Steampunk sizzler unites Tesla, Twain against Edison

Steampunk sizzler unites Tesla, Twain against Edison

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 29 August, 2015
A page from The Five Fists of Science.
Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders’ graphic novel presents an alternative history of Mark Twain’s anti-war efforts, with black magic and the Tesla-Edison rivalry thrown in, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

The Five Fists of Science (2006)

Writer: Matt Fraction

Artist: Steven Sanders

The feud between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Alva Edison has now become the most famous rivalry in the history of science. I say "now become" because there are perhaps no other two gentlemen whose public perception has changed so drastically in the last 20-30 years. In the eyes of the general public, Edison had pride of place as the greatest inventor of all time. And Tesla, although some of his contributions were recognised, was seen as more of an unfulfilled talent. In recent years, however, as more and more scientists (and commentators with a scientific background, like Matt Inman of The Oatmeal) spoke up about the duo, Edison's image took a beating and his flaws were highlighted: he sabotaged Tesla's career, he backed the inferior DC (direct current) over Tesla's AC (alternating current) technology, he was more of an opportunistic parasite than a bona fide inventor.

Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders' The Five Fists of Science is a graphic novel that uses this long overdue revisionism to tell a rollicking story, one that features an ensemble cast of historical figures: apart from Tesla and Edison, there's also Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Guglielmo Marconi and Baroness Bertha von Suttner. The premise is simple and even has a historical basis: Twain and Tesla really did write to each other about the possibilities of "peace by compulsion".

Twain wanted Tesla's help; he wanted "the great inventors to contrive something against which fleets and armies would be helpless, and thus make war thenceforth impossible." In Fraction's story, Tesla has indeed made such an automaton, a war machine that outstrips the most advanced weapons of the time (early 20th century). For a bankrupt Twain, this is not only the instrument of world peace, it is also the road to redemption.

Tesla is easily the most memorable character of the book. His famous eccentricities are exploited to the hilt by Sanders in particular: for instance, Tesla always dined alone because he would mentally measure the volume of each spoonful before consuming it. I also liked the fact that Tesla is loath to reveal the secrets of his inventions. As Twain points out at a crucial moment, even if all the superpowers of the world bought Tesla's weapons, they lacked the knowhow to improve upon them; as he says: "Having a secret and knowing a secret are two very different things."

Tesla is easily the most memorable character of the book. His famous eccentricities are exploited to the hilt by Sanders in particular: for instance, Tesla always dined alone because he would mentally measure the volume of each spoonful before consuming it.

It's interesting, also, how Fraction builds up the bad guys. This is a cabal of capitalists led by Morgan and Carnegie, with Edison acting as their enforcer and troubleshooter-in-chief. We are told that they are building something sinister and shadowy at a place called Innsmouth Tower. The deaths of dozens of construction workers there is the first hint that Morgan and co. have quite literally been dining with the devil.

There is also the larger question of Edison and co. being, in the classical sense, devotees of Mammon, a personification of wealth and greed in the Middle Ages. The monomaniacal pursuit of profit has turned them against not just scientific but also humanitarian progress.

Actually, the positioning of capitalists as the Big Evil has much to do with the conventions of the genre Fraction and Sanders are working in here: "steampunk", a subgenre of science fiction that generally features weaponry inspired by the steam engine. And just like the arrival of the steam engine also meant the arrival of a group of technophobe vigilantes called the Luddites, steampunk novels were also likely to feature a villain who used fanciful gadgets to usher in the apocalypse. By making the automaton the brainchild of Tesla, i.e. the good guys, Fraction and Sanders subverted the conventions of the genre. And just to rub it in, they made the villains turn to black magic, an eminently old world weapon.

There are limits to the fun, of course: Twain's jokes about his penury get a little tiresome after a while and Carnegie's character is reduced to pottering around Morgan and Edison. But the sheer fun of the premise and Sander's outstanding art make The Five Fists of Science a worthwhile investment.

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