30: All Aboard. Dive, Dive!

The after-dinner seminars continue, though not without an unsettling interruption...

Gentlemen,” he said, “as you are eager to teach this little fellow animal of ours something about our science, I would very gladly speak my piece. He has brought us enlightenment about physics; I will explain the eternal origin of the world. But I am in a hurry to get my bellows ready, because the city is leaving tomorrow without delay. Pardon the pressure of time; you have my promise that as soon as everything is ready I will complete my presentation.”

The host's son thereupon called his father. When he arrived, everyone asked him the time. The gentleman replied, “Eight o’clock.”

His son replied angrily, “What?! You screw-up! Didn’t I tell you to come and tell us when it was 7 o’clock? You know the houses are leaving tomorrow. The walls are already gone, and you’re too lazy to open your mouth.”

“Sir,” he replied, “after you started dinner, an announcement was made that expressly forbids starting out until day after tomorrow.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the son replied, giving the old man a kick. “You have to obey blindly. Don’t interpret my orders. Just remember what I told you to do. Quick, now, go get your effigy.”

When the old man had brought it in, the youth grabbed it by the arm and gave it a good whipping. “And what’s more, you good-for-nothing,” he continued, “as punishment for your disobedience I want you to be a laughingstock for everyone today. I order you to walk on only two feet the rest of the day.”

The poor old man went out all in tears, and his son continued: “Gentlemen, I beg you to excuse the misbehavior of this addled person. I hoped to make something out of him, but he has taken advantage of my good nature. I think the scoundrel will be the death of me yet. In fact, he has already brought me a dozen times to the point of giving him my filial curse.”

I was biting my lips but still had a hard time keeping from laughing at this world turned upside down. To interrupt this burlesque of parenting, which would have surely ended in my collapsing in guffaws, I asked him to tell me what he meant by the town’s voyage he had mentioned, and whether houses and walls traveled.

He continued, “Our cities, dear companion, are of two kinds: mobile and fixed. The mobile ones, such as the one we are in at present, are designed as I’ll explain: The architect constructs each building, as you have seen, out of very light wood and mounts it on four wheels. Inside one of the walls he puts a lot of large bellows. They are connected by pipes that run horizontally from the top floor of one house to another. That way, when we want to move a city somewhere else — they take a change of air every season — all the inhabitants deploy a number of large sails on one side of their dwellings; the sails are unfurled in front of the bellows. Then they wind a spring to operate the bellows. These wind-monsters generate continuous puffs of air that fill the sails. The houses can travel, if one wishes, a hundred leagues in less than a week.

“As for what we call fixed architecture, the dwellings are much like your towers, except they are made out of wood. In the middle they have a large, heavy screw running from the basement to the roof. It allows the houses to be raised or lowered at will. The earth under the houses is dug out as deep as the houses are tall. As soon as frosts begin to darken the sky, the inhabitants turn the screw and lower their houses into the pit. They place large skins over the top of the houses and the opening surrounding them, thus protecting them from the weather. But as soon as the soft breath of spring comes and makes it milder, they come back up to daylight by means of the large screw I mentioned.”

The scene with the host and his son is distressing, yet it provides a practical example of the father-son relationship outlined by the Sun-being in episode 26. It’s small comfort that the host’s son uses a whipping-effigy to chastise his father vicariously; he’s already mistreated him.

But we must heed Cyrano’s reminder: this is a world turned upside down. Cyrano the author may be recounting a scene from his own experience, one in which the father-son relationship was traditional and no whipping-effigy was available. Cyrano would have found it no laughing matter. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have known exactly what Cyrano is talking about, hence his revolutionary ideas on childhood discipline in his Emile (cf. episode 14).

The locomotive principle of the “city train” is another version of Elijah’s “bootstrap” space ship and violates Newton’s Third Law of Motion (cf. episode 10). Newton’s laws are still in the future, yet Cyrano seems to be challenging us to reason out for ourselves why the Moon-beings’ system won’t work. If the sails caught outside winds and the bellows were used as a kind of jet engine, the train might move. Well, maybe a little.

The houses that move vertically on screws don’t seem to take into account the probability that the water table will be so high that it will flood the “basements” into which they retract. But the idea is nonetheless interesting: Cyrano lived at the onset of the Maunder Minimum (ca. 1645-1715), the coldest part of the “Little Ice Age” (between about the 15th and 19th centuries). Seeking refuge was a real and pressing concern in a climate colder than today’s.