Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tales of Space and Time

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." - Niels Bohr

H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, Things to Come, and a number of other imaginative novels, also left us a body of shorter works. Some of these are available in a collection called Tales of Space and Time which you can download from Feedbooks.

The first piece in this collection, "The Crystal Egg," was dramatized in a 2001 British TV series titled, "The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells" (available from Netflix). It begins in that staple of English fiction, the old curiosity shop, where the proprietor experiments with the peculiar visionary properties of an item on his shelves. Wells' original version is a good yarn, but I confess I like the twist given to it by the TV writers. (In making a series of it, they cast H.G. himself as the protagonist investigating such things as time travel and mysterious teleportations.)

In "The Star," Wells abandons any pretense of telling a story and simply gives us a compelling account of what it might be like for our solar system to suffer a near encounter with a large, bright, hot, and gravitationally powerful interloper. The material could have been delivered as an essay, but by presenting it as a historical account by an omniscient observer, and by weaving in many glimpses from the point of view of common people, the vision becomes much more powerful.

Wells next visits the distant past and the not so distant future. His tale of the primitive man who invented the first ax foreshadows later works such as The Clan of the Cave Bear and William Golding's The Inheritors, while also harking back to Kipling's The Jungle Book with its talking animals. Even though the science behind it is no longer up to date, Wells' vision of it still rings true, as if he was able to imagine his way back to those earlier times. Oh -- and of course the inventor of the ax lived in primordial England.

The future seems to have caused Wells more trouble, for even though he only ventured ahead by 200 years many of his ideas are still hopelessly antiquated. Single young women, for example, still have chaperons, and hypnotism is the state of the art in mental health care. Women still wear fancy hats attached with hat-pins, and marketers are selling "digestive pills." His vaguely depicted flying machines have huge "sails" on them, with people hanging below in "swinging seats." (And you thought you were afraid to fly in a plane!) He accurately extrapolated the movement of the population into the big cities, but failed to see that the same mobility could result in the sprawl of suburbia.

Despite all this, Wells gets one thing right in an uncanny way. His hero and heroine are star-crossed lovers from different classes (and don't tell me that's an anacronism) who develop an antipathy for the status quo that is eerily reminiscent of the counterculture of the 1960's. They leave the city to try living in an abandoned town in the country (back to the land!), and when that doesn't work out they end up doing manual labor in the underbelly of society where everyone wears "blue canvas" clothing (jeans?). They even have their own ideas about child rearing that sets them at odds with the system of public "creches" where the infants of the future are raised. This foreshadows the darker vision of Huxley's Brave New World, in which the hero also left society to try living in the wilds of South America where it was still possible to be free.

As I've mentioned before (here and here), those who would foretell the future are taking a big risk, and science fiction writers are among the most daring of the lot. As Paul Valery said, "... the future is not what it used to be." Things are changing so rapidly that yesterday's future resembles yesterday more than today, and much more than tomorrow. Just consider some past images of the future on display at Paleofuture.com ("a look into the future that never was").

But we have to give the venerable Wells his due. Like Jule Verne, Jonathan Swift, and others who went before, by boldly imagining what had never been imagined he helped to create the space of possibility in which the future, come what may, is still unfolding.

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