Archive for April, 2013

Venice, 1937: “City of Reflections”

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This is an excerpt from a story that will be published in “The Futurist Manifesto”, an anthology from Excalibur Books, to be released Summer 2013. Enjoy!

Venice, he had always thought, was a city of reflections. Facades, basilicas, domes and towers – all pondering their appearance in the waters into which they would one day sink. If you wish to know what is above, then look below.
He turned away from the view across the canal, tightening his collar against the February chill. His gloved hands reached up to adjust the white bautta mask beneath his tricorn hat, smoothed the silk hood and the full-length cloak he wore. He stepped onto the bridge to cross to his destination.
As he walked up the steps slick with vapours from the mist, his path was illuminated by the fireworks in the South, the great pyrotechnic display in Piazza San Marco that marked the 1937 Carnevale di Venezia. He wove his way carefully through the drunken revellers that swept past him up and down the bridge. Arlecchino, Zanni and Pulcinella waved to him with bottles of wine. Casanovas strutted with cloaks covered in vermillion stars and trimmed with fleur-de-lys. Women with the faces of foxes, cats and birds beneath elaborate feathered head-dresses screeched with laughter, clutching at his arm, offering him their mouths. He walked on.
He stepped off the bridge and noticed a figure advancing from the shadows to his right. Its face was a cruel, horned mask, a long curved beak in place of a nose and mouth: the face of the Dottor della Peste – the Plague Doctor. In ancient times, the physicians of Venice wore such a mask for protection, the beak stuffed with cotton wool and herbs to guard against pestilence.
The Plague Doctor stared at the other man silently from the two round, milky white eye-holes above the beak, a black cartwheel hat upon its head, one gloved hand upon a black and gold cane. He made a certain ritual gesture with the fingers of his left hand. The Plague Doctor nodded slowly in recognition, and then retreated into the fog.

His silent, masked figure drifted through the mist, past the mobs of revelers in similar disguise, nobles and commoners together in anonymous riot. From the Rio Terra Leonardo he turned down a side street into a labyrinth of ruinous alleyways, passing beneath pots hung from wrought iron balconies, past rude shuttered casements set in decaying brick. The revelers grew fewer and the sounds of hilarity grew faint. This was the older part of Venice – where the ancient, sombre domain of the shadows of history was seldom disturbed.
In time he came to a marble and terracotta arch flanked by two grotesquely carved heads; this was his destination –the Calle degli Spiriti. He passed under the arch into a tiny enclosed square, at its centre an ancient well with a pointed shield carved on its side. To his right was the residence he sought. He stepped forward and lifted the brass handle, striking firmly four times upon the rugged oak door.
The face of the man who opened it did not look like the typical Pantalone. He had keen eyes set in a round, bucolic face that regarded his visitor with a knowing smile. He wore the earth-coloured pants and cardigan of the artisan, badged with stains where nameless fluids had splashed against them.
“Sir Andrew Boyd,” declared Professor Danilov. “Do come inside.”
“Are you so sure I’m Sir Andrew, under this mask?”
Danilov smiled an unflattering, lop-sided smile. “I’ve been watching you since you arrived in Venice, Sir Andrew. I have sensed your approach. In fact, the only reason you are able to step over this threshold now is that I have invited you here, and have relaxed the . . . special . . . defenses around this house.”
“Yes, I was informed that you were rather on the cautious side.”
In the warmth of the parlour, Sir Andrew lifted off his mask and showed Danilov his face for the first time. With the Professor’s help, he peeled off his mantle and floor-length cloak, and stepped through into the front room.
The room glowed warmly with brown and buttery yellow hues, lit by the gently crackling logs in the fireplace. Oriental rugs lay on the darkwood floor, tall candles flickered on the tables in front of the curtained windows. Reflections of the smoky light played upon the glass bowls atop the shelves, the gold leaf gilding the fireplace, the burnished copper of the curiously shaped scientific instruments along the back wall.
“I have no servants here,” Danilov explained, crossing to the dresser and removing a decanter and glasses. “I cannot take any chances.”
“Your concern for security is legendary, Professor. As are the unusual nature of your ideas.”
“I prefer the word . . . innovative.” Danilov handed a glass of brandy to Sir Andrew, then stood to attention, and raised his glass. “Heil Hitler.”
Sir Andrew returned the salute. “Heil Hitler.”
The brandy went down like liquid fire laced with unknown herbs. Danilov smacked his lips and turned towards a shelf where a collection of records sat under a lace-edged cloth, to protect them from dust.
“You’re not going to treat me to Wagner, Herr Professor?”
“You needn’t worry about that. Under the circumstances, I thought Holst was more appropriate. The Planet Suite.” He held up the record sleeve and beamed his lop-sided smile again. “Saturn.”
“As you wish.”

TO BE CONTINUED! FOR MORE ALTERNATIVE HISTORY SF, CHECK OUT “THE INVENTION OF GOD”, ALSO ON THIS SITE.

Twenty Thousand Leagues

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Last weekend I had the chance to visit the NYK Maritime Museum in Yokohama, and also the Hikawa Maru – a cruise liner from the Golden Age of Trans-Pacific travel.

NYK (Nippon Yusen Kaisha was formed by the merging of two shipping companies, Mitsubishi Kaisha and Kyodo Unyu Kaisha, in 1885, just after Japan ended its period of self-enforced political isolation. The company rose to maritime prominence after the Sino-Japanese War of 1984, when Japan became a major world power. After World War I six NYK ships began a system of regular passages between Yokohama, Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver.

The engines are double-acting diesels built by B & W of Denmark. One each of the eight-cylinder engines is installed on the right and left. The vertical reciprocating movement of pistons in the cylinders turns a crankshaft, and through it a propeller, to drive the ship. These diesel engines were the newest of their kind when the ship was completed in 1930.

This was the heady age of luxury travel; the passenger liners were known as ‘roving civilizations’ and the route was called the ‘dream passage’. Celebrity passengers included Douglas Fairbanks, Johnny Weismuller, Charles Chaplin, and even Albert Einstein himself. The cuisine was of the highest standard, and to some passengers, it was the most important memory of the journey (Chaplin had a particular fondness for seafood tempura!)

After the Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 and Japan entering WWII in 1941, the situation changed. During and immediately after World War II, the vessel served as a hospital ship and returned some 30,000 wounded soldiers to the Japanese homeland.

In the 1950s, NYK returned to some of its former prominence by going into the oil tanker business, but air travel was taking over from sea travel – and in in 1960, the Hikawa Maru was permanently retired.

The Hikawa Maru saw thirty years of service and crossed the Pacific, between Yokohama and Seattle, 254 times, carrying around 25,000 passengers in its lifetime. It remains now, in Yokohama harbor not far from the modern shopping malls, as an impressive reminder of a bygone age.

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