Dawson City has inspired more than one writer named Robert.
In the summer of 2007, science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer, along with his wife, poet Carolyn Clink, travelled to the Klondike from Ontario. Sawyer had been selected for a spot at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat. For two months he listened to a Parks Canada employee recite The Cremation of Sam McGee through a loudspeaker twice a day. “I got pretty steeped in Robert Service,” said Sawyer.
He got to know the town fairly well, not a hard thing to do, he said. He went panning for gold. He spent time at Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Casino. He watched as the city recreated the gold rush days, and all the characters who would have likely made up the population in the 1890s.
“A gold rush doesn’t attract the nicest people,” said Sawyer. “People come there for the lawlessness. Hookers come there to ply their trade. There’s a lot of black-market stuff going on during that kind of event.”
“All of that kind of seeped into my character and made me want to write something very reflective of the time that I spent there,” said Sawyer. That “something” took a while to come out. Sawyer spent his time in Dawson working on his novel, Wake. Released in 2009, it was the first in his World Wide Web trilogy. After he finished that series, his novel Triggers was released.
But this year, his Klondike-inspired fiction hit the shelves as Red Planet Blues. The first 10 chapters were previously published in a different version as the novella Identity Theft in Down These Dark Spaceways, a 2005 anthology.
The novel centres on Alex Lomax, the only private detective in the town of New Klondike. The novel begins when Lomax is hired to investigate a missing person’s case. But the case turns into more than just an investigation into one man’s disappearance. It becomes a search for riches - and an exploration of how greed affects people, and what it means to be a human.
Dawson is reflected in the novel’s locations. Diamond Tooth Gerties becomes a saloon called the Bent Chisel. And Sawyer pays homage to the writers’ retreat through the Shopatsky House, a writer-in-residence program established by a Berton-type figure, Stavros Shopatsky. The floor plan of that building is inspired by the Berton House. But the writer in the novel is much more active in the community than Berton House writers are required to be, and more ominous, said Sawyer.
Dawson did more than inspire locations. It also generated the plot and themes.
Like the original Klondike, New Klondike has seen a defined boom-and-bust cycle. But people didn’t travel there looking for gold. Instead, they journeyed to New Klondike looking for fossils. And they didn’t use sternwheelers. They reached their destination in spaceships because New Klondike is set on Mars. Instead of being home to a great gold rush, it saw a great fossil rush.
Sawyer wanted to write a novel that reflected the frontier, he said. But that’s best done through historical fiction or futuristic fiction. As a science fiction author, he chose the latter. As a Canadian writer, Mars just seemed like best choice.
Learning to survive in a land “that is so harsh and inhospitable that if you merely stand still it will kill you” is a grand theme of Canadian literature, at least according to Margaret Atwood, said Sawyer. But Canada’s mostly tamed now, even the North. The Berton House has heating and air-conditioning systems.
“Canada has dealt with the question of survival and tamed this country,” said Sawyer. Mars seemed like the next logical place to continue that journey, he said, adding scholars have since told him this novel is the first by any Canadian author to be entirely set on Mars.
But the Red Planet does more than reinforce standard red-maple-leaf patriotic themes. It also gives a taste of the world’s future, said Sawyer.
“There’s no doubt that Mars is going to be our next frontier. We are going to go there,” he said. He’s a member of the Mars Society, a non-profit dedicated to getting people on the Red Planet. “We’re going to go there this century. And it’s worth speculating about what that experience might be like.”
But that’s not the only experience Sawyer speculates about in this novel. Red Planet Blues also raises questions about what it means to be human. Characters in the book can pay to become “transfers” - to upload their consciousness into artificial bodies. But the question remains if transfers can still be considered human. They have legal rights, but no biological bodies.
Artificial intelligence is likely to become a reality this century, said Sawyer. So people need to start thinking about how to answer questions about human identity now. Society is constantly asking these questions anyways, through the Civil Rights Movement or debate about what rights same-sex couples have to inheritance or to make deathbed decisions for each other, he said.
“Every time we’ve explored these questions, we’ve always ultimately ended up siding on the idea that the definition of a person is wider than we thought it was the last time we looked at it.”
The Klondike Gold Rush raised these questions as well, especially the way many First Nation students were treated at residential schools.
“There’s no question that in the past, during the Klondike Gold Rush, not everybody that was there was treated as human,” said Sawyer. Residential schools are quietly echoed throughout the novel, particularly in flashbacks some characters have of being abused while travelling on the spaceship the B. Traven.
One thing motivated gold-seekers: greed. “That should not be forgotten in all the can-can dances and recitings of poetry that go on with the Klondike Gold Rush,” said Sawyer. “It was a nasty time in Canadian history.”
But the novel isn’t without Canadian decency. The main character hails from Detroit, mainly because this novel is a detective story, and that genre is American, said Sawyer. It didn’t seem right to have a protagonist modelled after a hard-boiled, misogynist American tradition be Canadian, he said.
Lomax may carry a gun and be a womanizer at times, but he’s still a “decent guy” who always feels compelled to help people in need, said Sawyer. That includes the Canadian paleontologist Rory Pickover, intent on preserving the planet’s largest deposit of fossils. It also explains why Lomax came to Mars, a secret that’s kept until the book’s final pages.
Still unknown is how Dawsonites are responding to the book, said Sawyer. He hasn’t heard what they think about it, but he looks forward to their reactions to having their city fictionalized on Mars, he said. “I’m hoping they will love the notion,” said Sawyer. And maybe it will inspire new ventures. “Dawson has made a great deal out of things that happened in the 1890s. It would be nice to have a new hook for Dawson, to excite and attract people in the future.”
Contact Meagan Gillmore at