Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Sphinx of Remote Posterity

I think I encountered H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine when I was in middle school. I had seen the first part of a film version on PBS. It ended with the Traveller being silently approached by the queerly inhuman humans of the unthinkable future. The image haunted me, and I went immediately to our town library to check it out. As I recall, I read it in one sitting. I was not yet a teenager then, but my enjoyment of the novel is unabated to this day, which to me is the sign of a truly good book.

It is a melancholy tale touched with weird loveliness, a haunting myth of the ephemerality of mankind’s place in the universe. What can compare with the Time-Traveller’s loneliness amid the simple-minded Eloi in their meaningless ruins and gardens presided over by the marble sphinx? The plot and resolution are poignant enough to make us take interest, but never so obtrusive as to distract from the contemplation of time’s abyss.

And then there is the awful moment when the Traveller escapes at last and rushes far, far into the future, into an age when the earth has ceased in its turning and the sun has become a motionless red disc in an eternally black sky; when nearly all life has become extinct, and the world is inhabited only by giant crabs; when the sea is a dead dark pool without wind or waves. Here we see the genesis of the Dying Earth of The Night Land and Jack Vance’s tales; here we see a precursor of Lewis’ dead city of Charn.

Of what fabric is the mantle that hangs like enchantment over entropic tales of earth’s last days? It is a question I often ask, for my own novel has an anticlimactic-apocalyptic aspect. Why do we take pleasure in such stories? Perhaps the feeling is akin to the sense of awe that ovecomes one when walking through the grassy spaces of Tintern Abbey or Stonehenge. Ruins please us where the intact structures would not. A decadent pleasure, suited to jaded generations. We want our cathedrals old and gray, stained with the patina of centuries, a preference the builders would not have understood. For the Gothic cathedral was a riot of color and white stone in its day.*

At any rate, there is something about The Time Machine that affects me in much the same way that good fantasy novels do. Tolkien, in his ”On Fairy Stories,” even concedes that it comes close to being fantasy, though he stops short at classifying it as part of the genre. Of course it is officially classified as science fiction because it involves “science” and machines and not “magic.” But I contend that what classifies a novel as fantasy should not be the presence or absence of this or that material element. It should be its end as a work of art, what sort of beauty it aims at. Many fantasy novels that concern “magic” nowadays are really just banal technology stories, whereas books like The Time Machine are within the sphere of what I call fantasy.

*Perhaps this reduction to schadenfruede unduly harsh. Perhaps it would be more correct to speak of catharsis. Our anxieties about our civilization are vicariously purged in the contemplation of its eventual demise.

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