"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When truth is stranger than fiction

Joseph Banks recently returned from his
historic voyage on the Endeavour.

My winter reading this year includes The Age of Wonder, a chronicle of 18th century science and discovery by historian Richard Holmes. I've been working on this little beast for about a month and a half.  It is wonderfully written, and very entertaining, but it is also dense.  Packed full of charismatic people and interesting details that take some time to absorb, especially for someone like me who is new to this particular slice of history. 

The book begins with Joseph Banks, who spent his youth reveling in biological and sensual discovery during the journey of the HM Bark Endeavour to the island paradise of Tahiti.  Banks would return to England to eventually become President of the Royal Society, and as Holmes paints his story, one has the impression that the fate of every other scientist presented in the book somehow hinged on the judgement and support of this first ambitious explorer.

The brilliant and eccentric German immigrant William Herschel abandoned his career as a musician to explore the universe using the largest and finest telescopes yet made, and made by him. Herschel's introverted sister Caroline began her career as his assistant, but soon came into her own with the discovery of multiple comets and the distinction of being the first woman scientist ever to receive a professional salary in Britain. 

Together, Caroline and William Herschel
revealed a universe much larger and older
than had previously been imagined.
There were a series of crazy balloonists, few of whom were taken seriously by Banks, and whose greatest gift seemed to be surviving crash landings, for they were very adept at getting their balloons up, but not very able to control their descent, or the direction in which they floated.

Mungo Park, a sandy-haired young doctor from Scotland, caught Banks' bug for exploration and took it into the heart of Africa, where he disappeared on his second voyage. The precise circumstances of his death remain a mystery to this day.

Last but not least, Humphry Davy, whose story I'm in the midst of reading.  This young man from Cornwall began his illustrious career in chemistry with the discovery of the mind-altering effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas).  Davy indulged in multiple experiments on himself and his friends, especially the ladies, during evening lab sessions that became famous during his time in Bristol.  No wonder he's smiling in all his portraits.

Humphry Davy, chemist and poet.

All in all, Holmes brings to life a fascinating period, one filled with drama and a sort of heady madness as an entire society rushed headlong, even recklessly, into a new era of discovery.  Scientists and explorers were the superstars of this time. People packed exhibition halls to view strange artifacts brought from distant lands; they filled plazas to see balloonists carried far afield on wayward winds, and crowded laboratories to witness explosive demonstrations of the latest discoveries in chemistry.  They peered at the moon and the stars through Herschel's telescopes and wondered, perhaps for the first time, whether other intelligent beings occupied the universe and were peering back at them. 

So many times while reading The Age of Wonder, I've found myself thinking, "You couldn't make this stuff up."  I love it when history does this; when the facts force you to stretch your imagination.  Richard Holmes' parade of crazy and wonderful scientists has me reflecting on my own characters, and wondering how I can make them less conventional, more colorful, more likely to violate the boundaries of the expected.  How to make them all of this, and yet keep them real in the reader's mind? 

Often I find my answers to these questions in the real personalities of history.  And when I'm done reading up on their amazing journeys, I can't wait to dive back into the making of fiction again.