On the surface, Sarah Canary looks nothing like a science-fiction novel, and that is part of its greatness. On one level it is a first-contact story of immense dexterity; on the other hand, it is an angrily comic voyage among the various invisible populations of the Old West. The uncertainty of Sarah Canary’s origin throws the brutality of the American West into painfully sharp relief. Everyone else in the novel—from the confused Chin to the avaricious Harold and ambitious Adelaide—uses her in some way, and their actions toward her are inevitably contradictory. Chin hopes to pass a divine test by treating her well, but he considers abandoning her in the woods and strikes her when her wordless singing aggravates him; Adelaide is overcome by pity at the plight of “Lydia Palmer,” but envisions not so much the justice of her acquittal as the fame a successful defense might bring to her. Sarah Canary exists as a sort of Rorschach ink-blot test, in which each of the characters finds the image of a private obsession.
A great virtue of science fiction is its ability to recast a problem so the reader does not recognize it immediately. This process disarms the reader’s prejudices, so that by the time the contemporary resonance of the story becomes clear, the reader finds previous opinions not as solid as they were before. Fowler emphasizes this process by interpolating short anecdotes about 1870’s historical events, which seen from the 1990’s are nearly incomprehensible. Within science fiction, the first-contact story has long been a way of exploring the deep alienation between different groups on Earth, and Sarah Canary is no exception. The mentally ill BJ, the Chinese immigrant Chin, the Indian Tom, the haunted veteran Harold, and the proto-feminist Adelaide all suffer from the blindnesses of the existing power structures.