Monday, 17 October 2011

The Time Machine

‘Scientific people know very well that Time is only a kind of Space’, says the Traveller in Wells's The Time Machine. That being so, of course, it is incumbent upon him to explore it. He mounts his chrono-cycle with only a few items in his pocket, and sets off into the future. I'm always reminded of pictures taken of Empire explorers and adventurers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Mallory-Irvine expedition to Mount Everest in 1924. In the photo here,
(from the Natural History Museum website), the expedition look as though they might be about to have a walk in slightly inclement weather somewhere on Hampstead Heath, rather than trying to ascend the highest mountain in the world. This is how I imagine the Traveller, somewhat unprepared, somewhat naive, about to trust to luck and his own wits.

The adventurer-hero of Imperial Romance is easiest identified with the figure of Allan Quartermain, protagonist of several books by H.Rider Haggard, and more recently re-booted as an opium-addicted time traveller of increased longevity in the Moore and O'Neill comic books The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (At the end of Volume 1 of the Collected versions of LoEG, Quartermain actually meets and has an adventure with Wells's Traveller.) Moore's ironic imagination of the Imperial adventurer pricks the balloon of his competence (if, unlike the Traveller, the advneturer had much to begin with); uptight, rather weak, his masculinist and Imperial ethos undone by encounters with Mina Harker and Captain Nemo, Quartermain is re-discovered as a rather more attractive figure for his all-too-human weaknesses.

In The Time Machine, Wells allows the Traveller to tell his own story (though the narration is framed and doubled with another narration, by a narrator not revealed to the reader); as in The Island of Doctor Moreau, narrated by the castaway Prendick, Wells allows a gap to open between the Traveller's experience of the world, his narration, and how we might process his words. For instance, the Traveller continually speculates about the nature and state of the world he finds himself in; continually, his hypotheses are proved wrong. A keen experimenter, of course, this does not put him off: he simply reformulates the evidence into new hypotheses. For the reader, however, the constant mis-apprehensions reveal to us the existence of partiality, of blind spots, of gaps in knowledge or understanding. Wells is a sophisticated enough writer (not always allowed in criticism of his work) to afford several of his scientific romances some linguistic or formal play, and first-person narration is one of those devices. Through this, Wells can expose some of the assumptions of the world of Victorian England that produces the Traveller and his science.

That is not to say that Wells does not have his own blind spots, his own ideological silences. If 'time is a kind of space' is an alibi or pretext for Imperial adventure, how might we process the evolutionary discourse (mapped onto class) that structures the visions of the future? Is class only a kind of species difference, in a Darwinian model of competition and selection? And how is it that agency is gendered?

However, the Traveller's machine is not a gunboat, a machine of war and domination; its nearest analogue is a bicycle. In a decade when cycling became all the rage (and Wells wrote his own bicycle-themed novel, The Wheels of Chance), the Time Machine itself seems best suited not for Empire, but a day-trip to the countryside.

Sunday, 9 October 2011


I've found keeping up to date on the blog difficult over the last few months. Tiredness at the end of the last academic year, then a need to rest and recuperate over the summer meant that I only posted again last week. With the new year, new ENGL365 classes beginning tomorrow, I'm going to post once a week until Christmas on a topic related to the classes the week after next is Wells and The Time Machine, so expect a post on that later in the week.

The title comes from Gibson, and Count Zero. I've never quite known what it refers to. But if I can't mange two-a-day, I'll go for once-a-week.

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Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Close Encounters

The other day, I caught the end of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1990) and thought: so, alien beings are angelic jellyfish that read text messages? It’s all very bathetic. The mock-profundity of the sequence where Ed Harris is saved by the underwater beings conspicuously lacks the sense of wonder that Steven Spielberg achieves in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), let alone Kubrick’s much more radical means by which to imagine the transcendent in the Stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When the giant sea/spacecraft emerges from the deep, with US Navy ships left stranded on it like so many bathtime toys, the result is curiously unengaging. There is, of course, a long-standing connection between the oceanographic and the cosmological, not least in Arthur C. Clarke’s long-standing love-affair with the sea (he abandoned Europe and went to live in Sri Lanka), but The Abyss, with its ending of a clinch between husband and wife Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, standing on the wet deck of the alien mega-submersible, is a very literal damp squib.

So I went back to Spielberg and Close Encounters. The opening of the film is wonderfully evocative, figures battling a sandstorm to discover a flight of Grumman Avengers lost in the Bermuda Triangle, including Francois Truffaut (playing it very straight) as the scientist Lacombe and the excellent Bob Balaban. There’s a strangeness to this sequence which shows what an off-kilter opening it is – we won’t see Truffaut again until much later in the film, and the film shifts to Indiana, where a passenger flight is buzzed by a UFO before the film focuses on two characters, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) and Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), whose young son runs off into the night in search of his extra-terrestrial playmates. The sequence where Neary, an electrical engineer lost in his truck in browned-out Indiana, encounters a UFO is full of iconic moments: standing at a level crossing, what appear to be a car’s headlights approaching behind him ascend vertically over the truck’s roof; the blinding white light and the objects in the truck’s cabin set loose from gravity; the truck, in long shot, zooming along a moonlit highway as a large, circular shadow passes across the screen; after having just avoided hitting Barry Guiler (Cory Duffy), standing in the middle of the road, Neary and Jillian watching (with a group of silent locals) the bright lights of the UFOs hurtle down the highway then carry on through a bend and up into the sky.

This spectacle is both superseded and completed by the end of the film. Under a kind of psychological compulsion, and accompanied by Jillian, Neary travels to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where scientists have constructed a base or kind of landing pad for alien visitors. Doug Trumbull’s effects in this sequence are marvels of light: their colours unearthly, upper-saturated neon, bespeaking their extra terrestrial origin. They shine too brightly; yet they are not threatening, even when the huge Mothership decends. Spielberg, in a typical visual gesture for him, renders the spectacle less anxious by arraying diegetic spectators. One or two run to the toilet, but most stand and watch, beguiled by the play of light. And play is crucial to the representation of the aliens in Close Encounters, from Barry Guiler’s toys at the beginning of the film (compare the sinister scene in the children’s bedroom in the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist (1982), where the toys come to ‘life’), to the playfulness of the lights chased across Indiana by Neary and thee police cars, to the child-like aliens milling about on the landing field at the end.

Of course, at the end of the film, Neary abandons his own wife and children in search of wonder; he is chosen by the childlike alien entities (after gatecrashing the close encounter) and ascends to the stars. But this is the imperative of playtime, for Neary: he wants to discover, to inhabit a sense of wonder, to play. It countermands everything else. No wonder then, at Lacombe’s parting words: ‘Monsieur Neary, I envy you.’

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