Elizabeth Vonarburg’s Reluctant Voyagers (1995)
Trans. from the French Jane Brierley

Does sci-fi reading use a different muscle? If so, mine is out of practice. And no wonder. With exception of a handful of fantasy novels and one speculative fiction novel, I’ve been decidedly rooted in realism this reading year.

Which is why I had to read the first few pages of Reluctant Voyagers repeatedly. I kept getting stuck. Which was more to do with me than the novel, I’m sure, because as soon as I read through the “next” page, I was hooked. Do you get Reader’s Block sometimes, too?

[Notes to Self: Travel to unfamiliar and imaginary places more often. Read more while there.]

Ironically, the early pages of Reluctant Voyagers are not completely foreign; they’re set in Montreal and even if you don’t know the city well enough to know whether the author has messed with the geography, you can imagine the wintry walk she takes in the first chapter, the cramped darkness of early morning. And you can imagine the disorientation Catherine experiences when the streets suddenly seem to slip away from her. It is no longer the city that she knows. Not quite.

And it’s not Montreal as Vonarburg’s readers would know it either. The history is slightly off. There was an uprising in 1976, a period of protest that has come to be known as “The Events” because that was preferable to having it outwardly named a rebellion. The geography is slightly off — there are only two provinces in Canada, one East (once called Quebec) and one West (once called British Columbia), and in between is American territory.

Catherine is having trouble remembering the events of the past too. Not just the historical past, but her own personal past, events that she lived through. But when someone begins to fill in the gap for her, even with only a sentence or two,  it all rushes back. “A little trip to the library would give her memory a nudge. After a psychological trauma, the brain must require a period of adjustment before beginning to function properly once more. All the same, these hiccups in her mental system were very irritating.”

Over time, however, this memory loss becomes more than irritating. And, as if she needed another reason to feel like she’s going crazy, she starts seeing things — people, even — that others around her cannot see. Which, however, doesn’t seem to upset the people around her as much as she thought it would.

It seems that having visions or waking dreams is not common in Catheirne’s world, but not unheard of either. Something else she seems to have forgotten about. Or does it only seem that way. Issues of identity are universal whether or not characters can travel through time or space.

Doubts and uncertainties crowd Catherine and — even more disturbingly — her feelings of disconnection and dislocation intensitfy rather than ease when she seriously starts looking for answers. But Catherine is a scholar (or, at least, she thinks she was, er is) and she is intelligent, tenacious and passionate: she does not give up. If you’re keen on character-driven science-fiction, you need look no further: Reluctant Voyagers puts character at the heart of the novel’s ideas.

But there are a lot of ideas therein. The intersections between history and memory, genetics and self-determination, friendships and politics, and the collisions between free will and fate, education and indoctrination, and poetry and faith…all of these would make for great discussions in a shared read. (I was reminded many times of Ursula K. LeGuin’s fiction, The Telling or The Dispossessed, with the tone of this novel.)

Try this one:
“I’m not sure the language of poetry is compatible with the language of faith, even in as flexible a religion as ours. Poetry is a religion in itself.”

Or this:
“Science is another form of consciousness, isn’t it?”

Or, don’t. You can simply read it for Catherine’s story which, despite the amount of detail in the narrative which brings the novel to nearly 500 pages, is quite compelling as she works to unravel the truths and un-truths surrounding her in this strangely-familiar world.

Chase scenes, undercover operations, revolutionary hideouts: it’s like MI-5, but with different accents and secret meetings that might be in alternate dimensions. (And a lot of detail about public transportation, daily routines, books, and all the ordinary things that surround the extraordinary events in Catherine’s life.)

“I think I’m a Voyager,” [Catherine] said, more for herself than him, just to hear it said. He nodded, still thoughtful. “But it wouldn’t explain everything.”

And it doesn’t. Not completely. Not in a t’s crossed and i’s dotted way. But enough answers are offered to leave readers satisfied. And it’s clear why so many people make such a fuss of Elizabeth Vonarburg’s fiction.

Have you read her before? Have you been exercising a new reading muscle lately?