A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder: Canada's Science Fiction Beginnings

February 26, 2021 | Myrna

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In 1888, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder appeared serialized in Harper’s Weekly magazine. The science fiction novel is by Canadian author James De Mille. It was published anonymously eight years after his death. Though the story doesn't takes place in Canada, it is Canada’s most celebrated 19th-century science fiction novel.

Our Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy has a first edition of the novel (view in catalogue or view digitized book). Using Merril Collection resources, I examined the novels's author, story and readership to learn more about an abandoned writing project that became a celebrated science fiction story.

Cover of A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille
The British first edition of A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888) from our Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. 


The author

James De Mille (1833–1880) had a successful writing career during his own lifetime. Born in New Brunswick, De Mille lived most of his life in the Canadian Maritimes. In addition to writing, De Mille taught at Dalhousie University and Acadia College. De Mille wrote in many genres. His writing ranged from boys' adventures stories to historical fiction and textbooks. 

A Strange Manuscript was published posthumously, but was one of De Mille’s first attempts at novel writing. He worked on A Strange Manuscript early in his writing career in the 1860s. According to his brother Alfred Henry De Mille, De Mille put the story aside because “he was never able to make a satisfactory denouement.” Following De Mille's death, the story was published without his preferred ending. Literary scholar Stephen Milnes describes the book's conclusion as "notoriously brusque."

By the 1880s, De Mille was a popular and well-respected writer. So why was A Strange Manuscript published anonymously? Harper's Weekly told De Mille's widow, Annie De Mille, that publishing the story anonymously would curb piracy. The publisher thought that as a British subject, De Mille might "not [be] entitled to the protection of copyright in the United States." However, De Mille's authorship was an open secret. Some early reviews of A Strange Manuscript even mention De Mille by name. 

Photograph of James de Mille
Photograph of James de Mille from The Dalhousie Gazette (December 20, 1893).

The story

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder opens on a yacht off the Canary Islands. The yacht's four travelers discover a copper cylinder with a manuscript within. The manuscript tells the story of sailor Adam More. More recounts how he found himself swept to a hidden tropical sea in Antarctica. Alternating between the yacht and the tropical Antarctic, the four travelers discuss and debate More’s story. Some of the men are eager to accept the manuscript as fact, but others call it a “transparent hoax.” 

Illustration of a copper cylinder with A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder written on it
An illustration by Gaul Gilbert from A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888).


De Mille's story draws on hollow earth theories and legends. Hollow earth was a common trope in 19th-century science fiction. Authors and readers enjoyed imagining what might lurk beneath the earth's crust.  In A Strange Manuscript, More meets the subterranean Kosekin civilization. Kosekin culture is the satiric opposite of 19th-century Western culture. They prefer poverty to wealth and death to life. As he navigates Kosekin culture, More uses these opposite values to his advantage. 


The readers

Reviewers in 1888 had mixed reactions to A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. De Mille's story had been sitting in a drawer for 20 years. Over those decades, several novels similar to A Strange Manuscript had been published. Many reviewers compared A Strange Manuscript to the works of H. Rider Haggard, an English adventure and science fiction writer. Other reviewers praised De Mille's science fiction narrative. Toronto magazine The Week declared that A Strange Manuscript "will gratify lovers of the marvelous to their hearts' content." 

A Strange Manuscript gained more admirers among 20th-century readers. Canadian literature scholars were eager to examine early examples of Canadian science fiction. The book's complex structure also appealed to scholars. The interplay between More's manuscript and its readers on the yacht made the book popular with postmodern critics. Whether you are interested in hollow earth adventures or postmodern narratives, A Strange Manuscript appeals to a range of readers. 


Further reading


You could even use A Strange Manuscript for "a book that was published posthumously", one of the categories in the TPL Reading Challenge 2021.