Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Moon Metal (1900)

Shortly after his unofficial sequel to The War of the Worlds, titled Edison's Conquest of Mars, Garrett P. Serviss tried his hand at another Scientific Romance. This novella was considerably more restrained than either Edison's Conquest or the one he would write a few years later, A Columbus of Space. It also benefits greatly by Serviss' restraint.

The Moon Metal begins with a simple and practical premise: the discovery of gold reserves at the South Pole which throws off the gold standard and creates economic chaos throughout the world. Suitable replacements are discussed with little resolution, and one would be excused for thinking that Serviss saw this as his chance to offer up his opinion on global monetary systems. Into this mess arrives Dr. Max Syx, bearing with him a brand new metal of previously unknown type. He has dubbed this metal "artemisium" and offers it as a substitute for the gold standard. And how will he maintain the appropriate and necessary amounts of artemisium available to the world's governments? Why, by his own proprietary knowledge of how to extract it.

Dr. Syx has little fear for the security of his monopoly. He even invites bankers, investors and other scientists out to his mine in the Grand Teton Mountains to investigate the ore for themselves. To the untrained eye, Syx insists, natural artemisium looks virtually identical to ordinary chrysolite, and the process for its extraction is so deceptively simply that it defies the brilliance of anyone but him to discover it. Prospectors flood to the Tetons to try their hand and find a great deal of the ore, quite easily... too easily... but are none the wiser for how to turn it into the precious metal.

This piques the curiousity of a group of investigators, who deduce that it must be Syx himself who is seeding the mountains with an ore that not only seems like chrysolite but is chrysolite. This sets off a scientific mystery story as they try to figure out what Syx is up to and uncover the nature of this miraculous substance which only he can produce. Evidently they did not read the title of the story they are in.

Serviss is at his best in this story. With the cosmos at his fingertips he seems only to produce something banal. When forced to restrain himself to a scientific mystery, and only in so many pages, he fashions a real little gem. The investigators' snooping around is enjoyable and there's some fun nonsense science in it to explain the eponymous element. Most curiously, we see in The Moon Metal an early prognostication of our still-ambitious proposal to mine the celestial bodies for resources that may prove useful (and profitable) here on earth. 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Brick Moon (1869)

Edward Everett Hale's 1869 short story The Brick Moon is one of those tales that is more notable for its conceit than for its quality. In this case, it is inscribed in the annals of history as the first fictional account of the creation and launch of an artificial satellite.

Four years prior, Jules Verne had written one of the first scientifically plausible stories of human spaceflight, From the Earth to the Moon. Though it seems clearly wrong to us today, it was a significant departure from prior stellar fantasies like Cyrano de Bergerac's The Other World, where the author ascends by bottles of morning dew. Verne was rigorous enough to accurately calculate the location for a likely American moon launch to within a few miles. The use of a railgun to send payloads into orbit has been an ongoing project in many governments and private corporations as well.

Hale, to his credit, is also very rigorous in the calculations for an artificial moon built from brick. A large part of his short story is dedicated to such calculations, blueprints, and other such things that no doubt many readers would glaze over. At times he becomes nearly obsessive over details, which is mainly responsible for the fact that The Brick Moon is more notable for its conceit than its literary value. Not only does Hale regale the reader with the details of his spherical brick structure, whose purpose is to provide a navigational aid to sailors, but also his own asides into the politics and philosophy of his day.

Another literary device employed by Verne and most authors of the Scientific Romance genre is that of a testimonial. Their stories are recollections by a participant in the fantastic events - say, the journals of a Professor Arronax aboard the Nautilus - who guides the reader through the novel's events. The purpose of a good narrator is, not to put too fine a point on it, to narrate the story and make its events clear and sensible to the reader. They get to ask all the stupid questions that we would want to, and if they refer to a newspaper article of some fantastic happening that we would supposedly all have heard of, they diligently reprint the article "with permission." Sir Arthur Conan  Doyle employed this device for almost the entire final chapter of The Lost World. Ordinarily their purpose would not be to obfuscate the story.

The Brick Moon breaks with convention, to its detriment. Hale almost seems to take deliberate glee in making references to events that were "well-known" and then going off on his own tangents instead of actually telling us what these events were supposed to be. At times it almost feels like this was supposed to be a supplement to another, better, novel which actually tells us a proper story. Rather than romance us with the tale of building a satellite out of brick that accidentally launches with several families still camped out inside - which would be a great story of the Crusoe type - he takes sharp turns back into minutiae of engineering or sectarian Unitarian squabbles. The majority of the narrative is practically gibberish.

It's really too bad, since the conceit itself is very good. The Brick Moon is a story of historic importance that one would read for historic reasons, but not much else. 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A Columbus of Space (1909)

From the last quarter of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th, Garrett P. Serviss was one of the best-known popularizers of astronomy in the United States. Though trained in law, Serviss became a journalist in 1876 for the New York Sun and revealed an aptitude for reporting on scientific matters in clear terms that could be understood by the lay reader. This led to his first publication, Astronomy Through the Opera Glass, in 1888. A decade later he dipped his toes into writing fiction with the publication of Edison's Conquest of Mars, an unofficial sequel to H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

Another decade passed - during which he mostly wrote scientific books - before he wrote another Scientific Romance. This was A Columbus of Space, which began with a lofty dedication "To the readers of Jules Verne's romances..." Thankfully he had the presence of mind to clarify  "Not because the author flatters himself that he can walk in the Footsteps of that Immortal Dreamer, but because, like Jules Verne, he believes that the World of Imagination is as legitimate a Domain of the Human Mind as the World of Fact." He was right not to flatter himself so.

It was for and from books like Edison's Conquest of Mars and A Columbus of Space that Sci-Fi encyclopedist John Clute coined the term "edisonade." In his own words:
As used here the term "edisonade" or "Edisonade" – which is derived from Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) in the same way that "Robinsonade" is derived from Robinson Crusoe – can be understood to describe any story dating from the late nineteenth century onward and featuring a young US male inventor hero who ingeniously extricates himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from defeat and corruption, and his friends and nation from foreign oppressors. The Invention by which he typically accomplishes this feat is not, however, simply a Weapon, though it will almost certainly prove to be invincible against the foe, and may also make the hero's fortune; it is also a means of Transportation – for the edisonade is not only about saving the country (or planet) through personal spunk and native wit, it is also about lighting out for the Territory. Afterwards, once the hero has reaches that virgin strand, he will find yet a further use for his invention: it will serve as a certificate of ownership, for the new Territory will probably be "empty" except for "natives". Magically, the barefoot boy with cheek of tan will discover that he has been made CEO of a compliant world; for a single, revelatory maxim can be discerned fuelling the motor heart of the edisonade: the conviction that to fix is to own.
The quality of edisonades varies depending on the author, and Serviss' works are the most edisonadish of the edisonades... The pulpiest, purplest, most petrified stories of the type. Their key is the lionization of specifically American individualism, industry and invention, with a peculiarly American approach to colonial expansion. As the American frontier was declared closed in the 1890's, Serviss simply expanded it into space. In a genre replete with what a friend of mine described as "Victorian assholes in pith helmets," A Columbus of Space charts the pranksterism of four of its most obnoxious kind.

The science-hero of the book is Edmund Stonewall, a quiet and dreamy-eyed inventor whose associates never cease to praise his unfailing, unflappable, imperturbable intelligence. It begins with the very first sentence of A Columbus of Space, and is loathe to diminish in intensity:
I am a hero worshiper; an insatiable devourer of biographies; and I say that no man in all the splendid list ever equaled Edmund Stonewall. You smile because you have never heard his name, for, until now, his biography has not been written. And this is not truly a biography; it is only the story of the crowning event in Stonewall's career.

The effect Serviss was going for is severely diminished by the fact that neither Edmund nor his companions have the slightest clue what they're doing as they traipse around the planet Venus aboard his atomic-powered airship. Most of their choices seem to be made simply for the Hell of doing so, like strapping a gang of the gorilla-like inhabitants of Venus' dark side to a carriage on the underside of their ship, only to have them die in a reckless charge on the stormy winds of the great ice mountains separating the hemispheres. "Reckless" is absolutely the word to describe the nearly senseless and often violent activities of the group during their year and a half on Earth's sister sphere.

If A Columbus of Space was a satire, it would almost be funny. There is such an earnestness in Serviss' delivery that the reader must inescapably conclude that he kind of means it. Edmund with his floolhardy choices and bipolar regret after those choices kill off one or two or a dozen people really does come across like Serviss' ideal man. One has to wonder how much is attributable to the genre and how much is Serviss' own ineptitudes as a writer of fiction. It is no wonder that he was more famous in his day as a popularize of science than of Scientific Romances.

In more capable hands, the edisonade can be enjoyable. You necessarily have to get over the artifacts of its time period, and in exchange it can offer high adventure and the aesthetic pleasures of Sci-Fi in a Main Street USA milieu. It just needs someone who is less clumsy with it.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Giveaways on Hiatus (Again)

I know I just started them up again, but the next couple months are going to be a little busy for us here at Voyages Extraordinaires. At the end of August I'm getting married, and we're going on a break in September so that Ashley and I can enjoy our honeymoon. Therefore, there will be no giveaways in August and September. But do look forward to them returning in October, and thank you one and all for your continued support of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Mark Twain and Halley's Comet

[T]here were other nights, too, when the stars were blazing out, or when the moon on the water made the river a wide mysterious way of speculative dreams. [Mark Twain] was always speculating; the planets and the remote suns were always a marvel to him. A love of astronomy—the romance of it, its vast distances, and its possibilities—began with those lonely river-watches and never waned to his last day. For a time a great comet blazed in the heavens, a "wonderful sheaf of light" that glorified his lonely watch. Night after night he watched it as it developed and then grew dim, and he read eagerly all the comet literature that came to his hand, then or afterward. He speculated of many things: of life, death, the reason of existence, of creation, the ways of Providence and Destiny. It was a fruitful time for such meditation; out of such vigils grew those larger philosophies that would find expression later, when the years had conferred the magic gift of phrase.
 He talked astronomy a great deal—marvel astronomy. He had no real knowledge of the subject, and I had none of any kind, which made its ungraspable facts all the more thrilling. He was always thrown into a sort of ecstasy by the unthinkable distances of space—the supreme drama of the universe. The fact that Alpha Centauri was twenty-five trillions of miles away—two hundred and fifty thousand times the distance of our own remote sun, and that our solar system was traveling, as a whole, toward the bright star Vega, in the constellation of Lyra, at the rate of forty-four miles a second, yet would be thousands upon thousands of years reaching its destination, fairly enraptured him.
The astronomical light-year—that is to say, the distance which light travels in a year—was one of the things which he loved to contemplate; but he declared that no two authorities ever figured it alike, and that he was going to figure it for himself. I came in one morning, to find that he had covered several sheets of paper with almost interminable rows of ciphers, and with a result, to him at least, entirely satisfactory. I am quite certain that he was prouder of those figures and their enormous aggregate than if he had just completed an immortal tale; and when he added that the nearest fixed star—Alpha Centauri—was between four and five light-years distant from the earth, and that there was no possible way to think that distance in miles or even any calculable fraction of it, his glasses shone and his hair was roached up as with the stimulation of these stupendous facts.

By and by he said:

"I came in with Halley's comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.' Oh! I am looking forward to that." And a little later he added:

"I've got some kind of a heart disease, and Quintard won't tell me whether it is the kind that carries a man off in an instant or keeps him lingering along and suffering for twenty years or so. I was in hopes that Quintard would tell me that I was likely to drop dead any minute; but he didn't. He only told me that my blood-pressure was too strong. He didn't give me any schedule; but I expect to go with Halley's comet."
Halley's Comet, June 6, 1910. 

The news of his condition, everywhere published, brought great heaps of letters, but he could not see them. A few messages were reported to him. At intervals he read a little. Suetonius and Carlyle lay on the bed beside him, and he would pick them up as the spirit moved him and read a paragraph or a page. Sometimes, when I saw him thus-the high color still in his face, and the clear light in his eyes—I said: "It is not reality. He is not going to die." On Tuesday, the 19th, he asked me to tell Clara to come and sing to him. It was a heavy requirement, but she somehow found strength to sing some of the Scotch airs which he loved, and he seemed soothed and comforted. When she came away he bade her good-by, saying that he might not see her again.

But he lingered through the next day and the next. His mind was wandering a little on Wednesday, and his speech became less and less articulate; but there were intervals when he was quite clear, quite vigorous, and he apparently suffered little. We did not know it, then, but the mysterious messenger of his birth-year, so long anticipated by him, appeared that night in the sky.—[The perihelion of Halley's Comet for 1835 was November 16th; for 1910 it was April 20th.]

On Thursday morning, the 21st, his mind was generally clear, and it was said by the nurses that he read a little from one of the volumes on his bed, from the Suetonius, or from one of the volumes of Carlyle. Early in the forenoon he sent word by Clara that he wished to see me, and when I came in he spoke of two unfinished manuscripts which he wished me to "throw away," as he briefly expressed it, for he had not many words left now. I assured him that I would take care of them, and he pressed my hand. It was his last word to me.

Once or twice that morning he tried to write some request which he could not put into intelligible words.

And once he spoke to Gabrilowitsch, who, he said, could understand him better than the others. Most of the time he dozed.

Somewhat after midday, when Clara was by him, he roused up and took her hand, and seemed to speak with less effort.

"Good-by," he said, and Dr. Quintard, who was standing near, thought he added: "If we meet"—but the words were very faint. He looked at her for a little while, without speaking, then he sank into a doze, and from it passed into a deeper slumber, and did not heed us any more.

Through that peaceful spring afternoon the life-wave ebbed lower and lower. It was about half past six, and the sun lay just on the horizon when Dr. Quintard noticed that the breathing, which had gradually become more subdued, broke a little. There was no suggestion of any struggle. The noble head turned a little to one side, there was a fluttering sigh, and the breath that had been unceasing through seventy-four tumultuous years had stopped forever.

He had entered into the estate envied so long. In his own words—the words of one of his latest memoranda:

"He had arrived at the dignity of death—the only earthly dignity that is not artificial—the only safe one. The others are traps that can beguile to humiliation.

"Death—the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all—the soiled and the pure—the rich and the poor—the loved and the unloved."
From Mark Twain, A Biography by Albert Bigelow Paine (Excerpted from Chapters XXVIII, CCLXXXII and CCXCIII)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

July Giveaway - Mark Twain

To celebrate our month devoted to The Adventures of Mark Twain and the stories that inspired it, our July giveaway is for a collected edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur`s Court and several short stories, and as an added bonus, a collection of Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective.

To enter, just leave a reply to this post that includes, through your name, profile, etc., a means to get in touch with you if you should win. The prize draw will happen at 12:00 am on Sunday, July 27th.

And the winner is... Nobody?! Oops, nobody left a comment, so it looks like poor Mark Twain is left to languish. Sorry about that! Hopefully the next time we do this, I'll have something a little more appealing!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909)


The Claymation film The Adventures of Mark Twain features a clip excerpted from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, in which the titular riverboat pilot finds himself before the wrong set of pearly gates. Having passed away from causes unknown, he decides to race a comet (which is being run smartly by a crew, much like a riverboat) and finds himself off course. Landing at the first gate of Heaven he finds, he is eventually let in only to discover that it wasn't his Heaven:
“I begin to see that a man’s got to be in his own Heaven to be happy.”

“Perfectly correct,” says he.  “Did you imagine the same heaven would suit all sorts of men?”

“Well, I had that idea—but I see the foolishness of it.  Which way am I to go to get to my district?”

He called the under clerk that had examined the map, and he gave me general directions.  I thanked him and started; but he says—

“Wait a minute; it is millions of leagues from here.  Go outside and stand on that red wishing-carpet; shut your eyes, hold your breath, and wish yourself there.”

“I’m much obliged,” says I; “why didn’t you dart me through when I first arrived?”

“We have a good deal to think of here; it was your place to think of it and ask for it.  Good-by; we probably sha’n’t see you in this region for a thousand centuries or so.”

“In that case, o revoor,” says I.

I hopped onto the carpet and held my breath and shut my eyes and wished I was in the booking-office of my own section.  The very next instant a voice I knew sung out in a business kind of a way—

“A harp and a hymn-book, pair of wings and a halo, size 13, for Cap’n Eli Stormfield, of San Francisco!—make him out a clean bill of health, and let him in.”
That portion of the story was only the beginning, however. Appropriately, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven was the last of Twain's works to be published in his lifetime.  Like his other stories of that vintage, several of which were selected for The Adventures of Mark Twain, this story is another of the author's meditations on the absurdity of life and the incongruences of religion in respects to the problem of scale. For Twain, "the vertigo of the infinite" is a very real thing. Though the contemporaneous Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton saw the vertigo of the infinite as "a babyish and hysterical sentiment," it was nevertheless inescapable for the American satirist whose blessing and curse was a keen eye towards human failing. If humanity seemed small and absurd to him, a mere man, how much more must it seem so in light of infinity and eternity?

Twain's sense of proportion manifests in several ways throughout Captain Stormfield as he takes many images of Heaven and applies them literally. It only begins with the recognition that there are billions of worlds that many be inhabited by billions of sentient species, each of which would require a Heaven suited to them. Even individual people would not be pleased with a wholesale idea of Heaven. To be happy, Heaven must be tailored. When Stormfield enters the right district, he learns to appreciate the breadth of Earth's Heaven. It is a mirror image of Earth in many respects, except for size. It must be considerably inflated in order to accommodate all people who ever lived (for everyone gets to go to Twain's Heaven). Consequently, people tend to gravitate into their own districts to be amongst people whose sentiments are comparable to their own. A resident of San Francisco finds little comfort in Heaven's reflection of California, which boats a 99% Native American population.

The biggest names in Heaven are, of course, the Saints and Patriarchs. Unfortunately there is only one Moses for billions and billions of souls, and after a few millennia he's heard it all. Therefore, the Greats of Faith are as distant as celebrities on Earth, and they essentially draw straws for who is stuck having to make a perfunctory public appearance whenever there's a new shipment of arrivals. Some Earthly celebrities show up as well, but Twain's Heaven is also a place of justice where everyone lives according to how they ought to have lived on Earth, doing whatever would have given them the greatest happiness. As a result, kings are reduced to booksellers and grocers are renowned as great generals. The greatest poets of all time never wrote a word while they were alive.

Relative to other books of the type, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven blessedly lacks the meanness with which an elderly Twain often approached the subject. It's easy to accept it as a remonstrance not to take figurative images too seriously. Whatever Heaven may be, it won't be all harps and halos.