Bundoran Press, 2008, 285 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-9782052-0-1
Some novels are tougher to review than others, and as far as I’m concerned, Defining Diana is right up there along with the toughest. Understand that I want to say something nice about the novel: I bought it, autographed, straight from the hands of the author. I want Hayden Trenholm to succeed at what he does, as much as I want to read great Science Fiction. As if that wasn’t enough, Defining Diana is also a publication from a Canadian small-press publisher that specializes in genre literature, and criticizing Canadian small-presses feels just as bad as kicking puppies. (I’m not saying on what authority I can make this comparison.)
But if I had read this novel in normal circumstances, bought in bookstores from an unknown author and just any other publisher, this review wouldn’t exist. I would have read the book, shrugged and gone on to something else. The problem with Defining Diana is that it’s a generic novel that struggles for distinction in a market that churns out hundreds of other SF novels per year. What actually makes the novel special for me (its Canadian-ness, its place in the bibliography of someone I know) may not actually do anything for you.
Even the plot summary seems to court generic ennui. In 2043 Calgary, a woman named Diana is found dead in a locked apartment, and the lacks of DNA clues don’t add up for the detectives on the scene. Faster than you can say “locked-room mystery”, Calgary Police’s Special Detection Unit is on the case. But Calgary’s a big city, other things are happening, and SDU members seem to have been selected more for their neuroses than their special detection skills…
If defining Diana is the novel’s first pressing question, it’s soon submerged under a number of subplots. Some of them are related and other aren’t, but it all adds to a portrait of Calgary a few decades in the future. While the background elements of the future seem taken from generic mildly-dystopian SF elements (environmental degradation, pervasive corporatism, ever-present terrorism, rising fundamentalism, etc.), the concept of setting this story in Calgary bring a certain freshness to the book: Despite being Canada’s third most important SF metropolis, Calgary has yet to be mined for inspiration in the same way Toronto or Montréal have been. If nothing else, it makes Defining Diana one of the purest Canadian Science Fiction novel of the past few years, and that’s nothing to dismiss easily.
But the problem with this novel’s multiplicity of subplots, and their conventional nature drawing equally from police procedurals and Science Fiction, is that it’s hard to avoid a certain boredom. What didn’t help were a number of deliberate writing techniques: a number of infodumps between characters who should know better; on-the-nose dialogue; and a succession of pop-culture references that feel old even by today’s standards, let alone those of 2043. All of those can be explained by a desire to make the novel more accessible to older non-genre readers. (The same writing tics often pop up in Robert J. Sawer’s fiction) But they often feel graceless, forced and useless: Few things are as exasperating as reading a few lines of dialogue and think “there’s probably a joke in there for those who watched the CBC in the seventies.” Not everyone is as jaded as I am, sure, but all of the above made reading the novel more of a chore than I expected.
While I’m discussing small deliberate annoyances, I might as well get to the small-press-and-puppies-kicking part: Bundoran Press may want to spend just a bit more time working on the packaging of their next novels. Defining Diana‘s uninspired book design isn’t a problem, but the copy-editing has let a few amusing mistakes through (I’m still wondering what a “boarder patrol” [P.44] actually does.) and the garish cover looks as if it’s been put together from free clip-art sources. Just try to explain that SF is a respectable literature to anyone who catches you reading this.
But now that I’m done venting, here comes the good part: As mentioned above, I don’t think there’s been a purest Canadian Science Fiction novel recently. For all of its faults, Defining Diana does something that I always find admirable, which is to define a future from modern Canadian principles. It’s urban, it’s multicultural, it’s energetic and it generally espouses good middle-of-the-road Canadian values by showing what happens if you push too far in the other direction. I’ve mentioned that Calgary seldom earns any extrapolative love from the Canadian SF community, but Canada often gets short-changed by its own authors. It’s about time that Canadian SF writers start thinking about futures set at home, even if it’s as background for deeper character stories. Defining Diana does that, and thus easily earns a place on my Aurora Awards ballot for 2008. For those who don’t care about awards, consider this: I expect that the ideal audience for this book, which is to say readers who like SF police mysteries but haven’t overdosed on them, will like the book a lot more than I did.
And you know what? I will gladly pay cash for Trenholm’s next novel.
(But we’ll see then whether he agrees to dedicate it to me.)