Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Great Moments in the History of Flight, Series 2

The following series of French trading cards dating to between 1890 and 1900 show illustrations of the great moments in the history of flight through the 18th and 19th centuries. This second series branches out from the first to go beyond the Montgolfiers and into the other pioneers of flight, the morbid failures, and the use of balloons in Napoleon's conquests. One of the cards even has a very charming image of dreamy flying machines that sadly remained only on the illustrator's board.

These were all obtained from the Library of Congress, and since the images are so detailed, please click on each for a larger view.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Scientific Romances of Voltaire

Writing a century after Cyrano de Bergerac, Voltaire is another link in the great chain of authors - especially French ones - who forged the Scientific Romance. Born François-Marie Arouet in 1695, he chose the name Voltaire in 1718 under which he came to be known as a scathing wit, tireless reformer and a searching mind. Besides literature he dabbled in scientific research himself. Between 1733 and 1744, he took up residence at the Château de Cirey where he engaged in scientific, metaphysical and romantic studies with Marquise Émilie du Châtelet, herself a distinguished researcher. She predicted the existence of infrared light, advocated for kinetic energy, wrote a comprehensive work on physics, argued for the education of women, and wrote what is still the standard French translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. For his part, Voltaire studied Newtonian optics and gravitation and popularized these ideas in Elements of Newton's Philosophy.

These were among the few truly happy years that Voltaire enjoyed. An inability to keep his mouth shut resulted in countless, inevitable exiles and trials. Before Château de Cirey he had spent several years in exile in England. Afterwards he fell in and out of favour with Frederick the Great, was welcomed to and forced out of Geneva, and only permitted to return to Paris when he was 83. This was his last trip. Voltaire never surrendered belief in God, declaring shortly before his passing "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition." That last clause referenced the established Catholic Church, against which he fought for freedom of religion, resulting in a proclamation refusing to permit his burial in sacred ground. His friends managed to sneak him in anyways.

Voltaire receiving the light of inspiration reflected
from Sir Isaac Newton via Émilie du Châtelet.

In his days under the protection of Frederick the Great, Voltaire dabbled in some of the first Scientific Romances. Much like de Bergerac before him, these were Enlightenment satires critiquing the society around him. Plato's Dream (1756) prefigures the philosophical trends of Voltaire's satirical adventure Candide: or, Optimism (1759). In the latter, Voltaire sets his eponymous hero on a Swiftian globe-spanning adventure intended to eviscerate the doctrines of Optimism. Not merely looking at the glass half-full, Enlightenment Optimism was the belief that "all works for the best in the best of all possible worlds". It is an attempt to deal with the problem of theodicy - how evil can exist in a world created by a benevolent Deity - by asserting that, given the conditions of necessity, this is as good as it can be and altogether its pretty alright. Voltaire says nuts to that, and proceeds to satirize Optimism and Optimists, government, religion and its officials, and pretty much anything within reach.

Plato's Dream is a study in these criticisms. Specifically, he tackles the question of how well the Earth is made for life. Rather than stating directly, he puts it in a dream in Plato's head, beginning with the Demiurge creating the cosmos. The Demiurge is the entity in Gnosticism that created the physical universe and therefore ranges between being a subordinate, flawed being to being evil himself. That is because, in Gnosticism, the physical universe itself ranges between egregiously flawed and actually evil. The popular Christian image of a soul floating up to Heaven upon death is actually not a Christian image at all, but rather a Gnostic one that has slipped into the back door and stuck around for 1900 years as Christians' most favorite heresy (theologically, Christianity affirms a perfected physical resurrection of not only the body, but of the whole universe). Liberation of the spirit from this world of suffering is the goal of Gnosticism, aided by the true God above the Demiurge who imparts the true Knowledge or "Gnosis" that liberates.

Understandably, Voltaire puts Creation in the hands of the Demiurge, who subcontracts out to his Demigorgons, one of whom fashions the Earth. Proud of himself, the other Demigorgons cut him down over how ill-suited Earth is to a comfortable life. That's well and good, the Demigorgon says, until we look at what the rest of you have made. Here, Voltaire somewhat undermines his own argument in a manner typical of critics who are better at scoffing than thinking through arguments. Himself a Deist, he actually provides the standard theodical arguments from free will and necessity, only suggesting their weakness by his own weak presentation of them. Perhaps it is evidence of his own conflicted thoughts on the subject. Demigorgon is on the defensive, though science has born him out on the question of how fine tuned the universe is for life. The question has shunted one back to whether that is by accident or design, but evolutionarily, this may indeed be the best of all possible worlds.

If it may indeed be the best of all possible worlds, then we still have no reason for thinking ourselves to be any great shakes in its profound immensity. This is, on first blush, the theme of Voltaire's even truer antecedent to Scientific Romances, Micromegas (1752). In this short story, the eponymous alien stands 120,000 feet tall, is in excess of 1200 years old and hails from a planet orbiting Sirius. Micromegas gets himself exiled from Sirius for philosophical extravagances and winds his way to Saturn, where he meets the 6000ft secretary of the academy. Together they make way to meagre, minuscule Earth.

There, the Saturnine and the Sirian eventually figure out that minuscule atoms exist on its surface and they are alive and, with even greater astonishment, intelligible. They conference with the humans on the subject of war, matter and souls with some varied responses. Our two explorers applaud that the humans already understand what they have just learned about the possibilities of souls in proportions beyond reckoning (not to mention being impressed that the scientists in the bunch were able to calculate the existence and the size of the interlopers). They are less impressed with the humans' inability to define the soul. The assertion of St. Thomas Aquinas that all was made for the benefit of man sends them into peals of laughter.

One must be careful of the messages drawn from Micromegas. It is not a lesson in "the vertigo of the infinite", the belief that because humanity is cosmically small it is unimportant. G.K. Chesterton, writing some time later and on the occasion of Halley's Comet, simply dashes such thought on the rocks of irrelevance:
No; that argument about man looking mean and trivial in the face of the physical universe has never terrified me at all, because it is a merely sentimental argument, and not a rational one in any sense or degree. I might be physically terrified of a man fifty feet high if I saw him walking about my garden, but even in my terror I should have no reason for supposing that he was vitally more important than I am, or higher in the scale of being, or nearer to God, or nearer to whatever is the truth. The sentiment of an overpowering cosmos is a babyish and hysterical sentiment, though a very human and natural one. But if we are seriously debating whether man is the moral centre of this world, then he is no more morally dwarfed by the fact that his is not the largest star than by the fact that he is not the largest mammal. Unless it can be maintained a priori that Providence must put the largest soul in the largest body, and must make the physical and moral centre the same, "the vertigo of the infinite" has no more spiritual value than the vertigo of a ladder or the vertigo of a balloon.

One hopes that Voltaire is too intelligent to fall for that argument and indeed he does not. On the contrary, Micromegas and friend are rebuked for thinking so when the minute humans speak intelligibly. What bothers Voltaire is hubris.

The Thomistic belief that all was made for man breaks down automatically simply for the existence of extraterrestrial life. As I suggested previously with Plato's Dream, if we expand that to the suitability of the universe for the evolution of life then Thomas is granted a reprieve. For the spiritual, emphasizing the improbability of humanity's existence in such a large and ancient cosmos only puts the exclamation point on how miraculous it is. It really a no-win scenario for the secular: if our existence is a contingent happenstance then it is miraculous, and if it is an evolutionary inevitability then it is design. This unfalsifiability only signifies that the question of meaning and our place in the universe is not a scientific question, which shouldn't bother anybody but the most irrational devotees of Scientism.

Though unfalsifiable, this does not mean the subject is undebateable. What the aliens are concerned by seems to be any certain answer that derives from unknowable principles. It is the humility of Locke's follower that pleases them best when he says "I know nothing of how I think, but I know I have never thought except on the suggestion of my senses. That there are immaterial and intelligent substances is not what I doubt; but that it is impossible for God to communicate the faculty of thought to matter is what I doubt very strongly. I adore the eternal Power, nor is it my part to limit its exercise; I assert nothing, I content myself with believing that more is possible than people think." Voltaire, through Micromegas, applauds the searching mind rather than the certain answer.

The result was the controversy that trailed him everywhere, even into death. He approved of religious tolerance and critical thinking towards religious texts, which earned him zealous enemies. Mozart responded to Voltaire's death with "The arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket...." His own last words were "For God's sake, let me die in peace."

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Cyrano de Bergerac (1925)

With the exception of dedicated students of French history and literature, the figure of Cyrano de Bergerac is best known from his fictionalized counterpart in Edmond Rostand's 1897 play. The play itself is a lyrical accomplishment even as it plays fast and loose with the historical de Bergerac's life.

The first cinematic adaptation of the play was released in 1925. A French-Italian co-production, the film is most notable for being a full colour feature. Colourizing came by two methods, the first being a two-strip Technicolor. The second was a laborious process of individually hand-tinting each frame. To make it even more difficult, the film was intentionally modelled on 17th century painting.

In case that was not enough - and rumour has it that colouring delayed the film's release by two years - they had to add a special effects sequence into the middle of it. One famous scene of Rostand's play has de Bergerac trying to distract a count from interrupting the wedding of Christian and Roxane by telling his fantastic tales of the moon. This version illustrates these stories with vintage trick photography.

To the moon! Stills from Cyrano de Bergerac.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Jules Verne and the Science of Prophecy

From the start of the 20th century, Jules Verne has achieved posthumous adoration as an eerily accurate prophet of future technologies and events. Seemingly from nowhere he has plucked ideas a century or more ahead of their time, as though he himself had some invention for picking up satellite transmissions from the modern day. From the middle of the Victorian Era he foresaw moving pictures, telegraphs, submarines, heavier-than-air travel and rocket capsules. Yet he famously decried H.G. Wells for being an "inventor" and took great offense at the accusation that his novels were magical fantasy rather than extrapolation on sound scientific and technological ideas.

A recent article on Cracked.com provides a perfect example of how Verne's reputation conflicts with his methodology. In 6 Eerily Specific Inventions Predicted in Science Fiction by Colin Murdock, "Jules Verne Predicts the Moon Landing in Ridiculous Detail ... in 1865" clocks in at #6.
The first manned spaceship was launched during the month of December, by the United States from a base in Florida. The ship was made up mostly of aluminum, weighed 19,250 pounds, and cost what would now be about $12.1 billion to build. After three of the astronauts completed their moonwalk, they returned to Earth. Their capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean and was recovered by a U.S. Navy vessel.

Why are we boring you with history? Actually, we're not -- this is the plot of an 1865 novel by Jules Verne, whose frighteningly accurate visions of space travel lead us to conclude that he had to be some kind of time-traveling space-wizard.

Allowing that Cracked is a humour site, let's dissect Verne's time wizardry.

First, we must dispense with what Murdock considered "the real coincidence icing on this insanity cake". As if all the accurate details about Apollo 11 that From the Earth to the Moon foretold were not enough, Verne also predicted that space was weightless. Amazing, except that Newton calculated gravity two centuries before.

What of the real coincidences then? Murdock was not the first to notice that Verne has his three astronauts lift off from Florida. Of any place in the world, why Florida? In the translated words of Verne,
the gun must be fired perpendicularly to the plane of the horizon, that is to say, toward the zenith. Now the moon does not traverse the zenith, except in places situated between 0° and 28° of latitude. It became, then, necessary to determine exactly that spot on the globe where the immense Columbiad should be cast.

The party engaging in this activity were Americans, which is not surprising. It would have to be a power technologically and economically advanced enough to stage the effort. So that means looking for anywhere on American soil between 0° and 28°. Once more deferring to the novel,
The 28th parallel, on reaching the American coast, traverses the peninsula of Florida, dividing it into two nearly equal portions. Then, plunging into the Gulf of Mexico, it subtends the arc formed by the coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; then skirting Texas, off which it cuts an angle, it continues its course over Mexico, crosses the Sonora, Old California, and loses itself in the Pacific Ocean. It was, therefore, only those portions of Texas and Florida which were situated below this parallel which came within the prescribed conditions of latitude.

Florida, in its southern part, reckons no cities of importance; it is simply studded with forts raised against the roving Indians. One solitary town, Tampa Town, was able to put in a claim in favor of its situation.

In Texas, on the contrary, the towns are much more numerous and important. Corpus Christi, in the county of Nueces, and all the cities situated on the Rio Bravo, Laredo, Comalites, San Ignacio on the Web, Rio Grande City on the Starr, Edinburgh in the Hidalgo, Santa Rita, Elpanda, Brownsville in the Cameron, formed an imposing league against the pretensions of Florida. So, scarcely was the decision known, when the Texan and Floridan deputies arrived at Baltimore in an incredibly short space of time. From that very moment President Barbicane and the influential members of the Gun Club were besieged day and night by formidable claims. If seven cities of Greece contended for the honor of having given birth to a Homer, here were two entire States threatening to come to blows about the question of a cannon.

Barbicane, president of the Baltimore Gun Club, chose Florida because it was less inhabited. By his reasoning, if he chose Texas he would still have to go through all this again to choose between the different cities. Better to choose Florida and be done with it.

Well, the American government chose Florida for nearly the same reason. According to space historian Roger Launius, in an interview with Scientific American:
Florida was chosen for several major reasons. One was, it's close to the equator. [The linear velocity of Earth's surface is greatest at the equator, much as a ceiling fan blade slices through the air faster at its tip than at its center hub, conferring a fuel-saving boost to spacecraft attempting to escape Earth's gravity.—Editor's Note]

The second reason was it had to be on the east coast, over the ocean, so you wouldn't fly over people that might get killed as stuff dropped off or blew up.

And the location that they chose in Florida had a lot to do with the fact that there wasn't anything there. You go there today and you don't see it, but Brevard County in the 1940s was a bunch of orchards and hardly anything else. And this island that they're on [Merritt Island] had good logistics, because there was a navy base and an army base not too far away. But there was no population density whatsoever. It was just a beach, essentially.

Verne's only magical act of prognostication so far as the location went was choosing the United States. Had it been the Soviets or the Japanese, From the Earth to the Moon would have been merely quaint. After correctly guessing that the Americans were powerful enough, smart enough, rich enough and ambitious enough to pull it off first, working out the rest was simple calculation. Florida is the only place it could have been.

What of the dimensions and materials of the craft? Not only is the Baltimore Gun Club's capsule roughly the same size as the Apollo Command/Service Module and both were built primarily out of aluminum. This is not so mysterious either, when one crunches the numbers.
The problem, therefore, is this— What thickness ought a cast-iron shell to have in order not to weight more than 20,000 pounds? Our clever secretary will soon enlighten us upon this point."

"Nothing easier." replied the worthy secretary of the committee; and, rapidly tracing a few algebraical formulae upon paper, among which n^2 and x^2 frequently appeared, he presently said:

"The sides will require a thickness of less than two inches."

"Will that be enough?" asked the major doubtfully.

"Clearly not!" replied the president.

"What is to be done, then?" said Elphinstone, with a puzzled air.

"Employ another metal instead of iron."

"Copper?" said Morgan.

"No! that would be too heavy. I have better than that to offer."

"What then?" asked the major.

"Aluminum!" replied Barbicane.

"Aluminum?" cried his three colleagues in chorus.

"Unquestionably, my friends. This valuable metal possesses the whiteness of silver, the indestructibility of gold, the tenacity of iron, the fusibility of copper, the lightness of glass. It is easily wrought, is very widely distributed, forming the base of most of the rocks, is three times lighter than iron, and seems to have been created for the express purpose of furnishing us with the material for our projectile."

Sounds like a good metal to use in building airplanes or perhaps even lunar modules. Crunching further numbers arrives at ideal size for a projectile intended to carry two or three people out of the Earth's sphere of influence and around the moon. Again there is nothing here so mysterious as the patience to do the maths.

Finally there is the coincidence of the devices' names. The canon which the Baltimore Gun Club used was called the Columbiad. The name of the Apollo CSM was Columbia. Verne was hampered in his choice of name by choosing to use a giant canon, for "Columbiad" is not a name picked out of thin air. Rather, Columbiad was the name for an actual type of smoothbore, large-caliber, muzzle-loading canon... Exactly the type of canon used by the Gun Club.

The gun itself was called a "Columbiad" in reference to "Columbia", the feminized personification of North America or, more specifically, the United States. She is to America as Britannia is the the United Kingdom. She is herself named for Christopher Columbus, the first modern European to arrive in the Americas.

The Apollo program chose Columbia for the name of the CSM for two reasons. The first and most obvious was in reference to Columbia. The second was that it had a nice ring to it that recalled the Columbiad in that Jules Verne novel about going to the moon.

Nevertheless, upon returning to Earth, the great projectile crashed into the sea and was rescued by a US Naval vessel. Considering that the oceans cover about 70% of the planet's surface and that the American Navy would be the ones out looking for an American spacecraft, this similarity should not be too surprising either. Had they been rescued by a submarine, that would have been fantastic. The United States had been using primitive submarines since the Revolutionary War, truly advancing the technology during the Civil War. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, incidentally, was published in 1869.

Jules Verne was a brilliant thinker, but it is worthwhile to give him the credit he is truly due. He was not a magician or a time traveller. He was a man with encyclopedic knowledge of science, nature and history, blessed with an ability to extrapolate what was being done into what could be done. The strength of his Scientific Romances came not so much from a fevered imagination creating fantasies whole cloth, but from their solid grounding in the world around us.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Disney's Cyrano de Bergerac

A key component of Disney's Man in Space trilogy of Disneyland episodes through the 1950's was a recapitulation of fantasy voyages to the stars. Naturally, the products of Jules Verne's and H.G. Wells' imaginations were featured, as were Fritz Lang, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Georges Méliès, Francis Godwin, Johannes Kepler, and Cyrano de Bergerac. De Bergerac's portion was a scant minute or two in the second episode of the trilogy, Man and the Moon, detailing his varied attempts to reach the lunar orb. Par for the show and its director Ward Kimball, the segment is full of gags and effervescent design.

Outlining his ideas on space flight.

Attempt one falls short.

Attempt two... success!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Cyrano de Bergerac: Grandfather of Voyages Extraordinaires

Though regarded as the father of Scientific Romances, and therefore the grandfather of Science Fiction, Jules Verne was not without his antecedents. Going far back, very far, into the earliest of literature that could be considered a forerunner of the genre, Verne looks to a fellow countryman. He is none other than the man most famous for his nose, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Published posthumously in 1657, de Bergerac was the first Frenchman to take a fantastic journey to the Moon. The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon is one of the first of the Enlightenment satires that would evolve, over the following centuries, into Voyages Extraordinaires.

The advent of the Enlightenment provided two of the most fundamental ingredients to speculative fiction. The first was a fresh breeze of scientific inquiry borne out of Galileo's celestial discoveries. Through the use of his telescope, Galileo was able to chart the motions of Jupiter's moons and Venus' phases, overturning the Aristotelian model of a geocentric cosmos. Johannes Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo, wrote up his scientific speculations in a novel entitled Somnium, published in 1634. In Somnium, an Icelandic sleeper is spirited away by lunar demons through magical processes during a solar eclipse. From his vantage point on the Moon, he is able to observe the phases of the Earth in a rousing defense of Copernican astronomy.

The second ingredient was a heady air of liberty that allowed social critics to write freely their observations on humanity. The new worlds opened up to the imagination by Galileo's telescope provided the perfect staging ground for commentary. Like much Science Fiction ever since, alien races become proxies for our own foibles and models for our own possibilities. De Bergerac's Other World is one such tale.

Cyrano de Bergerac lived fast and not for very long. He died at the age of 36 by a freak accident, after a falling beam in a friend's house crushed him and left him too sickly to survive an onslaught of disease. Before that, he was a renowned duellist and soldier during the Thirty Years War. He was a poet and possibly homosexual, which leaves open the question of the famous Roxane, for which was supposed to hold a torch. Like many details of de Bergerac's life, the love triangle between him, Roxane and Christian was fabricated by playwright Edmond Rostand. This includes his nose, which by accounts was large but not of the size suggested in later legend. Most likely, de Bergerac's great romance was with fellow libertin writer and poet Charles Coypeau d'Assoucy, after which the two viciously attcked each other with the quill. Besides writing public satirical tracts against each other, de Bergerac went so far as to send florid death threats.

De Bergerac, like so many "Freethinkers", was a better believer in Reason than a user of it. Nevertheless, he was a biting critic of his times. Making use of Galileo's new worlds, he took a fanciful visit to the Moon to observe the customs of its strange people. Like Kepler and author Bishop Francis Godwin before him, de Bergerac was less concerned with a credible means of getting to the orb. Kepler's man was kidnapped during an eclipse, and Godwin's arrived on an airship pulled by geese. De Bergerac had a slightly more difficult time of it. His first attempt was to use bottles of dew attached to his person. As the morning light rose, so too would the dew, carrying him along. This fails and lands him, thanks to the Earth's rotation, in New France, the colony of Quebec. In Quebec - which at the time of publication was on the eve of its 50th anniversary and is today the oldest continued permanent settlement in North America - de Bergerac fashioned an airship that also failed. Finally the airship was converted into a rocket, intended for the St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations, which conveys him to the stars.

Once on the lunar orb, Cyrano makes a series of startling discoveries: the Moon is, in fact, the Garden of Eden. After nourishing himself on the Tree of Life, he encounters Elijah and learns the history of Biblical spacefarers. Banished because of their culinary oversight Adam and Eve literally took flight to Earth. Enoch, on the other hand, was taken up to the Moon by bottling the smoke of a pious burnt sacrifice. Noah's daughter simply washed ashore after absconding with the Ark's lifeboat. Elijah used a golden chariot of his own construction, repeatedly tossing a magnetic ball into the air and letting the chariot soar upwards towards it, repeating the process until he arrived.

These are not the Moon's only inhabitants, however. After taking a bite from the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, with its ambiguous mix of omniscient fibre and ignorance-inducing peel, de Bergerac is introduced to spacefarers from the Sun who have set up their colony on La Lune. He is a bit more comfortable with these Rationalists than he is with the Biblical prophets. Godwin's astronautical pioneer also makes an appearance, when he is mistaken for a type of monkey and de Bergerac mistaken for a female of the species.

Several authors followed in the footsteps of de Bergerac. Voltaire elicited the help of aliens to satirize human self-importance in the face of a vast cosmos. Simon Tyssot de Patot critiqued religion and the arts via a lost world in 1710's Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Massé. Louis-Sébastien Mercier visited L'An 2440. Jonathan Swift took Gulliver around the planet to its many strange and varied societies. Baron Munchausen himself visited Diana several times. Washington Irving used The Conquest of the Moon as a parable of American expansionism. Fellow American George Tucker took the first steps in transforming these satires into Scientific Romances by taking a great deal more care in making plausible the means by which his persona took A Voyage to the Moon in 1827. Then there was Poe, and Verne.

De Bergerac was at work on a second story - The Societies and Governments of the Sun - when he passed away. What remains are muddled tales about his nose and his love life, and a classic ancestor to Scientific Romances. Disney recognized his contribution in the program Man in Space, where a history of rocketry includes an interlude from The Other World animated by Ward Kimball. Karel Zeman also paid respects to the poet by including him as one of the denizens of the moon, along with the explorers of Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and Baron Munchausen in the film Baron Munchausen (1961).

For us, the intrepid Donald Webb has provided an English translation and annotations to The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Astronomer's Dream (1898)

Another paper moon adventure by the maestro, Georges Méliès. Another pointy-hatted astronomer sits and dreams beneath Gothic-arches and starry skies...

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Great Moments in the History of Flight, Series 1

The following series of French trading cards dating to between 1890 and 1900 show illustrations of the great moments in the history of flight through the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular, they are celebrating the discovery of the Montgolfier brothers, as important a name in flight as the Wrights. In 1783, the first human beings went aloft in aerostats of Montgolfier design.

These were all obtained from the Library of Congress, and since the images are so detailed, please click on each for a larger view.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

La Marseillaise (1907)

We're kicking off our third year and annual "Voyages Extraordinaires" French-themed month with a little patriotic flair. This is an fantastic example of early synchronized sound. A separate gramophone record would be played alongside the film to give the illusion that the revolutionary gentleman was singing.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

History and Scientific Romances

There is one thing I find about too much Science Fiction that critically interferes with my suspension of disbelief. It is not however magical and unscientific the technological advances may be, though I may only be saying that because I'm not a professional physicist. As a professional museums and heritage worker, what I find more wildly improbable and disruptively absent is any genuine sense of historicity and culture.

To be sure, the pyjama-wearing crew of futuristic starships may demonstrate certain cultural affectations when forced - like playing jazz trombone or an affinity for Creole cooking - but one has to interrogate them for it. Otherwise, the halls of the colony ship are spartan, well-lit, and utterly lifeless. Ever since the post-war Sci-Fi boom and futurist speculation, we have seen endless family homes without any indication that a family actually lives in them, our great-grandchildren's rooms devoid of franchised toys and rock-star posters, and fashion's unlikely victory of function over statement.

Lest we rest self-assured, this same problem affects versions of Science Fiction that claim to draw inspiration from the Victorian Era... A parade of brass goggles, metal plates, iron rivets, pointless gears and countless objects that, despite pretenses of being hand-crafted, all look identically like nothing. Granted they're not chrome bikinis and white plastic walls, but these dirty, industrial-looking Urban Fantasy worlds tell the observer nothing about these societies except that they are dirty and industrial. Absent are any indications of artistic and architectural movements, historical processes or ethnic diversity.

There are always exceptions, to be sure. There are stories in which art and dance and pop-music idols and religion play central roles amidst the transforming fighter jets and interplanetary war. Perhaps it is a function of Science Fiction being developed by people who's foremost loyalty is not to science, and as a consequence not thinking themselves intellectually above such things as culture and history. Or by people who aren't Americans, or who are confident that America has a worthwhile culture of its own.

Scientific Romances and their well-done pastiche is another route circumventing this problem of acultural ahistoricity. To quote Rod Bennett once more, as we did in this weblog's introductory post,
On the day I started writing this article, a warm fire crackled in the hearth, snow fell outside the window, and a cup of English tea steamed at my elbow. A setting like that — a cozy, human spot with friends and family near by — really puts me in the mood for just one thing: Science Fiction. You heard right. Science Fiction. Of course, I don't mean just any Science Fiction. I don't mean the sort of thing where characters named "Zargon" from places called "Hydra-Gamma III" listen to bald-headed creepozoids in silver BVDs rant about "pure logic." No, the kind of science fiction I'm thinking of is different. Warmer. Richer. More human. On this kind of science fiction adventure, you don't want skin-tight leotards and chrome bikinis. You want big wool sweaters, hiking books, English tweed and pith helmets, with ankle-length skirts and parasols for the ladies. Yes, this is a special brand of science fiction — my favorite kind. Ever since I was a kid, I've always loved the sort of movie where a proper Victorian professor journeys from the smoke-filled adventurer's clubs of London to some impossible lost world in his own gilded or wrought-iron invention. The kind of story that somehow seems to bypass some of the dead-ends of certain other science fiction; seems to allow us to ponder the kind of mysteries science fiction explores so well without asking us to leave our roots in the past behind. I loved it then, and I still love it today.

Scientific Romances exult in the humanity of human beings. Being timely then and historical now, they are rooted in culture and tradition rather than treating us as a blank slate onto which any particular philosophy can be written. They remind us that while we head into the future and the outer reaches, we don't leave ourselves behind. Nor is our goal to find ourselves transhumanized into something alien; so alienated from our humanity that we wait religiously for that singular day when we can even dispose of our bodies. A good Scientific Romance will take us into uncharted territories, including that least-appreciated one marked "history". All of this wrapped up in that gilded and wrought-iron invention, and that smoke-filled adventurer's club, and if done well, even that impossible lost world.

Historian Henry Steele Commager eloquently links an appreciation of history together with its ken. For, contrary to those who would hide behind the lazy excuse of "alternate history", knowing something of history and culture is not merely the luxury of pedantic "re-creationists":
History, we can confidently assert, is useful in the sense that art and music, poetry and flowers, religion and philosophy are useful. Without it -- as with these -- life would be poorer and meaner; without it we should be denied some of those intellectual and moral experiences which give meaning and richness to life. Surely it is no accident that the study of history has been the solace of many of the noblest minds of every generation.

In the mainstream of Science Fiction, the bland featurelessness may have been the consequence of minds slavishly devoted to a kind of Scientism that denigrated all other pursuits of art, music, poetry, flowers, religion (especially) and philosophy as poor and mean things. In Steampunk, the bland featurelessness may perhaps derive from minds slavishly devoted to the workings of the Mechanism, so that all the world comes to look like the Mechanism... The romance of the steam era replaced with the workings of the steam engine, quite possibly its least interesting subject.

Not that this is anything new. The technocrats of the Victorian Era had an attitude that was hardly much different. According to Henry Ford: "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today." That history he made included, amongst other things, the soul-crushing and planet-destroying mechanisms of mass production. Forget the tradition and humanity is obliterated.

The responses come flooding in. Gustave Flaubert replies: "Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times." Harry Thomas Buckle adds: "There will always be a connection between the way in which men contemplate the past and the way in which they contemplate the present." And Robert Penn Warren says most succinctly: "The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world." Indeed, there is a frequent, anecdotal correlation between people who think the world is boring and people who know nothing about it.

For those of us with the inclination, Scientific Romances present us with a means to essay these issues. Through good ones, we can learn something of our society and our selves in the course of rousing adventures and historical "what-ifs". It is a variety of Science Fiction that does not require us to leave ourselves behind as we move forward. It demands that we know something of the world in order to simply understand its setting, whether deep in Meiji Japan or high in the Canadian North. How is the culture, lifestyle and conceptual space of an escaped Southern US slave boarding a literal underground railway going to differ from a venerable Chinese astronaut having perfected firework rocketry?

Nurtured on such tales, we are invited to reinvest in our own histories, to reclaim ourselves. That, ultimately, is the point of this exercise in studying history and creatively adapting it. Neither slavishly recreating it as a lark nor lazily citing an alternate history, but to integrate one's past with one's present. This pleasure helps to integrate oneself in the narratives of history so that they can give depth and breadth to one's present. This works itself through everything from simple aesthetics that refuse to give up the beautiful things of the past to a realization of oneself in one's society and time. In the end, the enjoyment and appreciation of Scientific Romances is very much about today.

As it should. As it can't help but. As David McCullough said, "History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are."