Zsuzsi Gartner begins her introduction to this collection of 23 tales "from tomorrow" with a question from her son: "You know how some mutations are successful and some aren't?" he asks her.
"In the world of the book you're reading, or in our world?" she replies, noting to us, her readers, that she was careful not to say "in the real world" because "we both know the world of a story is a real world too."
The anecdote reminded me of something Ursula K. Le Guin wrote back in 1974, defending the emerging fantasy and science fiction genres against skeptics who claimed that stories about dragons and space travel - stories that employed the imagination - were useless to adults, whose precious time would be better served by facts, those scientifically earned bricks with which the so-called truth is built. "Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren't real," Le Guin wrote, "but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books."
The far-better-than-good stories collected in Darwin's Bastards from an all-star team of Canadian authors not normally known for writing speculative literature - the catch-all term for fiction that breaks the bounds of realism - once again proves that the truth is sometimes easier to depict from the future. And as is the case with much dystopic fiction, technology and science take a bit of a satirical beating here, though thankfully without hitting you over the head with it.
In There Is No Time in Waterloo, Sheila Heti conjures an upcoming version of the BlackBerry, which the teenagers in the story call their Mothers (short for the Mother of All BlackBerries). The handheld device advises its owner on what to do next in her life, a calculation based on past actions it has stored. "They hoped to reach their destinies as quickly and efficiently as possible - not their ultimate destinies, just their penultimate ones," the narrator tells us. It's something of a mind-bending paradox, but also a cleverly constructed comment on our increasing dependence on social media to verify our existence. When one of the teens' Mothers becomes damaged, she must - gasp - find something else on which to base her next action.
Mathew J. Trafford's The Divinity Gene takes it a step further, imagining the spawn of over-ambitious technology and religious fervency - that is, the genetic cloning of Jesus Christ. The proliferating "Jesi" quickly go from being miracle workers to expendable soldiers in a chillingly accurate portrait of humanity's dark side.
Amid the doomsaying is also some hope. Gartner says in her introduction that she was surprised by how much the stories she received included "the possibility of love." Although these worlds may have gone bad, they're bad in the same ways our own has gone bad, and are thus redeemed by the same triumph in human connection.
Even in Jessica Grant's fictive world, where people live and work underground (at Jiffy Lubes) and communicate only via pneumatic tubes, a romance through letters motivates one woman to escape her hole and reunite with her first love. Meanwhile, in David Whitton's Twilight of the Gods, the protagonist is enlightened as to why his lover has been acting so strangely when she comes around to admitting that she once died. "From the time I was a kid, I'd been told to stay away from rebirthed girls," he deadpans.
But beyond getting a glimpse of reality through the lens of the future fantastic, the best reason to read this collection is that it is damn entertaining, and funny too. Back in 2002, in his introduction to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Michael Chabon famously decried that contemporary fiction had become ruled by the "quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." He called for writers to re-embrace genre, and Darwin's Bastards is a great example of why his plea should continue to be heeded.
Timothy Taylor's Sunshine City, a sort of spec-lit noir, revolves around a murder in a future society that is divided between Mad Max-style survivalists roaming the desert and the pampered upper class who reside on golf courses. The hard-boiled protagonist from The Rough who is investigating the crime calls to mind Blade Runner's Deckert, and he, of course, falls in love with a gorgeous, disillusioned Golfland girl.
Pasha Malla's 1999 begins promisingly - " 'I wouldn't fuck [the symbol Prince changed his name to]if he was the last man on Earth,' Sonya told her friends, drunk and searing with challenge, that New Year's eve before the end" - and he delivers on the joke.
For those impressed by big-name authors, there are some on the roster - William Gibson (the only real science-fiction writer of the bunch), Douglas Coupland and Yann Martel all offer new stories here. But there truly isn't a bad one in the bunch. Canadians who read this book will be proud to see that their imaginative landscape is as wildly bizarre - and honest to the truth - as ever.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in September.