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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Early Canadian Futurism: Tisab Ting, The Storm of '92, and The Dominion in 1983

Unlike its neighbour to the south, Canada has no strong history of Scientific Romances. It has only really been in the last 40 years that the Dominion has developed a strong voice in Science Fiction as a whole. 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 her works to stoop to being called SF. 

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. From earlier historic roots among Indigenous peoples, fur traders, and early French and British settlers, the Dominion of Canada as a single political institution began life with Confederation in 1867, when the independent colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia unified. 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.

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 as much of its existence to the construction of a single railway. The driving of the last spike at Craigellachie, British Columbia, in 1885 linked Vancouver to the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway at a distance of some 5000 kilometres, allowing for the fast movement of immigrants, troops, and tourists through the rugged Canadian northwoods and beyond. Thanks to Canadian Pacific Railway's fleet of Royal Mail Steamers, the well-heeled could travel from England to Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand by way of Canada, journeying halfway across the world without ever leaving the British Empire.    

Imperial pride reflects in two of the earliest Canadian futurist tales... The only three early Canadian futurist tales to speak of. The Dominion in 1983, The Storm of '92, and Tisab Ting; or, The Electrical Kiss share the same essential conceit of showing the status of Canada in the decades hence. Published in 1883, 1889, and 1896 respectively, all dared to make technological and political predictions while imposing Victorian attitudes upon the 20th century.


Like many "looking backward" novels, The Dominion in 1983 by pseudonymous author "Ralph Centennius" is most notable for its failed predictions. For example, he estimates Canada's 1983 population to be in excess of 93,000,000 when in fact it was only 25,367,000. More significantly, he failed to predict an Aboriginal resistance against the government that was only two years into his future. 

The main actors of the North-West Resistance were the Cree First Nations, who held the government to task for refusal to honour treaties signed ten years before, and the Metis, a distinctly Canadian ethnic group descendant of Indigenous mothers and primarily French-Canadian fathers employed in the fur trade. Centred in the modern province of Saskatchewan, the newly-built CPR permitted the government to mobilize troops and rout the resistance. Nevertheless, its figurehead, Louis Riel, was hanged 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 quasi-prediction of commercial airlines quite charming.

His 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, which today is only sustained through immigration. 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. Canadians of the late 19th century were confident that the 20th century would be "Canada's Century", only to find themselves irrevocably eclipsed by the United States. The third problem was how to unite such a disparate nation, the second largest in the world. Historically, Canada has measured its technological successes by travel and telecommunications, from the CPR and telegraph to the Trans-Canada Highway, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and satellite networks.

Recognizing the problems was insightful on "Centennius'" part, at least. Nevertheless, he 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 pastimes have been hockey and imagining horrifying futures for themselves. Our most well-known futurist novel remains The Handmaid's Tale (into which HBO and Americans' astonishing lack of political perspective have breathed new life in recent years).

W.H.C. Lawrence imagined a terrifying future only three years hence. In The Storm of '92: A Grandfather's Tale told in 1932, the narrator recounts an American invasion of 1892 that was courageously repelled by the stalwart defenders of the British Empire.

Lawrence's novella was part of a tradition of "Invasion Literature" dating back at least to 1871's The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer by George Tomkyns Chesney. The Battle of Dorking imagines the horrors of an invasion washing upon on the shores of England, and Invasion Literature typically works out what might happen when war comes to an unprepared imperial centre. The entire genre was more or less closed with H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds in 1897, save for a peculiar American twist.

Rather than an empire contemplating its weaknesses and possible collapse, American Invasion Literature framed the United States as a noble aggressor, fulfilling its Manifest Destiny as the ascendant empire. The Storm of '92 was itself a response to The Battle of the Swash and the Capture of Canada by Samuel Barton, published in 1888, in which a fisheries dispute led to war between Great Britain and the United States. Barton depicts Britain's main goal as humbling the United States and demanding of it war or ransom... Part of the ransom being that the United States was obligated to purchase Canada.  "Oh! Let the United States have Canada; and much good may she do them!" says Lord Churchill to the Parliament, "I can never see where she has done us much. What I would propose in brief, is a 'forced sale' of Canada to the United States..."

More readable than The Battle of the Swash and the Capture of CanadaThe Storm of '92 begins by disabusing the reader of any notions that Great Britain should want to rid itself of Canada or that Canada should want in any way to be part of the United States. "Our people were loyal to that just power whose yoke was no heavier than a garland of roses, whose gentle sway we were proud to own... Expressions of hatred towards Britain pained and repelled us. Not a smear or unkindly reference in the speeches of their public men, or in their press, to a government we knew to be steadfast of purpose, just and honourable in dealing, magnanimous and lofty in ideals of statesmanship, but what wounded us to the quick." And there is an extent to which this is still true today. Though less loyal to Britain than before, and more critical of the dealings of colonial governments, there remains a very definite sense in which American slights against us and exclamations of greatness over us are met with disdain. "Somehow most of them could not understand that we were content with our political condition, and desired no change."

To Lawrence, America was an unruly free-for-all: "It was the feeling of ignorant and dangerous classes in the Republic... unfit for self-government, rebellious against all laws, with nothing to lose themselves, plotting always to possess others' property; without respect even for the flag which sheltered them,- in whose minds national honour was an incomprehensible idea... In truth, we feared the result of democratic government where the reins of power had fallen from the hands of the educated, to be grasped by the ignorant, the worthless and the base." Some might argue one way or another that this is indeed the problem of the United States to this day. Lawrence is often prescient in the sense that the problems he addresses are perennial. The rattling of sabres against Canada was mostly done by those who stood to benefit financially, "the prospect of lucrative contracts of various kinds reconciled the legislators with the dangers of bringing on war and with the possible spilling of blood - for it was probable that they and their friends would secure the contracts and other people spill the blood." It was also an election year, and war is always good for votes. He also observes the role of the media in fermenting war, the mendacious newspapers with "the same purpose to belittle the country, to discredit the government, to provoke the antagonism of sectionalism, to rekindle everywhere the embers of dying strifes" and who were protected in their recalcitrant lies by the "evanescent nature of public interest, which makes the news of yesterday stale to-morrow..." Before the lies could be corrected, "the public had forgotten the matter."

The narrative continues much as The Battle of the Swash and the Capture of Canada, with a fisheries dispute and the British shelling of New York. The Storm of '92 is much more human though, and more compelling to read than most textbook-like invasion stores. Its main blight is its very Victorian, very British attitudes towards ethnic solidarity. The superiority of Canada's way of life, according to Lawrence, is its distinctively English and French cultural identity. The problem with the United States, he diagnoses, are "hordes brought in through twenty years of indiscriminate immigration." Prior to World War II, being Canadian was identified with being fiercely British. 

This current also runs through Tisab Ting; or, The Electrical Kiss. 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. It proves that Canada's tradition of female speculative fiction authors is a long one. Yet Tisab Ting is a false start, which may not be such a bad thing. 

For the lion's share of the novel, Tisab Ting acts like a late Victorian high-society melodrama set a nearly imperceptible 100 years into the future. In this alternate turn-of-the-21st century that the sexual revolution bypassed, the class structure and most gendered identifiers 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 or a Wells giving free-reign to his most diabolically anti-humanist progressivism. 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 he 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 repeatedly 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 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 approximately $15,000 today. The head tax was finally repealed in 1923 by a new Chinese Immigration Act that effectively banned Chinese immigration entirely. The government did not apologize 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 far-flung corner of the world 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 (then!) the novel goes haywire under the weight of cognitive dissonance.

From this point on, 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. Now cast a victim, Tisab Ting gains 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, an act of cowardice if not rape, is never really brought up... Oddly for a book that spent its first half punishing the reader with racist invective. 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 are a curious historical artefact. 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 had never come to an end.

The Dominion in 1983, The Storm of '92, and Tisab Ting paint a different picture of Canada than the benign, politely multicultural society taken for granted today. In 2016, the publishing house Invisible Publishing had planned to inaugurate a line of republished historical Canadian literature with Canadian Wonder Tales, a 1918 compendium of Indigenous legends and colonial folk tales retold by Cyrus Macmillan. As they explained in a blog post, they discovered a tension between their commitment to being "allies to diverse writers and to support the publication of diverse stories," supporting "LGBTQ2SIA+, Indigenous and writers of colour," while still wanting to publish pre-WWII Canadian literature. In the intervening years, Invisible Publishing has only found three books worth publishing in their Throwback line.

While the British Empire still existed, Canada was perhaps its most tried and true loyalist. Only post-war reflection upon the causes and consequences of Nazism, and the collapse of the Empire, broke the country's conviction in British superiority. Some might argue that we've gone too far in the other direction, under current governments all-too willing to deny any kind of Canadian identity whatsoever in the name of multicultural harmony and a tolerant public image. The teaching of Canadian history has vacillated from the triumphs of British civilization to an unrelenting documentation of "anti-Aboriginal, anti-Metis, and anti-Asian racism, as well as male sexism and discrimination against women, as if these issues were and always had been the primary identifying characteristics of Canada," to quote J.L. Granatstein from his book Who Killed Canadian History? Yet for as fiercely and proudly British as Canada's cultural elites may have been in the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, there has always have been a question mark above it. This may, in turn, explain the general want of Canadian Scientific Romances.

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 S. Ellis, and Garrett P. Serviss in the USA. Nor did the country lack for dime novel tales of daring do. The legends of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the glorious era of the Klondike Gold Rush were popularized in pulp novellas the world over. So popular were these Mountie stories that they may have eclipsed Scientific Romances. 

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, orderly conduct, peaceful communities, 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.

The most Canadian photo ever taken.

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 ratio of Scientific Romances to dime novel adventure stories, especially stories of the malevolent North, is incalculably small. Of the four novels written by Jules Verne that are set in Canada, three are wilderness survival tales and the fourth is an historical family epic. Victorian-Edwardian Canada had plenty of "wonder tales" and strange doings, but a paucity of technological and futurist visions. 

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