Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Spoiler Space: "Public Safety"

This is the story of mine that's closest to being really science fiction, in the sense of “fiction about scientists.” The reason that may not be immediately apparent is because the people who are actually doing science here are not the good guys but their only briefly-glimpsed antagonists.

Fiction, including SF, has a fraught relationship with science in general and scientists in particular. The image of the “mad scientist” has been around since the genre arguably was born, with Frankenstein, and for about a century after that most scientists were of the mad and evil (or at least misguided) variety. While we think of our time as being one of change, the change we experience is mostly from a state of affairs that didn't exist for very long – 78s to LPs to CDs to MP3s and so on. The 18th and 19th centuries saw real change, with communities and ways of life that had existed for hundreds and even thousands of years coming to an end. (This process is still happening, though it's at its tail end: my wife's grandfather started out working a mixed farm with horse-drawn tools – Mennonite farmers bought them at the auction when he died.) So it's not surprising that writers of the time viewed science and technology with suspicion, and were more worried about the risks of change than the possible rewards.

Both the 20th century and the United States were a lot more friendly towards technological progress, though, so in Golden Age SF we see the birth of the scientist hero, who saves the day by his knowledge, practicality and engineering skills. The funny result of this was that while there were still mad scientists – the trope was too vivid to die – they basically stopped being scientists in any real way. Unlike Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll, they were more interested in money, conquest, or simply sowing fear than in actually doing science (or else it was their less-intelligent assistants who were the villains.)

Getting back to this story – I was going to do it sooner or later – for a long time I had wanted to write something where a mad scientist did real mad science, an experiment that could only be conceived of and carried out by someone who had no respect for life or law. This idea dovetailed with two other things: an interest in the crazier side of the French revolution – a side which manifested itself, ironically enough, as a literal worship of Reason – and a New Yorker article that showed how flawed the “science” of fingerprint identification was. A visit to New Orleans helped to pull everything together and I had my idea: a society convinced that it was the most advanced and rational in history, blind to the degree to which its meticulously-worked-out beliefs were based on false premises, and prey to those that took its values to their logical extent by carrying out experiments completely free from conscience or compassion. Mad scientists, in other words, not mad because they lacked reason but because they had nothing but. The 19th century created the mad scientist; if the 20th century is anything to go on, though, we may have more to fear from the sane ones.

It's appropriate to be posting this on Canada Day, since this story has more Canadian in-jokes than any other. I'll leave the rest of them for you to spot, but most obvious is the character of Commandant Trudeau, who was named after the Prime Minister of the same name -- a figure who loomed large over my childhood and who had “reason over passion” as a motto (which also appears in the story, in Latin form.) Trudeau really did look a fair bit like Julius Caesar, or at least like the way Uderzo drew Caesar in Asterix.


Most of the other research I did this one came from online sources that I forgot to document, on topics such as the Jacques Hebert and the cult of Reason, how a turn-of-the-century electric battery would work and how one might sabotage it if one had a desire to, and of course the French Revolutionary calendar. Converting the day on which the story ends to our own calendar reveals a mildly amusing in-joke, though the last line of the story likely gives it away.


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