Jul 1, 2010

The Apparition Trail by Lisa Smedman

Lisa Smedman's The Apparition Trail is one of those rare instances in steampunk literature where you can Google nearly all the names and get actual historical information. She's clearly done her homework, and while places like Swift Current, Moose Jaw, and Cypress Hills might sound exotic to readers from outside Canada, evoking images of the wide-open frontier, to an Albertan native like me, they sound like my backyard (they actually were my backyard when I worked in Cypress Hills for five summers in a row). I love that Smedman set The Apparition Trail on the Western Prairies of Canada, and it's the reason I chose her book to kick off Canuck Steampunk Month here at Steampunk Scholar. While all the writers I'll deal with this month are Canadians, Smedman has the distinction of being the only one who sets her story entirely in Canada.

Smedman's writing is very straightforward. She lacks the style more mature writers evince, but that doesn't hurt The Apparition Trail. I found it highly readable, and while it wasn't impossible to put down, at the outset it was easy to pick back up. The novel foundered under the weight of its own ambition in the second half, but this is less due to Smedman's writing ability than her desire to be both historically accurate and yet utilize speculative elements. In the first half of the book, readers are introduced to the vision-prone Corporal Marmaduke Grayburn of the North-West Mounted Police, who is summoned to headquarters in Regina to meet with Sam Steele. He is conveyed there by air-bicycle, a thoroughly steampunk contraption somewhere between a bike and an airship, powered by a perpetual motion machine. When they near their destination, Grayburn and his pilot are nearly undone by a supernatural storm that takes the shape of a monstrous raven. Following his aerial adventures, Grayburn meets with Steele and becomes a member of the secretive Q-Division: "Q-- for query" (16), a sort of Mountie X-Files. Grayburn is sent to investigate the disappearance of John McDougall, a missionary, as well as the disappearance of the Manitou Stone, a Cree holy object. It's a decent premise for a steampunk story set in Canada, and for the first half of the book, it rolls along nicely, with a river-boat ride, meeting spiritualist Arthur Chambers (who Smedman claims is wholly fictional, despite there being a Reverend Arthur Chambers who wrote a book on spiritualism in the early twentieth-century), and arriving at the Victoria Mission. Into these events Smedman weaves more of Grayburn's visions, his recalling of a chilling supernatural experience with First Nations figures Big Bear and Piapot, and more information about the perpetual motion machine. I don't want to give away any spoilers, so I'll summarize the remainder of the book in a broad fashion: Grayburn journeys across Saskatchewan and Alberta (he even gets to my hometown of Medicine Hat, which makes for two mentions of it in steampunk - the other is in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day - this may be appropriate, considering Medicine Hat's historic downtown area, with its 277 period gaslamp-style streetlights, CPR station, and courthouse) by means technological and supernatural. Coincidences increase, as do the historical cast - it's like a who's who of late nineteenth century Prairie history at points. In this respect, I tip my hat to Smedman, since I prefer people to give their alternate histories verisimilitude by infusing it with actual historical references. Where the book falls apart is in seemingly trying to visit as many cool locales as it possibly can, all the while straining the reader's suspension of disbelief. Since her tone is straightforward, she can't get away with the same insanity Joe Lansdale does, transporting the cast of Zeppelins West all over the Pacific Ocean. Further, with the inclusion of so many actual historical personages, the book gets to be a morass of coincidences, leading to a web of connections that made me roll my eyes towards the end. That said, I can see it being fun summer reading for many of you, and you shouldn't go letting my literary superciliousness stop you from enjoying this book as a sort of fantastic travel guide to the Canadian prairies.

In fact, if I had a 'tween or teen who loved reading, and was taking a family vacation to any of the sites mentioned in the book, I'd recommend this as an accompanying read: as I've said, the book succeeds as a fantastic gazetteer and biographic encyclopedia of the Prairies. With further revision, a few less coincidences, and more page space for Arthur Chambers, this book would have been a truly worthy read. As it stands, I still consider it better than other steampunk offerings like Unnatural History or The Affinity Bridge, and encourage those of you who like your steampunk laced with history to give it a try. Make sure not to judge it by its sub-standard comic-style cover by repeat On-Spec artist Jim Beveridge. I can only guess that the publishers wanted to make damn sure readers knew they weren't getting a pure piece of historical fiction and ramped up the hyperbole on the cover. While it captures the state of Grayburn's stomach (and therefore white face) nicely, the colour palette seems too saturated to match the tone of the book. It's not necessarily a bad image, just the wrong one for the cover of this book in my estimation. 

What Beveridge gets right is the look of the air-bicycle, and therefore is successful at letting the prospective reader know they're about to pick up a work of steampunk. While Lisa Smedman's use of First Nations magic into speculative fiction taking place in Canada is nothing new (Charles DeLint's Moonheart and Spiritwalk come immediately to mind), her introduction of steampunk technology is.

Like other steampunk writers, Smedman provides a technofantasy explanation for her steampunk tech. Seven years prior to the events in the novel, a comet had struck the moon, causing the moon to rotate on its axis, so that the moon's dark side now faces earth. Grayburn conjectures that this change in the moon's aspect has lead to the perpetual motion machine finally working, and perhaps also to the realization of First Nations magic. 

Beyond this highly improbable source of both technological and metaphysical change, using steampunk technology in a Canadian setting is somewhat problematic, as Canada is not known historically for industrial technological advancements of this sort. While Smedman knows her Prairie history well, the inclusion of heavy-industrial technology feels somehow wrong--anachronistic, even in an alternate history. In "The Northern Cosmos: Distinctive Themes in Canadian SF," Robert Runte and Christine Kulyk agree with Colombo's assertion that Canadians produce more fantasy than science fiction, contrasting us with "the nation of pragmatic technocrats to the south" and citing a Canadian distrust of technology as an inhibitor to Canadian hard SF. However, this is related to our past, and Smedman gets around this problem by playing with two approaches to alternate history as laid out by Karen Hellekson: she mixes the nexus story, where there is a "moment of the break" from real history, with the true alternate history, which sometimes "posit different physical laws" as the result of the moment of the break (5). The moment of the break is the comet striking the moon, which results in a change in physical laws.

I'd like to suggest a book for aspiring writers looking to set steampunk in Canada: Suzanne Zeller's Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation. In it, Zeller focuses on how Victorian geological, geophysical, and botanical sciences moved Canadian science beyond "the eighteenth-century mechanical ideals that forged the United States" (from the back cover). It strikes me as an opportunity to take steampunk in some eco-directions, as well as a means of breaking out of the cul-de-sac steampunk tech seems to be finding itself in. Gail Carriger and I had a conversation some time back about how Soulless was steampunk, despite the lack of gadgets, because it was centered on medical science, which was a huge part of real-world nineteenth century technological advancement, an area often overlooked by steampunk writers. I think Canada presents a lot of undiscovered territory for steampunk writers willing to do their research. In that same vein, I have one last caveat about this book, for those in the business of writing: 

I was lead to read Kurt R.A. Giambastiani's The Year the Cloud Fell as soon as I finished The Apparition Trail. It's a spoiler, so quite reading if you like surprises. While Smedman does a pretty good job of keeping her First Nations characters from denigrating into caricatures, she does render her ending far too neat and tidy to be representative of the treatment of First Nations people in real history. Its admirable to wish things hadn't happened that way, but I've read warnings from both Jewish responses to alternate histories of the Holocaust and First Nations responses to proposed alt-history white-washing of ugly realities like residential schools. The concern is this: while no one is going to assume this is the way it happened, the writer loses one more chance to draw attention to how it did happen. In this respect, while the endings of The Year the Cloud Fell and The Apparition Trail are quite similar, they part ways in how the concluding conversations between First Nations and the respective governments are resolved. In The Apparition Trail, the First Nations people are granted everything the treaties in 1871 promised, so that Grayburn can ruminate that "the children conceived on this night--and on all the nights hereafter--would never have to go hungry again" (259). Contrast this with Giambastiani's less optimistic ending, where George Custer Jr. warns the Cheyenne nation that they have only delayed their destruction. The United States "still consider this land to be part of their nation. All they have agreed to do so far is not to kill you for defending your homes" (335).

When we re-imagine the past, I believe it's important to treat the dark corners of history with the complexity the real issues resulting from those events demand. This isn't to say our writing need be overly serious: Philip Reeve deals with issues of colonialism in Larklight, and Lansdale concedes the wrongful treatment of First Nations in his Jonah Hex miniseries. These do not detract from the ostensible 'fun' of these works. The Apparition Trail wouldn't cease being fun reading if it lacked such an optimistic, dare I say, rose-coloured ending: it would be fun and insightful as well.

I offer James Morrow's Shambling Towards Hiroshima as an example which masterfully combines entertaining homage to monster-movies of Hollywood's golden age and Japan's post-WWII cinema with a serious reminder of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The novel is written as a memoir by Syms Thorley, a character reminiscent of Lon Chaney Jr. in his film pedigree, who laments that the fan conventions he attends never want him to speak about the need to stop nuclear proliferation, but rather just to rehash anecdotes from his experiences playing film monster Gorgantis. By the end of the novel, the reader will note that Morrow's text does exactly what Thorley cannot, by drawing us in with these anecdotes about a man in a rubber suit. My fan-boy love of Godzilla is what drew me to Shambling Towards Hiroshima, but chapter six, with its numerous real-world references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki got me reading The Last Train From Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back by Charles Pelligrino, which lead to me shutting off the audiobook on the bus so I wouldn't make a scene by crying.

If you read The Apparition Trail (and I hope you do, if for no other reason than the one I'm about to state), I hope you do it with Google and Wikipedia, and I hope your web-browsing leads you to read books on the real history of Canada and the First Nations: of the Fur Trade, of the NWMP, of reservations, and residential schools. I hope that the speculative optimism of Lisa Smedman leads you beyond steampunk tech to Suzanne Zeller's Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of A Transcontinental Nation. I hope that the fantasy ultimately leads you to reality, and in my own burst of speculative optimism, that the conflation of these two lead us toward a bright future for Canada.

Happy Canada Day everyone!

You can read the first chapter of The Apparition Trail at The Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.

Colombo, John Robert. "Four Hundred Years of Fantastic Literature in Canada." Out of this World: Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature. Ed. Andrea Paradis. Kingston: Quarry Press & The National Library of Canada. 1995. 28-40. Print.


  1. Great review. Like I said before, I had seen this years and years ago, and now that you've dug up the title for me again I might actually try and track it down (as well as the book on Victorian science you recommend). Thanks!

    Also, great header photo ^_^

  2. Finished it yesterday and was struck by ho wmuch it reminded me of old Wilderness Adventure Serials from the 1930s! I rather enjoyed it, though I totally agree about the ending. I'm reviewing it for the next Exhibition Hall.

    Good stuff. I'm really liking Canuck Steampunk Month!


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