Time travelling, in vogue

September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

When I went on my first time travel with H.G. Wells on his old time machine from 1895, I returned with a sense of appreciation for living in a world with less startling socioeconomic inequality.  Regardless of this relief, my head was still filled with thoughts on political philosophies and the disturbing possibility of the evolution of human civilization shaped by social, economic, and environmental push-factors, and overall I finished the book with a heavy heart.  Wells’ commentary on society and the theory of evolution dominates his novel, and as a present-day audience, I found him and his work more puzzling and disturbing than entertaining as a science fiction.  But I understand that Social Darwinism was very much in vogue during the late 19th century, so I guess naturally Wells could not resist using his time machine as a vehicle to explore and discuss the phenomenon in the fictional realm.

Fast forward 104 years to Michael Swanwick’s Scherzo with Tyrannosaur.  What is fashionable in the contemporary world of time travel? A fast-paced and vivid narrative, edgy characters, surprising twists in the plot that makes you gasp out loud, and DINOSAURS!  I was impressed at how effectively Swanwick drew me into the narrative.  By the second page, I felt just as invested as the main character in appeasing the Unchanging so that our time traveling privileges won’t be confiscated.  Even in this highly energetic and entertaining tale of time-travelling paleontologists, however, I was still relieved to finish the story and thankful that I could just mentally register it as a fiction, something that will never happen. The Oedipal elements combined with the dire moral consequences of advancements in technology are themes running throughout the plot, and the unresolved ending does not necessarily add to this picnic, either.  With other stories or novels that I deem as just as entertaining or effective, I usually feel a sense of longing for that extra page or two when I see the finale approaching.  For example, I was never in any hurry to get to the dénouements in Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, and his works usually leave me in a state of euphoria even if the content is tragic.  I don’t become overwhelmed with a sense of depression and disturbed feelings the way I have with Wells’ and Swanwick’s works.  They both seem to say, “I’ll give you a time machine, but you will pay for it…”  Can science fiction, or more specifically, time travel, not be effective without pessimism?  Why couldn’t the Elois and Morlocks both evolve into superhumans which could show a progress of the human civilization rather than degeneration?  Why does the father have to contemplate saving his son against the risk of ruining his relationship with technology?

I do not know the answers to these hypothetical questions.  But perhaps, in the world of science fiction, pessimism is always in vogue.

HJL

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