Sunday, June 25, 2017

so long as we do not interfere with the traffic - Kipling rides "With the Night Mail"

The real masterpiece of Actions and Reactions, I thought, was “With the Night Mail,” a science fiction story about a mail run from London to Quebec in a lighter-than-air craft powered by a magic ray.  The narrator is a journalist along for the ride; the text is his article, written, apparently, for some kind of aircraft trade journal.  Commenter Katy yesterday called the story “steampunk as written by John McPhee,” which is just right.  We learn everything we wanted to know about oranges or Wyoming geology or futuristic aircraft – more than we want, honestly – as told by the men who grow oranges or geologize in Wyoming or operate those dirigibles.  Unlike the diligent McPhee, Kipling just makes it all up.

The eye detects no joint in her skin plating save the sweeping hair-crack of the bow-rudder – Magniac's rudder that assured us the dominion of the unstable air and left its inventor penniless and half-blind.  It is calculated to Castelli's "gull-wing" curve.  Raise a few feet of that all but invisible plate three-eighths of an inch and she will yaw five miles to port or starboard ere she is under control again.

Etc., etc., sure, why not.  Kipling approaches the unreadable.  This is his feat of technical heroism akin to the great pilots and engineers about whom he writes.  Just as they approach disaster during storms and so on, Kipling approaches pure gibberish.  The art is two-fold, at least; first, continuous touches like that bit about the fate of the inventor – imagery, character moments, little ingenuities.  Little handholds to delight the baffled reader. Then second, his total commitment to his concept, to the fantasy world he has created, a commitment rare, in my experience, among science fiction writers, who are seldom quite so unfriendly to their poor readers.

This commitment is clearest once the future story has ended but the actual story continues with a series of announcements, advertisements, a book review, and an advice column.  Although the spirit is comic, none of the extra material is exactly meant to be a joke.  It is all part of the commitment, part of Kipling’s unwillingness to leave the world he has invented.  He is like Tolkien working up Elvish.

Is this meant to be a joke?  (I am back in the “article,” the main text):

She is responsible only to the Aërial Board of Control – the A. B. C. of which Tim speaks so flippantly.  But that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons of both sexes, controls this planet.  “Transportation is Civilization,” our motto runs.  Theoretically, we do what we please so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies.  Practically, the A. B. C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of private administration on its shoulders.

“With the Night Mail” is not just science fiction but Utopian fiction, with a rather specialized Utopia appealing to writers who think the engineers should run things.  What looks like a conceptual, idea- driven piece is in fact pure self-expression.  Kipling creates a world in which he would like to live and then lives in it for a bit.  He is – or would become? – sufficiently aware of the dangers of his Utopia that a few years later he would write a sequel upending the whole thing.

One odd feature of the story is the use of mail delivery as the epitome of technocratic heroism, but I have just read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little first novel, Night Flight (1931), which is specifically about the heroism of nighttime mail runs by early aviators, and boy does Saint-Exupéry mean it, so Kipling was not being idiosyncratic but prescient.


  1. I completely understand the urge to write like this, to fill the page with technical details and jargon and to be practically incomprehensible to lay readers. If you read enough nautical literature, for example, you find that there is a certain tone running through most of it that comes directly from Two Years Before the Mast. The sailing-speak in Melville, in the accounts of the Age of Exploration, in the more recent books of Bill Tillman, etc, all read like Dana's book, heavy on the technical terms and merciless to the uneducated reader. I can find stuff like this to be highly attractive, which I think is also one of the pleasures to be had from certain styles of science fiction. I keep meaning to find that older post of yours where you talk about the Kipling story that centers around the repair of a ship's steam engine; I really mean to read that story, as it looks like this same sort of fun.

  2. From what I have read, not that much I admit, this seems fairly typical for science fiction of Kipling's era. Lots of stuff about how things work, machines or societies/utopias. And just as difficult to read.

  3. Yes, nautical literature, exactly. Restless Kipling, having mastered the sailing ship, the steam engine, the trained elephant, the gasoline engine, and the beehive, must make up new machines to study and operate.

    I suppose, in Kipling's era, even something like the steam engine or dirigible is new enough that just describing how it works - or how the next version will work - is a good challenge for a writer's art. Certainly a challenge me to read.

  4. Then second, his total commitment to his concept, to the fantasy world he has created, a commitment rare, in my experience, among science fiction writers, who are seldom quite so unfriendly to their poor readers.

    I'm curious as to what you mean by "a commitment rare ... among science fiction writers." I've read a ton of sf, and I find sf writers in general very committed to the worlds they create. Are you simply saying they don't spend a lot of time laying out technical details? Because that's not commitment, that's bad writing, and sf collectively pretty much got it out of its system by WWII (though individual writers kept it up, and John Campbell was happy to publish them).

    When I say "bad writing," of course, I'm talking about fiction; I don't mean to dis the Great God McPhee, though I confess I am not one of his acolytes and tend to skim over the long passages of technical detail in his writing.

  5. This Kipling story may well be an example of bad writing. It is a masterpiece, but perhaps a masterpiece of model railroading fiction.

    My experience with science fiction writers has not shown such strong commitment. It is full of satire and meta-fiction. Even setting aside Sturgeon's Law, most good science fiction works are a lot more inviting to their readers. The authors explain more, or make use of narrative devices that allow a way in, which I suppose is what Kipling's journalist is supposed to be, but it only barely works.

    And they're rarely as interested in their created world as such. There is less wallowing in it. They instead try to, for example, tell a story, or argue a point, or crack jokes.

    I know, we can all think of classic exceptions. Kipling would have loved Rendezvous with Rama.

  6. Again, you seem to be equating "commitment" or "interest" with "wallowing in detail to the point of repelling readers," which I find very odd. Are non-sf writers not committed to the world they write about (the "real world," if you will) unless they do the same? I would have thought commitment to an imagined world meant imagining its details well enough you can write about the world convincingly, without boring your readers with all those details. Is Tolkien committed to Middle Earth in the Silmarillion but not in Lord of the Rings?

  7. I mean the interest is in the world as such more than what can be done with it artistically or ethically or what have you. The imagined world, or vehicle, is itself so interesting to some set of readers that others will likely be repelled. The distinctions between the Tolkien books are exactly what I mean. Someone else usually writes the source book for the role-playing game.

    I am not committed to the word "commitment," though. What would be a better choice? Few fantasy or science fiction writers bother with such a thing as The Silmarillion. What's a way to describe that impulse?

  8. Hmm. The encyclopedic impulse? I guess I'm having a hard time telling whether you're being ironic with your use of "commitment" or "interest" -- i.e., whether you actually mean "succumbing to an impulse to show one's work/provide way too much backstory/offload an infodump in a way that's often fatal to the interest/merit of the work," in which case I simply missed the irony and will withdraw to get my antennae readjusted. I assumed you meant those words seriously, as approbation, and thus were dissing sf writers as not being committed to the worlds they create; since I have ancient impulses to leap to the defense of sf against attacks from people who don't read it much (even though, ironically, I myself haven't read it much for decades now), I may have leaped to conclusions, gone off half-cocked, shot from the hip, and engaged in other retrograde activities.

  9. Yes, a kind of encyclopedism.

    I mean the words I have used seriously, but not as approbation. More like suspicion. It is common now for people to praise a writer's "world-building," but I wonder about the limits of the practice. In a non-SF context, the "late" Henry James novels I have been reading are leading to the same questions - does the world created in The Golden Bowl become too hermetic or uncompromising? Too airless. This particular Kipling collection is especially airless.

    Maybe a total commitment to a vision is too much. Allow some irony, some compromise. Let the seams show. Let some air in. I don't know.

    In the case of this Kipling story, I am amazed at what he did, but also hope that he never did it again. Maybe I should have included the list of books. Kipling makes a fake bookstore ad, with all of the books related to aviation. I expected it to be humorous. It is not.

    As a matter of taste, mine run much more to Michael Moorcock than to Tolkien in fantasy, and to Dick in science fiction, writers whose worlds have seams.

    Anyway, if the shot was from the hip, good shot. This was useful.

  10. "I expected it to be humorous. It is not." Yes, that's what's so odd about "With the Night Mail." It seems like it ought to be a parody of something, but as far as I can tell it's not. As for the end bits, the cutthroat competition between the airplane industry and the dirigible industry is mildly amusing, but not more than mildly. These are the sections that you would normally skip if you were a real reader, so most writers would make them comic as a reward to you for reading through all that - like the newspaper clippings in War With the Newts, or the index at the end of The Circus of Dr. Lao. Kipling seems to be so committed (that word again) to writing a realistic Article of the Future that he puts the sections in but gives you no inducement to actually read them.

  11. In the case of this Kipling story, I am amazed at what he did, but also hope that he never did it again.

    Ah, then we're on the same page! I too can admire the display, and I too would not wish it to be repeated. (Cf. Finnegans Wake.)

  12. The Circus of Dr. Lao! I had forgotten all about that book. A full sixth of it, that index, is devoted to a jokey dismantling of the novel. What fun. Good example.

    Perhaps another analogy would be with certain musical performances, mostly jazz, that I have experienced where I was amazed startled and stupefied by the artist's complete technical mastery of his instrument, but wondered when he would deign to play some music.

  13. The sequel to "With the Night Mail", "As Easy as A.B.C.", is my mother's favorite Kipling story. The collection it comes from, "A Diversity of Creatures" is my favorite among Kipling's books. "Debits and Credits" might be better, and "Limits and Renewals" expand the field of fiction farther, but "A Diversity of Creatures" is the most fun to read.

  14. That book is next! I am genuinely excited.

  15. Next chronological Kipling, I mean, since I already read Rewards and Fairies. Who knows when I will actually read it.