Fiction Review by Trevor J. Phillips

Harold Johnson, Corvus (Saskatoon: Thistledown, 2015). Paperbound, 277 pp., $19.95.

CorvusPretend it’s the year 2084. There have been two cataclysmic wars over resources on the continent of North America, spurred on by rapidly progressing global warming and polluted soils from chemical-laden fertilizers. Along with millions of other North Americans, you have migrated north in search of clean water and arable soil. In this dystopic future the censorship of scientists and an invasive surveillance culture have coalesced inside an incubator of extreme technological dependency that would make Marshall McLuhan spin in his grave. Now pretend that you are a lawyer experiencing an existential crisis, and that the town you migrated to is La Ronge, Saskatchewan. But, La Ronge is no longer an outpost of 2,800 people on the edge of a lake in northern Saskatchewan, but a cosmopolitan metropolis, with exclusive suburbs for the social elite that float 10,000 feet above the grit of the city. You can ride elevators made of caribou sinew to get up there, and cars drive themselves, and when you have mastered the symbiotic relationship with your Organic Recreation Vehicle (made of the dna of animals), there are no boundaries to your freedom.

Yet, there are still things that linger on from the pre-war period to offer just enough of a lifeline to the past or to trip the suspension wires of disbelief. The justice system has not collapsed in the face of corrupt governments. Rye mash and grapes are still harvested for whiskey and wine and sold on the cheap. Professional hockey is still up and running and has a robust following. Fitness centres still run energy-rich saunas and pools. Department stores are doing a bit of good business. And despite the fact that the wireless “net” controls everything from doors to cars to coffeemakers, people are still getting their news from mainstream media.

If you can imagine that, then you’ve climbed inside the skin of George Taylor, Harold Johnson’s crown-prosecutor protagonist, war veteran, and soapbox philosopher, who, despite--or perhaps due to—the incredible amount of squalor and depravity that has beset his civilization, is mired in a soul-crushing case of ennui brought on by the lack of humanity in a depraved, post-resource world. This is the world of Corvus, Johnson’s fifth book, a novel touted as the perfect blend of contemporary science fiction and poignant social commentary. From an Indigenous perspective, Johnson, who self-identifies as Cree, the role and influence of Indigenous peoples, traditions, and ideologies, is a refreshing inclusion in a genre—science fiction—under attack in the mainstream for appropriation and reduced visibility. I’m thinking here of J. K. Rowling’s webseries History of Magicwhere Rowling appropriated Indigenous traditions while noticeably leaving Indigenous peoples out of her revisionist History of Magic in North Americanarrative. Rather, George Taylor crash-lands near the camp of an unidentified Mountain people who have retreated from the destitution of non-Indigenous cities and ways of life, even disallowing technology within its territory. In Corvus, Indigenous characters and ways of knowing are weaved into the fabric of the story, rather than being relegated to romanticizations or stereotypes.

After landing, Taylor sits with the band’s Chief Two Bears, who is an impassioned advocate of his people, a very believable late 21st-century Indigenous man: he is cut hard by ongoing colonialism in a world where greed and consumption are destroying everything his people hold sacred. Johnson deftly makes Chief Two Bears, his son Isadore, and Isadore’s wife and family, fully formed characters, not simply plot devices or racial ornamentation. Late in the novel, when the main characters’ narratives have begun to intertwine and the episodic pace has given way to dwelling on the status of human frailty in an inhospitable world, holistic notions of balance and Cree cosmological relationships with the land emerge as not just alternative thinking but, rather, resonate as essential codes to live by. With the Cree Raven story acting as a narrative frame, Corvus is more of a moral tale, in the mode of Cree legend, than contemporary speculative fiction. Johnson’s novel is a mélange of satire and social commentary that offers just the right notes of philosophy and allegory, postmodern kaleidoscopic re-workings of Norse myth, Cree cosmology, Judeo-Christian theology, and Greek philosophy. He also adds enough Virgil and lawyer-speak to make the whole thought experiment seem less like a warning and more like a fable. Readers could view the world of Corvus as one imagined by an anti-establishment Uncle who has us trapped in the corner at a holiday dinner to warn of the direction society is headed if we don’t put down our smart phones and act nicer toward each other. Instead of ignoring him, we should let ourselves get swept away in his argument long enough to consider a future where technological dependency has run amok.

Most importantly, from an Indigenous perspective, Johnson fortifies the place of Indigenous peoples in his frightening dystopia, offering up Cree ways of knowing as key to the hyper-technological aspirations of continental North America. For that, Corvus is an important intervention into climate-based, futuristic sci-fi.

—Trevor J. Phillips

As in The Malahat Review, 197, Winter 2016, 143-145