Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Five notable science fiction classics

Adam Roberts received his MA (English and Classics Jt-Hons) from Aberdeen University and his PhD (Robert Browning and the Classics) from Cambridge University. He has worked in the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, since 1991, and he is currently Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature.

His books include The History of Science Fiction as well as numerous science fiction novels, eight parodies, two novellas, a collection of short stories and various other things.

One of five top science fiction classics he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
The Time Machine
by HG Wells

[One book] on your list is 1895’s The Time Machine by HG Wells.

This is the novel that inaugurated time travel as a sub-genre. Wells picked up the up-to-date (in the 1890s) scientific speculation about time being a fourth dimension, and ran with it, imagining a machine that could take a man backwards and forwards through time. Wells’s time traveller – we are not given his name – goes from late Victorian times to the year 802,701, where he finds that humanity has by a process of divergent evolution degenerated into two species – the infantile, hedonist Eloi and the subterranean, monstrous Morlocks who prey upon them.

It is a short novel, almost a novella, but it is smoothly and evocatively written, and it manages to open a chink in the reader’s mind that gives a her dizzying, thrilling glimpse down the vertiginous perspectives of long time. My favourite moment comes near the end, after the time traveller has left the Eloi and Morlocks behind him (as it were) and travelled more than 30 million years into the far distant future. He finds himself on a desolate beach, seemingly lifeless but for green slime on the rocks, the sun grown to massive proportions, and witnesses an eclipse:

“The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.”

Time viewed from the perspective of the sublime. It still makes the hairs stir on the back of my neck.

Tell us more, if you will, about what makes Wells’s sci-fi so unique.

Wells is the first genius of science fiction, and the genre informs his choice of core metaphor. We see it in pretty much all his short fiction – in an ordinary, contemporary environment we come across a device, object or circumstance which opens vistas to strange new worlds. In the short story “The Door in the Wall”, the protagonist finds a mysterious green door that permits him to leave the grimy reality of 19th century London and enter “a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light with a faint, clear gladness in its air”. And there are many subsequent stories that employ the same device. In “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes”, a malfunctioning scientific experiment replaces the protagonist’s ordinary vision with vision of the exact opposite point of the globe. In “The Crystal Egg”, the object of the story’s title gives its possessor, a London junk-shop owner, unexpected visual access to a scene on Mars, with Martian house and flying Martians.

That last story epitomises the way this sort of tale operates. Wells draws a clear distinction between the shabby, lower middle class existence of the shopkeeper who owns the crystal egg and the fantastic, exotic world opened up by the egg itself. This contrast is integral to the functioning of the story. As Wells said in 1934 in Experiment in Autobiography, with reference to The Time Machine, “I had realised that the more impossible the story I had to tell, the more ordinary must be the setting”. In “The Crystal Egg” the egg is, in fact, science fiction itself. It is the thing that gives us fantastic, other-worldly visions. By setting a seedy junk shop against the exotic Martian palace, the story balances the genre of late-century “realist” fiction – of the sort that Wells also wrote but which is more strongly associated with writers such as [George] Gissing and [Arnold] Bennett – with the sparkling possibilities of SF itself.

This is the key to The Time Machine. Instead of reading the tale as an allegorical coding of contemporary class circumstances, we can read it as deliberate mediation of the generic representation of those circumstances (realism) and the escape from such quotidian, everyday representation (the time machine itself, or science fiction). It is of course possible to say, as critics have done, that the time machine is a mechanism by which the author can represent, for instance, Darwinian time. The time machine is like a clock, a car, a weapon and all the various things that critics have read into the tale built around it. But the time machine is a literary device. The time machine is science fiction.
Read about another entry on the list.

The Time Machine is among David Lodge's top ten H.G. Wells books and Linda Buckley-Archer's top ten time-travelling stories.

--Marshal Zeringue