Monday, December 27, 2010

The Ridiculous Island

I was going to start this off by saying that I’m not a big fan of Jules Verne’s writing, but I decided against it.

I mean really, who am I to criticize him? After all, Verne was – along with H.G. Wells – one of the Founding Fathers of Science Fiction, and he was an enormously successful author back in a day when books didn’t just roll off the presses like rain.

He brought us 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in 80 Days. His most successful titles are still widely read today, and his work has inspired dozens of movies either directly or indirectly.

But . . . ?

Yeah. But.

I don’t know how to explain it other than to guess that I’m just spoiled. I love his imagination; I’m just not a big fan of his writing. The best I can explain is that – in my mind at least – he doesn’t tell a story so much as he tells what happened.

And that in itself wouldn’t be so bad except that he doesn’t really even do a good job of making me believe “what happened”.

Well Blaine, it is science fiction after all . . .

No! See that’s just it. I can believe him when he tells me about the wild submarine, the expedition to the earth’s core, or the “bet” to circumnavigate the globe in two and a half months. He’s got me. I’m in.

The problem is when he tries to tell me about the things that I should have absolutely no trouble believing in at all – that’s where he loses me.

Here’s one glaring example of what I’m talking about that I ran into while reading “The Mysterious Island” a few weeks ago. (The “five brickmakers on Lincoln Island” refer to the castaways who have become stranded on the island. In this passage, they are building an oven so that they can begin forging metal from raw materials to make tools and weapons.):

Generally bricks are formed in molds, but the engineer contented himself with making them by hand. All that day and the day following were employed in this work. The clay, soaked in water, was mixed by the feet and hands of the manipulators, and then divided into pieces of equal size. A practiced workman can make, without a machine, about ten thousand bricks in twelve hours; but in their two days work the five brickmakers on Lincoln Island had not made more than three thousand, which were ranged near each other, until the time when their complete desiccation would permit them to be used in building the oven, that is to say, in three or four days. - excerpt from “The Mysterious Island” (Chapter 13), by Jules Verne

Did you catch that? In case you missed it, here it is again in slow motion: “A practiced workman can make, without a machine, about ten thousand bricks in twelve hours”.

Okay. Now, let’s forget for a moment that, within just a few days of becoming stranded on the island the castaways have already learned how to make usable bows & arrows and have become proficient in hunting big game with them. Let’s push the “I Believe” button and submit that it is possible that one of the castaways could have knowledge & abilities eerily similar to the Professor from “Gilligan’s Island”.

So far, not so tough. I have a big imagination, and I want to believe.

But . . . A practiced workman can make, without a machine, about ten thousand bricks in twelve hours?

My imagination just broke. Why? Because that’s just not possible.

In case you don’t have a calculator, ten thousand bricks in twelve hours breaks down to about 833 bricks per hour, or 14 bricks per minute, or 1 brick every 4.3 seconds.

Non-stop.

For 12 hours straight.

Not possible.

By way of comparison, last week I had to mail out 81 letters. I timed myself on how long it would take me to affix address labels to them.

Bear in mind, I’m sitting in a comfortable chair at a clean desk with all my envelopes and labels ready to go right in front of me, and while I wasn’t trying to set a land speed record, neither was I sandbagging. Elapsed time: 9 min, 45 seconds. Or one envelope every 7.2 seconds.

So that’s what I mean when I say that Verne loses me on the things that he should have no trouble making me believe – ordinary, everyday, commonplace tasks.

The puzzling thing to me with this particular thing was, How could he have erred so badly?

Verne was an educated man who came from a privileged French family. His father was a successful lawyer and his family spent their summers at their country home on the Loire River. Verne studied law himself until he began writing.

Is it difficult to believe that Verne never made a brick in his life?

That perhaps he saw a “practiced workman” make a single brick in a matter of seconds at a country fair once and extrapolated his “ten thousand bricks in twelve hours” from that, never considering that it was simply impossible for any human being to maintain that kind of output for any sustainable length of time?

I don’t know. What I do know is that he apparently saw nothing unbelievable about it, which would suggest that even everyday tasks were science fiction to Verne.

So who cares right? Big deal.

Well, ask yourself this: Who is it that makes the decisions in our world on what is made, how much of it is made, and how fast it is made? Who decides how many animals a single man can slaughter in the course of a day, or how many brackets can be welded in an hour? Who makes decisions about what kind of food we should eat and how it should be produced?

Is it the people who actually know how to do these things, or is it, more possibly, people from privileged families who sit in Ivory Towers around lacquered mahogany boardroom tables? People who – like Verne – have only the merest suggestion about how to do any of the things that they have been charged to manage?

What if all of our important decisions regarding government, manufacturing, agriculture, medicine, etc., were being made by people just like that?

Yeah, maybe you’re right. It is just science fiction after all . . .

1 comment:

Rick said...

"At Garnkirk all the bricks are hand-moulded, which is a very simple process, and is executed with wonderful rapidity. An expert moulder, with the necessary assistants to keep him supplied with clay, and to remove the moulds as they are filled, will make from 4000 to 5000 bricks a-day."

The Industries of Scotland: Manufacture of Earthenware