April 15, 2005

A Journey in Other Worlds

Nowadays, being rich means you become a celebrity, as if that were a career.

John Jacob Astor, the great-grandson of the famous fur trader and financier of the same name, was one of the wealthiest men on earth, with assets somewhere around $100 million (compared to J.P. Morgan, who had amassed a fortune of only $30 million). Astor was an inventor (of a bicycle brake, a storage battery, an internal combustion engine, a flying machine, a machine for removing surface dirt from roads, and an improved marine turbine engine) and also founder of the Astoria (later the Waldorf Astoria) Hotel in New York City. His pneumatic walkway invention won a prize at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and he was one of the first Americans to own a motor car. One of his dreams was to find a way to create rain by pumping warm air from the surface of the earth into the upper atmosphere. His fascination with science led him to begin writing his only novel, A Journey In Other Worlds when he was only 28 years old, and spent over two years writing it. He served in the Spanish-American War, and lost his life in the Titanic disaster, leading his wife to a lifeboat but returning himself to the sinking ship.

I'm almost through his book, and it's pretty fascinating. Besides the extrapolation of then-current science (most of which, understandably, is gotten badly wrong), the most interesting part is the difference in attitude and viewpoint compared to today. Piety vs Pragmatism runs as a theme throughout, and the main characters think and act as if the entire universe is already theirs in the ultimate extension of manifest destiny. Americans still possess that can-do spirit, although it's been softened somewhat over the last hundred years.

Astor’s novel, with descriptions of an antigravity device, aeroplanes, television and space travel was widely read and became a bestseller on publication in 1894. Set in the year 2000, the book is a futuristic novel of three utopias: a Christian heaven on Saturn; an Eden-like new world on Jupiter; and a technologically-oriented, businessman's paradise on Earth.

The writing isn't too terrible, and once in a while he really nails it.

"... they looked up at the sky. The Great Bear and the north star had exactly the same relation to each other as when seen from the earth, while the other constellations and the Milky Way looked identically as when they has so often gazed at them before, and some idea of the immensity of space was conveyed to them. Here was no change; though they had travelled three hundred and eighty million miles, there was no more perceptible difference than if they had not moved a foot."

For all we've accomplished, for all our collective greatness, we're still a humble speck in the grand scheme of things. It's good to be reminded of that once in a while.

Most of this came from here.

Posted by Ted at April 15, 2005 05:26 AM
Category: Square Pegs

That sounds like my kind of fiction.I'll have to add it to my to read list.I have to admit i don't read that much fiction though.The next on my list is Rama 2 by Arthur C. Clark.My modus is usually factory service manuals or mechanical text books,books on outdoorsy stuff,machines,rocket mags,car mags,etc.etc......

Posted by: Russ at April 15, 2005 11:02 AM

That last quote really nails it, like you said. Thanks for posting it! :)

Posted by: Tuning Spork at April 16, 2005 01:54 PM
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