Purveyor and publisher of fine science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other genres since 2019.

Sunburst (Phyllis Gotlieb, 1964)

Phyllis Gotlieb (1926-2009) was a Canadian writer who wrote a handful of science fiction novels and poetry collections, none of which made as big an impact as this, her first novel. It was a big deal in Canadian sci-fi, and there’s an award—the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic—named after it. I’m wondering if the people who give out the award have actually read this book, and I’m going to suggest that they choose a different name for their award. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

The book follows Shandy, a young teenage girl who lives at the edges of what remains of legitimate society in Sorrel Park. She’s on the run from Jason Hemmer, an agent of the army who captures psi-gifted kids for the Dump, where the army imprisons dangerous youth who have the ability to throw cars with their minds or make people’s heads explode. When she’s finally caught, she’s let in on the secret: the Dumplings are on the verge of revolt, and her special abilities—psychics cannot read her mind, and she reveals herself to be some kind of amateur sociologist—might be of use to the army. But they’re too late: the Dumplings escape, and they set their sights first on exacting revenge on their enemies and then on destroying society.

Sunburst is best in the beginning, when we’re tagging along with the lovable street urchin Shandy as she evades Jason Hemmer like some kind of Dickens character, if Dickens had envisioned paranormal police. Gotlieb paints a vivid picture of Sorrel Park, which exists in a kind of stasis, enveloped in coal smoke (it’s the only town in the country that doesn’t run on nuclear energy) and chafing under the boots of both the civil police and the military police.

But it starts to go sour when Shandy is captured, partly because it turns into a series of expository passages disguised as dialogue, and partly because Gotlieb uses that exposition to explain the origins of the outbreak of paranormal abilities among the Dumplings. In a word, it’s eugenics. In case you’re not familiar with the term, Merriam-Webster it defines as “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition.” Well that sounds a bit problematic! Am I saying that this book advocates for selective breeding of human populations? Not exactly.

A lot of the “science” in the novel seems to be (because Gotlieb quotes it, and keeps coming back to it) based on on the now disreputable William Herbert Sheldon’s somatotype taxonomy, which held that a person’s body size and shape indicated their intelligence, moral worth, future achievement, and predisposition to criminal behavior. The three types are endomorphs, ectomorphs, and mesomorphs.

Sheldon’s theories were in vogue for decades, but he wore out his welcome because, as scholar Patricia Vertinsky said in an article about him in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, “vituperatively anti-Semitic, his insinuations that most Americans were biologically if not yet socially delinquent did not sit well in a post-Holocaust world where it had become unacceptable to publicly endorse a racially discriminating eugenics program.”

Anyway, the book makes an undeniable connection between somatotype and juvenile delinquency (more on that in a bit), which, when spiced with radiation, produced psychopaths with paranormal abilities. This explanation is the backbone of the book, the subject of conversation after conversation, including the last chapter.

So, a great deal of Gotlieb’s book is based on the theories of a eugenicist. Even if we leave aside the bad rap eugenics got when it helped fuel the Nazi program of genocide against Jews and other populations—no, I’m sorry, we can’t really leave that aside. I’m not calling Gotlieb a Nazi, and this is not a Nazi novel, but it espouses some pseudo-scientific beliefs that I will charitably call dangerous and misguided.

It’s important to note that the novel doesn’t simply parrot Sheldon’s theories; in fact, there are conversations about how somatotype taxonomy is only part of the equation. Other parts of the equation reminded me of the kind of victim-blaming that would crystallize in Oscar Lewis’s “culture of poverty” theory. There’s also a dose of xenophobia—Sorrel Park is populated mainly by immigrants, a result of what Gotlieb refers to as the “open the door in eighty-four policy” that allowed quota-free immigration. This leads to increased delinquency and thus to the Dumplings: “Most of them come from families without very strong morals—often immigrants who have trouble coping with a new country. I’ve heard poverty is a cause of delinquency, but I think these kinds of shiftless, helpless people could be a cause of poverty too.”  

And it keeps getting worse. Gotlieb reserves special disgust for characters with congenital anomalies, especially LaVonne Hurley, “a dwarf with a twisted compressed body and a mind equally ugly.” Another character, Donatus “Doydoy” Riordan (the Dumplings call him Doydoy because of his stutter), has a hunchback and spina bifida, and Gotlieb devotes far too much lurid prose to physical descriptions of him, at one point comparing him to a jellyfish.

But don’t get me wrong! The book never goes as far as its inspirations and advocates for sterilization programs or the murder of undesirables. After outlining a system by which you could probably identify potentially dangerous delinquents who might start demonstrating paranormal abilities by their body type and where they grew up, Shandy worries aloud about “some crank yacking about how they ought to be sterilized.” That’s very nice, especially in a book that borrows so much from a crank who thought people who weren’t like him should be sterilized.

Again, I’m not calling Gotlieb a Nazi or a eugenicist, I’m calling her deeply misguided. The problems with these theories were not secret when she was writing this book, so her choice to include them indicates that she found them convincing despite the growing backlash. If you’re wondering why I devoted the bulk of this review to arguing against Sunburst’s crackpot pseudoscience and social theory, it’s because the bulk of Sunburst is devoted to crackpot pseudoscience and social theory. Take the theorizing away and you might have an interesting novella, but one that would likely still be riddled with unpleasantness about social class and immigration status. Surely there are better Canadian science fiction novels to name an award after.