Fantastic Metropolis

Shipyards on Saturn

Rhys Hughes

For Barrington Bayley.

Huygens is tired of solving mathematical problems by correspondence. He decides not to write to Pascal today. He wants to get his hands and eyes dirty instead. There is no better way of doing this than building a new telescope and staring at the furthest known planet. So he abandons his desk, with its bottles of ink and rolls of parchment, and makes his way to the attic workshop.

He greets his new mistress on the stairs. She is sweeping the steps with a broom. At least he assumes it is her. When they are hermetically sealed in black garments, he can never be sure. For a long time, women have been little more than ovals under bonnets, with sometimes a smile to disrupt the geometry.

“No loving tonight, Clara,” he informs her. “I’m busy with Saturn.”

She barely acknowledges the instruction, but when he has gone she crosses herself. Her friends had warned her. She has read about similar cases. A rich man of private means, the friend of many leading figures of the day, driven to seek forbidden knowledge. Now here is proof of the rumours. Her master is an adept of the dark arts. He is a Saturnist! She frowns. That doesn’t sound right.

In the attic there are no altars, skulls or hooded cloaks. But lenses in racks burn like the knees of devils.

The turning of the sails outside is reassuring. How utterly normal to live in a windmill! It is a temporary abode for him, but its rhythms give him pleasure as he begins work.

This telescope will be more powerful than his previous efforts. His methods of grinding lenses are superior to those of his rivals. The year is 1655. What better time to discover something wonderful in the sky? He removes his wig, dabs his brow with a frilly cuff. Not since he rejected many of the Cartesian tenets concerning the identification of extension has he felt this excited. And not until he achieves a definite solution to the problem of collisions in perfectly elastic bodies, applying the principle that in any such system the centre of gravity can never rise of its own accord above its initial position, will he feel this excited again. That’s for sure.

He whistles as he selects a suitable tube. One of those modern tunes by the composer Heinrich Schütz, from an opera destined to be lost. He is anything other than a traditionalist, despite his love for the old synthetic techniques in mathematics. No, he likes new music and other fresh things. Linen, fruit, mornings, as well as concepts. He whistles an opera not yet lost and the melody is conducted through the tube he lifts to check for dents. The motes of dust dance like stabs of pain in a recurrent illness.

When the telescope is ready, he swings it toward a skylight. He doesn’t bear tripods any malice, but pulleys and strings ensure that the ceiling and rafters also make a contribution to science. He scuffs star charts on the floor as he moves back.

Each skylight is dedicated to a different segment of sky, cutting through the larger constellations as if a myth and its attendant tales can be served in slices like fruit pudding. Saturn is yellow and steady among the twinkling stars. A slow, remote glow, yet conspicuous on the velvet backdrop, pale gold, electrum: the colour of Egyptian thrones and Edam cheese, or the crumbs of such cheese in the navel of a naked maid, perhaps a mistress, after breakfast in bed.

As he adjusts the focus, he remembers details of his life to date. It’s not usual for him to have autobiographical episodes, but they don’t hurt. And if they do, a poultice may be called for.

Born in The Hague in 1629. Educated at the University of Leiden and later at the College of Breda. An insatiable appetite for mechanics, algebra, astronomy and physics, demonstrated at an early age, served him well when he first visited Paris and involved himself in the highest intellectual circles and ellipses. His best work is still ahead of him. His theories on light will be outstanding.

His reverie is cut short. He gasps at what he sees.

“It has a moon,” he explains in due course.

His new mistress is sweeping around him. He is smoking his pipe on a chair in front of the hearth and reading his mail.

Through the open door, the fields stretch to the horizon. Somewhere beyond, Clara must be still running home. The sea is held back by dykes. Windmills deal with any leakage. Funny how bread and pumps are thematically connected! There is no formula for that.

“Imagine it!” he continues, spilling ash over the floor. “A moon! Just like ours, but different.”

He wonders at her expression as he adds: “No loving tonight, Anna. I must spend more time with Saturn.”

The marvels come fast, but not thick. The planets are too hazy for that. Not as hazy as the Orion nebula, but next year he will resolve that into its individual stellar components. Hard gems. There is thickness in air, but he has no way of working out which other worlds have atmospheres. He will try to think of a way.

He whistles as he works. A tune by Orlando Gibbons. It is not too old, nor too young. It is a safe age, a medium vintage. He is anything other than an elitist, despite his rejection of the Newtonian model of gravity on the basis of insufficient mechanical data. No, he likes middling music and other average things. Neighbours, stature, pressure, as well as political opinions. He whistles the air, and it is not too thick, not too thin. Not regular as clockwork, because that’s still inaccurate. The escapements in current use can’t be trusted to maintain the same rhythm.

Carefully, he assembles a larger telescope in a longer tube. Bigger lenses, stronger pulleys. Massed upright in one corner of the attic, the other tubes resemble the pipes of an organ. They don’t play. Why should they? Besides, they aren’t in tune.

He swings the finished instrument to the skylight. The windmill churns. He fixes his eye to the lens. He bites his lip.

The probability of any event occurring in a given space. That’s another problem his mind is planning to confront. A result of his interest in games of chance. To win a world on the draw of a card! What would that entail? What if it was a world on the far end of his telescope? Not much he could do with such winnings. Better to win a world closer to home, this world, which turns under his home. But can you ever truly own something which is under you? Shoes, beds, a mistress. Death will snatch them away eventually. The best that can be done is to rent them for a lifetime. Amend the statement. To rent a world in a game of chance! He scratches his head. He frowns, his fingernails fitting neatly into the grooves of his brow. That doesn’t sound right.

He is walking with his new mistress in the fields between the windmill and the sunset. They are returning from an evening at the theatre. His distaste for city lights is the obverse of his love for the stars. But he enjoys meeting friends, eating out, shopping for wigs and cosmetic powder.

“I’m sorry for hurrying you, Oona,” he says, as they splash through the puddles. “But I have a date.”

And before she can pout, he adds: “With Saturn.”

She is not a slow walker, despite her dainty feet and tight shoes, but he suddenly finds that the slack in her arm has played out. They have been holding hands all day, but now he feels she is drawing back. He must pull hard to keep her going. For a moment he wonders if she has lost affection for him. Then he realises she is demonstrating a principle of Newtonian physics. To keep something moving in a straight line at a constant speed does not require a force, except to balance the force of friction. When a force moves through some distance, it does work and uses up energy.

“Very kind of you, Oona,” he murmurs, “but this is not the time or place for practical experimentation.”

And to stall her second pout, he adds: “It has rings, you know. I’m the only man to see them. In mythology, Saturn was the child of Uranus. Don’t worry. In Dutch, that’s not a joke.”

The heavens are a blanket full of holes, constantly repaired by the spinning looms on the skyline. No, it’s a trick of the light. They are windmills. Do they need sweeping?

Time to select the largest tube and the biggest lenses. It is almost as if he has been warming them up with envy. The most powerful telescope ever constructed is soon ready to propose marriage to the firmament. It is a cornucopia to be filled with wonders, a horn of plenty without the bend. Most men dream of them already full. Not he. This one was always empty. He is generous to his tools.

He screws the burning knees of the two most abominable devils into the brass pipe. He tugs the strings. The rafters groan. The skylight is wide open and Saturn rolls into view.

If all the windmills in the region broke simultaneously, the sea would saturate the land. Many fleeing mistresses would have to float away, or back. And even if they clung to bobbing furniture, there would be no bread to feed them.

He positions the telescope delicately. The planet pours into the instrument. He can make out details on the surface. There are no seas, rivers or canals. But there are smudges which must be mountain ranges.

Something else too. Quite clearly defined.

“Shipyards?” he cries. “On Saturn?”

And then a little later: “What use are shipyards on a world without water? It’s senseless! Absurd!”

Be that as it may, they are there. It’s not a mistake. Those are cranes, seen from above, and the hulls of massive ships, galleons. And forests of masts ready to be slotted into decks, and miles of cloth for billowing sails, and towering pyramids of barrels, probably containing tar or nails or supplies for long voyages, or exotic goods for export. Saturnian pepper, jade, gunpowder, lutes, shoes, wigs and playing cards. Who knows? He can’t see any workers. Either it’s their day off or else they aren’t giants.

He can’t grasp the significance of this discovery. He retreats from the telescope and changes eyes. It takes a minute for this new eye to adjust to its task. It is only rarely asked to confirm the observations of its twin. But no, the warehouses and piles of planks are still there. They do exist. Shipyards on Saturn.

“But there is no water!” he wails to himself.

It is a problem to sleep on, but not alone. He must find a new mistress.

The light from Saturn has been travelling across unimaginable distances to reach his eye. How did it manage that trick? Did it arrive as ripples or particles? The wave theory or the corpuscular theory? Neither option has been worked on yet, by him or his rivals. But they will be. He is an expert on reflection and refraction. Venetian glass, Iceland crystals, fairytale slippers. He understands the inner workings of them all. Soon his musings on the subject will become solid mathematical analysis and neat diagrams. A little later, these in turn will be neglected, almost forgotten. Later still, rediscovered and revalued, highly. But none of these theories, wavelike or particulate, really explain how light gets into a head behind closed eyes. In dreams.

He is sitting at his desk, writing to Pascal. Despite his obsession with Saturn, he doesn’t wish to snub his friends. While he scribbles, his new mistress sweeps all around him. The windmill is looking very clean these days. Indeed, it is nearly done. He drops the quill, rubs the cramp from his wrist, the glee from his heart.

“I always knew that beings like mankind must exist on other worlds, for else they would be unreasonable. The worlds, I mean, not the beings. Every planet must teem with life, otherwise our Earth would have too much the advantage of them, in being the only part of the universe that could boast of such a creature so far above, not only plants and trees, but all animals whatsoever.

He watches for the beginnings of a pout. One day he may study what happens when a potential pout becomes a kinetic pout. But she is using her broom on his mouth at this moment, muffling his words. So there is no need for her to regard him with superstitious dread. He leans back in his chair and an idea sits on his mind, as if ready to write a few lines of its own at the desk of miracles.

An attempt to communicate with the inhabitants of Saturn! To let them know that here too, on Earth, are living, thinking beings. But how can this enterprise be implemented?

“Giant bonfires in the North African desert!” he shouts. “Or fields of wheat in Russia, planted in geometric shapes. Some sort of universal code. What do you think, Greta?”

And because she is slow to answer, he adds: “Hurry up! Which is the best way of signalling to Saturn?”

The broom hasn’t quite hit the floor before she is out of the door. He sighs. What do women have against astronomy? Is it supposed to be part of their charm? He prefers it when they play the guitar.

On a world without oceans, shipyards should be redundant. But these are operating at maximum efficiency. At least that is what he deduces from the way the collections of masts, cloth and barrels keep shrinking and growing over the weeks. Clearly the ships which are being produced are not designed to sail on water.

Do they sail them on land? The possibility can be dismissed, for such vessels would require wheels, and he has spotted no piles of those. Besides, they wouldn’t be ships if that was the case. They would be carriages, and made elsewhere.

The riddle seems beyond him. As he frets, he knocks the telescope a few degrees off alignment with his frilly cuff. Now he is looking into the space between Saturn and her moon. There are many tiny points of light, not stars. And they can’t be extra moons, because that would be greedy. He concentrates on them, watching as they slowly dip behind the planet’s shimmering rings.

These must be the ships! The inhabitants of Saturn have ships which sail the ocean of space! For them, space must be like water, a substance which can navigated. And the sails catch the sunlight. It is unexpected, glorious. Mariners of the empyrean!

Space is like water? How far can the metaphor be taken? Might a man fish in its currents? What would he catch?

Not long since, a man by the name of Cornelius Drebbel constructed a completely enclosed boat which could be submerged by contracting its sides and so reducing its volume. Once under water, it was rowed by oars extending through the sides, and it contained enough air to last its crew several hours before the need to resurface. If space is like water, what exactly will happen when the inhabitants of Saturn also invent the submarine?

As he retires to bed, he whistles an old song by Guillaume Dufay, a melancholy rondo. Not that he enjoys melancholy, or thinks it fitting for his recent discoveries, but sadness is deeper than joy, and depth is what he now requires to keep his mind on the vertical fathoms of space. And it is a gorgeous song. He is anything other than a radical, despite his love for accuracy. No, he likes old music and other antique things. Wines, slippers, alliances, as well as customs and comforts. He whistles himself, his less old bones, to sleep.

The creaking of the sails outside, the steady thump of the pumps below, enter his dream as hands slapping his back in appreciation of his work. The great men of Holland are converging on his home, setting off from every corner of the state. That’s an easy thing to do here, because the country is so flat. There are no bothersome hills to negotiate. Just meadows which were once under the sea.

The dream wakes him. He is left with a feeling that he now has the power to do something special for his government. A chance to increase the reputation and possessions of the Netherlands.

He climbs out of bed, too excited to return to sleep. He runs down the stairs to his study. Writing letters won’t help at this lonely hour. Mundane chores might serve to calm his nerves. He retrieves a broom from the floor, holds it awkwardly in one hand. How does it work? He has no idea. He is still trying to work it out when the sun rises and his new mistress arrives with the mail.

She is foreign, from Spain. Her skill with a guitar must be formidable. He kisses her hand, shows her to her room. There is no time for a proper introduction. The day will be momentous and busy. He must carry all the brass tubes from his attic and fix them together outside. Each time he passes her door, he can hear her unpacking.

There are hundreds of tubes, gilded on the inside with the special light of Saturn. Whatever it is about that world which allows the beings who dwell there to treat space as water must have been forced down into these pipes. One at a time, they have all been plated with the influence of Saturn. It’s worth a try.

Joined end to end, they rise up into the sky. A brass pipeline much higher than the windmill. He connects a tube from its base to the pump in the cellar. Another conduit leads from the pump into an empty barrel. This is not an experiment but an act of patriotism.

He is exhausted. It is noon, but now he is standing in an expanding shadow. Far above, where the brass tubes end, solid ground is forming in the sky. He is reclaiming, for Holland, the land between the Earth and the moon. Why win extra territory from the sea alone? Treated with Saturnian light, his apparatus is capable of pumping out the nothingness of the cosmos, exposing the bare rock beneath. An island in the sky, growing bigger and higher with each turn of the sails.

When he returns indoors, his new mistress is looking for something to sweep. The rooms are totally clean. She might as well take her broom outside and practice on the circumference of the windmill. Because she doesn’t speak Dutch, it’s impossible to unnerve her with talk of Saturn or any other astronomical phenomena, magnified or not. He is delighted. The right woman at last!

He hurries back down to the cellar. Here the pumps no longer pull up the moisture of the ground, allowing it to trickle away into a gutter which feeds the nearby canal. Now they suck the space out of the zenith and collect it in his barrel. He peers over the rim. The blackness is rising up the inside to the halfway mark. Liquid vacuum.

He dips a large ladle into the nullity, transferring it to a flask on a stand. He will boil it, pour the residue into an iron bellows and squeeze it hard. Then he will fill up his ink bottles and write another book with the thick black fluid. A book about extraterrestrial life.

When he enters his study with the first sample, he steps to the window and peers out. His new mistress is taking a siesta in the cool shade of the aerial mountain. She cradles her broom as she snores.

He writes all day and the pages mount up. When the book is done, he will send it to Pascal. It will be compensation for his recent neglect of their friendship. The distilled vacuum is a marvellous substitute for ink. Perhaps he will sell the surplus.

When the sun begins to set over the far fields, he throws down his quill and steps outside to summon his new mistress. She is still sweeping around the base of the windmill. She understands his call and makes a promise to join him shortly, with gestures.

He looks up. The mountain in the sky has become a continent. When it eventually touches the moon, he will have won a small new world for Holland. He imagines the first colonists climbing up with ropes and nailed boots, whole families migrating up this land bridge with its ledges and handholds.

He scans the rocks, wondering if his pump has exposed any Saturnian submarines which might have passed under space in the vicinity. There are none. He shrugs and retires to bed. He does not blow out the candle.

Later his new mistress comes to him. It is the first night of loving he has enjoyed for many months. They fall asleep in each other’s arms.

Sometime in the middle of the night, there is a terrific storm. The windows rattle and open doors slam shut. The sails groan and shriek outside. It sounds as if a giant bear has grasped them in its dirty great paws and is trying to turn them backward. Such storms have been known to smash holes in dykes, allowing the sea to flood huge tracts of reclaimed land.

He wants to stay awake, but the amorous exertions have exhausted him. His eyes close against his will. Dreams break into his mind.

In the morning, he rises. Something is wrong. The shafts of sunlight streaming though the window attest to the passing of the storm, but they are at too high an angle. If he has truly overslept, then he should now be in the shadow of the continent. And it is too quiet. He clatters down the stairs, naked, and throws open the door.

The sky is empty. The sails of the windmill have stopped. They have jammed. Without the constant working of the pumps, the vacuum must have flooded back up the tubes. The vertical lands have been lost.

He notices an object wedged high up in one of the sails. It is a wooden pole of some sort. The handle of a broom! His new mistress has tried to sweep the moving sails! She has ruined everything!

He barges back into the bedroom and orders her out.

“You have done me a great disservice, Isabel! You must pack your things and leave immediately. I am very disappointed with you.”

His tone makes his meaning obvious. She is gone within the hour. He sits on the edge of the bed for a long time, lamenting the ultimate failure of his project. Because its success was so temporary, he doubts that anyone else noticed the slab of land which had started growing directly above.

A sudden thought shocks him into action. He runs down to his study, snatches up the papers on his desk. Even as he watches, the letters in the words of his new book close up and evaporate. He is left with a stack of blank sheets.

He sighs and goes outside, to smoke his pipe and survey the fields for damage of a more mundane nature. But the storm wasn’t violent enough. The dykes have held. His experiment has broken even.

As he takes another look at his jammed sails, he realises that the wooden pole is not the handle of a broom after all, but something much stranger. A splintered lance. What can that mean? He suspects a literary allusion.

He is tired of discovering new wonders about Saturn. He decides not to improve any telescopes today. He wants to play with time instead. There is never enough of it. And what does exist is never punctual. It’s his duty to rectify this inadequate situation. He decides to invent the pendulum clock.

Copyright © 2001 by Rhys Hughes.