Celestial Weasel (celestialweasel) wrote,
Celestial Weasel

Wait years for mildly ironic and knowing Victorian hot-air balloon based whimsy...

... and then two novels come along at once.

The first six pages of Against The Day have been about 'The Chums of Chance', and their airborne adventures on the way to the Chicago World's Fair. This is slightly arch and would have been more impressive had this not already been done this year in Andrew Drummond's 'A Handbook of Volapuk', which I have been remiss in not writing about...

The following contains mild spoilers, but too mild to cut :-)

I shall lazily copy and paste the Amazon synopsis: 'In April 1891, two matters greatly excite the inhabitants of Edinburgh: the decennial Population Census and the Annual General Meeting of the Edinburgh Society for the Propagation of a Universal Language. The General Secretary, Mr Justice, is a militant champion of the highly popular language 'Volapuk'; but he is locked in a battle for with Dr Bosman, a shameless apologist for 'Esperanto'. Mr Justice travels the east coast of Scotland in part conducting classes in the grammar and vocabulary of Volapuk. En route, he recruits a secret ally - an ill-behaved old gentleman who has promised to bring the majority over to the Volapuk camp. But, when the AGM does not deliver the expected victory, treachery is revealed. After an epic debate, some scones, and many cups of tea, Mr Justice decides to kidnap Dr. Bosman, teach him some grammar, and retreat with him to the Mavisbank Private Lunatic Asylum. Tragically, Bosman is the Census Officer for Edinburgh, and his absence during the Census brings unwelcome attention from the authorities'.

What this doesn't say is that the novel is essentially a fantasy; the old man is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Urquhart who is described as being, in some sense, dead, and Justice who is the first person narrator of most of the book has some unexplained magic powers, which he uses to force members of his society to practice Volapuk.

Although more clever than it was enjoyable, this was a fine book. The book includes Volapuk lessons interspersed with the narrative, much in the manner of ever Teach Yourself book you have ever seen, and even includes a short Volapuk dictionary at the end (again, come to think of it, in the manner of every Teach Yourself book you have ever seen).
It is one of those books that one is pleased has been done well because clearly once it has been done no-one can ever do it again. Artificial languages are precisely the right idealistic Victorian enthusiasm to send up and to hang a novel on, and Volapuk, as the 'number 2' artificial language that was superseded by Esperanto is precisely the right one to have as the narrator's enthusiasm. He talks enough about Solresol to rule out anyone deciding that they can write a novel about the 'number 3' artificial language. Having chosen the subject of artificial languages and set the novel in Scotland, adding Urquhart to the novel is a stroke of genius.
It is also interesting to note that Volapuk is traditionally ridiculed as being ridiculously complex but actually, from the lessons in the book, is not nearly as bad as one might expect, although certainly more complex than Esperanto.

The book as a whole, it has to be said, slightly arch and the pomposity / delusion of the unreliable narrators is somewhat heavy handed, and the fantasy elements beyond Urqhart being alive are slightly bizarre.

So, having read Mr Drummond's fine work can I bear to plough on with 'The Chums of Chance' (who, so Mr Pynchon informs us, are featured in 'The adventures of The Chums of Chance in Old Mexico') or shall I shelve it for the moment and hit the Stross?

Decisions decisions.

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