Sunday, March 5, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 4

Title: "The Tilting Island"
Author: Thomas J. Vivian and  Grena J. Bennett
Published in: Everybody's Magazine September 1909

Category: Catastrophes

Summary: A reporter and a professor traverse Manhattan during the island's destruction by a massive earthquake event.

Unlikely coincidence: A Geology professor who has made a fifteen-year study of Manhattan and the fault lines under it being on a streetcar at the scene of the first fissure.

Protagonists: "[A] stout, Teutonic gentleman - Heinrich Herman" and "Jimmie Dalton, Harlem Departments man for the Chronicle". Presumably both white male.

Casual racism?: Ethnic stereotypes abound; Irish cops speak with a thick brogue; a crowd is described as "A great Hun, charging... Russian and Pole and Italian tumbled after". Nothing pernicious, but a bit insensitive to modern ears. Oddly, though the story begins in Harlem, no black characters make appearance.

The Science: The 125th Street Fault, a real geological feature of Manhattan Island, which is thought to have been responsible for several small earthquakes in the recorded history of New York. The specific result of a major shift in the fault line described in the story - the tilting of the entire island into the sea - is highly speculative.

Reader's notes: This story provides the most compelling picture of humanity in the book so far;  even the minor characters seem to have sort of inner life or backstory. The protagonists make a nice odd-couple/buddy team, and although they take no direct action to affect the course of the catastrophe, they do have a strong connection to the eventual outcome and experience significant agency in their travel down the island from Harlem to Union Square.

In that aspect, the story is somewhat structurally similar to The Thames Valley Catastrophe, but unlike my experience reading that story, I was quite familiar with the geography and could easily make sense of the journey. Although the author made no admonition to do so, I once again made a map if the characters' route through the fires and chaos of tilting Manhattan:

The place names have changed just a bit, but the path was easy to plot; the characters take some detours at West 57th Street that I did not record, partly for ease and partly because the authors were a bit unclear or erroneous in that section. It was fun to move through The City again.

Grade: A-. With a little more personal conflict, this would make a nice TV movie.

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