Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Tik-Tok of Oz

L. Frank Baum Tik-Tok of Oz (1914)
Being absolutely and without ambiguity a children's book, this seemed perhaps a little out of my way, but what the hell, I thought, I read Adventures of the Wishing-Chair not that long ago and there's a robot on the cover. Tik-Tok isn't actually a robot, historically speaking, because the term derives from Karel Čapek's RUR which was written in 1920. Here he's referred to as a mechanical man. Mechanical men and related automata have been turning up in western literature at least since Homer's Iliad, whenever that was. Tik-Tok himself first turned up in Baum's Ozma of Oz of 1907 and his genesis probably began even further back in 1899 with the Cast-iron Man from Baum's A New Wonderland. What makes Tik-Tok interesting is that he's clearly identified as something manufactured, essentially a consumer product designed to perform with no agency of magic as was the case for at least a few of his forerunners; so he's a robot by modern standards.

I gather this probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise given Baum's attempt to revise the established tradition of children's fairy tales - excising much of the violence, the romance which he doubted held much appeal to his readers, and presenting an arguably more pragmatic take on the form than seemed traditional. Baum's narrative - at least here - is roughly a mash-up of the Brothers Grimm with some of the nonsense of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, whilst additionally being substantially more than just the sum of those two parts. From what I can tell, Baum seems to have been a politically progressive individual, which is at least how it looks from reading this one. His world and its characters - notably the likes of Dorothy and Betsy, seem removed from the sort of class hierarchy into which Carroll's Alice was firmly cemented, and his royals are judged by their actions rather than hereditary or special endorsement from God, which seems happily appropriate for an American author.

'Most noble Private Soldier, I must inform you that by the laws of our country anyone who comes through the Forbidden Tube must be tortured for nine days and ten nights and then thrown back into the Tube. But it is wise to disregard laws when they conflict with justice, and it seems that you and your followers did not disobey our laws willingly, being forced into the Tube by Ruggedo. Therefore the Nome King is alone to blame, and he alone must be punished.'

I gather Ruggedo was more or less the villain of the Oz books, and that he came back to piss everyone off time and again, so it's interesting that even he comes to his senses and says sorry at the end of this one. This dispenses with the traditional absolutes of the form wherein evil is both remote and beyond redemption, instead replacing it with something a little more realistic with which the audience can identify because no-one is really too much worse than the kid who steals your pencil, pulls your hair, and then sticks his tongue out at you; and further to the whole spirit of keeping it real, or at least vaguely rooted in the modern world, even Thomas Edison gets a mention, as does radium - as discovered in 1898; and famously, it transpires that Baum, during a moment of particularly Gernsbackian inspiration, foresaw the mobile telephone:

At first they could not understand it at all; but presently Shaggy suspected the truth, and believing that Ozma was now taking an interest in the party, he drew from his pocket a tiny instrument which he placed against his ear.

Ozma, observing this action in her Magic Picture, at once caught up a similar instrument from a table beside her and held it to her own ear. The two instruments recorded the same delicate vibrations of sound and formed a wireless telephone, an invention of the Wizard. Those separated by any distance were thus enabled to converse together with perfect ease and without any wire connection.

I could probably get carried away and speculate as to whether any of Tik-Tok of Oz was informed by then ominous warlike rumblings across Europe, but I suspect any points made which may seem related with hindsight were probably more general. Further to the theme of not letting ourselves get too carried away, it struck me that at least some of Baum's narrative seems woven from the same broad thrust of ominous surrealism which informs Germanic or Slavik folk tales - the sort of thing involving huts strolling around on chicken legs; which leads us to his gnomes, or rather nomes. My knowledge is somewhat sketchy at this point but there seems to be some vaguely anti-Semitic implication to those races of little subterranean men hoarding their gold and precious metals, and then we come to the expulsion of Ruggedo, king of the Nomes:

'Again I beg to differ with Your Majesty,' said Quox. 'The great Jinjin commands you to depart instantly from this Kingdom and seek the earth's surface, where you will wander for all time to come, without a home or country, without a friend or follower, and without any more riches than you can carry with you in your pockets.'

I suspect this was simply Baum borrowing from the folk myth of the Wandering Jew rather than anything approaching any kind of racial allusion, given that the same would contradict the generous spirit of the book as a whole. Baum's only noted posthumously contentious observations on any matter of race seem to have been a couple of editorials written for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer which appear unusually harsh and written from a position of substantial ignorance, but which are difficult to characterise as directly racist in any meaningful sense; not that this has much bearing on Tik-Tok.

So, you may be wondering, did I actually like the fucking thing?

The prose is of a kind written so as to leave behind as few children as possible, and I suppose lacks the poetry of Alice; and the story is fairly thin, the usual deal with a whole bunch of people going off to do something or other whilst accumulating increasingly weird pals on the way, but then if you're reading this expecting anything else, you're probably a bit of an idiot. The point of Tik-Tok of Oz, at least besides the conduction of any low-level lessons in morality, is to entertain small children with a bewildering array of bizarre characters, corny jokes, and general insanity; and it does this extremely well, and without quite pandering as Enid Blyton did from time to time. Personally I could have done with a little more Tik-Tok given that his name appears in the title, and I occasionally had a vague sensation of this having been but number eight to roll off the L. Frank Baum assembly line, but otherwise it seems a good-natured little tome and it's hard to find fault with it. I would have liked a little more description, or at least enough to keep me from visualising that guy out of Insane Clown Posse every time Shaggy Man gets a mention, but that's hardly Baum's fault.

1 comment:

  1. I commented on your Goodreads about this, but I'll make the point briefly again: Baum's villains are rarely capital-E evil, they're just spoiled, selfish children. A recurring theme of his books is that those with power abuse it, and very few people are truly qualified to be in control (and somewhat incredibly, they are always *women*). By the time of "Tik-Tok," he's doing an Oz book a year and yes, this one in particular is adapted from a stageplay, but the Baum elements are always pretty apparent: a journey of some kind, a combination of realistic and fantastical protagonists, punning humor, some good-natured satire at the expense of establishments (the military, for instance, gets sent up more than once), and what I've always found to be a refreshing "wouldn't it be better if we all were just terribly nice to each other?" point of view that's very American, only occasionally a little sanctimonious, and never, ever saccharine.

    These were my favorite books as a kid. I could blather like this for hours.