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Review of The Origins of Canadian SF

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, James de Mille, Bakka, 2001, 235 pp. (originally published in 1888)

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is an oddity, a lurid tale of a fantastic voyage, published by a noted English professor and now re-marketed as the first Canadian science fiction novel in this handsome reprint by Bakka. There's a certain amount of mythologizing in the creation of any history, and the construction of a past for Canadian science fiction is no exception. De Mille's book is not science fiction as we understand it now, except in the way genre stands as a marketing category, and if that category benefits from the presumption of over a century of growth, then somehow that becomes the case. Even so, A Strange Manuscript is an isolated incident when considered as Canadian science fiction -- witness the 60 year gap between this book and the next such notable book, Consider Her Ways. It's likely more helpful to think of de Mille as a contemporary of Jules Verne, in the era of the immensely popular fantastic voyage.

Four well-to-do men relax aboard a yacht drifting on the Atlantic. They happen to find the copper cylinder of the title floating in the ocean, and the men take turns reading the manuscript to each other. The manuscript is purported to be written by a sailor named Adam More, separated from his ship in the Antarctic Ocean with only one friend at his side. Some unfriendly natives make short work of More's only companion in the first area where they land, so More travels on alone. He voyages along on a river, through immense caverns and down gaping chasms, shooting at sea monsters and dodging active volcanoes. Soon he finds himself in the land of the Kosekin, a people who seem to dislike the light but otherwise treat him extremely well, tending his wounds, and feeding him extravagantly. Furthermore, he is given shelter in the same dwelling as the beautiful maiden Almah, who is clearly not a Kosekin herself, and More and Almah soon fall in love. But as happens in such stories, the Kosekin soon reveal their dark side: More and Almah are scheduled for human sacrifice. More's protests fall on deaf ears, because to the Kosekin, who love death, darkness, and poverty, this is their highest honour. Meanwhile, More has a series of adventures that illustrate again and again the Kosekin's infatuation with death, like a largely suicidal hunting trip to kill some prehistoric beasts or a ritual of sacrifice smaller than the one More and Almah are slated to star in. Later in the story, More meets the Kohen Gadol, the richest, most powerful man in the country, and therefore, to the people, the most despised and unworthy. This man and his free thinking daughter Layelah have plans to change the Kosekin point of view and so find a sympathetic friend in More. But Layelah has her own plans for More that do not involve Almah, and the last few chapters of the book have many jealous outbursts and one sabotaged escape attempt. In the last chapter, More and Almah make a startling change of character and so the book ends, abrupt and somewhat baffling. Three of the chapters along the way are made up of commentary from the four men aboard their yacht.

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is a surprisingly easy read for the audience of today, perhaps due to the populist/pulp origins of the book. De Mille writes vividly, with attention to the sensationalized details that would keep the readers turning pages. Some of the main character's speculation about the philosophical underpinnings of Kosekin society gets a bit dry, especially in contrast to hunts and escapes and human sacrifice. Modern science fiction audiences have also come to expect such speculation to be conveyed more organically in the story and character development (not to say that lumps of exposition have gone away completely!). Threatening or strange societies like the Kosekin are common in stories of the fantastic voyage, mainly due to the requirements of such narrative structures. When our hero has undergone such an exciting and dangerous journey, the people he meets must live up to the billing of the voyage in some way, either by living in utopia or causing further excitement and danger. De Mille supplies lots of the last two attributes, as well as some humour in the chapters where the rich yachtsmen try to rationally analyze More's story, as if anyone were reading the book for scientific information.

Consider Her Ways, Frederick Philip Grove, Bakka, 2001, 216 pp. (originally published in 1948)

Consider Her Ways is a book about ants, in fact a group of ants who travel from their home in Venezuela all the way to the New York Public Library on a fact-finding expedition. The book demonstrates over and over again that Grove must have done an enormous amount of research on the topic of ants, and the wealth of detail can be quite bewildering to those non-experts such as myself. I liked learning about such industrious insects, but as with speculative novels about real subjects, I wasn't always sure what to take at face value. At one end of the spectrum, Grove gives us an insight into the many different types of ants, their habits and habitats. On the other end, we get ants who talk and read books in the library. This book itself purports to be the telepathic communication of a scientist ant to the brain of a human researcher, a transfer that takes place in the span of five minutes! The bulk of the book lies between the two extremes, credible and incredible, and the situation is muddied by Grove's successful tactic of presenting all information in the same rational, analytic tone. Consider Her Ways is a book about ants that requires a great deal of previous knowledge or subsequent research on the subject. Interestingly, like many science fiction novels, Grove's book expends much effort to create a convincing milieu -- in this case, the life of ants; in other books, strange societies or aliens -- when the point of the exercise is something like an examination of humanity itself.

The book is divided into five sections, five long chapters. The first, "The Isthmus," deals with the main character, a scientist ant named Wawa-quee, who initiates the expedition, makes all the preparations, and leads the small army of ants as they set out. The title of this section refers to their journey through Central America, with many natural obstacles and the human-made obstacle of the Panama Canal. Attrition is not so bad yet, and Wawa-quee only has hints that her military subordinate, Assa-ree, might be scheming. The second chapter, entitled "The Mountains," has more encounters with other types of ants, such as those who use aphids. The expedition is warned about oncoming winter, not a problem in their home Venezuela, and they take advantage of this warning to shelter in a farmer's barn for the cold season. Chapter three, "The Slope," begins: "And now began that disastrous march to the east on which we started 4,243 strong and at the end of which saw only three of us surviving" (99). The ants have several encounters with a rather nasty human researcher and as this shorter chapter continues into the fourth, "The Plain," there are more battles with other ants, many die during a stormy crossing of the Mississippi, many die while crossing busy highways, and Assa-ree finally mutinies. The book closes with "The Seaboard," as Wawa-quee and her two surviving associates climb aboard human transportation to make their way to New York City. They find the New York Public Library and go about deciphering human symbols, surviving on the glue in the binding of books. They learn much over the course of more than a year, but their presence becomes known and only two escape. The journey home, in the last few pages of the book, claims the life of Wawa-quee's last companion, but the leader arrives safely home and passes along her knowledge.

Wawa-quee constantly speculates about humans. Early in the book, we get quite a scathing passage that begins: "Before I summarize what was previously known of man, I'll briefly state what led me to the conclusion that man is a degenerate type" (41). Her reasons include lack of the ability to learn as an adult, wanton destruction of the environment, undeveloped sense of smell, and behaviour in general quite lacking in reason, or at least as observable by ants. All through the book, Grove does well with the ant perspective, showing quite clearly what the imposition of human will on nature might look like to those observing on a different scale. But this kind of satire on human flaws is sometimes undercut by a sense that the ants, despite their intelligence and social acuity, have no better understanding of humans than we might have of ants. This is most striking in one of the last such passages in the book in which Wawa-quee tries to understand the concept of human clothing. Grove provides some interesting analysis of class differences in society, with the suggestion that Brave New World-style alterations to make everyone happy with their socially-immobile lot in life would be superior to the current system where everyone is unhappy and everyone is socially immobile anyway. But the ants are basing this on a literal misinterpretation of how human clothes are produced, thinking that they are exuded by the body, thus mistaking the symbol of status for the thing itself. Science fiction often works by literalizing the metaphors we live by in order to examine them in a new light, and Consider Her Ways uses this consistently to good effect, except when the characters themselves call this process pure reason.

Consider Her Ways might not be a direct antecedent to today's Canadian science fiction but it's a fair example of the tendency on the part of mainstream Canadian authors to dabble in the genre, such as de Mille before Grove and Atwood after with The Handmaid's Tale. Grove's "ant book" is a tougher read than a determinedly pulpish novel like de Mille's A Strange Manuscript, but both books are worth reading all the same.

Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb, Berkley, 1978, 218 pp. (originally published in 1964 and reprinted in 2001 by Bakka)

Radiation has mutagenic powers, producing monstrosities that range through normal society, wreaking havoc without remorse. Sounds like a B-movie, Godzilla, or similar cautionary tales themselves gone wrong. Sunburst shares the premise alone with such silly fare -- Gotlieb uses a familiar set-up to tell an innovative and moving story. The human cost of unhappy events is always in the foreground, and everyone in the book, from the protagonist to the secondary villains, is given depth and feeling. The result is a novel quite distinct from other less refined examinations of the same subject. And what will a next step in evolution, as caused by radiation, actually look like? Will humans be ready for it?

In a small town called Sorrel Park near Chicago, a radioactive accident at a power plant causes the entire town to be quarantined from the outside world. The generation of children born after the accident proves to have incredible psychic powers, but also deeply ingrained psychotic behaviour patterns. In reaction to an initial destructive rampage, the government creates an impenetrable field around the psychic children. This compound is nicknamed the dump, and the inhabitants the dumplings. Sunburst itself starts a few years later, as the dumplings find a way to escape. Like most of Gotlieb's books, Sunburst resists the predictability of genre narrative. This means that the book is a little more difficult to read than formulaic stories, as Gotlieb's style allows for no skimming or other shortcuts on the part of the reader.

The main character of Sunburst is Shandy Johnson, and she's an odd protagonist. She's a twelve-year-old girl, with a rough family history and an edgy relationship with Jason Hemmer. Jason is the only dumpling who is allowed the freedom of Sorrel Park, as he is a "peeper" -- he has the ability to evaluate the psychic powers of children as they are born, and he does so at the behest of the authorities. After some initial confrontations, Shandy becomes friends with Jason, just as the dumplings escape from the dump. Shandy is instrumental in the next few plot wrinkles, like the tracking of the dumplings and further confrontations. She is highly intelligent, and often shows up the other people, but she is also young and sometimes quite naive in her social dealings. I liked the mix, although sometimes I felt that Shandy was spouting too much information that was meant for the reader, not the other characters. Shandy does have an interesting meditation, near the end, on just what a successful next step in evolution would look like, with a bit of a surprise for her when the others look for the identity of this advanced human. As for secondary characters, Gotlieb brings them in whenever she feels like it -- as with the group of Jason's allies -- a trait that is either careless writing or simply more realistic than the formula for such things. I favour the latter explanation.

Sunburst is Gotlieb's first novel, and it's fascinating to see the way similar themes have re-appeared and been reworked in her books since this debut. Sunburst obviously takes place many years before the formation of GalFed, Gotlieb's Galactic Federation which links almost all of her fiction, but there are familiar terms already present -- Shandy is an Imper (impervious to telepathy), perhaps the first human recognizably so in a long line to follow. In a broader sense, Sunburst features another theme for the first time, that of the group of people, down on their luck and not necessarily friends at first, but who win through by working together. It seems such a simple message, but when presented in Gotlieb's densely plotted and written novels, it is refreshing and valuable.

Sunburst is the second book reprinted in the Bakka series, even though it follows Consider Her Ways in its original publication date. The Bakka edition resembles the other two Bakka reprints: a handsome-sized trade paperback, nicely laid out, but a cover design that is a little too of-the-moment. Terence M. Green contributes a foreword to this edition. This reprint and the recent establishment of the Sunburst Award are two worthy honours for this interesting novel.

Other Canadas: An Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by John Robert Colombo, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979, 360 pp.

Out of This World: Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, edited by Andrea Paradis, Quarry, 1995, 264 pp.

Two collections, now, one that began the modern era in Canadian science fiction and one that summed it up.

Other Canadas is the first of its kind: an anthology of short genre work by Canadian writers. Other Canadas was followed in a few years by Judith Merril's Tesseracts (see my column on the life of Merril for a review of that anthology), another worthy anthology that became a series. But it was Colombo who opened the floodgates with this groundbreaking collection, and now, more than 20 years later, Canadian science fiction writers are represented by many anthologies. This book paved the way and Colombo merits praise for his work.

The book opens with an interesting introduction by Colombo. He credits those who have helped him, especially the Spaced Out Library (which would later become the Merril Collection) and in fact the book is dedicated to SOL. Colombo also talks about nifty facts in the history of Canadian science fiction, like the fact that Flin Flon, Manitoba is the only town in North America with a name derived from a science fiction novel. He also posits four categories that Canadian genre fiction had generally fallen into up to the point of writing: polar world, national disaster scenario, alienated outsider, and an observation that "there is a prevalence of fantasy over science fiction" (2). Like most such attempts at categorization, the definition was already wobbly at the time, and doesn't hold well today (as pointed out in an essay in Out of This World).

The rest of Other Canadas is divided into three sections, short fiction, poetry, and essays, with the short fiction section containing short stories and excerpts from novels. The book begins with two fantastic voyages by French writers, Cyrano de Bergerac and Jules Verne, as two heroes briefly touch down in French Canada. Short work by Grant Allen, Robert Barr and Stephen Leacock is included, excerpts from the novels by de Mille and Grove that I have already reviewed, and a long work by Algernon Blackwood, the longest in the book, entitled "The Wendigo." These entries for me represent the pre-science fiction section of the book.

What follows might be more familiar to today's reader. Colombo includes three excellent examples of the era of pulp science fiction, and not coincidentally, two of the three writers were Canadians who moved to America, A.E. van Vogt and Gordon R. Dickson. These two writers are represented by "The Black Destroyer" and "Of the People" respectively, and Laurence Manning’s "Goodbye, Ilha!" completes the trio.

From pulp, the book moves into the nuclear scare, and here that other Canadian trend appears, mainstream writers dabbling in science fiction. Hugh Hood, Margaret Laurence, and Yves Theriault all contribute after-the-bomb stories. The Cold War might be long gone but plenty of nuclear arsenals remain around the world, which makes it strange that these stories seem so quaint. In any case, would the Russians really have bombed Ottawa?

The section of short work finishes up with stories by Michel Tremblay, Jacques Ferron, Phyllis Gotlieb's commonly anthologized "The Military Hospital," Michael G. Coney, H.A. Hargreaves, a gimmicky story by Spider Robinson, and Stephen Scobie.

Other Canadas also has 13 poems, three essays, and a short screenplay. The book concludes with a four-page bibliography of further works to pursue.

Colombo's anthology does not much resemble current anthologies of science fiction, just as Merril's first Tesseracts volume is much different than what followed in that series. The field has matured greatly, and I don't say that to downplay Colombo's achievement here. Without this book, and other pioneering works, the growth process of the genre simply could not have happened.

That growth is documented in Out Of This World, a collection of nonfiction about the state of Canadian genre fiction, and it's an informative, well-rounded book that should be on the shelves of anyone interested in the subject. The book was put together as the print accompaniment of an exhibition at the National Library of Canada, an exhibition that was curated by Allan Weiss, Hugh Spencer, and Lorna Toolis, and Weiss and Spencer introduce the book. Altogether, it was an ambitious project, and one whose scope would have to be greatly enlarged were it being done today. The book has another introduction by Judith Merril and some concluding notes by Andrea Paradis.

Out Of This World has two types of essays: historical surveys of the genre and evaluative essays. The book contains more of the former than the latter, and it's stronger for it. Most of the evaluative essays concern themselves in some way in trying to define the Canadian quality of contributions to the genre, and by and large such definitions break down with the first exception that comes to mind. These attempts remind me of the constant efforts to define the difference between fantasy and science fiction; in my experience, such definitions please only one person, the definer, while most people happily go on with their own unarticulated set of criteria for understanding works of fiction and their context. Out Of This World does best when it considers the history of certain elements of Canadian science fiction and fantasy literature, and its extensive coverage of genre fiction in Quebec is to be especially commended.

The evaluative essays begin with John Clute's "Fables of Transcendence: The Challenge of Canadian Science Fiction," in which Clute looks to A.E. van Vogt to understand how Canadian science fiction might differ from American. John Robert Colombo's "Four Hundred Years of Fantastic Literature in Canada" recapitulates much of the thought in Other Canadas, with updates for the intervening time. Colombo is answered by Robert Runté and Christine Kulyk in "The Northern Cosmos: Distinctive Themes in Canadian SF" as they examine each of Colombo's four themes in detail. Other evaluative essays in the book include "Considering Magical Realism in Canada" by Charles de Lint, "Form=Content=Form?" by Candas Jane Dorsey, and "Women and Science Fiction" by Elisabeth Vonarburg.

As I said, Out Of This World has extensive coverage of Quebec science fiction, and this is where the most definitive historical contributions occur in the book. Seven of the essays consider the history of French language genre fiction, everything from a broad survey like Jean-Louis Trudel's "Science Fiction in Francophone Canada (1839-1989)" to "A Short History of the Science Fiction Magazine imagine" by Marc Lemaire. Lesley Choyce contributes a piece about another region of Canada, in this particular case the East Coast. Other topics surveyed include pop music, radio, and television, but the main focus of the book is on works in print.

The book closes with a bibliography, listing the books that were used in the National Library exhibition. The bibliography is divided into sections, such as "Family and Ethnicity in Canadian Fantastic Fiction", and it's a good place to start for those who don't know much about Canadian genre fiction, and the selection is deep enough to reward those who are following up on leads they already know about.

James Schellenberg lives in Canada and is looking forward to what's next from all of these Canadian writers.

First posted: June 1, 2002; Last modified: March 2, 2005

Copyright © 2002-2005 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #14 | Canadian Anthologies

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