Thursday, 30 June 2011

Nonsense Novels (1911)

Once upon a time, in that brief span between the wars, the most well-known humourist in the English-speaking world was a Canadian. Stephen Leacock, though born in England, emigrated early to Canada and became a staunch patriot in the conservative mold. The unfortunate side of this conservatism was opposition to women's suffrage and the immigration of non-whites. The fortunate side is that he was a keen satirist. His early work Nonsense Novels is a fine example of it.

A very short anthology of shorts, Nonsense Novels plays and prods the standard tropes of Victorian-Edwardian popular literature. Few genres are left untouched, be they the romances of the Scottish moors, the robust tales of seafaring sailors, spiritualist mysteries, detective whodunits and Scientific Romances.

The first story, Maddened by Mystery; or, The Defective Detective puts us on a fishy case of abduction. The Prince of Wurttemberg has been kidnapped under mysterious circumstances. With the pride of the Empire riding upon him, he has gone missing and The Great Detective has been given explicit instructions to retrieve him safely and soundly, without his markings altered or his tail clipped. What?

Leacock's style is not a highly literary one. He bludgeons, but in so doing demonstrates a regretted familiarity with the genres he is satirizing. For example, in the introduction to the second short "Q." A Psychic Pstory of the Psupernatural,
I cannot expect that any of my readers will believe the story which I am about to narrate. Looking back upon it, I scarcely believe it myself. Yet my narrative is so extraordinary and throws such light upon the nature of our communications with beings of another world, that I feel I am not entitled to withhold it from the public.

I had gone over to visit Annerly at his rooms. It was Saturday, October 31. I remember the date so precisely because it was my pay day, and I had received six sovereigns and ten shillings. I remembered the sum so exactly because I had put the money into my pocket, and I remember into which pocket I had put it because I had no money in any other pocket. My mind is perfectly clear on all these points.

Annerly and I sat smoking for some time.

Then quite suddenly—

"Do you believe in the supernatural?" he asked.

I started as if I had been struck.

At the moment when Annerly spoke of the supernatural I had been thinking of something entirely different. The fact that he should speak of it at the very instant when I was thinking of something else, struck me as at least a very singular coincidence.

For a moment I could only stare.

Annerly went on to narrate the story of his associate Q. who travelled to Australia and has not been heard from since. That is, until the previous night when his psychic manifestation manifested, indicating that he was in need of two shillings. Our narrator happily donated to this experiment of monetary communication with astral phorms. The experiments repeat night after night, even increasing in sums.

Guido the Gimlet of Ghent: A Romance of Chivalry vandalizes the errant knight's quest narrative and Gertrude the Governess: or, Simple Seventeen deconstructs the savage Gothic tale of bad manors and receding heirlines.
It was a wild and stormy night on the West Coast of
Scotland. This, however, is immaterial to the present
story, as the scene is not laid in the West of Scotland.
For the matter of that the weather was just as bad on the
East Coast of Ireland.

But the scene of this narrative is laid in the South of
England and takes place in and around Knotacentinum Towers
(pronounced as if written Nosham Taws), the seat of Lord
Knotacent (pronounced as if written Nosh).

But it is not necessary to pronounce either of these names in reading them.

Nosham Taws was a typical English home. The main part of the house was an Elizabethan structure of warm red brick, while the elder portion, of which the Earl was inordinately proud, still showed the outlines of a Norman Keep, to which had been added a Lancastrian Jail and a Plantagenet Orphan Asylum. From the house in all directions stretched magnificent woodland and park with oaks and elms of immemorial antiquity, while nearer the house stood raspberry bushes and geranium plants which had been set out by the Crusaders.

About the grand old mansion the air was loud with the chirping of thrushes, the cawing of partridges and the clear sweet note of the rook, while deer, antelope and other quadrupeds strutted about the lawn so tame as to eat off the sun-dial. In fact, the place was a regular menagerie.

From the house downwards through the park stretched a beautiful broad avenue laid out by Henry VII.

Lord Nosh stood upon the hearthrug of the library. Trained diplomat and statesman as he was, his stern aristocratic face was upside down with fury.

"Boy," he said, "you shall marry this girl or I disinherit you. You are no son of mine."

Young Lord Ronald, erect before him, flung back a glance as defiant as his own.

"I defy you," he said. "Henceforth you are no father of mine. I will get another. I will marry none but a woman I can love. This girl that we have never seen——"

"Fool," said the Earl, "would you throw aside our estate and name of a thousand years? The girl, I am told, is beautiful; her aunt is willing; they are French; pah! they understand such things in France."

"But your reason——"

"I give no reason," said the Earl. "Listen, Ronald, I give one month. For that time you remain here. If at the end of it you refuse me, I cut you off with a shilling."

Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.

As the door of the library closed upon Ronald the Earl sank into a chair. His face changed. It was no longer that of the haughty nobleman, but of the hunted criminal. "He must marry the girl," he muttered. "Soon she will know all. Tutchemoff has escaped from Siberia. He knows and will tell. The whole of the mines pass to her, this property with it, and I—but enough." He rose, walked to the sideboard, drained a dipper full of gin and bitters, and became again a high-bred English gentleman.

A Hero in Homespun: or, The Life Struggle of Hezekiah Hayloft is a tale of a hayseed trying to make it in the big city, discovering that hard work and honesty are not nearly so well-rewarded as meanness and criminality. As might be gleaned by now, Leacock enjoys terse sentences that play strongly on the absurdity of misbegotten trust blinding one participant in an exchange to the motivations of another. That is true of friendships and financial arrangements, but especially true of the romances that occupy several stories. In Sorrows of a Super Soul: or, The Memoirs of Marie Mushenough (Translated, by Machinery, out of the Original Russian.) we recount,
Each morning I go to see Otto beside the river in the meadow.

He sits and paints, and I sit with my hands clasped about my knees and talk to him. I tell him all that I think, all that I read, all that I know, all that I feel, all that I do not feel.

He listens to me with that far-away look that I have learned to love and that means that he is thinking deeply; at times he almost seems not to hear.

The intercourse of our minds is wonderful.

We stimulate one another's thought.

Otto is my master. I am his disciple!

Yesterday I asked him if Hegel or Schlegel or Whegel gives the truest view of life.

He said he didn't know! My Otto!


To-day Otto asked me for a keepsake.

I offered him one of my hatpins. But he said no. He has taken instead the diamond buckle from my belt.

I read his meaning.

He means that I am to him as a diamond is to lesser natures.


Yesterday Otto asked me for another keepsake. I took a gold rouble from my bag and said that he should break it in half and that each should keep one of the halves.

But Otto said no. I divined his thought. It would violate our love to break the coin.

He is to keep it for both of us, and it is to remain unbroken like our love.

Is it not a sweet thought?

Otto is so thoughtful. He thinks of everything.

To-day he asked me if I had another gold rouble.

The romance of Scotland and its wee faer maid'ns is pummelled in Hannah of the Highlands: or, The Laird of Loch Aucherlocherty ("A pair of bagpipes were beneath his arm, from which, as he walked, he blew those deep and plaintive sounds which have done much to imprint upon the characters of those who hear them a melancholy and resigned despair."). Soaked in Seaweed: or, Upset in the Ocean (An Old-fashioned Sea Story.) casts a conspiracy of murder, treachery and piracy on the high seas. Caroline's Christmas: or, The Inexplicable Infant gives us a heartwarming Yuletide miracle: the million-dollar mortgage is up on the family farm when a wealthy stranger shows up on their doorstep looking for shelter on Christmas Eve... and, conveniently, he sleeps with his back to the door.

The tenth and final story in the anthology is The Man in Asbestos: An Allegory of the Future, in which Leacock describes his envy of other authors:
To begin with let me admit that I did it on purpose. Perhaps it was partly from jealousy.

It seemed unfair that other writers should be able at will to drop into a sleep of four or five hundred years, and to plunge head-first into a distant future and be a witness of its marvels.

I wanted to do that too.

I always had been, I still am, a passionate student of social problems. The world of to-day with its roaring machinery, the unceasing toil of its working classes, its strife, its poverty, its war, its cruelty, appals me as I look at it. I love to think of the time that must come some day when man will have conquered nature, and the toil-worn human race enter upon an era of peace.

I loved to think of it, and I longed to see it.

So I set about the thing deliberately.

What I wanted to do was to fall asleep after the customary fashion, for two or three hundred years at least, and wake and find myself in the marvel world of the future.

I made my preparations for the sleep.

I bought all the comic papers that I could find, even the illustrated ones. I carried them up to my room in my hotel: with them I brought up a pork pie and dozens and dozens of doughnuts. I ate the pie and the doughnuts, then sat back in the bed and read the comic papers one after the other. Finally, as I felt the awful lethargy stealing upon me, I reached out my hand for the London Weekly Times, and held up the editorial page before my eye.

It was, in a way, clear, straight suicide, but I did it.

I could feel my senses leaving me. In the room across the hall there was a man singing. His voice, that had been loud, came fainter and fainter through the transom. I fell into a sleep, the deep immeasurable sleep in which the very existence of the outer world was hushed. Dimly I could feel the days go past, then the years, and then the long passage of the centuries.

The sleeper wakes sometime probably in the year 3000, but no one is quite sure because they stopped counting after death was eliminated. Machinery, chemical foods and a stabilized climate and the revolt against fashion has eliminated work ("it made the sky grey, as you see it, and the sea gum-coloured, the weather all the same"). Along with them came the elimination of change and events. People could still die by accident, which is why most forms of sport and transportation have been banned, needless as they would have been anyways. Why travel when all is sameness?

The sleeper, a social reformer (though Leacock himself was arch-conservative) is appalled at the real meaning behind his efforts towards social equality. Leacock did not allow his sleeper to point out the fatal flaw in this sort of satire or the philosophy of "toil makes life worth living" that objects to utopianism. Such romantic notions about labour only sound reasonable when one is well-fed through fairly comfortable amounts of labour. In the West, fears of a post-scarcity economy are really just a petty rejection of potential boredom. For everyone else, the prospect of not seeing your infant children starve to death sounds pretty good. The claim that work is an embiggening experience is a paternalistic artefact of a 40 hour work week with paid vacations and Employment Insurance.

Likewise, the sleeper can only be appalled that the future has extinguished war and its acts of heroism because Nonsense Novels was published in Canada in 1911. Perhaps being published in Germany in 1946, or anywhere outside of the West at any other point in history, might have yielded different results. Leacock does achieve a presumable goal with The Man in Asbestos, however, which is to get one thinking critically about utopianism at the very least, if only to defend it.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Tisab Ting; or, The Electrical Kiss (1896)

One of Canada's earliest extant Scientific Romances, Tisab Ting; or, The Electrical Kiss is a difficult book to make sense of. It was written by New Brunswick native Ida May Ferguson under a pseudonym "Dyjan Fergus" and appears to have been the only book she ever wrote. Why this is so is evidenced by an attempt to read it.

For the lion's share of the novel, Tisab Ting acts like a late Victorian high-society melodrama with a slight twist, being that it takes place a hundred years from its publication date. In this alternate future that the sexual revolution bypassed, the class structure and wide swaths of gender identifications of Montreal have remained intact. Very little is different from the time of Ferguson's writing: she was no Verne, postulating a futuristic French city with an eerie degree of credibility. Tisab Ting could very well have taken place in 1896, but for the main twist.

Our story begins in the affluent household of the Harringtons. Mrs. Harrington has two daughters - Maud and Nan - and a niece, Petra, who fell into her care after her father passed away under mysterious circumstances in China. The girls are outspoken and educated in the manner of the Victorian "New Woman" but not further. They are still victims of class when the son of Petra's father's closest friend announces by letter that is coming to Canada to procure himself a bride. He is the man of the title, Tisab Ting "the Chinaman".

The China of 1996 is an economic and cultural powerhouse. So much so that the daughters repeated express their tired distaste for anything to do with it. They are ill from hearing so much of Chinese learning, Chinese money, Chinese language, Chinese culture, Chinese literature. When they first hear of Tisab Ting they are, except for the avaricious Maud, filled with disgust at the prospect of marrying a Chinese man. When they finally meet him, he is routinely described as ugly without our being given any particular ugly characteristic. The ladies and their author are typically Victorian and typically Canadian.

The first major wave of Chinese immigration into what is now Canada took place in British Columbia in the 1850's in response to the Fraser Gold Rush. Many came to Canada to get money one way or another, either as miners themselves or, more frequently, in labour and service. The next wave came with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway through BC. Treated as unskilled and expendable, these 15,000 men were made to work the most difficult sections of track and it is said that there is one dead Chinese man for every mile of the railway. The goal of a new life was worth the cost for countless workers. Many hoped to bring their families to Canada have build a new life there, and many more hoped to return to China with the wealth that could buy a new life. It was not to be.

Nervous people and a nervous government sought to restrict an influx of non-British, non-white immigrants with an increasingly stringent set of rules governing employment, housing and citizenship. No sooner was the railway finished in 1885 than a "Chinese Immigration Act" was signed, imposing a $50 head tax. In 1900 that tax was elevated to $100 and in 1903 was raised again to $500, which is equivalent to $10,000 today. Head tax was finally repealed in 1923 by a new Chinese Immigration Act that effectively banned immigration entirely. The government did not apologise or provide restitution for the millions of dollars collected in head tax until 2006.

For the entire duration of the novel, one is left wondering where Ida May Ferguson stands on the question of China. If the reader assumes her to be speaking through her characters, then she does reflect the typically racist and paternalistic attitudes of her day. Yet there is little sense in which the elevation of China to "civilized" status is intended as a threatening gesture. The novel's melodrama is not overwrought with the Yellow Peril or the terrors of miscegenation. Rather, it derives from the consistent annoyance of love triangles and quadrangles founded on misunderstandings and misinterpretations and half-truths and half-heard whispers, all of which could be frustratingly resolved had they actually talked to each other instead of running off to this corner or that, to soup kitchens in Boston or the British war against France and Russia in Egypt.

Ferguson's portrayal of the title character is cultured but unsympathetic until he is overwhelmed with unrequited love for Petra. After constant rebuff he resorts to the terrible secret of the electrical kiss, the secret for which Petra's father died. It is a current of energy running through a person that, under special circumstances can be irrevocably manipulated. Tisab Ting uses this to acquire the love of Petra in a manner that all his efforts and entreaties could not. And then the novel goes haywire.

Moral cognitive dissonance assaults the reader of good conscience. By all indications, Ferguson paints Tisab Ting as a helpless victim when forces conspire to pull the swooning Petra away from him. She is struck with her newly conflicting emotions: on the one hand she still feels contemptuous indifference to her Chinese suitor, on the other she feels a sudden surge of intense romance. Against this ardour she is intellectually aware that she did not feel this way before that fated electrical kiss. Taking advantage of this, a misandrist woman helps Petra to escape into anonymity. Tisab Ting is treated henceforth as a victim, gaining the assistance of Petra's friends and family in tracking his poor confused wife back down.

The fact that Tisab Ting robbed Petra of her free will, a act of cowardice if not rape, is never really brought up. Her flight from her husband is about the only truly sensible and definitive act that anybody in the novel takes. Here we see the discomforting aspect of William Gibson's observation that Science Fiction is not about the future, but rather, colonizes the future with the present. Looking back on Ida May Freguson's future from a perspective that is post-Suffrage and post-Feminist, its glaringly unapologetic, unselfconscious, unprescient Victorian attitudes strain the eyes.

Besides those interested in the early years of Canadian speculative fiction, a reading of Tisab Ting; or, The Electrical Kiss would be most illuminating for those who like to theorize about what would have happened if the Victorian Era would have just kept going for another century. For the time, the novel was not very well received and was Ferguson's only known published work.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Dominion in 1983 (1883)

In 1883, the author "Ralph Centennius" wrote The Dominion in 1983, one of the popular "looking backwards" style of stories imprinting the writer's anxieties and Utopian visions onto the future. Par for the course, it includes some fanciful speculations, such as giving Canada's 1983 population in excess of 93,000,000 when in fact it was 25,367,000. Without saying it also alters history that had not been carved yet.

A mere two years in Centennius' future was an Aboriginal resistance against the government. The main actors were the Cree First Nations, who held the government to task for refusal to honour the treaties signed ten years before, and the Metis, a distinctly Canadian ethnic group descendant of Native mothers and primarily French-Canadian fathers. Centred in the modern province of Saskatchewan, the newly-built railway permitted the government to mobilize troops and rout the resistance. Nevertheless, its figurehead, Louis Riel, was executed for treason and ever since regarded as one of the country's most complex heroes.

The Dominion in 1983 did not foresee this resistance, and exchanged it for a thwarted 1887 attack by zealots for American Manifest Destiny. Though not entirely perceptive to what was going on within the country, Centennius was aware - as every Canadian must be - of the inherent threat posed by a powerful neighbour imbued with a sense of Divine entitlement over the territories of others.

As a short story, it glosses over much, declaring that a "solution" to various and sundry problems was found without saying what those solutions are. However, "Centennius" takes great joy in discussing his futuristic rocket car. These tubular passenger craft launch from various Canadian cities, flying across the country at high speed. The timing is a bit off (Winnipeg to Victoria in 40 minutes?), but understanding that he is writing from a paradigm of railways makes his prediction of commercial airlines charmingly accurate.

That essentially accurate prediction developed out of an issue of practical problem solving. The ultimate question that Centennius is trying to answer is how to make Canada a thriving, successful global power. He is not always up to the task, as evidenced by his declaration that some problems have been simply "solved", but he is perceptive about three things. One is the required rise in population. Like every other First World country, Canada is suffering a declining population. Actual arguments over immigration rife throughout the media and political message boards are purely academic: immigration is a simple economic necessity for the country to maintain a base of income to support its social safety mechanisms.

The second thing he recognized was the need to neutralize and diminish the threat posed by the United States. That, for good or ill, is not something that materialized. Only three decades into "The Canadian Century", as the 20th century was initially called, it became apparent that the balance was tipping towards the USA. By the fourth decade, the balance was being weighed by the USSR and Canada embarked on a mission to organize the "middle powers" into a cohesive diplomatic voice. Thus the prominent role played by the country in the formation of the United Nations, the UN peacekeeping forces and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The third problem was how to unite such a disparate nation, the second largest in the world. To overcome distance he invented commercial air travel, which certainly has benefited Canada a great deal. Nothing exactly matched the original impact of the railway and the telegraph, but Canada does pride itself on advancements in telecommunications and pairing that nationwide ribbon of steel with a ribbon of pavement that finally did unite all of Canada coast-to-coast with the building of the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island in 1997.

The fact that Centennius chose this task is significant in itself. As one of the earliest examples of the country's speculative fiction, it could not quite lay out a solid foundation for "Canadian Utopianism"... A term that felt counter-intuitive even as I wrote it. Ever since, Canadians' favorite pastime has been imagining horrifying futures for themselves and our most well-known futurist novel remains The Handmaid's Tale.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Canada: Land of the Lake Monsters

Canada is a nation superlatively blessed nation. Possessing of exquisite beauty and sublime wonder, overflowing with a bounty of natural resources, comfortably populated with a civil society and a relatively benign history, consistently one of the best economies and highest standards of living in the world, stretching from sea to sea to sea. A popular joke has God ordaining this most blessed nation to the chagrin of the angel who remarks "Really Lord, I'm not one to criticize, but aren't you giving these Canadians a bit too much?" To which He replies "Oh, wait 'till you see who I'm putting them next to."

The True North Strong and Free also boasts another embarrassment of riches: it also has the highest per capita population of lake monsters in the world.

A tally counts 17 such creatures, only three less than the absolute total held by the United States, which also has over nine times the human population. Canada's lake monsters stretch from one shore to the other, including honorary incumbent Cadborosaurus, a sea serpent said to haunt the Salish Sea surrounding Vancouver Island. The creature is named for Cadboro Bay near Victoria, British Columbia, which has been a fruitful spot for sightings of an elongated, serpentine creature with a horse- or camel-like head and flippers.

A Cadborosaurus carcass, c.1937?

The best documented material on Cadborosaurus originated in 1937 from a series of photographs taken at Naden Harbour on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). Purported to have been recovered from the belly of a Sperm Whale, the creature was three metres long and matched eyewitness descriptions. Remnants of the specimen have since been lost, but the lack of material evidence did not stop Ed Bousfield, formerly of the Royal Ontario Museum and the Royal British Columbia Museum, and Paul LeBlond, Department of Oceanography, University of British Columbia, from controversially describing it as an extant plesiosaur and assigning it the formal scientific name of Cadborosaurus willsi. In the 1930's, the manufacture of Caddy carcasses and subsequent sale of photographic postcards became a small industry along the Pacific coast.

On the other side of the country, the province of New Brunswick cites the Lake Utopia Monster and Newfoundland speaks of Cressie. Said to occupy Crescent Lake on the island of Newfoundland, Cressie's pedigree goes back to local Native tribes who called it "Woodum Haoot" (Pond Devil) or "Haoot Tuwedyee" (Swimming Demon). Described as eel-like, settlers began sighting it in the early 1900's, but the most tantalizing piece of evidence is a pair of scuba divers scavenging a plane crash in the 1980's who reported having been attacked by a school of unusually large eels.

Ontario has a high population of lake monsters, the most famous of which is Igopogo. This mammal-like creature with a more canine head is rarely spotted in it's home waters of Lake Simcoe. Still, friendly competition exists between the towns along the shore of the lake. Those in Beaverton insist on calling it "Beaverton Bessie" while those at Kempenfelt Bay call it "Kempenfelt Kelly". Lake Simcoe, like much of Canada, is known for a healthy population of aquatic mammals like otters, mink, muskrat and beavers.

The inhabitants of the Muskrat Lake region are happy to promote the existence of Mussie, making reference to three species of Ice Age shrimp that survived from the ancient Champlain Sea. This sea was an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean that, in the wake of the great glaciers, flooded much of Ontario, Quebec, New York and Vermont along Lake Champlain and the Saint Lawrence River valley. Existence of the ancient inlet was determined by the discovery of Atlantic whale fossils and marine shells through the provinces. Serious devotees of Mussie also look to Seal Lake in Quebec, which hosts some 1000 landlocked Harbour Seals, suggesting that their creature may be another bunch of isolated marine mammals. Traditional descriptions are far more whimsical, including three eyes and a forked tongue.

Near Thunder Bay, Ontario, along the shores of Lake Superior, there have been reports of some manner of merbeing. Skeptics have suggested that the creature may be another seal, if it exists at all. Nevertheless, a 1942 article in Canada's vaunted historical magazine The Beaver sits alongside a grotesque merman sitting in a back room of the Indian Trading Post in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Banff, Alberta.

Postcard of the Banff merman, posed in front of Mount Rundle.

Built in 1903, the Indian Trading Post was the business of Banff pioneer Norman Luxton. One of the old time outfitters and property-owners (including the local newspaper, movie theatre, and a hotel), he conducted a close relationship with the Nakoda, T'suu Tina and Blackfoot First Nations adjacent to the park and sold their crafts in his shop while displaying their cultural artifacts in the neighbouring Buffalo Nations Museum. He was also an avid hunter and taxidermist himself, as well as a collector of oddities. One of these oddities is the merman, for which he could produce a shipping bill for "One fish-man" from Java.

La Belle Provence, Quebec, boasts three lake monsters of its own: Memphré in Lake Memphrémagog, Lizzie in Lac Decaire, and Ponik in Lac Pohénégamook. Manitoba lays claim to several of the largest lakes in Canada concentrated in the southern half of the province, and these are home to two monsters, being Manipogo in Lake Manitoba and Winnipogo in Lake Winnipegosis. Sightings of the serpentine Manipogo go back to 1908, and given that the whole system of lakes in the region is interconnected, Manipogo is probably the same creature as Winnipogo, if any such creature exists. Both were given their distinctive names, along with Igopogo, in the 1950's in honor of Canada's most well-known Cryptid... The queen of Canada's lake monsters... British Columbia's Ogopogo.

The majority of Canada's lake monsters are 20th century phenomena, or at the very least dating to after the surrounding regions were occupied by Euro-Canadian settlers. Ogopogo's vintage is far older, going back in Salish First Nations legend as N'ha-a-itk, the "demon of the waters." Living in the depths of the lake, the Salish believed that N'ha-a-itk controlled the winds and the waters, demanding sacrifice for safe passage over its surface. He was particularly dangerous around a promontory that came to be known as Squally Point, renowned for its foul weather. It was thought that Squally Point, adjacent to an island known variously as Rattlesnake Island and Monster Island, was the demon's home.

Not all were willing to cast a chicken or other small animal to the demon. Native legend tell of Timbasket, a skeptic, who refused to pay the toll. He was so defiant of convention that he even chose to row himself and his family close to Squally Point. As if on queue, N'ha-a-itk rose and whipped up the surface of the lake, dragging Timbasket and his retinue into the darkness amidst the storm. The first Euro-Canadian settlers continued to observe the custom, reinforced by an incident in 1854 or 55. John MacDougall tied a team of horses to his canoe and was swimming them across the lake near Squally Point when the surface was once more whipped up. The horses began to drown, threatening to pull MacDougall along with them until he cut the rope with his knife.

Illustration of N'ha-a-itk, c.1872.

The first documented sighting happened in 1872 by a Mrs. Susan Allison who saw what seemed to be a log floating against the current, and N'ha-a-itk was seen with some regularity by Euro-Canadians thereafter. He was seen again in 1880, at the ranche of a Judge Haynes while his employees were hewing rafts out of logs floated down the lake. Another sighting came in 1890 by Captain Thomas Shorts, who could not wheel his boat around fast enough to catch a clear look at a creature he described as being finned, approximately 16' long and possessing a head comparable to a ram's. These regular sightings spiked in the 1920's - including a 1926 sighting by a 30-strong autocade - when N'ha-a-itk was enshrined in popular song. Inspired by the pogo stick craze of the time, Vancouver reporter Ronald Kenvyn adapted a British drinking song, and in so doing, provided the water demon with a happier-sounding name:
His mother was an earwig;
His father was a whale;
A little bit of head
And hardly any tail
And Ogopogo was his name.

Since the song, Ogopogo has become a veritable tourism industry for the communities of Kelowna, Vernon and Penticton that front the lake. Theme parks have featured him as a mascot, souvenir stores sell plush varieties, amateur hockey teams incorporate him into their logos, and a statue sits at Kelowna's waterfront. Sightings continue, and video footage surfaces every few years. Most of this relies on observers unfamiliar with local wildlife or, incredibly, the action of waves on the narrow, windy, heavily used lake.

Statue of Ogopogo in Kelowna.

Lake Okanagan is 135km long and 4-5km wide throughout, with a maximum depth of 232m. Flanking the lake are the mountains of the British Columbia interior and fertile plains left in the wake of the larger glacial lake that once occupied the valley carved by Ice Age glaciers. These plains are used by local fruit orchards and vineyards, growing and pressing wares of high reputation throughout the country. Squally Point today is a popular spot for cliff-diving, as the cliff-face descends deep into the water, where no bottom is visible. Nearby Rattlesnake Island has many subsurface caves and amidst the waves and surf, an audible sucking sound can be regularly heard. Right now, the greatest threat to the residents of the Okanagan valley is not a lake monster, but a reduction in precipitation brought on by global climate change which is shrinking the lake's size and industries.

At this juncture, I feel that I should clearly outline my bias. I do believe that the scientific discipline of cryptozoology is valid, important and fascinating. Cryptozoology is the scientific study of previous undescribed animal species: animals either entirely unexpected, or ones previously thought extinct. This is to be distinguished from the fringe pseudo-science of cryptozoology that stands alongside UFOs, ghost photographs and Atlantis. Scientific cryptozoology is an evidence-based approach utilizing the Scientific Method, including publication in accredited, peer-reviewed scientific journals. The errors of Bousfield and LeBlond included naming their new species of Cadborosaurus from photographs without a physical specimen, which is verbotten by decree of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Another was in the ridiculously dubious identification of it as a plesiosaur,which could have been rectified by proper research on that group of marine reptiles. Despite pop-culture depictions, there are no marine creatures in history less like the image of undulating, serpentine sea monsters than are plesiosaurs.

The verifiable scientific record is enticing validation for scientific cryptozoology. Gorillas, for example, were not properly described until 1902. Okapi, the short-necked cousin of the Giraffe, were sighted in 1890 but not confirmed until 1901. The Vu Quang Ox of Vietnam was only known from horns, skulls, skins, and the reports of hunters until some were finally caught in 1994. Komodo Dragons were not confirmed until 1926, their discovery prompting a train of thought in the mind of movie producer Mirian C. Cooper that culminated in King Kong. In the depths of the ocean, the presumed long-extinct Coelacanth was dredged up in 1938 and the Megamouth Shark went undiscovered until 1976. Giant Squid, which had been known from legends of kraken since time immemorial and identified scientifically in the 1850s, still hadn't been photographed in its natural habitat until 2004. Up till then, all that was known of their biology and ecology was gleaned from evidence literally gathered from on and in Sperm Whales, as well as what washed up on shores around the world. The Bandolero Beaked Whale was only formally named in 1991 from specimens recovered in the 1970's and 80's. There are others.

This elaborate apology is simply to say that I believe there is inestiminable scientific value in the hunt for new forms of life here on earth. It is a quest that has yet to be exhausted. It is not, however, to say that I believe in the factual existence of Canada's bevy of lake monsters. This study has been a document of their cultural history. They have occupied a novel place in Canada's history and local economies, and I myself spent many a childhood family vacation in the Okanagan valley with eyes peeled for the creature whose plush effigy I held in my hands.

In fact, I still have him!

Or as I like to say, I believe that Ogopogo is real but I don't believe that he exists.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Renfrew of the Royal Mounted (1937)

Hollywood never wanted for films set in the rugged wilderness of the high north during the 1920's, 30's and 40's. Between An Acadian Elopement in 1907 and the 1975 publication of Pierre Burton's damning Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image, 575 films were produced featuring mountainous and snowy locales populated by trappers, loggers and the women of disrepute who loved them. The vast majority of these focused on that most iconic figure of Canadian history, the Mountie.

The Mountie movie offered an affordable and exotic deviation from the cheap Westerns being produced in multitudes. The Interwar years were the heyday of these Wild West potboilers, being popular and easy to make. Saddle up a few horses, pull out the cowboy on contract and send him riding around Griffith Park or the Vasquez Rocks after the outlaws. These Nickelodeon fillers suffered for their rapidity, however. One does not get very far into oeuvre of Roy Rogers before recognizing the same plot threads, or sometimes even identical stories.

The mix could be livened up with a transplant into the wild Northwest. With a change of coat and headgear, the Southwestern sheriff becomes the scarlet-clad Mountie in a plot that could be - and most likely was - pulled from an American Western with only a change in place name. With a change in place name comes a change in location. Hollywood producers could shift away from the dusty valleys surrounding Los Angeles and migrate up to the Sierra Nevada mountains, doubling them for the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

In most cases, this was considered good enough. The otherwise costly Rose Marie of 1936 was filmed in the Lake Tahoe region, meant to double for rural Quebec. A few were ambitious enough to actually film in Canada, like 1954's Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, the lavish technicolor backdrops of Banff National Park were about all the filmmakers chose to get right. The film features a great march from Fort Saskatchewan in central Alberta to Fort Walsh in southwestern Saskatchewan, which should be across open prairie and badland coulees. Instead, they traverse via Moraine Lake amidst the Rocky Mountains, over 500km west of either outpost.

Yet the 1936 release of Rose Marie touched off a change in Mounted Police melodramas. To be sure, the men in scarlet continued to get their man, but they began to do so with a song in their hearts. One of the archetypal of the Mounted Police heroes was Sergeant Douglas Renfrew, invented by Laurie York Erskine for a series of novels that ran from 1922 through 1941. Beginning with Renfrew of the Royal Mounted, the titular character predated the radio hero Sergeant Preston and set much of the image of the Mountie as Pulp action hero.

With Rose Marie falling in somewhere between the great Hollywood musicals and the lineage of the singing cowboy typified by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Renfrew had to pick up the operatics. James Newill was selected to play the stalwart figure in scarlet, coming hot off of his introductory role in Something to Sing About (1937). Renfrew would go on to star in a series of films including On the Great White Trail (1938), Fighting Mad and Crashing Thru (1939), Yukon Flight, Murder on the Yukon, Danger Ahead and Sky Bandits (all in 1940). His popularity was undeniable and on that account he solidified the stereotype of the cinema Mountie.

Like its predecessor, Renfrew of the Royal Mounted warps time and space. There is absolutely no indication of where the film takes place. It is merely some kind of typical northern pine forest environment, befitting of a backwoods tale of trappers and loggers at the turn of the century. However, once his jovial BBQ sauce contest is wrapped up, Renfrew is put on the trail of 1930's mob counterfeiters. Their method of smugglery is uniquely Canadian and could only be credible in a film of this genre, but nevertheless, it is the man in the red serge on his mighty steed chasing down tommygun-toting gangsters in classic sedans.

These northwoods adventures were popular, if the number of them attests to anything. Yet they were fundamentally undone by a brand new development in cinema technology: air conditioning. Prior to the mechanical adjustment of temperature within the theatre, "snow pictures" were sold on their ability to psychologically cool down patrons in the midsummer heat. No doubt this has much to do with the popular image of Canada as a perpetually frigid nation; there were vested marketing influences in portraying us so!

Eventually Hollywood did figure out that the Canadian Mountie differed substantively from the American sheriff in conduct and demeanor, but the zealously over-polite Mountie himself became an object of ridicule. After the effective death of Mountie movies, northwoods romances and snow pictures, an animator by the name of Jay Ward recalled their heyday with his satirical cartoon Dudley Do-Right of the Mounted Police in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Based on those films, especially the silent ones, Dudley Do-Right poked at a genre that had descended into self-parody. Both the Northerns and the Westerns from which they derived declined into the 60's, without a John Ford or Sergio Leone to redeem the former.

The complete Renfrew of the Royal Mounted (1937)

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Rose Marie (1936)

An excerpt from Rose Marie (1936).

Based on a musical that first took to the stage in 1924, Rose Marie is perhaps one of the most reknowned of the fictional tales of the Scarlet Riders of the North, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. With music by Rudolph Friml and Herbert Stothart and lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II, the original theatrical version was the longest running until it was surpassed by Show Boat, and both went head-to-head in the theatres in 1936.

The 1936 film version was not the first for either. Show Boat was previously filmed in 1929, and Rose Marie was given the silent treatment the year before. In fact, Rose Marie was filmed twice in 1928, with one of the versions starring Joan Crawford. Both films were also redone in the 1950's as lavish, Technicolor productions: Rose Marie in 1956 and Show Boat in 1951. However, the 1936 version of both are what stand up as the classics of cinema musicals. For Show Boat it is the deep bass of Paul Robeson's "Old Man River", and for Rose Marie it is Nelson Eddy's baritone "Indian Love Call".

Part of the appeal of both films is that they feature an anahcronistic and romantic escape from the world in which they are initially set. They are each conspicuously set in the 1930's and in a metropolitan environment, at least for Show Boat's multi-generational ending and Rose Marie's opening and closing sequences. However, the largest part of each film takes place in some bygone time or place. Show Boat looks back to the era of king cotton and Mississippi riverboats. Rose Marie heads off into the Canadian backwoods populated by fur trappers and First Nations tribes. Recognizing this pattern also diffuses much criticism that has been levied against Rose Marie.

Canada's national character is suffused with a hinterland mentality. For most of its history, Canada has been viewed within and without as either a Western colony of the British Empire or a Northern pantry for the United States of America. That sense of being a hinterland has in turn created a sensitivity, perhaps an over-sensitivity, to how Canada is portrayed in the media of other countries. It is certainly an understandable fear: it does little good for the national ego to be misrepresented by Hollywood and then, by virtue of America's overwhelming influence in media, to have those images recycled back into the country with little opportunity for homegrown rebuttal. Hence the relatively strict laws enacted by the government that ensure a percentage of Canadian-generated content on television and radio.

This sensitivity can bring films like Rose Marie under the gun of zealous patriots, historians and even the brass of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It does have its flaws and it is easy to pick on them, most of which have to do with geography. As a hinterland, the landscape forms an intensely defining part of Canadian identity, as our history has largely been one of trying to survive in one of the world's harshest environments. Being as important as it is for the zeitgeist, it is also a sticking point when someone else gets it wrong. There is an ongoing joke about the ignorant, hypothetical acquaintance from south of the border who asks a resident of Calgary or Vancouver if they know their friend in Toronto.

For Rose Marie, the filmmakers couldn't seem to settle on whether the movie was set in the forested hills of northern Quebec or in the craggy passes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, separated by over 4000km. Of course, shooting took place in the Sierra Mountains of California in the vicinity of Lake Tahoe. At least it wasn't as bad as the 1954 film Saskatchewan, which interpreted this titular flat stretch of the central plains above North Dakota and eastern Montana as being as mountainous as anywhere in British Columbia or the Yukon. Rose Marie even, and typically, confused Native tribes as well, putting the feather headresses of the plains people on chieftans surrounded by Pacific Northwest totem poles, all in northern Quebec.

The result of these and other charicatures, like log cabins and French Canadian fur trappers, results in Rose Marie being something more like an emotive snapshot of archetypal Canadiana... Like a postcard of one of the proud Scarlet Riders astride his horse against a backdrop of Lake Louise. To those patriots discussed before, this is taken almost personally. Yet it is too personally if one looks at it in the context of Hollywood films of the Golden Age. Compared to adventure films, one must wonder if it's even worth worrying about the accuracy of Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) or The Shiek (1921). There is even the question of Americans getting their own setting correct, given the spatial-temporal distortion in Show Boat or numerous movies in which Roy Rogers rides Trigger from the dusty frontier towns of the 1860's to the big Gotham cities of the 1930's as though all of history existed in but one celluloid moment separated only by a fade-in.

Viewed in that light, compared not to Canada's actual geography but to other films of the 1930's, Rose Marie is almost flattering. Though suffused with a hinterland humility, it is charming to think that at least for a few decades, Hollywood and its patrons across the lower 48 thought Canada to be a ruggedly sublime and exotic land. Standing triumphantly over that mysterious hinterland of mountain valley and pine forest was the figure of the Mountie bedecked in red serge coat and brown Stetson hat, looking suspiciously like Nelson Eddy and singing at the top of his lungs.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Anne of Green Gables (1908)

Besides the clean-cut, scarlet figure of the Mountie, one other stands as a true pop-culture icon of Canada: Anne of Green Gables. The little pigtailed girl with straw hat and flaming red hair is world-renowned. It's even said that she's more popular in Japan than in Canada, and at the very least, Lucy Maud Montgomery's original novel is required reading in grade schools of the former. Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond, authors of Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey, wryly observed that Anne is the closest thing to Mickey Mouse that Canadians ever have or ever will create.

The appeal of the novel is undeniable. Anne occupies a position comparable to a cross between Pollyanna and Tom Sawyer, another precocious and adventuresome child to whom the whole world is filled with charm and whimsy. Twain, in fact, wrote a letter to Montgomery stating categorically that Anne was "most lovable childhood heroine since the immortal Alice." Montgomery's rendition of the Gay Nineties is also distinctly Canadian. Far north of Walt Disney's Main Street USA and Mark Twain's flowing Mississippi, Anne strolls across the semi-rural hills of Prince Edward Island. Within a short distance of Montgomery's Cavendish - now Prince Edward Island National Park and a National Historic Site - are idyllic meadows, marshes, forest groves, red sand dunes and surging ocean. In Anne's imagination, this pastoral splendor takes on the character of a fairy tale, everything renamed according to her mood, such as christening "Barry's Pond" the "Lake of Shining Waters" or a babbling spring the "Dryad's Bubble". Even on the opposite coast from the craggy Rocky Mountains and its Grand Railway Hotels, Edwardian finery contrasted with stunning nature suggests something of the Canadian character.

Montomgery's story, extrapolated from an old newspaper excerpt about a couple who sent for an orphan boy and received a girl, alternately tugs at the heartstrings and busts out laughter. Aged spinster Marilla Cuthbert and her equally aged, gynephobic brother Matthew send for an orphan boy to help about their farm, Green Gables. Instead, they are surprised to receive a girl, Anne Shirley. The sad tale of the orphan girl desperately wanting a place to call her own, where she is loved and accepted, is regularly punctuated with comedic episodes where her outgoing ways fray the gossipy old ladies of Avonlea towne. She's a redhead and terribly imaginative, neither of which is particularly desirable in a girl, wrapped up in ceaseless talking. And talking. And talking. Within all that talking, though, are observations hilarious, profound and inspiring.

As an example:
The child put out her hand and broke off a branch of wild plum that brushed against the side of the buggy.

"Isn't that beautiful? What did that tree, leaning out from the bank, all white and lacy, make you think of?" she asked.

"Well now, I dunno," said Matthew.

"Why, a bride, of course--a bride all in white with a lovely misty veil. I've never seen one, but I can imagine what she would look like. I don't ever expect to be a bride myself. I'm so homely nobody will ever want to marry me-- unless it might be a foreign missionary. I suppose a foreign missionary mightn't be very particular. But I do hope that some day I shall have a white dress. That is my highest ideal of earthly bliss. I just love pretty clothes. And I've never had a pretty dress in my life that I can remember--but of course it's all the more to look forward to, isn't it? And then I can imagine that I'm dressed gorgeously. This morning when I left the asylum I felt so ashamed because I had to wear this horrid old wincey dress. All the orphans had to wear them, you know. A merchant in Hopeton last winter donated three hundred yards of wincey to the asylum. Some people said it was because he couldn't sell it, but I'd rather believe that it was out of the kindness of his heart, wouldn't you? When we got on the train I felt as if everybody must be looking at me and pitying me. But I just went to work and imagined that I had on the most beautiful pale blue silk dress--because when you ARE imagining you might as well imagine something worth while--and a big hat all flowers and nodding plumes, and a gold watch, and kid gloves and boots. I felt cheered up right away and I enjoyed my trip to the Island with all my might. I wasn't a bit sick coming over in the boat. Neither was Mrs. Spencer although she generally is. She said she hadn't time to get sick, watching to see that I didn't fall overboard. She said she never saw the beat of me for prowling about. But if it kept her from being seasick it's a mercy I did prowl, isn't it? And I wanted to see everything that was to be seen on that boat, because I didn't know whether I'd ever have another opportunity. Oh, there are a lot more cherry-trees all in bloom! This Island is the bloomiest place. I just love it already, and I'm so glad I'm going to live here. I've always heard that Prince Edward Island was the prettiest place in the world, and I used to imagine I was living here, but I never really expected I would. It's delightful when your imaginations come true, isn't it? But those red roads are so funny. When we got into the train at Charlottetown and the red roads began to flash past I asked Mrs. Spencer what made them red and she said she didn't know and for pity's sake not to ask her any more questions. She said I must have asked her a thousand already. I suppose I had, too, but how you going to find out about things if you don't ask questions? And what DOES make the roads red?"

"Well now, I dunno," said Matthew.

"Well, that is one of the things to find out sometime. Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive-- it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there? But am I talking too much? People are always telling me I do. Would you rather I didn't talk? If you say so I'll stop. I can STOP when I make up my mind to it, although it's difficult."

She's like that the whole time, and it's actually quite entertaining. Amidst the humour of incessant chatter lies the beating heart of a passionate Romantic, whether the character or the author.

Montgomery was herself shocked by the popularity of a book that went through five rejections before finally being picked up by a publisher. The following year, she wrote Anne of Avonlea, and in subsequent decades, Chronicles of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne's House of Dreams, Rainbow Valley, Further Chronicles of Avonlea, Rilla of Ingleside, Anne of Windy Poplars and Anne of Ingleside. She also lived to see three film versions: a now lost 1919 silent film, a 1934 adaptation and the 1940 sequel Anne of Windy Poplars. The latter films were such a hit that lead actress Dawn O'Day changed her own stage name to Anne Shirley. Reflecting its popularity in Japan, Anne became an anime series in 1979, directed by future Studio Ghibli auteur Isao Takahata. The most recent franchise, a product of Sullivan Entertainment, began with a television movie in 1985 for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and since spawned into further movies and series's.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Fur Country, or Seventy Degrees North Latitude (1873)

The Fur Country, or Seventy Degrees North Latitude is the second of four novels by Jules Verne set in the wild northlands of Canada. The titular mariner of The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1866), the first novel, merely skirts the nascent country in his quest for the North Pole. The final was written around 1896 but not published intact until 1989, entitled The Golden Volcano and discussing the Klondike Gold Rush. The penultimate was Family Without a Name (1889), about a pair of French-Canadian brothers fighting to redeem their family name by participating in the 1837-38 rebellion against British rule in what is today the province of Quebec. The Fur Country, the sophomore novel, bypasses Francophone loyalties and recounts the adventures and mysteries of the high Canadian Arctic.

The first half of the novel, and the first to be published in 1872, focuses on the Hudson's Bay Company and the attempts of a stalwart band of its traders to set-up a outpost north of 70 degrees. Founded in 1670, The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay is the oldest extant retail corporation in the world and therefore North America's oldest corporation. Furs were the inaugural target of the Bay's trading operations, fuelling the European demand for high quality animal pelts. Greatest demand was for the North American Beaver, whose luxurious undercoat of warm, soft fur was the best for felting and hat-making. Demand for Beaver felt hats did not wane until the middle of the 19th century, and the HBC did not finally retire from fur trading altogether until the 1990's.

In a strange movement of history, much of Canada's existence and identity is predicated on the actions of a handful of corporate entities. Anyone who had to endure the culture-wide angst of the National Hockey League lockout can attest to this. If not for the efforts of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a transcontinental railway would never have united the disparate colonies of British North America, leaving them vulnerable to American expansionism. The HBC has left its stamp as well. The Beaver is Canada's national symbolic animal because of its importance for the fur trade, which in turn symbolizes the fur trade's importance in the exploration of the country for Euro-Canadian expansion. Not that this endeavour was ever a major concern for the store now known as The Bay.

The impetus behind the formation of the HBC was that of the British mercantile empire. Ideas about White Man's Burden and the pride of a Divine empire on which the sun never set were not meaningful until the reign of Victoria. During the time of Charles the Second and the post-Cromwell restoration, merely staying economically afloat was enough. Rather than compete outright with the colonialism of the Spanish and Portuguese, the Crown chartered trading companies to carry the flag around the globe while absorbing the costs of doing so. The kickbacks deposited in Charles' purse certainly sweetened the deal.

In that respect, the HBC did not differ significantly from the Royal African Company or that bane of pirates everywhere, the East India Trading Company. Monopoly over trading was granted to the HBC to the tune of all the lands from which the waters drained into Hudson's Bay. At the time, no one had any idea how vast these holdings would be. Nor was the HBC particularly interested in finding out. It was a mercantile operation and expeditions held little value. Some Bay employees could validate themselves through the promise of mineral and ore discoveries, like Samuel Hearne seeking copper reserves in the Arctic. Some were squelched and forgotten, like Henry Kelsey, the first person of European descent to see the North American plains and its herds of bison. Others had such a drive that they jumped to the more ambitious competitor, the North West Company. In doing so, David Thompson was able to complete the first European-style map of Western Canada. Under the North West Company, Alexander Mackenzie ventured up to the Arctic on the great river named for him, and was the first to cross the Rocky Mountains and proceed down to the Pacific Coast. In those first few centuries, most employees were trapped on the dismal coast of Hudson's Bay, like R.M. Ballantyne, whose first book was named for that inland sea.

Jules Verne writes of the contemporary Hudson's Bay Company, with a newfound taste for exploration inherited from its 1821 merger with the North West Company. That merger expanded those unknown territories to nearly the entire breadth of modern Western Canada and much of the Oregon. The old Oregon border disputes with the United States were based on exploration claims laid out during the fur trade. Verne, however, sends his protagonists up to 70 degrees north latitude, far beyond the Arctic Circle. Taking place in 1859, he describes the overhunting of fur-bearing mammals and pressure by American fur trading companies (also the ones reliant on trading alcohol to Native Americans) that forces the company to look to the untapped reserves of the north. Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson and his crew are joined by renowned adventuress Paulina Barnett and the astronomer Thomas Black, who has dropped into the expedition in order to observe a total solar eclipse in the following year.

The first half, as previously mentioned, follows their struggles across the Arctic to Cape Bathurst, whereupon they build their outpost. That was only the beginning. Arctic winter and perpetual evening descend in all its horrors on the party. Verne lauds the ingenuity he has given his traders, who have taken nearly every possible precaution and technological solution to stave off frost, cold and the suffocating effects of long-term Arctic habitation in their log-hewn fort. Yet the cold gnaws at its victims, steadily, ceaseless, and hopeless situation piles upon hopeless situation. As storms buffet the outside and the thermometer drops to terrifying depths (actually not all that bad to anyone familiar with an average Canadian winter), food supplies dwindle, fuel for the fire goes along with it, and ravenous bears assault the barricades. When all hope seems lost, an earthquake marks a change in fortunes, and a turn into the fantastic.

An apocalypse of Arctic winter has ceased for the HBC crew, but things have become much stranger. Already they observed the strange phenomenon that, despite all the best observations and calculations, the tide only rises a foot along the promontory on which the fort is built. After the earthquake, it did not raise at all. In digging a pit-trap for caribou, the huntsmen noticed that beneath the snow lay the soil and gravel to which the fort was fixed, and beneath that lay another layer of solid ice. The last straw was the total solar eclipse that, impossibly, manifested only partially.

Verne is quite adept at building his mystery though it only lasts for the first half of the book. The second half, published the following year, deals with the outcome of the mystery and the mounting challenges faced by the troupe as they fight to return to civilization. Through both, Verne taps the Canadian consciousness of survival and duty in the extreme conditions of the High North.

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.