10: Paradise Base: the Bootstrap Has Landed.

Two of Cyrano’s inventions are particularly well known: the first was the flasks of dew (episode 2); the other is Elijah’s magnet.

“Now I must tell you how I came here. A while ago I told you that my name is Elijah, and I don’t think you’ve forgotten. You know, then, that I was on your world and that I lived with Elisha, a Hebrew like myself, on the banks of the Jordan river. With my books I led a life that was nice enough, although I don’t miss it, and I was getting on in years.

“However, the more my knowledge increased, the more I knew how much I didn’t know. Whenever our priests reminded me of Adam, the memory of that perfect philosophy he had possessed made me sigh with yearning. I was in despair of being able to acquire it when, one day, after performing a sacrifice to expiate the weaknesses of my mortal being, I fell asleep, and an angel of the Lord appeared to me in a dream. As soon as I awakened I set to work on the things he had prescribed. I took a magnet about two feet square and put it in an oven. When it had been purged, precipitated and dissolved, I drew off its attractive quality in liquid form, solidified it, and compressed it into a ball of about average size.

“Next I had a very light iron chariot constructed. In a few months, when all my devices were complete, I climbed onto my worthy chariot. You may ask what it was all for. Well, the angel had told me in my dream that if I wanted to acquire the perfect knowledge I desired, I would have to go to the Moon. There I would find Adam’s paradise and the Tree of Knowledge. As soon as I had tasted its fruit, my mind would be enlightened with all the truths a person could know. That is the voyage for which I built my chariot.

“Finally, I climbed aboard and, when I was securely settled on the seat, I tossed the magnetic ball high into the air. The chariot I had built was more massive in the middle than at the ends; it was perfectly balanced because the middle rose faster than the extremities. When I had risen to the point that the magnet was drawing me to, I seized the magnetic ball and tossed it into the air again.”

“But,” I interrupted, “how did you throw your ball straight up above your chariot so that it never fell to one side?”

“I don’t see anything strange about that,” he said, “because the magnet attracted the iron. How could I miss? I will say, though, that while I held the ball in my hand, I still kept going up, because I was holding the ball above the chariot, and the chariot continued to chase after it. But the iron in the chariot pursued the magnet so strongly that I was squashed between the ball and the chariot. I tried that only once. To tell the truth, the chariot was an astonishing sight to behold, because I had polished the steel of my flying house so carefully that it reflected the sunlight on all sides. It was so bright and dazzling that I thought, myself, that I had been carried away in a chariot of fire.

“Anyway, after I had tossed the ball a lot and been drawn up after it, I reached the same point you did, where you began to fall toward this world. At that point I was holding the ball tightly in my hands, and the chariot seat was pressing against me as it followed the ball. All I had to worry about was breaking my neck. To prevent that, I tossed the ball backwards from time to time so that my machine was naturally drawn to it and slowed down enough to break the force of my fall. Finally, when I saw I was about a quarter of a mile above the ground, I began throwing the ball out sideways from the chariot, first on one side and then on the other until I saw the Garden. With each toss, my machine immediately rushed after the ball, and I let myself fall until I saw I was ready to crash onto the sand. Then I tossed the ball up only a foot over my head. That was enough to break completely the momentum imparted by the descent. My landing was no rougher than if I had fallen from my own height.”

Cyrano’s Elijah is remarkable for his skill in both engineering and piloting a spacecraft. However, we might want to ask him several questions, such as: How did he manage to get the magnetic ball aboard his chariot without being run over by his own vehicle? Docking clamps would seem to be in order. Once he was on the chariot, how did he manage to pry the ball loose from it, let alone toss it into the air? The ball might have been secured on an adjustable wooden platform, which could have served as “shielding” and made it possible to vary the rate of ascent or descent. But such objections are cavils and should not distract us from enjoying one of the most original and slyly humorous stories in world literature.

No one has seen the “bootstrap” effect or the distillation of liquid magnetism, nor does Cyrano himself take them seriously. Rather, we see again the moderne in action: where Rabelais exposed popular fables and superstitions for what they were, Cyrano shows, further, how to use both them and the symbolism of mythology as a source of ideas.

Cyrano’s Elijah can’t really go to the Moon by tossing a magnet into the air, but suppose he used a chariot attached to a “rope” that is made of super-materials and wound around a pulley stationed in a geosynchronous orbit? Today we have the concept of the “space elevator,” which uses ascending and descending modules as counterweights on a “tether” to lift people and cargo into space. Who knows, that may prove to be no more practical in the long run than Elijah’s magnet, but Cyrano shows how thinking scientifically revolutionizes tradition. No longer is Scripture used to determine the shape of the earth; Cyrano turns the world upside down by using science and technology to interpret Scripture.