A History of Canadian Science Fiction in Three Little Known Novels

It is likely that you have never heard of any of these books. When we talk about Canadian science fiction, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the genre didn’t exist before the publication of Neuromancer and A Handmaid’s Tale in the mid 1980s. Every now and then someone will remember that A.E. van Vogt was a Canuck or will point out that Spider Robinson and Judith Merrill both emigrated north mid-career, but Canadian SF traces its origins much further back than that.

“It took less than a week for the continent to die.”

So begins chapter two of William C. Heine’s novel The Last Canadian, an uncommonly non-nuclear post-apocalyptic tale of the Cold War, published in 1974. The Last Canadian opens in late 20th-century Montreal, which happens to also be the setting of a much older story, namely Tisab Ting, or, The Electrical Kiss by Ida May Ferguson. Tisab Ting, with its 1896 vintage, is generally cited as the oldest work of Canadian science fiction. There is, however, yet an older work that falls unambiguously within the bounds of the genre: James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. Though it was first serialized in Harper’s in 1888, evidence strongly suggests that A Strange Manuscript was composed as many as twenty years earlier.

It is likely that you have never heard of any of these books. When we talk about Canadian science fiction, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the genre didn’t exist before the publication of Neuromancer and A Handmaid’s Tale in the mid 1980s. Every now and then someone will remember that A.E. van Vogt was a Canuck or will point out that Spider Robinson and Judith Merrill both emigrated north mid-career, but that’s about it.

It’s not clear that Heine set out to write science fiction with The Last Canadian. A celebrated foreign correspondent, newspaper editor and journalism professor from the maritime provinces, Heine was working within the apocalyptic zeitgeist of the time. Still, with its bioengineered plague that wipes out 98 percent of the population of the New World in a matter of days, the book can’t dodge the speculative label.

The story follows Gene Arnprior, a family man, Korean War veteran and superhumanly competent survivalist in one side of Armageddon and out the other. The desolate husk of Canada and the United States through which Gene travels is lovingly crafted and worth taking in if you’re a fan of the genre. In particular, the book really shines when the perspective switches away from Gene to show us the political intrigues and wrangling (first in Ottawa and D.C., and later in London and Moscow) that follow the apocalypse.

The book is not without its faults, however, and can be difficult to swallow at times in light of modern sensibilities. The Last Canadian is an unapologetic polemic that reads like a cross between Robert A. Heinlein and Ayn Rand. (“Wait,” I know some of you are thinking, “isn’t Heinlein already a cross between Heinlein and Rand?”) It is clear that Gene Arnprior is not an Everyman but an Übermensch and the book takes some pretty serious detours in order to show how Gene would conquer one type of problem or another. The idea of Gene as a paragon we should all aspire to is made a much harder sell by the way Heine depicts him as a sociopathic asshole. As the story progresses and Gene’s wife Jan, their children and near everyone else that he encounters dies one horrible death or another, Gene shows only the barest scrap of humanity.

He was amused to note that Madeleine, helping Nicole get supper, openly showed her pleasure [that Gene was staying]. He wondered how long it would be before he was sleeping with her — and in the same moment reminded himself that he had been a widower little more than two weeks. He salved his conscience by noting that he did not want to sleep with Madeleine; he was just curious how long it would take for the inevitable to happen.

It’s clear Heine is better practised describing the world of high-powered statecraft than interpersonal relationships — which still puts him a leg up on Ida May Ferguson.

Ferguson, in Tisab Ting, or, The Electrical Kiss, stumbles badly when she ventures into politics and war and stumbles worse when she confines herself to romance. Which is quite troubling, as the story is essentially a cookie-cutter Victorian Romance that happens to be set a hundred years in the future (or a decade and half in the past, from where we sit). It is the story of a famous scientist from China (the titular Mr. Ting) and his wooing of a young Canadian bride named Petra. There are some mishaps, some comical misunderstandings and some heroic redemptions. But it’s really written so badly that it’s impossible to care.

“Well,” ejaculated Jerry in tones of astonishment, “so the old legend is true, after all.”

“A legend, what is it ?” asked Petra eagerly, who was almost boyish in her love for the stories of bygone days; the more improbable the story, the better.

Tisab Ting, or, The Electrical Kiss would be of almost no interest at all were it not for its claim as the earliest work of Canadian science fiction. But to that claim, I say: Dubious! It is Canadian SF, certainly (after all it is set in the future – even if her 1996 Montreal looks exactly like 1896 Montreal with a few more Asian people), but not the first. Not all science fiction need happen tomorrow.

James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder was published in 1888, written sometime between 1867 and 1880, and is set in 1850. But it is unequivocally science fiction. The story opens on board a becalmed yacht where Lord Featherstone and three friends are passing the time with gambling and idle conversation as they wait for a wind. They are jolted from their reverie by the appearance of a floating copper cylinder, encrusted with barnacles and slime. Upon hauling it aboard and cracking it open it turns out to be the classic message in a bottle. But this message is really something special.

To the finder of this:

Sir, — I am an Englishman, and have been carried by a series of incredible events to a land from which escape is as impossible as from the grave. I have written this and committed it to the sea in the hope that the ocean currents may bear it within the reach of civilized man.

These are the words of Adam More, a sailor who found himself and a crewmate separated from their ship during a storm off the coast of Antarctica. Fate and strange currents pulled More and his companion, Agnew, deeper and deeper into the heart of the Antarctic until, when death by starvation or exposure seems near certain, the climate inexplicably begins to warm and they encounter a series of strange and undiscovered human tribes.

The book continues, interspersing lengthy sections that follow More and his companion with shorter sections aboard the yacht during which Featherstone and friends dissect incredulously the contents of the manuscript. The device, which would be tedious in the hands of many writers, is used skilfully here. More than once, as More’s circumstances became more outlandish, I found myself thinking: Let’s see what ol’ Featherstone makes of that!

It is in these episodes aboard the yacht that De Mille secures a place for A Strange Manuscript in the halls of science fiction. At the time of the writing, the inner reaches of Antarctica had not yet been charted; most everything below 70 degrees south latitude was undiscovered country. De Mille posits, based on scientific theories plausible at the time, that the flattening of the globe at the poles could create a temperate inland sea cut off from the rest of the world by rock and ice. This hypothesis, and the consequences that arise therefrom, are discussed at length by Featherstone and friends, arguing between themselves whether More’s story is credible in that light, or whether the strange manuscript is nothing but an elaborate fraud.

Reading A Strange Manuscript today, one hundred years after the first successful expedition to the South Pole, robs the story of precisely none of its charm. It is a fantastic romp full of exciting confrontations with prehistoric beasts, perplexing interactions with richly allegorical cultures and very human romance. It evokes by turns Gulliver’s Travels and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Moby Dick. Perhaps the most apt comparison, however, is to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (and the Barsoom series as a whole). And, though Burroughs was writing near fifty years later, A Strange Manuscript frankly stands better the test of time.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is the way De Mille seems to presage the defining characteristics of Canadian science fiction. The themes of isolation, survival against the elements and integration between unfamiliar cultures are all strongly represented. In all, Canadian SF could not ask for a better first ancestor than A Strange Manuscript.

The Last Canadian is out of print, but can be purchased used on Amazon.

Tisab Ting, or, The Electrical Kiss has never been reprinted in a bound edition, but is available online.

A Strange Manuscript can be read at Project Gutenberg and is also available on Amazon in several print editions. The extensive introduction in the scholarly Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts edition, in particular, is well worth reading.

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