Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Impossible Voyage (1904)

I met Professor Kryschtloft for the first time at his home, in Paris. He requested that this interview be conducted there, and given the celebrity status that recent events had afforded him, our newspaper was willing to oblige. ‘Crowds,’ he informed us, ‘have become a concern.’

This was no small relief for my superior, the editor of The Times, Mr. George Semple. It was George’s opinion—or rather, his fear—that Prof. Kryschtloft now nursed a vendetta against the press as a whole. He had granted no interviews, nor even stood still for a photograph, for months. The Times had made several requests for a sitdown, all of which were flatly denied, if acknowledged at all. George’s only consolation was that our competitors, who were several and growing in 1905, were likewise frozen out.

The man had surely been offended, for it had once been unlike Prof. Kryschtloft to shun publicity of any kind. His fame, of course, had spread from Paris to all points in Europe and Asia, across the Channel, then across the seas. If there exist men in the Moon, as some have contended, then they, too, must know the name Kryschtloft: the man who proposed, planned and commanded the so-called ‘Impossible Voyage’ of 1904.

A passenger train, into which was built both a submarine and an automobile of exceptional girth. Tethered atop it, two dirigibles. A promise to travel around the world (and beyond) using only this mighty, compound vehicle. Proof, the professor had declared to this newspaper, before departing, that the 20th century would be a century in motion: one in which humanity might move faster, higher and farther than anyone dreamed previously.

Further, this magnificent travel would not be the privilege of scientists alone. Kryschtloft made clear—to the chagrin of those scientists, and several moralists, and some who counted themselves as both—that his Impossible Voyage would be undertaken by members of the general public. Kryschtloft, of course, considered the voyage entirely possible. All he requested was a considerable sum for tickets; a sum he considered bargain-rate, given the expense of research alone.

His passengers, who proved to be a motley crew of high society, all stand by him today. But this is to be expected, as he saved their lives more than once during their journey. They marched happily beneath him as he made his triumphant return to Paris, held aloft on their backs, his submarine’s shattered propeller slung heroically over one shoulder. No one questioned his judgement that day. But in the ensuing weeks, criticism bubbled up again. “Why,” asked The Globe-Post, “should public funding have been directed to an enterprise so clearly commercial?” “What scientific cause—of any sort—was advanced by the so-called ‘Impossible Voyage?” editorialized The Whig-Standard. The Times asked similar questions. The Times also struck at the heart of the matter, to whit: what man in his right mind would test an unproven machine with a car-load of Parisian citizens? Even if they paid him handsomely for the privilege? Prof. Kryschtloft answered no query; soon, he refused communiqués of any kind.

It was somewhat surprising, then, to read a telegram from Prof. Kryschtloft most recently, requesting I attend him for coffee and conversation in his study, on the subsequent Friday, at three o’clock. I would be granted one half-hour and should not expect to do very much talking. The professor would talk. I agreed.

We met, as planned, at three. The professor’s home is a modest one—a Parisian flat, well-constructed but unadorned. I was greeted at the door by a single servant, a young girl of adorable qualities, who invited me in and took my coat. From the foyer she led me into a main sitting area which occupied nearly the whole of the house. There the man sat, slung low in a mighty purple armchair, dead centre in a space piled high with books upon books, stacks of paper and various instruments of calculation. 

The room was lit high and bright, though it illuminated only artless walls of dark wood and basic plastering. Where we might have hung portraits of our loved ones, Prof. Kryschtloft found room for blackboards. Chalk dust hung on the worn spines of the thick volumes nearby. Dust lay even upon the sleeves of the professor’s waistcoat, leading me to believe he’d been furiously calculating only moments before my arrival. His black beard—favoured by Parisian men of his age and even moreso by the younger caricaturists of London—was wild as ever, even in these private quarters, with their still air. Behind the mane, his eyes observed me with furious energy. He did not rise, but instead bid me to sit opposite him, and partake of an urn of coffee placed on a small table between us. He warned me to let the beverage cool, for he personally liked it, he said, “hotter than the surface of the sun.”

The Times: My thanks, Prof. Kryschtloft, for your accommodation. Our readers are most interested to hear your thoughts.

Kryschtloft: On what subjects now, Mr. Murphy?

T: On many, Professor. Most particularly, on matters of hindsight. It has now been nearly one year since your return from the Impossible Voyage, and your critics, it must be said, grow louder.

Kryschtloft: Such are critics, Mr. Murphy. Were bombast fuel, they could reach the heavens with a single leap. And let us not begin by misrepresenting the events—the goals of the voyage were achieved. They are not, by definition, ‘impossible,’ since they were attempted and completed.

T: Indeed, sir, but at the expense of all machinery used to achieve them, and very nearly at the expense of several lives.

Kryschtloft: Great endeavours carry risk. Will your readership not understand that, Mr. Murphy? I proposed to design a craft incorporating the full range of human locomotion, and in so doing, exceed the very definition of travel as human beings have known it. By road, by rail, by sea, yes—and to the stars! Is there no nobility in that? And is there shame in partial victory after such mighty effort?

T: Your colleagues at the Institute of Incoherent Geography certainly agree with you.

Kryschtloft: Good men, all.

T: Though members of your sister organization, the Institute of Incoherent Astronomy, do not.

My subject now stiffened. Kryschtloft set down his cup, rose from his seat and began to pace the room, saying nothing. He turned to one of his blackboards, and for more than five minutes of our interview time he stood silent, marking upon it calculations of a most dense variety with a fat stick of chalk. His servant removed the coffee cups without being asked (and without my having sampled a drop from mine). When Kryschtloft returned to his chair, he leaned forward, still clutching the chalk. As we spoke, he rapped the chalk against the table to punctuate his rage.

Kryschtloft: Astronomers. Astronomers! A gaggle of dull top-hats, stuffed into a gigantic bullet and blasted into the moon—their challenge, sir, was as great as that of a small child aiming his toy gun at the side of a wall. For two years I listened to them brag, and spin their tales of explosive Moon men—it was absurd. It added nothing to the public good but another story of far-off dreams. And yet they were lauded. So I vowed to fashion a better quest. One that embodied the best technologies we have now, but enjoyable by average men. Gentlemen and ladies; men of commerce; men of sport. The very embodiments, Mr. Murphy, of the best our society can produce!

T: Several of whom, you must admit, proved less than vigorous.

Kryschtloft: Flawed, sir, but distinct individuals nonetheless. Look at the footage of those astronomers—I challenge you to tell one from the next. They’re but one type. My passengers are real people, and clearly so.

T: Including the well-regarded, but rather corpulent, Mrs. Kurpatov, who fell faint from the fumes of your half-built machine?

Kryschtloft: Mrs. Kurpatov appreciates dreams on a grand scale, as did all of them. I ask you, sir, does not the adversity my passengers willingly overcame stand as proof of the voyage’s worthiness? Our automobile: smashed to bits when it drove through an Alpine lodge; our submarine, blown to flaming wreckage after a fire aboard ship—did we not persevere? All of us, even poor, rotund Mrs. Kurpatov, so underestimated by you? Was she not willing to continue onward, after surviving a car accident concluded at the bottom of a cliff? And not toward some mediocre destination, but to the surface of the Sun itself!?

T: Yes, as to that—

Kryschtloft: —to its very fiery corona! A kaleidoscopic halo of yellows and oranges! It fairly blinded us as we approached!

T: The Institute of Incoherent Astronomy—

Kryschtloft: —to hell with them!—

T: —contends that your tale of the Sun’s surface is a complete fabrication. Their science suggests that it is, indeed, impossible to reach the Sun with a pair of dirigibles.

Kryschtloft: Instead, we should have shot ourselves into the Moon’s ‘eye’?

T: You did claim the Sun ‘swallowed’ your craft. Literally, through its mouth.

Kryschtloft: Mr. Murphy. Speaking as one of the world’s few citizens to have apprehended the Sun from a distance of one hundred feet, I can assure you it has a face—a rather disagreeable one. And indeed, it was by plunging into the gullet of the orb that we ultimately reached its surface. By what physics that was accomplished, I’m not at liberty to say. I merely say, being the gentleman that I am, that it is true.

T: Once landed on the surface of the Sun, your passengers immediately felt the effects of intense heat. And, as both they and you tell it, you saved their lives. First, by placing them within an ice-box car in your train, and then, by forcing them into the submarine, which you promptly pushed to the edge of the sun, tipped over that edge, and sent plunging back to Earth.

Kryschtloft: Yes. That is what happened.

T: Are you claiming, Prof. Kryschtloft, that you possess the strength required to push a cast-iron submarine, with a complement of nearly ten passengers, even one inch?

Kryschtloft: If my humble friends the astronomers possess the ability to see Moon Men, Mr. Murphy, then yes, I claim it. Now, if you look through the window to your left, you will notice the sundial in my yard. Your time is short.

T: Yes. Let me ask you, then, why you chose this moment to speak to the press? Your silence has been a source of concern for many of my colleagues.

Kryschtloft: I’ve only invited you here, Mr. Murphy, to announce that I am not cowed. That I cannot abide the word ‘impossible,’ even if it suits a journalist’s thirst for base poetry. A man such as myself can stay silent only so long in the face of flawed public perception. I presume you understand.

T: I do. I ask you then, Prof. Kryschtloft, if you have any regrets. This voyage, though it has brought you fame, has made the endeavours of hard science a blurrier business than ever. What would you do differently, if anything?

Kryschtloft: I would add one more car to my train, Mr. Murphy. A flat one, of considerable size.

T: One more car?

Kryschtloft: Yes. And upon it, a cannon. And in it, a shell, that would have blasted myself and my crew of common dreamers past the Moon, past even the Sun; onward, to the unlit reaches of deepest space.


Where to find The Impossible Voyage:
The approximately 20-minute Impossible Voyage can be found on disc three of Flicker Alley’s magnificent five-disc set, George Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896 – 1913).

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