Dave Duncan was 53 years old when his first novel was published, yet he went on to author more than 60 books and left more than a dozen unpublished manuscripts in various stages of completion when he died on Oct. 29 at age 85.
One of Canada’s most prolific fantasy and science fiction writers, Mr. Duncan wrote many popular series, including The Seventh Sword, The King’s Blades and The Great Game. He also experimented with other genres, including historical fantasy and young adult fiction.
A two-time winner of the Aurora Award from the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, for West of January in 1990 and Children of Chaos in 2007, he was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2015.
¨He’s near the top,” his editor, Robert Runté, says of the degree of influence he wielded in these genres. “He’s my favourite writer,” adds Mr. Runté, who was a fan first, reading Mr. Duncan’s books since the 1980s.
The novelist inspired Mr. Runté’s own writing. Meanwhile, a young artist who created the cover art for a recent Mr. Duncan book told Mr. Runté he became an illustrator because of Mr. Duncan’s books.
Mr. Runté thinks Mr. Duncan’s novels helped carve out a kind of Canadian identity for speculative fiction.
In keeping with this approach, his protagonists were often regular people who were caught up in events and prevailed because of their integrity, intelligence or co-operation with others. “He didn’t follow the [American] formula,” says Mr. Runté, who says the work of many U.S. writers featured more traditional heroes who out-muscled their foes.
In 1991’s Hero!, main character Vaun, a peasant, is gay, which was progressive for the time. The series A Man of His Word features a stable boy in love with a princess. Cursed, from 1999, has a female protagonist.
“He always said he was lousy at character development. Wow. Absolutely not,” says Lorina Stephens, publisher and editor at Five Rivers Publishing, which has put out seven of Mr. Duncan’s books, with two more coming next year, and possibly other titles after that.
Mr. Duncan meticulously revised his characters and other aspects of his books. His wife, Janet, served as one of his first readers. “He absolutely believed in revision, revision. He never out-put a first draft to a publishing house. I think he would faint if that ever happened,” Ms. Stephens says.
Son Nick recalls his father’s early years as a professional writer, after he transitioned from a career as a geologist. He’d go into his basement office all morning, read what he had written over lunch, go back down for the afternoon, read his drafts before dinner, and write again until bedtime. “And that’s what he would do day after day after day,” Nick recalls.
Often writers in these genres create one imaginary world in which they set all their stories, but Mr. Duncan created numerous fantastical realms during his career, and various systems of magic, too.
He used his knowledge of science for inspiration, and to create fictional phenomena that made some logical sense. The plot of West of January is driven by the fact that a single cycle of day and night on that planet lasts the equivalent of 200 Earth years, or multiple generations. In 1987’s Shadow, the planet rotates around a star and is gravitationally locked to it, so its inhabitants live in perpetual dawn or dusk, in its shadow. In the Dodec series, the planet is a 12-sided dodecahedron, and people live on the flat planes. Cursed saw people struck by a plague that, if they survived, cursed them either to heal others, or inflict them with disease with a touch.
David John Duncan was born on June 30, 1933, in Newport-on-Tay in Scotland. He loved books from a young age and would read aloud to his younger brother, Michael, from classics by Kipling and Conan Doyle. He later devoured science fiction, crime and adventure novels. As a youth, Dave, who was always industrious, converted an old summer house on the family property and kept budgies. He also loved science, particularly astronomy.
After high school in nearby Dundee, Dave went to St. Andrew’s University and graduated with a BSc in geology in 1955. At the time, there were few jobs in his field in the U.K. Meanwhile, since National Service was then mandatory for all British subjects, he risked being sent to serve during the Suez Crisis. So in 1957, he moved to Canada and found work in Calgary as a petroleum geologist.
A year later, while acting in a local theatre production, he met Janet Hopwell, a British teacher who was on an extended road trip across North America with a girlfriend. The couple were married in 1959 and their son, Nick, was born a year later. (The friend also married a man she met in Calgary.) Daughters Jennifer and Judy followed.
Mr. Duncan always stayed busy after work hours with a range of hobbies. Along with writing, he dabbled in photography, painting and computer programming. “He had the ability to pick things up and just do them,” Nick says.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Duncan collaborated with a computer programmer to take public government data on the performance of oil wells, synthesize it, and publish it in a paid subscription newsletter. “If he had been born later, he would have been one of those internet entrepreneurs,” Nick says. “He was doing big data before there was big data.” Mr. Duncan ran the company for a few years and then sold it.
In the mid-1980s, when the oil and gas industry was in a slump, Mr. Duncan devoted more time to writing and sent out some manuscripts. A New York-based publisher accepted A Rose-Red City, publishing it in 1987 when Mr. Duncan was 53. “He got published out of the slush pile,” Mr. Runté says, noting this is a rare phenomenon.
Mr. Duncan quickly produced more novels, publishing several a year. He soon began working with more than one publisher, and sometimes used pseudonyms so he could put out even more books at once.
While his fantasy series sold the most copies, he also wrote science fiction, historical fiction set in Renaissance Italy and ancient Greece, and young adult novels and short stories.
The Duncans moved to Victoria in 2005. While Janet retired from her second career as a librarian, Mr. Duncan devoted some time to travel and grandchildren, but also kept writing, putting out as many as two books a year. “He’d get immersed in his work. Stories would fill his head all the time. Whatever he would do, he was writing,” Ms. Stephens says.
His health declined in recent years and he suffered a series of strokes that impaired his left hand. (Later manuscripts had more typographical errors than usual, Mr. Runté says.) Mr. Duncan was taking blood thinners, so when he fell at a restaurant on Oct. 25, he was rushed to a hospital for brain scans. They showed nothing, so he returned home, but a few days later he began to feel unwell and started speaking incoherently. He returned to the hospital where he was diagnosed with bleeding on the brain, which caused a coma and then his death.
Mr. Duncan leaves his wife, brother, three children and four grandchildren. He had carefully organized his estate, setting up a company to be run by Nick to enable the publication of his work. Mr. Runté was willed 15 unpublished manuscripts. (Five Rivers is also producing audio books of some of Mr. Duncan’s most popular series.)
Fans who have been following Mr. Duncan for his three-decades-long career can expect more adventures from the mind of this tireless creator of gripping stories, intriguing characters and magical realms. Says Ms. Stephens, “He was a consummate storyteller.”