SCI FICTION, November 10, 2004

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"Of Imaginary Airships and Minuscule Matter" by Gary W. Shockley

ImageGary W. Shockley's novelette, "Of Imaginary Airships and Minuscule Matter," is a romping work of historical fiction set in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century.  It begins on the field of discovery for the quest for flight–a struggle both elegant and tragic–and also a febrile focus of imagination ever since man first looked up.  It proceeds  to wander through the battlefield of women's rights, gambol over the fecund gardens of scientific theory, and meander through the jungles of psychic phenomenon with a light, skipping tread, spilling conjecture and corresponding rebuttal like stray flower petals in the wind.

Harold Roth is a renaissance man, ostracized from respectable scientific circles because of his revolutionary and radical theories.  Adeline Murphy is a student of science and logic at a time when such occupations were thought unseemly for women.  Professor Gabriel Lippman is Chief Scientist at the Sorbonne's Laboratories of Physical Research, a man steeped in traditional scientific theory.  He is also Adeline mentor and great uncle. As his student and assistant, Adeline is allowed to research subject matter that her status as a woman would otherwise preclude her from, although she is forced to surrender the accolade and recognition which is her due. Framing the academic discourse between all of them is Harold's burgeoning love for Adeline and the Professor's disapproval.

Speckled throughout "Of Imaginary Airships," the dialogue is a thinly disguised exposition full of philosophical rumination and dispute, highlighted by a tennis match between the two young lovers, each volley punctuated by speculation and refutation.  The clash between old science and new culminates when the professor challenges Harold to a duel–not one of blades or bullets, but of words.  A debate, the outcome of which will determine Adeline's future.

There's a pulpy, retro feel to this story, reminiscent of the recent Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow movie–a revival of the old pulp ambiance, including zeppelins and ornithopters.  But while Sky Captain is all adventure, noir, and derring-do, "Of Imaginatry Airships" is made of up of weightier, although arguably equally escapist, stuff. There's a slight, pontification feel which climaxes during the intellectual "duel," but Shockley manages to pull off what would otherwise be dry subject matter with the charm of his characters.

An enjoyable read.