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Literature / The Master Key

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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. a 1901 story by Lyman (long for "L.") Frank Baum.

This book contains examples of:

  • Benevolent Genie: The Demon of Electricity, who gives Rob stupendous inventions which could solve all human problems with no catch, and does what he asks, even including pressing the Reset Button.
  • Book Dumb: Rob may be fascinated with electricity, but is kind of an idiot, not to mention an asshole.
  • Food Pills: The food tablets:
    Within each tablet are stored certain elements of electricity which are capable of nourishing a human body for a full day. All you need do is to toss one into your mouth each day and swallow it. It will nourish you, satisfy your hunger and build up your health and strength.
  • Genre Deconstruction: Of the Edisonade, a genre that was popular at the time but is now all but forgotten. A typical Edisonade featured a young, red-blooded American lad who, through his own inborn ingenuity, creates an invention that would revolutionize the world, promptly uses it to go on a globe-spanning adventure, where he triumphs over savage indigenous tribes and insidious Orientals, and returns home with oodles of treasure. In this book, however, while the racism is unfortunately still present, the hero stumbles upon the master key by pure luck, does not understand what he has done, and is given all of his gadgets by the Demon of Electricity. Being a typical teenage boy who thinks he knows everything about the world despite never having left his home town, Rob gets into trouble as soon as he starts his adventure, frequently leaves his destinations worse than when he arrived, gets captured by bandits through his own stupidity, blindly does whatever strangers tell him to do even though it usually screws him over, takes advantage of his benefactor and his family, and never learns from his mistakes until the end, where he, now convinced that Humans Are the Real Monsters, turns down the Demon's final gifts, gives him a huge "fuck you", and demands that he depart forever, because The World Is Not Ready. Though it is implied that he did the right thing in the end, it's still a little bit ambiguous.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • Using arouse as the past-tense version of "arise" and could be used to refer to all manner of raising.
    The sound of voices aroused Rob next morning,
    When at last he aroused himself, he found it was nearly four o'clock.
  • Hope Springs Eternal: Rob rejects gifts that could produce a Utopia because people would probably screw it up, but at least the Demon of Electricity is assured that the next time the Master Key is pressed, it will be deliberate, and the human race will be wise enough to understand his knowledge and use it properly.
  • Humans Are Special: As the Demon says:
    Mars is not peopled at all, nor is any other of the planets you recognize in the heavens. Some contain low orders of beasts, to be sure, but Earth alone has an intelligent, thinking, reasoning population.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: It's subtle, but compared to the Demon of Electricity, the human race has a lot of soul-searching to do. Except for the king of England, everybody Rob meets on his journey tries to kill him or cheat him out of his stuff, he himself sees nothing wrong with deceiving "savages" and double-crossing armies, and, most tellingly, once he receives goggles that show if a person is good or evil, so many people are judged to be "evil" that he is afraid to use it on any of his loved ones, lest he learn that they are no better than the rest of the world.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien: Rob eventually comes to believe humans are this. The Demon of Electricity did not expect to be summoned unless the human race fully understands everything about electricity, and is surprised that Rob stumbles upon the Key by accident, and can't do it again. He assumed that any civilization that advanced would appreciate his offerings and have the wisdom to use them wisely, and Rob's Character Development involves him finding out that what he did was a fluke, and that Earth is not ready, because he did not understand the Master Key.
  • Little Miss Snarker: Rob's little sister, who openly insults his claim to have a flying machine, in front of their parents, and gets away with it. In 1901!
  • No OSHA Compliance: Rob crossed his entire bedroom floor with live wires. How is he still alive?!
  • Public Domain Character: As all of Baum's work is now in the public domain.
  • Reset Button Ending: Once Rob realizes he screwed up and that No Man Should Have This Power, he asks the Demon of Electricity to take back his gifts, knowing full well that he could only return if Rob were to press the Master Key, which he had done by accident and could not repeat. The Demon obeys.
  • Rule of Three: The Demon of Electricity gives Rob the "liberty to demand from me three gifts each week for three successive weeks".
  • Shock and Awe: A tube that fires electricity to knock out a person for an hour. Perhaps the earliest depiction of less-lethal weaponry.
  • Three Wishes: The Demon of Electricity gives Rob the "liberty to demand from me three gifts each week for three successive weeks", and there's the Reset Button Ending on the third week.