||A review by Steven H Silver|
In the last few years, Benjamin Franklin has become a popular historical character in speculative fiction.
In 1998, J. Gregory Keyes published his alternative history, Newton's Cannon, which postulated a young
Franklin as an apprentice to an alchemist Isaac Newton.
Franklin's intelligence and curiosity propelled him through four books of adventure, culminating
in 2001's The Shadows of God. Somehow, while Franklin was entertaining and edifying Keyes's
readership, he also found the time to take a supporting role in Louise Marley's time bending novel The Glass Harmonica.
Copyright © 2001 Steven H Silver
The focus of The Glass Harmonica is the parallel lives of Eilish Eam, an 18th century street urchin,
and Erin Rushton, a 21st century glass harmonist.
While Eilish and Erin mirror each other, their associates also have parallels. Mackie, the crippled boy for
whom Eilish cares in 18th century London appears in Erin's world as her wheelchair-bound twin brother
Charlie. Benjamin Franklin, who invented the glass harmonica and who is also shown conducting medical experiments
using electricity, is paralleled by Charlie's unconventional doctor, Gene Berrick. While Eilish is experimenting
with a new instrument, Erin and Charlie are experimenting with new enhancements to the instrument. Perhaps
the most interesting parallel is an inverse one. Eilish was born in poverty while Erin was born
wealthy. Franklin was a wealthy man while Berrick was born in poverty and is struggling for respectability.
Even while Erin and Eilish's lives are central to the novel, the focus is really on the glass harmonica and
music. Marley demonstrates a sound knowledge of musical theory and practice, both in general and pertaining to
the glass harmonica, an instrument seldom used in the modern world. The one musical shortcoming she exhibits is
that she never clearly describes the harmonica or how it works, leaving the instrument as a sort of black box which
produces incredible music, potential insanity, and a moving story.
The sense of realism which is engendered by her knowledge of the music is carried over to the futuristic setting
Erin and Charlie inhabit, although some of her extrapolations seem a little far-fetched for a mere twenty years
in the future. Nevertheless, Marley successfully creates a believable world with multiple layers. Marley shows
less of Eilish's world than Erin's, focusing mostly on Franklin's house and Seven Dials in London. Of course,
Eilish lives in a world in which travel is more difficult while Erin can take a suborbital from London to
Seattle, arriving in only a couple of hours. Because of this, the historical period seems less fully realized
than the futuristic period.
While Marley gives a reasonably full portrait of her primary characters, she does leave some unanswered
questions. Early in the novel, she indicates that Erin is concerned about letting her age be known. Naturally,
this raises the question in the reader's mind, but no answer is provided. Erin also has a strange relationship
with her estranged mother, although the reason for the estrangement is never explained.
Similarly, Eilish's relationship with Franklin would have been more interesting if Marley had provided a
little more depth. Marley does demonstrate the ability to write about close relationships when she describes
Charlie and Erin as well as both of their budding friendships with Berrick.
The Glass Harmonica is an interesting and well written novel. The few lapses it has are not major and
do not have an adverse effect on the reader's enjoyment of the story and the characters, although it does leave
a slightly unfinished feeling.
Steven H Silver in one of SF Site's Contributing Editors as well as one
of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
He is Vice-Chairman of Windycon 28 and Programming Chairman for Chicon
2000. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry
Turtledove website, Steven is trying to get his short stories published
and has recently finished his first novel. Steven is a Hugo Nominee for
Best Fan Writer. He lives in Illinois with his wife, daughter and 4000