Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part 2: Welcome to Magrathea

Continuing our look at the radio series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, which went on to spawn the five-part trilogy of novels, the tacky television series, the so-so movie and one fiendishly difficult computer game.

Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered and constantly befuddled Earthman has been rescued from the destruction of Earth by his friend Ford Prefect, an alien from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse who was visiting Arthur's world to do research for the Guide. By an infinitely improbable coincidence, the two have wound up on a stolen spaceship named the Heart of Gold, operated by Ford's semi-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox, former galactic president and cool frood, and Trillian, a nice astro-physicist from Islington whom Arthur once met at a party. The four of them, accompanied by the electronic ennui of their robot Marvin, are now on their way to the Legendary Planet of Magrathea.

The Legend of Magrathea comes from a Golden Age, as the Guide describes:
Far back in the mists of ancient time, in the great and glorious days of the Former Galactic Empire, life was wild, rich, and on the whole tax free ... In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before and thus was the Empire forged. 
Many men of course became extremely rich, but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor -- at least, no one worth speaking of.
The One-Percenters of this Hyper-Gilded Age who were worth speaking of became so mega-rich that a staggering new form of industry was created to cater to their needs: the building of custom-made luxury planets. This industry was centered on the planet Magrathea "where vast hyperspatial engineering works were constructed to suck matter through white holes in space and form it into dream planets".
Ah, but every Golden Age comes to an end.
...very soon Magrathea itself became the richest planet of all time and the rest of the galaxy was reduced to abject poverty. And so the system broke down, the Empire collapsed and a long sullen silence settled over the Galaxy, disturbed only by the pen scratchings of scholars as they laboured into the night over smug little treatises on the value of a planned political economy.
That, at least, is the legend. "In these enlightened days, of course," the Book tells us, "no one believes a word of it."

"Magrathea is a myth, a fairy story," Ford insists, "it's what parents tell their kids about at night if they want them to grow up to be economists..."

Despite Ford's skepticism, Magrathea is precisely the planet their spaceship now orbits. Zaphod has used the coincidence-inducing properties of his spaceship's Infinite Improbability Drive to locate the planet. "'s partly the curiosity, partly a sense of adventure, but mostly I think it's the fame and the money."

But the planet isn't entirely dead. It's automatic defense systems target the spaceship Heart of Gold with a pair of deadly nuclear missiles, (which the calm voice of the Narration assures us will not obliterate our heroes, but merely result in someone's bruised arm and "the untimely creation of a bowl of petunias and an innocent sperm whale.") Arthur manages to save them all by activating the Infinite Improbability Drive, which transforms the missiles into those items.

The bit with the sperm whale is one of the most famous from the series. Douglas Adams wrote it because he was annoyed by a TV cop show where people would get gunned down for arbitrary reasons and then ignored. He decided that he would write a character whose sole reason for existing was to get killed for a plot point, and then make the audience care about him. He did this with this brilliant bit of monologue in which the whale-which-was-a-missile comes into existence and tries to come to grips with its identity as a whale; all the time while plummeting through the planet's atmosphere. It's a joyous, enthusiastic celebration of the wonder of life and of exploring the world. The punchline is poignant, tragic and grossly funny, all at once.
Adams later commented: "I received quite a number of letters saying how cruel and callous this section was -- letters I certainly would not have received if I had simply mentioned the whale's fate incidentally and passed on. I probably wouldn't have received them if it had been a human either."
Curiously enough the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was 'Oh no, not again.' Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias has thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.
In the novel Life, the Universe, and Everything, we do find out why. Personally, I think the petunias are funnier left a mystery.

As the Narration promised, the crew of the Heart of Gold are unharmed except for the person whose arm was bruised, (whom I will not identify in order to maintain some sense of suspense), and for some damage to the cage in which Trillian keeps her pet white mice. No one seems concerned when she notes that her mice have escaped, but the Narration tells us that this is one of the most important statements of her life.

Landing on Magrathea, they step out onto the planet, being careful not to tread on the chunks of whale meat. Zaphod, Ford and Trillian find an underground passageway which they begin to explore, leaving Arthur behind, "...just for safety," Zaphod says. "Whose? Yours or mine?" Arthur bitterly replies.

They are in danger for they are not alone on this planet. Proceeding down the tunnel, Trillian finds fresh mouse droppings -- her mice have preceded them. And then we hear a sudden electronic ZAP...

Arthur also has an unexpected encounter. An old man suddenly appears and greets him. "My name is not important," he tells Arthur. Actually, his name is Slartibartfast, but he doesn't like to mention it, because it is an embarrassing name. Slartibartfast is a coastline designer; "used to have endless fun doing all the little fiddly bits in fjords..."

He explains that the inhabitants of this planet are not all dead. "No, we have but slept. ... through the economic recession you see." When the galactic economy became unable to support luxury planet-building, the natives of Magrathea put themselves into suspended animation and programmed their computers to revive them when the Galactic stock market indicated that people could once again afford their services.

Arthur is outraged. "Good God, that's a pretty unpleasant way to behave, isn't it?"

"Is it?" Slartibartfast replies. "I'm sorry, I'm a bit out of touch."
You must come with me, great things are afoot ... you must come now or you will be late.ARTHUR:
Late? What for?
What is your name, human?
Dent. Arthur Dent.
Late as in the late Dentarthurdent. It's a sort of threat you see. Never been very good at them myself, but I'm told they can be terribly effective.
Slartibartfast takes Arthur in an aircar to a section deep within the heart of Magrathea which opens up into "a vast tract of hyperspace" which is where the Magrathean's make their planets. They aren't starting up the whole works again; they've just been revived to do a special order. "It may interest you," Slartibartfast says.
It does interest Arthur a great deal. The planet-in-progress Slartibartfast shows him is the Earth.
Well the Earth Mark 2 in fact. It seems that the first was was demolished five minutes too early and the most vital experiment was destroyed. There's been a terrible hooha and so we're going to make a copy from the original blueprints.
Arthur can't believe that the Magratheans made the Earth. "Oh yes ... did you ever go to a place ... I think it's called Norway? ... that was one of mine. Won an award you know, lovely crinkly edges." What's more, Slartibartfast tells Arthur that Earth had originally been commissioned by the mice.
These creatures you call mice, you see, are not quite as they appear. They are merely the protrusions into our dimension of vast hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings, the whole business with the cheese and the squeaking is just a front.
It seems that long, long ago, these hyper-intelligent beings had constructed a massive computer which they called "Deep Thought", in order to figure out the Answer; the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. Deep Thought required a bit of time to work the Answer out -- seven and a half million years -- but at the end of this time, it did come up with an Answer; and that Answer was...
"You never actually stated what the question was," Deep Thought explained. Unfortunately, although it was capable of figuring out the Ultimate Answer, calculating the Ultimate Question required a computer even greater. "A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate -- and yet I will design it for you." A computer the size of a planet whose life forms would act as an integral part of its operational matrix; a planet that shall be called the Earth.

The entire history of life on Earth for millions of years has been the slow working of this program to determine the Ultimate Question. Sadly, the destruction of Earth by the Vogons took place roughly five minutes before the program was completed, which is why the mice, who had been running the program need to start it over.
You know, all this explains a lot of things. All through my life I've had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.SLARTI:
No, that's just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.
Arthur is brought to a dining room where Zaphod, Trillian and Ford are having a banquet with Trillian's white mice, Frankie and Benjy, now revealed as the Magrathean's clients. They've come to the conclusion that they won't have to re-make the Earth after all. Since Arthur and Trillian are last-generation products of the Earth's computer matrix, they are very like in an ideal position to find the question.

"How?" Arthur asks.

"Er ... no, that doesn't work either."

Before the conversation can proceed further, the planet is attacked by the police. Zaphod, as you may recall, stole the spaceship Heart of Gold, and now the cops have caught up with him. These cops were inspired by Starsky and Hutch, another American TV cop show that Adams found annoying. "In this show the heroes claimed that they did care about people being shot, so they crashed their cars into them instead," Adams commented.
Now see here, buddy, you're not dealing with any dumb two bit trigger pumping morons with low hair lines, little piggy eyes and no conversation, we're a couple of intelligent caring guys who you'd probably quite like if you met us socially. ... I don't go around gratuitously shooting people and then bragging about it in seedy space rangers' bars. I go around gratuitously shooting people and then agonize about it afterwards to my girlfriend.
"I think I preferred it when they were shooting," Zaphod says.

This is about the point where the novel climaxes and where it diverts from the radio series. In the novel, the gunfire suddenly ceases because Marvin had plugged himself into the cop's spaceship and, downloading his autobiography into it's A.I., has caused the spaceship to commit suicide, killing the trigger-happy cops with it. Everybody returns to the Heart of Gold and they fly off for more adventures.

In the radio series, things happen a bit differently. Ford, Arthur, Zaphod and Trillian are hiding behind a computer bank while the cops are shooting at them with ray guns. The computer seems to be absorbing a lot of energy. "I think it's about to blow," Ford says.

There is another devastating explosion.

NEXT: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe! The Haggunenon Flagship! The Fate of the Golgafrincham B Ark and Prehistoric Scrabble!

Monday, July 22, 2013

New Taboos

Back in the 1980s, writer John Shirley was on the cutting edge of the Cyberpunk movement in science fiction. Although Cyberpunk has faded and its tropes and memes cut up and assimilated into the SF Mainstream, Shirley continues to write raw and imaginative fiction.

Several months ago, I reviewed his most recent novel, Everything Is Broken, a cautionary tale about why having a government small enough to drown in a bathtub is of little help when the water gets really deep. I recently received another book by Shirley titled New Taboos

New Taboos is part of the "Outspoken Authors" series published by PM Press, presenting material from some notable literary voices. The book is a collection containing a novella, a couple essays and an interview with John Shirley.

"A State of Imprisonment" is a novella which extrapolates the current trend toward privately-run, for-profit prisons to its logical conclusion. It's set in the near future, where nearly the entire state of Arizona has been converted into a maximum security prison run by a large company. (To be fair, only 80% of the state has been converted into the prison; the Grand Canyon, presumably, has been set aside for the tourists).

The prison is run on the cheap, to maximize profits, and the company gets paid by the prisoner, so they subcontract out to house delinquent debtors as well as political prisoners from other countries. They also use every means possible to extend each prisoner's sentence. As a private entity, the business has very little government oversight. What happens behind the walls stays behind the walls. And if any prisoner tries to escape, he has to face the Worm: crawling robot drones that locate and terminate fleeing prisoners.

Faye Adullah is a reporter for a major internet news service who wrangles permission to do a story on Arizona Statewide Prison. Statewide does not particularly like transparency and obstructs her in every way possible, but Faye is determined to get her story.

In the middle of the carefully-choreographed tour, something unexpectedly goes wrong. The power goes out, and Fae finds one of the prisoners at her side urging her to come with him. He has arranged the blackout -- the prison was built on the cheap, so it is not that difficult to overload the electrical system if you know how -- so that he can get Faye away from her minders and show her what really goes down at the prison.

Faye gets a bigger story than she imagined, but it's a story that Statewide will never let her publish. She quickly finds herself a prisoner on fabricated charges, with her only avenues for justice in the hands of a corporation with a strong profit motive to keep her locked up forever.

Accompanying the novella are two essays. "New Taboos", from which the collection takes its title, discusses the idea of the taboo, not as an arbitrary prohibition, but as an expression of societal values. We saw something like this just recently with Paula Deen's adventures in ill-advised remarks, but Shirley takes it further.

What if the phrase "Obscene Profits" were not just a figure of speech? What if the practice of amassing huge profits while exploiting one's employees, or while contaminating the environment, or while lying to the public, was actually regarded as obscene; something that people found revolting which with they did not wish to be associated?
On the adult scale, we have laws against some of these social transgression, but much of the time they're unenforceable. Taboos -- if we really integrate them into our society -- enforce themselves, for the majority of people. It the taboos are deeply ingrained enough, we don't need the laws.
In Shirley's view, these taboos would only be a stage; an artificial but necessary framework until we developed as a society and as a culture so that such rules would not longer be needed. I'm not sure how these taboos would be instituted, nor how well they would work if they were, but here he is more thinking aloud than formulating a plan. And his modest proposal suggests a different way of looking at some of our society's faults.

"Why We Need Forty Years of Hell" is a TEDx address John Shirley delivered in 2011 offering a grimly optimistic view of the next few decades. Optimistic, because he believes things will get better... eventually; grim because he is convinced that the only way people will make things better is when -- not if -- things get so bad that we are forced to clean up our act.

He touches on several aspects of the future which are already on top of us now: climate change, ecological damage, crises in food production, the social ramifications of the widening gap between rich and poor, and the dark side of technology. It's all interconnected, and that indeed is the lesson we need to learn.
We'll have astounding technological advancements against a backdrop of grievous social inequity and quite possibly increasing barbarity, for a period, until we are forced by waves of crises to come to terms with the consequences of developing a civilization blindly. Wars, plagues, radical separation of privileges, famines due to climate change and other environmental consequences, will force humanity to accept Buckminster Fuller's "Spaceship Earth" concept as very real.
In the end, he feels that humanity will eventually achieve the kind of rational, integrated approach to society, the environment and each other that we need; but only after harsh experience hammers in the understanding that "we can't treat Spaceship Earth as a party cruise ship."

Rounding out the volume is an interview with Shirley, touching on many facets of his varied career. He talks about cyberpunk and writing, doing lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and the screenplay for The Crow, being attacked by wild monkeys, and about his politics. He describes how seeing pictures of the Mai Lai massacre as a boy radicalized him and how, although a lifetime of experience has tempered his views, he still has a socialist streak in him. He strongly dislikes the Tea Party Movement and the Neo-Randites, which comes out strongly in his novel Everything is Broken.

The interview is a bit disjointed and reads like the interviewer submitted a list of questions rather than engaged Shirley in a conversation. I've conducted interviews that way too, so I suppose I shouldn't criticize; and the interview does allow Shirley to comment on a wide variety of subjects. Still, I would have liked to see the interviewer follow up on some of the questions and allow Shirley to expand upon his answers.

New Taboos is a slim volume offering an intriguing sampling of John Shirley's writing and ideas. It's worth a read.

Now I need to tackle his A Song Called Youth Trilogy.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part 1: "Don't Panic"

This is the story of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor -- more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than 53 More Things To Do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Coluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is This God Person Anyway? 
And in many of the more relaxed civilizations on the outer Eastern rim of the Galaxy, the Hitch-Hiker's Guide has already supplanted the Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, because although it has many omissions, contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important ways. First, it is slightly cheaper, and second it has the words 'DON'T PANIC' inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover.
To science fiction fans of a certain generation, these words will evoke the sound of a melancholy banjo plunking and the thunderous chords of the Eagles's Journey of the Sorcerer. And a smile.

Because Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ranks among the funniest Space Odysseys this side of the Barnard's Star roundabout.

The way Douglas Adams told the story, he got the idea while hitch-hiking around Europe with a copy of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to Europe. One night, while lying in a field near Innsbruck after having a bit to drink and watching the stars spin over his head, it occurred to him that there really ought to be a Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy as well.

At least that's the story he always told; although he also admitted that he had told the story so many times that he was no longer sure whether he remembered it happening that way, or if he just remembered telling the story that way.

But the book was a hook for a bigger idea he wanted to explore. He was writing comedy for the BBC and it struck him that although rock 'n' roll albums had benefited greatly from advances in audio production since the release of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, radio comedy hadn't progressed much farther than the stock sound effects used since the 1930s. He wanted to do a comedy program, as he said, that would "sound like a rock album."
I wanted the voices and the effects and the music to be so seamlessly orchestrated as to create a coherent picture of a whole world -- and I said this and many similar sorts of things and waved my hands around a lot, while people nodded patiently and said 'Yes, Douglas, but what's it actually about?'
I first heard Hitchhiker around my junior or senior year in high school, when it was aired on National Public Radio. I had become interested in radio drama a couple years earlier when a local station had played a BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds, but this was mind-blowing. My brother and I recorded the series off the radio on cassette tapes which we played on long car trips to visit relatives in Minneapolis, and we both could quote long passages from the program verbatim.

I suppose that is why I have always considered the radio version to be the Ur-Text of Hitchhiker. The TV adaptation was fun, but limited by tacky visual effects. The novels were entertaining, but I began to lose interest in them as they went off in their own direction. Call me a Hitchhiker Fundamentalist, I guess. That is why I'm basing this look at the Hitchhiker's Guide off the radio scripts written by Douglas Adams and edited by Geoffrey Perkins.

We are introduced to the story by the Guide itself, an electronic book which provides narration, commentary, and helpful excerpts explaining the bizarre things our hero encounters. The Book's calm, authoritative voice is the aural equivalent of the Large, Friendly Letters on the cover of the Guide.

The story's central character is Arthur Dent, an ordinary ape-descendant from a planet so distressingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. Today, of course, we think that electronic books are a pretty neat idea. I guess that's progress.

Arthur has gone off the idea of Progress, "It's overrated," because it entails the city knocking down his house in order to build a bypass through the London suburb in which he lives. It is while Arthur is lying down in front of one of the bulldozers that his friend Ford comes to tell him something extremely important.

Ford is not actually from Guildford. He is an alien from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and is visiting Earth in order to gather material for the Hitch-Hiker's Guide. He chose the name "Ford Prefect" because he originally misidentified the dominant life-form on the planet and thought it would be inconspicuous.

The Ford Prefect was a make of automobile sold in Britain in the mid-20th Century. The movie version has a cute bit in which Arthur meets Ford when the latter has just arrived on Earth and is trying to make friends with the local inhabitants by standing in the middle of a road and extending his hand in greeting to oncoming traffic.

Ford now wants to warn Arthur of the impending destruction of the Earth. As it happens, just as Arthur's house is slated to make way for a bypass, so is the planet scheduled to be obliterated by the Vogons to make room for a hyperspace bypass. And sure enough, minutes later a fleet of huge, yellow, rectangular spaceships, hanging in the air in precisely the same way that bricks don't, arrive over the Earth.

Moments before the Earth is demolished, Ford rescues Arthur and himself by hitching a lift on one of the ships of the Vogon Constructor Fleet.
Excuse me, are you trying to tell me that we just stuck out our thumbs and some bug-eyed monster stuck his head out and said 'Hi, fellas, hop right in, I can take you as far as the Basingstoke roundabout'? 
Well, the thumb's an electronic sub-ether device, the roundabout's at Barnard's Star six light years away, but otherwise that's more or less right. 
And the bug-eyed monster? 
Is green, yes.
Ford gives Arthur a fish to stick his his ear. This is the legendary Babel Fish, which feeds on brainwive energy and telepathically translates languages. In a comic inversion of the argument for Intelligent Design, the Book explains how the existence of such a mindbogglingly useful creature is clinching proof of the non-existence of God. Most leading theologians claim this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but Oolon Colluphid still used it as the central thesis of his book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.

But the Vogon Captain has no fondness for hitch-hikers nor for stowaways. When the crew of the ship capture Ford and Arthur, the Captain tortures them by reading some of his poetry, which the Book assures us is the third worst in the Universe, after that of the Azgoths of Kria and Ms Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Earth. (In the original version, Adams used the name of an actual British poet but was required to change the name to avoid lawsuits).
So Earthlings. I present you with a simple choice. I was going to throw you straight out into the empty blackness of space to die horribly and slowly. But there is one way, one simple way in which you may save yourselves. ... Now choose! Either die in the vacuum of space or 
... Tell me how good you thought my poem was.
Ford and Arthur try their best to bull their way out of their situation. ("...interesting rhythmic devices too which seemed to counterpoint the ... er ..." "...counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor...") But the Vogon Captain isn't buying it. Arthur and Ford soon find themselves in airlock, about to be flushed into space.

Writing about the story later, Adams admitted that he had badly written himself into a corner at this point. He was pretty much making up the plot as he went along, an occupational hazard for writers of serial literature. He couldn't think of any way of rescuing his heroes from certain death that wouldn't seem ridiculously improbable. So, inspired by a TV programme about Judo, he decided to solve his improbable problem with improbability.

The Infinite Improbability Drive is possibly the most creative piece of FTL technobabble in all science fiction.
The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 sub-meson brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood, and such generators were often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess's under-garments simultaneously leap one foot to the left, in accordance with the theory of indeterminacy.
Sending a spacecraft across the depths of space "without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace" requires a device capable of generating infinite improbability. One of the side effects of this spacedrive is that it causes incredible coincidences to occur, such as picking up Ford and Arthur in the critical thirty-second window between being sucked out into space and dying of asphyxiation. Another coincidence is that the spaceship Heart of Gold which is powered by the Improbability Drive is being piloted by -- and in fact had been stolen by -- Ford's semi-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox, accompanied by Tricia McMillan, a nice Earth girl whom Arthur once met at a party (and totally failed to impress).

Zaphod Beeblebrox is a brash, narcissistic rogue with an ego -- as we find out later in the series -- larger than the Universe itself. He invented the Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, and until stealing the spaceship Heart of Gold, was the President of the Galaxy. He has two heads and three arms, one of the many "audio sight-gags" which work better in radio than they do in film or television.

Arthur has also met Zaphod, at the same party. "He only had the two arms and the one head and he called himself Phil." He and Zaphod do not get along.

Tricia McMillan, whom Zaphod calls Trillian, is very intelligent girl with a degree in mathematics and another in astrophysics. What she sees in Zaphod is hard to fathom, unless, as the movie version suggest, she simply took up with him because she wanted to see the galaxy. "Sorry I missed that Wednesday lunch date," she tells Arthur, "but I was in a black hole all morning."

Rounding out the Heart of Gold's crew are Eddie the Shipboard Computer, and Artificial Intelligence with an annoyingly upbeat personality, and Marvin the Paranoid Android, a hyper-depressed robot with, as he likes to observe, "a brain the size of a planet," and a terrible pain in all the diodes down his left side. Marvin is easily the most popular character in the entire story.
The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The Marketing Division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as 'Your plastic pal who's fun to be with.' The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy defines the Marketing Division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as a 'bunch of mindless jerks who'll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes'...
Introductions having been made, the crew of the fugitive spaceship Heart of Gold continues on it's journey to... ah, but where are they going?
Hi there, this is Eddie your shipboard computer, and I just want to mention here that we are now moving into orbit around the legendary planet of Magrathea. Sorry to interrupt your social evening. Have a good time.
NEXT:  The Legend of Magrathea! The Mystery of the Missing Mice! And the Secret of Slartibartfast!

Monday, July 8, 2013

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, part 6: The Last Words of Captain Nemo

In our previous reading, Captain Nemo visited a Lost Continent, slaughtered a bunch of whales, (but only the mean ones), and claimed possession of the Antarctic Continent. Ned Land has been concerned about this last feat. No human has ever ventured south beyond the 70th parallel before and he feels they have trespassed in Places Man Was Not Meant To Know. Ned fears that disaster must inevitably follow.

Ned is right.

Returning north from the convenient patch of open water near the South Pole, the Nautilus is once again passing underneath the massive bank of ice that we know today as the Ross Ice Shelf. By chance, the ice under which the Nautilus is sailing shifts, and the change in equilibrium causes a huge chunk to flip over, striking the Nautilus.

"Just an incident, Captain?" Aronnax asks, recalling the episode in the Torres Straits.

"No monsieur," Nemo admits gravely. "This, time it is an accident."

The Nautilus is now floating in a narrow ice tunnel, sandwiched between the ice shelf above and the huge block of ice beneath. The tunnel is closed off at both ends, so they cannot simply sail their way out. More importantly, their air supply is limited; they have already been underwater for thirty-six hours since leaving the South Pole. The Nautilus' reserves will only last them another forty-eight. Already the air onboard the submarine is beginning to grow stale as the level of carbon dioxide in it is rising. They have only two days to free themselves from the ice.

Nemo sends out his crew in diving suits to work chipping away at the ice beneath them with pickaxes, rotating every hour. Aronnax and his companions join the work crews; obstinate and belligerent Ned is the first to volunteer. Verne takes us through the next tense forty-eight hours, measuring the slow progress of the work crews, and the horrifying realization that the water around the Nautilus is freezing faster than the crew can dig. The air in the submarine grows stale; Like the astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission a century later, Nemo has no means to remove the carbon dioxide.

The resourceful Nemo comes up with a plan. By heating water in the distillation apparatus the Nautilus uses to make fresh drinking water and then pumping the boiling water into the trench his men are digging, Nemo is able to arrest the freezing of the ice. Then, by filling the submarine's ballast tanks with water and letting it drop into the trench, he can use the Nautilus' own weight to crush the remaining layer of ice.

They are now free of their icy prison, but the Nautilus is still beneath the ice shelf, and hundreds of miles from the open sea. It has now been five days since they last replenished their air supply and the Nautilus' reserves of fresh air have been completely exhausted. Aronnax nearly passes out.
Suddenly, I regained consciousness. A little air was entering my lungs. Had we surfaced? Had we at last cleared the ice shelf? 
No! It was Ned and Conseil, my two good friends, whe were sacrificing their lives to save mine. There was still a few atoms of air left in one of the tanks. Instead of breathing it themselves, they had kept if for men, and while they were suffocating, they were giving it to me, drop by drop. I tried to push the tank away from me, but they held my hands, and for a few moments I felt the joy of breathing!
Nemo has one last trick up his sleeve. When he judges the ice above him is thin enough, he angles the Nautilus upward and rams it against the ice shelf. The Nautilus' spur, which has punctured steamships and slaughtered sperm whales, now hammers into a twenty-meter thick layer of solid ice. It takes repeated tries, but finally the Nautilus breaks through! The hatches are opened and Aronnax and the Nautilus crew -- along with the reader -- can once again breathe!

Once free of the Antarctic ice, the Nautilus continues northward, up the coast of South America. Conseil has a shocking encounter with an electric ray, which jolts him into forgetting his usual formality in his manner of speaking.

While cruising near the Bahamas, Aronnax remarks that the nooks and caves they see out the window of the saloon may well be home to giant squid. Ned is skeptical of sea monsters and suspects that giant squid are figments of over-imaginative scientists. He has some justification; he was right about Aronnax's "narwhal", and in Verne's day there were very few documented sightings of giant squid. This doesn't stop Aronnax from delivering another of Verne's educational lectures, describing what was known or conjectured about them. Before his lecture is over, just such a squid swims into view; then another, and soon the Nautilus is traveling through a school of them.

Suddenly, the Nautilus comes to a halt. The aggressive squid have been trying to attack the Nautilus, and one of them has managed to foul the propeller. Nemo announces that they will have to surface and do battle with these creatures.

Yes, this is the chapter I've been promising and which everyone has been waiting for: the one with the squid in it. The Nautilus' battle with the Giant Squid is probably the iconic image from the novel. At very least, it's the most famous scene from the 1957 movie. Because if Japanese cartoons have taught me one thing, it's that everything is better with tentacles.

In looking back at this scene in the next chapter, Aronnax invokes the author Victor Hugo, whom Verne greatly admired. Hugo had included a fight against a huge octopus in his novel, The Toilers of the Sea. Some readers had called that scene improbable, so the Nautilus' battle with the squid is sort of a "Take That" against the critics of his hero.

In the fight against the army of squid, one of Nemo's crewmen is seized by a tentacle and calls out "Help!" in French. Aronnax is shocked; he hadn't realized there were any of his countrymen on board. This is the only occasion in which he heard a member of Nemo's crew speak in anything except the Nautilus' official language. Before the crew can come to the unfortunate man's rescue, the squid ejects a jet of ink and retreats underwater, taking its victim with it.

Several other squid have pulled themselves onto the deck. One of them comes close to bisecting Ned with it's sharp beak-like mouth, but Nemo comes to his rescue, hacking at the creature with an axe and giving Ned the chance to drive his harpoon into its triple heart. "I owed you that!" Nemo says to the Canadian, recalling the earlier episode with the shark.

Eventually, all the squid are driven off, and the Nautilus continues on its way. As it approaches the northeast coast of the United States, Ned pressures Aronnax to speak to Nemo once again about releasing them. Aronnax's enthusiasm for their voyage has cooled since the battle with the squid; but he doesn't see how talking to Nemo will help. Nemo has been avoiding him lately. But at Ned's insistence, Aronnax agrees to seek the Captain out.

Nemo explains the reason for his absence. In an earlier chapter, Aronnax had observed that none of Nemo's discoveries would benefit science. Now Nemo shows him what he has been working on.
"Here, Monsieur Aronnax, we have a manuscript written in several languages. It contains a summary of all my studies on the sea. God willing, it shall not perish with me. This manuscript, signed by me, including the story of my life, will be sealed in a small, unsikable container. The last man of us all to survive on board the Nautilus will throw it into the sea, and it will drift wherever the waves may carry it."
The Professor is impressed by this, but asks Nemo if it would not be better to allow him and his companions to carry the manuscript to civilization?

This provokes Nemo's anger. He has not changed his attitude since he first picked up the Professor and his companions in the Pacific.
"Monsieur Aronnax," said Captain Nemo, "I will tell you today what I told you some months ago: Whoever enters the Nautilus must never leave her." 
"But this is slavery that you are imposing on us!" 
"Call it whatever you like." 
"But everywhere a slave has the right to regain his liberty! Any means he may use to escape are justified!" 
"Who has ever denied you that right?" replied Captian Nemo. "Have I ever tried to bind you with an oath?"
Persuasion is not going to move the Captain. Ned plans another escape attempt as the Nautilus nears Long Island, but a hurricane coming up the east coast blocks the plan. The Nautilus then heads out into North Atlantic. For a few days, it cruises about in circles, as if trying to find a precise spot in the ocean.

Nemo is looking for a specific spot, but also marking time until a specific day. He takes the Nautilus down to the site of a sunken ship; a French ship which had seen heroic service not only in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay during the American Revolution which lead to Washington's victory at Yorktown, but also under the French Republic after the French Revolution. Nemo has chosen to visit the remains of this ship on the anniversary of its sinking in a battle against the British.

"The Avenger!" Aronnax exclaims, recognizing the ship's history.

"Yes, monsieur, the Avenger. A wonderful name!"

But as the Nautilus returns to the surface, a large ship approaches it; a man-of-war. Aronnax is unable to make out the ship's colors and so cannot tell what nationality it is. Ned's gut reaction is to jump into the ocean and swim for it if the warship gets close enough. Then the warship opens fire.

"If Monsieur doesn't mind me saying so," Conseil says, "I think they've recognized the narwhal and are firing at it."

Aronnax realizes that Conseil is correct. Captain Farragut would have returned to port by now, and the world must know that the mysterious "sea monster" is really something much more dangerous. The Nautilus would be a terrifying weapon if Nemo were to use it for vengence. Then Aronnax remembers the night in the Indian Ocean, when Nemo locked him and his friends in their cabin and when the Nautilus suffered an unexplained collision; and he realizes that this is exactly what Nemo has been doing: using his ship to strike back at the civilization he hates.
Then he suddenly let go, and turning toward the warship, whose shells were raining around him, he shouted: 
"Ah, you know who I am, ship of an accursed nation! I do not need to see your colors to recognize you! Look, I am going to show you mine!" 
And walking on the front part of the deck, he unfurled a black flag similar to the one he had planted at the South Pole. 
Captain," I exclaimed, "you are going to attack that ship?" 
"I am going to sink her, monsieur." 
"You wouldn't do that!" 
"I shall do so," Captain Nemo replied coldly. "Do not presume to judge me. Fate has let you see what you were not supposed to see. We have been attacked. Our answer will be terrible. Get down below."
The Nautilus leads the warship away from the site; Nemo does not wish to mingle the wreckage of his enemies with that of the valiant Avenger. For a while Aronnax engages a desperate hope that the Nautilus will make its attack on the surface, as it did when it struck the Abraham Lincoln, making it easier for he and his friends to leap from the Nautilus to the warship. He has no more qualms about escape. But Nemo orders the Nautilus down several yards to strike the warship beneath the waterline. It plows through the unknown enemy ship like a needle going through sailcloth

Aronnax rushes down to the saloon, where Nemo is standing at the great glass viewing panels. Together they watch the warship slowly sink to the bottom and its crew frantically struggle and become engulfed in the cold abyss.
I turned toward Captain Nemo. That satanic judge, that veritable archangel of hatred, stood there, still watching. When it was all over, he walked to the door of his stateroom, opened it, and disappeared. I followed him On the far wall, beneath the paintings of his heroes, I saw a portrait of a woman, still young, with two small children. Captain Nemo stood looking at them for a few moments, stretching his arms toward them. Then, falling on his knees, he burst into deep sobs.
After this horrific episode, the Nautilus seems to travel aimlessly, heading northward. Aronnax wonders if they are now heading for the North Pole, but Nemo is no longer updating their position on the charts. The ship has abandoned its usual routine and now surfaces only occasionally for air. Aronnax sees little of the crew and nothing at all of Nemo.

Then one day, Ned announces another escape attempt. The Nautilus is within sight of land. They have no way of knowing what country it is, but they have to make the attempt. Once again, as in the attempt at Vigo Bay, Aronnax spends a tense evening waiting for the planned time. With a half hour to go, he hears organ music coming from the saloon and realizes it is Nemo. But Aronnax will have to cross the saloon in order to get to the ladder leading to the ship's dinghy.

He silently creeps across the room, hoping Nemo won't notice him. Suddenly, Nemo stops playing. He rises, walks right past Aronnax without seeming to see him. Aronnax hears him murmur: "Almighty God! Enough! Enough!"

Aronnax hurries to the dinghy where Ned and Conseil are waiting. But there is commotion going on elsewhere in the ship. They hear the word "maelstrom!"

They are approaching the Moskenstraumen, a tremendous whirlpool located on the coast of Norway created by the tidal forces between the Faroe and Lofoten Islands. Edgar Allan Poe, another of Verne's literary heroes, wrote a famous story about it, "Descent into the Maelstrom".

Despite the danger, Aronnax and his friends board the dinghy and unbolt it from the Nautilus. Swept into the swirling vortex of water, they struggle to keep the boat afloat. Aronnax is knocked over and his head strikes one of the dinghy's iron ribs and loses consciousness.

He awakens in a fisherman's hut on one of the Lofoten Islands. Aronnax, Ned and Conseil have all survived. But what of Nemo? Was the Nautilus sucked into the maelstrom and destroyed? Has Nemo finally found the peace his tortured soul so lacked? Aronnax cannot tell.
However strange his destiny be, it is also sublime. Did I not experience and understand his destiny? Did I not live that unnatural existence for ten whole months? So, to that question, asked six thousand years ago by the book of Ecclesiates: "Who has ever fathomed the depths of the abyss?" two men, among all men, have the right to reply: Captain Nemo and I.

Monday, July 1, 2013

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, part 5: To the Pole

Due to a combination of bad luck and worse timing, Ned Land has had to abort his planned escape from the Nautilus. Now Professor Aronnax and his companions are headed away from European waters and into the wide Atlantic.

But before we go further, I wanted to backtrack a bit. In the passage where Aronnax is anxiously waiting for the appointed time for Ned's escape attempt, he has a chance to peek inside Nemo's cabin. The Captain is not there, but Aronnax sees on his walls a series of etchings.
They were portraits, portraits of great men of history, whose lives had been entirely dedicated to a great human ideal: Kosciusko, the hero whose dying words were Finis Poloniae; Botzaris, the Leonidas of modern Greece; O'Connell, the defender of Ireland; Washington, the founder of the American Union; Manin, the Italian patriot; Lincoln, shot by a defender of slavery; and finally, that martyr to the emancipation of the Negro race, John Brown, hanging on the gallows, so realistically drawn by Victor Hugo.
Tadeusz Kościuszko is best known in America, when he is mentioned at all, as one of the European noblemen who came to aid the American cause in the Revolutionary War. After the American Revolution, he returned to Poland where he fought against the Russian invasion. Although unsuccessful, he was a tireless champion of liberty and of his country. As I mentioned in last week's reading, Verne originally intended for Nemo to be a Polish patriot.

Markos Botzaris  was an important leader in the Greek war for independence from the Ottoman Empire, and Daniel O'Connell, sometimes called "The Liberator", campaigned for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland and for dissolving the Act of Union which yoked Ireland to Great Britain.

Washington and Lincoln need no explanation, (although it is interesting that the ship sent by the US Navy to hunt Nemo down was named after one of Nemo's heroes). John Brown, depending on your point of view, was either a passionate abolitionist or a fanatical terrorist. Verne would say the former.

These are the men Nemo most admires. The Mercer Lewis translation, revealing the translator's antipathy towards Verne's politics, omits this passage.

But onward into the Atlantic. The day after Nemo's visit to the shipwreck at Vigo Bay, he invites Aronnax on another stroll on the ocean bottom. This is the fourth diving expedition Nemo has taken Arronax on so far, but Verne manages to keep each one fresh and interesting. This time the excursion will be at night time and only the Captain and the Professor will be going. Nemo leads Aronnax up an underwater mountain, and on the other side, the Professor sees an incredible sight: a wide plain illuminated by the eerie glow from an underwater volcano; and on the floor of that plain, ruined buildings and columns resembling the classical architecture of Ancient Greece. Nemo explains the site by picking up a stone and writing on a piece of basalt a single word: "ATLANTIS".

Curiously, this is not the first underwater volcano the Nautilus has encountered. During their cruise through the Aegean Sea, it passed through a place where the water was actually boiling due to volcanic activities beneath the waters. This was near the island of Santorin, which some scholars have speculated could have been the inspiration for, Plato's Atlantis.

The Nautilus travels on across the Atlantic, crossing the Sargasso Sea and stopping at one of Nemo's secret island bases, located in an underground grotto beneath an extinct volcano. Yes, Verne loved his volcanoes. This island is where Nemo's men mine the coal he uses to produce the sodium for the Nautilus' super-batteries.

A secret submarine base located beneath an extinct volcano also figures in Verne's later novel Facing the Flag (Face au drapeau, 1896). This island is located in the Bahamas, and the commander of the base is a pirate named Ker Karraje. It is tempting to guess that Karraje is one of Nemo's old crew who has turned to piracy and is using his former commander's coal mines as a base, but Verne himself never makes the connection. In The Mysterious Island, the Nautilus' final resting place is another island grotto near a volcano; but in this case the volcano is active, and when it erupts, the lava hitting the water of the grotto creates a cataclysmic explosion.

Nemo heads south towards the Antarctic waters. Ned is getting frustrated again. Conseil explains:
"Our poor Ned wants what he cannot have. ... Everything that is forbidden to us is a source of despair to him ... What can he do here? Nothing. He is not a scientist like Monsieur; he cannot possibly derive the same pleasure that we do by looking at the marvels of the sea. He would risk all to get back to a tavern back home!"
They come upon a pod of whales, and Conseil suggests that Ned ask for permission to hunt a few. Nemo declines contemptuously. On a previous occasion, he had permitted Ned to hunt a dugong, in order to provide meat for the crew, but the Nautilus has no need for whale oil.
"Here it would be killing just for the sake of killing. I know very well that this is a privilege reserved for men, but I do not approve of these murderous pastimes. The destruction of these harmless and inoffensive creatures, such as the southern and right whales, by whalers like you, Ned, is a crime. You have already depopulated all of Baffin's Bay, and you will exterminate, eventually, a whole class of useful animals."
Just then a group of cachalots arrive on the scene. Verne makes use of the French language's distinction between baleines, or baleen whales such as humpback or right whales, and cachalots, or sperm whales. The former live on tiny zooplankton, such as krill, which they filter from the water with the baleen plates in their mouths. The latter have honest-to-Melville teeth in jaws that take up nearly a quarter of their bodies and are out-and-out predators. Nemo describes them as voracious creatures and has no qualms about killing them. But he won't let Ned have a try at the cachalots with his harpoon. "The Nautilus will suffice to disperse those cachalots."

I've always found this the most disturbing scene in the novel. After giving an impassioned plea to save the whales, less than a page later Nemo is slaughtering a pod of sperm whales by driving the pointed spur of the Nautilus through them, turning the sea red with their blood.
Captain Nemo joined us. 
"Well, Master Land," he said. 
"Well, sir," replied the Canadian, whose enthusiasm had now cooled down. "It certainly was a remarkable spectacle. But I am not a butcher, I am a hunter, and this was just butchery." 
"It was a massacre of vicious animals," replied the Captain, "and the Nautilus is not a butcher." 
"I prefer my harpoon," retorted the Canadian. 
"Each to his own harpoon," replied the Captain, looking Ned straight in the eye.
Still the Nautilus continues southward, and Aronnax wonders how far they can go. At the time of Verne's writing, all previous expeditions into the antarctic regions had been blocked by impassable walls of ice. The Nautilus, however, is capable of traveling underneath icebergs and ice shelves, (as it's namesake, the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus, did a century later when it reached the North Pole). In the absence of firm geographical data, Verne has to guess what Nemo will find beyond the Great Ice Bank. Following the hypotheses of Commodore Murray, he guesses, correctly, that there is a continent in the south polar regions, but in order to facilitate the plot, he assumes that its coastline dips far enough south that the Nautilus can sail to the South Pole.

In another bit of pure Verne, Nemo has arrived at about the date of the Spring Equinox, the last day the sun would be visible at the South Pole for six months. That way, Nemo can confirm his location with a chronometer: if half the sun's disc is visible on the horizon at noon precisely, then he is at the Pole. He is; and Nemo marks the occasion by unfurling a flag, black and emblazoned with his monogram "N". He gives a speech, noting the explorers who proceeded him in penetrating the Antarctic Circle, and then claiming possession of the antarctic regions...

"In the name of whom, Captain?" Aronnax asks, hoping Nemo will state his country of origin.

"Mine, sir!"

NEXT:  Accident or Incident? Trapped beneath the Ice; Nemo's Moral Event Horizon; the Maelstrom and Captain Nemo's Last Words. All this and THE GIANT SQUID!!!