Corvus Reviews

the malahat review, winter 2016 #196

Pretend it’s the year 2084. There have been two cataclysmic wars over resources on the continent of North America, spurred on by rapidly progressing global warming and polluted soils from chemical-laden fertilizers. Along with millions of other North Americans, you have migrated north in search of clean water and arable soil. In this dystopic future the censorship of scientists and an invasive surveillance culture have coalesced inside an incubator of extreme technological dependency that would make Marshall McLuhan spin in his grave. Now pretend that you are a lawyer experiencing an existential crisis, and that the town you migrated to is La Ronge, Saskatchewan. But, La Ronge is no longer an outpost of 2,800 people on the edge of a lake in northern Saskatchewan, but a cosmopolitan metropolis, with exclusive suburbs for the social elite that float 10,000 feet above the grit of the city. You can ride elevators made of caribou sinew to get up there, and cars drive themselves, and when you have mastered the symbiotic relationship with your Organic Recreation Vehicle (made of the dna of animals), there are no boundaries to your freedom.

Yet, there are still things that linger on from the pre-war period to offer just enough of a lifeline to the past or to trip the suspension wires of disbelief. The justice system has not collapsed in the face of corrupt governments. Rye mash and grapes are still harvested for whiskey and wine and sold on the cheap. Professional hockey is still up and running and has a robust following. Fitness centres still run energy-rich saunas and pools. Department stores are doing a bit of good business. And despite the fact that the wireless “net” controls everything from doors to cars to coffeemakers, people are still getting their news from mainstream media.

If you can imagine that, then you’ve climbed inside the skin of George Taylor, Harold Johnson’s crown-prosecutor protagonist, war veteran, and soapbox philosopher, who, despite--or perhaps due to—the incredible amount of squalor and depravity that has beset his civilization, is mired in a soul-crushing case of ennui brought on by the lack of humanity in a depraved, post-resource world. This is the world of Corvus, Johnson’s fifth book, a novel touted as the perfect blend of contemporary science fiction and poignant social commentary. From an Indigenous perspective, Johnson, who self-identifies as Cree, the role and influence of Indigenous peoples, traditions, and ideologies, is a refreshing inclusion in a genre—science fiction—under attack in the mainstream for appropriation and reduced visibility. I’m thinking here of J. K. Rowling’s webseries History of Magicwhere Rowling appropriated Indigenous traditions while noticeably leaving Indigenous peoples out of her revisionist History of Magic in North Americanarrative. Rather, George Taylor crash-lands near the camp of an unidentified Mountain people who have retreated from the destitution of non-Indigenous cities and ways of life, even disallowing technology within its territory. In Corvus, Indigenous characters and ways of knowing are weaved into the fabric of the story, rather than being relegated to romanticizations or stereotypes.

After landing, Taylor sits with the band’s Chief Two Bears, who is an impassioned advocate of his people, a very believable late 21st-century Indigenous man: he is cut hard by ongoing colonialism in a world where greed and consumption are destroying everything his people hold sacred. Johnson deftly makes Chief Two Bears, his son Isadore, and Isadore’s wife and family, fully formed characters, not simply plot devices or racial ornamentation. Late in the novel, when the main characters’ narratives have begun to intertwine and the episodic pace has given way to dwelling on the status of human frailty in an inhospitable world, holistic notions of balance and Cree cosmological relationships with the land emerge as not just alternative thinking but, rather, resonate as essential codes to live by. With the Cree Raven story acting as a narrative frame, Corvus is more of a moral tale, in the mode of Cree legend, than contemporary speculative fiction. Johnson’s novel is a mélange of satire and social commentary that offers just the right notes of philosophy and allegory, postmodern kaleidoscopic re-workings of Norse myth, Cree cosmology, Judeo-Christian theology, and Greek philosophy. He also adds enough Virgil and lawyer-speak to make the whole thought experiment seem less like a warning and more like a fable. Readers could view the world of Corvus as one imagined by an anti-establishment Uncle who has us trapped in the corner at a holiday dinner to warn of the direction society is headed if we don’t put down our smart phones and act nicer toward each other. Instead of ignoring him, we should let ourselves get swept away in his argument long enough to consider a future where technological dependency has run amok.

Most importantly, from an Indigenous perspective, Johnson fortifies the place of Indigenous peoples in his frightening dystopia, offering up Cree ways of knowing as key to the hyper-technological aspirations of continental North America. For that, Corvus is an important intervention into climate-based, futuristic sci-fi.

— Trevor J. Phillips, The Malahat Review

cbc's the next chapter with shelagh rogers, june 11, 2016

Corvus featured in Shelagh Rogers' interview with Peter Kavanagh: "The Five Canadian Sci-Fi Novels You Should Read Right Now." Listen here


GLOBE & MAIL, January 14, 2016

Common to Christian, Norse and First Nations mythologies, Raven (Latin: Corvus) is the framing narrator in Harold Johnson’s postapocalyptic dystopia about security, technology and humans’ relation to the Earth. It’s science fiction from a First Nations perspective (Johnson is Cree). In the future, after decades of natural disasters, war, desertification and migration, La Ronge in central Saskatchewan is a bustling metropolis. As lawyers, George and Lenore lead very comfortable lives; neither questions the status quo – that is, until they encounter the city’s outsiders. As a dystopia, Corvus rightly foregrounds its politics but sometimes treats readers as if we aren’t smart enough to get it. Johnson also explains the novel’s world in section-long info-dumps though he does leave more subtle clues. By arithmetic, for example, we learn the year is 2084, a hat tip to 1984. If you can look past the stylistic issues, Corvus is an impassioned, formally innovative twist on the dystopian genre.

The Globe & Mail

the bull calf review, issue 6.1 (february 29, 2016)

Harold Johnson’s Corvus mixes ecocriticism and social criticism in a post-Apocalyptic dystopian novel that tries – and sometimes fails – to articulate a holistic way of being with/in the world. Based in the now-metropolitan La Ronge, the novel follows the intersecting lives of George, Lenore, Richard, and Katherine as they struggle to negotiate boundaries of space, place, and identity in a world in which human actions have caused catastrophic changes, killing soil, creating superviruses, and making large parts of the world uninhabitable.

Johnson has a penchant for providing interpretations of characters’ actions and offering truths, often from the mouths of figures who play archetypal parts—the prophet, the Trickster, or the crone—and then disappear from the narrative. In the Second Intra-American war, for example, Lenore lifted the lid of a poor family’s cooking pot and discovered a baby’s arm inside (94-95). She replaced the lid. This act characterizes her behaviour throughout the novel; she is heavily invested in keeping the lid on the pot, on not looking inside, dealing with truths and emotions by repressing or ignoring them. “She studies all the time,” Richard tells Katherine, “but when she’s offered obvious solutions, she turns away. I get the feeling that she doesn’t want to face something” (254). Such statements contribute to the didactic undercurrents of the text, and the interpretation of the text by the text seeks to cement a single correct interpretation of characters’ motives and behaviours, and undermines the multiplicity of the primary characters’ attempts to learn to interact ethically with the world.

George and Richard try to understand and navigate this ethical interaction with the help of narrative, Richard with his copy of Virgil’s Little Book on Virginity, George with a story given to him by Cree medicine man Two Bears. In a postmodern fashion, Johnson mixes fictitious and historical narratives in Corvus to create metanarratives that both blend into and contribute to the novel’s meaning. The most prominent of such elements are the blending of raven stories, alluding to elements from Christian, First Nations, Greek, and Norse mythology – even playing with the concept of “the lost Lenore” from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” – and creating a single, deified Raven who exists across time and cultures and who continues to interact with people and the world as a whole, simultaneously raven and Raven.

Raven is a key figure in what may be the most complex philosophical thread in the novel: the question of the Other. When one names certain humans Other, “they are easier to kill” (198). The same principle pertains to human treatment of nonhuman animals and even of the land itself. Corvus challenges that division, troubling the line between that which is merely biotic and that which is alive, articulating a conceptualization of a holistic world in which all things spring from the soil and return to it.

Significantly, Corvus’s three more successful seekers also struggle to understand the ravens who appear in the text, symbolic of Raven, who appears in guises from the bird itself – "‘Whatever the hell are you saying?’" Richard demands of the bird, who vocalizes in “a rhythm that sound[s] like speech, as though he urgently want[s] to tell someone something” (13) – to the prophet who likens George to the biblical Saul and “walk[s] away making loud ‘Kraw, Kraw’ sounds” (212) to George’s raven-shaped Organic Recreational Vehicle (ORV), which makes sounds it has not been programmed to make and moves of its own volition (202). George, Richard, and Katherine all speak to ravens – and, through ravens, to Raven – and in so doing recall the “days of Odin, when men sought to learn his language, to speak, to converse, and to learn” (133). Corvus addresses layers of Othering and calls for a return to communion and communication with the living world as crucial to both spiritual wellbeing and living in right relationship with the earth. While these layers are generally sophisticated, they sometimes exhibit problematic simplicities, such as a binary understanding of natural spaces as being opposed to “developed” spaces.

Corvus is heavy-handed and at times appears more fixated upon prominent socio-political and environmental concerns than on plot or character development. Nevertheless, the regular return to the regard of Raven, from humans’ perspectives and from Raven’s himself, provides a focal point that creates cohesion out of a text that struggles to encompass a litany of issues that includes identity, trauma, crime, the nature of reality, belonging, and boundaries of space and place. Its sometimes black-and-white conceptualizations (e.g. natural/developed, male/female) are jarring precisely because, overall, Corvus pushes back against such worldviews, playing with the space between the real and the imagined, the organic and the alive, the human and the animal. These binary structures are weak spots in a text that creates connections between things that are often considered opposites, conceptualizing a whole.

— K. S. A. Brazier-Tompkins, The Bull Calf Review

saskatoon starphoenix, december 5, 2015

What if the whole economy thing is just a sham? We’ve been told it’s the economy, stupid, but maybe we’re stupid to believe there is such a thing. What if It’s all just a bunch of incredibly rich people manipulating money around the globe, keeping the sucker middle and working classes running after consumer goods and this mirage called jobs while they amass Midas-like fortunes they and their children’s children can never spend?

The holy, blessed economy is just one of the core beliefs from the late 20th and early 21st century into which Harold Johnson jabs a pin in his latest novel, Corvus. Johnson, a crown prosecutor in La Ronge, keeps alive his Cree tradition of trapping and commercial fishing, and is a father and grandfather. Out of this lively mix he’s fashioned another of his dystopian novels about the life we’re heading for in this province, and around the world, because of the short-sighted decisions we’re making, and have already made, right now.

The future is not a happy place in La Ronge, a population hot spot and last refuge for the masses who have fled north, escaping the drought brought on by climate change and dead soil. The soil has been ruined by various chemicals dumped on it over the years to try and improve yields. Now that living organism is extinct across the prairies, and wars have been fought over water: Intra One and Two, between the Americas.

It’s 2084, a symbolic date to which Johnson takes care to draw our attention with a direct quotation from Orwell’s novel. He follows four main characters: George (ha), a discontented crown prosecutor, Lenore, George’s colleague and a woman who doesn’t really know who she is or what she wants, Richard, a man who’s been in trouble with the law for attending a demonstration, and Katherine, a woman taken in by an ashram years ago and who has been pretty much hiding out there since.

George, after a setback at work, buys himself a status toy, an Organic Recreational Vehicle (ORV), this one a wearable, computer-human hybrid with the body of a raven. George can now swoop and dive all over La Ronge and one day, hubris being what it is, gets blown far off course by a terrific storm and lands in a hidden mountain valley far to the west, home to a secret community of First Nations people.

They treat him kindly, give him some tough life lessons, and send him on his way. Now he’s really discontented and looks upon the whole punishing judicial system with a wary eye. The law is there, as upwardly-mobile Lenore reminds him, to keep the status quo intact, the nasty poor people in their place, and people like her and George drinking good wine and hankering after a safe home on a cloud — a reality in 2084.

Meanwhile Richard, having had an affair with Lenore in one of her careless moments and now in love and living with Katherine, begins to see that hiding out on an ashram and retreating into silence is merely complicity with the proscriptive laws of the land; laws backed up by a corporate/police state.

Everyone’s life is now governed by their platform, a super cellphone that only those with jobs, bank accounts, and stable addresses can acquire and which integrates them into every aspect of their lives: security, employment, residence, GPS, the works. They amuse themselves with Ultimate Hockey (more violence), gyms, and consumer goods, and live in fear of crime, peer jealousy and chastisement, and of losing their jobs.

All these horrors about which Johnson writes are things we know now: climate change, the soil, excess nitrogen, the widening gap between the rich and poor, rampant consumerism as a drug for fear and a waning sense of responsibility, but he just lays it out in front of us in the form of a story, a way First Nations people have always used to teach.

As Isadore, a First Nations man tells George after the storm grounds him, “We’ve been telling you for centuries. You just won’t listen. You think you’re smarter than the Creator. . . . I can’t explain to you how the Earth and the Sky are related, how you and I are related, because you’re too smart to understand.” A few pages later Richard, thinking of leadership, decides, “what we have now aren’t leaders. They watch which direction the people are moving and run ahead and pretend they’re leading.” No wonder we’re in such a mess, and Johnson sees all the trouble well under way right here around us in 2015.

As in many science or speculative fiction stories, a little willing suspension of disbelief goes a long way. How, for instance, in an era of satellites and GPS systems, to name a few, could a whole valley full of lush trees and fresh water go undetected by a world killing itself for those things? And, in terms of gender politics, why in both couples is it the man who develops the insight and the woman who stays blind? These are the usual carping questions that people ask when they read a novel, but those aside, Johnson’s done some solid thinking about a world killing itself with its intellect while it denies its heart and soul in favour of more luxury goods. And, says a real raven that’s been with us through the novel, “Why couldn’t humans clean up after themselves?” Hmmm. Sounds like a question posed in this newspaper just days ago about a mine up north.

— Bill Robertson, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

prairie books now, fall/winter 2015

Harold Johnson's fifth novel Corvus is set in an imagined late twenty-first century, in which climate change and war have dramatically changed Canada.

The idea for Corvus came when Johnson heard David Suzuki, Al Gore, and James Lovelock discuss climate change. Gore asserted climate change could be fixed. Lovelock said it was too late; climate change is the new reality. He advised Suzuki to move north and build nuclear reactors for electricity. 

"Climate change is not global warming. It is more severe weather, bigger storms, more floods, longer droughts. Wars are predicted, and seeing the political climate in the USA, I imagined the wars occurring there."

Johnson has served in the navy, and has worked as a trapper and fisherman, a miner, a lumberjack, a heavy equipment operator and mechanic, a firefighter, and a tree planter. He now works as a Crown prosecutor in La Ronge, the town in which Corvus is set. 

But the La Ronge in Corvus is no longer a small town. It is a huge city, transformed by the collapse of North American agriculture, refugees from the south, and two intra-American wars. Two main characters, Lenore and George, are up-and-coming prosecutors, aiming for a shot at a better life, such as those offered in exclusive communities floating high above the ground. A third, Richard, just wants to live an ethical life on the margins, but finds poorer communities off the grid have their own hierarchies. 

" I took the idea that people will move north and increased the population of a small town in northern Saskatchewan to a megacity, added some technology, and simply wrote those things that are already predicted," says Johnson.

"Climate change will be a new era in human history," says Johnson, who over a lifetime of working outside, became a skilled weather forecaster but no longer trusts the signs like he used to. "Like the weather, we cannot accurately predict what is coming. I do believe that we have to get ready for it." 

Lenore and Richard's wartime experiences still haunt them. George seeks an understanding of the natural world without knowing how — one of the ways he tries is to buy an organic recreational vehicle. His ORV is a lab-grown raven construct, large enough for a person to wear and pilot via mental commands. Soaring through the air — though not high enough to reach one of the floating cities — leads George to question his entire worldview.

The book takes its name from the Latin word for "raven," and each character encounters ravens, or, perhaps even Raven, a central character. Some realize the old natural cycles are breaking down or changing. Sundogs no longer give an accurate indication of coming weather, nor does the behaviour of bees (few of which are left).

"Raven is my friend. I have heard him speak and I wondered what he was trying to say," says Johnson.

Raven, it seems, has much to say.

"Raven is a magical being that has been around for a long time. I needed someone to speak for nature, and Raven volunteered," says Johnson.

"We have to be careful of him, though; he is a trickster."

— David Jón Fuller