Disaster! - Iterations Third and Fourth.

What I got out of these sections were a few ice floes of clever awash in an Arctic Ocean of dumb.

The passage about the windup girl seems the most gratuitous, though I said that about Rudwick, and Keats, both of whom have resurfaced multiple times since, if only in passing mention. But I'd hate to come up with some sort of exciting twist involving a Japanese drink-pouring automaton, so I'll keep my fingers crossed that it was just a pointless aside. I'm actually hoping for some of these plotlines to go unfinished, else it's going to be a slugger of an ending.

The extended sex scene in Sybil Jones's old room comes in a close second. No revelations there, unless you consider filthy gossip about the royal family useful. Maybe the authors felt the passage was needed to paint Mallory in a human light -- troubled, lonely. Mostly it just reminded me how easy it is to make sex lurid and decadent, even in print.

I will tell you what I loved about these two iterations: J. J. Tobias, Esq. What a satisfying little character he was -- everything from the great haircut to the cunning quip about everything taking twice as long as you think. (I really thought there was a natural law about this, but the name eludes me.) He had just the right touches of bashfulness and pride, eagerness to please and anxiety about breaking the law. And I could hear his cockney accent pouring through -- somehow they nailed his dialogue.

Basically I think these two iterations were a mess -- a lot of flashy plot movement all to say "Hey, Mallory's in trouble." I've gathered from reading other reviews that this was the main plot section, that the bulk of the sociopolitical hypothesizing was here -- part of me is disappointed, thinking that everything else will just be cleaning up the plotlines we've left open, but I'm partially relieved for the same reason. Maybe without that big save-the-world relevance they felt their book needed to contain, they can let loose with a bit more humour and ... well ... I'm not really sure what I'd want them to do. Surprise me, I guess.

A Railway to Heaven.

From toothpaw's flickr photostream.

I'm not even joking. Gibson and Sterling throw down this grimace-worthy gem on the 150th page, attributing it to some wholesome, granola-munching Victorian hippies:

"A group of Quakers, men and women, stood on the pavement outside the Palace. They were droning another of their intolerable sermonizing ditties, something about a 'railway to Heaven,' by the sound of it. The song did not seem to have much to do with Evolution, or blasphemy, or fossils; but perhaps the sheer monotony of their bootless protests had exhausted even the Quakers."
I always find these sorts of cultural snapshots interesting, but this one in particular because it reminded me of a George Orwell quote: "Socialism [draws toward it] with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England." (from The Road to Wigan Pier, 1936)

Now, I could easily veer this post towards an analysis of the appearances of socialism in The Difference Engine. But I want to dally on the topic of middle-class cranks a bit more. They're all over the place, taking such diverse forms as the exiled Luddite movement and Florence Bartlett's cultish speech about "universal free love." It obviously doesn't take socialism to espouse these sort of contingent theories -- Bartlett also rants about eugenics and selective breeding, and is staunchly anti-drug-use. These ideas veer widely from those of the Pilates-practicing, probiotic-scarfing and antioxidant-guzzling cranks we see today, though they might all share toxin-free living with the Quakers. I find it funny that the one thing such radically different idealists could agree on is a body pure of chemicals and intoxicants. Of course, most agree to the idea without adhering to the lifestyle -- or they mix their fruit-juice drinking with smoking weed and having acid trips.

Faced with my most sensible friends going vegan and gluten-free, and staring into the headlights of an intoxicant-free life myself (I'm getting old, you know), I find that the idea of "body as temple" seems to be attacking me from all angles. An Anglican minister friend recently gave a short sermon about Jesus throwing merchants out of the temple, and likened it to treating your own body as a temple, keeping it pure, and respecting it as holy ground. Her main point was that the Jews forced the Gentiles out of the temple proper, and made them worship on "less holy" ground -- so of course they reacted with disrespect for the church and turned it into a marketplace.

This lesson is interesting to me -- even if something (Gentiles, drugs) seems unhealthy to you, you should let it into your temple/body anyways, but treat it with respect and it will respect you back. I've always been a firm believer in moderation: too much of anything is never healthy, but just the right amount will make you appreciate it all the more. Besides the feel-good moral of "expose yourself to new things, even if you don't think you'll like them," and ignoring the tempting rant about fad diets and incomprehensibly scientific-sounding bodily cures, I want to point out another tired theme: that everything is based on context. Eugenics-happy fascists and free-loving hippies both think drinking is bad, in their own special ways. Why? Are these both the types of people that can't muster up enough self-control to moderate their own behaviour, so they have to eradicate all dangerous substances and experiences entirely? Are these both the types of people to hop on board any trend that comes their way, and do it to excess, even if that excess will kill?

To be honest, I never had any idea what "Stairway to Heaven" was even remotely about. Anyone care to fill me in?

Fancy Optical Goods.

"They were behind Chelsea Park now, in a place called Camera Square, where the shops offered fancy optical goods: talbotypes, magic-lanterns, phenakistoscopes, telescopes for the amateur star-gazer." (pp. 211-212)

The phenakistoscope, invented in 1832, was a precursor of the zoetrope, an item most of us got to play with in third-grade science class. A phenakistoscope involved two spinning discs and a mirror, which is why it fell out of favour when the mirror-free (and multi-user-friendly) zoetrope came into greater use in the 1860s. I have a hard time imagining what kind of "market" might exist for things like this past a children's toy or a clever handmade gift (if you've enough artistic skill to make one) -- then again, huge audiences would gather to view Dioramas in the 1800s, which involve about as much storyline as zoetropes and their kind, so what do I know?

Image of a phenakistoscope animation from Wikipedia. (There's also this great little page, which includes some sample disc animations.)

The inventor of the Diorama, of course, was Monsieur Louis Daguerre, famous for a little thing known as photography. William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the aforementioned talbotype (or calotype, as he named it), was technically the first to get it right, but because the daguerreotype was more popular, Daguerre (along with his sidekick Nicephore Niepce) tends to get the recognition. The rough of it is that the daguerreotype was faster and clearer, but Talbot's process involved the negative/positive process we use today, which makes it much easier to copy a photograph. (FYI, the photographs I've used as examples here are not nearly as clear and precise as later ones, when the methods were perfected.)

Widely acclaimed as the first photograph, Niepce captured this in 1826 and titled it View from the Window at Le Gras.

I'm not entirely certain what these camera shops are selling: finished photographs, negatives, or unexposed papers soaked in silver iodide? The book is set so soon after daguerreotypes and talbotypes were announced that I have a hard time seeing either of those methods assuming the state of curios and being deemed fit for child's play. The processes were still expensive enough to maintain a higher-class dignity. I also find it strange that most business cards and posters in the book use an illustrated portrait method that fits the pointillist style of the Difference Engine's printers, one that I assume would require a human artist, rather than a photographic portrait modified into pointillist form. That's the sort of expensive work I'd expect people to clamour after.

A talbotype of a latticed window in Lacock Abbey, taken by Talbot in 1835.