Science-Fiction

A Matter of Human Agency

morlocks-small.jpgLet’s say you’ve just invented a time machine. Your hand is on the dial,
ready to master the energies of the fourth dimension. Depending on when
you’re living in the history of the universe, this might be science
fiction or just the latest invention. Spaceships, atomic bombs, the
internet, all were once wild speculative dreams.

All were dreams about mastery of some element of the world around us.
I’ve been thinking about this with regard to H.G. Wells’ The Time
Machine
, published in 1895 and the direct ancestor of a vast number of
time travel stories. Some earlier books featured time travel, but not
voluntary travel. The Connecticut Yankee and others were moved to a
different time by forces outside their control. Wells’ time traveller is
in control of his destiny (but not really, as we’ll see in a moment),
and that makes this book science fiction, in the modern sense, and
earlier books fantastic tales but not really SF. It’s the “machine” part
of the title that makes all the difference.

The matter of human agency is an interesting one though, especially
if you take a look at Wells’ two most famous books, The Time Machine and
The War of the Worlds. The whole point of The War of the Worlds is that
we are insignificant against the scale of the cosmos (by way of a fable
of being on the wrong end of colonialism), and there’s nothing we can
do about it. The ending comes down to “minute, invisible bacteria” and
the invaders die due to insufficient travel preparations (like not
getting your shots before travelling overseas!).

The Time Machine is perhaps gesturing in the same direction – the
length of a human life is insignificant against the scale of the
chronology of the universe – but the part we remember is the guy
cranking the dial and travelling through time under his own volition.
Wells was more interested in grinding our faces in the eventual
heat-death of the universe, but his mechanism for revealing that truth,
the time machine itself, is what everyone else ran with.

(I’ll pause for a brief comparison with The Time Traveler’s Wife,
since the idea of human agency = science fiction clears up some genre
confusion about that book. By this formulation, Niffenegger’s book, an
odd mix of romance and science fiction, actually resolves almost
completely into romance, with the time travel bits as, structurally
speaking, just the plot business that keeps the lovers apart. Henry, the
time traveler, has no control over his jaunts through time).

morlocks-big.jpgNot unexpectedly, there have been a few movie versions of The Time
Machine
– the two direct adaptations are both terrible. The 50s version
(source of the current Gutter social media icon!) is a rather solid
piece of sexist garbage, campy in all the wrong ways. But at least it
had a reason to exist, within its own cultural matrix – the recent
remake is almost completely vacuous, treating Wells’ material like a
signifier void of all meaning, instead supplying an effects-happy
action-movie-wannabe, as if there were a shortage of such a thing.

I like Wells. I’ve mentioned his two most famous SF books, which have
lasted for a long time and continue to inspire readers. He wrote tons
of other books, almost all of them of interest in some way. For example,
I had a copy of the rather obscure The War in the Air when I was a kid,
which I re-read more times than the book is worth, frankly. Wells wrote the
book, which is about the idea of total war (and particularly, using the
newfangled “airplanes” to destroy civilians en masse), about a decade
before WWI, and 3 decades before WWII. He wrote increasingly pessimistic
introductions to it as history proved him right (Wells lived until
1946). It’s too bad that the Project Gutenberg version only has the 1917 introduction.

Rather bizarrely, my school library had a copy of Wells’ two-volume
Outline of History, and since I was reading everything on the short
shelf at my school anyways, I burned through that one as well. Talk
about in over your head! Perhaps the best way to learn? Wells as the
didact was, unfortunately, a much different creature than Wells the
storyteller. Check it out for yourself.
The project is rather revealing: Wells was a canny purveyor of the
cautionary tale, but he also had an optimistic streak. Yes, mastery of
the span of the history is possible, and yes, progress is happening all
around us. I wonder what Wells would have said about the decades since
then.

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