Website & fanzine of the SF fan club USS Hudson Bay, Toronto, Canada






The Speculative Torontos
of Robert Charles Wilson
and Robert J. Sawyer

By Karen Bennett

[Written in June 2003 for the souvenir book of Torcon 3, the 61st World Science Fiction Convention, and updated in September 2003 to add comments on Sawyer's just-released novel Hybrids.]

Like a great many past and present denizens of Toronto (including myself), neither Robert Charles Wilson nor Robert J. Sawyer was born in the city: they're immigrants, willing or not, and therefore capable of seeing the place with special clarity. Wilson and Sawyer write more science fiction than they do fantasy—science fiction that takes place in the present or near future. It's therefore important that they take pains to portray Toronto, in all its variety and contradictions, accurately.

In the Afterword to The Perseids and Other Stories (Tor, 2000) 1, Wilson said, "When my parents took me to Toronto [from California] in 1962 I was eight years old, exiled to an austere foreign town where the shops closed on Sunday and the weather actually hurt" (p. 221).

In the early 1990s, provincial legislation allowed Sunday shopping. But parts of Toronto remain austere and the weather still hurts (the winter of 2002–03 in particular). Complaining about the weather is a Canadian thing, probably because we get so much of it, of all kinds, everything from heat waves to blizzards, gentle breezes to hurricanes (Hurricane Hazel hit Toronto hard in 1954).

There's a lot of weather in Wilson's The Divide (Bantam Doubleday, 1990). A lead character, Amelie, complains about winter—not because it's cold, but because the temperature fluctuates so much: "If you were ready for snow you got rain; if you were ready for rain you got ice" (p. 147).

The Divide is set in the time it was written: the late 1980s. Then, as now, autumn is Toronto's best season. The novel opens on a chill, sunny day in October as another lead character, Susan Christopher, walks up to a rundown boardinghouse in St. Jamestown (Wellesley Street east of Sherbourne), "a neighbourhood of low-rent high-rises and immigrant housing" (p. 3). Susan is visiting from the States, and she's trying to find a man who has moved to Toronto from Chicago. That man lives with a woman who has moved from Montreal, Quebec. (French is a language that rarely used to be heard on the streets of WASP Toronto. Since the 1970s, there has been a continuous exodus of people from Quebec to Ontario, and to Toronto in particular.) A great deal of The Divide is not set in the city, but there are mentions of Yonge Street, Toronto General Hospital (on University Avenue), the University of Toronto, and Cherry Beach. In a doughnut shop on Wellesley Street is where the title of the novel becomes clear. Most characters in The Divide have difficulty connecting—reaching across the divide—to other humans.

In the Afterword to The Perseids and Other Stories, Wilson wrote, "[O]ne of my ambitions was to write stories that reflected the urban Canadian experience, as opposed to extended meditations on ice, tundra, 'the North,' and so on. Margaret Atwood makes a good case for the brooding omnipresence of the wilderness in Canadian literature, but my own experience is necessarily more personal. I have lived almost exclusively in large, multiethnic cities. I can spell 'muskeg' but I'm not sure I could define the word. I've visited the Canadian Arctic, and in my opinion it's a fabulous and daunting wild frontier about which someone else really ought to write" (p. 219).

Toronto happens to be the most multiethnic city in Canada. In Wilson's The Perseids, immigrants (including from other planets), journeys and neighbourhoods are recurring themes. The lead story, "The Fields of Abraham," is set in 1911 in a part of Toronto then called the Ward (bounded by Front, University, College and Yonge): a very poor area that attracted recent immigrants. The next story, "The Perseids," is set in the early 1990s. The immigrants are different: Jamaicans, East Indians, Ethiopians, Chinese. Front and centre in the story is the neighbourhood called Parkdale, where a woman who means a great deal to the narrator lives. "Her apartment was the top of a subdivided house in Parkdale off Queen Street [West]. Not the fashionable end of Queen Street; the hooker and junkie turf east of Roncevalles Avenue. Rent was cheap. She had decorated the rambling attic space with religious bric-à-brac from Goodwill thrift shops and the East Indian dollar store around the corner: ankhs, crosses, bleeding hearts, gaudy Hindu iconography. 'Cultural stew,' she said." Later in the story, the narrator mentions a few of the dozens of languages that could be heard on the streets: Cantonese, Urdu, Farsi.

In the next story, "The Inner Inner City," the narrator is fond of long, late walks, a habit he was able to indulge because he lived "in one of the few cities in North America where such urban wandering was less than mortally dangerous." Some of his meaderings take him into the Don Valley.

Most of "The Observer" takes place in California, but the narrator was born in Toronto. "I was a Toronto girl in the age of Toronto the Good; I had passed a childhood in chilly cinderblock schools where the King's (and lately the Queen's) portrait gazed stonily from every wall, in the age of Orange parades and war privation and the solemn politics of nation-building.... My idea of a beach was the gray pebbled lakeshore at Sunnyside. Oatmeal breakfasts and snowsuits: that Toronto." (A Toronto long gone, this observer must say, for it's a city where time has never been able to stand still.) At the end of "The Observer," the narrator has returned to the city and expects to die there, "in a world 1953 might not recognize as its linear descendant. The multiethnic, information-intensive, post-industrial present day."

The narrator of "Protocols of Consumption" is a psychiatric outpatient of Sunnybrook Hospital (Bayview Avenue north of Eglinton). The hospital is still there in 2003, although forcibly amalgamated in 1998 with the downtown hospital called Women's College, to the detriment of both. (In the Afterword [p. 222] Wilson brings up a theme that Rob Sawyer mentions on p. 13 of Calculating God: that funding cutbacks by the extremely right-wing provincial government of Mike Harris have had catastrophic effects on every aspect of Toronto, including its institutions.) The immigrant theme, so prominent in earlier stories, is absent. Some Toronto locations mentioned are the Humber River Valley and Bay Street.

"Ulysses Sees the Moon in the Bedroom Window" has a more upscale setting: a house in Rosedale. The description contains a reminder that not all of Toronto is paved over yet: "I parked in the gravel drive of Paul and Leah's unfailingly tasteful Rosedale property. The night was warm for October, a big three-quarter moon rising in a sky still luminous with dusk. Paul's house backed onto a ravine, and I heard something calling from the woods, a cat or a raccoon; some animal in heat, anyway" (p. 137).

"Plato's Mirror" has a middle-class orientation as well. The narrator lives in a condo tower with a view of Bathurst Street. His temporary girlfriend is a "Bishop Strachan [private school] debutante." One of his friends works at a "dreary Provincial Ministry." The secondhand bookstore Finders (which, along with Toronto, links the stories in The Perseids) is on Harbord—a street which harbours many a bookstore, being near the University of Toronto campus. Toronto weather is rendered vividly: "Hot summer that year. Late asphalt-scented nights, fan-cooled sheets, long showers. August storms rolled out of the west in gray-tumbled waves. For four nights in a row dry lightning flickered over the lake" (p. 162).

The action of the remaining stories in the collection, "Divided by Infinity" and "Pearl Baby," takes place largely in the imaginary Finders shop, but "Divided" contains reminders of the Toronto of the early stories: "I often walked the neighbourhood—down Spadina into the candy-bright intricacies of Chinatown, or west to Kensington, foreign as a Bengali marketplace, where the smell of spices and ground coffee mingled with the stink of sun-ripened fish" (p. 169).

The Divide, Wilson once said 2, is the "first of my books to be set in Canada—Toronto and the West Coast, specifically. I felt I owed it to the National Gestalt (not that anyone noticed)."

Robert Sawyer has contributed to the National Gestalt in a more "noticeable" way simply because his work is more widely read than Wilson's. The Toronto of Robert Sawyer is rendered quite differently from Wilson's—less intensely described, less visceral, and more positive. But they do agree on the weather.

Frameshift (Tor, 1997) takes place mostly in the present. It touches down briefly in Toronto in chapter 2, in an unidentified and undistinctive suburb. The immigrant theme is strong in this novel, but not in relation to Toronto.

Factoring Humanity (Tor, 1998) takes place, except for the Epilogue, entirely in Toronto. It opens in the year 2017, when messages from Alpha Centauri A have been arriving on Earth for 10 years. Only the first few messages have been deciphered, by University of Toronto psychologist Heather Davis, who was born in Alberta. Her husband is also a U of T professor. Factoring Humanity is packed with authentic details about the area in and around the campus, such as the Bata Shoe Museum and Robarts Library. In fact, very little appears different in the Toronto of 14 years from now. One scene is set largely in York Cemetery in North York, and Sawyer makes it very clear how to get there from North York Centre subway station. The subway system itself gets a number of mentions—one of many elements, including Toronto's hot summers, that Factoring Humanity has in common with Sawyer's next book, Flashforward. The Fashion District on Spadina, the Bakka bookstore, Harbourfront and Queen Street West also come up.

Chapter 23 and part of chapter 32 of Flashforward (Tor, 1999) take place in Toronto in 2009 and 2030, and Sawyer gives the city pretty good press. A visitor goes to the Greek neighbourhood on the Danforth, and is delighted that street signs are in English and Greek. Something else that impresses him favourably is "riding the subway...over the Don Valley Parkway...the bridge over the Don Valley had been built decades before Toronto got its first subway line, and yet it had been constructed so as to eventually accommodate two sets of tracks. One didn't often see evidence of cities planning that far into the future" (p. 217). 3 North York and Yonge Street are also mentioned. In 2030, another character visits Toronto, and takes an air limousine from Pearson airport. Bookstores still exist as well.

Calculating God (Tor, 2000) is another Toronto-centric novel. It opens around 1999, with an alien landing in an unlikely place for first contact. Says the narrator, "I know, I know—it seemed crazy that the alien had come to Toronto. Sure, the city is popular with tourists, but you'd think a being from another world would head for the United Nations—or maybe to Washington. Didn't Klaatu go to Washington in Robert Wise's movie The Day the Earth Stood Still?" (p. 13). The narrator is a Toronto-born paleontologist working at the Royal Ontario Museum (southwest corner of Bloor Street West and Queen's Park Crescent). He has many pointed things to say about how that institution has deteriorated under funding cuts and ill-advised administration. The numerous Toronto details include St. Michael's Hospital and CITY-TV, a station whose news cameras are famous for being not just "Everywhere!" but in your face.

In Iterations (Quarry Press, 2002), a collection of 22 short stories, the ones with a Toronto setting are "Iterations" (there are mentions of the Bloor Viaduct, Don Valley Parkway, Bayview Village); "If I'm Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage" (Starport Toronto, which in another story is said to be built over the Oak Ridges moraine, north of Toronto); "Where the Heart Is" (Starport Toronto, more than 140 years in the future, when the CN Tower still stands but Toronto is deserted); "Lost in the Mail" (the narrator lives in an unnamed suburb of Toronto; refers to Ryerson, U of T, the ROM); and "Ours to Discover" (in a post-apocalyptic future, Toronto lies under a steel dome whose northern edge is on "Steels [sic] Avenue").

Sawyer's most recent novels are the Neanderthal Parallax series: Hominids (Tor, 2002), Humans (Tor, 2003) and Hybrids (Tor, 2003). One of the lead "human" characters (not a Neanderthal) is a woman, Mary Vaughan, who works as a geneticist at York University. Sawyer puts in numerous authentic details, such as the soda machines ("Pepsi had paid York University two million dollars to become the exclusive soft-drink vendor on campus" [p. 60]). York is a cold, ugly place without much character. It's also a place where the faculty can be psychopaths, but that kind of pathology isn't peculiar to York. The crime committed against Mary is so debilitating that, until she meets the other "human" lead character, Ponter Boddit (a Neanderthal from a parallel universe) and forms a trusting relationship with him, she can barely function. But she meets him in Sudbury, northern Ontario, where the story soon whisks her off. Hominids doesn't return to Toronto until Mary does, in scene 2 of Chapter 47, a scene that reminds us of what season is Toronto's best: "Usually, one had to wait till September for Toronto to be so heart-stoppingly beautiful. With the sky's complexion clear and flawless, the temperature perfect, and the wind a gentle caress..." (p. 429).

More of Humans than Hominids is set in Toronto. However, Mary receives a tempting offer to work in the States. She tells herself she'd turned down offers in the past because "she preferred Toronto, found its climate 'invigorating,' that she'd miss the CBC and the wonderful live theatre and Caribana and Sleuth of Baker Street [mystery bookstore on Bayview] and Yorkville and Le Sélect Bistro and the ROM and smoke-free restaurants and the Blue Jays and The Globe and Mail and socialized medicine and the Harbourfront Reading Series" (pp. 10–11). But these perks are no longer enough, and Mary decides to accept the job offer.

In Chapter 26, Mary goes back to Toronto, and Ponter with her. He comments on the York campus, "Of all the places I've been on your world, I think university campuses are the nicest. Open spaces: Lots of trees and grass" (p. 241). It is only Ponter, with his highly-developed olfactory senses, who is able to track down Mary's assailant to a dirty apartment in the Driftwood area, around Jane and Finch. "It was one of Toronto's—hell, of North America's—most crime-ridden neighbourhoods. Its proximity to York was an embarrassment to the university, and probably, despite years of lobbying, the reason that the Spadina subway line had never been extended to the campus" (p. 346). To Ponter, Toronto is not civilized. It's part of a "mad, mirror Earth," where people who grievously injure others cannot be captured easily and dealt with by the government. To Mary, Ponter's Earth is another kind of dystopia—one where privacy has been banished in order to deal with crime.

Few scenes in Hybrids take place in Toronto, and all but one of those possess the already-familiar backdrops of York University and Driftwood. The single new set is an unremarkable franchise steakhouse whose location isn't specified (it's either Toronto or Richmond Hill).

What kind of place is Toronto? It depends on whom you're asking—or reading. Robert Charles Wilson and Robert J. Sawyer have many answers for you.

1 "The Fields of Abraham," "Ulysses Sees the Moon in the Bedroom Window" and "Pearl Baby" are original to The Perseids collection. The other stories first appeared in the anthologies Northern Frights 3 ("The Perseids"), 4 ("The Inner Inner City") and 5 ("Plato's Mirror"); The UFO Files ("The Observer"); Tesseracts6 [a typo says "Tesseracts9 "] ("Protocols of Consumption"); and Starlight 2 ("Divided by Infinity"). [ resume reading ]

2 From "A Glance at the Works of Robert Charles Wilson," commentary written by the author dated March 9, 2002, and posted on his website. [ resume reading ]

3 For a stunning recreation of the building of the abovementioned bridge, which is known as the Bloor Viaduct, see Michael Ondaatje's 1996 novel In the Skin of a Lion. It's historical fiction rather than genre, but one scene flashes like a strobe in my memory: the moment when a bridge worker hanging from a cable catches a nun who falls off the uncompleted span. That's what I call myth-making. And I have no idea whether Ondaatje made the incident up. [ resume reading ]

Also on this site:

[ Back to top ]

Interviews, Speeches, Articles | Voyageur Home
Upcoming Events & Conventions | Club History Main
Site Editor & Site Problems

Copyright 2003, Karen Bennett. All rights reserved.
Contents may not be reproduced without the permission of the Webmaster .
This is a non-profit fan club website and there is no intention to infringe
on the copyrights, trademarks, etc. of any person or entity in any matter whatsoever.