Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 303 p + iii p introduction. First published 1991.

 Sarah Canary cover

One night in 1873 a woman stumbles into a Chinese railway workers’ camp in North-West USA. This is bad news for the workers as the woman is white. But she is uncommunicative, appearing only able to make unintelligible sounds. (She is later dubbed Sarah Canary due to these bird-like noises.) Chin Ah Kin is delegated to take her away from the camp to the nearest town. They both end up in a lunatic asylum, before escaping in the company of fellow inmate B J. Their adventures take them over the Pacific North-West, Sarah is kidnapped and paraded on stage as the Wild Woman of Alaska and mistaken by Adelaide Dixon for a murderess from San Francisco. Dixon is a campaigner for women’s rights – especially in the sexual area. In the Pacific North-West of the 1870s this doesn’t go down particularly well. “Adelaide was afraid that if she ever once allowed herself to feel the full range of her sexual desires that this would be a need too great for any man.” She tells Chin that the issue of the civil war had been largely sexual. In the slave system one group of men (white) had absolute power over one group of women (black).

And what has all this got to do with Science Fiction? You may well ask. Apart from a mention of a self-repairing dress which also deflects bullets and the disappearance of Sarah Canary in something approaching an insectile metamorphosis there is nothing in the text that could not be read as straightforward realism. Moreover the two characters who make these observations could be classified as mad.

Graham Sleight’s introduction to this SF Masterworks edition suggests the book is a sort of First Contact novel and contends that the text’s frequent references to butterflies can only be understood if the novel is SF. If so the Contact is so nebulous as to be non-existent. But I suppose that if, as Arthur C Clarke had it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” then so must any advanced intelligences be unintelligible. Yet Sarah Canary does not behave like an advanced intelligence, she does not behave as intelligent at all. She might as well be an idiot. There is no attempt on her part to communicate with the other characters.

So read this as an adventure in the 1870s US, an illustration of misogyny and racism in that time and place. Or a feminist tract. Another interpretation is yielded at one point by Chin. “Sometimes one of the great dreamers passes among us… We dare not waken the dreamer. We, ourselves, are only her dreams.” And there is an explicit reference to Caspar Hauser.

Take your explanatory pick. Whatever, Sarah Canary is good, well-written stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- conspiritorial

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