Sensorium Vitae - Some Fierce Deep-Buried Chemistry

Tube Mosaic at Maida Vale
This picture of the Tube Mosaic at Maida Vale linked to from Oxyman's Wikimedia Commons donated photo; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

There are passages in this book that are compelling simply for a skillfully evoked imagery or physical sensation. I'm going to bring some of those up in posts titled Sensorium Vitae.

In this one, Edward Mallory is on foot in London, headed to the Museum of Practical Geology:

He strode up Regent Street to the Circus, where the crowd poured endlessly forth from the underground's sooty marble exits. He allowed himself to be swept into swift currents of humanity.

There was a potent stench here, a cloacal reek, like burning vinegar, and for a moment Mallory imagined that this miasma emanated from the crowd itself, from the flapping crannies of their coats and shoes. It had a subterranean intensity, some fierce deep-buried chemistry of hot cinders and septic drippings, and now he realized that it must be pistoned out somehow, forced from the hot bowels of London by the charging trains below.

This played in my head like a moment of film, soundtrack ominous, Mallory walking the city amid the noise of traffic and people when suddenly all sound cuts, except the minimal looming music, as a crowd of long coated Victorians ascend from the underground stairs, a milky, vile mist billowing out from under their coattails and around their ankles. It crawls down there on the cobbles as though it might entangle their steps and drag them back down. Mallory's head turns with a growing morbid curiosity as he passes them, and all is in overcranked slow motion. With a slam, the full sound returns and the film speeds back up to the pace of life. The howl of an underground train coincides with a blast of air which disperses the mist at their feet. No one seems to feel the oddness except Mallory, who shakes his head to clear it and moves on.

Though a commonplace moment in passing, this passage is science fiction as we're in the year 1855, and in reality the London Underground hasn't been built yet. So, apparently the early revolution in Information Technology has accelerated the development of urban mass transit as well.

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