Tom Sandborn reviews Shadow Matter

Book review: Shadow Matter is powerful, speculative fiction

Elements of myth and classical history are blended with a fierce feminist perspective reminiscent of the iconic Ursula LeGuin

Published Apr 26, 2024

Call it what you will — science fiction, speculative fiction, or fantasy fiction. Fiction about the future or an imagined past, or parallel worlds can provide a useful and often beautiful lens that allows us to view the present day with enhanced esthetic pleasure and even, in the best cases, moral clarity.

Canada is richly supplied with authors who employ this lens. Perhaps the best known is Margaret Atwood, whose grim 1985 dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, a vision of a near future when North America is dominated by the  misogynist religious zealots of Gilead, now reads as if ripped from contemporary headlines.

Add to this Canadian honour roll the multi-talented Vancouver Island author S. W. Mayse, whose most recent publication, Shadow Matter, draws on classic tropes from the golden age of science fiction and space opera and elements of myth and classical history blended with a fierce feminist perspective reminiscent of the iconic Ursula LeGuin to produce a compelling, beautifully written account of life in the 28th century.

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Zoe McKenna reviews Shadow Matter

Book review: highly technical, political, and complex science fiction

The war is over. “Too late to fight and too soon to mourn,” Seren finds herself detained by a strange, brutish pilot calling himself Damou. A Politaya videographer, Seren was tasked to bring essential data back to her Fleet so that she might return to civilian life and find her family. This dream is now lost, as is the data she was meant to convey and her memories of the past few days. Thus begins Shadow Matter.

More . . .

mirror worlds

Long ago as a scruffy thirteen-year-old I was required to holiday with my parents for two weeks in a damp cabin at a rundown resort. Every day my parents went fishing. Every day I announced that I’d already gone fishing once and now I wanted to sit on the beach and read my book.

My parents let me escape. Leaning on a drift log, I read my book and read it again. Then I read the whole stack of National Geographics from the cabin. Finally I struck out into the drizzle and trudged along the beach frontage road, a potholed strip of asphalt miles from anywhere, till I saw an unpainted shed behind someone’s house. People were going inside, and a few came out with their hands full. When I followed an older teenager in, he didn’t tell me to buzz off. So I stepped out of the rain into Bob’s Books. Or maybe it was Bud’s Books, or Don’s Books. You might find its like in any backwater.

All four walls of the shed were lined with shallow shelves, and every shelf held rows and stacks of paperback books. On their covers cities with towering spires stood in mirrored landscapes, sleek rockets hung against spangled night skies and strange beings stalked unknown terrain. Every book in Bob’s shed was science fiction.

This was terra incognita. Usually I read historical fiction by Rosemary Sutcliff or Naomi Mitchison, having long outgrown the teen-girl books I was allowed to check out from the bookmobile at home. But here in the midst of nowhere was a whole shed full of books. I couldn’t believe my luck. If Bob sold only science fiction, I would read science fiction.

A few men and boys looked over the books, made their selections, then handed coins to a man behind a desk. It was standing room only; the owner sat in the only chair. Most of his customers were in work clothes. Everyone talked quietly. Two small windows steamed up until they were cracked open. Books were two for a quarter, and I had a quarter in my pocket. I got down to the serious business of picking books.

No one in Bob’s shed looked up as I sampled first pages that were full of adventure in far places and wild new ideas. There was science in these books, too, not just fiction. I learned about Möbius strips and three-body physics problems and why Earth’s sky is blue. One man helped me get a book from a top shelf. Another shuffled over to give me room. I was politely ignored; I was accepted. When I handed over my quarter, Bob murmured that if I brought both books back after I’d read them, I could choose one more. A quick calculation told me than when I got my weekly allowance, I’d have books to read for another eleven days. I was in a quiet, cozy book heaven.

Two weeks later I took my final two books home to Victoria and went looking for more. BC Electric buses allowed one hour between transfers, so I sprinted from Fort and Douglas down Johnson to Snowden’s Books—which was pretty much Bob’s Books in a downtown cubbyhole—made my choice, then sprinted back with a new book to read on the long bus ride home. I discovered Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance, Zenna Henderson, John Wyndham and a score of other English and American writers.

Isaac Asimov I’d already encountered in grade two; when I tried to check out his kid book on exploring the moon, the bookmobile librarian gently suggested that we put that one back on the shelf in case a boy wanted it.

No one I knew used the word sexist back then, but I’d read Animal Farm and recognized Bob’s and Snowden’s as havens of equality. No one there cared who read the books.

In Bob’s shed and Snowden’s hole in the wall, and later in other shops, I came to equate science fiction with freedom to think and dream. Soon I also learned that science fiction was the mind playground of the brightest people I met, people with few pretensions but plenty of wit and curiosity. Science fiction was the home of the best human question, “What if?”

It was also the home of good storytelling. If a science fiction story wasn’t a good read, it was nothing. Some stories were tiresomely slapstick or hairy-chested, but most were theorems and corollaries in story form with interesting characters and settings and plots. A few books I also began to recognize as superb writing by any standard, starting with Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin. Another revelation was the existence of Canadian science fiction writers, starting with Phyllis Gotlieb and going on to Dave Duncan and Cory Doctorow.

Story is everything in books that are meant to be read. Readers who run from a polemic will sit still for a good story. Isaac Asimov relied on that in his 1960s Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine science columns, as Karl Johanson today relies on it in his Neo-Opsis Magazine editorials. Readers come for the stories, but they’ll hang around for facts and theories if they’re told as a story.

Science fiction also turns out to have a curious kinship with history. It’s a mirror image: history that hasn’t yet taken place. We balance at the now point. The past recedes behind us, the future rushes toward us, and here we stand weighing our options. That’s one reason we have utopian science fiction, dystopian science fiction, pacifist science fiction, feminist science fiction, diverse science fiction and environmental science fiction, to name a few. They invite us to consider our past experience and our coming challenges as a species and make wise choices.

My inception as a thinking person and as a writer started with science fiction. My first teenaged short story attempt was SF, though I didn’t succeed in telling a readable story for many years. I went on to write what I most wanted, book-length literary historical fiction and biography, and I came to see that the past is no more knowable than the future.  

When I eventually came home to the island to stay, I went back to look up Bob and say thanks, but his book shed had returned to being just an ordinary shed, mossy and locked up tight, and no one was coming and going with books. Still, whenever I drive along that beach frontage road, I slow in anticipation of seeing Bob’s book shrine in a backyard shed.

walking with history: Offa’s Dyke

One sunny afternoon in early September we hefted our backpacks down from the coach in Hay on Wye, heading out to walk along Britain’s longest early mediaeval monument. Offa’s Dyke was built in the late eighth century to divide the Welsh kingdoms from the English kingdom of Mercia.

First we wanted to see the books—millions of books. Hay on Wye was famous for its many bookstores. How could we resist? Potentially Hay held all the books a person could hope to read on any topic, in my case early mediaeval Welsh literature and history.

We buzzed from shop to shop like pollen-dazed honeybees, leaving little piles of books on counters so we could narrow our choices. Then reality kicked in. Books are heavy, and I had one backpack to carry for the next hundred kilometres. We’d have to visit Hay another time.

One book I couldn’t leave. The slightly worn 1884 Celtic Britain had a handsome arts-and-crafts design on its cloth cover and looked lonely among all the no-nonsense modern histories. It was small, barely the weight of a large apple.

Next morning we headed out to pick up the path. The air was fresh with a hint of autumn, and the grassy pathway was brilliant green from recent rain. The carved wooden signpost was right where Frank Noble’s guidebook promised: Llwybr Clawdd Offa, the Offa’s Dyke Path, with its acorn emblem pointing the way north into the former kingdom of Powys—in the words of an early poem, Powys paradwys Cymru, Powys the paradise of Wales.

Offa’s Dyke near Tref-y-Clawdd (Knighton), Powys, looking north. The ditch on the west side and the dyke on the east side are still clearly visible. Image courtesy of the Offa’s Dyke Association.

In truth I was here to see three survivals from the eighth and ninth centuries: the earthwork, the poetry and the pillar. I’d seen some of the early poetry in the Welsh national library in Aberystwyth as a white-gloved librarian delicately turned the parchment pages. Now it was time to see the other two elements in an enigmatic triad. I planned to see them as an early mediaeval traveller would, on foot. With any luck we would walk north along eighth-century Offa’s Dyke as far as the early ninth-century monument near Llangollen, Croes Elisedd, the Pillar of Eliseg.

The first few kilometres we paused often to adjust pack straps and bootlaces. Gentle green hills and valleys swelled like waves of the western sea, a more familiar sight to us, in a landscape of heartbreaking beauty. Every stretch of high ground enticed us to snap a photo. My small history book weighed as much as a large turnip, then a small boulder. What had possessed me to buy it?

It was early afternoon when we stopped to eat our cheese and bread, and I wanted to get a pebble out of my boot. Misfortune comes in threes, I discovered on Offa’s Dyke. The pebble was a raw blister—already!—and by afternoon we’d walked only a few kilometres. Then it began to rain.

A tale of moleskin patches, Polysporin and rain ponchos dominated the next week, complete with slippery slopes of mud punctuated by rocks and roots and thorns. Soon we were locked in a cycle of wet boots that dried beside farmhouse hearths into stiff unforgiving blocks. Even compared with hiking in the Canadian Rockies or on Forbidden Plateau on Vancouver Island, it was a hard slog.

Offa’s Dyke Path was rough, slippery, changeable and wildly up-and-down, but somehow mostly up, in what we’d expected to be a mild pastoral countryside. It was increasingly painful, with blisters and inflamed knees. It was sometimes terrifying—tiptoeing around an occasional bull and resentful cows that wanted their feed, not random Canadian walkers—and briefly we were lost at twilight. I loved every minute.

Map from The ODA Book of Offa’s Dyke Path by Dr. Frank Noble, 1969, by kind permission of the Offa’s Dyke Association.

Many fine descriptions and images exist of Offa’s Dyke, the long-distance footpath that flanks it and the surrounding towns and farms. About 130 kilometres of the dyke remain traceable; originally it stood 27 metres wide and 8 metres from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank. But I don’t feel compelled to add my scattered observations, and even if I did, a flood turned many of my notes and photos from that time into gummy stacks of pulp. What remains is what I remember. Hir heol haul, hwy fy nghofion. Long the sun’s road, longer my memories.

One morning of sunshine and drifting cloud shadows we creaked out of our overnight farmhouse and stumbled north, always north. My teeth were gummy despite a quick brush, so I swiped an already broken hazel twig and did a better cleaning. My mouth felt fresher. The air was clear and cool. The world smelled newly made as we passed musical streams and sheltering woodlands. Cattle grazed in pastures, horses clustered at drystone walls. For that morning I walked through an eighth-century landscape. This was what I came for. I never lost that echo sense of coming home to a place I’d never known.

We didn’t make Llangollen, not on foot. Weather, blisters, locked knees and a book the weight of a Roman lead pig ended our trek at Trefaldwyn (Montgomery), but we soon drove to other stretches of the dyke and other historical sites. There’s always another walk, another year. Maybe next year?

In writing historical fiction I like to see where events happened; often it’s the same as seeing why events happened. Wading through fords and scrambling up to hill forts has taught me as much about long-ago history as reams of written analysis And not to be discounted, it’s great fun as well as a source of insight. Lying on a grassy bank under the wind looking east into lowland England, across a border that has been peaceful for centuries, is an invitation to speculate about the politics and origins of the earthwork. Built to keep the Welsh out? Built through co-operation to regulate trade? Like me, everyone has a theory.

Along the way, in person or by correspondence, I’ve met some of the dedicated people who created and sustain the Offa’s Dyke Association, among them Frank Noble, Glenys Beech, Ernie Kay, David Hill, Margaret Worthington Hill, Howard Williams, Aaron Watson and Dave McGlade. I’ve also met staff at the excellent ODA visitors’ centre in Tref-y-Clawdd (Knighton), farmers, schoolteachers, shopkeepers who shared their drinking water and serious long-distance walkers. Some days more than others, life is a journey. Part of mine has been along Offa’s Dyke.


An afterthought: Sometimes I dip into Celtic Britain and its odd Victorian notions about history. Strangely it weighs about as much as a large apple.

creation and myth

At closing time the special collections librarian gazed around his reading room tables, where researchers were folding their notebooks on a day’s work.

“I could fill every chair in this room with people who are going to write the definitive book on Ginger Goodwin,” the librarian said. “But so far I haven’t seen any books.”

It was his mild way of warning me that many were drawn to the old story of injustice, but it might be difficult to assemble the fragments and contradictions about Albert Goodwin. In 1918 the union organizer was shot dead by the police in unexplained circumstances on a Vancouver Island hillside near the coal mining town of Cumberland, BC.

The librarian’s caution often came to mind over the next few years as I travelled from my workplace in Edmonton to my home on Vancouver Island, to Calgary, to Trail and Rossland, to the abandoned industrial towns of the Alberta Coal Branch and the Crowsnest Pass. Few records of Goodwin’s life, employment and death had survived; there were a few letters and newspaper accounts and legal documents. My letters of inquiry sometimes got answers and sometimes vanished without trace. I was usually far from any library, and the internet didn’t yet exist.

Over the next six years I encountered other researchers; we shared information, exchanged addresses and sometimes met again. I wrote a CBC Morningside radio play on island coal mining and a CBC Ideas radio documentary on the shooting of Ginger Goodwin. A publisher in Ontario asked me to write a book, but the information was too sparse.

Yet I couldn’t leave the story alone. In Cumberland I talked with anyone who had known Goodwin or the mines he worked in. I finally listened properly to my father Arthur Mayse’s second-hand accounts. I pored over Ruth Masters’ big album of oral history transcripts in the Cumberland Museum. Late at night, kneeling on the museum floor, I traced a huge map of the drifts, seams and airways of Cumberland’s Number Five pit.

One spring I rented a spare bedroom in the townsite for 40 dollars a month from a  single mum and borrowed a cooking pot to set where the leaky roof dripped. I bought bread, apples and cheese at Johnny Leung’s grocery, hung my grocery bag on my doorknob and got on with it.

I wrote a first chapter. A couple of publishers expressed cautious interest, but like the special collections librarian, they’d heard from other writers whose plans hadn’t yet materialized into a book. Eventually I moved to a coal miner’s cottage down Camp Road in Cumberland and kept writing. In 1990 I sent my manuscript to Harbour Publishing the day my daughter was born.

Cumberland people and other readers welcomed a book telling the story they’d heard for years about their friend Ginger Goodwin. My work was done.

Out of the blue this year The Ormsby Review posted a new review of Ginger: The Life and Death of Albert Goodwin a startling 30 years after the book’s release. In “The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin” Dan Hinman-Smith, who teaches at North Island College, wrote a well-researched, fair and thoughtful piece on Ginger.

It’s always interesting to find out what people see in a book—not always what I expect. But I was surprised to see this piece repeat an earlier review’s comment that seemed to miss the point: how could I believe all those improbable oral history tales?

The real question is, how could anyone conclude that I did believe those tales?

In Ginger I’d written, “The making of a union man, a union woman, in those years often sprang from personal suffering . . . cathartic enough to spur them into an all-consuming and often perilous activism. Their stories served as personal creation myths.

“Joe Naylor’s revelation came on an English turnpike in the 1880s. Years later he told the story to Donetta Rallison. When Joe was a young pit lad, made jobless by his Lancashire mine’s closure, he and his friends travelled from one dreary coal town to the next seeking work. One day as they walked hungry and sore-footed, a richly appointed carriage came alongside. The driver reined his splendid team in a spray of mud. A coachman opened the door, and an elegant gentleman leaned out to wish them good day. One or two of the young men doffed their hats and bowed, but plainspoken Joe Naylor told his friends they were fools. Why should starving men bow and scrape to this popinjay? If he truly meant well, he would work to right the country’s wrongs, since he was England’s king. The door slammed and the coach skewed forward. The pit lads walked on, a little colder and hungrier.”

Creation myths, according to my professors of anthropology and classical and mediaeval literature, are fables that people tell to explain the origins of phenomena they can’t describe in realistic terms. The term “creation myth” is exact and self-explanatory, combining the generally discounted religious concept of creation and an accepted literary term, myth. In other words it clearly describes a fable, a fantastical narrative.

My guess is that Joe Naylor told Donetta Rallison a story about his itinerant days in England, and decades later she retold it in the form of a fable.

Many creation myths are beautiful and moving. Metaphorically they lie at the heart of religion, art and literature, even if few people still believe literally in the Garden of Eden or Gilgamesh’s journey to the underworld. But I am deeply interested  in what creation myths suggest about the people who pass them on, including what they deem possible and believable.

In using the term I trusted that readers would share my understanding of these Cumberland stories. Personally I didn’t believe them all, but I didn’t scoff at them any more than I challenged the Dene shaman who told me all the ailments he could cure through his spiritual power, or any more than an anthropologist interrupts to rebut a tale about giants or monsters. Instead we listen carefully, draw any credible information from them and reflect on what purpose those stories might serve for their tellers and listeners. We need to look deeper than the accounts themselves, which may not be notably factual. Once I realized some of these stories were fables, I was there to understand what they meant.

We can parse this story about Joe Naylor and the King of England. The storyteller believed that a powerless young worker was once offered an opportunity by a wealthy and privileged person from elsewhere and turned it down as an ethical gesture. She believed that the powerless doff a cap and humbly accept largesse from the powerful whether they want it or not, out of courtesy or more likely fear. In her story one young man is fearless. He doesn’t fear the systemic classism that he encounters. He’s not a rich man, but he is a free man. Her story seems to reflect how many people in early 20th-century Cumberland viewed Joe Naylor and other labour socialists.

Donetta Rallison’s story wasn’t about a real event; it was a metaphorical reading of character. We don’t need to be anthropologists or literary scholars to understand this. Generally I find my readers are intelligent and thoughtful. If they do encounter an unfamiliar term, they google it or reach for a dictionary. But then my readers are overwhelmingly down-to-earth working people.

Ginger is not an academic study. If I’d wanted to write an academic book, that’s what I would have written. But why? Even as a student writing on Welsh mediaeval literature and history, I told my professors that I meant to write papers in a popular style so that others would not only read them but want to read them, thus reflect on and remember their points. The professors, to their credit, gave me carte blanche in the sharing of wealth. History belongs to all of us. 

In writing Ginger my purpose was not solely to enumerate facts but to move people. I wanted to reach them emotionally and also to launch them into action that creates change. It seems to have worked. Thirty years later, people still contact me to pass on new information.

My approach ruffled feathers. Instead of waiting for approval, I got down to work. I didn’t ask permission from anyone but my living sources. I didn’t follow accepted academic research methodology. I didn’t seek grants or other financial assistance. I researched and wrote on spec, without a publisher’s commitment or advance. I funded my research from a freelance writer’s skint income. Until I came home to the island, my mailing address was an Edmonton post office box. I was the daughter of another freelance writer who was a former logger, and the granddaughter of a Yorkshire coal mine worker.

In Canada we congratulate ourselves on creating a classless society. It’s a lie. Ask any refugee, member of the working poor, person of colour or Indigenous person. This story, like many others, is about class and classism.

In the 1880s a pit closure left everyone in my family out of work and homeless. Together they walked, grandparents down to small children, from Sheffield to the south coast of England, living mostly on windfall apples that dropped into the roadside ditches from farmers’ orchards. No work was to be had in the south, but the pits soon reopened, so they walked back north. Any family is a patchwork, and my own also includes landholders and inventors and empty titles, but this is my best inheritance.

Is this family story a creation myth? Certainly.

Is it true? Mostly true, I’m guessing, apart from the apple diet. Birds’ eggs, edible greens and maybe snared rabbits would thicken the stew, and the adults might have found occasional farm work in exchange for food.

One point of the story as I heard it was that the family didn’t steal even in desperation. Another is that life is hard, but if we work together, we survive. It’s not a great leap from “my flesh and blood” to “my brothers and sisters in solidarity.”

Remember that library reading room and all those definitive books waiting to be written? This would be the place for a weary aside about elitism or trolls, but in truth I’ll be delighted to see those books. There’s room for all those views and voices, from Laura Ellyn’s fun graphic novel Ginger Goodwin: A Worker’s Friend to theses and academic works to Roger Stonebanks’ well-researched Fighting for Dignity: The Ginger Goodwin Story.

I choose not to believe that arrogance and exceptionalism tempt anyone to disrespect untutored people whose working lives were their real education, as they were mine. Those working lives underlie all labour studies; they’re the grist in the mill. Working people in my experience offer their observations to researchers and writers freely to further knowledge and understanding. I’d like to think we can all say the same.

further reading:

“The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin,” The Ormsby Review, 27 July 2020.

marks on paper

mamook tzum : making the marks

Now and then it seems like a good idea to leave the hermit’s cell and greet the next passerby. I step outside into a drizzle of rain sliding off the lower branches of fir trees, but no one’s in sight on the road uphill or down. It’s too dark for dog walkers and too gusty for cyclists, and my family is in town running errands.

Time to go inside and light a fire. I’ll settle in with a glass of smoky black Russian tea and my old computer with the letters pounded right off its keys, and tell stories to the wind and the rain.

Stories run bright seams across my days. They leave me with a taste for sweet root-cellar apples, a planisphere, smoke-scented deerskin, rail spikes caked in coal dust, a hank of seiner twine, scribbled ideas, thumbed research files, marks on paper.

Marks on paper have served me well. Over the coming weeks and months I will post information and links. If you like them, hand them on.