Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bad British History, Again

A prerequisite for good alternate-history is good history; as Ken MacLeod says, the trade secret of sci-fi is history. So I wasn't too impressed by this, of James Nicoll's, who really ought to know better.
Would it be funny to do an AH where WWI never happened and the old order never fell, one in which it took decades for the British Space Explorers to grudgingly admit that one does need a vacuum suit on the Moon?
Well, perhaps in a snarky blog comment. It wouldn't hack it as literature, though. Consider the timelines; by the time the British Space Explorers set out, who would be the scientific-technical intelligentsia who ran the project?

Clearly, the same people whose minds the aviation and electronics industries in the original timeline relied on; Sydney Camm, Alan Turing, Frederick Handley-Page, Roland Beamont, Maurice Wilkes, Frank Whittle, Robert Watson Watt, R.V. Jones, among others. Suddenly it don't look so quaint, nicht wahr? Of course, you can handwave frantically that none of it ever happened without the first world war, but it wasn't as if technological and scientific progress wasn't quick before WW1. Further, it's been done: by Stephen Baxter.

Of course, it's based on a fundamentally crappy folk-history view of the Scott expedition; no, they didn't think "using dogs was cheating", and they didn't load them on the sledges (Scott didn't want to use them at all, no?). In fact, one of the critical flaws in the plan was that the high-tech element, the motor sledges, broke down. They had been the long pole in the tent, the critical path; so long as they worked, they could get lots of stuff south quickly. An overreliance on unproven hot-ship gadgetry doesn't fit with the folk history, hence forgotten.

Another issue was that the Royal Geographical Society's plan for the expedition was dominated by the real scientists, who took up a large chunk of the cargo with their research station. In fact, they didn't want Scott's romantic mission to the pole to come at all - they had science to do. The crazy romantics were actually Amundsen's party, who had nothing on their agenda and loading scale except the dash south.

It was only the profoundly weird character of Clements Markham as chairman of the Society who insisted on the polar mission being included, and on many of its odd features. We are short of a good biography of this man, who personified the kind of pompous imperial incompetence long baked into the stereotype James was looking for. A curious romantic-rightwing exploration fanboy, who surrounded himself with polar curios, he maintained a sort of anti-rational, Straussian devotion to heroic myth and believed himself to be deceiving the scientists into supporting his higher mission. The scientists, one presumes, had the opposite feeling that his nonsense was only supportable insofar as it provided them with transport.

Markham had been responsible for a rocambolesque fiasco in South America, when he was in charge of an expedition intended to collect quinine-producing trees for cultivation in India; unfortunately he disagreed with the botanists and went into a sulk (he would today have been described as a professional drama queen), refusing to listen to them, and also managed to offend the only two Spanish-speakers he thought to bring. The upshot was that he transplanted several thousands of the wrong trees. Preparing the Scott expedition, he paid around 1 per cent of the whole budget to his handsome secretary for nine months' work.

He died in his bed in 1916, having set fire to the bedclothes with the candle he was using to read; the killer detail, literally, being that the bedroom had electric light. That might seem to bear out James Nicoll's point, but the significance of Markham is that he was a man out of time, constantly trying to live in the 1850s of his youth although he had spent the 1850s studiously trying to be an Elizabethan. (If you wish to know more about him, you're strongly advised to read "I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination" by Francis "Backroom Boys" Spufford.)


Anonymous said...

Actually I was more influenced by the exploration of the North West Passage and how hard it was to convince the British that one could not provide the sailors with the same kit for both the tropics and the far north.

The Franklin Expedition is far more iconic for a Canadian like myself than the Scott expedition. I will admit that they took the best technology of the day with them (the problems with it weren't anything that the explorers could have known about) but Franklin as leader was obviously and predictably an awful choice, based on his previous experiences in the north.

The exploration of the Canadian north and the search for the mythical North West Passage [1] was a rich tapestry of self-delusion and death by avoidable misadventure.

1: That is, the one they hoped to find, not the one we actually have.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the clarification. There's much I didn't know here.

Anonymous said...

A Canadian, though, should also be aware of vastly more successful British explorers like Parry, James Clark Ross, Rae, McClintock, and Richardson... none of whom fit with the "incompetent Brits" view either.

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