There is always a rough edge in tech, where afficionados tinker with half-known science. Nowadays it might seem that physics frontiers are out of reach of amateur enthusiasts, and that you need a doughtnut-shaped tunnel many kilometres long buried under the middle of Europe and gigajoules of energy to find out anything new, but there are still unfashionable and expensive things to do, like scan the sky for approaching asteroids, that are, I believe still more or less in the hands of communities of uncoordinated volunteers. MacDonald Harris has captured the spirit of the optimistic era before WWI when many of the protagonists of STEM fields were ‘gentleman amateurs’ messing about with magnetic fields and Leden jars, and parties of explorers set out to plant their white male feet on the sketchy bits of the map.
The topic in focus, meticulously researched and painted in thrillingly evocative detail, is ballooning, but not with hot air and burners, but with hydrogen, The delicate matter of managing buoyancy is tortuously clear; I felt it in my belly, and finally in every poetically-sensitve nerve. We spend this novel in the delightfully bizarre psyche of a brilliant scientist-explorer, who, being Swedish and of an obssessive, exacting character, deploys English with unnerving and at times slightly unnatural precision. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the ‘spiritual telegraph’ he builds to ‘listen to’ weather at a distance using a ‘Bell receiver’, a crystal of galena and a coiled aerial, and the Schadenfreude he feels on inspecting a rival method of steering a balloon to his own delicate scheme of trailing guide ropes, and finding it impracticable. It is typical of the major (and the book’s style generally) that he dislikes the idea of the zeppellin (which was soon to make deadly contributions to the war) since its cigar shape made it phallic, in contrast to the favoured feminine contours of the balloon.
All this geeky detail, while one of the book’s chief pleasures, is co-passenger to the love story that steers the protagonist and his crew through his reveries on the way to the pole. While the major is amusingly resistant to and contemptuous of feminism, he responds to te question of whether a woman can perform some technology related action with the observation that only experts can tell female and male skeletons apart; he cannot locate the impulse towards supporting gender equality anywhere but in physical science. The major is out of his depth in Luisa’s feminine world, but that Harris is able to invest this world with such depths as well as limits that are in fierce contention; borders of gender, sexuality and empowerment, makes for a novel that expands internally, beyond the journey that is its ostensible subject, beyond the limits of its narrator’s vision. Luisa’s intellect is formidable and she seems physically and psychologically indomitable. Savant, person of colour, owning her desires and engineering their fulfilment, she wears the costs of independence, the scars and worse. Harris stays respectfully out of her head.
I would like to talk about vegetarian ideas in The Balloonist. The major describes one of his passengers, the bluff American journalist Waldemer as a lover of machines, and efficiency. Part of this ongoing characterisation consists of: “An animal to him is something to be looked at through a gun sight, something that falls down and turns into meat when the exquisite mechanism of the trigger is actuated”
This reflection is recorded at the start of the novel, when meat-eating is not taking place. However, later Waldemer kills animals for meat, for example a polar bear, and once again the major reflects on this creature as a living being in extraordinary language: “Did the bear ask to show us that he was red inside? He wanted only to be left alone with his wife and children. Did we debate with him like rational creatures whether his life was more important than our own?”
The killing is described in a completely unheroic way. The bear is shot at a distance and seen lying dead on the ice close to his family.
As well as offering me food for thought as a feminist, vegan and physics-fan, Harris offers me rich nourishment as a linguist from cover to cover in this work! Here’s a random sample
Pennsylvania is freckled with iron mills, but muriatic acid was expensive. I was forced to resort to my own pocketbook to buy another demijohn, which had to be brought out from Harrisburg in a wagon. In any case, the ascension was postponed until the next day, when everything in fact worked faultlessly and Waldemer and I soared for an hour over various neat farms divided into rectangles, landing finally in a rye field. Professor Eggert followed us in a shay drawn by an intelligent mare that had learned a good deal about the movements of balloons and was able to trace out their landing places with hardly any guidance from the reins.
Phillip Pullman is a fan, and Harris’ influence is detectable in the former’s work. If you like Pullman, I daresay you will like this. I’m rounding up from 4.5 stars.
Oh I forgot to mention how funny the book is! It’s hard to believe that Harris found room for such hilarity, but he had me chuckling helplessly on the bus over many of the major’s thoughts. A multi-layered masterpiece indeed!