Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Classic Sci-Fi: The Time Machine

For July's convocation of the Classic Sci-Fi Meetup, we went about as classic as one can get in the genre: H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine", first published in 1895. Wells, along with Jules Verne, is widely credited with essentially beginning the genre we call science fiction, and works such as "The Time Machine" are now cultural touchstones, frequently referenced and re-adapted.

We had to move locations, as our usual spot--Mad River Bar & Grille--was having a private event. We wound up at Pick-Me-Up Cafe, and we are discussing moving the regular meeting place to a different venue.

We started out admiring an illustrated edition that Michael had found at Half Price Books, featuring a kind of Basil Rathbone-y traveller. That led us into a discussion of the success and business model of Half Price Books and other used/independent bookshops. Something I'm sort of hopeful about is the way that independents are actually surviving now, in the era of the big box chains closing--a case of finding different economic niche, analogous to the way record shops have survived the post-Napster/iTunes collapse of big media retail chains (see what I did there? Analog? Eh?)

Meaning we'd need to add Amazon to the classic corporate vs. indie struggle SLASH romance.
That led us in turn to give some outs to the new Open Books location, and also the upcoming Newberry Book Fair. (By the way you might also want to check out the Positron Book-Map of Chicago.)

But! The Time Machine! H.G. Wells! It always kind of astonishes me how well Wells holds up--we all agreed that this was a pretty easy, enjoyable read. We talked for a bit about Wells' and Verne's longevity and influence, with special mention of Moore & O'Neill's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (1999-2007).

One of the things that's kind of fascinating about reading SF from so long ago is how dated (or not) it is. While the framing story is late 19th century, it's so thinly sketched that it's easy to imagine it contemporaneously, and by setting the plot so far in the future--hundreds of thousands of years--the novel avoids a lot of the problems that plague near-future stories. Gibson, for example, though credited with great predictive power in "Neuromancer" (1982), has on several occasions pointed out that he would written it differently (and perhaps invested differently!) if he'd had a clue about cellphones or Facebook. We did note the single "dating" technological reference--the traveller's regret that he didn't think to bring "a Kodak".

We did talk for a bit about when this was written relative to the historical development of various scientific theories--it's obviously pre-relativity, and some aspects of the stellar development witnessed by the traveller are perhaps suspect--I was reminded a bit of Hodgson's "The Night Lands" (1912), a far-future tale based on the astronomical science of the day, which, not taking nuclear reactions into account, led Hodgson to speculate about the stars burning out in the (comparatively) near future--the same logic that led scientists like Lord Kelvin to reject Darwin's theories--their conception of the sun didn't allow it to have been generating heat long enough.

The way time is talked about as a dimension was kind of cutting-edge at the time, the notion of "orthogonal" dimensions--compared that to the dimension discussion in Abbott's "Flatland" (1884). A number of us at group REALLY liked the discussion of a time-dimension being needed for anything to exist--I remember being floored by that when I first read it. A three-dimensional object that doesn't exist for some amount of time doesn't exist at all!

Other works we talked about in relation to "The Time Machine" specifically or dimensions/time travel generally included:
  • Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" (1726) & "A Modest Proposal" (1729), the latter primarily for the cannibalistic connection.
  • Inspector Space-Time, as well as his lesser-known imitator Dr. Who (for timey-wimey-ness).
  • L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" (1963)
  • Baxter's "The Time Ships" (1995), a sequel to "The Time Machine". Baxter is one of the hardest of the hard SF writers, and also quite fun.
  • The works of YA/SF author William Sleator, perhaps especially "The Boy Who Reversed Himself" (1986). I haven't read any Sleator, but Alice says that a few of his works concern time/dimensional exploration.
  • The alternate histories of Harry Turtledove sometimes utilize time travel to "split the timeline".
  • I couldn't remember the name to reference it, only that it talked about "orthogonal travel" a lot, but I've looked it up: "Great Work of Time" (1991) by John Crowley.
  • We could talk all day about great "time SF" though. My favorite paradoxical one has got to be "-All You Zombies-" (1959) by Heinlein (found a PDF of it btw).
We talked for a bit about Wells' style, writing speculative fiction before it was an established genre, this novel in the context of his work as a journalist, as well as the effects of serial publishing--we particularly liked that a certain point Wells seems to realize, much like his protagonist, that his supply of matches is not endless. We made some stylistic comparisons to Poe-- I particularly like when the traveler is moving through time fast enough that "night followed day like the flapping of a black wing".

Class is obviously a huge concern in "The Time Machine" (and much of the rest of Wells' work), and it's kind of fascinating to see concerns about extreme inequality & capitalism in a work from over a century ago. It's strange the way that the traveler winds up sympathizing with the dumb, beautiful Eloi, while reviling the Morlocks--given that Wells seems to be trying to point out the injustice of their respective ancestors (wealthy elites towards under-class laborers).

And speaking Eloi, we were all fairly icked out by the traveler's relation to Weena; even though there's no explicit sexual relations, we can't help wondering if we're supposed to read that between the lines. Michael pointed out that many early European ethnographers wrote in similar ways about their experiences with "native women".

We also talked for a while about the film adaptations, especially praising the special effects in the 1960 version (dir. George Pal). The decaying Morlock scene there was really haunting for me when I saw it as a kid--one of those "realizations of mortality" things. We also talked about the 2002 version (directed by Simon Wells, H.G.'s great-grandson). Though largely critically panned, a few at our group praised the visuals and presentation if not the over-all execution.

A good discussion! Next time on Classic Sci-Fi: Marge Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time". Thus far planning on Mad River, but keep your eye on the Meetup page for updates.

No comments:

Post a Comment