The Fata Morgana

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The ancient tales of European Man, carefully recorded by pious monks and hedge wizards alike, are insistent about the Western Isles.

One of the tales of Doubting Thomas, the apostle, has it that he Christianized these islands and stayed there until the end of his days. The Arthurian legends clearly state that Arthur's father, Uther, came from the Western Isles.

Lyonesse was a part of the Western Islands, as was the City of Ys, Avalon, and the ...

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The ancient tales of European Man, carefully recorded by pious monks and hedge wizards alike, are insistent about the Western Isles.

One of the tales of Doubting Thomas, the apostle, has it that he Christianized these islands and stayed there until the end of his days. The Arthurian legends clearly state that Arthur's father, Uther, came from the Western Isles.

Lyonesse was a part of the Western Islands, as was the City of Ys, Avalon, and the Land of Dahout. Up until the time of the First Crusade, there are records of pilgrims visiting the holy sites of the Western Islands. The Icelandic Eddas make similar references. Modern sailors and travelers sometimes sight great, many-tiered cities near the ocean's horizon, but these people are rarely believed. It is easier for modern, technocentric man to believe in an optical illusion, the Fata Morgana.

This book is about two modern, hardheaded engineers who find the Western Islands.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This unabashedly politically incorrect male technophile's wet dream has all the elements designed to make a man good with tools feel like a genius--and to aggravate anyone who believes that racism, sexism or poverty are real problems without easy solutions. Nguyen Hien Treet, second-generation American and owner of a small Special Machinery business, has strange and unpleasant things happen to his company and ends up on the open sea with his best buddy, Adam Kulczyinski, in a fabulous yacht that unfortunately develops a gaping hole in its hull. As luck would have it, these stalwart technicians are soon rescued by the inhabitants of a floating island. On the isolated island of 2000 souls, a Duke reigns over property and marriages; the population of "real women" ostentatiously shows off its cleavage; a Warlock is in charge of technology and progress; and an Archbishop is rigorous about keeping his people religiously pure, even if it kills them. Treet, with Adam's help, must figure out how to keep the island from sinking, avoid getting murdered by religious fanatics and hammer out out a trade deal that will make both men wealthy and powerful. Since the motto of the book seems to be, as Adam puts it, "You're bleeding from twenty places, but that shouldn't bother a determined engineer," all things tend to work out in favor of the book's technically savvy heroes. Frankowski has a knack for writing amenable prose with enjoyable characters. Those not alienated by his Engineers-Know-Best attitude, and most especially those who share his women-as-eye-candy, religion-is-silly worldview, will find this to be a fun fantasy. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Two thoroughly modern engineers are shipwrecked on the legendary Western Isles. The engineers must introduce the islanders to modern technology in order to solve several problems that threaten the very existence of the island. They must do so, however, in a way that does not destroy existing social and ecosystems, which have much to commend them. The two must accomplish their mission in spite of the vigorous objections of the local archbishop, a man who really does not like change. Frankowski's writing will remind readers of Robert Heinlein's later adult science fiction because he writes entertainingly about engineering problems and practices. In an amusing, often caustic manner, he addresses social issues such as political correctness, the difference between the sexes, organized religion, and the intrusion of government into private lives. Like Heinlein, Frankowski excels at plotting, pacing, and depictions of the local technological infrastructure but his characterization is weaker. While the hero and his best friend and business partner, Adam, are fully realized, everybody else is there to advance the plot and/or provide local color. Yet, also like Heinlein, Frankwoski's saving grace is that the straw men and women actually fulfill those functions well, creating suspense as necessary. This great read is a must for Heinlein fans as well as fans of Frankowski's own Adventures of Conrad Stargard series, which opens with CrossTime Engineer (Ballantine, 1993). VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult). 1999, Baen, Ages 16 to Adult, 313p, $21. Reviewer:TomPearson
Library Journal
When their yacht flounders in a violent storm, a pair of curmudgeonly engineering entrepreneurs discover the island country of Westria, a floating duchy forgotten by time and history. As they attempt to understand the society of their rescuers and bring the land back into contact with the outside world, they become the focus for a battle between Westria's religious and scientific communities. The author of A Boy and His Tank uses his narrator as a mouthpiece for his own strong--and often patronizing--opinions, limiting the story's appeal to like-minded readers. A marginal selection at best. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Oddball contemporary fantasy from the author of A Boy and His Tank (p. 184). Narrator Nguyen Hien Treet of Bay City, Michigan, builds special on-off machines, a business that has its ups and downs. Treet winds up bankrupt (his best client fails to pay up) while his wife runs off with everything else•except a steel-and-concrete ship that his chief engineer Adam Kulczyinski suggested they build during lean times. With no better prospect, the two decide to sail around the world. In the South Pacific during a storm, they strike an uncharted rock and are wrecked on what turn out to be the Western Isles of legend. Composed of volcanic foam, the isles were formerly anchored off France but broke free and floated away. And with metals almost nonexistent on this new location, the pair, with the steel from their ship, are suddenly multimillionaires, both housed with attractive widows. Civilized, orderly, and respectful, the islanders are governed by a triumvirate: Duke Guilhem, Archbishop Phillias, and Warlock Tom Strong (he's actually a scientist; the islanders themselves are biology whizzes but weak in physical science). Among other problems, the reader learns, the Isles are sinking from coral growth and waterlogged bedrock. Renewed contact with the outside would benefit everyone, but there•d be drawbacks too. The Warlock, an ex-Australian, wants contact; the Archbishop vehemently opposes it; the Duke remains undecided; and there's violence in the offing. An improbable, amusing, opinionated, entertaining romp.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671578763
  • Publisher: Baen
  • Publication date: 7/1/2000
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.82 (w) x 4.20 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    The boat was dismasted, and in parting company the mast had knocked a hole in the bottom of the ferrocrete hull.

    We were sinking in a Force Ten gale, with gusts of up to seventy, but it was debatable whether she would sink to the bottom of the East Pacific Basin, or wreck herself on the rocky shores of an island that couldn't possibly be where it obviously was.

    We had already done everything we could think of, which wasn't nearly enough. We had stuffed a mattress into the hole, and wedged and blocked it in as best we could with the sea water slapping to and fro on the lower deck. Tons of stuff were awash down there. Plugging the hole seemed to help only a little. The water in the hold wasn't getting any deeper, but it wasn't getting noticeably shallower, either.

    The engines had flooded out early on, taking the big pumps west with them, and the electric pumps were losing ground as the batteries slowly died. Adam was valiantly working the manual bailer, but he was only postponing the inevitable.

    The automatic distress beacon was ready to be switched on and the life raft was inflated, loaded and in the water. Back in the cockpit, all I could do was wait and see if our navigation was really five hundred miles off, and I was staring at one of the Line Islands, or if the solid looking thing in front of me was really a mirage, the Fata Morgana, as Adam had twice called it.

    A sad ending for a pair of good engineers, I suppose, but perhaps a better way to go than some of the alternatives. I've readthat drowning beats the hell out of, say, death by fire, but I don't know where the writer got his information.

Chapter Two

    I guess it all really started because of a problem that exists in the Special Machinery business.

    Special Machines are designed and built one at a time, in accordance with your customer's needs and specifications. If he manufactures widgets, you might make him a machine that assembles widgets, or maybe paints them, or wraps them in plastic film for shipment.

    Each special machine is specially designed, you could even say invented, to do only one thing, but to do that one thing extremely well. Such a machine can be very productive, but it is generally of use to only one company. Thus, our industry is one of the last bastions of craftsmanship in this increasingly automated, mass production world.

    To be sure, our machines are largely responsible for all that bland mass production, since they can turn out identical products at a fraction of the cost of any other method known, but there is nonetheless a great deal of personal satisfaction in designing something, building it, and then watching it work as you had planned. It is a rare joy that the operators of our machines can never have. When there is an operator, that is, and the whole system is not completely automated.

* * *

    I've always liked workshops and factories. Some people—my ex-wife, for example—claim that the industrial environment is alien, unnatural, and inhuman, but for me it is the most natural thing in the world.

    I am a man, and as such I am as much a part of nature as any tree or beaver or bee. The machines that I build are as natural as any beaver lodge or bee hive. If there is any fundamental difference, it is that, being a man, I use the mind nature gave me to direct my efforts, rather than depending on my instincts alone. Even then, I don't think that I can claim that a beaver never thought about her work, or that she never sat back to admire a well built dam.

    In Special Machines, our sort of craftsmanship entails a whole set of problems of its own, problems that the rest of the world rarely perceives.

    You see, in order to get new business for your company, you have to have competent people ready to start on your customer's job. No purchasing agent in his right mind would trust an important order to someone who had nothing but a vacant shop.

    And in order to get competent people, you have to have interesting work for them to do. Even if you could afford to pay them to sit and do nothing while you were waiting for the next job to come in, the best workers would all quit within days, leaving you with no one but the sort of people who would be better off working for the government. When you start paying people to not work, you are automatically selecting for incompetence.

    It's a shame, but the only sane course of action is when the work is gone, you have to lay almost everybody off. It hurts, but there's nothing else you can do.

    It then becomes a matter of "If we had some eggs, we could have some ham and eggs, if we had some ham." I've seen a few companies that never were able to get started up again. Oh, in an ideal world, there would always be a fresh job to get into whenever the last job was winding down, but if I ever began to notice that happening to me on a regular basis, I'd start believing in Santa Claus, or maybe even God.

    So when a big (for us) Chrysler welding line was getting ready to be shipped, and nothing new was in the offing, most of my best engineers had their computers in word processing mode. They were updating their resumes on company time, and I knew that I was in trouble.

    Oh, I had plenty of money. The previous three jobs had been profitable, the company bank account was flush, and I hadn't even been paid yet for the last one. The trouble was, looking for work, I'd called on everybody I knew (and many that I didn't) and I hadn't been able to find anything, anywhere, that was ready to shake loose in less than two months.

    By which time I would have to hire a whole new bunch of strangers, assuming that I could find such people. Then I would likely end up having to fire half of them for incompetence, after gracing each such bumble fingered fool with a month's pay in return for his efforts at screwing things up. And then I would have to waste yet another month teaching those with some small bit of ability the proper way to get things done. That is to say, my way.

    All with the net result of an ungodly amount of personal aggravation, late deliveries, and cost overruns that, in this industry, you generally have to eat on your own. It's not like doing "cost plus" work for the government. Starting with a new crew, my next job would run at a loss, not only to my bank account, but also to my reputation, which—in the long run—is the only really important thing that any company has ever got. Once you have the right reputation, you can buy everything else you need.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2000

    Another flight of fun, fancy and adventure.

    Once again Leo Frankowski has created a world and situations that are at the same time a fantasy but with enough reality to allow the reader to immerse themselves into the story and the characters. Leo's ability to create characters that blend the failings of the 'everyman' with the heroic combined with a message that one person can make a difference reminds me of Ian Rand. I look forward again to the next installment.

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