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Posts tagged ‘Science’

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 3

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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

1. Writing and the Future

The ability to predict the future has always been one of the most well regarded skills.  In this tough economic climate it is perhaps the one thing that is guaranteed to secure you a job: whether you’re applying for a position as a football pundit, economist, or anything in-between, the ability to successfully foresee future events is sure to stand you in good stead for a long and prosperous career.

Wishful thinking aside, the idea of being able to see the future retains an enduring place at the heart of popular culture.  Fairly recently, a Mayan calendar sparked an internet furore when someone dug up the fact that the world is coming to an end in December this year.  Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that Nostradamus’ Les Propheties has rarely been out of print since it was first published in 1555, despite the seer’s own admission that “the whole thing is written in nebulous form, rather than as a clear prophecy of any kind” – which is as clear a sign as any of a bare-faced liar.  However, it’s easy to understand why predicting the future remains a powerful concept: noone knows what is going to happen tomorrow, so when someone somehow manages to convince us that he or she might be able to, we like to indulge our long-standing taste for mysticism and the occult.  In any event, the failsafe for prophets is that whether or not a prediction has any truth in it can only be known retrospectively, in Nostradamus’ case looking back several centuries later.

Sadly, our fascination with being able to see the future by some mystical clairvoyance (or by statistical analysis – see Long Term Capital Management) often overlooks the fact that novelists constantly grapple with the future, not always explicitly, but in an earnest attempt to explore humanity’s experience of the world.  As Alex Starritt said in his Why read? article: “it is habitual for discoveries or advances in the study of the human to appear in fiction first.”  This is an extremely wide concept, and the interlink between art and science is something that requires considerable thought, particularly because it is only by looking closely that one can begin to see the connections.

A book that does a lot of the hard work for us, and does it brilliantly, is Proust was a neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer.  By examining specific instances in which scientific discoveries have been anticipated in writing, he gives us a convincing insight into the idea that in many respects man can see the future, just not perhaps as the Nostradamus brigade would have us believe.  To take one example of this, the book considers the poet Walt Whitman’s central conviction that, contrary to the Cartesian doctrine prevalent in the mid-19th century, the mind cannot be separated from the body; a philosophy that he developed during his time as a nurse in various military hospitals over the course of the American Civil War: “Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul.”  This idea was brought into the scientific arena by the pioneer Harvard psychologist William James, who stated that “the actual content of our minds are always representations of some kind of ensemble.”  More recently, modern neuroscience has explored the interrelationship of the mind and body, with one renowned practitioner, Antonio Damasio, concluding that the two are indeed inseparable, that is to say, logical thought cannot function independently of the body’s feeling.

Science, of course, is not the only area of human thought that can be anticipated in literature: socio-political trends are prefigured to a greater or lesser extent in the writing of countless novelists, from Orwell and H.G.Wells, to Balzac and Dickens.  Fiction has the ability, after all, of looking at reality as a whole, without the need to focus on specific aspects of it.  This gives the author the freedom to explore ideas that may not have any solid empirical basis at the time they are written.  Denis Diderot, for example, wrote Le rêve de D’Alembert, a surreal essay in which the characters discuss the idea that nature is constantly evolving, in 1769, almost a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.  Furthermore, fiction can examine aspects of reality that haven’t yet been reduced by science or socio-political theory: the novelist is free to look around himself and write what he sees, what he feels.  Indeed, it is this feeling that is the mark of a good writer: the ability to see and express things others don’t or can’t, perhaps until someone with a microscope points them out fifty years later.

The Editors