Thursday, September 30, 2010

PDP #289: An English Bay Sunset

One of the key factors in photography, I've found, is altitude: being high up gives you a perspective that can't be equalled by a groundpounder. Timing is important too. I'm not sure what sort of ship that is, heading west away from Vancouver proper, but as it approached the trail of sunset light laid out on English Bay like a golden road to the horizon, I couldn't let that opportunity go by.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Alternate View: Seattle, British Columbia

On I-90 westbound just short of Vantage, Washington, there's an exit that leads to a parking lot and a "WATCH FOR RATTLESNAKES" sign. The terrain's typical for that area of central Washington state, a lot of raw rock speckled with hardy plants that look like they're waiting for a cowboy to come riding past in a cloud of dust. The wind is cool while the air is warm - at least it was when I was there - and the chitters of distant critters and the rumbling of the vehicles passing by on the nearby freeway are swallowed in the open vastness.

Also, the Columbia River is there. It's huge - one of the largest rivers west of the Rockies, and of those I've seen in person, only the St. Lawrence and Mississippi compare. This river was sought after by explorers for decades, and was one of the keys to European settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Significant diplomatic conflict between the United Kingdom and an expansionist United States pivoted around the river and its watershed in the mid-19th century. In the end the border was settled straight along the 49th parallel, and geographical oddities like Point Roberts just had to deal.

Still, while passing through Seattle, I couldn't help but think that it would be great to be able to go there without needing a passport. There are three ways I can think of to go about this. First is, of course, fixing the restrictions: up until a couple of years ago, a driver's licence or birth certificate was more than enough for a Canadian to wend across the border, no huhu. The second, a bit less practical, is to dust off the owner's manual for your time machine and hop back to 1992 for some score swingin' on the flippity-flop. The third is mostly academic, but is interesting in its own right - go back and manipulate history so that Seattle, or at least the ground on which it's built, was always part of Canada.

This is something I thought about on the way back to Vancouver, and particularly in the forty-minute lineup to clear Customs at Surrey.

The Columbia River - now just imagine a huge Canadian flag on the far shore.

I'm not going to be indulging in a fully-realized alternate history here - those are of wizard complexity considering the degree of factors which must be taken into account; could be a job well-suited for a sapient computer, perhaps. The biggest bugbear - how - isn't one I'm going to get into, though it's not because I'm short of possibilities. Perhaps the American government becomes willing to grant concessions in the Pacific Northwest from British arm-twisting of the Mexicans in California; perhaps Captain Vancouver recognizes the Columbia River for what it is on that day in 1792, in which case the United States loses the "finder's keepers" argument and the river ends up with some other name entirely. Could be that something really unlikely happens too.

Sure, I know it's not exactly the likeliest possibility - the United States in the nineteenth century was rather hungry for territory, and didn't part with it lightly - there are absolutely aspects of our own history that are low-probability; perhaps smart folk back when would've put their money on the Confederation of North America and not the United States of America. Ultimately that part of Washington state north and west of the Columbia could easily be folded into Canada, or whatever unified British North America calls itself; Portland becomes a border town and Spokane might end up part of Idaho.

The question I tossed around was this - how does the development play out? Will alternate Vancouver - which I'll mark with an asterisk - become Canada's Pacific metropolis, or would *Seattle? Or both? I did some looking into this, and came up with the "Seattle, British Columbia" thread by David Tenner on soc.history.what-if, which looked into this same issue back in 2007. It's not surprising; there's scarcely a mote of potential alternate history that SHWI hasn't chewed on over the last fifteen years. But the discussion within did wake me up to a factor I hadn't considered.

I already knew that the railway was important. Vancouver is what it is because it's the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway; had the original plans come to fruition, the tracks would have stopped in New Westminster and the developmental patterns in Metro Vancouver would've been considerably different. I hadn't thought about the issue of the mountain passes, though - and from what I've read, the Canadian railway planners weren't exactly spoiled for choice, as the really ideal mountain passes seem to require running rails through what would be American territory even with Canada on the Columbia. From my admittedly limited comprehension of the issue, it seems plausible that *Vancouver - or *New Westminster, for that matter - would be the western terminus and the center of development.

That doesn't mean it'd all work the same way, though. Look at a terrain map of Metro Vancouver on Google Maps - there's a triangle of territory from Vancouver to Chilliwack and Bellingham, Washington that's relatively open land surrounded by mountains, restricted only by a line on a map. The lack of a national border would spur *Vancouver's development even further, by removing the only major artificial barrier to development. Possibly the situation would result in something along the Golden Horseshoe model, with *Vancouver and *Seattle the anchors on either side of a more-or-less continuous urban zone. Think of *Surrey as a western reflection of Mississauga, and *Seattle occupying roughly the same position as Hamilton does in Ontario's Golden Horseshoe.

Might be an interesting place to set a story, once the holes in the theory - and I'm sure there are many - could be identified and filled in. Would have to come up with names, though. At the least I have reasons to doubt that "Seattle" would come up in the alternate - which is unfortunate, since it's a good name.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

PDP #288: Washington State's Wild Horses

For three years I lived a stone's throw from the WindShare Turbine in Toronto's Exhibition Place, one of two wind turbines in the Greater Toronto Area. Recent efforts to increase that number have met with opposition - in particular, a handful of Scarborough residents have been pitching a fit about the prospect of floating wind turbines on Lake Ontario, several kilometers out from shore, because they'll wreck the view or some such drivel.

For me, I find a dignified beauty in the wind turbines spinning stately beneath the open sky. It was fortunate in that regard that the route west passed by Puget Sound Energy's Wild Horse Wind Farm, one hundred and twenty-seven turbines generating renewable power for Seattle.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Short SF Review #15: "Alien Psychologist"

"Alien Psychologist," by Erik Fennel
Appeared in
Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1952

Dane was in the jungle. For the first time he breathed the heavy, humid air directly instead of through a hood filter. The mingled smells - the musty reek of plant decay and the more acrid stench of rotting flesh, the overpowering aromatics some of the plants used to repel proto-insects and the subtle, uncannily nostalgic perfumes of drab little flowers - made him choke and gasp.

Let me start this review with North Dakota. If you've never been there, then one of the more important things you can know is that eastern North Dakota is practically the antithesis of geography. Aside from a handful of hillocks on the horizon, the small, calm reservoirs surrounded by those seemingly endless amber waves, it is flat and it is plain. Nature there, or at least what I can see of it from Interstate 94, is low-key and controlled; there are clumps of trees here and there, but no forests to interrupt the orderliness of the farmers' fields, and the missile silos are hidden from view.

Venus, as it most frequently appeared in science fiction stories before Mariner 2 arrived in 1962 to joss all those stories that didn't depict it as a molten hellworld will sulfuric acid rains, is pretty much as far away as you can get from North Dakota. This fantastic imagining of Venus is the foundation of Erik Fennel's "Alien Psychologist."

The story opens with our protagonist, Dane Coburn, realizing that he's about to die - not at the barrel of a gun or with his enemy's knife at his throat, but thanks to a particularly insidious aspect of Venus' teeming, broiling, ecosphere. The sbedico is, in many respects, like a bedbug from hell: "four or five grams of deadliness" capable not only of filling a man with stern enough anaesthetic to keep him paralyzed for two hours, but of using that opportunity to dig into the flesh and deposit dozens of sbedico eggs there. They are, really, the purest example of a biosphere built around the concept "be deadly or perish." Venus life is so wild, so absolutely dangerous that Earth housing has to be sealed against the elements as surely as if there was an unbreathable atmosphere on the other side of the walls. Luna or Mars would be paradises next to this fantastic Venus.

In this case, the sbedico is a weapon wielded at arm's length by the antagonist, Barton Eveleth, an unscrupulous scavenger and thief who came to kill Dane after our protagonist reported Eveleth for the murders of multiple native Venusian humanoids. It's one of those murders that appears easy on the face of it, really: men who are eaten alive from the inside by ravenous alien maggots tend to tell few tales. At least, that was the way it was supposed to go; Dane instead, once the anaesthetic wears off, sets off into the Venusian jungle unprotected to seek the help of the Venusians. That's where the title of the story comes in - as an alien psychologist, Dane's job is to study the native Venusians in the hope of establishing contact. He manages to find the people he's looking for, and not only learns firsthand how they are able to survive in such a livid jungle, but the truth behind why no contact with the Venusians was ever successful.

As this is 1950s pulp sci-fi, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the answer is "because they're psychic." Psychic phenomena were common in those days, at least partially thanks to Astounding editor John W. Campbell's love of the idea, and in the hands of many authors the paint came off and the simple magic underneath shone through. You see, not only are the Venusians psychic, but Dane is able to unlock *his own* psychic abilities... because the story demands it. This makes even less sense than, say, suggesting anyone can become a professional driver from watching someone else at the wheel for a few minutes. There's a wide, wide gulf between theory and application - just look at nuclear fusion. We've had a fusion reactor above our heads ever since we first lifted them up, and we still haven't managed to build one beyond breakeven.

It was this psychic detour that made me realize the degree to which Fennel's Venus is just Africa, cranked up to eleven. The Venusians as a species fall into the old pattern of having no goals or desires of their own, existing only to help the protagonist to fully realize his own potential and achieve his own goals. After they extract the sbedico larvae Dane is a man with a new lease on life, a desire for revenge and the capacity to extract it. He dispatches the villain non-violently: with his convinently newfound psychic abilities, he makes Eveleth believe that a sbedico has got into his protective suit. That prodding is enough to make Eveleth discard his suit and run madly into the jungle, where the Venusian lifeforms make short work of him and his weak, puny Earth flesh.

Personally, I didn't find it a satisfying resolution. In many ways, I believe this story takes the easy way out; the villain avoids justice (while "natural justice" may be appealing it's also incompatible with true justice - this was the main idea guiding me when I wrote "The Platinum Desolation"), and while the protagonist does come out of it changed, it skirts very closely to an "all just a dream" resolution. The overall theme that it's important to live with a situation, rather than against it, in my estimation gets overshadowed by these issues. "Alien Psychologist" may be interesting in terms of its historical value, but otherwise - it's hardly a forgotten gem.


Previous Short SF Reviews:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

PDP #287: Finding a Signal in Big Sky Country

Despite what you might think when seeing it on a map, Montana is a large state - as it says at the rest stop outside Wibaux, the distance between the eastern and western borders "is just about the same distance as from New York to Chicago. You have to push a lot of ground behind you to get places in this state."

Another thing you'll gain a new appreciation of if you do that drive across Montana is how many insects tend to fly over the interstate at windshield level. No matter how clean or dirty the screen is when you start out, after an hour or so it'll be pockmarked with bug guts. Since bug guts don't tend to be value-added components of most photographs, I had to hold the camera outside to take some looking-ahead shots. This one was taken on I-90 somewhere west of Billings, and I don't think I could have planned the way it turned out. It just became.

NOTE TO READERS: As I have arrived in Spokane, Washington, this weblog will now transition to the Pacific Time Zone.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tunnel Visions: The Kenosha Electric Railway

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of Toronto, lands in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and looks at different ways of getting around on two rails, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

I'll admit first off that, in this case, the name of this series is a misnomer - at no point does the route of the Kenosha Electric Railway go underground. It may still work if you consider it metaphorically, though; despite it being one of the United States' newest light rail transit systems, it doesn't seem like overly many people are aware that streetcars once more ply the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, a city of just less than a hundred thousand people on the northern fringe of the Chicago commuter belt.

"Incongruity" doesn't begin to describe it. It seems utterly unbelievable that streetcars not only exist in modern Kenosha, but were reintroduced in 2000 nearly seventy years after the first system's removal, when that same transportation paradigm is under assault in places where it's been a mainstay for generations. Not only is it a tourist attraction in its own right, since streetcars aren't nearly as common in the Midwestern United States as they used to be, but an example that there's more than one urban design philosophy that works.

Yet they do. They do, and it's great. I was able to pay a short visit to Kenosha and its streetcar system on my way west to Vancouver - and beyond indulging my transit interests, it helped me say goodbye to home.


The streetcar line proceeds east toward Lake Michigan in the tree-lined median of 56th Avenue.

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the Kenosha Electric Railway1, operated by Kenosha Area Transit, is not a particularly extensive system; despite whatever efficiencies they have, rail-based transit networks are nevertheless expensive to maintain, and Kenosha doesn't have the resources of a metropolis. As a result, the streetcar system consists of a single-track loop in downtown Kenosha along 56th Street, 54th Street, and 11th Avenue, with streetcars travelling between the HarborPark transit-oriented development, rising on the shore of Lake Michigan, in the east and Kenosha Metra station, the northernmost link in Chicago's commuter rail system, in the west, over a distance of approximately two miles (3.2 kilometers).

For the most part, the Kenosha Electric Railway operates in its own right-of-way: along 56th streetcars roll in the middle of a grassy strip separated by trees from the roadway, while on parts of 54th and on 11th Avenue, streetcars share the road the same way they always have.

I'm not sure whether or not the system would best be classified as a heritage line. While it is one of Kenosha's largest tourist draws, and it does rely on heritage streetcars, 63,000 people per year ride it - what's more, before the recession struck, Kenosha's City Council was looking into further extending the line, perhaps to make it into a true network. After having seen it, I'd say it's more of a proof-of-concept for small-city transit orientation in the 21st century, as well as a working transit museum.


The streetcar stop at 56th Street and 7th Avenue in downtown Kenosha.

There are no stations on the Kenosha Electric Railway, just stops - seventeen of them salted along the route, generally at major cross streets. It took me a few minutes to find one even with the map, and I'm glad the streetcar didn't come while I was hanging around at what eventually turned out to be nothing more than a mailbox. In my defense, I'd been without sleep for a day and a half at that point.

Streetcars may pause at the Joseph McCarthy Transit Center - the existence of which demonstrates either that, in Wisconsin at least, McCarthy is remembered for something other than anticommunism and drunkenness, or that multiple people can have the same name - where the route intersects with many of Kenosha Area Transit's regular bus routes. The Transit Center is also the system's carbarn, where out-of-service streetcars are kept. Even then, though, there's no enclosed station structure.


PCC #4610 "Toronto" pushes east along 56th Avenue in the separated right-of-way.

It's not much of a stretch to say that Kenosha likely operates the smallest streetcar fleet in the world. The system is served by five President's Conference Committee streetcars, all of them formerly having served on the rails in Toronto, though my experience suggests that only one car operates on any given day. Unlike other cities, where different cars of the same model are essentially identical, each of Kenosha's five streetcars are visually unique.

For its streetcar system, Kenosha Area Transit didn't simply adapt its livery. Instead, in a move that may support the "working transit museum" idea, each of the five PCCs retain the livery of a former PCC operator in North America. Aside from PCC 4610, which maintains the look it had when it worked the Toronto Transit Commission's Harbourfront route in the 1990s, the streetcars carry the flags of ex-operators in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania - itself the smallest city ever to operate PCCs.

There aren't many ads on the Kenosha streetcars; unsurprising, given that it's not exactly bursting at the seams. The fact is, for the whole time I rode #4610 around the loop and then some, I only ever shared it with the operator. Much of #4610 advertisement space, at least on #4610, is instead occupied by information and memorabilia such as reproductions of original advertisements from historic streetcar manufacturers, and I imagine it's similar on the other four cars.

I'm not sure whether or not it lies with the streetcars themselves - perhaps only #4610 - or the rails, but my impression was that the ride was somewhat rougher and a bit louder than it is in Toronto, and if you've ever heard a streetcar squeak and grind its way through a wide turn, you'll know that's saying something.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

The rear interior of PCC #4610 "Toronto."

So long as you can locate a streetcar stop, you'll do fine - the only big problem I found was that the signs weren't exactly attention-grabbing at first rub, being tall and narrow with white letters on a green backing in what seems like a deliberate effort to capture a "historic" flavor. The cars necessarily echo historic practices, and are resolutely high-floor vehicles; I'm unsure if the equipment at the rear doors is an elevator system to make the cars accessible, or if it's just to keep people from skipping out on the last half of the fare.

Hopefully, that doesn't happen very often. The Kenosha Electric Railway's fares are, in my opinion, firmly reasonable for the depth of service provided. Adult fare is $1, with 50 cents paid upon boarding and the remainder on alighting, a practice reminiscent of Boston. You can also pick up a $2 all-day streetcar pass good for unlimited boarding and alighting, and if I'd learned about it before we were already back on the road to Milwaukee, I'd have picked one up as a souvenir.

Service isn't exactly available around the clock, though. Levels vary depending on the time of year; from January 5 to February 28 the streetcars only roll on weekends, presumably to minimize the snow-clearing expense, and for all of March weekday service is limited to five hours in the late morning and early afternoon. The most consistent service is provided under Summer Hours, which despite the name run from April 1 until January 4 (because, you know, when I think of Wisconsin in December I think summer, baby), when weekday service runs from 11:05 AM to 6:35 PM. Weekend service is unchanged throughout the year, consistently 10:05 AM to 5:35 PM. I'm not sure if you'll ever see more than one streetcar plying the route at a time - from my observations, a single PCC is probably more than sufficient to more than sufficient to meet demand outside of extraordinary situations.

Once you're aboard, it's an overall nice ride, no matter the idiosyncracies of the track. The oddest thing I found about #4610 in particular is that while it outwardly is the same as the TTC's remaining two PCCs, save for the "The TTC Welcomes You To Toronto" on the sides and the information sign on the front, the interior seating is the same kind used on the modern CLRV and ALRV fleet, rather than the comfortable near-couches you'll find in Toronto's two survivors.


When I look at Kenosha and its electric railway, I see the truth in the observation that nothing ever ends. While so many of Toronto's streetcars were rewarded with the scrapheap when they reached the ends of their lives, these five have taken up the torch and hold the streetcar legacy high. The fact is, no matter how often politicians fulminate about streetcars, gridlock, and congestion, they represent a mode of living that built successful, vital cities. It may be that Kenosha's example will be taken up by other cities in similar situations, and I hope that's the eventual case - I suggested the installation of a streetcar line in Barrie, Ontario a while ago, based firmly on what I then knew about Kenosha's.

There's plenty of room in cities, both small and large, for streetcar systems, and plenty of cities that once had them still retain the districts that streetcars built. As we struggle for solutions to the problems that face the cityscape today, while we cast about for an answer to the diffusions and inefficiencies that society's torrid romance with the automobile made possible, the example of Kenosha can and should stand as a reminder that the lessons of the past still have applications in the present day.

I'd like to see more systems like Kenosha's, and ones even more extensive. If enough cities followed its lead, perhaps there'd even be a market for a new production run of PCCs - that Art Deco style will never die, and with good cause. Perhaps in years to come, a few ex-Toronto CLRVs will find their own quiet dignity along Lake Michigan's shore.

1 There doesn't seem to be any universally agreed-upon name for the Kenosha streetcar system that I can find - on Wikipedia it's listed under the incredibly dull "Streetcars in Kenosha, Wisconsin," collectible designs from the Mite Graphics online store call it the Kenosha Streetcar Line, the Kenosha Streetcar System, the Kenosha Electric Railway and KenoStreetcar, while the route map and schedule I got from the Kenosha Visitors' Center calls it the Kenosha Transit Electric Streetcar. An "ad" inside #4610 welcomed visitors to the Kenosha Electric Railway, and that's good enough for me. Plus, the Kenosha Electric Railway was the name of the original system - and beyond that it sounds pretty cool, too.

Previous Tunnel Visions

Be seeing you.

Friday, September 24, 2010

PDP #286: Capitol By Night

Yesterday I ended up waking up in a Madison, Wisconsin hotel room after having been awake for about thirty-nine hours at a go; a new personal record, incidentally. Before I collapsed that night, I apparently went for a nighttime walk around Capitol Square, which appears to be the anchor of Madison's downtown and is so named because that is where you will find the Wisconsin State Capitol. It's nearly a hundred years old, and apparently is only slightly shorter than the United States Capitol. For my part, it's a pretty good centerpiece to the city.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Acts of Minor Interviews: Rob Engen

I'm always on the lookout for new additons to this weblog's repertoire, new subjects and concepts to interest you, the reader, so that you keep coming back. To that end, I'm kicking off Acts of Minor Interviews - hopefully a series in which I interview hopefully interesting people - with a back-and-forth with Rob Engen, man of letters. One of those weird hybrid military historians/science fiction writers, he's recently followed up on the publication of his monograph entitled "The Dynamics of an Asteroid" with a shadowy reign as the Napoleon of crime.

Wait, no, that's Professor Moriarty. Rob Engen is following up on the publication of his monograph entitled Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War with a shadowy reign as the Napoleon of having a science fiction story published; in this case "Thanks for the Game," which appears in the Summer 2010 issue of On Spec magazine. It was described to me before its appearance as "aliens playing hockey in Manitoba," and really - that really gets down to the core of it.

I sat down to talk with Rob about his story, his views on science fiction, and some other stuff recently. By which I mean I emailed him some questions and went back to playing Colonization. After all, those Dutch colonies aren't going to conquer themselves. Thanks for being cooperative, Rob!

Rob Engen - historian, science fiction author, and Man of Beard.

Q: I'd like to start with the question that's on everyone's mind: why the hell do people still go to McDonald's? Their food sucks and it's expensive.

A: A man greater than myself was once posed that question. His answer was so comprehensive that I feel that any response I could make would be but a pale shadow and thus not worth attempting.

His answer, for reference’s sake, involved nanotechnology, exorcism, and armoured machine-gun nests, though not necessarily in that order.

Q: What brought you to science fiction as opposed to, say, historical genres?

A: The boring answer is that history is my day job, and when I want to set my mind to something that doesn’t involve sneezing through archives or cycling through microfilm until my eyes turn against each other, I read and write science fiction. It’s part escapist, but it’s also part contemplating the future as a form of relaxation from spending ridiculous amounts of time studying the past.

The less boring answer is that I like to break stuff. Writing historical fiction feels like writing in a straitjacket to me; you’re constrained by the facts of history insofar as they’re known, and will be flayed by an audience that demands some historical verity from their fiction if you deviate too far. I don’t enjoy having my narrative handcuffed by “real” events before I’ve even had a chance to have a look around in a world I’m writing about. I prefer to explore, to chart cause-and-effect and possibility, to make unexpected things happen ... to break stuff. I’ve had a deep and abiding passion for works of alternate-history ever since I was twelve years old, picked up a book by Harry Turtledove about Nazis fighting space aliens, and thought “This is awesome, he just broke the entire world.”

Q: What's your standard method of writing - do you need a particular environment, music, or the company of a high-class escort with a name starting with "X"?

A: “C”, actually, though the rates have improved since we got married and wow am I ever going to get in trouble for this.

My methods of writing are what they warn you not to do in many of the “On Writing” books. When I’m inspired I could happily write for ten, twelve, fourteen hours in a sitting, eschewing trivialities such as food and personal hygiene. When I can sit down and do that, I’m tremendously productive. But I have a devil of a time just working “a little” on something every day for a long stretch, as my mind can be counted on to wander in a new direction every month or so and there’s no telling when it will come back to task. So when the inspiration is there and the time is available, I sit down and attempt to blitz the writing process. “Thanks for the Game” was almost-but-not-quite written in one sitting.

I do try to write every day just to keep up the practice, although this often ends up being writing of an academic nature.

Q: So what all do you get up to when you're not hammering out fiction?

A: Hey, I suppose I can utter the sacred words “I AM A HISTORIAN” now and not actually be struck down by the ivory tower for lying, can’t I? I published my first book on military history last year and am currently at work on my second, which will double as my dissertation but which I find more mentally fulfilling to think of as “the second book” while I’m writing it. Anyone who has written a dissertation before will nod sagely and tell you that, yes, this is my entire life at the moment. But I also discovered the science fiction writing of Iain M. Banks on a recent trip to Britain, and I’ve been sneakily taking in the brain-wrenchingly intriguing world of the Culture whenever possible. Don’t tell my thesis committee.

Q: Was there anything in particular that inspired this story, or did it just happen?

A: There was a short story I read years ago that was a sort of Canadian Faustian experience involving playing a game of shinny with the Devil. I liked the idea of the supernatural drama playing out in something so familiar to so many Canadians. Hockey as a first contact experience kind of spun itself from there.

Q: Why Manitoba? I mean, there didn't seem to have been any tubas in the story at all.

A: Remember that Robert J. Sawyer wrote about first contact occurring in downtown Toronto. If the aliens will land in Toronto to be overcharged at the ROM, clearly they’ll land anywhere.

In truth, my view of Brandon, Manitoba is forever tied up with my memory of an extremely bubbly girl I knew from Brandon who always made it sound extremely positive despite her having skipped town and moved to Calgary as soon as she was legally able to. I was trying to capture some of that sentiment for the story, so Brandon seemed a good place to anchor it.

Q: Any views you'd like to share on the genre and how it stands today?

A: Given that this blog is one of the places I go to in order to hear the latest thoughts on the genre, I feel like I should be asking you that question rather than answering it myself.

Q: What plans for future writing do you have? Working on anything new?

A: Always, though my ambitions usually exceed my grasp. I’ve returned to a neat idea I had a while ago that started with systematized global-scale genocide and sort of worked backwards from there. I also have a mind to explore some ideas relating to women soldiers and gender roles in combat, which sort of overlaps with my academic work on combat motivation.

Q: Who would win in a fight between your beard and Ed Greenwood's beard?

A: Probably Ed’s, but right now, having recently played through the really, really bad story of the computer game StarCraft 2, it’s Chris Metzen’s beard that I truly wish to claim as a trophy and mount over my fireplace.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

PDP #285: A Flinty Blur

I have, for the moment at least, left Canada behind - we successfully crossed the American border at Port Huron in the depth of the night and the driving rain, and as I write this am cooling my heels with coffee in Kalamazoo. It's a fair deal more interesting now that it's light out; the night drive from Toronto was, for the most part, a drive through a void of empty blackness punctuated only by occasional points of light.

That also makes it difficult to take decent pictures. To demonstrate, I present the following - which at least underscores the speed of freeway driving if nothing else. I mean, just look at that blur! Does that say zoom or what?

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Leaving Toronto

I can't remember a time when Toronto wasn't home. Sure, I didn't live here full-time until fairly recently, but throughout my early life it was a place I visited frequently and, as a consequence, a place that has always been familiar. For the years I lived in Barrie, it was always the goal; the Big City where Things Happen, where the nights are electric and the days filled with every kind of possibility - Rush's "Subdivisions," in other words. I've never really given that view up, either, which is one reason why I'm dismayed that so much of the current mayoral campaign seems to accept the meme of "Toronto in decline" at face value. This is still a great city.

Yet, even so, I'm leaving. Leaving it and everything I've ever really known, moving four thousand kilometers to a strange land full of people who seem to drink coffee like it's water, and things will continue on here without me. I'll watch the remainder of the election from afar and hope that whenever I may next find myself on the shores of Lake Ontario, the water from which I've never lived more than a hundred and fifty kilometers away, I'll find it better than it was before. Pessimism can't be allowed to win.

Still, this is a difficult time for us all. We all have different ideas of what "better" means. For myself, I think that - for now, at least - things will be better on the West Coast. Isn't the search for a better life the reason why anyone goes anywhere to stay?

There are things I'll miss. The regularity of snow in winter, no matter who or what is clearing it from the streets. Streetcars rumbling by just outside the window, heedless of so many people in so many cities who said that they were obsolete and their time was over, only to keep on rolling for a hundred and forty-nine years now. The comfort of not being far away from the people I care about, the people I grew up knowing. The stability of familiar surroundings.

At least I can still keep in touch with the internet - but from now on, Toronto's just one more part of the world, outside my direct perspective. I'm going to have to get used to a new landscape. I think it'll be worth it.

I won't miss the summers, though. I hate humid continental summers.

Monday, September 20, 2010

PDP #284: Super Cool and Manly

There was a pretty good range of costumes at this year's Fan Expo. Some were good, like the Ghostbusters or the Dr. McNinja; some were better left in the pages of the comics they sprung from, like the overly form-fitting Spider-man; and then there were the superlative ones, like the Weighted Companion Cube from Portal. I wish I could have gotten a better picture, but this was practically shooting from the hip while crossing the street. I'm surprised it turned out as good as it did.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Natural Relations

Yesterday, Randy McDonald at A Bit More Detail made a post exploring individuals' engagement and relationship with natural environments. He cited a study that suggests natural settings "are good for the mind" - I entirely agree, and I'm not the only ones. The latest Niagara Parks ad blitz, the "Break Free" campaign that inexplicably drove George Smitherman into a crazy snit - presumably because, at that point in the campaign, the candidates did not have to concern themselves with out-Rob Fording each other - was firmly based on that concept. Likewise, my experience at Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver was a journey into nature like I haven't had in years; nature pure and untrammelled with only a flagpole and some footprints to indicate that I hadn't stepped through a stargate to some world the Goa'uld never seeded with human slaves.

It was refreshing, calming, relaxing - not so much as a world apart from the one we've built for ourselves, but the true world beneath all the constructs and rationalizations. That is something that is lost not just in the city, but in all but the most rural of communities: a clear view of what the natural world is really like. In cities it's strictly controlled, regimented, packaged, and parcelled into lots. Not that I oppose greenspace in cities - indeed, greenspace should be as basic a component of citybuilding as roads or sewer systems - but the sheer nature of the city tends to make it incompatible with wild nature.

Tends, though, is not an absolute. Just look at Vancouver. Aside from its reputation as being a pothead's haven, Vancouver is well-known for its environmental bona fides. Greenpeace was founded there, and a sidewalk plaque in Kitsilano marks the location even today. Stanley Park, only a stone's throw from downtown, is an intact fragment of the primeval temperate rainforest and a window onto what Coal Harbour would have looked like before it became Caprica City. The North Shore Mountains are visible from practically everywhere. I wondered why Vancouver was so environmental before, but when I arrived there I knew: it's because the environment is right there. No wonder it has such a laid-back atmosphere.

From Granville Island the Art Deco span of the Burrard Bridge frames the towers of Vancouver's West End, the forests of Stanley Park, and the tree-covered North Shore Mountains.

Nevertheless, Vancouver got lucky. Even where cities grow under similarly picturesque peaks, the natural human impulse to extend dominion over every possible inch of land seems like it's won out more often than not. I mean, Los Angeles has mountains too, and look what happened there. It's the lessons of Vancouver we need to learn and the motto of Toronto - "A City Within a Park" - that we need to make true.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

PDP #283: Bright McCaul

I know, I've done another photo like this before, but that doesn't mean that this effect is tapped out yet - it shouldn't be, at least. I don't know if I could take this sort of photo on foot as opposed to a streetcar, but at least I've found one way that it works. This is a view south along McCaul Street from Dundas West, and that polka-dotted structure is the Ontario College of Art and Design... which is rather appropriate, given that light-drenched photos like this one tend to be more "artistic."

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Temptations of Magic

Whether or not they choose to use it, fantasy writers have a powerful narrative tool on their workbench - the invocation of magic to make events happen. Really, when you get down to it the presence of magic and other things that don't play by the regular rules of the reality with which we're familiar is one of the defining characteristics of fantasy. Skillfully used, a spot of magic add to the definition of the story's world and act as a "dramatic shortcut" that keeps the plot moving - but the temptation to abuse is always there. Much like salt, a small amount used judiciously can improve that to which it's added, but too much can make it totally unpalatable.

Nor is this a problem for fantasy itself. I write science fiction, but I have to grapple with the temptation of magic frequently - here, it's magic through advanced technology. No matter the genre, one of the grander temptations that magic offers is making individuals "great" - with the right spell or sophisticated piece of machinery, they can accomplish feats outside the ken of everyday people and establish themselves as larger-than-life purely by dint of their actions.

Still, fantasy and science fiction carry different expectations with them. It's been said that fantastic fiction is driven by a longing for the impossible, and magic-fueled characters fit perfectly within that box. Science fiction doesn't run by quite the same rules; while there is plenty of longing for the apparently impossible within it - faster-than-light travel is regrettably, for now, Exhibit A in that regard - the general expectation is that it would be set within a realistic, rational, believable framework. In science fiction, putting things down to "magic" is, in my view, unsportsmanlike - and a good reason for something like Star Wars to be properly considered a fantasy. With good science fiction, you have to justify these things you bring in, and follow it along while you figure out what got in behind it before you closed the door.

I ran into this temptation recently when doing some more background work for Taryn Liang, a character in my setting who I've written about previously. She's an agent for an international organization that, among other things, investigates issues and crimes that wouldn't have existed in the twentieth century, and I'd recently been considering potential ways to make her a "step up" from normal - the thinking being that someone of greater talent and capacity would be assigned to the more weird and unusual cases, which are generally more interesting to write about. I already had the concept of a neurolinked quadrotor drone that she considers a technological familiar - so why not look at it? Why not give her a drone that can stop bullets? With lasers! That'd sure put her beyond the ordinary.

Lasers, after all, are the solution to many problems - such as not having enough laser! This photograph was taken by Jeff Keyzer and is used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license it was released under.

So I started looking into the prospects, but even as I did nagging doubts were already at me. While the idea of that sort of interception isn't new - ultimately, it's just SDI on a really, really small scale - that doesn't mean the idea is any more feasible. I couldn't find much information about laser-based interception or, more importantly, the energy requirements thereof.

If I was writing in a fantasy setting, or a science fiction setting that included psionics - which is usually nothing more than magic with a scientific name - it'd be easy. It's easy to justify a mage or psionic character who has a shield spell or a barrier talent. In my setting, where eventual faster-than-light travel is one of the few impossibilities I'm using, it's less so.

Then there's the deal with the implications. Psykers and mages don't really have to worry about this, because it's easy to state their specific talents are difficult or impossible for other people to master. A quadrotor drone that can reliably intercept bullets, in the hands of an agency that doesn't have the greatest depth of resources, is something different. The implication I came to is that if they have it, the more appreciated agencies and most definitely the militaries would have this technology as well. Aside from likely precipitating an arms race to build weapons that can get past the lasers, it totally removes the whole "step up from normal" aspect that was the entire point of the exercise.

So I've ditched that concept. I could look into it later, of course, but with an entirely different perspective. In the meantime, I'll continue thinking through what's hidden behind the things I arrange in the world of the text.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

PDP #282: Green Alley

There was something about this alleyway off Fred Grant Square in downtown Barrie that caught my attention. Now that I have the time to consider it intellectually, it's got to be the tree and the grass in it. Generally speaking, most alleys with which I'm familiar are thoroughly paved and nothing can grow there. Here, it's almost as if there's one last little surviving part of the primeval forest that the city was just built around.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Trans-Toronto Tunnel... WTF?

I can't help but think that one of my greatest qualifications for being a candidate for Mayor of Toronto, back when I was one, is that I very nearly failed Grade 10 math. To be specific, I had a mark of 36 at the midterm and managed to push that up to a 52 for the final report card. Considering some of the, bluntly, insane projects that the frontrunning candidates have been proposing recently in desperate bids to one-up each other and seize ever more newspaper real estate, what's been lost is that little niggling factor known as "reality" - the factor that separates the stellar dreams of science fiction from the stark reality of a world where Mars is still very far away.

I'd thought Rob Ford's proposal to relegate bicycle riders to ravines and hydro corridors, and streetcars to the scrapheap, was ridiculous enough. I didn't have long to wait before someone did him one better. Enter Rocco Rossi, a man who calls himself "visionary" in his own media releases, and his proposal to dig up the corpse of the Spadina Expressway, channel a few lightning bolts into its stitched-up husk, then put it underground again. This coming from the man who, back in May when Rob Ford's auto-erotic campaign was still off in the mists of times yet to come, said that Toronto's goal "has to be a transit system so good that when you wake up in the morning, you reach for your transit pass instead of your car keys."

What a difference a few months, and the rise of an absolutely suburban candidate, makes.

Yes, in a world where Toronto faces a woefully insufficient rapid transit network, a mounting budget crisis, and an unwillingness by politicians to look into the future for solutions rather than the 1950s, Rocco Rossi apparently thinks that one of the greatest problems facing Toronto today is that folks can't drive straight through on a highway from the 401 to the Gardiner. Sure, I know I'm a bit late on this - that's where the every-other-day schedule gets me - but this sort of thing needs to be said again and again.

Just imagine six lanes of traffic rolling through here!

Candidates are judged by many metrics. A key one is whether or not they're already known and popular, which may be one of the reasons that myself and the rest of the fringers never got very much attention in the mainstream media. Since they can't be judged on their actions, voters must instead evaluate them based on their claims and their character. So tell me this - when Rocco Rossi claims that an Allen Expressway tunnelled from Eglinton Avenue West to the Gardiner Expressway, seven kilometers as the crow flies, "will not disrupt a single neighbourhood, street or family home," what does that say about his character? That he thinks Torontonians don't think things through or are happy to swallow creaking fantasies so long as they're car-focused?

Tell me, would it really be an optimal use of Toronto's stretched funds to dig a tunnel that goes south from Eglinton to the Gardiner with absolutely no connections to arteries in between? Because that's what Rossi's implying with his claim of non-disruption. Recall that the Spadina Expressway study would have torn vast swaths out of neighborhoods simply for the off-ramps; does Rossi think his tunnel won't have to face anything similar? Has he never heard of the phenomenon of induced demand? New roads and highways won't solve traffic problems; it'll only encourage them!

Not even the notoriously autophilic Metro Council of the 1960s, the men who were shoving the Spadina Expressway down Toronto's throat regardless of its own opinions, didn't support a tunnelled construction for most of the alignment. Why's that? Perhaps because tunnelling is hideously expensive. If you want a great example, just look at Boston's Big Dig - a megaproject to bury Interstate 93 over 5.6 kilometers through downtown, a project for which planning started in the 1982 and was completed more than twenty years later, with a final cost including interest of $22-billion.

And yet Rossi is, as of this writing, not only plowing ahead full throttle on this magical mystery tunnel but criticizing fellow candidate George Smitherman for formerly supporting tunnels... the tunnel in question being a transit tunnel beneath downtown Ottawa. What kind of fucked-up parallel dimension do these candidates live in where a mode-separated tunnel exclusively for transit - you know, like SUBWAYS - is bad, but a goddamn underground highway that Rocco Rossi invented out of nothing because he's JUST THAT VISIONARY is good? The sheer amount of empty-headed equivocation in this is ridiculous! Protip for the Rossi campaign: this might possibly be a valid criticism if Smitherman has previously supported underground highways.

I mean, I made a consistent effort to not make policy announcements after I'd been drinking. This sounds like something I would have come up with after a few empty bottles of Jagermeister and a bunch of cans of Hurricane High Gravity Lager. Whatever I did come up with under those conditions certainly would have been visionary - depending, of course, on how you define that word.

If this goddamn carnival is the best Toronto can produce for non-fringe candidates, it just makes me even more glad I'm moving to Vancouver.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

PDP #281: Towering to the Clouds

I know that once I'm in Vancouver, I'll think back and miss Toronto. No matter how many things here can be frustrating or occasionally infuriating, it's still home - and at this point in my life that's not really going to change. In my experience, pictures have always been able to help calm those jitters a bit - and with my departure date a week away, my window for taking more is closing steadily and surely.

So, before I go, here's another shot of the CN Tower taken from the Bathurst Street Bridge, the sun somewhere behind the camera. I think the effect works better than if it had been a clear sky.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Only Be Sure Always To Call It Please "Research"

With the school year starting back up, the media is unsurprisingly spinning its stories about how cheating is endemic and plagiarism rampant within the system. A recent article in the Toronto Star reported that three out of four students committed an "academic dishonesty" offense at some point during their career, which first off makes me wonder why I'm such a mutant. I never lowered myself to cheating when I had report cards to justify.

Though, to be fair, I didn't have the same temptations. I may have heard of Wikipedia before I got my BA, but given the technological resources now in place my university and high school career might as well have been in a different century. Technically, considering that I started Grade 9 in 1996, much of it was. It was a time before the ubiquitous communication methods available to students today, before Wikipedia provided a wealth of information to be copy-pasted at will. That's one of the key factors of plagiarism now; I've seen reports that some students today don't even consider copy-pasting unsourced text from the Internet to be cheating.

Just the prospect of being accused of cheating was something I tended to worry about during my own academic career - so I did what I could to protect myself from it, to ensure that the words I put on the page were my own. I have no idea if my method of note-taking was officially taught or if I figured it out on my own; it's been considerably more than ten years. Perhaps if additional emphasis was placed on this sort of education in the classrooms, cheating might not be so endemic.

A page of notes that went toward last year's HisT.O.ry: Long Branch, Sea Breezes. This is the standard note-taking format I used through late high school and university.

To protect yourself from the prospect of plagiarism, you need to insulate yourself from the original material; that's why research always consumed 95% of the time required for any assignment I worked on. All my notes were in longhand like what you see above, all of it slightly rewritten from what appeared in the original source. When it came time to write the final paper I would use only my handwritten notes as a guide, the idea being that I would not inadvertently replicate the original author's words. If ever an accusation did come down, I would - so the hope went - only have to hand over the notes I'd taken.

Is this taught in schools now, though? I don't know. Considering the ubiquity of computers and smartphones in classrooms and lecture halls, I don't even know how many students use pen and paper to take notes anymore - I tried using a laptop once, at the tail end of my university career, but it didn't have the same impact. Physically writing down the words let them stick in my brain more easily than typing them into Notepad. Besides, with electronic notes there's always the possibility that they could get corrupted, lost in a computer malfunction, or just not trusted. Physical media has a certain cachet, I think, that electronic alternatives can't replace.

Even though this is a standard refrain for the news media around this time - after all, it's a subject that can be revisited again and again to generate the "in my day" sentiments that keep long-term newspaper subscribers coming back, and generally the articles can be cut-and-pasted year after year with just dates, names, and figures changed - it's still something to be concerned about. Dishonesty in early life doesn't just go away: what works out early tends to be rewarded. Degrees come with some expectation of knowledge; we can't afford to continue building a world where a degree might just as well mean that the holder knew who to copy from and how to not get caught.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

PDP #280: Catching All the Spirits

Vancouver's Expo 86 left a great deal of legacies behind. The most obvious ones are in Vancouver itself, in the form of the SkyTrain network and the silver geodesic golf ball that is Science World. Some of the things made for it went a bit further afield - and one of the more distant ones is the Spirit Catcher. Originally standing near the floating McDonald's, the sculpture - meant to represent the Thunderbird, "the messenger for carrying people's dreams and desires to the Creator," was installed on the Barrie waterfront in the late 1980s as the core of the Maclaren Art Centre's collection.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


In nine years, a lot has changed - yet I still can't forget the stark, sudden shift in my life and in the world that took place in early September, 2001. Shortly after my brush with death behind the wheel at the hands of some rubbernecking trucker, I left home on September 3, 2001 and went to Peterborough to begin my studies at Trent University. Eight days later, the 1990s ended. I still remember the graffiti that someone had wrote on one of the Science Complex's long wooden desks - "North America's security bubble has been burst."

That's all it ever was, really. A bubble. A convenient fiction. It's been decades since we could sincerely believe that the vastness of the oceans provided any isolation or insulation from the rest of the world. It was the end of our "vacation from history" where the Free World was victorious, everyone was at peace, and things would be awesome from then on. It was a common assumption, I'd imagine, because what would the Cold War have been about otherwise? War is horrible enough even with the dividends brought by peace.

I still remember how that day went down, where I was when the news reached me. Room C21, Champlain College, Trent University, sitting on the tiled floor eating nachos with salsa dip in a round Tupperware container, watching a videotape of The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police. The ordinary life of an ordinary university student on an ordinary day. Then the call came through - a call that made be believe that the nukes were flying and the end of the world was here. I tore ass to the TV room and found it already full of people staring at the screen, the screen with a view of lower Manhattan full of smoke and ash and dust.

Dividing lines in the course of one's life can rarely be drawn so starkly - but there it is. Pre-university and post-university, pre-9/11 and post-9/11, practically two different worlds. Only ten years separates us from 2000, but it's surely another country now.

Now, nine years later, the anniversary comes around and I find myself at the brink again. Had I stayed in the Toronto mayoral race, I'd be fulminating at Rob Ford for what I see as foolishness and shortsightedness, and doing what I could to ensure that when the next stark dividing line is drawn, whatever it may be, Toronto will be better off than it is now. But that's not how it turned out, is it? I pulled out of the election, left the silent chaos of the fringe while the perspectives that shape the world congregate around the "professionals" that have a hope in hell of running this city come December, and now I worry whether I'll see the dust of things torn down in the name of "saving tax dollars," of not creating things because the alternative comes with a price tag, of going along the convenient road rather than the necessary one.

Personally, I'm taking the harder road.

In the very near future I will be moving to Vancouver, British Columbia. It's a heavy truth to admit, and heavier still to leave behind almost everything you know for a new chance and new opportunities in a new land. This weblog will continue to be maintained - I've been going without a break for nearly a year and a half, I'm not about to stop now - but will have that new perspective on the world.

Sometimes, seeing something familiar from an unfamiliar direction is as good as seeing it for the very first time.

Friday, September 10, 2010

PDP #279: A Car for the Street

It's times like this that I regret having dropped out of the mayoral race. Sure, the media wouldn't be paying any attention, but I would at least be able to volley suggestions, opinions, and a criticisms from a slightly more privileged perch than that of "some guy on Twitter." What defines times like this is frontrunner Rob Ford's transportation "plan" - a plan that shows us all we could fill Roncesvalles Carhouse with what Rob Ford doesn't know about transit. He wants to get rid of our streetcar system, forty years after it survived destruction at the hands of the shortsighted politicians of another era. The rails have been challenged once - maybe they'll make it through again.

Here, CLRV 4024 - bound for the scrapheap if Ford gets his way - pushes east on King Street West toward Yonge Street, with the sun at its back.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tunnel Visions: Vancouver's SkyTrain

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of Toronto, lands in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and looks at different ways of getting around on two rails, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

The other day, a friend of mine summed up one of the problems Canada faces, and continues to face - at some point in the recent past, it's as if this country decided that it was totally awesome, and as such didn't need to do anything anymore. This attitude on the part of our leadership is particularly obvious in spheres like transportation. While there are a number of cities that could support transit systems more extensive than bus-only operations, rail-based transit is limited in the lands of the Maple Leaf. In fact, there's only one significant system that wasn't around when I was born (1982). In previous Tunnel Visions installments I've taken you through the Toronto subway and the Montreal Metro. Today, I'll give you a look at the country's most recent rapid transit network1, the SkyTrain in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Like the Montreal Metro, I actually had some brief measure of experience with this system before I set out to review it earlier this year. Back in 1991, my grandfather and I travelled to Vancouver on what was to be our last significant vacation together, and I still have some vague memories of my eight-year-old self riding Vancouver's elevated rails. Going back there and riding the SkyTrain again was familiar and comfortable, not only because of that experience but thanks to the very nature of the system. It uses the same ICTS technology as the Scarborough RT here in Toronto, but unlike the Scarborough RT, the SkyTrain forms the backbone of rapid transit service in metropolitan Vancouver. With the opening of the Canada Line in 2009, the country's most recent commitment to higher-order transit, the SkyTrain is working to make the city work.

It doesn't spend very much time underground, either. Aside from the downtown component of the Expo/Millennium shared trackage and the first half of the new Canada Line, it runs on the elevated rails that give the system its name - and all the better for it. Between the mountains and the endless sea, Vancouver's a city that's meant to be seen and appreciated and not just tunneled under.

Really - it's a train, in the sky. Don't you want to know more?


A Mark I train pulls west out of Commercial-Broadway Station in the Grandview Cut, with cars in old BC Transit and modern SkyTrain liveries. Considering the amount of people still on the platform, it may well be a Millennium Line train bound for VCC-Clark.

Like so many other things I have an inexplicable fondness for, the SkyTrain is a product of the 1980s. While it's been the anchor of the Canadian West for a while - though Calgary may disagree - for decades after Vancouver ripped up its streetcar network and while Toronto and Montreal built and ran their own metro systems, it made do with buses alone. This changed with Expo 86, held in Vancouver from May 2 to October 13, 1986, based on the theme "Transportation and Communication: World in Motion." In other words, the perfect excuse for the Urban Transportation Development Corporation, the maker of Toronto's streetcars, to show off the Intermediate Capacity Transit System it had been polishing since the 1970s. The original spine of the system, beginning in downtown Vancouver and terminating in New Westminster, was finished in 1985 with six months to spare before the Expo crowds arrived, and nine months after the same trains had started to run in Scarborough.

Unlike its neglected sibling in Scarborough, the SkyTrain is an extensive rapid transit network befitting a major city - 68.7 kilometers of track, just a stone's throw on Phobos2 shorter than the Toronto subway and RT. While Toronto's system has sixty-nine stations spread across the city, SkyTrain stops tend to be more widely spaced - forty-seven in total provide service in the cities of Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Richmond, and Surrey. It's divided into three lines - the Expo Line from Waterfront Station to King George Station in Surrey; the Millennium Line, which shares track with the Expo Line as far east as Columbia Station in New Westminster, and then curves north and back west to VCC-Clark Station in Vancouver; and the Canada Line, opened in 2009 in anticipation of the 2010 Winter Olympics, which runs south from downtown Vancouver to Vancouver International Airpoirt and the city of Richmond.

The Canada Line service to the airport was an excellent way to be re-introduced to the system. Chicago is the only other city I've written about that had a direct rapid transit connection with the airport by way of the Orange Line to Midway or the Blue Line to O'Hare - Los Angeles, Toronto, and Montreal all rely on bus connections to subway or light rail lines. From the arrivals terminal at YVR, it's only a short walk to the platform of YVR-Airport station - there's only one platform, and considering that the airport itself is directly behind it, they'd have to do some funky planning in order to extend it any further.

Indubitably, this is the end of the line.

While it's all officially considered one SkyTrain, the lines aren't all interchangeable. The Canada Line stands particularly apart from the remainder of the system; its only physical connection with the Expo and Millennium Lines, through Waterfront Station, is in its own fare-paid zone, and the Expo and Millennium trains are incapable of running on Canada Line track. This even extends as far as signage - whether it's the stations or the jackets of on-duty personnel, there's only the Canada Line logo. The in-station announcements remind you that there is no smoking on the Canada Line - it's doubtful the implication is that smoking is acceptable on the Expo and Millennium Lines, but the specificity struck me as a bit odd when other systems have system-wide announcements. The only time I ever heard "SkyTrain" officially applied to the line was by a bus automated stop announcement. It seems more like a confederacy of lines than a single, unified system - almost like the Philadelphia subway.

As far as fares go, they weren't exactly bank-breaking, but I did have to pay more attention to them than in the other cities I've visited. TransLink, the agency in charge of the SkyTrain, SeaBus, and Metro Vancouver bus network, divides Metro Vancouver into three fare zones: the city of Vancouver itself is zone 1, the inner-ring suburbs of Richmond, New Westminster, Burnaby, North Vancouver, and West Vancouver are zone 2, and the areas beyond are in zone 3. What's important to note is that the SkyTrain is also subject to the fare zones, rather than being in its own unified fare zone - such as the Toronto subway before the elimination of fare boundaries in the 1970s. Thankfully, if you're holding a DayPass you won't have to worry about stumbling over a fare boundary; they cost $9 ($10 if you're paying cash, for some damn reason), and the fare zone system itself is only in force before 6:30 PM on non-holiday weekdays. One-zone and multiple-zone tickets are available for purchase at ticket vending machines within the stations.

An important note, though, to anyone flying into Vancouver International Airport and taking the SkyTrain out: it is most likely worth your while to purchase a DayPass outside YVR-Airport station, because of the wonderful thing called the "Airport AddFare," which puts an extra $5 charge on fares other than prepaid tickets and passes bought at any of the three Canada Line stations in the Airport Zone.
A selection of SkyTrain ticket receipts from August 1991. Adjusted for inflation - it's actually not that much more expensive today.

Despite the poor economic climate, the system remains primed for further expansion. Recent comments from the British Columbia government suggest that the Evergreen Line, extending from Burnaby to Port Coquitlam via Port Moody and Coquitlam, will along with an extension of the Expo Line deeper into Surrey be the next construction priority. Where the money will come from for this hasn't really been specified - though considering that construction is to begin in "early 2011," I suppose we'll find out soon whether or not there's any feasibility behind the government projections. After all, wasn't Transit City supposed to be totally done by 2018 at one point?


The kiosk of Burrard Station in downtown Vancouver. Many bus and trolley routes begin and end here.

Appropriately enough, considering the nature of its origins, there's a pervasive '80s style throughout the original SkyTrain network - or at least that's what I picked up on, and I can't be sure if it was just that I knew it had been built then. Something about the original stations speaks to that era for me, though, and it's an aesthetic that I don't recall encountering in other cities. Maybe it's the style of the signage or the smooth white walls or something else I never consciously picked up on. I don't know what it is, but it's there, I swear it.

It could be the art. Public art, though not ubiquitous, is common throughout the SkyTrain system, though much of it takes the shape of sculpture and statuary immediately outside the station rather than the "art on the platforms" style that's more common in Toronto, Montreal, or Los Angeles. From the leaping dolphin outside the greenhouse-like kiosk of Burrard Station to the huge, hollow bronze heads under the elevated track at Lansdowne Station - presumably the bodily remains of the vengeful gods that TransLink had to defeat in order to build the Canada Line - it combines well with the large public art program Vancouver is currently running. Though those laughing statues they've got at Denman and Davie seriously creep me the hell out.

Much like in Los Angeles, the relatively salubrious climate of Vancouver appears to have greatly influenced the design of its stations - but, then again, many of the elevated stations are obvious cousins of Chicago 'L' stops, to degrees open to the environment and on occasion with roofs that don't cover the entire platform. Many stations on the SkyTrain and Canada Lines lack doors altogether, and if it wasn't for the rarity of snow - indeed, the rarity of below-freezing days - in Vancouver, they might not be the most pleasant places to wait for a train. Indeed, I hear that on those rare occasions where Vancouver gets a significant snowfall, the SkyTrain has a tendency to shut down until the flakes can be cleared.

Not that, from appearances, the entire system would be affected by a minor obstruction in one particular area. There look to be multiple cross-switches across the system by which trains would be able to switch from one set of tracks to the other - at least, this is what they look like. I can't be sure if they actually can be used for that, but it wouldn't really make much sense otherwise, would it? In any event, during my eight days in Vancouver I never found myself on a short-turned SkyTrain, itself a welcome break from my Toronto experiences.

What really struck me as odd were the split platforms, a setup where each track feeds into a platform on a separate level. Though it's not like I've never seen them - Wilshire/Vermont Station on the Los Angeles County Metro Rail is set up like this, and Montreal Metro transfer stations use an adaptation of the underlying philosophy - their frequency in Vancouver is what I found odd. Granville, Burrard, and King Edward all have split platforms, and those are just the ones I remember.3 Really, I wonder why they were built like this - these are all underground stations. Would it really be cheaper, or geologically necessary, to do them that way? It'd have to be, otherwise it'd make no sense at all.

More sensible was what I found in most of the Canada Line stations - remote check-in terminals for airport departures, assumping you're flying Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, Horizon Air, Korean Air, Lufthansa, United, US Airways, or WestJet. There was a similar terminal in the lobby of the hotel I stayed at, and while I did my check-in online, I can see the convenience factor there. The machines do stand as a reminder, though, that if not for the airport and the impetus of the Olympics, the Canada Line might have been pushed back into the uncertain future.

A Vancouver International Airport check-in kiosk in Broadway-City Hall station on the Canada Line, a convenience for passengers hurrying to catch their flights. You had better find this photograph worthwhile, since I was (briefly) questioned by a South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Police Service officer as to why I was taking it.

On the whole, I got the impression that the stations tend to stand slightly apart from their surroundings - in that there's very little integration. Take, for example, the situation of Granville Station and Vancouver City Centre station, the latter serving Canada Line trains. They are literally right across an intersection from one another, and yet there's no physical connection between them - anyone wanting to transfer between lines there would have to leave the station, cross Granville Street, descend into the second station and cross another fare boundary. Coming from Toronto, where there's an in-station transfer so long that it was originally envisioned as two separate stations, it seems odd. That's not to say that it doesn't happen - it's certainly the case at Commercial-Broadway, for transfers between eastbound Expo and Millennium trains and westbound Millennium trains.


A Canada Line train at Marine Drive Station takes in the last bit of sky before diving into the tunnel that will take it the rest of the way to Waterfront.

No matter how you want to phrase it, regardless of the degree to which it's concealed behind technical bafflegab like "automatic train operation" or the like, there's one thing you need to know - the SkyTrain is driven by robots. In fact, you could go so far as to say that the trains themselves are robots. In this, as in so many other aspects of the place, Vancouver more than lives up to its appearance as the world-renowned city of the future. It is, in fact, the longest driverless rail system on Earth, and the only one of its kind in Canada.

There are three different types of rolling stock in use on the SkyTrain, split between the Expo/Millennium Lines and the Canada Line. On the original network you'll find Mark I and Mark II ICTS trains - the Mark Is will be familiar to anyone who's used the Scarborough RT, and in fact some of Vancouver's current Mark Is are slated to be sold to Toronto in the near future to shore up service on the RT until it can be converted to LRT, and the Mark IIs are larger, roomier, more streamlined and futuristic-looking improvements on that standard. On the Canada Line trains are comprised of Hyundai Rotem EMU cars, and they're considerably larger than individual ICTS cars - this is the reason why there's no intercompatibility between the Canada Line and the remainder of the system. Their internal dimensions are far closer to traditional heavy rail - advantageous when you consider how many luggage-toting folk are using it to get to the airport.

All of the trains, as a result of being automated, are totally open. In my opinion this openness is used to the best degree on Mark II ICTS trains, where a single "railfan seat" is installed in front of the window providing an operator's-eye view of the track - on the other models, you'd just have to stand in front of the window, but the concept remains the same. Compare this to Toronto, where the new Toronto Rocket subway cars will have their fronts entirely enclosed by the operator's cabin, denying passengers a view ahead. Because god forbid anyone ever get excited about the prospect of riding a rapid transit vehicle.

The forward view from the "railfan seat" on a Millennium Line train, somewhere in Coquitlam.

Vancouver's geography means that, among other things, its summers do not tend to be as punishing as those visited on Toronto, Montreal, and other cities in the humid continental climate zone. This may be why newer trains have air conditioning within, while the Mark Is do not. Still, I never really encountered horrible overcrowding within the trains in the time I was there; particularly between Vancouver and New Westminster, the interlining between the Expo and Millennium Lines west of Columbia Station would have a great deal to do with that. Since one or the other ends up coming about every two minutes, Waterfront-bound, the SkyTrain manages to regularly outdo the Toronto subway in that regard. The only particularly long headways in the system are found toward the ends of the Canada Line, where as a result of the line branching at Bridgeport Station, trains may only come every ten minutes or so.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

Ticket vending machines and a ticket validator at the Lonsdale Quay SeaBus terminal in North Vancouver - technically speaking, not a SkyTrain station.

As befitting its architecture and the general cultural vibe I got from Vancouver as a whole, SkyTrain stations are open in terms of access - there are no physical fare barriers, and the only turnstiles I found in the whole system were those regulating access to the SeaBus terminals at Lonsdale Quay and Waterfront Station, and even those are meant to ensure that the ferries don't exceed safe capacity. While Canada Line and Millennium Line stations were built so that fare gates could easily be installed, for now it looks like there's no push to actually switch from the proof-of-payment honor system.

Unlike Los Angeles, the other proof-of-payment system I'm familiar with, fare enforcement is far more hidden. The only time I really encountered transit police was the time I had to justify taking photos of the airline check-in terminal, and I never saw them actually conducting inspections - whereas in LA, I crossed paths with a Sheriff pretty much every other day. Personally, I was never too certain about how the validators worked, and so even though I carried DayPasses I would feed it into those blue machines whenever I crossed a new fare boundary. Best, I figured, to establish a habit - though I did notice that no one else seemed to do it. They probably knew better than me.

Metrotown Station - your bikes are not welcome here.

As Vancouver is somewhat more of a bicycling city - in that, unlike Toronto, it actually recognizes the bicycle as a legitimate transit mode, and not just a recreational tool - it should come as no surprise that the SkyTrain integrates bikes into its operation. At least some stations have bicycle lockers for the use of patrons, and bikes are permitted around the clock on Canada Line trains. The only system-wide restriction is on the Expo and Millennium Lines, the standard rush-hour limitations depending on time and direction. Also, you can't bring them on or off at Metrotown Station in Burnaby. The TransLink website says it's for "safety reasons."

Presumably it's for cleanliness reasons that food and drink is not allowed on the SkyTrain system - and, to be true, it is a far cleaner system than the Toronto subway. Still, the lids and discarded McDonald's bags I found on some trains demonstrate that not all riders abide by these rules. I mean, I know that every once in a while we just get a jonesing - is it really too hard to clean up after yourself?


Guttering light upon a Mark I ICTS SkyTrain in, I believe, Main Street-Science World Station.

The most important factor to be considered in any transit system is whether it's easy to navigate a city with it. I'd say that the SkyTrain does work as a rapid transit network for Metro Vancouver in that regard, but there are still many more opportunities for extension. I had to wonder, for example, why there was no service through the West End or to Kitsilano - presumably it has a lot to do with economics and people who don't want to see a SkyTrain in their backyard. Still, it's taken a technology that was neglected here and really put it to worthwhile use.

If anything, riding the SkyTrain flung light on the roads - or, rather, the rails not taken. Look at the Scarborough RT and the manners in which it hasn't lived up to its potential, or the concept of the Hamilton SkyTrain - wherein ICTS technology was offered to the city of Hamilton, Ontario by the provincial government back in the early 1980s even with the provincial government willing to pay for construction. It's a big sky out West, and the SkyTrain is a good place to watch it go by.

1 I know that Ottawa's O-Train is newer, having commenced service in 2001 as opposed to 1985, but the O-Train also only has five stations. I've been on zoo monorails and airport peoplemovers with a similiar depth of service. If Ottawa wants to be taken seriously, it can build a subway befitting the fourth-largest city in the country.

2 As Phobos has an escape velocity of 40 kilometers per hour, I strongly suggest you throw the stone lightly if you ever want to see it again.

3 Even if those are in fact the only ones, three split-platform stations in a forty-seven station network is pretty large considering the unconventional nature of the design in North America.

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