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Posts tagged ‘H.G. Wells’

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 3


The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke

Having looked at a few of the classics of ‘travel’ or adventure literature in Part 2, I thought it would be worth considering the outer limits of the genre in this post. After all, it seems logical that after the full extent of physical or spatial travel has been exhausted, humanity and therefore literature should turn towards other less obvious modes of travel. Where to go in fiction when the world is no longer a mystery in reality? This seems a preposterous question to ask in the 21st century, but would probably have been less so in the 19th century, when the possibilities of spatial travel must have excited the imagination in a way that is difficult to comprehend nowadays. In fact, a brief glance at Jules Verne’s bibliography betrays the progressive fetishisation of adventure: we have a simple enough start with Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, before we move swiftly to the more ambitious Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Mr Verne is quite obviously pushing the boundaries both of physical travel and of our appetite for exploration literature generally, probably to breaking point and beyond.

Even in the 19th century, there must have been a threshold for the public’s endurance of adventure fiction. Once a hero or heroine has gone up and down and sideways as much as is humanly possible, where to next? The answer I think can be found in the clear progression from R.L. Stevenson’s romantic adventure novels of the 1880s (Treasure Island, Kidnapped) to H.G. Wells’ science fiction of the 1890s (The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds). The first of H.G. Wells’ novels listed above represents a particularly interesting spin on the conventional spatio-temporal dimensions of the adventure novel. Indeed, the protagonist of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, explicitly remains in the same location (a laboratory in Richmond, Surrey) whilst simultaneously embarking on a journey of discovery to the England of the distant future. This is thought provoking for a number of reasons. Firstly, in departing from the confines of spatial exploration, Wells subtly floats the notion that adventure is not merely the preserve of pirates and treasure hunters. In other words, whilst the Time Traveller remains locked in a laboratory, the adventure he undertakes is nevertheless very real.

This seems to be getting at the idea that the scientists of the 19th century were just as ambitious in their quest for discovery as the explorers of the geographic world. Within the context of the adventure story, the idea that a man or woman could emerge from a confined space and claim to have encountered something previously unseen and unheard of must have been nothing short of revolutionary, bordering on the mystical. And yet, that is of course what scientists have always done. In a way, this makes their exploration all the more authentic and noble: scientific explorers cannot always count on the admiration of a timid public when they emerge from their adventures; more often they are greeted with a general lack of understanding and dismissive mockery. This introduces another fascinating element to the classic adventure tale: the idea of the returning traveller shunned for having the temerity to look behind the veil of accepted reality. The Time Traveller cannot be fully understood or believed, which is presumably one of the reasons he chooses to embark on another quest the day after his dinner party, this time never to return. Once again we encounter a hero in the Ulyssian mould, a man driven by a lust for knowledge and adventure, but also perhaps alienated from his peers in mainstream society. It is not hard to imagine, after all, that Ulysses, having returned home to Ithaca after ten years of travel, would have struggled to convince Penelope that he had been kidnapped by a Cyclops.

The frustration of not being fully understood is the universal curse of the keen reader. When a reader emerges from the solitary world of book-reading, there will almost inevitably be a gulf between that reader’s appreciation of reality and everyone else’s. However much a book is dissected, explained and shared with others, the reading of it is inevitably a deeply personal experience. This is, of course, both terrifying and exhilarating: no one can do the reading for you, just as no one can visit Southeast Asia for you, which is why summaries and SparkNotes unfailingly miss the point. And when the heavy-lifting is done, when War and Peace lies conquered on your bedside table, no one is there to congratulate you or admire your newly-found intellectual acumen (or newly-found sense of existential despair). Any sense of triumph is purely your own, like a lone Himalayan climber who, having successfully reached a summit during the day, is forced to dig a one-man shelter in the side of the mountain at night.

The Editors

4. Writing and the Future

So far this series we have looked at various ways in which the novel can anticipate future trends and developments, both on a personal level and in the context of the broader changes that define society.  Fiction can, of course, look forward to the future, but this is not something that can ever be undertaken in isolation.  Even science fiction, the genre that most specifically looks at what will befall humanity in times to come, is anchored in the past and present.  In fact, science fiction is all the more interesting because, in looking forward to the future, it reveals aspects of our current world outlook: our fears, hopes and dreams.  The writer, after all, is writing in the present and does not, as previously discussed, possess any supernatural powers beyond a rational brain and an inbuilt but refined sense of intuition.  As such, any successful predictions of things to come can occur only by percipience, that is, by a writer’s vision of the world in its totality.  Ultimately, our conception of the future can be nothing more than a mental projection, conjured by the imagination and based on the possibilities of the present.

Take, for instance, H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel The War in the Air, written in 1907.  It is a book that eerily anticipates the use of aircraft in modern warfare, and yet it also reveals more generally a fear of industrial war on a global scale, a fear that would be justified by the outbreak of the First World War.  It shows that in the decade leading up to 1914, the idea of international war was a very real concern, at least for those with vivid imaginations, or for readers and writers of science fiction.  However, H.G. Wells clearly goes beyond the immediate future, and in fact the plot of The War in the Air bears more resemblance to the Second World War in its description of a transcontinental conflict that ends in a stalemate between superpowers.  Indeed, at the heart of the novel lies the seed of the great 20th century fear – the extermination of mankind resulting from international conflict and the exponential development of the technology to do it with.  It is a fear that persists in the 21st century.

Milan Kundera points out in The Art of the Novel that the most prophetic writer of the last century was probably Franz Kafka, a novelist who envisioned the terror of the totalitarian state before the Soviet gulag and the Nazi concentration camp.  And yet Kundera also argues that Kafka’s greatness lay not in his powers of divination, but in his ability to see things about the world that were simply not apparent to others:

“Kafka made no prophecies.  All he did was see what was “behind.”  He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing.  He did not intend to unmask a social system.  He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of history.”

So what are the concepts currently appearing in fiction that will go on to define the 21st century? Perhaps it’s best to remind ourselves of another Kundera quote:

“Chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty.  For the future is always mightier than the present.  It will pass judgment on all of us, of course.  And without any competence.”

The Editors