One of postmodernism’s most enduring legacies is the conflation – not to say utter eradication – of the distinction between high and low culture. Though James Joyce was free to use references to comic books in his modernist masterpiece Ulysses, there was no confusion among readers about what he was doing: importing tropes from a cultural product universally understood to be aesthetically inferior to inform his densely literary, unabashedly elitist text.
Cut to one century later, and the world has seen the global acceptance of anime and manga as cultural touchstones, the valorization of Alan Moore as a literary genius, the mainstreaming of graphic novels as a legitimate art form, and, most especially, the ubiquity of Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The former, now under the aegis of the world’s most dominant producer of kids’ animated features, is an apparently endless font of nostalgia for Gen Xers, while the latter has resulted in movies of unquestionably mixed quality, one of them strong enough in the eyes of industry voters to find itself nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. (Granted, Disney had already got there with one of its animated adaptations.)
Toronto novelist Terri Favro burst into this pop-culture saturated environment in 2017 with her novel Sputnik’s Children, about an aging comic-book creator named Debbie Reynolds Biondi, whose major claim to fame is a series called Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past. Based on Debbie’s own life growing up in Shipman’s Corners, a Niagara-area town voted “most likely to be nuked” during the Cold War, the series features a heroine who exists in an alternate timeline, named Atomic Mean Time, while her creator lives and works in Earth Standard Time, which most of the rest of us would recognize as our own reality.
The gig with Sputnik’s Children was clever: Debbie is an alcoholic and a drug addict, making her a quintessentially unreliable narrator. When her story and her character’s story converge, readers are left to parse out how much of the fantastical adventures of her Tank Girl–like, timeline-hopping avenger are real and how much the product of an addled, overheated imagination.
As an origin story, Sputnik’s Children shares elements in common with both The Matrix and Philip K. Dick’s classic short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” two SF narratives that focus on the blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy.
No such quandaries are on offer in The Sisters Sputnik, the newly released sequel that opens with Debbie and her protege, known as Unicorn Girl, in the year 2029 of Co-Ordinated Zeroth Time – C.O.Z.T., or Cozy Time in the futuristic colloquial. The sequel is a straight-ahead work of exuberant SF, featuring time travel, wormholes to alternate timelines (2,058 of them, to be exact), synthetic AIs known as People of Forever (or “Puffs,” for short), and allusions to everything from Doctor Who and Lost in Space to Leda and the swan and Jason and the Argonauts.
The story is framed with Debbie in Cozy Time, unfolding the narrative of how she got there to her lover, David. Her tale involves discovering a book called The Adventures of Futureman at the Toronto Reference Library in Earth Standard Time. She steals the book, which she eventually discards in a neighbourhood Little Free Library. Unfortunately, The Adventures of Futureman is a blueprint of xenophobic hatred, the product of the diseased mind of Dr. Norman Guenther. The book is a kind of literary Pandora’s box that, once circulated, wreaks havoc for Sputnik Chick and Unicorn Girl over multiple alternate timelines, in both the future and the past.
Debbie, also known as Stan (as in Stan Lee, the brains behind what would become the Marvel Extended Universe), travels with an AI companion called Cassandra, a digital assistant that “can predict the outcome of any given situation with 99.9 percent accuracy, rising to 99.98 percent when the news is unwelcome.” (Aficionados of Greek mythology will get the joke.) Debbie/Stan/Sputnik Chick also sports the Schrödinger gene, which allows her to “be alive in one world and dead in another.”
If this sounds like a lot, it is. Favro’s febrile imagination, and her obvious enthusiasm for her chosen genre, is evident on every page, though the flurry of allusions and repurposed SF tropes can occasionally seem overwhelming. The framing device necessitates Debbie awkwardly referring to David, to whom she is telling the story and who also appears in the story, in the third person and relating events he is already privy to, having been a part of them. (There is indication that the author is aware of this awkwardness: David insists Debbie relate these sections as though he were a stranger to the events being retold.) There are also moments where it appears the rationale for certain story elements evades even Favro. “Why are we aging backwards?” Debbie asks at one point late in the novel. The answer involves a “geeky explanation” that boils down to: “It’s random.”
Where The Sisters Sputnik is most successful is in its covert examination about the practice of storytelling – both its joys and its dangers. Sputnik Chick is revered in Cozy Time as the author of a mythology called The History of the Known World, which is actually a history of our own world – what Unicorn Girl refers to as the “Real World.”
In contrast to our own baleful timeline, the storytellers in Cozy Time “are protected, respected, and extremely well compensated.” (This is perhaps one of the most outrageously fantastical elements in the entire novel.) Debbie entertains her listeners with tales about “the Space Race, the Cold War, the tragic life and death of Marilyn Monroe, even Watergate.” This conflation of history and myth subtly comments on the human impulse to understand our past by way of story, the need to process our experiences by turning them into narrative.
In The Adventures of Futureman, Favro also touches on the negative side of storytelling – the destructive, poisonous side. If stories can be used to aid memory and elevate the species, there is no reason they cannot also be used for more nefarious purposes. Without giving too much away, Debbie’s connection with The Adventures of Futureman serves to highlight the responsibility that attends the creation and dissemination of stories, the care that must be taken to ensure the storyteller understands what she is up to and who is likely to benefit – or be harmed – by the narrative in question.
Which is not to suggest that The Sisters Sputnik is any kind of lugubrious treatise on our current culture wars. Favro is canny enough to bury her messages under layers of entertaining derring-do, time-skipping adventure, and even some romance. If it all gets a bit excessive in places, it’s easy to overlook the excess and simply allow the novel’s imaginative vitality to carry it forward.
THIS POST HAS BEEN CORRECTED, June 24, 2022. An earlier version of this post misstated the title of Favro’s earlier novel. It is Sputnik’s Children, not Sputnik’s Sweetheart. That Shakespearean Rag regrets the error.