Leslie Gadallah and Canadian Space Opera

By Robert Runté, PhD

Some years before I had ever heard of Leslie Gadallah, I attended a Vancouver conference where a well-respected American author and editor presented on the basics of story writing. It was a really effective workshop, with the presenter working through an example story, demonstrating both the common mistakes beginning writers might make and how to fix them. I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation but was slightly taken aback by his repeated assertions that all fiction followed this one formula. I stood to say that although his structure would be very useful for the beginning writer, it was important to note that this was not the only manner in which a story could be told. That indeed, Canadian literature often did not follow the pattern suggested.

The author replied that I was mistaken and that a story missing any of the elements he had covered could not be considered a story at all, let alone a successful one. That if Canadian fiction did not follow this pattern, it could not possibly be any good and certainly could not be published in his or any other American magazine.

I sat down, but several other agitated audience members stood in turn to cite this or that famous Canadian work that clearly violated the rules he had stated, suggesting that perhaps the presenter had mistaken American trends for universal ones. The presenter responded that the stories described sounded awful, and he could not imagine how they ever got published.

So, the question and answer session could have gone better.

Had Leslie Gadallah’s books been available then, I might well have used them as examples of Canadian SF that break out of the usual formula for the American mass market. Instead, I have had to content myself with citing her works ever since in my various presentations on what makes Canadian SF distinctive.

Several elements distinguish The Legend of Sarah from other SF adventure novels: Canadian themes; Canadian-style protagonists; strong female characters; and a wry cultural relativism.

I have argued elsewhere (see, for example, the “Afterword” to North by 2000+ or “Canadian Speculative Fiction” in Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada) that Canadian authors tend to be preoccupied with setting and the impact of the environment and that they often take the stance that humans are subordinate to nature. This stands in sharp contrast to the American version of the genre that emerged out of John W. Campbell’s Astounding (later, Analog) magazine, wherein the engineer-protagonist typically lands on a planet, discovers a problem and solves it, making space safe for Democracy and the American Way. The fundamental appeal of much of this literature was the assertion of the ideals of progress and science and the belief in both man’s right and ability to dominate nature.

In The Legend of Sarah, science is not doing that well, the engineers having failed to produce a sustainable fusion reaction, even as they exhaust the last of the readily available supply of fissionables. Indeed, the values of progress and science have been explicitly rejected by the majority of the population, and the scientists have withdrawn into the ineffectual, ivory-tower isolation of the enclaves. Progress has been disrupted, and man left at the mercy of the elements.

Much of the action in The Legend of Sarah, then, is driven by the characters’ need to respond to environmental shortfalls. The novel’s action is initiated, for example, by the enclaves’ increasingly desperate search for nuclear stockpiles. In Monn, the ongoing drought brings the Northerners to crowd Monn’s borders, provokes Brother Parker’s (admittedly opportunistic) witch-hunt, and ultimately pressures Governor Michael to seek the knowledge of the Philes. Even the happy ending is assured only because the rain finally starts to fall in Monn, ending the drought.

Parallel with the genre’s traditional expectation of the dominance of man over nature[Leslie Ga1]  is the depiction of the protagonist as the dominating hero. The usual protagonist succeeds through dint of his own actions, guided by his superior (scientifically-trained) intellect, and often accomplished through tests of physical strength or endurance. Even when these heroes are cast as females, they behave as alpha males, overcoming obstacles and enforcing their will on the world around them through their personal prowess.

Canadian authors are less likely to cast the protagonist as an alpha male and usually depict things going badly for any viewpoint character that tries to act like one. Cleo’s attempts to mobilize the Enclave, for example, get sidetracked as she becomes embroiled in the politics of the bureaucracy; when a rescue of Reese is finally attempted, it breaks into the wrong dungeon and ultimately results in the death of her friend, Zeke. Her initial impulse to simply steamroller over the seemingly-ignorant citizens of Monn merely creates additional barriers and unnecessary conflict. Only when Cleo realizes she has to treat with the locals, and tries to collaborate rather than dominate, is there any progress toward her goals.

Similarly, Brother Parker, Brother Eric, General Bryant, Amyit the spy, and the other possible nominees for the alpha male in their own narratives all come up empty-handed; or, in Butch’s case: dead. Even Matthew and the rivermen fail when they try to take on the unfamiliar role of would-be heroes, perhaps even making matters worse by their attempt to intervene.

Instead, we have the typical Canadian protagonists of Reese and Sarah (and the secondary characters of Michael and Cat Anna) as ordinary people caught up in events they neither understand nor control but who nevertheless somehow manage to cope. Instead of imposing their will on the environment and those around them, they adapt themselves to the situation. In American fiction, it is about the hero fighting through barriers to reach his goals; in Canadian fiction, it is often about the protagonist adjusting their goals to the options available.

Sarah, for example, fails to achieve her goal of enthralling Reese but ends up instead with the more appropriate choice of Michael. She achieves her fairy-tale ending, but it is not at all the one for which she was striving; nor is her success the result of her own plans or actions. Sarah cannot prevail against Brothers Parker and Eric, and her overpowering Butch is more unfortunate accident than victory. Indeed, Butch’s death forever taints the one safe space in her world, evicting her once and for all from her former life. Sarah does well not because she overcomes barriers or enemies but because in her struggle with her own fears and attitudes, she matures sufficiently to adapt to her new situation.

For his part, Reese is strikingly ineffectual as a spy, delivers himself directly into the hands of his enemies, and is effectively out of the story until rescued. Far from his scientific knowledge and superior intellect allowing him to dominate nature and impose his will on others, Reese is naïve and victimized. On his own, he never gets further than halfway to his goals, and by the climax of the novel, he is too sick to even take part. His real role in the story begins afterthe novel is over, in that his goodwill and openness toward the citizens of Monn bode well for future relations with that community,

Similarly, Michael and Monn are rescued from the Kollan threat not by Michael’s efforts or the true heroism of the Governor’s Guard (whose bravery merely leaves them unconscious and helpless) but by the unexpected appearance of the Philes, who are to Michael and the citizens of Monn essentially an uncontrollable force of nature. Of all the characters, Michael is perhaps the most responsible for his own success because he shows the necessary flexibility to open Monn to the Philes when the opportunity presents itself; but he is hardly the primary viewpoint character of the novel.

The story belongs to Sarah and perhaps Reese, and they succeed less through their own actions than through the greater failings of their antagonists, whose insistence on trying to dominate others is revealed to be their tragic flaw. One gets the feeling, however, that The Legend of Sarah, as told by the storyteller, is going to be mutated into a more heroic tale than what actually happened.

The storyteller will likely also leave out any mention of the other strong female characters in the story: Beth and Cat Anna. Again, the difference is that ‘strong female’ in Canadian fiction does not necessarily refer to laser-toting, alpha-male-like amazons. Beth is easily recognizable as the Mother figure, Cat Anna as the Crone, but in Gadallah’s hands, they are both well-rounded characterizations. Both women are smart and wise and have weathered tough times, but they have done so by working within, rather than dominating, their environments. They are in control of themselves, and it is this integrity that gives their lives strength and meaning and allows them to lend their maturity to those around them.

Another common Canadian preoccupation is with multiculturalism, and we certainly see that in the sympathetic—but not sentimental—portrayal of the distinct cultures of the enclaves, the citizens of Monn, and the rivermen, and even in our brief glimpse of the Kollans. Our primary sympathies may lay with the moderns of the enclaves, but we are meant to side with Reese’s acceptance of the people of Monn on their own terms over Cleo’s disdain.

She hated Phobes. She hated their stupid refusal to be reasonable, to learn anything. She hated their animosity toward anyone or anything the slightest bit different.

Because our own prejudices align so closely with Cleo’s, readers may be forgiven if they scanned past these lines too quickly to recognize them for ironic monologue; but of course, Gadallah is pointing out that at that moment, it is Cleowho is being unreasonable, who has closed her mind to learning, and who is demonstrating her intolerance. Cleo rails against the criminality, backwardness, and stupidity of the Phobes at length, but Gadallah provides considerable evidence to the contrary.

Take, for example, the very brief encounter when “a young boy with a long stick and half a dozen skinny goats came up to Zeke”:

One hungry goat started nibbling on Zeke’s pant leg. The boy whacked its nose with the stick, and the animal moved off, bleating in protest.

Zeke took a few coins from his pocket and held them out. “If you know who sells beer around here, I’m buying.”

The boy was meticulous about picking out two small coins. “I’ll be right back.” He handed Zeke his stick. “You kind of keep an eye on the goats, will you?”

The goats pushed their noses right against the stones in their search for food. The whacked one looked up, shook its head until its drooping ears rattled, and regarded Zeke with a sour saffron eye.

“They got this guy over in the governor’s jail, and they say he’s a witch. These are big powerful folk who’re supposed to know everything. I’m just a kid with some goats. What do I know?”

“You don’t seem to be afraid of witches.”

“Well, the way I figure it, if you’re religious, the Lord God will take care of you, with or without witches, and if you’re not, you’re going to hell anyway. Me, I got no place to go but up. I figure hell is a place full of stinking damned goats, only in hell, it’s them with the sticks.”

This is a marvellous scene because Gadallah paints a nuanced picture of the young goat herder as a scrupulously honest, independent-thinking, and enlightened young citizen of Monn—in sharp contrast to Cleo’s earlier dismissal of them all as prejudiced, superstitious cutthroats—while still managing, with typical economy, to move the action forward as Zeke probes for Reese’s current location; and to build the characterization of Zeke as a non-judgemental anthropologist; and, best of all, to set up that absolutely wonderful last line: “only in hell, it’s them with the sticks.”

There is a similarly clever bit about the rivermen: “Tell a riverman in far northern Aver a secret in the morning, they said, and it would be known on the Warlen docks and be going out to sea before the day was out. They exaggerated a little.” I love the slightly ironic, understated humour running just beneath the adventure in this novel without ever intruding on the story.

There is often more to this novel than meets the eye because it is satisfying enough to simply follow the story without noticing the irony or deconstructing the imagery. For example, I like the paragraph in which Gadallah describes a cityscape as the Enclave runs low on power:

The shadows between those streetlights still lit were pitch black, making the streetscape a study in light and shadow which was repeated vertically up the faces of the tall buildings, an occasional lighted window among the many dark ones. Overhead was a jagged scrap of sky with gibbous moon and stars. It seemed as if there were more stars than there used to be.

The reader has to work a bit to get that there seem to be more stars because—thanks to the deepening power shortage—there is now less light pollution to block them out.

A lot of The Legend of Sarah is like that. Beneath the deceptively simple adventure, Gadallah has a lot to say about relationships and community; about religion, politics, and prejudice; and above all, about finding one’s own way through whatever comes one’s way. As page-turning as the best adventure novels, Gadallah’s books stay with the reader longer because she has something more to say, which makes for a richer reading experience. Indeed, for those of us for whom her message resonates, her novels stand as an implicit critique of a genre that too often relies on larger-than-life heroes and heroines, of unrealistic successes against all odds, of simplistic battles of good versus evil. I, for one, much prefer the moral ambiguity of ordinary individuals pursuing their conflicting goals and somehow muddling through to what is possible.

The character of Reese, who is benched for much of the crucial action, or Sarah, who never achieves her stated goals, may not meet the criteria for hero laid out by that American editor referred to earlier; and the action may not follow the tidy diagram he mapped out on the board for us; but life is not tidy, and heroes are not always simply the last one standing. Canadian readers get that Reese is a hero because even after some serious unpleasantness at their hands, Reese is still receptive to the people and culture of Monn. Sarah is a hero precisely because she has outgrown her childish goals, not because she looks to be a candidate for Governor’s wife. The Legend of Sarah is a good example of Canadian science fiction precisely because it is not typical of other heroic SF from the same period. The appeal of The Legend of Sarah is much broader, however, because the love of a good adventure and of good writing is universal.