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the master key

8 october 2021

After L. Frank Baum hit the jackpot with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, he followed up in 1901 with … actually with a fantasy called Dot and Tot of Merryland, which was eventually retconned into the Oz universe, though I had never heard of it till searching Baum's bibliography just now. But also in 1901, Baum published an adventure tale set entirely in the more-or-less real world: The Master Key.

I say more or less, because though The Master Key takes place in prosaic places on Earth, one central character is a Demon, the Demon of Electricity. Our hero Rob Joslyn accidentally summons the Demon while he is monkeying around with some amateur electrical equipment. By pressing the Master Key (which Rob didn't even realize he was doing), he is entitled to three sets of three splendiferous gifts.

A good children's fantasy story – and Baum was very good at constructing them – sorts its wondrous elements into clear categories, and gives the reader time to become acquainted with their natures. The first set of three gifts consists of nutrition tablets that eliminate the need to eat, an electrokinetic wrist device that allows Rob to fly through the air anywhere he desires, and a tubular weapon permanently set to stun, so that Rob can waylay any bad people or beasts he runs into.

The second set consists of a suit of impervious electrical armor, a pair of high-tech glasses that enable the wearer to read the characters of the people he encounters, and an automatic Record of Events. The Record, "a flat metal box … about four inches by six" (Chapter 8), works this way:

Suppose you wish to know the principal events that are occurring in Germany at the present moment. You first turn this little wheel at the side until the word "Germany" appears in the slot at the small end. Then open the top cover, which is hinged, and those passing events in which you are interested will appear before your eyes. (Chapter 8)
And with that, L. Frank Baum foresaw the iPad.

And anxiety about the iPad. "If these records get to be common," Rob muses, "people will all stay at home and see the shows, and the poor actors'll starve to death." Rob entertains "a doubt of the Demon's wisdom in forcing such devices upon humanity" (Chapter 10). In fact, we only really see six of the Demon's devices in action. Rob rejects an Electro-Magnetic Restorer and an Illimitable Communicator, and doesn't even ask about the ninth gift, that I can tell. He's sick of the dubious benefits of technology.

Of course, Rob is sick of gizmos because he hasn't used his very intelligently. The Demon upbraids him for this after Rob has had a week to play with the first three.

I hoped your use of these devices would convey such hints to electrical engineers that they would quickly comprehend their mechanism and be able to reproduce them in sufficient quantities to supply the world. And how do you treat these marvelous gifts? Why, you carry them to a cannibal island. (Chapter 7)
Anticipating Arthur C. Clarke's observation that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," Baum doesn't really pursue the technological side of his intriguing thought experiments, to his own Demon's chagrin. Instead he sends his boy hero around the world on a series of goofy adventures where the lad wins through by deploying his essentially magical devices.

Rob's adversaries, on these travels, include Turks, Tatars, buccaneers, and the aforementioned island cannibals. The cannibals are black Africans and, in Fanny Cory's original illustrations, desperately stereotypical racist images. But Baum enlists the cannibal chief in his prevailing anti-technological theme:

Me see white man many times. Come in big boats. White man all bad. Make kill with bang-sticks. (Chapter 5)
Rob arrives with a refined bang-stick, but a bang-stick nonetheless, and despite his stage pidgin, the cannibal has a certain point.

I'm not going to make any argument for Frank Baum as a progressive, but once in a while his adoption of a progressive sentiment from c1900 can align oddly with 21st-century protests. The Demon says:

In civilized communities, man is in constant danger from highwaymen, cranks, and policemen. (Chapter 3)
Though Baum stops short of suggesting that his readers defund them.

Baum, L. Frank. 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. 1901. Kindle Edition.