Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis

I read The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon. It is quite short, perhaps because it was never finished. There is not much plot.

The narrator's expedition comes to a large island in the Pacific with a secret civilization. This civilization, Bensalem, has kept itself in deliberate near-total isolation from the rest of the world since 300 B.C. It's not clear to me exactly what ill effects they expect from interaction with other countries, but they figure their kingdom is so great that exposure to strangers has more downside than upside. However, the wise men of the kingdom send out a select number of spies to gather information from the outside world, so they can benefit from any positive discoveries while excluding everything negative and revealing nothing about themselves.

Bensalem is a Christian kingdom because around 50 A.D., Saint Bartholomew sent the island a magical floating capsule containing advance copies of the complete Old and New Testament, including the books of the New Testament that hadn't been written yet. (Seriously, that's what it says in the book.)

Apparently The New Atlantis is remembered in part because the association of wise men who do various experiments and send out spies to gather knowledge was an inspiration for the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660.

The narrator seems weirdly obsessed with the linens and silks and velvets and plush that make up the wardrobe of the various characters. I guess maybe that is his idea of character description: to give a very detailed account of their outfits.

The story has consistency problems. When the narrator's crew first lands on the island, they're told that there's sufficient government funding for them to stay six weeks, and they may apply for an extension if necessary. Then later it turns out that the kingdom's visitor policy, to humanely discourage travelers from returning home with the secrets of the island, is to bribe them to stay forever in comfort. Then right before the story ends, one of the kingdom's wise men tells the narrator to go home and tell everyone about the scientific society... basically chucking Bensalem's 1900-year policy out the window.

I think Francis Bacon was a pretty terrible writer of speculative fiction.


At 7:11 AM, November 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't Shakespeare write Bacon's works?

At 2:23 PM, November 22, 2006, Blogger Richard Mason said...

Sometimes I think Shakespeare is overrated, but it doesn't seem to me that he could possibly have written the snoozer passages of TNA.

At 5:16 PM, November 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, well, some of the Essays are graceful. And I think the New Organon is a great work.

I think some of the clothing description in the New Atlantis is Rosicrucian symbolism, if that makes it more bearable.

At 11:08 PM, November 22, 2006, Blogger Richard Mason said...

Now that you mention it, I did notice that the governor who first tells them of the land of Bensalem had a white turban with a small red cross. But I just thought he was going to offer them medical attention.

I will give The New Organon a try.


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