Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Great Stone of Sardis by Frank R. Stockton

From the top of the world to its deepest depths
Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902) was a popular American author of fiction in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. His novel The Great Stone of Sardis was originally published in 1891, which is good to know before reading this novel. Otherwise, the reader may wonder what’s going on when the story opens in the year 1947 and Stockton starts describing futuristic ocean liners. This is a science fiction novel similar in style and subject matter to the works of Jules Verne. Stockton isn’t quite the writer Verne is, however, and although The Great Stone of Sardis was likely groundbreaking for its time, to the 21st century reader it feels a little pedestrian.

Roland Clewe is a scientific genius and inventor who operates a laboratory in Sardis, New Jersey. A modern-day Renaissance man in the vein of Thomas Edison, Clewe’s major area of expertise is electrical technology, but his scientific explorations lead him to dabble in all areas of the sciences. The novel consists of two main story lines that run parallel to each other throughout the book. First, Clewe sponsors an expedition to discover the North Pole. He chooses not to go himself, but he creates the technologically advanced submarine that makes the journey possible, and he selects the crew to undertake the voyage. While that mission is in progress, Clewe remains at his lab in Sardis to work on his latest invention, the Artesian ray. This is a device capable of projecting a powerful beam of light deep into the Earth, rendering successive layers of rock and soil transparent so that one can view and study the subterranean strata. With the aid of telescopes directed downward, Clewe is able to peer several miles beneath the surface of the Earth.

Surprisingly, the polar expedition proves rather dull. The narrative consists primarily of uninspired descriptions of water and ice. Unlike in a Verne book, one doesn’t learn interesting facts about the environment along the way. Stockton does liven up the story a bit by giving the explorers an adversary, an evil Pole named Rovinski who attempts to sabotage the voyage and claim scientific glory for himself. Far more entertaining, however, is the book’s other half, which deals with Clewe’s investigations beneath the surface of the Earth. The Artesian ray is a truly unique and original concept, and it is fun to follow Clewe’s experiments as he uses the ray to draw conclusions about the Earth’s composition. The reader has to wait a long time, however, before discovering the nature of the “Great Stone” mentioned in the title, which is only revealed a few chapters before the book’s conclusion.

Looking back in hindsight, the science depicted in this science fiction comes across a bit silly. What makes up for that, however, is the fact that Stockton has populated the tale with likable characters, and the whole thing is told in a fun, lighthearted style that makes for a brisk and mildly charming read. Clewe and his companions never really encounter the sort of deadly dangers faced by Verne’s heroes. Instead, they live pretty happy lives and genuinely seem to enjoy scientific discovery, a feeling that proves contagious to the reader. Even romantic subplots are handled in a realistically untroubled manner, opting for comfortably contented married couples rather than tempestuous lovers. In terms of scientific vision, The Great Stone of Sardis doesn’t really measure up to the better science fiction works of Verne or H. G. Wells, but it is a fun read for fans of early sci-fi.
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