Thursday, 2 June 2011

The True North Strong and Free

Last year, Mike Perschon dedicated a month to an analysis of Canadian Steampunk literature. One of the most interesting points of it was the omission of vintage Scientific Romances. Admittedly he could not get around to a fantastic anthology of Mounted Police Pulp fiction entitled Scarlet Riders, which does have a few entries that could qualify as Northern fantasy, but the bulk of his study was on modern Steampunk. Even then, only a small handful are set in Canada. There is, unfortunately, a very good reason for this.

Unlike its neighbour to the south, Canada has no strong history of Scientific Romances. Indeed, it has only been in the last 40 years that the Dominion has developed a real voice in Science Fiction. Even then, amidst the Robert J. Sawyers, A.E. van Voghts and William Gibsons, there is still plenty of ambivalence towards the genre. The great dame of Canadian literature, Margaret Atwood, still seems undecided on whether to allow The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake to stoop to being called SF.

The National Game at McGill University

We are not wholly devoid of fantastic Victorian fiction, but the rarity calls attention to the fact. We have futurist tales like The Dominion in 1983 and Tisab Ting, or, The Electric Kiss that speculate on life in Canada a century after their publication dates, but we don't have many. The oddity of our lack of Scientific Romances comes into sharper focus when considering that Canada is, truly and uniquely, an invention of the Victorian Era. To be sure, our collective history goes back much further. Those ancient pioneers from the Ice Age passed through the area that would become Calgary 10,000 years later on their way to populate the Americas. The first European settlement in the Americas was by the Vikings in modern Newfoundland and North America's first Christmas service was held on Hudson's Bay's shores in 1619. North America's oldest corporation, the Hudson's Bay Company founded in 1670, is also Canadian. North America's oldest continuously occupied permanent settlement is Quebec City, which celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2008.

Parliament Hill

The Dominion of Canada as a single political institution began life with Confederation in 1867, coalescing from the British North American colonies of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In 1870, the Hudson's Bay Company sold its vast western holdings to the fledgling nation, all of which became the North-West Territories. Other colonies joined later, and other provinces were carved out of the NWT. Perhaps the most influential member was British Columbia. It joined Confederation in 1871 by the promise that within a decade, a Transcontinental Railway would be built connecting the Pacific coast to the Atlantic.

Steaming through the Rockies

Not only is Canada a product of the Victorian Era, but it is even more so a product of the Steam Age. Perhaps no country on earth owes its existence so thoroughly to the construction of a single railway. By the time the last spike was driven in 1885 at Craigellachie, British Columbia, the Canadian Pacific Railway linked Vancouver to the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway at a distance of some 5000 kilometres. The partially built line permitted the government to send troops to quell the North-West Rebellion earlier in 1885. The southerly route of the line was chosen to assert Canadian sovereignty against an avaricious United States seeking to manifest its presumed destiny. In order to raise profits after the construction of the railway, the CPR essentially created the institution of Canadian tourism and sold the image of the rugged and wild Rocky Mountains to the world. Ever patriotic, the CPR created a fleet of steamships and advertised the first "All Red" route by which one could travel from England to Hong Kong without ever leaving the territory of the British Empire.

Driving the Last Spike

Much of that old British patriotism remains. Canada is a British-style Parliamentary democracy with Queen Elizabeth II as its Head of State, represented by the Governor-General. The closest thing to a national architectural style is Railway Gothic, a variation of Gothic Revival architecture popularized by the stations and hotels of the Canadian Pacific Railway, as well as churches, universities and the Houses of Parliament. Of those hotels, 4:00pm tea time is a regular and essential feature. Canada is the only remaining country of the Commonwealth to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria as a national holiday.

The Banff Springs Hotel

There is no essential reason why Canada should have been as devoid of Scientific Romances as it was. It experienced much of the same progress of technology and expansion of territory that gave rise to the likes of Mark Twain, Edward Ellis and George Griffiths in the USA. Nor did the country lack for dime novel tales of daring do. The legend of the North-West Mounted Police - or Royal Canadian Mounted Police after 1919 - and the glorious era of the Klondike Gold Rush were popularized in pulp novellas. Perhaps they hold the key to our dilemma.

The Most Canadian Picture Ever Taken

The picturesque figure of the Stetsoned, scarlet-coated Mountie against a backdrop of pinewood forest, soaring mountain and frigid, snowswept tundra is the archetypal symbol of Canada. The Mountie himself speaks to a number of things: British tradition, pathological politeness, and political necessity. The image also speaks to that most driving impulse of Canadian identity, the struggle to survive in one of the harshest environments on earth. From the mist-enshrouded Western coast to the storm-tossed Eastern coast to the ice-blocked Northern coast, with all points of forest, mountain and sun-baked prairie in between, this landscape shapes Canada, its citizens and its society.

This fact was lit onto quite early. In response to an exhibition of CPR painters in 1888, Louis Lloyd observed the following:
If literature and politics so far failed to awaken in Canadians any lively national spirit, surely the pictures of all that glorious land, that is ours, must send the blood tingling through our veins with wild enthusiasm and wilder hopes. Patriotism in all its depth and beauty and passion, Canadians may not feel, alas! but gazing on these 'everlasting hills,' a sentiment closely akin to it must thrill even the coldest of us...

So it is that stories of technological accomplishment gave up space to stories about this glorious, incredible, sublime, harrowing countryside. The Canadian Pacific Railway itself was not so much accomplished as completed. Wisely spoke the old wag who said that the Rocky Mountains are never conquered... They are merely kept from conquering you. Canadian wilderness paintings are always done from the bottom of the mountain, never the top. Even the new types of communication technologies in those few Scientific Romances addressed a simple problem: how to unite a nation spread across so vast a distance. Countless stories of Mounties getting their man against startling backdrops and all nature's beauty and brutality were enough for this Romantic land without the fanciful, embellishments.


Sean K. Dunkley said...

A fascinating article that leaves me with ample food for thought. I consider myself lucky that Alberta was the province I settled in after arriving over a decade ago. Not that I'm jingoist, but from the sheer fact that the province seemed to encapsulate a strong residual fragrance of what I had grown up to associate with an era of exploration and intrepid new lands.

Gotthammer said...

I leave the discussion of the Victorian scientific romances to the resident expert in the field! Great post, Cory.

Cory Gross said...


Sean, Southern Alberta does have an incredibly interesting history in that regard. We go almost directly from archaeological, pre-literate First Nations history smack into full-bore Victorian British. That full-bore Victorian is also relatively recent, before which lies untold and unrecorded aeons. And because it's right on the edge of the Great Plains and the gateway to the Rockies, it does still carry that psychological effect of being the far frontier, beyond which lies Terra Incognita (or Vancouver, roughly the same).

Mike, I'm still working on one of them, but I will for sure be reviewing the other one this month. And Verne. And Montgomery, because how could I not?