, , ,

On the day I learned of the death of one of my favourite writers, E.L. Doctorow, whom I talk about here, I thought it appropriate to dig out this review of his excellent novel, The Waterworks. The review first appeared in Vector 180, August/September 1994:

waterworksWhat is it we are doing in science fiction? To Gernsback it was didactic, a dramatised lesson in the value of technology. As sf exploded beyond the Gernsbackian continuum, it became a vast, intergalactic, romantic adventure. By the New Wave it had become a mode of literary experimentation, and now, if anything, it is part of the postmodern feedback loop. In other words, sf is what we make it to be. But if one thing holds true throughout every metamorphosis of the literature, then it is a concern with change. SF celebrates, announces, decries, records but can never quite ignore the terrible clash between reality and potential. It hinges about that eternally spinning moment when the present becomes the future.

And if we accept that premise, then there is no doubt at all that The Waterworks is science fiction. Its setting is New York in the 1870s, a city grown prosperous on the sale of shoddy goods to the Union Army during the Civil War. Now, that prosperity is impelling the city into the future. Throughout the novel, Doctorow describes the city as a vast machine, clanking cogs, belching steam, the thrusting power of the new industry embodied. But in the approach of this “modern” world, there are new moralities to be forged, moral questions that have never had to be faced before. Boss Tweed heads the most corrupt city and state government ever known, men who have grown fat and rich and old cheating their government are now the powerful arbiters of social, cultural, political and economic life. And this corruption is spawning new horrors.

The impact of science upon society led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at one end of the nineteenth century; fear of the darkness still lurking in the corners of the bright modern world gave rise to Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the other end. It is no coincidence that Doctorow’s novel, dealing with the same moment of impact, evokes echoes of both.

A young freelance writer for one of the New York newspapers, Martin Pemberton, reports seeing a carriage carrying his father through the streets of the city. But his father, a dealer in shoddy and in slaves, is dead. Though he doesn’t quite believe in the ghost, Martin’s editor, McIlvaine, starts to follow up the case when Martin disappears. With the help of a friendly policeman, he finds himself drawn deeper into a mysterious mire of moral corruption which echoes the political corruption then being exposed. Children are bought or taken from the street, but the orphanage this leads them to appears the very model of modern scientific enlightenment. A reputable doctor is implicated, but colleagues attack him for precisely the theories, approaches and attitudes we recognise as the glory of modern medicine.

In the end, the true science-fictional impact of the revelation that blood is being drained from children to keep wealthy old men alive beyond their natural span, is that it is a harbinger of a future we, with hindsight, know is inevitable.

And so does McIlvaine, the narrator. Telling his story in old age, the 1920s, his every description of the beating mechanical heart of the city, the new lots already staked out north of the original narrow confines of New York, is redolent of the inevitability of the future and the moral crises his adventure only prefigured. His narrative is hesitant, ellipses are scattered across every page, but we sense that these are not pauses to recollect in peace or to seek out the exact word, but a reluctance to accept the consequences of what is being told.

From The Book of Daniel, through Ragtime, Loon Lake, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow has blended the real and the fictional inextricably into a vision of history as cyclic, repetitive, of progress as a seductive belief. He paints the past with an attention to detail that gives his fictions the documentary texture and vivacity of a Ken Burns film, yet he mythologises it, especially the city, so that the struggles of his characters trapped in the processes of history and progress become heroic almost by definition. It is a magic he repeats to telling effect in this wonderful new venture into the mythic landscape of the recent past.