No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

LA Noir & The Age of Wonder

Los Angeles Noir collects a number of all-new noir short stories set in LA. Akashic Books is churning out similar books for other cities.
The stories, as one might imagine, are a mixed bag, and a number of the authors don't have a good grasp of what makes something 'noir'. Of course, Timthetoon called me on that the other day, and I can't easily summarize what does in fact make something noir fiction. But like pornography, I know it when I see it.
Anyway, some good, some bad. I quite liked Patt Morrison's foray into fiction. Some of the others may have been better stories -- Susan Straight's "The Golden Gopher" won an Edgar -- but I think Morrison's had exactly the right blend of dark wit, cynicism and an important secret that made it set off my noir meter the most.

Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder is a really excellent foray into the history of science. Holmes is best known for his biographical portraits of Romantic figures like Shelley and Coleridge. It's clear that his indefatigable research into these figures uncovered rather strange (to modern ears) connections with the leading scientific figures of the day. Holmes has thus assembled a picture of Romantic Era science as seen through a Romantic lens, which offers a really unique perspective. Holmes focuses on Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, and the Herschels: siblings Wilhelm and Caroline and Wilhelm's son John.

I've already alluded to Banks' monthslong stay on Tahiti, and Banks was not dilatory in sampling the local delicacies: "In the Island of Otaheite where Love is the chief Occupation -- the favourite, nay almost the sole Luxury of the Inhabitants -- both the bodies and souls of the women are moulded in the utmost perfection for that soft science."

Before Herschel discovered Uranus, he was primarily known as a musician, and was part of the Pump Room Band in Bath. The Pump Room figures prominently in Austen's Northanger Abbey, so it's strange thinking of a German-English astronomer wandering around behind the scenes in the novel.

In a footnote concerning Herschel's mirror-casting technology: "The use of horse-dung moulds for casting metal mirrors continued well into the twentieth century, with the 101-inch mirror of the Mount Wilson telescope in California, cast in Paris in 1920..."

Davy spent a lot of time sucking up laughing gas, sometimes dangerously so. Ostensibly investigating the effects of various gases for medical use. Lots of visiting dignitaries, from scientists to Coleridge, came by for the occasional nitrous party.

Speaking of medicine... "In September 1811 the Herschels' old friend Fanny Burney ... underwent an agonising operation for breast cancer without anaesthetic. It was carried out by an outstanding French military surgeon, Dominique Larrey, in Paris, and so successfully concluded that she lived for another twenty years. What is even more remarkable, Fanny Burney remained conscious throughout the entire operation, and subsequently wrote a detailed account of this experience ..."

Giovanni Aldini's interesting experiment with the electrical re-animation of the corpse of a hanged murderer. This was 1803, some 15 years before Frankenstein (though I guess electricity is not actually mentioned in the novel, it just became a staple of the many stage shows, and later films). As for Aldini, his ghoulish experiments aroused opposition and he was ultimately expelled from England.

I could go on for a long time in this vein. The book is crammed with interesting details that one would only find if one had, as Holmes apparently has, read absolutely everything from this period. And as I mentioned before, Holmes' expertise in romantic literature helps to provide an interesting perspective on the intersection of science and society in this period.
Tags: book, science

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