Historical fiction - a book review
“It might do us good to remember from time to time that, while differing widely in the various little bits we know, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal.” - Karl Popper
Graham Moore, the author of the screenplay for The Turing Point, takes us back to New York at the turn of the century with Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla battling it out during the War of Currents in his historical fiction The Last Days of Night. Science is the one thing all three men have in common, but there the similarities end and we have the portraits of three very different men: Tesla is the wily genius, Edison the astute businessman, Westinghouse the homely, grounded entrepreneur. The fictional story revolves around the now folklore of Edison having been the villain in this fight to light up the world and end darkness. A pivotal moment in history, when science and business combined to make modern day technology, giving rise to the companies we know today: Westinghouse Electric Corporation, General Electric, and Tesla.
The novel is related from the perspective of an outsider, the young lawyer Paul Cravath, who Westinghouse has hired for the Edison-Westinghouse light bulb patent lawsuit. Through Cravath the story takes an unprejudiced view of science and scientists, one that is neither divinized nor demonized. We are presented with a multifaceted perspective of science: even as Westinghouse is fighting to switch from D/C current to Tesla’s A/C current, Harold Brown is in cahoots with Edison in inventing the electric chair and petitioning the New York Legislature to consider it for the death penalty. The opening scene of the book is a disturbing one of a man being burnt alive while fixing the D/C supplied wires. We are presented with a view of scientists vying for power and prestige through all sorts of morally questionable behavior, adding to the notion that greatness and goodness are different entities, a theme touched upon in the work: becoming good - the higher ideal - often involves a misled foray into greatness. Yet, these are scientists who are also able to put aside their differences, when it comes down to it, for the sake of the curiosity and wonder that propels science.
The scientists we meet follow the heels of the likes of Sir Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, Zénobe-Théophile Gramme, Paul Jablochkoff. Tesla by far is the most unique and brilliant, and his creative counterpart is not found in the other scientists but rather in the heroine, a singer by the name of Agnes Huntington - the sole female in an otherwise male dominated narrative and a reminder of the absence of women of science. We meet Alexander Bell Graham, inventor of the telephone, who mentions being in correspondence with a couple of brothers in Ohio trying to fly (the Wright brothers). We are introduced to a young Henry Ford, who is just starting off his career with visions of a grand business scheme. We are presented with both characters from prestigious backgrounds, like the Astors, and those who have fought their way through the world, including Edison, Cravath, and Tesla (who is a Serbian immigrant). Inventions of all kinds are scattered throughout the work: light bulbs, telephones, electrical wiring, generators, x-rays, motion picture. The short chapters run like the scenes of a screenplay, making it perhaps easier for the movie which is to be released in 2018, with Eddie Redmayne set to play Paul Cravath.
What we are left with is a painting of Manhattan comparable to that of Raphael’s The School of Athens, one of those spectacular moments when multiple geniuses converge in the same space and time, changing the fate of history. A Manhattan that is a counterpart to the Royal Society of Newton and Darwin on the other side of the Atlantic, this time with the added ingredients of an American spirit, internationalism, and business acumen. As for changing the fate of history, the fictional Edison aptly puts it with a nostalgic air that he sees science shifting from being knowable to unknowable: “It won’t be like this. It will be more...technical. Inside the magic box, not outside it. A light bulb is intuitive; an X-ray is practically alchemy. The machines are becoming so infernally complicated that barely a soul can even conceptualize how they work...From here we can only build incrementally. Improvements. Not revolutions. No new colors, only new hues.” The Last Days of Night then was the story of electricity both brightening and curtaining the creation of colors.