December 29, 2009

Book Review: The Water Engine

David Mamet's 1977 play The Water Engine could have taken many forms. Mamet could have taken his basic premise—guy invents engine that runs on water—and easily turned it into a contemporary thriller, a futuristic sci-fi story, or a legal drama. But he chose to set the story in 1934 Chicago, during the Century of Progress Exhibition, because the Exhibition's theme—scientific innovation—dovetails perfectly with Mamet's own theme: where technology is concerned, businesses will always emphasize profit over utility. The Exhibition's unofficial motto—“science finds, industry applies, man conforms”— becomes an ironic counterpoint to this story of avarice and betrayal.

The story is simple. Charles Lang, a young factory worker, invents an engine that runs on distilled water. With the water, and a simple battery to spark the ignition, Lang's engine can put out eight horsepower—enough to power a modern lawnmower or tricked-out La-Z-Boy. Lang tries to get a patent, but the first lawyer he approaches betrays him and brings in industrial agents to intimidate and blackmail Lang for his secrets. Even before meeting the lawyer, Lang worries for his safety— for someone who’s never seen a Michael Clayton-style paranoid corporate thriller, he seems oddly cognizant of the danger he’s in—but he’s still powerless to stop the threat campaign against him.

The corporate interests are never named, which allows the audience’s imagination to run wild. Lang seems to think the thugs want his idea so they can patent it themselves and make money off of it. But his sister Rita, who has been kidnapped by the shadowy goons, tells him, “They won’t make it. They will just destroy it.” This implies that the villains have a vested interest in a current energy source—most likely petroleum—and would not be happy to see an engine that runs on something as simple and available as water. Mamet is careful to show how a ruthless style of capitalism could be taken to its extreme to sanction kidnapping and murder: one thug’s favorite saying appears to be “if everyone just acted in his own best interests, this would be a paradise on earth.” The same villain later threatens Lang—whose kidnapped sister will be killed if he reveals the engine’s blueprints to a reporter—by telling him, “You see how that would not be in your own best interests.”

The Water Engine is a play, and ultimately created to entertain (I for one wish I could get my hands on the 1992 TV movie version for less than the exorbitant prices people are charging on Amazon). But the play does touch on a few natural security themes as well. One is the reluctance of large energy companies to invest in alternative forms of energy. Many companies have acknowledged that the transportation sector cannot run on petroleum forever—BP even introduced a “Beyond Petroleum” ad campaign in 2000—but in recent months most companies have seriously scaled back their investment in alternative fuel sources. A few months back, I reviewed an old magazine article by Richard Barnet, who wrote almost 30 years ago that “The [energy] companies’ timetable for the development of the most promising energy alternatives is not the same as the nation’s timetable.”

Another theme, perhaps more obvious, is the use of water as fuel. Nobody has yet really figured out how to use regular water, or even distilled water, as fuel for an engine (even a Japanese company that claims to have invented a water-fueled car has been debunked by Popular Mechanics magazine). Crazily enough, though, the Department of Defense is conducting research on jet fuel made from seawater. The process is turning out to be incredibly complicated, and will require a clean electricity source to spark the required electrolysis. But if the research works, some form of water engine may no longer be such a far-fetched idea. Though he ends up dead in a ditch in Waukegan at the end of The Water Engine, perhaps Charlie Lang lives on in the feverish dreams of a DARPA researcher.