David Bouchier: Small World

Jan 20, 2019

It seems that the algorithms that increasingly rule our lives have decided that I am getting younger as I get older. For years I’ve been hounded by advertisements for arthritis remedies, hearing aids, lounge chairs, river cruises, health insurance, and other useful products for senior citizens. Now, suddenly, I have crossed another invisible barrier and entered my second childhood. The latest catalog to arrive in the mail with my name on it is for toys.

Admittedly these are rather old-fashioned toys, not suitable for today’s children. For example they are non-electronic, and do not flash or beep, which means that no modern child would even look at them. But they certainly bring back memories of my own youth, and especially the picture featured on the catalog cover of a miniature steam engine. I had one of these once. It was only about eight inches square but had all the essential working parts: a boiler, a piston, and a flywheel. When the water was heated by a spirit lamp – always a risky procedure – the engine would get up steam and the flywheel would begin to turn slowly, and then faster and faster until it ran out of steam and stopped. It didn’t do anything else, and the absolute uselessness of my little engine enchanted me. It seemed like a profound metaphor of something, perhaps of life itself, but I was too young to figure that out.

The rest of the catalog was full of models of the kind I always loved: cars and trucks, planes and boats, trains and space ships, and even an exact scale model of a classic Triumph motor cycle that I actually owned, full size, back in 1959. Here, in miniature were all the dreams of escape and adventure that young boys – and I’m sure young girls too – dream about.

Many hobbyists of all ages create miniaturized worlds that are better-organized and more manageable than the real one. You can buy little houses, like doll’s houses, with tiny people and animals to match, and even trees and fences, to construct your own small utopia, a solid three-dimensional world that has more substance than a computer graphic. It is extraordinarily appealing, and I was really tempted by that motorcycle. It may seem rather silly, but it’s hard to believe that such hobbies are nothing but a substitute for real life. They are so obviously about the life we really want, where everything is exactly right, and where we are completely in charge.

Looking through my catalog of models I was reminded of a classic science fiction story by Eric Frank Russell called “Hobbyist.” The haunting premise of the tale was that we ourselves and our planet are nothing more than the miniaturized creations of some unimaginably remote cosmic hobbyist, who makes worlds and sets them in motion purely for the fun of it, just as we might play with a model railroad or a toy village. The story gave me the creeps because I thought: doesn’t life feel just like that sometimes, as if we are the playthings of some crazy, inhuman hobbyist, perhaps in a distant galaxy, perhaps much closer than that. But how would we know? Of course we wouldn’t, and we don’t.

Copyright: David Bouchier