Friday, March 27, 2009

Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm

Defining Diana will grab you on the first page and won’t let you go,” says Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids.

Defining Diana (Bundoran Press) is a fast paced science fiction police mystery by Canadian writer, Hayden Trenholm. But the page turning arises more from Trenholm’s gift for building compelling character tension interwoven with rich setting than from unique plot and premise.

While interesting, Trenholm’s overall storyline is not dramatically new or original: biotechnology straying into the hands of corporate moguls and fundamentalist cults. What makes it original and interesting is how and where Trenholm tells the story.

Frank Steele and his eclectic SDU unit follow a dark journey through a very different Calgary Alberta—a Canadian city transformed in 2043 by nuclear war, pervasive corporate intrigue, biotechnology and rising fundamentalism. By this time, biomedical research has taken DNA manipulation to both thrilling and terrifying levels. Steele’s SDU, an elite police unit given all the bizarre and baffling cases no one else can or wants to solve, find Diana “Doe”, a young woman without a past found naked and alone in a locked apartment, in perfect health—except she’s dead. Steele soon connects the girl’s bizarre and inexplicable death to a spate of murders, stolen money, missing persons and gruesome body shops.

Defining just who and what Diana is takes Steele and his SDU through a labyrinthine path of scientific subterfuge, corporate intrigue, and religious terrorism. While the major plot premise explores biotechnology gone astray, it is Trenholm’s use of this as metaphor to explore our definition of “self” that makes Defining Diana ultimately satisfying. By using the familiar canvas of science “directed by fear”—whose cousins include racism, fascism and Nazism—Trenholm paints in bold strokes the consequences of such notions. He does this in a Calgary that has become “like most cities in North America, a rainbow hue of races and even bastion of moderate tolerance.” Trenholm, I think, very presciently predicts our next victims of prejudice: those different people who embrace—and represent—a new technology and a new world.

Author, Richard Russo, says, “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel.” This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principal of truisms: most of which come to us as paradoxes. Trenholm provides this regional-universal quality impeccably. He infuses his story with a strong sense of place and character through use of colorful vernacular, vivid imagery and charming Canadianisms mixed with the metal-edged language of science and technology.

Trenholm shifts his POV imaginatively to effectively convey the story arcs of several characters. While keeping the narrative of his main character, Steele, in the first person, Trenholm’s remaining characters (e.g., Steele’s detectives) narrate in the third person. This maintains an active personal perspective of the detective Steele, while providing the reader with insight into several other characters. By getting into the heads of some of Steele’s elite force—some pretty flawed characters, I might add—Trenholm creates a far richer and more complex story. In fact, I found the complex characterization and multiple subplots, which interwove a rich tapestry of future Calgary, one of the more charming and interesting aspects of the book. This is, in fact, where Trenholm shines the most and refreshingly departs from the typical police detective trope.

Defining Diana unfolds as an intriguing fast-paced mystery thriller, particularly through its drama that explores our very humanity, our values, needs and weaknesses. Trenholm does this through strong characterization and setting.

Superintendent Steele’s fundamentally clichéd character, for instance, is well past his prime, out of shape and appears to have a closer relationship to a certain bottle of Jack Daniel’s than he does to his ex-wife and kids. But Trenholm paints Steele with such a personal and charming style, risking autobiography, that the reader is drawn into his story arc. The remaining members of his SDU range an ecelectic gamut of flawed characters from naïve workaholic with troubled and mysterious past to native Indian who has embraced the new sub-culture of “Borg” science (e.g., willingly replacing various parts of themselves with new and improved technical parts) and finally to charismatic but violent psychopath. And these are the good guys!

“For all of its faults,” says reviewer, Christian Sauve, “Defining Diana does something that I always find admirable, which is to define a future from modern Canadian principles. It's urban, it is multicultural, it is energetic and it generally espouses good middle-of-the-road Canadian values by showing what happens if you push too far in the other direction.” But Trenholm does more than this. His story explores our ambivalence to the evolution of humanity with technology. It is a balanced tight-rope walk that most of us are doing; and each of his characters represents an aspect of that wobbly walk.

Trenholm has crafted a rare and wonderful science fiction mystery thriller with depth and sensitivity. In some ways this story bridges the gap between genre fiction and literary fiction and that is refreshing, indeed. Trenholm shows us how genre fiction, even hard-boiled detective mysteries, can make significant commentary on the human condition. Defining Diana is nominated for the 2008 Aurora Prix, Canada’s top prize in science fiction. I think it has a good chance of winning. If you’re a Canadian, you can vote for it on the Aurora site.

I’ll be looking for the sequel.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Virginia said...

Nicely done!

SF Girl said...

Yes, I thought so too... OH! You mean the review?... :) Well, I DO like it when a Canadian genre writer writes about Canada...

Jean-Luc Picard said...

There can't be many sci-fi police mysteries. It seems to be on the borderlines of 'Blade Runner'. Good review, Nina.

SF Girl said...

Yes, but with more heart... I really enjoyed Bladerunner for its stunning visual realness and evokative score... It was an amazing film to watch. Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors.

Mountain Woman said...

Oh, thanks for the great write up. After reading your entry, I know this is a book I want to read.

SF Girl said...

Awesome, Mountain Woman! Enjoy the book and let me know your thoughts...