May 14, 2010

Indians in The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine, the alternate history novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, mentions Indians about a dozen times.

In the novel's first extended reference, "Texian" President Sam Houston, exiled after a political coup in Texas, is in England lecturing on his adventures. To illustrate his talk, he uses a kinotrope, a computerized device that displays colored tiles like a card stunt at a football game.

The Difference EngineIn the row before Sybil, the children were fidgeting. A little girl squealed in pain as one of her brothers punched her. "And I see we have a future British fighter here, as well!" There was a ripple of surprised laughter. Houston checked his mirror quickly, then leaned over his podium, his heavy brows knitting in grandfatherly charm. "What's your name, son?"

The wicked boy sat bolt upright. "Billy, sir," he squeaked. "Billy . . . William Greenacre, sir."

Houston nodded gravely. "Tell me, Master Greenacre, would you like to run away from home, and live with red Indians?"

"Oh, yes, sir," the boy blurted, and then "Oh, no, sir!" The audience laughed again.

"When I was about your age, young William, I was a lad of spirit, like yourself. And that was the very course of action I pursued." The kino shuffled behind the General's head, and a colored map appeared, outlines of the various states of America, oddly shaped provinces with confusing names. Houston checked his mirror and spoke rapidly. "I was born in the American state of Tennessee. My family was of the Scottish gentry, though times were hard for us, on our little frontier farm. And though I was born an American, I felt little allegiance to the Yankee government in far Washington." The kinotrope displayed the portrait of an American savage, a mad-eyed staring creature hung with feathers, cheeks streaked with kino-blocks of warpaint. "Just across the river," Houston said, "lived the mighty nation of the Cherokee, a simple folk of natural nobility. I found this suited me far better than a life with my American neighbors. Alas, for their souls were pinched by the greed for dollars."

Houston shook his head a bit before his British audience, pained at his own allusion to an American national failing. He had their sympathy, Sybil thought. "The Cherokees won my heart," Houston continued, "and I ran from home to join them, with nothing, ladies and gentlemen, but the buckskin coat on my back, and Homer's noble tale of the Iliad in my pocket." The kinotrope shuffled itself bottom-to-top, producing an image from a Grecian urn, a warrior with a crested helmet, his spear upraised. He bore a round shield with the emblem of a raven, wings outspread. There was a light pattering of impressed applause, which Houston accepted, nodding modestly, as if it were meant for him.

"As a child of the American frontier," he said, "I can't claim to have had much fine schooling, although in later life I passed the bar and led a nation. As a youth, however, I sought my education in an ancient school. I committed every line of the blind bard's book to memory." He lifted the medal-strewn lapel of his coat, left-handed. "The heart within this scarred breast," he said, and thumped it, "still stirs to that noblest of stories, with its tales of a valor to challenge the very gods, and of unstained martial honor that endures . . . till death!" He waited for applause. At length it came, though not as warmly as he seemed to expect.

"I saw no contradiction in the lives of Homer's heroes and those of my beloved Cherokees," Houston persisted. Behind him, the Greek's javelin sprouted the dangling feathers of a hunting-spear, and war-paint daubed his face.

Houston peered at his notes. "Together we hunted bear and deer and boar, fished the limpid stream and raised the yellow corn. Around the campfire, under open skies, I told my savage brothers of the moral lessons that my youthful heart had gleaned from Homer's words. Because of this, they gave me the red-man's name of Raven, after the feathered spirit that they deem the wisest of birds."
The characters describe Indians as "noble savages": brave and honorable but ruthless and deadly. This is probably how many people viewed Indians in 1855, so I can't fault the novel for that. No one sees Indians as more sophisticated than savages, but that kind of perspective was rare in that era.

Prancing like "bedlamites"

In the final Native-themed scene, the writer Disraeli probes the protagonist Mallory about his experiences with Indians:"Give it a rest for a moment. I'm all with your friend Huxley that we should enlighten the public ignorance, but one must throw the dog a bone every once in a while. Our readers want to know about Leviathan Mallory, the man."

Mallory grunted.

"That's why we must get back to the business of this Indian girl."

Mallory shook his head. He had been dreading this. "She wasn't a 'girl.' She was a native woman . . . "

"We've already explained that you've never married," Disraeli said patiently. "You won't acknowledge any English sweetheart. The time has come to bring out this Indian maiden. You don't have to be indecent or blunt about matters. Just a few kind words about her, a gallantry or two, a few dropped hints. Women dote on that business, Mallory. And they read far more than men do." Disraeli picked up his reservoir-pen. "You haven't even told me her name."

Mallory sat in a chair. "The Cheyenne don't have names as we do. Especially not their women."

"She must have been called something."

"Well, sometimes she was called Widow-of-Red-Blanket, and sometimes she was called Mother-of-Spotted-Snake, or Mother-of-Lame-Horse. But I couldn't swear to any of those names, actually. We had this drunken half-breed Frenchie with us as interpreter, and he lied like a cur."

Disraeli was disappointed. "You never spoke directly to her, then?"

"I don't know. I got to where I could manage pretty well with the hand-signs. Her name was Wak-see-nee-ha-wah, or Wak-nee-see-wah-ha, something much like that."

"How would it be if I call her 'Prairie Maiden'?"

"Dizzy, she was a widow. She had two grown children. She was missing some teeth and was lean as a wolf."

Disraeli sighed. "You're not cooperating. Mallory."

"All right." Mallory tugged his beard. "She was a good seamstress; you could say that. We won her, ah, friendship, by giving her needles. Steel needles, rather than bison-bone splinters. And glass beads, of course. They all want glass beads."

" 'Shy at first. Prairie Flower was won over by her innate love for feminine accomplishments,' " Disraeli said, scribbling.

Disraeli teased at the edges of the matter, bit by bit, as Mallory squirmed in his chair.

It was nothing like the truth. The truth could not be written on civilized paper. Mallory had put the whole squalid business successfully out of his mind. But he had not forgotten it, not really. As Disraeli sat scribbling his sentimental treacle, the truth surged back at Mallory with savage vividness.

It was snowing outside the conical tents and the Cheyenne were drunk. Whooping howling drunken pandemonium, because the wretches had no real idea what liquor was; for them it was a poison and an incubus. They pranced and staggered like bedlamites, firing their rifles into the empty American heavens, and they fell on the frozen ground in the grip of visions, showing nothing but the whites of eyes. Once they had started, they would go on for hours.

Mallory had not wanted to go in to the widow. He had fought the temptation for many days, but the time had finally come when he realized it would do his soul less damage to simply get the business over with. So he had drunk two inches from one of the whiskey bottles, two inches of cheap Birmingham rotgut, shipped over with the rifles. He had gone inside the tent where the widow sat crouched in her blankets and leathers over the dung-fire. The two children left, their round brown faces squinting bleakly against the wind.

Mallory showed her a new needle, and did the business with his hands, lewd gestures. The widow nodded, with the exaggerated wobble of someone to whom a nod was a foreign language, and slid back into her nest of hides, and lay on her back with her legs spread, and stretched her arms up.
This scene is a little over the top, emphasizing the Cheyenne's savagery a bit too much. True, a scene roughly like this could've happened in real life. The trick is to note what's missing as well as what's there.

Mallory could've observed an elder telling a story, a medicine man praying, or a father teaching his son. Instead he just happens to encounter a wild Indian dance and a promiscuous sex object. All that's missing is the flickering campfire and the chief giving his daughter to the stranger.

One senses that the authors as well as the characters view Indians as savages. There's no recognition of Indians as human beings with their own thoughts and motivations. They're nothing but stock figures in a colorful pageant of barbarism.

For more on the subject, see Differences in The Difference Engine and "What If" Stories About Indians.

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