Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"'Consider I have been speculating . . .'"

Among the issues we discussed last week were Darko Suvin’s notion of genre as a matter of “family resemblance,” not to be answered with a strict definition, as well as the peculiar insistence of readers on the internal consistency of “reality” within fiction. Though these hardly seem related, in reviewing The Time Machine’s framework I began to consider the possibility they might be, insofar as both play on a reader’s inarticulable standards for fiction, gleaned from prior experience. Before the ending proves the entire narrative to be a bait-and-switch as egregious as Inception (which faded to black as a cliffhanger, only for the soundtrack to settle things), the story very cleverly deploys a Victorian reader’s loosely defined sense of science fiction as a genre in order to cast doubt on its own status as fiction. “‘Consider I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race until I have hatched this fiction’,” the internal narrator allows us to include (before the external one, like Christopher Nolan, insists on a final answer), recognizing that his work of reportage is indistinguishable in tone and purpose from invention. “‘Treat my assertion of its truth as a mere stroke of art to enhance its interest’,” he adds, discovering the problem of realism. (111)

I’d like to do so here in order to enhance not only to enhance its interest, but to develop an understanding of science and science fiction as related practices just before their modern incarnations. I got this sense immediately from the novel, but in a manner better justified by recourse to another course, in the history of biology—since Alexandra has already demonstrated the insight other material might bring to bear on our own. For the homosocial, domestic male discourse with which the novel opens reminded me of nothing so much as the environment in which science was practiced through the 19th century, among private (without yet becoming truly academic) clubs like the Royal Society, or simply within the home of a wealthy, curious gentleman. The Time Traveler is skilled (or dandyish) enough to furnish his home with furniture of his own design, which is reflective, and even formative, of an environment open to the spirit of intellectual inquiry: “Our chairs, being his patents, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon, and there was that luxurious after-dinner atmosphere when thought runs gracefully free of the trammels of precision”; fittingly, insofar as those trammels would not be finally applied until the Fordist application of industrialization to the practice of science (1).

In the very same setting, of course, storytelling would have been equally at home, as the more skeptical members of his audience remind us at the novel’s end. Yet I think that, in one of the more self-conscious moments of the novel—and one that so far most clearly articulates the thesis of this course—the equation of science and science fiction is claimed to be a consequence not merely of its practice in the homes of Victorian gentlemen, but its essential reliance on narrative as such. “‘Conceive the tale of London which a negro, fresh from Central Africa, would take back to his tribe! What would he know of railway companies, of social movements, of telephone and telegraph wires, of the Parcels Deliver Company, and postal orders and the like? . . . And even of what we knew, how much could he make his untravelled friend either apprehend or believe?’” (51-52) Here he addresses anthropology, though only by way of a peculiar self-othering inversion. But were we to generalize the point to all systems perceptible only to those with a privileged perspective that nevertheless must derive value from their representation to others (which would describe not only the relation between the scientist, his field of study, and the populace, but also of the critic, “high” literature and the same—if not the critic, “low” literature and the academy), the lesson becomes of greater import to a greater number. And science fiction begins to look like the best training in such impossible acts of speech.


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