Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Wingboat

In Poul Anderson's Conan The Rebel (New York, 1981), the white, metallic, fifty-foot "wingboat" does spread wings but does not fly. Instead, controlled by gestures and magic words, it skims along the surface of a river with supernatural speed, a curious combination of magic and science:

" '...the last of its kind...The magical formula of its making was lost when Acheron perished, three thousand years ago.' " (p. 45)

I do not know whether Acheron, sounding like Atlantis or Numenor, was invented by Anderson to account for this single mechanism or whether it is part of the background of the Conan series but, in either case, Conan's prehistoric world is spatio-temporally vast if casual reference can be made to a magical realm of so long ago.

Another curious mechanism is a small mirror worn by the priestess Nehekba. Touching it releases either a dark paralysing ray or a light language-imparting ray. Like the metallic boat, a mirror emitting rays sounds like technology although again its power source is magical. Conan the barbarian addresses Nehekba as he would if she did wield scientific technology. He is not, he says:

" ' stupid as you took for given. You civilized people think that because we barbarians have no cities or books we must be a lot of dumb animals. Hell, we need our wits more than you do!' " (pp. 92-93)

Conan has fared widely, has assessed civilised countries and now speaks like a civilised man.

I have linked this novel to Anderson's The Dancer From Atlantis since both are set BC although Dancer is science fiction. Its futurian time travellers use a language-imparting device, the mentator, which, of course, is technological, transferring data between the speech centres of brains, whereas Nehekba, casting her magic spells, knows nothing of brains or their speech centres.

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