Bryon’s Halloween 2020: The Haunted Mansion

My apologies to you all for this being so late this year. In the age of Covid, teaching is melting my brain. However, Bryon did a beautiful job on his socially distanced Halloween this year, which was themed on Disney’s Haunted Mansion. The problem with the display, as you see it here, is that a lot of it used Atmos special effects, so you can only get a vague idea of how the Pepper’s Ghost like effects work, but other parts of it you can see quite well.

Without further ado, many pictures follow.

Fantastic History #71: The Early Modern Globe by Michelle Herder

The emeralds adorning the Mughal rulers of India came from the mountains of Colombia.

The deep blue pigments of Renaissance paintings came from Afghanistan.

A bright red dye, highly sought after for carpets, uniforms, and ceremonial robes, came from insects living on Mexican cacti.

These are only some of the valued rarities that made their way around the world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Imagine the journey of many of these items: from miners or growers or makers, often in rural areas, over land to larger markets and ports; from there over seas to trading hubs like Havana, Antwerp, and Manila; and from there spreading outward to buyers in middling-size communities. Along the way, goods might be taxed, counted, sold and resold, stamped by government authorities, or hidden away to conceal them from such officials. This period, often called by historians the early modern age, was one of ever-increasing connections across long distances, a growing web in which people making goods and people buying goods became ever more entangled with other people halfway around the globe.

Not only rare and luxurious goods moved across long distances in the pre-industrial age. Cotton textiles woven and dyed by Indian artisans – by hand – were in demand throughout the world for centuries. Indian cloth-makers intentionally made their goods to appeal to the tastes of diverse markets (European, African, Chinese), and merchants bought richly colored cottons in quantity, often to trade for other highly valued materials. Cotton and other products such as porcelain became more affordable and available, and spawned imitations which could be even cheaper.

In many cases, goods became detached from their original cultural context and adopted into new ones. Tobacco, for example, was grown and smoked by indigenous Americans for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Europeans who encountered tobacco valued its medicinal uses as well, believing tobacco to be beneficial for health, but tobacco rapidly became known from Europe to the Ottoman Empire to China. Tobacco’s stimulant properties made it especially popular among soldiers and others who needed to stay alert for long hours. Tobacco smoking made its way around the world so swiftly that seventeenth-century Chinese writers had no idea where it had originally come from, associating the product only with the European traders from whom they obtained it. Chocolate, similarly, had been a lavish and high-status drink among Mesoamericans, as well as a form of currency. Spanish people who encountered it often found the foamy drink off-putting, but it nevertheless gained popularity in Europe, especially when mixed with additional sugar. Other stimulant beverages, coffee and tea, would eventually supplant chocolate as a drink, but chocolate and sugar would become staples of European confectionery.

In some ways, there’s nothing new about this kind of trade and adaptation of goods. Human beings have always traded objects across long distances. Jewelry, coins, and other items from early burial sites attest to that. But from 1500 on, the world became interconnected as never before. People moved across oceans and continents in unprecedented numbers, transporting enormous quantities of goods as they went. People around the world developed tastes for new kinds of products – cotton cloth, porcelain, sugar, tobacco, chocolate, tea – and cultivators, merchants, and artisans sought to fill the demands of those new markets.

The results, of course, were calamitous for huge numbers of people: for the indigenous peoples of the Americas who died, suffered, and became forced labor for European conquerors, for the Africans forced into slavery and transported across oceans to work in brutal conditions for the profit of others. That is the bitter foundation underlying the mass production of cotton, sugar, silver, and many other objects. These products required intense labor to mine, grow, and process, and the vast majority of that labor was coerced and unpaid. When we think about the early modern age, we need to keep that reality in mind.
That reality, however, existed as part of a tangled and complex web of connections that linked people around the globe. The early modern world was full of extraordinary journeys and possibilities. It was an era in which it could be easy to pick up stakes and run away (as the well-documented Martin Guerre did) – to sea, to the army, to anonymity somewhere well away from one’s origins. Extraordinary individual stories surface from the period, including the tale of Catalina de Erauso, who fled from a Spanish nunnery, adopted masculine clothing and worked as a soldier in Spain’s American colonies, and subsequently wrote a dramatic memoir. Lives like these were fantastic enough; how many more people crossed boundaries and transgressed norms, without leaving as much of a mark in the historical record? There’s enormous potential for fantasy in studying, imagining, and re-imagining the history of this era.


Professor Michelle Herder teaches courses covering the range of European history from the early Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century. Course themes include religion, violence, and the relationship between powerful groups and less powerful groups in medieval European society. She is exploring the use of simulations to study history in several of her courses. Her research interests revolve around women and religion in late medieval Spain.

Fantastic History #70: Into the Deep End by J. Kathleen Cheney

A few years back, I had a bright idea about writing just one more novella in my Golden City world. Just one more… I can manage that, right?

This would turn out to be Cristiano’s story. Who’s Cristiano? He appears briefly in the first Golden City book, when his half-brother’s half-brother comes to him for science advice. Cristiano’s a mechanical engineer, trained at the University of Coimbra alongside one of the first women to attend there: Emilia Atkinson, who studied Mathematics. Together he and Emilia become a powerhouse engineering team and, for the family boat works, build the Golden City’s first true submarine.

Out of some misguided sense of hubris, I thought I could carry this off. It’s not the historical aspect of Portugal that’s driving me batty, though; it’s the historical science.

At the time of the novella (1909), submarines had been around for some time. However, most of those could barely submerge, and then only for an hour or two. There had been some successes, though, one of which (THE ICTINEO, built by Narcis Monturiol) included the double-layered hull that I adopted for my boat. I borrowed the diesel-electric engine from its Nordic sources to keep my boat relatively cool (as compared to placing a steam engine inside a small metal body.)

But my real sticking point in this novella has been the mines.

Nautical mines were generally tethered to something on the sea floor. While different inventors (such as Samuel Colt) proposed variations on the idea, they weren’t successfully deployed until the 1850s, when the Russians heavily mined the Gulf of Finland during the Crimean War.

The tethered mine is a horrible threat, but less specific in its targeting. To target a specific ship, like I needed in my story, they have to be attached to a ship’s hull. Once builders realized they could do so with magnets, they had to come up with a way to delay the explosion so the person planting the mine could escape.

The initial solution to that amuses me greatly: Aniseed balls (candies).

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

I am not a fan of anything licorice flavored, so this seems about the best use for the things. Essentially, the candy ball would be placed inside the mine’s trigger clamp. When exposed to seawater, it would start to dissolve. Once sufficient time had passed, the ball would disintegrate and the clamp would shut, completing the circuit and triggering the bomb.

I applaud the creators for their ingenuity, although the eventual uses of their devices would be terrifying.

However, looking at the general lack of sophistication of the planting and triggering aspects of the devices, there was no reason they couldn’t have come up with this concept a few decades earlier. After all, both magnets and nasty candies had been around for a long time in 1909.

So in the novella, I’m dealing with two different technologies. I have to figure out how the submarine can possibly do what I want it to do, and I have to figure out the mines. However, I quickly realized there was a third factor I didn’t even think of when I started this.

I didn’t know how to defuse the mines.

What I finally settled on is deperming the boats instead. By placing a steel cable around the hull of the boat and giving it an electrical charge, the polarity of the boat’s hull is temporarily changed and the mine pops off. Although this wasn’t in heavy use during WWI, it became common practice by WWII, when it was relabeled degaussing.

Fortunately for me, an Englishman came up with this idea way back in 1866. Evan Hopkins actually developed this for use in preserving the accuracy of a ship’s navigational compass—which can be thrown off by a large electrical charge like a lightning strike. Unfortunately for Mr. Hopkins, it never caught on. But he left it there so my engineers in 1909 could figure out how to adapt it at the last minute.

However, all this research into all things nautical (and magnetic, because my physics knowledge is wimpy at best) has made this story slow going. But sometimes when you bite off more than you can chew research-wise, it just takes time and patience to unravel the info you need. Anyone who’s done this kind of research will tell you that.

I’m hoping that the end result will be worth it. I’m finally approaching the culmination of this story, and I hope it will be worth it. I plan, as always, to do my best.

If you’d like to read how it’s gone so far, the first 12 chapters are free here.


J. KATHLEEN CHENEY taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). She is currently working on Book Five in this series (currently titled Princess, Empress, and Amazon, which are all fairy chess pieces)

Social Media Links:
Twitter: @jkcheney