This work of popular history by a young man who is a "modern explorer" himself is understandably chiefly centred around exploration maps of territory now within Canada's boundaries. It has a fairly informal tone, but full scholarly apparatus. I enjoyed the thoughtful preface and afterword material, and the summaries of the exploits of various famous explorers were highly readable, with many interesting anecdotes. I also thought the tone successfully avoided any suggestion of hero-worship, and also acknowledged in a timely way the major contributions of named and described indigenous allies and collaborators, some of whom, as expedition members, ventured nearly as far away from their homes as the Europeans or Canadians they assisted. The main disappointment of the volume is one that was presumably out of the author's control: the reproductions of the maps, although coloured and glossy, are constrained to too small a size by the book's standard format to be really enjoyed. A coffee-table format would have been better (but probably too expensive). One of the chief victims of this shortcoming is the Thomson map (one I am very familiar with, having worked alongside the original for many years), but that huge, faded map would likely have been chiefly illegible even in a much larger reproduction: it is largely illegible close up, in its original.
This is not groundbreaking history, nor is it really cartographic analysis, though there is some discussion of the history and techniques of cartography in the preliminaries. It's a sesquicentennial project, aimed at a general audience, and, if my quite vivid recent memories of its tales about the Vikings, about Cartier and Champlain and Hearne and Mackenzie and Thomson and Franklin, are any indication, it has certainly done its job of raising awareness of the role exploration and mapping played in the early definition of the boundaries of the state we now call Canada. The roles of other forces (war, politics and statecraft) are, legitimately I think, largely left aside. As others have remarked, the one chapter on the Fort Erie battle during the war of 1812 seems a little forced and out of place. But then military history is not something I read with pleasure in any case.
Shoalts also seems to be quite an interesting guy, and I recommend a browse through his website after finishing this book.
(I'm about 35-40% in now, but going back to the very beginning -- I listened to this in the car today:)
"Mr Dursley blinked and stared at the cat. It stared back. As Mr Dursley drove around the corner and up the road, he watched the cat in his mirror. It was now reading the sign that said Privet Drive -- no, looking at the sign; cats couldn't read maps or signs. Mr Dursley gave himself a little shake and put the cat out of his mind."
So you think cats can't read maps, can they, Uncle Vernon?
(And her name wasn't even Professor McGonagall ... well, not that I was ever aware, at least!)
And yes, that is a map of London, too.
All throughout this book I kept asking what he now had to say about this and that because it is three years since he wrote the book and Korea has a nuclear weapons capabilities now and the US has a new president and a number of other significant changes. Fascinating book. It will give you a whole new understanding of the world we live in.
“No wife who finds her husband addicting himself to science fiction need fear that he is in search of an erotic outlet, anyway not an overt one.”
In "New Maps of Hell" by Kingsley Amis
To put it in another context, imagine I'd be teaching F. Scott Fitzgerald to undergraduates, some of whom would be of African descent. Do we look at the casual racism found in the books and say "that's wrong?" No, we assume that everyone "gets" that it's wrong. But we look at the fact that this was considered normal/acceptable in F. Scott's day. He's still a magnificent writer, but he reflects his own era. Scott’s similar to Amis. His attitude to women is a reflection of the times. We can't shy away from that and pretend it isn't so, and we can't negate him as a writer, because of it.
Imagine yourself living in Lisbon as a young woman; wouldn’t you dread the endless comments, abuse, physical assaults that were part of your everyday experience. Maybe this young woman dreamt of buying an electric cattle prod and zapping those who threatened her. But it was the times in which they lived back then. Women had no rights in the 60s. The literature of the times, reflected that. Shall we zap Amis with a cattle prod for being a man of his time? No. First of all, I believe that all good books, whether niche or mainstream or somewhere in-between, must have an implicit message they are trying to put across, which should stick out almost like a sore thumb. That said, I in no way think this should make books programmatic. Writing a novel with the sole purpose of creating a text more politically correct than anything that has ever been written might take away, all at once, all the drama and conflict that all good novels - needless to say, I am merely expressing my own point of view here - play with to a certain extent. Secondly, SF (fantasy and science-fiction), possibly more so than any other genre, and even at their most mechanically chlichéd, are written and read not simply for "idle entertainment", but as a platform for escapism. And "entertainment" and "escapism" are definitely not the same thing. Sure, escapism includes enjoyment, but there are many other elements to it as well.
If you're into SF Criticism, read on.