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Steampunk at ConVergence 2011: Part One: The Nautilus.

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July 2011
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Today was the second day of ConVergence, the big Minneapolis Sci-Fi and Fantasy convention.  First time I have attended.  I have been enjoying much of what there is to offer.  There was an excellent presentation this morning by two gentlemen explorers with wonderful costumes, who had done work reconstructing the Nautilus from Verne’s description in the book.  Mostly good — especially the engines — I only had one quibble and that was in the raised placement of the spar.  This was done on the basis of the description of the hole in the Scotia being 4 feet below the water line and Nemo’s claim that they were just floating on the surface when the Scotia ran into them by accident.  Add to this account, the engineering argument against Arronax’s (or maybe Nemo’s) statement that on the surface only a tenth of the ship was above water.  The “spindle” shape of the hull, the gentleman said, would float higher in the water.  Now, I am inclined to think that could be adjusted to any depth desired by means of ballast.

Now, I thought he was saying that the hull would ride higher in the water, yet he thought it impossible for the hole in the Scotia to be where it was if the spar were centered at the front of a conical hull.  The hull is 8 meters in diameter or approximately 25 feet.  Now, there is a problem with the translation of the measurements in the English translations of Leagues.  Mercier Lewis simply used the same numbers and changed “meters” to read “yards.”   So, did Verne actually write that the hole in the Scotia was four feet below waterline?  But let’s say it was.  if the spar were at the center of the conical front of the “cigar-shaped” vessel, and this center was four feet (or shall we say one meter) below waterline.  Then the Nautilus’s waterline was running at the 3 meter mark approximately.  That is, if the radius of the circle is 4 meters at its widest point, then the centerline of the cigar sits at 4 meters depth.  If the spar was four feet (or one meter) below waterline when the Scotia ran into it, then the Nautilus was floating with 7/8ths of its body submerged.  This is not the 1/10th that Nemo states, but it is reasonably close, and as I said, Nemo could choose to float at any degree of height above the water up to its maximum, at which the spar would, I imagine be at the waterline, or a few feet below it.

So, I do not understand the presenter’s reasoning, even thought I have complete respect for him and admire his drawings.  It was the best organized presentation I have seen, and the bits of engineering knowledge were interesting to know.  The presenters were occasionally disparaging about Verne’s “getting the engineering wrong,” and yet I thought they did a very good job of showing that in fact he got it right, but just didn’t describe it all perfectly.  They concluded that he did not seem to be writing from a three-dimensional sketch of the submarine.

One objection was that electrical batteries could not be made powerful enough to propel such a vessel at 50 knots for 20,000 leagues without refeuling or replacement, and the 50 knot speed was unrealistic.  I am always amazed that people take Verne’s writing to be intended as scientific education.  I doubt if it ever was.  The recitation of fish species in Leagues cannot be intended to really educate the reader.  It is central to the development of the character of Conseil and the cataloging way he looks at nature. The recitation might have inspired some readers to study marine biology, but the novel itself could hardly be seriously considered educational.  So, the fact that he includes fantasies of engineering that we have not been able to build ourselves in the subsequent century, is rather beside the point.  If we had built such things, they would cease to serve as fantasies of engineering.  They were supposed to be fantasies, but using a great deal of realistic descriptive exposition in order to make the fantasy work better — to make it seem real to the reader.

I wonder that they did not consider that Nemo might have run engines on steam generated by electricity — the same principle used by nuclear submarines.  A powerful enough heat source and efficient enough engine could feasibly (if fantastically) have give enough power to move the sub at 50 knots.  The engineer-critic of literature wants all the engineering to be accurate and feasible, or at any rate complete.  Verne leaves out much (thank goodness for the sake of the narrative), but what he does give us makes his book so spectacular.

The desire to criticize science-fiction writers when they “get the science wrong” is a strange sort of criticism.  But as the readership of science fiction has become more and more versed in the sciences in schooling, the willing suspension of disbelief is harder if an author neglects known facts.  A lazy sci-fi writer who doesn’t bother to calculate the volumes and displacement and workings of a fantastical ship will be pounced upon for it.  For engineers or those savvy in science, the novel may be spoiled.  We might see a similar breaking of that suspension of disbelief if an author set a book in a real-life setting and the people who actually live in the place find mistakes in his geography.

My own fictional Yorkshire in the Emily Glass books could easily run afoul of such criticism.  Someone might quibble over my maps of the water levels, or over geological and geographical features of the dale country that do not match up with the real world.  But from my point of view, it is fiction.  The elements of realism are added for a particular effect.  The element of the changed seashores is also a means to an end and nothing is served by trying to justify details with scientific data.  Yet, somewhere, sometime, I suppose my books will be subjected to the same scrutiny.  I only hope I can do it as well as Jules Verne.


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