Gotlieb, Phyllis (Profile)
Phyllis GOTLIEB is the first to agree she fits the classic profile of the SCIENCE FICTION writer. "Like quite a few of us - Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, my friend Judy Merril," she rhymes off, "I was an only child." And if that wasn't enough to predetermine an imaginative girl's future, there's also how she used to spend her Saturday afternoons. The daughter of a man who ran a series of movie houses in Depression-era Toronto, Gotlieb would "go to whatever theatre my father was running, and spend the day there with my movie mags and my pulps - Doc Savage and The Shadow especially. I had such a pop culture background, Mickey Mouse was my hero." So it's easy to visualize a straight line from such a childhood to this month's publication, on the eve of her 76th birthday, of Mindworlds, the final volume of Gotlieb's acclaimed Flesh and Gold trilogy.
Except very little in Phyllis Gotlieb's writing career has followed a straight line. By the time she was 11, she was determined to become a writer, but it was poetry more than stories that delighted her. Only when Gotlieb was enduring a writer's block in the early 1950s ("I have a lot of those," she says of a career more notable for longevity than output) did her husband, Calvin, a physicist turned pioneering University of Toronto computer scientist, strike a chord by suggesting she try science fiction. The first result was completely unexpected. "My poetry had dried up, but as soon as I started SF, it came back."
By the next decade the two, mutually reinforcing strands of Gotlieb's writing were both in full flower. Her poetry, which would bring her a 1970 Governor General's Award nomination for Ordinary Moving, coincided with a surge of national interest in the genre. The Canada Council frequently dispatched poets, including Gotlieb, across the country to give readings in schools and libraries. In 1964, during a week she has never forgotten, Gotlieb was one of a quartet sent to Montreal, Ottawa and London, Ont. The other three were Leonard COHEN, Irving LAYTON and Earle BIRNEY, stars then and now of the CanLit galaxy. "Let's just say I was pretty much suppressed by my companions," Gotlieb sighs. But on a tour that had no shortage of towering egos, Gotlieb was no one's main target. "Last I saw of Earle, he was in the back of a taxi, with his thumbs at his ears, waggling his fingers at Leonard and Irving." Not at you? "Oh no; if I'd thought that, I'd have given him the finger."
During the same period, while her poetry was finding an audience and she still had three children at home, Gotlieb finally emerged from a painful sci-fi apprenticeship. After years of rejections, Gotlieb broke through in 1964 with Sunburst, Canadian science fiction's seminal novel. "That's when she became the grandmother of us all," says Robert Sawyer, the most prominent author in a now-flourishing national scene. "She was the one - till the '80s, the only one - who proved you could sit in Toronto and write major science fiction and sell it to major American publishers." Sunburst, which has given its name to an award for the best Canadian sci-fi book of the year, marked a final change of course for Gotlieb, who eventually no longer had "poem-shaped ideas." (Since then, she says, "my aliens write poetry.")
Sunburst also brought to the fore what would be Gotlieb's perennial theme over the next four decades - telepathy. Gotlieb is second to none in creating detailed universes, full of exotic aliens in the mode of Star Wars (itself a direct descendent of the movies she watched as a kid). And she's miles beyond most in evoking her creatures with beautifully crafted images. But the telepathic powers that drive her stories are more than plot devices. "I hope it's clear that telepathy in my writing is shorthand for understanding and communication," she says. It's clear to John Robert Colombo, prolific compiler of Canadian cultural lore and long-time friend of Gotlieb. "She's a quintessential Canadian writer, preoccupied with what constitutes identity, and with communication between peoples."
That doesn't lead to the tidy, upbeat endings so beloved of classic sci-fi. Gotlieb recalls an early rejection from John W. Campbell, the legendary editor of Astounding magazine, who said her story "denies the whole premise of science fiction." By that Campbell "seemed to mean it didn't have a happy ending," she says in some wonderment, adding: "In my books most of my characters - not all, but most - are still standing at the end. That's my idea of a happy ending. Standing is good." She smiles. "I'm still standing."
Maclean's May 20, 2002