Reviews from the past: 5 is a Perfect Number

This is an old review of an English translation of a European graphic novel by Igort – we’re still not seeing as many translations of some excellent (and bestselling) graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) of European works as I’d like, which is a great shame as there are some wonderful books, both for adults and younger readers, but they just aren’t being picked up and translated in great numbers. Still, it has improved a little in the last few years and was probably less common when I first reviwed 5 is a Perfect Number for The Alien Online back in 2004:

5 is the Perfect Number,
Written & illustrated by Igort,
Published by Jonathan Cape

A Mafia graphic novel with Giallo undertones

Peppi is a retired Guappo, a Mafia gunman from the old school. The story opens with him making coffee for his son Nino, who has followed in his footsteps and is about to embark upon a hit. Nino is clearly disturbed about something, so his father makes him sit down for a chat and is soon reminiscing about ‘the good old days’. Nino confesses that he has been feeling out of sorts lately and that he isn’t sure the job of a Mafia killer is really for him anymore; Nino has been having disturbing dreams. Peppi produces a box wrapped in a bow and presents it to the depressed Nino, telling him that although his birthday isn’t for a few days tonight feels like the right time. Opening it up Nino’s mood changes instantly to joy as he beholds the top-of-the-line new handgun his father has bought him and decides to take it with him on his job. As the rain starts to come down Nino leaves his father’s home; it is the last time Peppi will see him alive.

It transpires that Nino has been set up for reasons which never really become clear. Obviously whoever ordered the hit is nervous about Peppi’s reaction – he may be old but he has a formidable reputation – and two corpulent gunmen are dispatched to ensure the old man meets his son in the afterlife swiftly. Relaxing with his fishing rod Peppi is oblivious to his son’s fate and his own approaching danger; just another old, retired man fishing happily. Until he is blinded by a vision of the Madonna and realises what this portent means – his son is probably dead and he is next. His old instincts kick in and he soon finds the two fat gunmen looking for him and dispatches them with great violence. Calling on some very old friends for help Peppi find that his son has indeed been killed on orders from the top of the Family. Girding his old loins, Peppi vows to wage war…

The story here is one of classical simplicity – wrongful family death and a mission of retribution. However the way in which Igort takes us through this tale is the beauty of the piece. Dreams and portents play a significant role in the book; Peppi’s vision of the Madonna saving his life, his own disturbed dreams of being chased, Nino’s troubled soul coming out in his dreams. They serve to give us insight into the mind of the protagonists, but do so in a wonderfully stylised manner. Instead of giving us direct access to their thoughts and fears we share the metaphorical imagery of their dreams and visions and, like them, must interpret them for ourselves (which I found to be both a clever and engaging move – it draws you into the character far more than if the author simply spoon-fed the reader the character’s thoughts directly).

Flashbacks are also a major component of the story, from Peppi’s cherished tale of how he met his late wife to his days of glory as a great Guappo. Indeed the whole story is infused with a loving (but never cloying) nostalgia for the 40s and 50s (classic Noir period). The artwork moves from a much stylised but not too unrealistic form to increasingly odd-looking art for the dream sequences. The detail helps to fill out the period feeling, with movie posters and, in one scene, a fabulously stark silhouette of a 50s garage which sets the scene and period perfectly. Films, especially the old crime and Noirs, are obviously a huge influence in this tale and the style of it’s telling, giving it a very expressive imagery.

As with the finest Noirs or the old Giallos there are rarely any truly innocent or good characters as we would understand them. Peppi is the central character and we are encouraged to sympathise with his quest for vengeance, but Peppi is also a stone-cold killer who has taken many lives. Of course, he sees himself – and his son – differently, as men of honour; their moral outlook in life is, like that of most heroes (or anti-heroes) in a Noir is flexible and somewhat different to the norm for society. Peppi, disparaging the modern hitmen, exclaims at one point that you can tell a man by the way he kills and adds proudly, “My son, thank God, kills the right way.” His reminiscences of the good old days are also laced with violence he finds acceptable – he talks happily about how “people killed one another by the rules” as if this makes everything alright (in his moral outlook it does). It is to Igort’s credit that he does not whitewash his characters into simple good and bad but presents them to us in this manner and yet still he manages to win the reader’s sympathy for Peppi.

This is an unusual graphic novel by English-language standards (although not for European BD), laced with nostalgia for the old films of the 40s and 50s and featuring some lovely and incredibly expressive artwork. It is not afraid to show us the violent past (and present) of our characters; it makes no judgment on them and leaves it very much to the reader. Igort even manages to slide a little humour into such a bleak tale, notably when Nino tells his father he is running late for a job and Peppi tells him that’s fine – it gives the soon-to-be deceased a few more minutes of life and so shows the hitman has style and class. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and found it is one of those books that demand a re-reading to look for little pieces of dialogue and artwork that you may have missed first time around. This will appeal to anyone who enjoys a Raymond Chandler novel or even Altered Carbon (or indeed any Noirs).

Reviews from the past: the Mechanical Turk

For the next of my Reviews From the Past I’ve dug out a review of another popular science book and yes, it is another one I found utterly fascinating, a look at some quite incredible mechanical automata, ingenious clockwork devices of astonishing intricacy which counterfeited life. As well as entertaining they also raised philosophical questions about the nature of life and the possibility of artificially creating life and intelligence, questions which have come to the fore once more in our digital age as we build ever more powerful computers, learning system and robotic designs. Its a story of invention and showmanship that takes in crowned heads of Europe, signatories of the Declaration of Independence, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Babbage and even PT Barnum as the Mechanical Turk crosses continents and history. This review dates from 2002 and first appeared on The Alien Online.

The Mechanical Turk,
By Tom Standage,
Allen Lane, Penguin Press

A chess playing automaton from the 1770s – father of modern AI or a clever illusion from an age of wonders?

It is the mid-1760s, the beginning of the Age of Reason. Science and engineering are creating new wonders almost every week. Intricate clockwork automatons are devised which highlight the ingenuity and skill of the mechanical age – skills often used for more practical purposes, such as Watt’s perfection of the steam engine or Jacquard’s loom. Mechanical trumpet players and flute players, with moving fingers, artificial lungs and a range of music to play. Mechanical ducks that swim, splash around, flap their wings and even eat food proffered to them. Such devices delighted the Europeans of the time, much as the Victorians would delight in intricate clockwork toys for their children a century later. Into this time comes the Turk.

Devised by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a nobleman in the service of Empress Maria Therese, this was a life-sized automaton, dressed in the oriental style popular at the time. Seated at a cabinet with a chess board before him, this Turk was rotated around on castors while his panels and doors were opened and a light shone through to show his inner workings and ensure no trickery was possible, much in the way a stage magician will do with his cabinet before an illusion today. A challenge for a player was given and soon the Turk was not only astounding the court by playing chess against a man, he was beating the human player. Mechanical fingers grasped pieces and moved them precisely, his hand would rap on the cabinet impatiently if the opponent took too long to move and illegal moves were swiftly adjusted.

Kempelen was keen to move onto his other devices, but the Turk was to overshadow him for the rest of his life. Ordered to take it around Europe, it appeared before the great and good of the land. Doctor Johnson and Charles Babbage were amazed by it. Babbage, like many was not sure it was truly machine intelligence, it may have been a trick. But if it was true mechanical thinking, then could he not use similar mechanics to create a calculating machine? A Difference Engine? Napoleon plays the machine, as does the great American scientists and diplomat Benjamin Franklin.

Long after Kempelen’s death, the Turk had his career, now under the stewardship of Maelzel, an automaton maker with a flair for showmanship. A young Scot is intrigued by the device and the speaking machine of Kempelen’s which has been fitted to it to allow it to say ‘check.’ An artificial voice? Could such a voice be transmitted in some way, Bell wondered, as with the new-fangled telegraph?

In America the Turk plays the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence (it throws the game) and is written about extensively, just as it was in Europe. Many speculated about what trick it conceals. Is there a dwarf hidden in a small compartment inside the machinery? Is it a double amputee Polish officer hiding form the Czar? Or does the operator use magnets or wires? But it is moved around and opened, so how is this possible? Such speculation followed the Turk for a century and only increased its popularity. Even Edgar Allan Poe attempted to rationalise its mysteries, using a scientific detective model, which he would later use in his novels.

As with the wonderful Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester, Standage has created a compelling science history, which is as fascinating for the historical figures and events around the main character as it is for the actual tale itself. The idea of this device inspiring Babbage and laying the foundations for the information age, for Bell and his telephone – even the later operator Maelzel giving lessons in showmanship and publicity to a young P.T. Barnum – the characters are fascinating. Of such little interconnections are our histories made, as intricate as the clockwork of the automatons themselves.

Standage brilliantly captures the mood of a world where knowledge was progressing quickly and engineering the casually miraculous was becoming an almost everyday event. He wisely keeps his chapter on the real secrets of the Turk to the end of the book, allowing our interest to peak. We all loves a good show and we all love a good mystery – the Turk gave both for a century, as well as fuelling speculation about artificial intelligence to this day. The final chapters discuss chess playing machines and computer intelligence in our time, from the brilliant Alan Turing’s early programming to IBM’s Deep Blue finally beating the human chess champion, Kasparov. This final chapter cleverly reminds us that our own time has produced great marvels of our own, that we are direct inheritors of that age of genius and passion. This is a delightful scientific history that will appeal to the sense of wonder in us all.

Reviews from the past: Monturiol’s Dream

Over the years I’ve written a large number of reviews of comics, books, graphic novels and movies and even the odd play (and now beer too). A lot appeared on the Library of Dreams, the first site I ever made and which I posted a lot of reviews on, along with some pics and some poetry I penned and which went defunct when the provider decided to stop making the free hosting free – the site stayed up for a good while after but I couldn’t update it anymore. I was planning a new reviews site when my good mate Ariel suggested I contribute instead to The Alien Online and soon I was posting a lot of reviews to TAO, which grew to be practically a magazine online – reviews of comics, science fiction and fantasy were the backbone of TAO but we had articles and interviews and other features too, from a wide range of contributors, including several authors such as Adam Roberts and James Lovegrove.

When TAO finished its run it stayed up for a while too but now its gone too, so I was thinking, I still have a lot of those reviews tucked away in a folder and maybe it would be interesting to repost some of them myself. So now I’m slowly picking upon the Woolamaloo again I thought it would be a good time to start reposting some of them. I’m starting with one from 2003, a popular science book (although TAO was mostly SF we also posted on some interesting factual science works too) which I found absolutely fascinating:

Monturiol’s Dream,
By Matthew Stewart,
Published Profile Books

A socialist utopian dreamer tries to create a better world through science

Narcis Monturiol is a name I suspect that most people will not recognise, even those of us who fancy we have a fair smattering of the history of science. Born in Catalonia in 1819 Monturiol was one of those people who seem to be able to turn to whatever interest takes them and to be rather good at it. A remarkably intelligent man he was also very politically aware, his soul fired by the socialist dreams of a modern utopia where men and women (for Monturiol was a staunch advocate of the role of women) could live a better life. Despite his fervent belief in the progress to a utopian future he remained, unlike many others, committed to achieving this goal through non violent means. This gentle man, like many intellectuals around Europe in the 1800s, turned to the new sciences to create a better world.

Monturiol’s contribution to this better world would be a remarkable device – a submarine. To modern readers this may seem almost laughable, but Narcis was in deadly earnest. While others around the globe had struggled to create somewhat poor submersibles barely worthy of the name he would create a proper, sea-going submarine. At a time when the best attempts had produced small vessels that could stumble along a few feet under the water with a breathing hose sticking up through the waves (such as those used in the American Civil War) Monturiol would settle for nothing less than a fully functioning craft that could sustain life for hours and cruise the deep depths.

During times of great political turmoil he fired his friends and other residents of Catalonia with his dream. Constantly struggling with cash flow Monturiol, with no backing from any big company or government, used his collective to help him design, build and launch his ‘artificial fish’ the Ictineo. Lined with portholes so that they could see the marvels of the underwater world the Ictineo would have been remarkably impressive for a team of engineers working in a naval dockyard. For a self-taught man working within a socialist co-operative it was a stunning achievement.

The Ictineo was powered by several volunteers turning cranks. Monturiol, through much experimentation and thought had hit upon the idea of a double hull design to help the submarine sustain its integrity in the crushing depths – a design every submarine follows to this very day. Monturiol turned to chemistry and devised a mixture of compounds that would be mixed to generate fresh oxygen without ruining the cabin’s atmosphere with noxious gases as a by-product. The Ictineo could thus sustain a number of crewmen for many hours beneath the waves, giving ample time for exploration of the depths.

His attempts to raise more investment cash by attracting the government were not so successful however. Despite the backing of engineers and local Catalan politicians the admiralty was unimpressed. Monturiol even, reluctantly, added a canon to his ship to show that it cold be used offensively. Being the man he was he devised a method to fire this while still submerged. Fair to say this would have been a devastating weapon if it had been explored further. Monturiol rationalised this to himself by reasoning that this would level the playing field between navies such as Spain’s and France’s against the omnipotent might of the Royal Navy. Still the Spanish admirals were not impressed.

Once again Monturiol was rescued by friends, fellow socialists and the local Catalan people (who often came down to Barcelona’s harbour on a Sunday walk to see the marvel of the Ictineo diving and surfacing). A new co-operative managed to raise enough funds to being work on the Ictineo II. Monturiol was feted by the local population and politicians as a great inventor. Emboldened he sets to work on a much larger submarine. Ictineo II is capable of diving to depths of over thirty metres and sustaining life for many hours safely and comfortably. Monturiol devises manipulators on the hull to allow him to interact with the marine environment. His chemical knowledge allows him to create a mixture that will give him underwater illumination. The human-powered crank engine is replaced by a steam engine. Once again this amazing, self-taught man invents an astonishing way to power a steam engine underwater. Instead of a fire to stoke the boiler Monturiol uses a chemical reaction to generate heat to boil the water and drive the engine. This reaction also produces oxygen for the cabin and he employs more chemical means to scrub carbon dioxide from the air. The Ictineo II is, to all intent purposes, a fully functioning modern submarine.

Bear in mind that this is the mid 1860s. No-one else in the world would come up with anything so advanced for decades, yet here was a self-taught man who had made the fiction of Captain Nemo a reality before Verne ever wrote his wonderful novel. This was a man who took a concept which was science fiction and sculpted it into reality. He works out aqua dynamics, engineering principles of double hulls to withstand pressure, devices for interacting with the undersea environment and submersible locomotion and navigation, all by the 1860s. Unlike the many others around the world who tried to create a submarine – and usually failed, often fatally – Monturiol publishes detailed descriptions of his designs and methods so that others can copy and improve upon them. Still his utopian dream behind it all, a belief that this new type of artificial fish could help usher a new era in for humanity.

Of course we know today that the submarine as it was developed in the decades after Monturiol’s death was used more principally as a terrible weapon of war. And yet some glimmer of his original idea can still be seen today. Submersibles that can touch the very floor of the ocean – something Monturiol longed to do – and explore the myriad of new life found there in the darkest depths. Knowledge of our environment, tectonics and evolution have all been enhanced immeasurably by underwater exploration. How many of us thrilled to Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when we were younger? What would Monturiol have made of the fantastic sights millions could view in their own home watching Blue Planet?

Monturiol’s Dream is a fascinating and utterly delightful scientific history. The history of those turbulent times in European and Spanish history are absorbing enough in their own right – the beginning of genuine attempts to have politics for the masses and a striving to make a better world using modern reason and science. The technical brilliance of Monturiol is undeniable and makes for remarkable reading. What I took most from this gorgeous little book however was the same thing I took from the finest SF novels – sense of pure wonder. This is a quite wonderful tale of a very gentle man who really wanted to change the world. Not for honours or riches, but because he believed it was the right thing to do, to create a finer world. Perhaps on some levels he did. Hopefully Matthew Stewart’s fine book will go some way to restoring Monturiol and his work to the place he deserves in the history of science.