After All: Hitching a ride in a ‘real-life’ Time Machine
Image credit: Christine Bohling
In the third virtual meeting of our columnist’s no-less-virtual book club, readers are invited to share their views of Ronald Wright’s dystopian fantasy novel ‘A Scientific Romance’.
In a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, the audience was asked what had saved them during the first year of the lockdowns, and it was nice to hear that several listeners – rather than crediting Netflix serials and wild Zoom parties – said “books”. It justified my decision to open a ‘beat-the-lockdown’ virtual book club for E&T readers several months ago.
We’ve so far ‘covered’ two funny, technology-laden and mood-lifting titles: ‘Star Diaries’ by Stanislaw Lem and ‘Little Golden America’ by Ilf and Petrov. Your response has been encouraging and can be summed up by reader John Langley from the Isle of Wight: “On Vitali’s recommendation, I bought this book [‘Little Golden America] from Amazon... 300 pages or so promised a good lengthy read during these lockdown days. And I was not disappointed.”
It was good to know that club members came not just from the UK, but also from the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Australia and some other countries – this proved that the escape into the magnificent world of books was pretty much an international phenomenon.
For our third – and hopefully last – meeting (for the book club was created with a specific aim to beat the boredom of the lockdowns, and I do hope there will be no more of them), I was at first, almost seriously, playing with the idea of ‘Eating out in Europe. Picnics, Gourmet Dining and Snacks since the Late Eighteenth Century’ (Berg, 2003). I thought it would be a timely read, when some of us could still remember what ‘snacks’ and ‘picnics’ (if not quite ‘Europe’ and ‘gourmet dining’) actually meant – just look at our cities and towns turned into giant open-air coffee shops, with park benches as their only ‘alfresco’ furniture!
On reflection, however, I discarded that idea as too sadistic and not technological enough and suggest instead one of my favourite books of all time – ‘A Scientific Romance’ by Ronald Wright, a modern British author, now living in Canada.
By genre, the book can probably be described as a science-fiction dystopia of sorts. The plot is roughly as follows:
In 1999, in London, David Lambert, an archaeologist and reluctant curator of a museum of Victorian technology and engineering, accidentally finds out that HG Wells’s fictitious time machine was in fact real and, having just returned from the 19th century, is ready for use after some minor repairs. That was how the machine ‘worked’:
“...the device somehow achieves displacement in time by producing an electrical plasma similar to ball lightning... The real machine abides by the Draconian laws of thermodynamics. The ‘distance’ travelled is proportional to the energy available. The two cylinders attached by subframes to either side of the sphere contain a Tesla coil and its power source, the ‘jars and electrolytes’ mentioned by Wells... Power is accumulated, calibrated and fed into the coil – essentially a huge ignition coil capable of enormous voltages and frequencies... The maximum range ... was a thousand years – eternity’s small change.”
As an old commercial for a razor-blade manufacturer goes, do not try it at home! But I’ve digressed...
The time machine’s peculiar ‘modus operandi’ for Wright is of course but a literary – and not an engineering – device to transfer his protagonist to the future. Suffering from a terminal illness and having just been dumped by his girlfriend, David thinks he’s got nothing to lose and, without much hesitation, propels himself 500 years ahead – to year 2499.
What he finds is a tropical Britain, with palm trees and monkeys but no people. To get to that stage, the place must have gone through several global conflicts, or deadly pandemics, or both. Having established a base camp under the ruined carcass of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge at Dartford, David sets off in search of humans (if any) along the remains of the A1 motorway, overgrown with grass, cacti and lianas, to the sounds of “an uproar of parakeets and mynahs feeding in cohune palms”. On his way north, he befriends a black panther, whom he monikers Graham.
When he finally reaches what used to be Scotland... Wait... No more spoilers! It would be unfair to disclose here all twists and turns of the superbly constructed and skilfully executed plot.
David Lambert (the bulk of the book is written as his diary) comes through as a passionate erudite, a home-grown philosopher and a narrator of Nabokovian standards (to me, Wright’s style was somewhat reminiscent of Nabokov’s American-period prose). He is at times desperate, at times funny, but never indifferent or inhumane.
As for the landscape, it is so trustworthy that after reading and re-reading ‘A Scientific Romance’ (and I have done it at least five times since I bought it in a charity shop in East Finchley 15 years ago), I started taking extra care every time I drive across the Queen Elizabeth Bridge (“two exclamation marks joined by a warped hyphen, black against a Canaletto sky”), or stroll along the Thames: “The river’s artificial banks have long disappeared, and there’s no trace of the refineries and power stations that used to greet the seaborne visitor to London like an avenue of sphinxes. Mangroves and palmettos line both shores...”
You never know behind which of the “mangroves” Graham the panther may be hiding...
Dystopia? Time travel? Post-apocalyptic landscapes? How can those be inspiring amidst the still raging pandemic, you may ask?
Well, here lies the magic power of literature. Wright’s post-apocalyptic Britain feels strangely reassuring. As Professor WHG Armitage wrote in his book ‘Heavens Below. Utopian Experiments in England 1560-1960)’, which I am reading now: “The hot breath of the charismatic behind one’s back (pace ‘Eating Out in Europe’ – VV) is disconcerting. In trying to direct us from behind, it uses the language of apocalypse.”
So, instead of being dragged backwards by our past experiences – no matter how pleasant and hedonistic they could appear now – let’s try and bravely face the future, for even after an apocalypse, there’s always a new beginning.
‘A Scientific Romance’ (paperback edition) by Ronald Wright is published by Anchor Books and is available from Amazon.
Share your thoughts and views on this book at email@example.com, mentioning ‘After All’ in the subject line.
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