With A Strange Device

Putting some steampunk junk in the trunk.

I’ve long been a fan of Jack Vance’s fiction for a number of reasons. One of these is the way he liked to throw quirky details into his stories. There were often no reason for these details as they weren’t designed to advance the plot (well okay, very occasionally yes they did but usually no they didn’t). Mostly Vance just liked to add a little local colour to the fictional landscapes his narrative was passing through. A little local colour, as actually exists in the real world, is something far too rare in science fiction of any era.

Of course it can be argued that unnecessary detail is, well, unnecessary, but I would counter by suggesting that any story which is set in more than a single room, building, or town is enhanced by diversity of environment. There’s a reason why the planets used as settings in the Star Wars movies are so mocked. One planet with an apparently homogeneous environment can be waved away but when they keep turning up it’s hard to maintain a suspension of disbelief.

Now most good science fiction is better than that but even so a lot of fictional settings do feel all too like different streets in the same suburb. If an author creates an interesting, alien world that’s good but what is even better if the can make the alien feel of it less homogeneous.

Oh but Doctor Strangemind I can feel you cry. I’ve already worked so hard on that alien environment to make it convincing, not to mention the plot and the themes and the characterisation and the hey hey hey!

Fear not my hard working friend I feel your pain and have the perfect answer. All you need do is slip on a bandit mask and steal some local colour. Now, before you get outraged by my lack of morals don’t worry, I’m, not suggesting you indulge in anything as sordid as plagiarism. No, what you want to do is not crib ideas from other authors but from real life. Trust me, it will work better than you expect. Remember China Miéville’s 2000 novel, Perdito Street Station, and the really cool city it was set in with all those varying locations? I’m will to bet that the entire city in that novel was was little more than a slightly retooled London (not the inhabitants though, but they’re a topic for a different day). Now if China Miéville can borrow an entire city to play with why can’t you?

Not that your local colour has to be an entire city you understand. For example in Jack Vance’s 1969 novel, The Dirdir, his protagonist visits an inn where where all the food has the same acrid flavour. When asked why this is so the waiter points to a large black insect scuttling across the floor and explains that these creatures have a terrible stench and get into everything so they are deliberately included in every meal since the food is going to taste of them anyway.

So let’s take as an example the steampunk genre given it has massive potential for local colour, both in the variety of potential invention and the way such devices might be used. With a little research it’s possible to unearth a whole range of failed inventions that could be inserted into a story as part of brief but interesting scenes. By the way these devices are used and by how the locals react to them the author can illustrate not only the alien nature of their world but delineate in what way it’s alien.

Strange Device 1
No, don’t ask me what purpose this device served. I doubt anybody but the inventor had a clue.

The later is a particularly undeveloped area in terms of fiction, possibly because this is also an area in which truth is more fantastic than fiction. Take for example that best loved example of steam generated transport, the railway engine. Right from the start travel by rail was extremely popular despite the opposition of the religious and medical fraternities. Bishops claimed that to travel at fifteen miles an hour was blasphemous and that the sacrilegious who used this new form of transport would die in terrible railway accidents as God showed his displeasure. Meanwhile doctors warned that such excessive speeds would pump all the air out of the carriages and asphyxiate the passengers or at the very least cause their internal organs to be put under such stress that internal injuries were a certainty.

Now while such dire warnings turned out to be hollow nobody could deny that in the beginning railways were indeed dangerous to travel on. The lines were not fenced off to prevent livestock or road traffic from wandering onto the rails. Even worse single tracks were the norm, communication between stations was minimal, and the efficiency of engine brakes inadequate so any unexpected delay or change to scheduled services was a recipe for collision as trains found themselves sharing these single tracks.

This was where US engineer R.K. Stern entered the picture. Stern was an electrical engineer who became interested in the possibilities of this new means of transport. Stern thought he had the answer to the vexed question of single track collisions. Stern should have stuck to electrical engineering.

What R.K. Stern did was build a train with s sloping front and rear. Track identical to that of the line the train was to travel on was then fitted on top from nose to tail. Head on collisions were thus impossible because one train would simply run over the top of the other, allowing both to go on their way without even needing to slow down.

Okay, before we go any further I’d like you to close your eyes for a moment and just imagine what that would be like, two iron mountains belching steam, hurtle towards each other until one climbs on top of the other. Feel free to shudder if it helps.

Stern built prototype trains and some track for them to run on at New York’s Coney Island Pleasure Grounds in 1905. Apparently the trials were a success, but with the qualifiers that the trains travelled at no more than ten miles an hour and that everybody riding on them found the experience of the trains passing over each other terrifying. Not surprisingly there were no takers among the railroad companies for such a risky solution and the idea went no further.

However, what may be too terrifying to be experience in real life is perfect fiction fodder. Such trains could make a delightfully alarming appearance in a steampunk novel. Imagine having your protagonist board a train in order to cross the Great Salt Flat and then innocently ask why such an important means of transport is a single line? Pause for dramatic effect and then with a bone-shaking rattle comes the alarming answer. (And don’t tell me you’re so pure and good that you would never do something so humorously evil to one of your characters because I’m not going to believe you!)

Strange Device 2
Umm… Ocean mine? Giant Christmas decoration? I dunno…

But perhaps you would prefer a spot of local colour that’s a little more subtle? Fear not for I have you covered there too. Let’s talk about the mechanics of mechanical hat advertising. Back in the late nineteenth century the average entrepreneur was dissatisfied with the effectiveness of billboards and posters. It was widely suspected that the general public had stopped noticing such advertising, that it had evolved into an ever changing background of blurred shapes and colours for the average city dweller. In response to this concern the sandwich-board men appeared, lost souls wandering city streets with advertisements strapped to them fore and aft.

Not everybody saw the sandwich-board men as the right answer though. Some businessmen were worried that that these bulky walking advertisements were a nuisance on crowded city streets and created negative feeling towards the businesses they promoted. Only theatrical manager Sidney Squires and his engineering friend Edward Moorhen came up with a solution though.

They invented something called the Improved Pneumatic Advertising Hat. This was an extra tall top hat fitted with a hinged top. Inside the hat was a battery and a tube which ran down to a large rubber bulb which was held concealed by the wearer. When this bulb was squeezed vigorously the tube inflated, causing the lid to rise until it was at a right angle to the hat. This would cause the battery to light up whatever message had been attached to it.

In theory this was a clever idea, brightly lit slogans suddenly appearing at head height would be hard for the average pedestrian to ignore and this would be without the inconvenience of dodging around sandwich-boards. However in practise users complained that children couldn’t resist thrown stones at these hats and that the weight of them cause head and neck pains. This was enough to ensure the Improved Pneumatic Advertising Hat was never more than a passing fad.

However, like the previously discussed leap-frogging trains, such practical considerations need not concern the author of a steampunk novel. With a slightly more powerful battery the pneumatic hat would be an interesting addition to the police or other keepers of the peace. Imagine an officers searching for the protagonist by raising their hat lids to reveal battery-powered miniature search-lights. Or perhaps the protagonist discovers that spies/smugglers/revolutionaries are using signalling devices concealed in their hats to advance their wicked plans. Really, the possibilities are endless, such hats might even be included as local colour in the form of advertising devices as they were originally envisioned.

Strange Device 3
Eye in the sky? The mind boggles…

Okay, now I’ve covered transport and advertising the next obvious area to cover is facial hair. This is because in my experience the beard and the moustache are criminally underrepresented in steampunk fiction. Oh yes, facial hair often receives passing mention by an author, but that’s all the reader is offered, passing mention. This is a great pity as the nineteenth century, the era steampunk is naturally based upon, was a golden age for the follicle. For example, as I wrote about elsewhere, and in other circumstances, photographs of officers serving in the US Civil War demonstrate that conflict involved a wider range of military facial hair than any war before or since (authoritative corrections to this impression of mine happily accepted).

So naturally I want to conclude this article with a hair related invention. However, I’m not going to write about the moustache cup as it has been done to death. I think by this point we all know everything we want about the moustache cup so instead I’m going discuss the possibilities of the moustache hat.

In actual fact though while the source I discovered it in called this device a hat it was in reality a wire skullcap with appendages. The idea was that the cap would be placed upon the head before meals and one’s hair pulled up between the strands of wire. A quick brush and nobody would ever suspect you were wearing it. Then, when it came time to eat, the wearer would simply reach up and pull down from behind the ears two extendable strands of wire with clips on the end. These clips would then be fastened to a suitable point in the moustache, thus holding the soft and luxuriant hair of the moustache away from whatever was to be consumed. This, it was claimed, prevented any and all moustache related accidents at the dinner table. However, since all record of whoever it was that invented this device has been lost in the mists of time I’m inclined to suspect the moustache hat didn’t work nearly so well as they first thought. I suspect the inventor ended up preferring anonymity rather than the ignominy of having one’s name associated with a failed invention.

Failure or not I’m sure I don’t need to point out how much such a device would add to most steampunk novels. If nothing else describing one in use would be a slick way of giving facial hair the prominence it deserves. And now I think about it a female version might be possible, a wire extension being used to draw a curtain of hair in front of one eye to create an air of mystery. Ah, metal wires, the gift that keeps on giving.

As you can see from the three examples explored above a little research into past devices can add considerable individuality to the landscape of a novel if imaginatively applied.

Invention is after all the mother of fiction.

Jack Vance & Fawlty Towers

The road to hell is paved with good intentions lazily executed.

Fawlty Towers is possibly as close to perfect a TV sitcom as has ever been produced. Even so there are aspects of the show open to debate. For example there is the claim that Manuel, the Spanish waiter, is the most sympathetic of the regular characters. I could not disagree with this claim more. To me there is only one character truly deserving of sympathy on Fawlty Towers and that is Basil Fawlty.

To judge by various comments I’ve encountered sympathy for Manuel seems to be largely based on the idea that because he is at the bottom of the pecking order Manuel is therefore the most vulnerable character and thus most deserving of sympathy. This is very attractive logic because it requires no great mental effort to reach such a conclusion. It certainly requires a blinkered approach but this is part of the appeal, the blinkered approach ensures that the effort of a cross-examination need not be attempted. The Manuel sympathiser need never consider the ease with which hospitality staff, even those with Manuel’s grasp of English, can change jobs (and don’t try to tell me otherwise, after 16 years in hospitality I know how employable even the incompetent are), the Manuel sympathiser need never consider the fact Manuel makes no serious effort to improve and is every bit as hopeless in the last episode as in the first.

Unlike Manuel, hotel owner Basil Fawlty cannot easily escape from the web he is mired in. He cannot simply walk out without leaving behind most, if not all, of everything he has worked years to build. Even if he steeled himself to do just this I doubt his wife would let him entirely escape. Sybil Fawlty comes across to me as a character who needs somebody to bully and mistreat. Even if Basil didn’t return to the hotel I imagine she would insist on torturing him from afar because that’s just who that character is.

So Basil is stuck there, trying to do his best. I don’t claim he’s very good at it but at least he’s trying, which is more than can be said for either Sybil or Manuel, each of whom continually frustrates Basil by their unwillingness to make any real effort.

I like to think of Fawlty Towers as being a reinterpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit. In this version though the three main characters are running a hotel rather than being locked inside of a room. Also in this version the torments of hell are mostly visited upon Basil as the one trapped in the middle. On one side Sybil avoids making any real effort, choosing to nag and bully Basil instead, while on the other side Manuel uses his lack of comprehension as a shield to minimise his own workload. (The harder it is to get a member of staff working the less they will be asked to do. Amazingly on more than one occasion I’ve seen some form of this tactic; pretending incomprehension, excessive slowness, or just plain hiding, work like a charm.)

By this point I imagine you’re wondering to yourself what any of this has to do with the fantastic. Well fair enough, (though if you’re honest with yourself you’ll admit you’re fascinated by this entirely unexpected take on a classic sitcom.) The fact is the sort of scenario I’ve described in Fawlty Towers is common enough in everyday life, where even the most accomplished and highly regarded amongst us are capable of putting others into the unenviable position of Basil Fawlty.

For example in Skyhook #16, published by Redd Boggs in the winter of 1952/53, there is a letter by Jack Vance in which he responds to part of a William Atheling Jr article which appeared in the preceding issue. Unfortunately because I don’t have a copy of Skyhook #15 to hand so I can’t quote the offending comments but I assume Vance didn’t misrepresent what was written about his work since neither Atheling or Boggs remonstrated with Vance in response to the following:

‘A few remarks on Mr Atheling’s article, which was read with wry amusement: (1) Big Planet was suggested, not by Beowulf, not by the Odyssey, but by a short story by the author of Beau Geste, whose name temporarily escapes me – Percival Wren, something like that. A dozen men desert the Foreign Legion; only one survives to reach Tangier. Big Planet naturally evolved considerably from this human-depletion idea; and in its original form – 82,000 – it had an entirely different slant from the one it ended up with. Written originally two or three years ago, it is not, as Mr Atheling assumes, a sample of my latest work. In fact, many of Mr Atheling’s assumptions and inductions do not completely hit the mark. For instance: (2) A person who, reading a collection of short stories while firmly convinced he is reading a novel, cannot fail to put the book down with a trace of dissatisfaction. This is evidently what occurred when Mr Atheling read Dying Earth. I completely concur with his view that, as a novel, this collection of vaguely related short stories makes a “chaotic…shapeless” whole. I believe the notation on the cover, “A Novel by Jack Vance” misled Mr Atheling. (3) Mr Kuttner I esteem highly as a man, a gentleman, a fellow citizen of the U.S., a prolific and talented author, but I must minimise the degree to which his works have influenced my own. There have been, I must assert categorically, absolutely none.’

For the purpose of my argument the matter of what inspired the plot of Big Planet is a secondary matter though we can see that Atheling was already on shaky ground if he was attempting to second-guess an authors inspirations. Tempting as it is to make such pronouncements I suspect correctly tracing literary inspiration is about as easy as discovering the source of the Nile was for 19th century explorers.

The Dying EarthIt’s with Vance’s next point however that we encounter what surely his Basil Fawlty moment. I’m willing to bet the restrained sarcasm Vance employed in order to agree with Atheling that the short stories contained in The Dying Earth collection made for a terrible novel is as nothing to how he felt when he first read Atheling’s complaint. As somebody who has read The Dying Earth collection, albeit many years ago, the thought that anybody could miss the assorted changes in plot, location, and characters is an astounding one. As the author of these assorted stories and thus more intimately involved with then than any reader could be the Atheling complaint was surely a source of intense frustration for Jack Vance. How do you deal with being told you have failed when the basis of the claim is as demonstrably wrong as this? There are things that should not need explanation, that are a chore, an undeserved burden to set right. If it had been me in Vance’s place the sheer frustration of Atheling’s comments would have had me curling up Basil Fawlty style.

And then, not content with the above Atheling apparently then went on to rub salt in the would by claiming Vance’s style was influenced by the work of Henry Kuttner. Given Vance had for years been plagued by a persistent rumour that he was nothing but pseudonym of Kuttner I imagine any claim that Kuttner was a major influence would annoy Vance. That such a claim came from the same person who had just mistaken a collection of short stories for a novel should be grounds for unbridled fury.

Under the circumstances I think Jack Vance handled the situation with impressive restraint. I know if it had been me the temptation to unleash an Ellison-like diatribe would be hard to resist.

For the record in Skyhook #16 is another William Atheling article in which he responds to Anthony Boucher pointing out that The Dying Earth was a collection with the following:

‘Mr Boucher is right about the Vance “novel,” technically….’

There is no reaction from William Atheling in regards to Vance’s own letter but perhaps it arrive too late for Redd Boggs to make Atheling aware of its contents before Skyhook #16 was published (it should be remembered that communication was just that little bit more cumbersome back before easy access to the sort of technology we employ today). If Atheling did respond to Jack Vance’s comments it was probably in the form of a private letter.

If there is a conclusion to be had from this situation I think it’s best summed up by quoting Sergeant Phil Esterhaus from Hill Street Blues, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

P.S. It should be noted that William Atheling Jr was a pseudonym of the late James Blish. I didn’t mention this earlier because when Skyhook #16 was published this was still a well kept secret. I would also assume Blish either expunged or rewrote the Jack Vance section when preparing the Atheling material for book publication but as I don’t own either The Issue At Hand or More Issues At Hand I can’t confirm this.

P.P.S. Percival Christopher Wren was the author of Beau Geste.