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The Iron Bridge by David Morse, Harcourt Brace, 1998, 436 pages, $25.00
Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson, Tor, 1998, 320 pages, $22.95
"There is only one science in science fiction, and that's history, that's what it's about; it's about nothing else."
-- William Tenn (Philip Klass)
Locus, June 1996
A conspicuous number of SF writers have been looking pastward during the 1980s and 1990s. Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock, and K. W. Jeter come immediately to mind, as do Connie Willis (Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog) and Karen Joy Fowler (Sarah Canary), and I could list dozens of others. Some, like Willis, use relatively traditional time-travel gimmicks to mingle future and past; others, like Powers, Blaylock, and Jeter, reimagine the past in ways that resemble alternate history—but aren't, quite. They're more like parallel histories, or secret histories. Unlike traditional alternate histories, these scenarios mix and mingle ideas without the mechanical rigor of the "what-if" thought-experiment. They use history the way SF has always used science—as a steamer trunk full of bits and pieces which can be assembled artfully into something fantastic and strange to the mind.
Though Powers, Blaylock, and Jeter have headed into different territory in recent years, the lure of history seems as strong as ever in other writers. J. Gregory Keyes's first two novels (The Waterborn, The Blackgod) were more or less traditional quest fantasy, but his latest, Newton's Cannon, recalls nothing so much as Jeter's Infernal Devices, Blaylock's Homunculus, and Powers's The Drawing of the Dark—with perhaps a little of Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker books tossed in. It drops us into a reimagined past, an early 18th century in which the theories of alchemists have born practical fruit. In 1681, Isaac Newton discovered the power of something known as "the philosopher's mercury," a substance which transmits vibrations to the aether in which all matter is suspended, allowing a variety of technologies—flameless lamps, beam weapons ("kraftpistoles"), and fax machines ("aetherschreibers"), among others—based on the four elements ("damnatum, lux, phlegm, and gas") and the "ferments" or patterns in which they are arranged, as well as the "affinities" between them. Some affinities, such as gravity, are very general—all forms of matter share it—while others exist only between twin objects, such as two halves of a pane of glass.
This world is populated by figures we know well from our own, principally Benjamin Franklin, the central character, whose natural genius for invention shows itself just as clearly in this world as it did in our own. It's a very appealing and colorful setting, and Keyes evokes it expertly—not too much exposition, but enough detail (most of the time) to give us the flavor of a living world. At first Newton's Cannon suffers a little from a tone of ingenuousness that makes it feel a bit like a book for young adults, but thankfully the story gains in worldliness and complexity of feeling as it goes along.
As with the early books of Powers et al., Newton's Cannon is essentially an adventure tale, driven by a compelling plot more than by the intricacies of characterization. With his early inventions, Franklin stumbles into a world of deadly politics in which the king of France has his philosophers hard at work at creating a weapon they call Newton's Cannon, a weapon of such fearsome power that they're certain it will save France from the steady advance of the English armies that have harried it for decades. At the same time he runs afoul of even more dangerous entities, beings which seem to live in the aether itself and are unhappy with the direction Franklin's experiments are taking. His life is threatened; his brother killed; he flees Boston, meets the pirate Blackbeard, and makes his way to London, where he falls in with a group of Newton's students, and events hurry toward their climax: Will the French build Newton's Cannon? Will it destroy England?
If Newton's Cannon lacks anything that its forebears had, it's a kind of thickness, a depth of vision. Now and then one wishes for a little more information than Keyes provides, perhaps a scholarly digression à la Umberto Eco to enrich the reader's feel for the alchemical technology that fills the book. Keyes could have risked a heavier infusion of alchemical references; it would have made Newton's Cannon a book to rank alongside those of Blaylock, Powers, and Jeter. Perhaps the next volume of this series—at least one more is promised—will bring that extra weight to bear, and transport us to an imagined place not only detailed enough to be believable, but rich enough to be lost in.
That transformation is the central issue of the book. The world it leads to—our own—has become a wasteland by the middle of the 21st century. Pockets of humanity eke out an existence not yet wholly barbarous but increasingly precarious, and outside the islands of civility life is brutal. Hardly an uncommon premise, and Morse's storyline is pretty familiar, too: One of these enclaves has discovered how to send a member of the community back in time, and so Maggie Foster makes the trip, abandoning her lover, her friends, and all she knows for a chance to prevent the catastrophe which has ruined their world. If she's lucky, smart, and careful, she might impede the path of industry—not halt it, but slow it enough to allow human wisdom to grow along with technology, and so avert industry's most devastating consequences.
The familiarity of this scenario and its obvious emotional buttons ripe for pushing might have made for a callow novel, but Morse distinguishes his treatment of the hallowed SF concepts with an extraordinarily deft and subtle approach. This isn't the Time Police zooming in on antigrav thrusters, nor even the madcap brilliance of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. In its sensitivity to character and its warmly, lovingly detailed setting, The Iron Bridge is much closer to Willis's award-winning Doomsday Book—every bit as impressive and moving, if not more so.
Morse's sense of subtlety begins with Maggie's target. She's not after some grand event, bringing Britain a victory in the American Revolution or anything like that, but an event most people today wouldn't even recognize—the construction of the first iron bridge, which took place at Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, in the late 1770s. It's an important moment, because it demonstrated the versatility and power of iron at a critical moment, launching us into the true Iron Age in which we are still living. To a reader with a passion for history, Morse's choice strikes the perfect chord—it recognizes the power of small moments and, more importantly, that the real seeds of historical change often lie in the symbolic significance of events more than in their immediate material effects. What matters is how events change the way people think, as that first iron bridge did.
As we follow Maggie's efforts to alter the construction plans, the narrative splits into several viewpoints—we watch through Maggie's eyes, and those of the Quaker Abraham Darby III (owner of England's largest ironworks) and those of John Wilkinson, the unscrupulous cannon maker who schemes to ensure that the bridge get built—but at Darby's expense. Such is Morse's skill that even Wilkinson becomes, if not exactly sympathetic, at least full and lifelike enough not to be easily hated. Lodge's fascination with his subject and the richly-drawn setting make it all that real and riveting—many a veteran SF writer would be proud if their lumps of exposition could be as interesting as Morse's descriptions of ironmaking.
The emotional power of The Iron Bridge also comes from the subtleties. He wrings our hearts through Maggie Foster's agonies of conscience, Abraham Darby's yearning for the farmer's life, and the raft of everyday sufferings and struggles of the people of Coalbrookdale, not through the devastation of some vast catastrophe. But what most sets The Iron Bridge apart from a novel like Newton's Cannon is its thematic spine. The action of the novel corresponds to the exploration of a theme, a question, an idea—in fact, many of these at once. Can the course of history be changed? Is it morally right to change it? Are there immutable ills in the human spirit that will doom our species to self-destruction? The Iron Bridge is a magnificent book, and its magic lies in how it simultaneously offers a heart-rending story and fuel for some very deep intellectual pondering.
So from the very first pages Darwinia sets up a scenario to plumb some of the same issues as The Iron Bridge. It's no accident that the Miracle occurs in the very month before, in our world, the Titanic sank and itself threw the certainties of the Industrial Age into flux. Wilson's main character, Guilford Law, is a kid when the Miracle sweeps over the world. He's described as a child of "the new century," full of faith in reason, science, and technology; "a twentieth-century person, privately scornful of the dusty past, the gaslight and mothball past." As he grows up, he remains convinced that what's happened, however strange, is not a contradiction of science—it's a mystery, but not a miracle. He sets out with an expedition to explore the unknown interior of the changed Europe, leaving his wife and child to await him in the frontier-town London that's being rebuilt along the wild Thames.
The Miracle and Law's expedition provide an excellent opportunity for Wilson to probe the science versus religion debate. The leader of the expedition is Preston Finch, a post-Miracle naturalist whose books have argued for a Creationist interpretation of geological features, proof of the Great Flood, and other religiously-inspired theories. But what they find as they explore is hard for him to explain. There's as much evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution in the creatures of the changed world as there was in the old—a different evolution, but operating along the same lines. Finch retains his convictions, but others in the group find their faith challenged. The botanist Sulllivan responds to Finch's persistent belief in miracle with increasing impatience: "How I would love to have an explanation so wonderfully complete! . . . To look at the color of Mars in the night sky, at six-legged fur-bearing snakes laying eggs in the snow, and see nothing but the hand of God . . . But I won't put my ignorance on an altar and call it God." We get some insight into Finch's continued faith when he admits he finds the thought of a world without the certainties of religion "chaos, horror." But Law replies as a good rationalist: "Maybe it only looks that way because we're ignorant." And, as it turns out, he's right.
As the book proceeds, Wilson also evokes other interesting questions. With Europe gone and most other parts of the world (Russia, China, Africa) damaged in the Miracle, America is left standing alone on the world stage as early as 1920, and the course of events thereafter invites us to wonder not merely what science and technology have wrought in our time, but what the United States has done itself, and where we might have ended up without the influence of the Old World. Post-Miracle America isn't a pretty sight: it's small-minded, parochial, and reactionarily religious. Americans indulge themselves in the thought that Europeans somehow brought the Miracle down upon themselves like Sodom and Gomorrah; the culture of old Europe, from music to art to literature, receives universal disdain. Coming as this does from the viewpoint of a Canadian writer, this analysis seems particularly trenchant. In many ways Wilson's alternate America embodies the worst impulses we can see in our nation today.
As with The Iron Bridge, Wilson's novel balances its wealth of provocative questions and ideas with a solid sense of the complex joys and sadnesses of real life, and this balance is vital to the book's success. Darwinia serves up some big SF thrills and ideas—the Miracle and its explanation, which draws on the speculations of contemporary physicists such as Frank Tipler, John D. Barrow, and Lee Smolin—but these wonders would have paled, I think, as the wonders of Ringworld paled after its initial flash of amazement, without the humanistic angle to keep it compelling. The more Law learns about the truth behind the Miracle, the less he seems to like it, as if Wilson's suggesting that scientific understanding carries with it a weight of responsibility that can make it difficult to enjoy the native experiences of quotidian human life. And even the vast construct that explains the Miracle and the world Law lives in may have its origins in human feeling more than simple technological determinism: late in the book, Law wonders "if that was why the gods had built their Archive in the first place: this mortal unwillingness to surrender the past, lose love to crumbling atoms."
Thus it is for today's SF writers, unwilling to give up the past in their pursuit of the future. Like the best SF about the future, SF about the past uses its trunk of materials to construct imaginary worlds that are lenses through which we can view our own and ponder it in ways less imaginative fiction cannot suggest. Pastward-looking SF proves (if it still needs proving) that the heart of SF lies not in its trappings but in its methods, its way of looking at the world. And by claiming the past as fertile territory for SF, these writers ensure that we don't forget where we've been as we rush ahead toward wherever we're going.
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Copyright © 1998–2016 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide