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Literature / The Way Things Work

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The Way Things Work is a 1988 science book by David Macaulay with Neil Ardley, which explains the way things work, from simple levers to computers, flight simulators and robots. The workings of machines are shown in cutaway illustrations, often depicting giant versions of machines operated by people moving about inside (or in some cases, by angels), while the principles behind them are often described through humorous stories involving woolly mammoths.

It informed the TV series Cro, on which Macaulay himself was a writer, and spawned it's own short-lived cartoon series from 2001 to 2002. The book also received two Updated Re-Releases, as The New Way Things Work in 1998 and The Way Things Work Now in 2016.

Tropes in The Way Things Work:

  • An Aesop: Always check the the gender of a mammoth before attempting to milk it, especially as milking mammoths requires the milkee to be dangling helplessly from a very stout framework.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: It's not clear when, or indeed where, the mammoth stories take place. They certainly seem to occur long after the real extinction of the mammoth, but the technology is wood-and-stone-based, and the people living with mammoths don't seem to use metals (though evidently they live in a world where other people do, since they've come up with a rudimentary metal detector).
  • Animal Jingoism: The illustration for the vacuum cleaner has a cat being sucked up, and a couple of mice looking very pleased with their work.
  • Arc Words: Bill repeatedly says "That's progress!" in relation to how his Digital Domain works, foreshadowing the rise of digital technology in real life (at the time the chapter was penned).
  • Audience Surrogate: Mammoth in The Last Mammoth serves as this as he journeys through the Digital Domain, confused and bewildered by the way Bill's machines work. The text following the first chapter emphasizes this by stating that, just like Mammoth, many normal people struggle to comprehend the principles of digital technology despite it's ubiquity today.
  • Balloonacy: The unfortunate mammoth in the chapter on floating ends up the recipient of this when his rubber costume spontaneously inflates.
  • Bamboo Technology: A regular feature of the mammoth stories. Many of the giant machines are effectively bamboo technology versions of the modern appliances too.
  • Bandage Mummy: The chapter on flying has one poor mammoth become one of these after "an unusually clumsy four-point landing". Humorously, its shape closely resembles the aerodynamic form of modern jet planes.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Mammoths are generally slow to anger, but the consequences of these several-tonne animals losing their temper are suitably destructive.
    • On Tusk Trimming And Attendant Problems shows what happens when a mammoth getting her tusks trimmed loses patience with the careless attendants.
    • The Digital Domain has Mammoth, after mistaking a virtual mammoth for a real one and trying to kiss it, fly into a rage and smash the makeshift VR helmet to pieces.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The ending of The Last Mammoth. Mammoth fails to find others of his species, meaning mammoths as a whole will most likely go extinct when he dies. Nor does he want anything to do with digital technology after Bill (unintentionally) hurt his feelings with the virtual reality helmet. But he has pumpkin pie and chocolate-coated apples to replace swamp grass, which itself will soon go extinct, and a friend in Bill.
  • Black Humor: The illustration for Nuclear Fallout (a very long underground staircase leads to a fallout shelter at the bottom of the page, where a group of people are singing "Happy Birthday to You") is very much this, as well as Mood Whiplash.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Each double-page spread of the book alternates between colour illustrations, and a dark brown sepia-like theme.
  • Didn't Think This Through: The chapter on floating and sinking has a man trying to load his obviously too-small raft ferry with a huge, heavy mammoth - a mammoth that already isn’t terribly enthused by the idea. Inevitably, the weight of the mammoth is too much and the tiny raft sinks.
    • The interactive CD game proves that it's a bad idea to have a mammoth owned by a logger calculate your restaurant bill. He'll get the total amount right, but in the form of logs which smash your dinner table.
    • Bill in The Last Mammoth offers Mammoth companionship, but doesn't explicitly state what that will involve (see Exact Words below). While the results of his gathering and processing data on Mammoth result in a flawless VR simulation, it works too well and Mammoth's feelings are hurt as a result.
  • Elephants Are Scared of Mice: Mammoths certainly are, if the story from the chapter on springs is anything to go by. Apparently, it runs in the family. One use of this is that when a mammoth has warmed your bed for you, you simply make squeaking noises to get the mammoth out.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The section "Sound and music" begins with a story of "playing the mammoth", in which musicians try to make music from a tethered mammoth by thumping its belly, plucking its stretched tail, and tapping its tusks; and the mammoth joins in, by making sounds from its trunk.
  • Exact Words: Bill offered companionship to Mammoth... of a sort. He just never said it would involve virtual reality. This bites him when Mammoth tries to get intimate with the virtual mammoth.
  • Fictional Currency: When explaining mechanical parking meters, the original 1988 print of the book told of a "mammoth" coin which bought two hours, a "hog" which bought one hour, and a "chicken" which bought a mere twelve minutes.
    • The chapter on printing techniques features a sequel story detailing the creation of banknotes. Unfortunately, the money is printed using leaves, which mammoths like to eat.
  • Giant Food: The chapter on cams and cranks opens with a story detailing a mammoth-powered mechanism used to create giant omelettes.
  • Gravity Is a Harsh Mistress: The recurring problem with flying mammoths is that, the moment the wind drops, so do they. Quite forcefully and destructively.
  • Hates Baths: All mammoths, apparently. The struggle to get one mammoth into a bath is used to illustrate the concepts of friction and lubrication.
  • Hates Being Touched: Also all mammoths, which means that milking them requires lifting them off their feet with a system of pulleys to stop them running away
  • Honorable Mammoth: While often dopey and with the personality of small children, the mammoths are portrayed as gentle creatures unless provoked. Played straight in one chapter, where a knight's mammoth figures out the concept of screws on his own and uses it to help save a princess.
  • Inertia Is a Cruel Mistress: And a mammoth has a lot of inertia. Especially one on a unicycle.
  • It Will Never Catch On: The inventor character finds it "ludicrous" when a colleague suggests he makes a mammoth-fan that is powered by a stream of water rather a stream of men jumping on to a mattress.
    • He also doubts that the familiar shape taken by a bandaged mammoth in the flying chapter could ever get off the ground.
  • Labcoat of Science and Medicine: When Mammoth enters the digital domain, he is surrounded by white-coated workers who record every aspect of his physical being.
  • Last of His Kind: Mammoth in The Last Mammoth, who enters Bill's digital domain in the hope of companionship.
  • Metaphorically True: The inventor character of the mammoth stories is smart enough to recognise the mechanical/scientific principles in front of him, but he doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe it. His explanations for what he observes, while hampered by this limited understanding, do contain elements of truth which the book itself elaborates on.
    • Also goes for Bill's offer of "companionship" to Mammoth (see Exact Words above).
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Many of the illustrations of giant machines invoke this. Special mention should be made of the illustration which introduces the "Harnessing The Elements" section of the book, depicting a host of angels working on the world's first whoopee cushion.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: Played for Laughs in the chapter on telecommunication. While the inventor's idea of using catapulted boulders to represent letters is sound, he reckons without the tribespeople's atrocious spelling, which leads to so many unintentional insults that they stop communicating altogether.
  • Oh, Crap!: The inventor has a mild case of this when he notes the agitated state of a mammoth getting its tusks trimmed by careless attendants. Seconds later, he’s proven right - and gets a good demonstration of the principles of the third-class lever into the bargain.
  • Painting the Medium:
    • On the entry for suction machines, there is a mammoth with suction cup shoes on the line that separates the title from the other machines.
    • The entry for the wedge has the title split into pieces by an axe.
  • Single Tear: Mammoth sheds one of these out of loneliness, big enough to complete drench Bill's tennis shoes.
  • Static Electricity: After a mammoth's hair has been lovingly combed, an assortment of litter, loose laundry and stray cats attach themselves to the mammoth.
  • Stone Punk: Often invoked not only in the mammoth stories, but also many of the technical illustrations.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology: Somehow, somebody in the land of the mammoths managed to build a working nuclear power plant.
    • Meanwhile, Bill has somehow managed to simulate the workings of computers and virtual reality using pumpkins, apples and melted chocolate.
  • Technophobia: Mammoth in The Last Mammoth is a downplayed version of this, specifically in regards to digital technology. While much of the digital domain impresses him, there's also plenty about it that confuses him, and in the end he decides he'd rather not have anything to do with it.
  • Tree Buchet: Happens to an unfortunate farmer courtesy of Eek, a Mouse!! from his mammoth helper. The story is used to illustrate the principle of springs in action.
  • Tuckerization: In "Part 5: The Digital Domain", the owner of the digital domain is a clear reference to Bill Gates.
    So it came to pass that Mammoth, who generally distrusted high walls, warily entered Bill's gates.
  • Updated Re Release: Done twice.
    • The New Way Things Work (1998) omitted several pages, but included an updated and expanded chapter on digital technology and computers, accompanied by the story of The Last Mammoth.
    • The Way Things Work Now (2016) updates certain sections with examples of more modern machines for each principle, such as touch screens, hybrid cars, drones and blu-ray players.
  • Violation of Common Sense: Mammoth certainly considers the idea of 'pumpkin' and 'no-pumpkin' being equally important in Bill's world to be this. Downplayed in that this is exactly how bits work in digital technology and Mammoth just has trouble getting his head around the concept.