Monday, September 05, 2005

Alchemy, Alchemy and More Alchemy

Lots of Alchemy going around lately. For those of you who don't know, and who can perform analogies, alchemy is to chemistry as astrology is to astromomy. Or, to pick a more timely comparison, as intelligent design is to evolution, or as Miss Cleo is to the Weather Channel. That sort of thing.

Apparently alchemey used to be all the rage, back in the 1700's and before that unto the mists of time. The most well known part of it was the quest to turn lead into gold. Harry Potter is familiar with this, what with the Philosopher's [Sorcerer's] Stone. Anyways, it used to be a very respectible pursuit, with none other than Isaac Newton devoting quite a bit of time to it - according to a random internet source, more time than he spent sitting under apple trees and revolutionizing physics. In fact, he was probably thinking about alchemy while sitting under the apple tree.

Which brings us to a book called Newton's Cannon, by J. Gregory Keyes. I read this at the beach after stumbling across it reading Wikipedia about alternate histories. It's about What If Newton discovered Alchemy and turned it into a science. It features Louis XIV, The Sun King, who has taken an immortality potion, waging war against England. Both sides use all kinds of crazy Alchemy weapons, like a gun that shoots lightning bolts, and cannons that make water (including the stuff inside your body) boil, etc. etc. And, just for kicks, a 14 year old Benjamin Franklin, who becomes sort of an action hero / scientist part.

Ben Franklin was a famous lady's man in Paris (seriously)

The book is alright; it's part of a long series, but I don't know if I'll be reading the other ones. The alchemy in it, which really is the main selling point, unless you like French Royal Court intruiges, sort of stumbles, as it either takes the form of mundane things like Alchemy-powered light bulbs or telegraphs, or the form of just outright magic. The bad guys, for instance, are kind of like ghost body snatcher clouds of mist things.

The problem with the first kind is that although light bulbs would probably be amazing to Benjamin Franklin, they arent really that amazing to, well, me. Maybe they are powered by Alchemy or whatever, but in the end, they're just light bulbs. The problem with the second kind is: why not just write a ghost story? Or a fantasy book? The book I think tries to be a steampunk type thing, but it turns out to be a book about magic.

That said, it's sort of fun. You get to see Ben Franklin have sex with a prostitute in London, and you get to see Isaac Newton play a Doc Brown from Back to the Future part. And since ***SPOILERS*** the world kind of gets exploded at the end, maybe the later books in the series will focus more on cool stuff instead of what's happening at Versailles. ***SPOILERS OVER***

The other bit of Alchemy I've been seeing lately is the Ross-recommended Full Metal Alchemist. This is an Adult Swim anime about (again) a world where Alchemy works. It's got a couple of brothers (one of whom is a suit of armor and the other of whom has a metal arm and leg) who travel the world looking for the Philosopher's Stone. It is pretty excellent and switches between cutesy anime and kind of shocking.

Anyway, the alchemy in this show is more magicy than that in Newton's Cannon. You basically draw little Wicca circles on the ground and then you can do crazy stuff like turn water to ice, or create spears out of thin air, that sort of thing. They keep reminding you that "alchemy is a science," but so far the show could be completely identical if they just called it magic.

Which isn't to say it is bad. While Newton's Cannon spends a lot of time going into "scientific" explanations of how things work, but then just makes it magic anyways, Full Metal Alchemist just lets it go, and it's a lot easier to engage your willful suspension of disbelief drives as a result. There's a good amount of action, and some nice touching scenes between the brothers, who have bitten off a little more than they can chew in the world, and are trying to set things right again.

So in the end, I'd give the book a C+, with the reservation that the later books in the series are likely to be very different and (we would hope) better. The show gets an A; it's a whole lot of fun.

The reason any of this is interesting to me at all is that I've always been fascinated by failed scientific theories. Something about the fact that there was a time when there was a real contraversy about how fire worked, or about how light worked is just really interesting to me. So those two links are some fun reading, and of course there's the old Obsolete scientific theory page to keep you busy. Enjoy!


At 9/07/2005 03:29:00 PM, Blogger i heart dorks said...

Eventhough I made fun of your title, this is a good post.

I didn't know that you were so interested in boys touching. Good to know!


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