Thursday, May 12, 2011

I See Canals!

Shamans use exhaustion and drugs to take our minds to  spooky, kooky, other worlds. I'm a year of blogging out from three years of chronic exhaustion, much of which I spent in other worlds.  One of them was K. Maria de Lane's Mars. I thought I'd blog scholarly about it, but I Googled, and she's got a book! Erik kan haz? Kan! So, scholarly later. Imagination soaring towards madness now.

Imagination soaring into madness isn't the first thing we associate with those famous "Calvinists," the Boston Brahmins. Rather, they seem to have seeking to put their heads in a much more spiritual place, even if they ended up somewhere anatomically impossible instead.

"And this is good old Boston,/Home of the bean and the cod/Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots/And the Cabots talk only to God."

But popular culture sees  crust...

And detects too much flake. Exhibit for the prosecution:

Now, this map of the canals of Mars actually comes from an 1895 British Association publication (or, even more accurately, from a popular astronomy website) rather than Percival Lowell's slightly later work, but,  the rest of the crazy is all Lowell. Or Lowells. A lot of crazy. Perhaps more crazy than we've entirely taken cognizance of. (Does ending a sentence with a proposition signal that we're going full-bore crazy? It should.)

 Percival Lowell has been described as a "businessman," an "author," and an "amateur scientist." What he was, was a descendant of the Reverend John Lowle of the First Church of Newburyport at the mouth of the Merrimac in northern Massachusetts. Leaving aside the inspired research of family historians, we have reached the stem of the Lowells, although we might confuse their origins with that of the Praying Town of Wamsit upstream on the falls of the Merrimac,since nowadays it carries the name of "Lowell." This is because, we are told, that the Reverend's grandson, Francis, invested in the Boston Manufacturing Company. After Francis' time, the Company became parent to the Merrimac Manufacturing Company, which in some mysterious way came to be entangled with the Proprietors of Locks and Canals, and thus to enjoy the mouth of the Pawtucket canal that brought the entire 32 foot fall of the river to their factory. In honour of this, the town fathers renamed old Wamsit after the late Mr. Lowell. In short, the problem here is posed in terms of "business," when the answer is likely to be "real estate." In much the same way that when we talk about Percival Lowell as an author, we manage to avoid knowing that he was the cousin of the Putnams.  The self-made man must often have occasion to bless the fact that the world treats his mother's maiden name as a security question!

As a child of wealth, Percival needed a useful career. The family was already about science, for the Lowell Institute brought popular science to the Boston elite, while his brother Abbott was already President of Harvard College, where he promoted scientific education, discouraged African-Americans, homosexuals, and Jews, and (re)created the college dorm experience. The two are not unrelated. In Abbott's view of America, "melting pot" assimilation could only take place as long as minorities remained minorities until they disappeared into the American consensus. Explicitly this was made as an argument about the Irish; to make it out loud about Jews made Abbott sound like some benighted Holy Office official in the old Papal States, kidnapping Jewish children to be raised as Catholics; to make it about the Blacks that he quietly allowed to live in his new dorms would be to cross rhetorical boundaries Americans apparently did not want crossed. No Blacks were permitted in freshman halls, but "A few others who applied at long intervals, were so skillfully located in the Halls that no susceptible feelings were hurt." Now, consider the argument developed here, especially P. 268 and ff. I've seen it put more succinctly and nakedly that college dorms were supposed to introduce persons of "superior heredity" to the sisters of their room-mates (more "superior heredity"), but the Intertube is not yielding the reference. Even Blacks were welcome to contribute their superior heredity --at long intervals, and where no susceptible feelings were hurt.

Percival's contribution would surely be less obviously worthy than being  eugenic matchmaker/educator to the nation, incubator of the next generation of American greatness. Or not, if he could only find one to make! First up was an attempt to explain the wonders of the Far East to a Western audience. Something along the lines of Asiatics being too communally-minded to be advanced, I'm guessing. But foreign travel became exhausting, after a while. Flagstaff, Arizona, high in the mountain desert, where the peaks catch just enough rain to create an oasis of green in the crackling dry air, was a paradise.
If you live in the Okanagan, by all means, plan your event here. If not, why don't you?

And you could have a telescope, too. In the lens, the disc of Mars floats serenely, and just at the edge of vision you can see, sketched, the canals of Mars. The story that spills out of Lowell so desperately has the feverish intensity of a spirit walker. He tells us of the creation of the Solar System out of vast nebula, of the Sun kindling into existence out of the pressure of its own gravitational collapse. He tells us of archaic times, when it was warm, and the heat made Mars both warmer itself, and wetter. Of how the Sun gradually cooled, so that the earliest civilisations of Man are today located in the harsh deserts of Mesopotamia and Egypt. This cooling had its effect on Mars, too; but here, on a far larger scale than anything imagined on Earth, the engineers, the teachers, the elites of superior heredity, took action. On Mars there is a vast canal system that recirculates the snow that falls in the polar regions back to the vast farms of the equatorial zone each summer. And so the last, educated, pacifistic, scientific, refined, eugenical Martians hang on.

And so will Earth go! But in our last days, we may have a greater project yet. Percival has been up in an aeroplane lately, and seeing the Earth slip below him reminds him that there is yet one planet, even closer to the Sun. And we can reach Venus, the Planet of Love, of the Goddess of the Dawn, with our rockets, hurtling themselves into the air with the force of their reaction. Perhaps there will be savages there. Too bad for them. 

I'm reminded, oddly enough, of a book. 

Dinosaurs! On Venus! By Greg Manchess, from here. Specifically, S. M. Stirling's Sky People.

 I have my issues with Stirling, but this book is a fun read for those who like dinosaurs! On Venus! It's the next book, where Stirling brings us the canals of Mars, and then can't resist blowing up the setting at the end that... Hey, Stirling, you've got material this rich and you'd rather write this stuff? Seriously? Also, it has eugenics and mind control, which, well, let me talk a bit about what I didn't like about Sky People.

So here's a plot summary, so I don't have to. Now, my problem. Our hero, Lieutenant Vitrac has been sent on a one-way trip to Venus to staff the Free World Mission to the planet. They're hanging with the natives, doin' science. One thing that hasn't been sorted out yet is whether the natives are humans, or just look like it. (Spoiler: they are.) Then Marc gets himself sent across the continent to rescue some of the Commies who've gone astray, while, as it turns out, doing evil Commie stuff, although since you have to expect that sort of thing from Commies, it's a slap on the wrist and don't do it again at the end.)  Let's leave aside the part where the pretty Asian Commie girl gets raped to death by Neanderthals. (And by that I don't mean that I'm putting it aside. More like, "I'm never reading Stirling again on principle." But that apparently means that I'm some kind of narrow-minded prude whose opinion doesn't count, because no-one else does. Which is why I recommend the book, instead of saying what I think, which is, "ewh.")

So again, that opinion doesn't matter. The next one does. Lieutenant Marc finds out that the Commies are being held prisoner by some Neanderthals. Then he hooks up with some H. Sapiens cave people, and because he happens to be a linguist who speaks flawless Indo-European or something. Or maybe someone else is. Or it's Lithuanian. Anyway, the point is that these cave people are Proto-Indo-Europeans. And they have a princess. And when I say hook up, I mean, hook up. You see,

blond cave girl beats brunette cave girl. It's a scientific fact. Because blonde cave girls speak proto-Indo-European, which makes them Aryan. (Except for Raquel Welch, who is Hispanic. Oops. Looks like we'll need some new science over here.) So with Princess Girlfriend and his new buddies, Lieutenant Marc beats the Commie Neanderthals and rounds up some mind-controlled dinosaurs (enough already, Steve!) and treks back to base camp, which takes a couple years, by the end of which they've all learned Modern Ways, and Lieutenant Marc has some cute little blond toddlers running around.

Lieutenant Marc has finally proven that Venusians are real Homo Sapiens.

Steve? This is the scenario you've set up: a bunch of science guys and science girls (not necessarily together) have been sent on a one way mission to Venus to make their lives there. They've landed alongside the major city of the natives, and established good relations with them right after dropping out of the sky in some scary-ass reverse rocket manoeuvre. You know when, in real life, you'd find out that space people and Venus people can make babies together? How does five months after landing, when the bellies are showing, sound? (Educational material here.)

So here's what you're actually saying: "only Aryan girls are sexy." The hell, Steve? I know that you don't mean it;  but your subconscious sure has gone to a weird place, and I don't mean Venus. Or maybe I do mean Venus. You've strained and strained to create a real place out of fantasy, a place that will be more real in some ways than the world itself. No wonder, then, that you've got things on your canvass that you didn't mean to put there. Yucky things that you might want to tell the doctor about during your next checkup. But that's for you and him. And anyone who is still reading your books, which, me, not so much.

In a more complicated way, that's how Percival Lowell came to put canals on the face of Mars. The longing for fame, for success, for love, drives men to produces novels and do great things. And sometimes it leads to pseudoscience. It's all harmless enough until it turns into real policy. That being said, I don't think that Abbott Lowell wanted to hurt anyone with his restrictions on Freshman hall residencies. He wanted the people he didn't want to exist to pretend that they didn't exist. Blacks, Jews, and homosexuals are the scary, threatening, other. And the Lowells seem to specialise in being very, very frightened; perhaps because when they look inside, they see the other. Which, I know, we all do. But Lowells are supposed to be the exception.

That being said, if a Black or a Jew or a homosexual took care not to fit into the categories of Abbott's fantasies, they were welcome at Abbott's Harvard in real life. In books, author's fiat makes only Aryans sexy. In real life, it's not so, but we're allowed to pretend that fantasy takes precedence. And if, in real life, Venus will have none of these distinctions, they can be erased in the hot, liquid, miscible air. (Well, I guess, except for the "homosexual" one.) If Mars, pure and sandy, dry, and eugenical, was the past; Venus is the future. And we're going there on a rocket.

In summary, Percival Lowell needed to get some. Now I just have to read Lane and find out if I'm right.  

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