical legacies of dispossession.
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