Notes on The Waterworks

Sam Jordison writes for The Guardian’s Book Blog and will be featuring interesting books that you may not have read because they have been shelved in the part of the store you don’t look at.

There’s a famous story that in 1899 Charles H Duell resigned from the US patent office and recommended that it be closed on the basis that “everything has already been invented”.

It isn’t true.

In 1899 Duell actually recommended that the patent system be improved because so many people were trying to register their new inventions and the office was struggling to keep up.

The closest anyone came to the idea of future stagnation came in patent office commissioner Henry Ellsworth’s 1843 report to Congress. He wrote: “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.”

But that was a joke.

His report too was about the floods of new ideas that threatened to overwhelm the office and he spent a good deal of it specifying areas where he expected patent activity to increase.

Yet even if the patent office story is inaccurate, it’s worth something. It might not give us hard facts, but like most good urban legends, it does contain truths. Chiefly that the pace of technological development was so fast when the rumour started to take shape that the idea of the world staying the same — of there being any certainty except innovation and change — was patently nuts. According to Samuel Sass, the researcher who busted it in the Skeptical Inquirer back in 19891, variations on the Duell myth had been in circulation for at least 100 years — which means we’ve been trying to deal with huge quantities of “new” stuff for a very long time now.

I like trying to wrap my brain around this concept. That the past was once the future. That people in the 19th century felt the same feelings of excitement, uncertainty and fear in the age of steam engines, electric experimentation and industrial blight as we do in our times of iPads, genetic engineering and global warming. That there’s nothing new about feeling overwhelmed by technology.

Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but I still recommend playing around with the idea. Try to imagine a steam train not as a carefully preserved relic of a lost past, but as the new machine that was going to drag humanity into a new unknown age. Try to imagine the sense of wonder and apprehension…

The Waterworks - E.L. Doctorow … It’s not altogether easy is it? I recently took a ride on a train from 1901 on an old branch line that has now been given over to tourism, near my parents’ house in the English Lake District. Seeing where cuttings had been blasted into the ancient hills with dynamite, and hearing the power in the engine as it gathered steam and pulled us up the slopes gave me some idea of how this metal beast might have amazed someone who previously knew nothing stronger than horses. But it still felt like a museum trip. A step back. It was only when I got back home and started re-reading E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks [Purchase] that I started to feel I was getting a sense of this future of the past… Which is just one reason I’d recommend the book to anyone….

The action in The Waterworks is set in New York in the 1870s, during the final years of Boss Tweed’s corrupt rule over the city, but the narration is situated decades later, the recollections of an ageing newspaper man McIlvaine. He is describing the past — but a past that once seemed to him like the very edge of the future:

“You may think you are living in modern times, here and now, but that is the necessary illusion of every age. We did not conduct ourselves as if we were preparatory to your time. There was nothing quaint or colourful about us… Our rotary presses put fifteen, twenty thousand newspapers on the street for a penny or two. Enormous steam engines powered the mills and factories. Gas lamps lit the streets at night. We were three-quarters of a century into the industrial revolution.”

Three quarters of the way into an age of marvels. Like the first great freshwater reservoir in NYC:

“It was an unnatural thing, the reservoir. The bouldered retaining walls were twenty-five feet thick and rose forty-four feet in an inward leaning slant. The design was Egyptian. The corners were relieved by trapezoidal turrets, and bisecting each long wall face were temple doors. From this elevation the rising city seemed to fall back before something that wasn’t a city, a squared expanse of black water that was in fact the geometrical absence of a city.”

Three quarters of the way into an age of horrors. A society that can’t even keep track of its own children:

“I define modern civilization as the social failure to keep all children named. Does that shock you? In jungle tribes or among the nomad herders the children keep their names. Only in our great industrial downtown they don’t.”

Three quarters of the way into an era, that for all its gleaming modernity, still contains buried horrors. Early on in the novel, we learn that a friend of the narrator, a freelance called Martin Pemberton, proposes to exhume one of these horrors in a very literal sense, provoking the following from McIlvaine:

“Good God! These are modern times. Our city is lit by gaslight, we have transcontinental railroads, I can send a message by cable under the ocean… We don’t dig up bodies anymore!”

The grave in question is that of Augustus Pemberton, Martin’s father. This elder Pemberton was one of the city’s richest citizens; a man who had made his fortune profiteering in the Civil War and running slave ships and who had — as the wealthy and corrupt do — gone on to be one of the most powerful and “respected” men in town. We are told about his funeral early on in the narrative — but it soon becomes clear that although he fell seriously ill, Augustus did not die. Martin spots him in the back of a stagecoach, digs up his grave and discovers it is occupied by one of those nameless children. When he sets off to find his living dead daddy he too disappears. The rest of the narration sees McIlvaine trying to piece together the mystery and chase down the errant Pembertons with the aid of Captain Donne — that New York stalwart, the lonely honest cop working in a den of thieves, brutes and swindlers.

Much of the city that McIlvaine describes comes straight from the history books, and the established geography of New York. A place of ghosts and shadows, maybe, but one that had real shape in the physical world. The fascination of Doctorow’s take on that is best expressed by the man himself, quoted in the New York Times when the book was first released in 1994:

“When you walk through a place like New York, an enormous amount of the 19th century is still visible. It’s everywhere you look, the rowhouses in Harlem, the Federal town houses of the West Village, the Cooper Union building, the Washington Square arch, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge. The streets, their names, their shapes, the directions they go in. We didn’t do that. We’re living among the decisions of dead people.”

But on top of this spooky verisimilitude, Doctorow also conjures an alternate reality. McIlvaine’s investigations take him to (the brilliantly named) Dr Sartorius, a scientist who carries out unspeakable experiments, but whose most troubling aspect is not his madness so much as his cold calculating sanity. A man whose investigations call into question the entire morality of the pursuit of knowledge. In the heart of those previously described Waterworks, Sartorius has developed “a facility for biologized wealth”: a bizarre greenhouse where music constantly plays and deaf and dumb nurses in grey uniforms …


I don’t want to give too much away as a great deal of the pleasure of the book comes in discovering exactly what is going on. Suffice to say that it makes absolute sense when McIlvaine says:

“The images from the conservatory… loomed in me. I could not sleep, I was haunted… not by ghosts, but by Science.”

It’s a superb exploration of a theme that has always obsessed writers of SF: that technological progress can actually be a Bad Thing, practically and morally. Indeed, I’m guessing that by this stage, most readers of Salon Futura are thinking: streampunk. They’d be right too. Waterworks to my mind is a classic of the form. As well as working at the ideas about science and history developed in The Difference Engine, it also takes direct inspiration from writers like HG Wells and Edgar Allan Poe. It’s among the best speculative Victoriana that I’ve read — even though — thanks to the mysterious taxonomies of the publishing industry — it’s generally filed as literary fiction.

To finish this act of persuasion I can think of nothing better than to turn to the very beginning of the book:

“People didn’t take what Martin Pemberton said as literal truth, he was much too melodramatic or too tormented to speak plainly. Women were attracted to him for this — they imagined him as some sort of poet, though he was if anything a critic, a critic of his life and times. So when he went around muttering that his father was still alive, those of us who heard him, and remembered his father, felt he was speaking of the persistence of evil in general.”

The persistence of evil in general! How not to read on?

1. Helped considerably, as he was happy to admit by a report by Dr. Eber Jeffery made for the patent office itself in the 1940s.