Sunday, March 22, 2009

Far-Out Futurism: "The Dominion in 1983"

Remember Wilfrid Laurier? Apart from his place of honor on the $5 bill, Canada's seventh Prime Minister is widely remembered for something he never actually said. "The twentieth century belongs to Canada!" Inspiring, yes, and the sort of words a fledgling nation-state caught between the United States and the British Empire needed just as much as good railroads and sound governmental policy - far more inspiring than what Laurier actually said one hundred and five years ago:

"As the nineteenth century was that of the United States, so I think we can claim that Canada shall build the twentieth."

The first decades after Canada's transition from a handful of British colonies to one British colony united as the first Dominion of the Empire were trying, troublesome ones. It's hard enough to build a country at the best of times, and the presence of a powerful neighbor who had just got over a destructive civil war and still held on to the national dream of Manifest Destiny only complicated the issue. As one Canadian wrote in 1883, there was "a settled conviction that it was 'the destiny of Canada to be absorbed in the States.'"

Those words were written by Ralph Centennius, the pseudonym of an author whose true identity has been lost to history, and whose extremely limited fame derives from a thirty-page pamphlet entitled The Dominion in 1983, printed in Peterborough in 1883. Set from the perspective of an author a century hence, The Dominion in 1983 takes a whirlwind look at how one hundred years of history shaped the development of Canada from "as prosperous and promising a young nation as the world ever saw" to a country that "came to take the lead among nations and [has] been able to keep foremost ever since."

Prediction is a notably spotty art, and the only sure thing about it is that the future that our descendants live in will resemble anything we can guess in only the vaguest stretches. The same is true for Centennius' 1983. Reaganomics, the last episode of M*A*S*H, and the Soviet threat are entirely absent from it. In some regards, The Dominion in 1983 can be read as our true history reflected in a funhouse mirror; in some respects it is completely off-base, with "living beings... observed in the countries in Mars and Jupiter" through powerful telescopes, in others sensible, and still others possessed of an ersatz prescience.

His twentieth century is one in which "war has ceased all the world over," after an incident in 1932 when "a monster oxyhydrogen shell" detonated at a meeting of "three emperors, two kings, and several princes... All the royal personages were blown to atoms, and were also many of their attendants. Their armies hardly had a chance of getting near each other, so fearful was the execution of the shells." Centennius wrote more than thirty years before the First World War really begun to make pacifism fashionable. It's not quite Global Thermonuclear War, but considering that radioactivity wasn't discovered until 1893, it's a version of the same that a nineteenth-century reader would more easily comprehend.

As well, Centennius gets it halfway right by subverting another thread that seems to have been common in futurism predating the Wright Brothers, dismissing "the old idea that balloons would be used in this century for travelling" as "a delusion." Travel in 1983 is based upon rocket-cars made of "a metal less than a quarter the weight of iron, but as strong and durable" - which sounds a lot like titanium by any other name to me - and capable of traversing the distance between Toronto and Victoria in fifty minutes, which works out to a speed of little over four thousand kilometers per hour. It's a world where our fossil fuel worries simply don't exist, because the "solidification of oxygen and hydrogen by an easy process" has made it "as simple a matter to buy a hundred horse-power over the counter as a pound of sugar."

That's not to say that Centennius wasn't naive in other respects, though. He takes the idea of a world without war one step farther, and postulates Canada in 1983 as without "the shadow of a standing army, nor a single keel to represent a navy... no power except the United States would ever attack us, and... they could only annex us by so improving their constitution, as to make it plainly very much superior to ours." The complete abandonment of human nature so that everyone can stand on a hill and sing about Coke may be common to a great deal of future timelines, but that doesn't make it any more believable - at least as far as I'm concerned.

Nevertheless, while 1983 was most likely meant to be a utopic dream to his contemporaries, its background betrays his nineteenth century origins. What caught my eye at the very beginning was his scorn for democracy, and his castigation of Canadian citizens as having "had a perfect mania for being represented," as if representative government was something to be avoided. Supposedly, the Parliament of Canada in 1983 functions "splendidly with only fifteen members (one for each Province) and a speaker," and the various provincial parliaments and legislatures no longer exist at all. Fifteen representatives for a country of ninety-three million, and for whom "the honour of the position is sufficient emolument" - which is to say, they aren't paid so much as a Voyageur dollar - strikes me as nothing less than a return to the days of barely-restrained monarchy, and certainly not a democracy as we would recognize it today.

Nor are all the clouds bright in 1983. While the "Anglo-Saxon race" has steadily increased its dominion over the world, it is threatened by a still-formidable Russia - or, as Centennius describes it, "the Sclavonic race" - possessed of "brutish disposition and ferocity in the midst of all the civilizing influences of modern times." The author laments over the prospect of an inevitable, devastating war between the Anglo-Saxons and "Sclavs," which with the technologies of 1983 would result in "destruction of life... hardly possible to conceive."

Now that I think about it, aside from the unvarnished racist comments, it actually is rather reminiscent of the actual situation in 1983.

Fundamentally, The Dominion in 1983 is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, an attempt to put into words the belief that the Canadian experiment would succeed to the great reward of all those who participated in it. Although many of its details are off-base, mostly thanks to Science Marching On, it remains a compelling window into Canada's culture of the mind in 1883, and a guidebook to a country's hopes for tomorrow. If you're interested in reading the whole thing, the ebook is available from those wizards at Project Gutenberg.

"No man," Centennius concluded, "can despair who ponders the position of the Dominion in 1983."

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