Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Caine's Amplifier

One of my Amber players wrote:

>  I'm listening to the Amber books while I work.   In the first book when Corwin is invading Amber on the ships he goes out to parlay with Caine.  Corwin has specifically passed Rebma and is in the south sea.  Caine talks to Corwin through an amplifier, and Corwin talks back through his amplifier.  This isn't an argument about how Amber 'should' work, I just found it interesting. :)

Ah, yes, I remember Caine's amplifier. That's a thing I wondered a lot about the first time I read it, as well.  
To bring you up to speed if that just went over your head: The city and castle of Amber has mostly medieval-level technology, despite all those shadow-walking Princes having ready access to better tech. They use lanterns in the dungeon, not flashlights. Guns, we are told, just don't work in Amber. (Amber's navies apparently even carry cannons or machine guns, but can't make them fire unless they get far enough away from "the one true city" first.)  Cars stall out somewhere on the approach through Forest Arden. Sorcery exists within the setting, but only Eric seems to know the secret of making it work on the battlefield near Mt Kolvir. Rebma is lit by some sort of magical streetlamps that sport underwater fire, but like everything else impractical in Rebma we are told precious little about how it works.
Anyway, as I recall, when I mentioned Caine's use of an amplifier to Chuck, the GM of my first Amber campaign, he countered that it was obviously a non-electric acoustical horn, which he claimed sailors used to call amplifiers back in the day before the electric guitar came along to steal the term away forever. He told me that in 1992 or early '93, back when I couldn't just google it on my phone. I would have had to walk across campus in a Minnesota winter (uphill both ways) to find a big enough dictionary to refute him. If I remember correctly, I think the passage in the book provides no details of what this amplifier looks like, and doesn't specifically mention it being powered, so at the time I just took Chuck at his word.

But now I'm curious.

Checking wikipedia today, I see that the technology of "I talk into a horn and my voice carries further" does go back to 5th Century in Ancient Greece. In the Americas, apparently the Iroquois made ones of birch bark before white settlers got here. The online etymology dictionary claims that the word "amplifier" as a noun first showed up in English in the 1540s, and the electrical version wasn't invented until 1914. So, maybe my old GM _wasn't_ just pulling a fast one on me? I honestly expected the internet to tell me Chuck was a liar.

Tangential to this... (and I guess I should add **SPOILER WARNING** for hidden backstory that gets doled out in little bites across the first 5 books)...

When Corwin and Random drive to Amber in the first book, the car conks out in Forest Arden, just a few miles before they get to the stairs to Rebma. So the technology limitations seem pretty localized. It's not that combustion, or electricity, or magic, or whatever doesn't work in the entire "world" of Amber so much as that it stops working before you have line-of-sight to the Castle of Amber.

That all seems stupidly illogical if you're thinking in terms of physics, natural law, and realistic science...

...but actually makes a certain kind of sense once you accept the premise of "this world was created by my paranoid sadistic father who used his unique reality-altering universe-creating magical powers to custom-brew a place where he didn't have to worry about any of his embittered children nuking him in his sleep". 

Honestly, Zelazny seems to shoot from the metaphorical hip rather than try to build a precise and self-consistent scientific underpinning for his world. This loosey-goosey approach is largely justified once you accept that certain characters know how to change the physical rules and properties of Amber and do so from time to time to support their own position.

Zelazny's also somewhat vague about where Amber stops and shadow begins. Some characters are capable of using Pattern in places where others can't, and this is actually a bit of a plot point.  But even if that wasn't the case, Zelazny also muddies the waters by saying things like how Clarissa was "a red-headed wench from a far Southern shadow" which seems almost to suggest that there are multiple shadow worlds somehow on the same planet as Amber (or at least these entire worlds somehow have a spatial relationship to Amber and share a magnetic North in common). 
So maybe you might argue that Rebma and Arden are actually in shadow, and that's why an electric amplifier works in the southern sea. You also might argue that Caine was working for Eric, so maybe Eric used his powers to make the electric amp function where it normally wouldn't. But Corwin says he responded by amplifier, too, so, perhaps Corwin is lying? Unreliable narrator, and all that. Or maybe Chuck was right, and it was just a low-tech wooden bullhorn. Or maybe we shouldn't read-between-the-lines and infer some broader technology ban. Perhaps there's no reason you can't listen to radio or surf the net from your favorite room in Castle Amber?
It's Amber, so I guess anything is possible, and you should never take anyone at their word. Especially not family, and especially not the GM.

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