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Writer crafts eerie vision of Victoria as dystopia

Laura Trunkey shopped at the campus bookstore, picking up a white laboratory coat for $20.

As a featured reader at a book launch in Vancouver on the weekend, she wanted to dress as a scientist. She arrived armed also with an old Polaroid Instamatic camera, and swatches of coloured film with which she covered the lens.

Inside the camera was instant film found on eBay, an online purchase made necessary because the film is no longer manufactured.

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Shooting through the coloured film created an odd, halo-like effect on the subjects.

"They wanted interpretations of what their aura meant," Ms. Trunkey said. "I would come up with … something."

The exercise was a nod to Kirlian photography, an electromagnetic process that features in a Trunkey story included in Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales From Tomorrow (Douglas & McIntyre).

You hold a book launch for a collection of sci-fi stories and you wind up with authors in disguise as scientists reading auras. You also get someone dressed as a giant mutant squid.

The collection, edited by Zsuzsi Gartner, features speculative fiction from 23 Canadian writers. Among the heavyweight British Columbia writers included are Douglas Coupland, Timothy Taylor and Annabel Lyon.

The book was inspired, in part, by Ms. Trunkey's story Fire From Heaven: A Dystopian Suite, first published in the terrific Vancouver Review, a literary quarterly for which Ms. Gartner serves as fiction editor.

As someone born and raised in Victoria, whose bucolic charms have inspired many a writer, Ms. Trunkey turns paradise inside out, transforming a real-life seaside utopia into an imaginary dystopian nightmare.

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"That," she says, "was fun."

Ms. Trunkey, 30, has worked for the past four years with children who have special needs at Tillicum Elementary. After graduating with a degree in social work, she was employed at a shelter for homeless youth. The job left her little time to write. Remembering how she had enjoyed a writing class taught by Lorna Jackson at the University of Victoria, Ms. Trunkey returned to university to complete a graduate degree.

Her first book, a children's novel called The Incredibly Ordinary Danny Chandelier (Annick Press), earned strong reviews on its publication two years ago. Her hometown newspaper hailed the book's "touch of Roald Dahl-esque grotesquerie."

Ms. Trunkey's own childhood in Victoria's Fairfield neighbourhood included long hours outdoors during which she gathered rocks, shells, bird eggs and nests.

"My room was lined with different collections," she said. "Nobody else had bird eggs, so I figured I should have them."

Her mother still has a few of the items.

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Frequent childhood expeditions to Beacon Hill Park helped inform her dark vision of Victoria in Fire From Heaven, set just five years in the future: Most of the park's trees have been lost to a pestilence, while some of the survivors have been chopped down by cynical politicians eager to cash in on a demand in Asia for "silver-streaked termite wood."

Considering the marketing of blue-tinged pine-beetle wood, you might say the story was torn from today's headlines.

The park's few remaining Douglas firs are home to scrap-metal watchtowers constructed by eco-warriors known as the Herons.

An alarmist preacher, referred to as the Beacon, lives in a garden shed beside the Terry Fox statue at Mile Zero. He has gathered a "throng of crimson-clad teenage followers who pace the strip beside the cliffs like zombies, droning about the apocalypse to all who will listen."

Those very cliffs along Dallas Road have been paved with cement, a futile attempt to stop erosion caused by rising sea levels.

Elsewhere in the city, terrorist-alert signs mimic Vancouver Island's familiar red-to-green fire danger ratings. All Muslims have been relocated to internment camps in the Interior, while schoolchildren are indoctrinated to think they are all terrorists.

The desperate faithful line up to worship at the synagogue and Catholic cathedral, along a broad street where the smell of human excrement is unavoidable.

Swan Lake is a "soggy garbage dump," Crystal Palace is abandoned, and "the Empress Hotel slumps sideways - propped against a row of metal girders." Sinking slowly into ancient landfill, the temporary residence of wealthy tourists is now home to squatters.

This is not the Victoria of tourist brochures, but it sure is fun.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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