The full title of this remarkable work is—take a deep breath—The Master Key, An Electrical Fairy Tale, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity And The Optimism Of Its Devotees. It Was Written For Boys, But Others May Read It.
Well, then. Thanks for clearing that up, L. Frank Baum!
After that, people can be forgiven for hesitating to even approach the book. (At least one online bookstore has mistaken the title for the book synopsis, and cannot be blamed for this error.) I hope you’ll forgive me if I just refer to it as The Master Key for the rest of this post.
Although generally classified under fantasy, The Master Key can be better understood as L. Frank Baum’s one novel length foray into science fiction. (Many of his Oz books, in particular Ozma of Oz and Glinda of Oz, contain science fiction elements, but center on fantasy.) In the novel, young Rob, a supposed electronics geek, accidentally summons the Demon of Electricity. The Demon says some mean and dismissive things about Edison and Tesla (I hope neither read this book) and about the idea that anyone does or could live on Mars. After this unpromising start, the Demon gifts the boy with several items showcasing the powers of electricity—in what would be in some cases an astonishingly accurate description of future electronics.
Baum correctly anticipated the Taser, television, computers, streaming video, the internet and, arguably, Wikipedia, electronic surveillance, cell phones and, arguably, lie detectors, all brought to life by the power of electricity. Well before personal computers, Baum was already championing the notion that citizen reporting and YouTube could provide faster, more accurate information than the national media, although it’s probably safe to say that even Baum never anticipated the sorts of things people would end up putting on YouTube.)
It cannot be denied that Baum seems to be making up certain laws of physics as he goes along, and gets others completely wrong. (The Coriolis force, to name one, has nothing to do with electricity; then again, this is one of the few references to the Coriolis force that I can think of offhand from fantasy/science fiction, so kudos to Baum for recognizing its existence.)
And not all of Baum’s predicted inventions have been invented yet. (In the case of the little travelling device, this would be in part because of the aforementioned confusion about the Coriolis force.) In some cases, this is just as well—I don’t think I’d want to swallow a pill made of electricity just for the chance of skipping a few meals. (Apparently, though, Baum would: this would not be his only example of pills as meal replacements.) His stagestuck prediction that television would lead to the mass unemployment of actors—since everyone would stay at home to watch shows rather than buying tickets and keeping actors employed—has also failed to occur, at least so far. But in other cases, Baum made surprisingly prescient statements, worrying, for example, about the lack of privacy that the internet and electronic survelliance would cause, and anticipating the troubles that the media, and specifically print newspapers, would have in the internet era.
But however interesting, the book suffers from multiple flaws. One major one: the main character. As Baum admits, the book offers “ample proof of Rob’s careless and restless nature.” This is a vast understatement. When the book opens, Rob is merrily irritating and terrorizing family, friends and neighbors alike with his vast collection of electronic items, wires and experiments. This includes loud bells in every room that bother his family “just when they did not want to be disturbed” and create multiple fire hazards. Later, he goes from minor nuisance to genuine menace: he terrifies a man by threatening to drop him in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, abandons another man miles from home without water or any way to get back, and deliberately scares and bewilders other people he meets, taking vast joy in this. And, as the demon points out, Rob fails to do much of anything useful or beneficial with the items, much less share his recently gained knowledge with others. He’s selfish, amoral, and as the demon also points out, conspicuously unintelligent, especially for someone introduced as a young inventor and supposed electronics genius.
Not that we ever see Rob doing much inventing after the first chapter. Indeed, when he receives his first magical electric objects, rather than, say, examining them to figure out how they work and how to make more, Rob decides to…go to Boston. Or maybe Cuba. Talk about an anticlimax.
The demon is not much better: arrogant, rude and condescending, he’s tolerable and enjoyable only when he’s telling Rob off. At least, though, the demon has reasons to be arrogant—he’s the master of all electricity, after all. Rob has no such reasons, but continues to assume that he’s superior to everyone he meets, who, not surprisingly, find this annoying.
Baum’s decision to keep the book’s events in the real world, as opposed to his fantastic inventions, does not help much either. Rather than exploring strange and fantastic and amusing new worlds, or at least all of the fabulous things these devices might do, we get…a cannibal scene, annoying on multiple levels, and London. (Complete with what I think is Baum’s attempt at reproducing the Cockney accent, serving as an excellent example of just why American authors should not attempt to reproduce a Cockney accent unless they’ve spent considerably more time in London than Baum had.) And instead of reading about Baum’s fabulously wealthy, magical royal courts, or magical confrontations and wars, we get…Britain’s Edward VII watching the Boer War. I don’t want to be rude to a dead British monarch who gave his name to an era with such marvelous clothing, but, in this book at least, he’s, well, dull, with a curiously prosaic attitude to seeing the first television/smart phone, like, ever. And even if that wouldn’t have moved him, presumably the slaughter of innocents and the treason of his ministers would have. (And although this isn’t my field, my impression is that the real Edward VII had nothing close to the political power presented here.)
Even a scene of battling Turks and Tatars ends up feeling rather prosaic. Overall, Rob’s travels are a waste of Baum’s undoubted gift for creating elaborate secondary worlds bursting with imagination and wordplay.
These trips around the world (which happen only because Rob keeps falling asleep, thus going places he doesn’t intend to go) also lead Baum into some unfortunate racial stereotyping. The scene with the African cannibals—who conveniently enough speak broken English—might be excused on the grounds that Rob is shooting out beams of electricity while flying into the air, so their decision to worship him as a god makes a certain amount of sense. (And it’s only fair to note that not all of the cannibals are convinced of Rob’s divinity, largely because of a learned distrust of white people.) But the follow-up to this, where the demon announces that his electrical gifts should only be shared with worthy white people in Chicago, Paris, and Vienna leaves a rather negative feeling, not helped by later stereotypical descriptions of Turks and Native Americans, and the use of the word “Japs,” all admittedly typical of the period, but jarring for today’s readers. (These issues are partly why the book has been quietly removed from many children’s libraries.)
In the end, I’d have to call The Master Key a failure, if an interesting one, where Baum was ready to imagine astonishing new inventions and the many possibilities of electricity, if saving his real imagination for the joyous worlds he was creating in other books.
Mari Ness is far too fond of chocolate to be satisfied with energy pills. She lives in central Florida.