He rises above cleverness

“The ‘fourth dimension’ is a matter which has troubled many minds,” writes The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record in 1895, “but the hero of this book discovers that it is found in time rather than in space […]” (685). “This account he gives [of his time travel] with all the circumstantial detail which imparts such an air of reality to the wild imaginings of M. Jules Verne.” I have a broad academic interest in discourse around access and accessibility, terms that seem often to drift around (at least non-academic) discussions of science fiction. It certainly seems like early reviewers of The Time Machine (or The Time Traveler) revel in the ways the text makes scientific theories (regardless of their accuracy) feel accessible.

“The style is rapid, unadorned, but admirably clear,” writes a reviewer in the July 27th, 1895 National Observer. “Depicting as he does a scene or series of scenes wholly imaginative, it is extraordinary what effect of realism he manages to get without, as it were, making the slightest effort to deaden our senses with the colouring of words” (327). Adjacent publications for natural histories, books about the colonial exploration of Africa, and language instruction “Handbooks for Tourists, Travelers, and Students” seem to evidence a public hunger not just for adventure narratives, but for narratives that perform a synthesis of thrills and instruction (The Publishers’ Circular Jan-June 1895).

I’m interested in the characterizations of science fiction as making science accessible to a general reading public, but I’m also interested in the way science fiction elides or makes inaccessible scientific ideas. One of the things it seems to me that Wells does, which is enforced by his reviewers, is make some science unspeakable. The two review quotes in The Bookman; a Review of Books and Life (1895-1933) from New York Commercial Advertiser: “[…] No synopsis can give an idea of the graphic and peculiar power of the story” and Boston Times “Nothing we can write can give an idea of this brilliant little book.” Maybe what’s compelling is the license this text gives us not to know.

One thought on “He rises above cleverness”

  1. Luckhurst also considers Wells’ representations of science and states that he “can’t agree… that Wells is distinguished by his use ‘of real science, and the questions and techniques of science'” (41). Yet, I wonder if another way we can consider Wells’ emphasis on revision (in the Time Traveller’s constant reworking of theories) as a way of rendering science accessible: that is, as a series of hypotheses and experimentations. In this way, science becomes less a set of concrete facts, and more a collection of complex theories and their accompanying failures.

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