Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 14

Engineering Problems

NOT long after John told me of his efforts to make contact with other supernormals he took me into his confidence about his plans for the future. We were in the subterranean workshop. He was absorbed in a new invention, a sort of generator-accumulator, he said. His bench was covered with test-tubes, jars, bits of metal, bottles, insulated wires, voltmeters, lumps of stone. He was so intent on his work that I said, “I believe you’re regressing to childhood. This sort to thing has got hold of you again and made you forget all about — Scotland.”

“No, you’re wrong,” he said. “This gadget is an important part of my plan. When I have finished this test I’ll tell you.” Silently he proceeded with the experiment. Presently, with a little shout of triumph, he said, “Got it this time!”

Over a cup of coffee we discussed his plans. He was determined to search the whole world in the hope of discovering a few others of his kind, and of suitable age for joining with him in the founding of a little colony of supernormals in some remote part of the earth. In order to do this without loss of time, he said, he must have an ocean-going yacht and a small aeroplane, or flying machine of some kind, which could be stowed on the yacht. When I protested that he knew nothing about flying and less about designing planes, he replied, “Oh yes, I do. I learned to fly yesterday.” It seems he had managed to persuade a certain brilliant young airman to give him not only a joy-ride but a long spell in control of the machine. “Once you get the feel of it,” he said, “it’s easy enough. I landed twice, and took off twice, and did a few stunts. But of course there’s a good deal more to learn. As for designing, I’m on the job already, and on the yacht design too. But a lot depends on this new gadget. I can’t explain it very well. At least, I can explain, in a way, but you just won’t believe it. I’ve been looking into nuclear chemistry lately, and in the light of my Scotch experiences an idea struck me. Probably even you know (though you have a genius for keeping out of touch with science) that there’s the hell of a lot of energy locked up in every atomic nucleus, and that the reason why you can’t release it is that the unlocking would take a fantastically powerful electric current, to overcome the forces that hold the electrons and protons, and so on, together. Well, I’ve found a much handier key. But it’s not a physical key at all but a psychical one. It’s no use trying to overcome those terrific interlocking forces. You must just abolish them for the time being; send them to sleep, so to speak. The interlocking forces, and the disruptive forces too, are just the spontaneous urges of the basic physical units, call them electrons and protons, if you like. What I do, then, is to hypnotize the little devils so that they go limp for a moment and loosen their grip on one another. Then when they wake up they barge about in hilarious freedom, and all you have to do is to see that their barging drives your machinery.”

I laughed, and said I liked his parable. “Parable be damned,” he said. “It’s only a parable in the sense that the protons and electrons themselves are merely fictitious characters in a parable. They’re not really independent entities at all, but determinations within a system — the cosmos. And they’re not really just physical, but determinations within a psychophysical system. Of course if you take ‘sapient’ physics as God’s truth, and not as an abstraction from a more profound truth, the whole idea seems crazy. But I thought it worth looking into, and I find it works. Of course there are difficulties. The main one is the psychological one. The ‘sapient’ mind could never do the trick; it’s not awake enough. But the supernormal has the necessary influence, and practice makes the job reasonably safe and easy. The physical difficulties,” he said, glancing at his apparatus, “are all connected with selecting the most favourable atoms to work on, and with tapping the flood of energy as it comes into action. I’m working on those problems now. Ordinary mud from the estuary is pretty good for the job. There’s a minute percentage of a very convenient element in it.”

With a pair of tweezers he took a pinch of mud from a test-tube and put it in a platinum bowl. He opened the trap-door of the workshop and placed the bowl outside, then returned, almost closing the trap-door. We both looked through the opening at the little bowl. Smiling, he said, “Now all you little electrons and protons go to sleep, and don’t wake up till Mummy tells you.” Turning to me, he added, “The patter, I may say, is for the audience, not for the rabbits in the conjurer’s hat.”

An expression of grave concentration came over his face. His breathing quickened. “Now!” he said. There was a terrific flash, and a report like a gun.

John wiped his forehead with a grubby pocket handkerchief, and remarked, “Alone I did it!” We returned to our coffee, and his plans.

“I’ve still got to find some really good way of bottling the energy till it’s wanted. You can’t be at one and the same time hypnotizing electrons and navigating a ship. I may simply have to use the energy to drive a dynamo and charge an accumulator. But there’s a more interesting possibility. I may be able, when I have hypnotized the little beggars, to give them a sort of ‘post-hypnotic suggestion’, so that they can only wake up and barge about again in response to some particular stimulus. See?”

I laughed. We both sipped our coffee. I may as well say at once that the “post-hypnotic” system turned out ultimately to be feasible, and was adopted.

“Well, you can see,” he said, “there are great possibilities in this new dodge of mine. Now, while the yacht and plane are building, you are to come on the Continent with me. (I’m sure Bertha will be glad to have a holiday from you.) I want to do a bit of research. There’s an obviously supernormal mind in Paris, and one in Egypt, and perhaps others, not too far away. When I have the yacht and plane I’ll do the world tour in search of the rest. If I find a few suitable young things, I’ll voyage in the Pacific to find a satisfactory island for the Colony.”

During the next two months John was absorbed in the practical work of designing the yacht and the plane, perfecting the new power technique, and improving his flying.

At this time he was often to be seen “playing at boats” on the Park Lake or the more boisterous Estuary, like any ordinary boy. He was now over eighteen, but in appearance under fifteen. Thus his behaviour seemed quite normal. He produced a large number of models and fitted them out with electric motors or steam engines. These he dispatched across the lake in all weathers, observing their performance with great care. The design was largely determined by the necessity of stowing the plane on board, with wings folded, and by the need for extreme sea-worthiness. John’s final choice was an extraordinary craft which local yachtsmen regarded as a mere caricature of a ship. John made a special three-foot model to this design, and fitted her out in great detail. In general shape she was ludicrously broad in the beam, and of shallow draft, in fact an exaggeration of the speed-boat hull; a sort of cross between a speed-boat and a life-boat, with a saucer somewhere in her ancestry, and perhaps a flat pebble of the “ducks and drakes” type. She was certainly a delightful toy; and I feel sure that John thoroughly enjoyed her simply as a toy, and had put much more work into her than was needed for mere experimentation. She represented a vessel the size of a small tug. No detail was omitted from her equipment. There were bunks for nine persons, but twenty could sleep on board at a pinch, and she could be handled comfortably by a single navigator. There was a realistic dining-saloon, with tables, chairs, cupboards. There was a latrine, glass portholes, minute navigation controls. These controls could be operated by some sort of radio device on shore. The engine was a fairly detailed replica of the sub-atomic engine that John intended for the actual ship.

Much entertainment was afforded by the antics which John made his model perform. On the Park Lake he would send her in leisurely pursuit of the terrified ducks. On the estuary, when the tide was in, he would stop her far out at sea, and persuade some kindly member of the sailing club to salvage her in a dinghy. When the sweating oarsman had reached the little derelict, and was putting out his hand to seize her, John (on shore, and half a mile away) would set her going for a yard or two and watch the man’s repeated efforts to recover her. Finally he would let her out at full speed for the shore, and she would return to her master’s hand like a well-trained dog.

John had also been at work on several model planes. He used to spend much time flying them; but in secret, for he feared that, if they were seen performing their surprising antics, they would attract too much attention. He therefore used to retire with them into the wilds of North Wales, by means of his motor-bike or my car. There he would try out his models in the fickle mountain winds, their sub-atomic power enabling them to perform feats which no elastic-driven model could possibly achieve.

His final choice was a surprising mechanism, made on the same scale as the model yacht, and capable of being dismantled and stowed on board. With this stub-winged instrument he would arouse himself and me by the hour, making it rise from the surface of a “llyn” (it had both wheels and floats), and climb heavenwards, till we had to use a field-glass to follow it. It maintained its equilibrium automatically, but was steered by radio from the ground. When he had become adept in the management of this mechanical bird, he sometimes used it for a modern sort of hawking, sending the sparrow-like little object in chase of curlews, buzzards and ravens. This sport needed very delicate perception as well as control. As a rule the quarry would hurry away as soon as it realized it was being chased. The plane would then chevy it, or even swoop upon its back. But one old raven turned to fight, and before John could bring his toy’s superior speed into operation for escape, the raven’s horny neb had slashed one of the silken wings, and the plane came tumbling to the heather.

The plans for the yacht and the plane were finished before John reached the age of nineteen. I need not describe how I negotiated with shipbuilders and aeroplane manufacturers, and finally placed orders for the actual construction. I gained the reputation of being a mad millionaire; for the designs appeared to be quite unworkable, and I would not consider any of the objections raised against them. The main trouble was that in both plane and yacht the space allotted to the generation of power was by all ordinary standards quite insufficient. Contracts for the generators and machinery were distributed among several engineering firms in such a manner as to arouse as little curiosity as possible.


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