Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Suvin, H.G. Wells, "The Time Machine, Science Fiction and the Fantastic

     In his essay on “The Time Machine”, Darko Suvin argues that the novelette is “at least one of the basic historical models for science-fiction structuring.” (Suvin 91) It presents interpretations of the future society of the Eloi that cover the basic forms of imagining the future in sociological science fiction, ranging from the utopian to the dystopian. He then looks at the influence that Huxley’s theories on evolution had on the structure of the novel. While he notes that Wells also drew influence from what Suvin refers to as a commonsense ‘folk biology’, “the principle of a Wellsian structure of science fiction is mutation of scientific into aesthetic cognition.” (Suvin 101) This material all ties in with the basic thesis that Suvin presents in his fundamental argument about the structure of science fiction as a genre in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction.

     In that piece, Suvin argues that Science fiction can be understood as a separate genre through the concept of cognitive estrangement. This separates the genre from ‘naturalism’ because of its engagement with estrangement. It no longer operates within the ideological ‘zero world” of its author. The naturalized constraints of the world of the author, whether social or technological, are seen as contingent and the author imagines a world that operates within different social rules. At the same time, science fiction distinguishes itself from the realm of the fantastic, by trying to limit its speculations to what science has deemed to be possible. Rather than delving into the impossible, science fiction tries to open up possibilities in what is possible. This allows the reader to break through the ideological barriers of the contemporary society to an extent.

     Suvin’s reading is compelling, and is extraordinarily useful, but I am more convinced by the first part of the argument than I am by the second part of the argument. Without a doubt, Wells’s narrative and aesthetic are influenced by the science of his times, as are his discussions of the nature of time, but how does the narrative get to the point of being able to explore the realm of time? This element of the story seems to put a bit of a dent in Suvin’s belief in a strong separation of the genres. The question that may need to be posed is how much do the realms of wonder (magic, the marvelous and the fantastic) begin to mix with science, and how much do they overdetermine each other?

     In order to begin this discussion, it might be productive to look at the initial description of the model of the time machine.

     The thing the Time Traveler held in his hand was a glittering metallic framework, scarcely larger than a small clock, and very delicately made. There was ivory in it, and some transparent crystalline substance. And now I must be explicit, for this that follows—unless his explanation is to be accepted—is an absolutely unaccountable thing. (Wells 11)

     The opening description of the device falls out of the scientific narrative that Suvin stake so much importance on. Instead, we are offered a narrative of an object that is, in essence, fantastic. This is not only apparent in the lack of explanation of the device, but in its construction, which both emphasize delicacy and a construction that emphasizes its beauty. Instead of a description of the clockwork of the machine, we are told of its crystalline and ivory construction. Further into the narrative, the Time Traveler notes that, “You will notice that it looks askew, and that there is an odd twinkling appearance about this bar, as though it was in some way unreal.” (Wells 12) This unreality, along with mystical properties imbued in its construction, points to something that escapes the realm of the cognitive.

     The plot’s construction itself borrows heavily from elements that Todorov would consider essential to the fantastic. The tension in the narrative structure comes from the question whether the Time Traveler is a reliable or an unreliable narrator. We are told from the beginning that this is a man that is not widely trusted. “The fact is, the Time Traveler was one of those men who are too clever to be believed; you never felt that you saw all round him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush behind his lucid frankness.” (Wells 15) It had already been established that this distrust had some merit. The Time Traveler had already played tricks on the group of friends, mechanically creating the effects of a ghost. Thus, the Time Traveler looks far more like a conjurer than a scientist. The question we are posed with is whether that ability comes from smoke and mirrors or it comes from something genuine. The narrative seems to indicate the latter, although it only does that through the negative, the disappearance of the Time Traveler in what could best described as a poof of smoke.

     If we take the basic gist of the critics of fantasy seriously, that the fantastic allows us to engage with material that is unsymbolizable in the present, then it isn’t surprising that these techniques would be crucial in presenting social orders and scientific discoveries that are as of yet unimaginable. The curious thing is that the critics of the fantastic are as eager to banish science fiction to the realm of the marvelous as Suvin is eager to banish it from the realm of the cognitive, but “The Time Machine” operates easily within the dictates of Todorov’s demand of suspension, as well as it does within Suvin’s demands for cognitive estrangement. It’s not that these concepts should be collapsed, but there seems to be some limit in reading the genres in isolation.

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