"Where Are the Great Cities of the North?"
Uncanny Tales and the Question of Canadian Identity
In 1940, the world must have seemed at times an uncanny place to many Canadians. International relations had degenerated to the point where war now raged in Europe, and threatened to consume the world. At home, unprecedented social changes were reshaping a country still feeling the effects of the Depression.
But all this was small potatoes when compared to the stories featured in Adam Publishing's new pulp magazine, Uncanny Tales. Uncanny Tales featured homegrown tales of supernatural horror, science gone mad and, if the covers were to be believed, giant robots that could crush entire city skylines under their heels.
Although the title ran for only 21 issues (Hutchison 1998, online), it is notable as one of the most ambitious and perhaps altruistic of the Canadian pulps. Whereas the vast majority of Canadian pulp magazines began publishing to take advantage of the market opportunity created by the passage of the War Exchange Conservation Act, the first issue of Uncanny Tales appeared on newsstands in November 1940, predating the Act by one month (Hutchison 1998, online).
Given the amount of lead-time required to assemble a magazine, the publishers of Uncanny Tales probably began their venture before even the intentions of the Act were public knowledge. What, then, was their motivation for publishing Uncanny? It may have been a desire to create a truly Canadian science fiction and fantasy magazine.
Certainly, in the beginning at least, the content of Uncanny Tales was fiercely Canadian. It "was not a branch-plant publication merely lifting material from other sources… The magazine's original mainstay was a pugnacious prize-fighter-turned-word-merchant named Thomas P. Kelley" (Hutchison 1998, online). Kelley, along with fellow Canadians Leslie A. Croutch and John Hollis Mason (and their various pen names) provided all the stories for the first few issues of Uncanny (Hutchison 1998, online).
It is unclear whether this dedication to Canadian content was the magazine's primary consideration. It may have been secondary to profitability. Either way, Canadian readers appreciated the effort, and let their appreciation be known.
Uncanny Tales' letter column, the eerily named "Around the Cauldron," overflowed with praise for the magazine. In the January 1942 issue, frequent correspondent Gord Peck outlined some of the things that set Uncanny apart from its American cousins:
…trimmed edges, a rarity in the United States; great stories; a good grade of paper, also a rarity in the United States; no advertisements… Before the war Canadian fandom was more or less a feeble branch of American fandom, but now it looks as if, with our own fantazine (Uncanny)…fandom in Canada will blossom forth on its own. It shouldn't take long for Uncanny Tales to reach the state of unsensational [sic] dignity that Astounding 1 has attained in the United States (Peck 1942, p. 90).
It is interesting to note that, while Peck praises Uncanny Tales for its part in the ascendance of Canadian science fiction and fantasy, he does so by comparing it to the "fandom" scene in the United States. It seems that the question of the "Canadian identity" was as much a topic of debate in 1942 as it is today, and that the tactic of defining Canada in contrast to the character of the United States was as popular then as now.
Peck's musings on the nation's character were picked up again in an essay that ran in the December 1942 issue of Uncanny Tales. The essay, by prolific writer-editor Donald A. Wollheim, was entitled "Whither Canadian Fantasy" and in it he opined, "Canada is different. Canadiana may appreciate the modern American science-fiction story but it is not exactly that which speaks for the Canadian. The situation is different" (Wollheim 1942, p. 118).
This difference, as Wollheim saw it, was a matter of the weight of history. The United States was tied to the past, with all its significant achievements already completed. Canada, however, was a nation of still-unrealized potential, one that continued to evolve:
Canada, as I have said, has no past, it has only a future. Canada has not been completely conquered and colonized as the United States has. Only her southern fringe is inhabited as befits a nation. Her vast resources to the northern regions are almost untouched. Where are the great cities of the North? Where are the railroads running to the very arctic regions? Where are the motor highways that make available the wealth of land around Great Slave Lake? They do not exist. They are in the future. Does any man doubt that they shall exist some day? Does any man believe that it is beyond the ability of man to develop these lands? That while we may fly to the moon and colonize Venus (which must be a thousand times more uninviting than Northern Canada) we shall never hold and use these territories[?] (Wollheim 1942, p. 118-119).
Indeed, many of the achievements that have come to define the Canadian identity were still in the future, although few of them would come in the form of the types of infrastructure Wollheim imagined. Universal healthcare, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada's peacekeeping forces would all emerge in the decades to come. The Canadian presence in the North has taken the form of Aboriginal self-government more than the "great cities" for which he calls, and conservation has emerged as at least as important an issue as development.
We may not have built the railroads and motor highways to the Arctic, but neither have we colonized Venus (which, with its clouds of sulfuric acid, must be at least "a thousand times more uninviting than Northern Canada").
Perhaps these are things we should still look forward to. The debate over the Canadian identity is an ongoing one. An examination of the pulps provides clues as to how it developed to this point: with a belief in the future.
And this may be the way to ensure Canada continues to develop, no matter how uncanny its evolution may seem along the way.
1. Peck could be referring to a number of different publications, here. Astounding Tales of Super-Science, Astounding Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and Astounding Science Fact & Fiction were all published in America by Street and Smith.
Hutchison, Don. "Canada's Uncanny Tales." SOL Rising. Number 21 (1998). Friends of the Merril Collection.
www.friendsofmerril.org/sol21.html (accessed January 14, 2005).
Peck, Gord. "Around the Cauldron." Uncanny Tales. Vol. 2, no. 14 (April 1942).
Wollheim, Donald A. "Whither Canadian Fantasy." Uncanny Tales. Vol. 2, no. 20 (December 1942).