I’ve been at a loss for a while about what to write, which is sad when your blog is only quarterly. There really hasn’t been anything particularly scandalous going on in the SF world. I mean, SURE one could remark about how incestuous it looks that Mary Robinette Kowal simultaneously was elected president of the SFWA and got the SFWA’s award, the Nebula, but I’ve got award fatigue. Maybe there’s Scalzi’s weasel-worded tweet crowing about how successful his side has been and claiming that the puppies have gotten nowhere in their careers, but you know, I’ve been following the construction photos of the mansion that Larry Correia has been building on the top of that mountain he bought, the one with a gaming room bigger than Scalzi’s apartment (I assume he’s living in an apartment – it would be a bit creepy to seriously investigate). But again, just because we live rent-free in his head doesn’t mean we have to occupy the space.
I still haven’t managed to dig up the stories for the “Three Stories that convinced me to give up Asimov’s” thing I’ve been planning, although I found a bonus story in the process. But I will be writing a piece about Human Wave Science Fiction, it just hasn’t gelled yet.
But considering the final post in so many blogs is a post that begins “I’m sorry I haven’t posted in so long….” I figured I’d break that particular cycle. But I am going to write about something completely different. Mark Twain.
How much Twain have you actually read? I mean, if you’re old enough, you probably got Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn in high school before the SJWs in the education system declared them nekulturny. Maybe you read The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which is harmless enough. No, I found a free kindle book a while ago and started reading, and it was an epic journey, literally, as well as for a reader.
I am speaking of The Innocents Abroad. This is Twain’s travelogue from a trip he took in 1867, two years after the Civil War, touring the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. It is a very long book, but then, it was a very long trip. And travel in those days was not as simple as hopping a jet to Milan for the weekend. This was a tremendously extensive expedition. And one of the unique features of it was that the passengers had the exclusive use of a steamship for their travels, rather than connecting on various commercial routes. This allowed for side trips, and re-uniting with the ship at different ports later. This alone was a fascinating insight into how travel worked in those days. (At one point towards the end of the trip the ship had to stop to reload coal. It took eleven days!) This is the kind of travel where you have to make arrangements to maintain your household for months before you leave. When the ship, the Quaker City, left New York, it took a full week to reach the Azores.
When they reached the Azores, that’s your first taste of how wildly divergent cultures and values were between places in the pre-internet, pre-telephone, pre-intercontinental telegraph days. And one of the most striking things throughout the whole adventure is how eager the locals are, in virtually every locale, to bamboozle and swindle travelers. This from their first anchorage:
A swarm of swarthy, noisy, lying, shoulder-shrugging, gesticulating Portuguese boatmen, with brass rings in their ears and fraud in their hearts, climbed the ship’s sides and various parties of us contracted with them to take us ashore at so much a head, silver coin of any country.
It was also the first of many times various “guides” placed the travelers astride donkeys and drove the poor creatures at breakneck speeds through the city streets.
They continue to Gibraltar, touring the inside of the rock which has been made into an impregnable fortress, where they were assailed constantly by locals telling them an innane and pointless story about a nearby hillside.
From there, they journey by train to Paris. Twain has many marvelous things to say about France and Paris under Napoleon III. It is well run, neat, orderly, sumptuous, and the parts that aren’t are undergoing a program of urban renewal that actually benefits the property owners in those districts. The World’s Fair is also taking place in Paris at that time, and the wonders on display would have taken Twain more days to take in than he had. So he contented himself on watching people, visitors from all over the world.
But the scourge of professional guides continued even in ultimately civilized Paris, where the one the hotel arranged for them continued to try to steer them to shops he had arrangements with. Getting the fellow to take them to the Lourve was an all-day affair. Twain and his companions began their campaign of psychological warfare in resistance to these fellows then. For example, from then on all guides were named “Ferguson” as far as they were concerned, which greatly confused the guides. And the real fun began in Italy, where we shall arrive anon.
Of note should be his visit to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, considering how it has been in the news of late due to the fire. I can not do justice to his descriptions of its magnificence with an excerpt here. Although this is also where the tremendous inventory of bogus religious artifacts they encounter on their travels begins. Again, in the pre-information age, where extensive travel is a rarity, it’s simply not possible for people to compare notes and discover that there are enough “nails from the true cross” to build an entire house. Twain, however, kept extensive notes. He was, after all, a newspaperman.
The sheer scale of the palace at Versailles impressed him, and his description of same impressed me. He has an amazing way with words, as you would expect. but even more breathtaking is the picture he paints of a lake in Switzerland, where the mountains run directly down into the water.
They make their way down through Italy to Rome, where he sees many works of art, and the Vatican, the scale of which is hard to wrap your head around. And every guide and every local seems to want to tell them about something that was designed by “Michel Angelo.” (That he wrote that way makes me wonder if our spelling Michelangelo is a corruption.) But Twain is rather dismissive of the “Old Masters,” and expresses a greater appreciation for the Romans.
Well, not entirely. He goes on for a bit imitating what he thinks modern newspaper reviewers would make of a Roman gladiatorial show at the Colosseum. The Innocents Abroad is not just a dry travelogue, but is full of social commentary of the age and dry and sarcastic wit.
In Genoa, most of the professional guide scams center around Columbus (Colombo in their local parlance). The game for the guides is to leave their charges wonderstruck. But Twain and his friends have really advanced their game when it comes to fighting back, feigning ignorance about what they’re being shown and flustering “Ferguson” with irrelevant questions and deliberate misunderstandings. When taken to see a letter supposedly written by Columbus, the Doctor started complaining about the penmanship.
“I don’t care who it is! It’s the worst writing I ever saw. Now, you mustn’t think you can impose on us because we are strangers, We are not fools, by a good deal. If you have got any specimens of penmanship of real merit, trot them out!– and if you haven’t, drive on!”
Another gambit was to ask if whatever famous personage they were being told about was dead. I’m not sure who the Doctor was, but as a traveling companion, he must have been an absolute hoot. They were taken to see a bust of Columbus:
“Ah, what did you say this gentleman’s name was?”
“Colombo!–ze great Christopher Colombo!”
“Christopher Colombo–the great Christopher Colombo. Well, what did he do?”
“Discover America!–discover America! Oh, ze devil!”
“Discover America. No–that statement will hardly wash. We are just from America ourselves. We heard nothing about it. Christopher Columbo–pleasant name–is–is he dead?”
And so on. They ran that man ragged trying to find something that would impress them. They were just determined not to show it.
Twain also makes many asides to put the places he’s visiting in historical context. Venice, when he is there, is a dying city. But he recalls us to when it was a thriving port, and the gateway to the world. And with that, he tells of the corruption and criminality that ran it. He also throws a little cold water over one of the most historic romances of Venice, if, by a little cold water, you mean the flow of Niagara Falls.
They visit Pompeii. He paints an amazing picture of what it was like, and the disaster that befalls it, and then contrasts it with his current day, and the steam engine waiting for them blowing its whistle calling for them to board and leave this dead city. He reflects on the fleeting nature of fame, and projects how current fame of his era will, 5000 years hence, be reflected in an encyclopedia in 5868. I think our technology has outstripped his projection. It only took 150 years for Wikipedia to corrupt information about the past.
Another aspect of travelling we do not reflect upon, but which figures often in this tale is disease. Cholera is epidemic. Some of the places they visit force travelers into fumigation rooms. And indeed, later Twain falls ill in Damascus. When they visited Greece, they were not allowed to land. The authorities insisted they stay at anchor for 11 days before anyone would be allowed ashore. Well, our travelers thought this was entirely unreasonable and a waste of their time, and Twain and his three friends wanted to see the Acropolis, so they endeavored to sneak ashore in the dead of night, ascend the mountain, see what they could and return to the ship without being caught. It was an intense enterprise, which for some reason also involved stealing all the grapes they could manage from the Vineyards they passed. That struck me as odd. They were almost caught, not by the port authorities, but by the guards each vineyard seemed to employ against raids by the other vintners.
The Quaker City then sailed up into the Black Sea, where they visited Odessa and eventually managed to have an audience with the Czar of Russia.
And then, it is finally the part of the trip where they go on their pilgrimage to the holy land. Twain and a number of the Pilgrims choose the overland route, which takes them away from the Quaker City for an extended period. Fortunately, instead of the usual lame guides and scammers, they have enlisted a crew of disciplined and hard-working Dragomen, Arab provisioners and guides, who make the trip as comfortable as possible. Although this IS the middle east in 1867, so there is a limit to that. The Tents are nice, and they get them up and down very quickly, but the schedule is grueling, the desert sun pounding, water can be difficult to come by, and their mounts, well, the less said about the poor beasts the better.
This part of the trip is a revelation. the path takes them through Syria, and Lebanon, from the Galilee to the Dead Sea. They visit Beirut and Damascus, and the sites of battles and holy events from 1800 years prior to their trip. the end of the trip being their arrival in Jeruselem, which is choked with more holy sites than a man can wrap his mind around. The history is thick in this area, and Twain puts it all in context. But the thing that impresses him the most in this context is the scale. All of these world-shaping historical events have taken place in an area that would fit well inside nearly any of the states of America. Biblical Kings were barely tribal leaders, lording over tiny kingdoms.
But the present day for Twain travelling this area is little different than it was nearly two millennia earlier. Time has stood still in the middle east. Although he didn’t do it directly, comparing the wonders on display at the World’s Fair in Paris and the mud and dung huts people lived in, the poverty was grinding. And yet, there was a lack of industriousness that virtually assured advancement would never happen. They were beset constantly and from all quarters by beggars demanding “Bucksheesh”, everyone wanted a piece of them, and expected it, even in those places where they looked at the travelers with unbridled hate in their eyes for their being Christians.
Twain’s tale differs greatly from many of the Travelogues that came before. Those books had been studied in depth by the members of the expedition in order to prepare. One was so embellished by tales of the author confronting Bedouin raiders with his pistols that all of the party is armed, which was not unusual at the time. They had no need of them. Although that did not stop some of the local sheikhs from assigning armed escorts to their party to guard them, for which they had to pay. Twain has nothing good to say about many of these prior works, seeing as they were probably written to romanticize the trips, and substitute for actually traveling to the region, rather than being actual, useful guides. At one point, he talks about how virtually every spring and water hole is described in loving a lavish detail as “Fountains”:
“If all the poetry and nonsense that have been discharged upon the fountains and the bland scenery of this region were collected in a book, it would make a most valuable volume to burn.”
The man can snark.
He does not have much good to say about some of the more devout of his fellow travelers either though. They are rather ardent souvenir collectors. At every chance they seem to be chipping off some little chunk of some important artifact, so that they will have a piece of it to take home, or writing their names and towns on places they’ve been. Although he did note that one enterprising fellow was merely labeling a fistful of pebbles as being from the places they’d been. We still see this kind of practice today, but if it had continued at the pace these termites kept up, History might have been eliminated by the present day.
Jerusalem though, had a profound effect on him. Even with the typical fakery surrounding all the religious artifacts they had seen on the trip, this was indeed the legit place were the Crucifixion happened. Twain puts it all in the proper historical perspective.
Eventually though, they do have to leave Jerusalem, and make their way to the coast and rejoin the Quaker City. They then stop in Cairo, Egypt, and see the Pyramids. Back then, people climbed them. In fact, burly Arabs helped them, practically throwing tourists up the steps. He was most impressed by the Sphinx. And the Sphinx proved impervious to the hammers of the Pilgrims, yielding no souveniers.
The trip back, relying on ocean currents, takes them first to Bermuda, and then finally back to New York. This journey takes several WEEKS to accomplish. Think on that in this age of Jets. This portion was rather uneventful because as they traversed the Mediterranean, no place would allow them to land, Quarantine, don’t you know.
This was a fascinating, and rather long read. But what does it have to do with science fiction, you might ask. Certainly at the time, it was purely non-fiction, objectively, it still is. But in a way, it is time travel to the past. Not only do we see the world of 1867, but we see it through the eyes of a man of that era. And though those eyes, we also see the past of two millennia ago. Both eras are almost like visiting an alien world, they are so different from how we live today, but we can also relate to them because they are our history as well. By understanding the past, we can understand ourselves better, learn how we got here, and learn what things change, and what things stay the same.
Although to really learn from this, you have to approach it with an open mind, rather than just searching for those things that confirm your prejudices. I could fully see one of my contemporaries from the opposite side of the aisle seizing upon Twain referring the the land south of Lebanon as Palestine, and shame himself using that to support anti-Semitic boilerplate arguments. But Twain never refers to any of the people there as Palestinians. There are Arabs, Bedouins, and Jews there. And none of the countries seem to have the cohesiveness to be called a nation-state. Even the various religious sects seemed to have reached a detente over the handling of the religious sites. Maybe they have something to teach us there.
I am not going to link to the kindle edition of this book that I read. There are several available, since the book has long since passed into the public domain. The one I read had a formatting issue that caused the entire text to be rendered in center justification (and this is not the first time I’ve run into that with a public domain work). I was able to fool my Kindle Keyboard into left justifying it after briefly detouring into the dictionary, but my tablet is too smart to fall for that trick. It also lacked the copious illustrations of the original.