Friday, February 18, 2011

Poems by Asimov

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A couple of funny poems about SF written by Asimov, if anybody's interested in some light reading!

http://www.veeshanvault.org/shared/morebooks/Asimov,%20Isaac/Asimov,%20Isaac%20-%20Verses.txt

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The other and the self through time and space

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H.G. Wells’ time traveler expounds quite a bit upon the idea of representing time as the fourth dimension. He notes that a cube, despite occupying space in three dimensions, cannot exist without occupying a particular time as well; he also boldly proclaims that “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.” What is implied, of course, is that technology might permit the liberation of such consciousness from its fourth dimensional prison. The Time Machine itself is a vessel that does exactly this by allowing its rider to move along the fourth dimension as if it were merely space.


Nevermind the questionable and vague science behind the physics of time travel in Wells’ universe; the perception of time as a pseudo-spatial dimension is rather groundbreaking in and of itself. In the context of alterity in science fiction, it reconceptualizes the colonial theme of discovering new worlds (and new peoples) with respect to a different frontier: that is, instead of visiting other worlds in outer space, time travel allows us to visit our own world at different points in four-dimensional space. In a sense, it is the ultimate representation of Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement” – what can be more disconcertingly familiar and unfamiliar than a dystopian vision of our own future?


How, then, can we reconcile our notions of alterity with the idea that the “other” may simply be another version of ourselves? Theoretically, cognitive estrangement creates perspective to emphasize discovery of self, but the discoveries we make through time travel are often more overtly representative of the human condition than those made through space travel. In The Time Machine (particularly in the novella), the descendants of mankind are so estranged that they may as well have been an alien species; however, because they occupy the very (three dimensional) space in which the time traveller grew up, he is inclined to apply his knowledge of man to explain their situation. His theories are actually never fully confirmed; the reader can only rely on the time traveller’s speculations, speculations which are heavily rooted in late 19th century intellectual thought.


It should be noted that throughout history, man has not been afraid to frame new discoveries within older schools of thought. For example, the time traveller’s journey to the world of the Eloi and Murlocks can be seen as a classic, colonial tale of conquer and salvation: educated Englishman arrives in new (four-dimensional) place to educate and inspire the simple-minded aboriginals. The film adaptation even offers a sexual parallel to this conquest with its depiction of Weena (though one can argue that the book alluded to the same conquest in less explicit terms). Nevertheless, the time traveller is actually unable to fully decouple himself from his fourth-dimensional space. That is, though he is able to physically traverse the space of time, his consciousness is still embedded in his present. Yet, because his ideas are founded upon thousands of years of human intellect, not to mention influenced by prediction and expectation, one might say that moving through four-dimensional space is not so hard after all. In addition, if human intellect can be reasoned to transcend the fourth dimension, then the Eloi and Murlocks (and any "other" that may exist) can be understood as future manifestations of the self.

How to Create a "Jump Break" in Your Post

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Hey everyone!

I realize this is a bit late for posting on the blog this time around, but for future postings, if you want to make your post look a bit shorter on the home page and give readers a clickable link to "Read More" (so that we can view more posts on one page when we want to browse through the entries), you can use what's called a "Jump Break". Blogger has made this SUPER easy, and they even have a useful Help page that you can check out with pictures and everything! [Insert collective "Ooooh!" here]

http://www.google.com/support/blogger/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=154172

Allegory and Structure in The Time Machine

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ENG 396 Week 3: Time Travel

For a story of exploration, Wells’ The Time Machine features the interiors of buildings quite prominently. The Time Traveller begins in his laboratory, eats strange fruit in the ruined palace, discovers a museum, and narrowly escapes from the trap of the White Sphinx. Through all this, he first marvels at the pastoral purity of the environment, and ends with a cathartic glimpse of the self-consuming Eloi-Morlock ecosystem.

The role of the palace near his landing zone is notable as the place of first encounter. It is “dilapidated” yet “picturesque” (26), an artificial version of the Traveller’s impression of the future world. “I went out through the portal to the sunlit world again as soon as my hunger was satisfied” (28). Indeed, it is a sort of Eden, satiating the Traveller’s knowledge in the form of the Eloi language, an architectural appearance inspiring historical speculation, and the symbol of the sumptuous fruit. May we interpret the Traveller’s experience as representative of a version of original sin? His ingenuity, adventurousness, and self-remarked Westernness give him the role of a candidate for Western humanity sent into the future, or at least a far distance in geographical 4-space, to live through a fundamental experience of the Christian past.

This interpretation of the Traveller’s conception of original sin is supported from his departure into the waxing twilight, the “sunset of humanity,” which is analogous to the Fall. The innocence of the Eloi cannot last as the Traveller peers into the darkness to spot the first Morlock. With the realization of bloodshed incurred between these two disparate human descendants comes the identification with the brothers Cain and Abel. If the Eloi are allowed to serve as the offering of meat, then has the future God condemned the surface world for its original sin, characterized by offerings of fruit, useless elegance of form, and the decay of the works of humanity? The Traveller cannot fathom the full expanse of the subterranean pipe system, home to the Morlocks who have sinned without repent—the underground is Hell in this aspect. The Palace of Green Porcelain features great fossils, mummies, and infernal machines, and Weena, the embodiment of Eloi innocence and purity of moral judgment, detects the slope in the floor of the gallery (72). This second palace is a slow bridge from the surface world of humanity, littered with the husks of its works, to the mysterious underground hell, and the transition mirrors the Traveller’s change in character from one of fear to one of subdued violence.

The Traveller’s final discovery of his time machine behind the bronze doors of the White Sphinx is a death-trap which he escapes by virtue of his role as the human representative. It is an attempted Crucifixion of the messenger for humanity, who is of course only a man and has tasted the fruit of the palace. But the Traveller is allowed to survive yet not return, unless his disappearance in the present is a return, his Resurrection, into the future. The Traveller, not entirely Christ, is at least a Christian envoy who is not entirely saved. His representation of humanity, and Wells’ fatalistic revelation of the end of days, paints humanity as unsaved regardless of its works, its technological or social advances.

H.G. Wells The Time Machine, Constance Penley “Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia,” Time Machine (1960), and Terminator (1984).

The Influence of Media on Society in The Time Machine


The First Time Traveller - Edison & the Phonograph
tags: media theory, technology & war, manipulation of media, socialism vs. capitalism vs. communism, McCarthyism

“From around 1880 to the outbreak of World War I, a series of sweeping changed in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space.” (Kern 1)

In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph, and in doing so, changed the history not only of communications and media, but also the history of consciousness itself. Suddenly for the first time, a voice could be recorded at one point in time and played back in a completely different time. Through the phonograph, and the recording of sound, even the dead could speak, and many during the time period wrote of the uncanny sensation of hearing voices from beyond the grave. An entirely new conception of time came about as the phonograph (and soon after, in 1887, the gramophone) allowed people to preserve a moment in time and space, and bring that moment back later on. In some ways then, Edison was the first Time Traveller – the first inventor able to take people into the future.

 It’s perhaps no surprise then that by 1895, H. G. Wells’ Time Traveller asks his audience (as Cooper notes, both the diegetic audience of his friends, and the extra-diegetic audience of the reader) to reconsider the very nature of time itself, and to reexamine the question of whether human beings are truly locked in a specific time –humans had already achieved the ability to travel to the future via the recorded sound of their voices!

Time Travel in Wells' Universe

The Time Traveller reconfigures time as “only a kind of Space” (5), and attempts to remove the constraints we assume of linearity and present-ness. In his assessment of time as the fourth dimension (4), the Time Traveller shows an amazing prescience; in his attempts to move through time as easily as one moves through space, he is ultimately thwarted. By this, I am not referring to the motion of the machine, which, if his story is to be believed, works just as intended and reveals the dying sun at the end of the world. Instead, I refer to the form of the book, and of the many books and movies in which time travel is represented.

The Time Traveller notes that “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it” (4). This is not as trivial a problem as he attempts to make it into. Sure, if we accept the Traveller’s claim that “our mental existences…are immaterial and have no dimensions” (6), then moving through time is easy. But we are still limited by our consciousnesses, even as we are not limited by the time on the clock. The way we understand the movement of our consciousnesses from birth to death relies on our understanding of time: otherwise, we might pull a Benjamin Button, or simply live forever. Though he “hope[s] that ultimately he may be able to stop or accelerate his drift along the Time-Dimension, or even turn about and travel the other way” (6), this only refers to the material, dimensional body. The Traveller’s idea of consciousness as the thing which passes through life “with a uniform velocity” (6) ends up dominating, simply because of the form of the novel.

The Time Traveller recounts a story to his guests, a story of his experiences. This story spans four hours (4 o’clock until after 7:30 p.m.), “eight days” (16), or over thirty million years (84), depending on how the reader interprets time. For the audience of his tale, the story materializes in the few hours before dinner. For the Traveller, the story lasts eight turns of the earth. From the point of view of a distant, long-lived observer (since Einstein did show us that there is no such thing as absolute time after all), the story spans millions of years. The only way to reconcile these is from the point of view of the narrator, as the narrator becomes the referential consciousness by which the reader sets their watch. Here, the fact that the frame narrator is not the Time Traveller keeps the passage of time conventional, where an hour is an hour and the events in the future have not/will not happen(ed). The experience of time travel is just a story, told with a beginning, a middle, and an end, as well as a clear progression of events. The Time Traveller uses regular temporal language in his story, speaking of the events in the future as though they were in the past. The experience of reading this book proceeds linearly, tracing a single conscious path through time.


A rough diagram of the Time Traveller's travels. The bottom blue line represents the time of the frame narrative, while the middle green line represents the time of the Eloi and the Morlocks, and the top red line represents the time of the bleeding sun. The purple path represents the Traveller's path through time as one continuous conscious experience (interrupted by sleep). By convention (whose convention?), time moves from left to right. These distinct worldlines make very little sense except as a useful figure.

This is a problem faced by many works that seek to depict time travel. What exactly is time travel, if you are the same person you were a second ago, if the “you” you meet in the future is not actually you but seems to be another distinct person entirely? How can we read time travel if we read linearly? (Or watch, or play, or hear.) We must return to the Traveller’s idea of an immaterial, dimensionless mental construct of identity, one that, regardless of surroundings, continues on its merry way.

The title of this post is an homage to Gott's book, Time Travel in Einstein's Universe.
Also, euurgh formatting issues this time.

"'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.

The Future is Already There

The film adaption of The Time Machine confusingly blends dystopian sci-fi themes with pedophilic romanticism providing a broad critique of human nature while buttressing the ideology of progress. In the wake of a 367 year long war between “the East and the West,” future England is a seemingly peaceful world full of blonde haired and blue eyed teenagers. George, our similarly Aryan narrator, is terrified to learn that human progress has “ceased” and that a humanoid, man-eating and cave dwelling species has the monopoly of violence and technology. The lesson of the film is that man’s desire for technological advancement is linked to war, destruction and the complete desecration of the environment. All tropes well within “science fiction’s continuing affinity for the dystopian rather than the utopian, with fantasies of cyclical regression or totalitarian empires of the future” (Penley 67). The guiding principles which lead to deaths in the Boer War, we are told, will also bring on nuclear apocalypse.

What strikes me as particularly strange about the narrative constructed by George Pal is that our narrator is both the father of the technologies which destroy mankind and the liberator who frees his offspring from those same oppressive technologies. In the opening scenes of the film we are told that George is familiar with a cohort of scientists who work for the military designing weapons of mass destruction. He is attracted to and repulsed by the positive scientific rationale of his peers. He recognizes the terrible destruction of technological progress but wishes to reimagine technologies use.

But George offers only a partial revision of technologies destructive potential. After witnessing three world wars, each the result of ever more terrifying technologies, he laments that the Eloi have no (observable) technology. Their simple, peaceful and ignorant existence terrifies him. Instead of exploring the benefits of a society not wedded to a progressive narrative of continual improvement he instantly declares them unworthy of thousands of years of human “building and rebuilding.” George unironically attempts to impress upon his naïve audience the value of endless successions of violence.

During the climax of the film, it is George who willfully burns the last remaining technological apparatuses from the underground world (and never does he question if these machines are required for the production of food, clothes or clean air). George is the author of Earth’s original destruction and attempts to re-author the narrative of “progress” almost a million years later by destroying what is left of human ingenuity.

The narrative structure of the film becomes truly paradoxical when, in his frustration over his peers disbelief, George returns to the future to spend eternity with his simple-minded descendants and to teach them the true value of technology and progress. George takes with him three books – which are unnamed – in what we can only assume is his attempt to reignite the positive, rational scientific discourse of the 19th century almost a million years later. George, a decidedly 19th century man both in his dress and worldview, can only ever recreate the historical conditions which allow him to feel comfortable and be powerful. Instead of returning to the Eloi to live in their simple bliss with the occasional threat of being abducted by Morlocks – which would never attack him since he lacks the Eloi’s conditioning to the Morlock siren – he returns “back to the future” with the hope of recreating the past.

Commercialism and Time Travel

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commercialism, comforting technology, direction, comedic tone, female form

The commercialism present in both The Terminator and the 1960 film remake of The Time Machine provide a strand of the familiar within stories that push boundaries into the unknown. In The Terminator, scenes of familiar technology, fashion and logos ground the viewer in the proper time of the 1980s. CD Walkmans, tape answering machines and Nike swooshes on high top sneakers safely place us within a context that we know. Technology and fashion keep the viewer in the proper time period while talk of time traveling, failure of the human race, and future war swarms around Sarah Conner.

But the old technology is mixed with the new as the Terminator offers the newest cyborg technology both Sarah and the audience have ever seen. The different futuristic technology allows the past and the present to be further separated. In a way, this difference comforts the viewer, both in the 80s and in present day 2011, because the terminator technology doesn’t exist (yet?). As states Penley in his article, knowing two things are different, human versus alien, human versus cyborg, and present human versus future human is comforting. The same applies for present technology versus future technology. There is a certain comfort in knowing the 1980s tech that fills the film. What we see in 1983 can all be bought and sold in the capitalist system we all know and understand, unlike the technology of the future that is too advanced to be within the human barter system. Even though it is the very thought of the evolution of this technology that leads to the horrible future in 2029, in 1983 Walkmans, pay phones and beepers still sit comfortably where they should.

In the Time Machine, George, the time traveler initially watches the window above his laboratory to observe time passing through the rise and fall of the sun as well as the movement of the moon and stars. But this natural sight, that mirrors the description found in the book, is soon exchanged for the view of a clothing store outside George’s window. The natural images of sun and moon are exchanged for the manikin in a store window across the street. The different outfits come and go, the manikin is dressed and redressed as the years pass. The epically enormous movement in the sky that signifies the passing of time is trivially exchanged for women’s western fashion. Placing the lens strictly on the female form during time travel is a strange choice. On one way, it quickly shows the progress women have made, exchanging lavish dresses for pants shows a shift to functionality, but on the other hand, makes a spectacle of the female body.

The comically quick music provides the score during these scenes of time travel further making George’s journey a joke. George’s perplexed and slightly frightened reaction to automobiles offers the same comic relief as the manikin and the time traveling score. Even the time machine itself is referred to in commercial terms as George’s group of friends ask him how much he could sell the contraption for and how he could mass produce it. All these factors create a lighter, comic tone partially surrounded by commercialism at the turn of the century.

Another important distinction is the difference between traveling back in time and traveling forward in time. While Wells focuses on purely forward movement in his novel, the movie adaptation allows the viewer to travel both back to 1899 from 1960 and forward to 802,701. Similarly The Terminator shows the future of 2029, but also the past of the 80s to both the characters and to the viewer. For the modern viewer, this 80s context requires us to travel back in time along with Reese and The Terminator. This double-layered time travel provides an extra twist of what the reader or viewer sees as present day, future and past.

The Elasticity of Time

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In T2: Rising Storm one of several books written about events in the Terminator universe after the second movie, author S.M. Stirling writes about the thoughts of the Skynet central computer itself. In one future, after the events of the second movie, it muses over the fact that it recognizes that different futures could have occurred and that in a strange way it has “records” of their potential:


Core memory also records that I became self-aware years before the date to which I transported the I-950. There is a set of records in which I arose without transtemporal Interference from Cyberdyne's original research; another in which the second Cyberdyne facility produced me after Sarah Connor destroyed the first; a third has now arisen in which she destroyed both facilities...Temporal travel has introduced an element of fundamental uncertainty to the very fabric of existence. Different world lines, different sequences of events, coexist in my records-and therefore presumably in reality, in a state of quantum superimposition. Yet the timeline loops cannot remain closed. The snake cannot devour its tail forever. At some point only one set of timelines will remain.


This idea that there is only one true timeline is discussed in both H.G. Wells The Time Machine as well as in numerous other science fiction works on the subject. The ‘elasticity of time,’ i.e. the tendency for time to snap back to its original (read: intended) course, is a constant problem. It is interesting that the machine believes that eventually only one timeline will remain, which seems to indicate that it strongly believes the future can be changed. Perhaps each change that should dramatically alter the future will only have an incremental effect, but still an effect. Such actions could be taken until time is pulled to a new course despite its elasticity.


I also appreciated the reference in the above quote to Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, which has history as a powerful symbol in many ancient cultures. Ouroboros is mentioned in the Egyptian book of the dead, by Plato, and throughout the Middle Ages. Always this image represents the cyclical nature of things, its end is its beginning; Alpha and Omega occur at the same place. Time travel fiction allows us to examine ways to break what many ancient philosophers and modern religions consider to be the mold of predestiny. To quote several people in the Terminator movies, “Our fate is what we make it.”


In addition to that theme, H.G. Wells also examines a strange type of dystopian utopia in the year 800,000 AD. There seems to be no conflict, no fear, and no “problems” in the minds of the Eloi. Sure, they are being farmed by the Morlocks but that doesn’t seem to be an issue for them. They are perfectly at peace with their problems so the problems almost cease to exist. Yet at the same time they have regressed intellectually; there is no art, no culture, and no individuality.


American science fiction tends to shy away from utopias in favor of dystopias and The Time Machine can be seen as a type of precursor to that theme. It remains somewhat unclear, but certainly leans in a dystopian direction. Later works, from Brave New World to 1984 to the Terminator series, all project a bleak future. We are either destroyed or homogenized, in any case the individual is lost.

A future like ours

Don Marquis put forth the deprivation argument as reasoned opposition to the ethicality of abortion. Roughly, he argues that it is wrong to kill an unconscious embryo because it has a future that is valuable, a “future like ours.” Destroying the potential of that future (the embryo) is equivalent to killing the later-stage conscious being involved in it. Though this argument is ultimately very problematic, it speaks interestingly to the way in which we interact with the future to determine not only present worth, but also, as H.G. Wells addresses in The Time Machine and Marquis hits on in his statement, how we define ourselves, and our descendants, as beings over time, both within the span of a single lifetime and over history.

For the Time Traveler, the issue is inverted. He is presented with two peoples – the Eloi and the Morlocks – representing the bifurcated evolutionary path taken by divergent social categories which, for Wells, are a logical consequence of the physical division of populations based on economic class. Among these, he must choose that which is the rightful son of Man, which represents the future that is ours.

The world of the 8,000th century constitutes far more than a kind of recasting of Wells’ capitalist present in socialist terms (though it is indeed that). He has not produced a sympathetic laboring class which dotes faithfully on its ineffectual aristocratic charge. Rather, the conditions of labor have changed them into something altogether inhuman; unsympathetic even when the alternative is a kind of dumb petulant baby. The physical division, of decadent aristocracy increasingly buying up the Earth’s surface, while the laborer acclimates to the terms of his labor, eventuates a genetic bifurcation as the absence of class mobility and increasing cultural differences rarefy interbreeding among what become two species.

We find that the Time Traveler’s sympathies are with the dumb, child-like Eloi, while he describes the Morlocks consistently as nauseating, spidery and smelly. His actions reflect the adoption of a perspective from which only one descendant has any moral status as human. The Time Traveler saves Weena from drowning and days later begins smashing in the heads of the Morlocks, to which he is less sympathetic, but which he knows to be just as human, in a way, as the Eloi. His response to the Eloi is one of benign annoyance; for the Morlocks he has only contempt and anger.

What is ultimately at stake is which race we are going to claim as human. Wells’ future, unlike others which cast either “good” against “evil” (as are men and machines in The Terminator), is populated by human derivatives which are the decaying representations of a class system which, for Wells, discourages precisely those features (curiosity, intelligence, capacity for innovation and technology, compassion, etc.) which it, presently, purports to value above all else as human.

The Time Traveler chooses. He prefers to ally himself with the Eloi. He claims the future that is most like his as one of men turned fleshy and unthinking, but with some remnant of the aesthetic, and maybe the laughter. Perhaps it is the return of fear that he recognizes in them. He does not find his future in a brutish laboring class which has resorted to cannibalism.

The curiosity of this task of choosing is underscored by the book’s final line: “…even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.” “Gratitude” and “mutual tenderness” are not typically among the qualities which we (now or in Wells’ time), in a rational/empiricist age, list as quintessentially human. When confronted with the question of what qualities of man will survive into the future, we are forced to reevaluate what it means to be “like us,” or to have a future like ours. This obviously calls into question the futility of our own striving for knowledge/advancement, as the final chapters of the book address, while the Earth drifts into its eternal night. More importantly, though, it forces us to ask what it is about our fellow man that we find sufficiently like us for him to have moral status in our own lives, and, further, which criteria future man (or past man) must meet to warrant our present consideration. Would we make sacrifices for a future race which has fallen into decadence and decay, and which has forgotten us?

Interestingly, the first thing the Time Traveler does on his return is fill himself with mutton – finding inner carnivore unsated by the fruit diet of the Eloi. The polarized diets of the Eloi and Morlocks are symbolic of the degeneration that each race represents, an indication that it is the specialization, division, and pigeonholing of man that unravels him into separate beings which can, by present man, be either accepted and nurtured, or discarded. The reality, we find, is that the Time Traveler is related to both, though he readily discards one as insufficiently like himself and thus a kind of extra that can be killed off without moral repercussion.

Technology and Destruction

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"And in one of the film’s most pointed gestures toward the unintentionally harmful effects of technology, the police psychiatrist fails to see the Terminator entering the station when his beeper goes off and distracts him just as their paths cross. Lacking any warning, scores of policemen are killed and the station destroyed."


Penley makes the point that the machines in the 1984 setting of 'The Terminator' are an extremely destructive force: " Today’s machines are not, however, shown to be agents of destruction because they are themselves evil, but because they can break down, or because they can be used (often innocently) in ways they were not intended to be used." Further, he points out that however innocuous they are now (1984), they are the origins of the super computer that started the nuclear war. This seems to suggest that technology has some sort of inherent evil, a danger that existed even before the super computer became capable of independent thought and decided to annihilate the human race. However, I'm not sure I entirely agree with this assessment of what the film is suggesting about technology. My doubt originates from a few curious moments in the film that use technology. First, the Terminator, who, according to Kyle is, "fully armored," goes to buy human guns at the gun shop, and he uses them to cause most of the destruction in the film. It just seemed curious to me the Terminator, an advanced Cyborg warrior from the future, would need to use human weapons, cars, and motorcycles to be a fully effective killing machine. Meanwhile, Kyle, who is also from the future, is arguably using more innovative and technologically advanced weapons--he makes those cylindrical bombs to fight the Terminator.
The next moment that makes me question this interpretation of the film's thoughts on technology is how the Terminator is finally defeated. Ultimately, it is a machine that is able to finish him, when Sarah starts the machine and crushes the Cyborg. While there are absolutely many moments in the film when technology allows the Terminator to manipulate the humans and many more moments when technology causes an accidental disaster, I do not think the film entirely condemns it. I don't think it is as simple as a fussy middle aged woman who never made the switch from a land line to a cell phone ranting about how 'technology is making the youths forget how to talk to each other...it's just criminal.' It seems to me that the film is more awed by the potential of technology than terrified by it.

Another aspect of this film that I would like to touch on is how it played on the Cold War anxieties of its then current audience. I think the film makes excellent, albeit not so subtle use of what was the biggest fear for many Americans at the time. Cameron could have invented a completely fictive weapons system for the Super Computer to use; presenting the audience with something unknown or invisible is an extremely effective cinematic fear producing technique. However, Cameron chose to have the super computer using nuclear weapons, starting a nuclear war. With limitless creative license to draw an entirely new method of combat for the future, Cameron used Nuclear weapons. It seems that he understood that this was an extremely real fear for everyone in the audience, and that using it would draw people into the story of the film and might make them more invested in the outcome.

"The World Was All Before Them"

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Recalling Margaret Atwood’s description of science fiction as “where theological narrative went after Paradise Lost,” I saw H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine as a new take on the creation story with particular attention given to the inherent exclusion involved in creating paradise and the importance and dangers of seeking greater knowledge.


The Time Traveller’s initial descriptions of the future recall the imagery of Eden – a land of naïve but contented people, no conflict, dominion over animals (though it is in the form of having driven them all to extinction), and abundant fruit. It is striking that this land that recalls the creation myth lacks any acts of creation. There is no evidence of the Eloi procreating. In fact, though he’s only in the future for a short time (eight days which actually encompass massive leaps in time, quite like the seven days of creation in Genesis), the Time Traveller concludes that the people are sterile. This inability to produce also extends to goods and buildings on the earth’s surface – nothing is new. But what disturbs the Time Traveller the most is the loss of creativity. The people are not thinkers, and seem disinterested in working to gain more knowledge. They are Adam and Eve before the Fall, and have no intention of falling.


Of course, the Time Traveller’s initial perception of this imperfect paradise is further complicated by the fact that it comes at the cost of others being kept out. In a course I took last year on Moby-Dick, the professor noted that the creation story can be seen as a series of separations, beginning with the division between day and night. The Time Machine literally incorporates that idea, highlighting the distinction between the Eloi and the Morlocks by giving them the domains of day and night, respectively. But the story also complicates the traditional exclusion narrative of the paradise story by challenging the order of such a society. Barred from paradise, the Morlocks are a powerful force rather than the weaker party.


This concept of a change in order also comes into play with the manipulations of time. The Time Traveller’s accelerated journey further into the future is almost an exact reversal of the creation story as told in Genesis. First he notes the disappearance of man, already well under way in 802,701 with the division of humanity into the two distinct species of Eloi and Morlock. Land animals, sea creatures and birds disappear after the Time Traveller's brief interaction with them, followed by the distinct sun, moon, and stars, the earth’s greenery, the division between land, sea, and sky, and, finally, light. The Time Traveller is plunged into darkness, but is able to find his way back home, traveling backwards through time as the world recreates itself. The novel’s epilogue closes with a somewhat hopeful message that almost undermines the absolute need for creativity – “even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man” (117). My question is whether or not that’s enough, and I think the statement may be purposefully ambiguous. Seth raised the question of knowledge in terms of colonialism. Is it necessary to force our own system of knowledge on others who are leading supposedly ignorant but perfectly functional lives? I think this also connects to issues of learning in general. When should we seek knowledge that is beyond us and when would it be better to avoid the temptation of the forbidden fruit? Would the Time Traveller and those who heard his story have been better off not knowing what came next?


* “The world was all before them” is from Paradise Lost (12.646)

** Image Source: pointsoflight.blogspot.com


Suspension of Disbelief

One aspect of The Time Machine that interests me in comparison to other science fiction novels is its preoccupation with scientific accuracy. From the very beginning, the premise of the book is laid out in specific, scientific terms. “I do not ask you to accept anything without reasonable ground for it” (1) says the narrator on the very first page. The statement is addressed to the dinner party regarding the time machine itself, but it may as well be directly aimed at the reader. Wells at first does not at first ask that the reader make any huge leap. He presents what seems to be a fairly reasonable case for the existence of time as a fourth dimension, and the methodical, logical progression that is presented as to how the machine itself could exist, if not the specifics of how it works, are presented straightforwardly. In the first few pages at least, the novel would appear to be what Atwood categorizes as speculative, rather than science fiction.

Of course, the very conceit of science fiction is that the reader must accept a great many things without entirely reasonable grounds. Suspension of disbelief makes the entire genre possible. The narrator does nod toward the suspension of disbelief in his recounting of the story to the dinner party. He asks for the suspension of criticism, in favor of simply being allowed to tell his story: “I will tell you the story as it happened to me, if you like, but you must refrain from interruptions,” (19) he says. Then, soon after he states “Most of it will sound like lying. So be it! It’s true,” (19) now explicitly asking for the suspension of disbelief, and curiously abandoning the logical arguments he relied on so heavily in the first few pages. Now we are just meant to believe it, and not worry about the messy explanations.

But, then again, the narrator’s preoccupation with the explanation of his fantastic situation arises in his adventures in 800,000 AD. He offers several explanations for the changes in human civilization he sees, and constantly updates the reader with new explanations for the changes with each discovery. First there is the explanation of a sort of advanced communist society becoming the peaceful Eloi, and then a class dichotomy becoming the vast physical difference between the Eloi and Morlocks, and various other explanations for whatever phenomena he encounters in the future. It seems that Wells and the narrator are trying their hardest to make us forget our own suspension of disbelief.

What interests me is the dichotomy between these two approaches to science/speculative fiction present side by side in the same novel. They seem to create a confusion within the reader, in which several simple, yet compelling arguments are made as to how the future could evolve, and then a ridiculous and fantastic fictional scenarios that arise from these speculations. Like I said, it seems that Wells is trying to make us forget that he has asked us to abandon logic (this is fiction after all), and I’m curious as to how much anybody else bought it. Of course, it is not a very believable story, but did you ever catch yourself being swept up in the logical-ness of the narrator’s explanations? Was having segments in the format of scientific debate enough to make the novel seem more legitimate? And why does that sense of legitimacy matter in science fiction?

Categorizing Humanity's Future

As The Time Machine emphasizes, the Time Traveller’s experience of his temporal destination is shaped by his understanding of the present. When time travellers are displaced from their own eras, they often must reframe the world by fitting it within their own conceptions of society. By imposing his “current” social/philosophical theories into the unfamiliar world, the Time Traveller simultaneously recognizes historical continuity and defines the new era through its differences from the current one. These observations probably seem intuitive and obvious, but reading and watching The Time Machine and The Terminator uses these themes to raise important questions about the way we think of the present.

One prime example of subjecting the future world to a contemporary world view occurs when Wells’s time traveller analyzes 802701 A.D. through a socialist lens. Even as he finds information that contradicts his theories, the time traveller refuses to consider that his observations can’t be explained through socialism’s theories or prophecies. Interestingly, just as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Ayn Rand crafted worlds that emphasize the evils of socialism, H.G. Wells shows a future where capitalism continues to widen the rift between social classes, and the “have-nots” are ultimately both crafty and resourceless enough feed off of the lazy “haves”; this is supposed to show us the dangers of not overthrowing the oppressors.

The Time Traveller also assumes that the Eloi and Morlocks descended from humans. He seems preoccupied by categorizing their behaviors as “human” or “inhuman.” One of his initial fears before he meets the Eloi is that “the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful?” (20). As he observes the Eloi and Morlocks, readers gain insight into what he considers “human” qualities - humans have language and they read and write , but the Eloi don’t. Weena seems “more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human” (51). He continues to cast himself as human, and the Eloi and Morlocks as inhuman, even justifying his own “inhuman” actions (“Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one’s own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things.” (54)) The 1960 movie version casts cannibalism as “the lowest form of human life.” It seems that humanity is often defined by what is less human or inhuman - it constitutes itself by stigmatizing its "Other" and its "inferiors." The movie version makes these divides even more clear - the time traveller only identifies with the (Aryan) Eloi, pushing them to rebel against their captors. The movie erases the only marginally-sympathetic aspect of the Morlocks - that they were the “have-nots” who were forced to hunt their captors; instead, the Morlocks always bred and controlled the Eloi like cattle.

Watching/reading about the Time Traveller’s way of organizing the future world prompted me to think about our current ways of labeling and categorizing the present and the past. When we impose a philosophical theory (ie. as Engels imposed Marxism on the distant history of humanity in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884)) upon “known” facts, are we forcing those details into an anachronistic labeling, one that will always be inadequate? Also, how many other things do we define through biased characteristics? (I’m sure that quite a few cultures do not have a high literacy rate or produce many formal written works, and it doesn’t make sense to deem them “inhuman” or “less human”). Also, I wonder what a time travel narrative that is entirely isolated from current political/theoretical agendas might look like (and I don’t think that’s entirely possible.) Finally, the movie definitely pointed to these questions much more at the end: should the time traveller intervene and reshape the world specifically through his 1890s knowledge of what humanity should be? That already looks odd to me - there’s already an entirely new world of theory that has surfaced in the last century, and it’s clear that the Time Traveller might have a severely narrow world view. Both The Terminator and The Time Machine raise questions about the ethics surrounding time travel, but they do not directly engage them.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Here at the End of All Things: Hope and Fear in The Time Machine

The two versions of The Time Machine that we looked at this week present very different perspectives on the same dark future: the movie version is ultimately based on optimism, while the original novels seems to present a fatalistic pessimism.

At first glance, the movie version of The Time Machine may appear to present a bleak outlook. Instead of exploring for the sake of exploration, as the Time Traveller does in H.G. Well's novel, the movie's George explicitly leaves turn-of-the-century England in an attempt to escape what he considers to be the growing corruption and violence in the people around him. However, he then stops his time machine in 1917 during WWI, and in 1940, in the middle of the Blitz. His third stop in 1966, just before a nuclear bombing attack hits the city, both reflects the fears of the imminent outbreak of war experienced by the film-makers and audiences in 1960, and seems to confirm to George the inevitability of war in humanity's future. The wars can only escalate, never cease, and indeed the film decides to make the separation of the Eloi and Morlocks an explicit result of the devastation caused by centuries of war that left the planet's surface almost unusable. Yet although the this chain of events may seem bleak at best, the film ends on a hopeful note, with the Morlocks destroyed, and the Eloi rediscovering their desire to fight and protect (and so, the film implies, to live). The film therefore presents the possibility of renewal, of recovery after even the most horrific of wars. Even if the human race almost destroys itself, there will eventually always be at least one rebel fighting for life.

However, this ultimately optimistic presentation of the future is a complete reversal of the original novel, which accepts, rather than fights, the idea that "all things must end." Since H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine during the Fin de Siecle period, it is not surprising that it contains both an initial great hope for the continued progress and spendour of the (European) human race, but also a confirmation of the anxiety that this greatness will all fade to nothing. Therefore, not only does the time traveller fail to resolve (or even attempt to resolve) the problems of the Eloi or the terror created by the Morlocks, but he travels beyond even this, to the very end of the earth. As he watches "the life of the old world ebb away" (106) and comes to a silent, black world, he becomes overwhelmed with terror: "A horror of this great darkness came on me" (108). It is as though the Time Traveller is faced with the reality of the world, one that is not saved by the Eloi but ruled by the Morlocks, in darkness and shadow and despair. Ultimately, no matter how hard anyone resists, everything will become empty and dark.

Perhaps this difference is linked to the immediacy and clarity of the problems which caused anxiety and fear in writers in 1895 and 1960. During the Cold War, people lived under a constant fear of nuclear war, and so are perhaps in greater need of a resolution to the problems of war, however distant that resolution might be. The 1960s version of The Time Machine therefore offers the hope that, however dark things might get, and no matter how much the world changes, humanity will eventually be able to fight back and rebuild. The evil aspects of war (represented by the Morlocks) will eventually be eradicated, and the more positive aspects, like self-defense and fighting for what is right, will always remain lurking, to create a civilization that will fight on. The original novel, meanwhile, explores more general anxieties about the long-term consequences of the structure of society itself, industrialization, and the way that the growth and successes of the 19th century must eventually fade. With this "all shall fade" attitude, the novel explores cannot offer any hope for the future, cannot touch on the possibility of growth or renewal among the Eloi's, because even this would only be temporary compared to the "great darkness" that must eventually come. The fears of 1960 are resolved by a concrete, definite end-of-the-world scenario, which can then hint at the possibility of life recovering and continuing on - a known fear needing a clear sense of possible survival. The vague unsettling feeling of the fin de siecle, however, cannot be resolved or made concrete, beyond the idea that an indefinite, speculative "something" caused humanity to change and divide. It is not the fear that each individual, that society, will be ended by a nuclear war, but that one has reached the sunset on the great 19th century, and that everything, no matter how great, must eventually end.

Stranger in a Stranger Land... or Maybe Just a Displaced Human

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The first thing that struck me about H. G. Wells' The Time Machine was its juxtaposition of the known and unknown. The story opens with a prim and proper dinner party, shifts to the Time Traveler's escapades in the year 802,701, then returns to the contemporary time of Victorian London. While the changes over the 800,000+ years between eras were obvious and described in detail in the novel, what fascinated me was H. G. Wells own daring in discussing the topic of true human variation. Most Science Fiction novels stick to the known or understandable future, better known as some variation of the utopian mixed with the Orwellian Earth populated by (with the exception of new fashions) rather normal humans. Wells pushed the envelope on the possibilities of the future populated by two "degenerate" branches of Homo Sapiens, the Eloi and the Morlocks. Most notably though, this future is not really a future at all but rather a status quo ad infinitum bereft of culture, curiosity, or compassion.

A version of the Time Machine

My inspiration for this post actually came from the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. As the film closes, David Philby runs back to the Time Traveler's laboratory only to find the scientist disappearing into Time. He concludes that the Time Traveler is returning to the future and has probably brought something of Victorian England back with him as a teaching aid. Searching his friend's study, Philby realizes that the only items the Time Traveller took were a trio of books from his library. This of course begs the question: "which books?" Were they books of knowledge such as an encyclopedia, of culture such as the Bible, or of art such as a collection of drawings? If put in this position, what would you take?




The scene in question is from about 0:30 to 1:32

I think it is the hallmark of good literature, especially for Science Fiction (a genre otherwise saturated with thriller novels), if the book's plot makes you consider your own views and actions. While I understand that only the movie specifically deals with this situation, the book does touch upon the basis of humanity and the Time Traveller's understandable exasperation with the apparent lack of it amongst the Eloi. Unlike other colonization metaphors in Science Fiction, the future described by Wells is fascinating in that the Eloi and Morlocks both lack culture, innovation, society, or even basic curiosity. Thus we return the theme of the known versus the unknown. Ironically in this case, the sword cuts both ways since just as we as contemporary humans fail to understand utopian anarchy, the Eloi have not concept of creativity, government, society, etc... Both parties are repulsed by the modus operandi of the other as the Eloi fear the occasional aggressiveness and frequent daring of the human while the Time Traveller in turn becomes increasing frustrated with the Eloi's lack of reaction or interest in him or his plight.

If this is only a small fraction of our knowledge and history,
what would you take with you to start a civilization?

There is of course, a second question here: if the Eloi and Murlocks live in harmony (as warped as predatory mutualism is), do you upset it by introducing a new set of beliefs? While only the film directly introduces the Time Traveller as a teacher, the novel still touches upon his effect on the Eloi. Weena obviously becomes quite attached to him and consequently appears to have regained some elements of her lost 'humanity' such as curiosity, compassion, and ability to overcome fear. Nonetheless, should the Time Traveller force a change in the name of his own beliefs, if those "benefitting" from his actions fail to acknowledge that fact or accept his teachings? Of course there is a clear parallel with A Rose for Ecclesiastes and other colonization-themed Sci Fi tales, but the very lack of culture amongst the Eloi makes The Time Machine a special case. Interfering with an existing culture is one thing, but crafting one from scratch is a completely different story. In the end, the question is: how do you and can you teach "humanness"?

The Time Machine: Colonialism and the Necessity of War

While reading and watching The Time Machine, two themes leapt out at me more than any others. First of all, as alluded to in previous posts, the colonialist themes were surprisingly explicit—as Kai points out in his post, The Time Machine is most definitely a product of its… well, times. In the book, the Time Traveler claims of his first interactions with the Eloi that he “felt like a schoolmaster amidst children” (45), and upon his first exploration he seats himself upon a throne-like chair from which he can survey the entire land (47). Similarly, he repeatedly describes his idea of a paradise as one in which nature has been wholly subjugated. In the 1960 movie adaptation, the parallels between historical British colonialism and The Time Traveler’s attitude toward the Eloi, particularly Weena, are acknowledged quite clearly. In the intimate glow of the campfire, he tells her, “I’m sorry I was angry with your people; I had no right to be. No more than if I had visited the island of Bali in my own time…we’ve had our dark ages before, and this is just another one of them. All it needs is for someone to show you the way out.” History isn’t my strength, but it seems to me that the interaction between Weena and the Time Traveler illustrates the most ignorantly optimistic of colonialist fantasies—the colonized people as ignorant and childish, but receptive, beautiful, and worshipfully adoring. Before the arrival of the Time Traveler, the Eloi do not even possess fire, the ultimate key to human progress according to the legend of Prometheus.


(This telling conversation with Weena begins at about 6:10)

The second theme I’d like to discuss is most clearly illustrated in the film, so I’ll focus on that medium in my discussion. From the beginning, George the Time Traveler’s motivation for building his time machine seems driven not only by intellectual curiosity, but by a desire to escape the entire concept of war. His initial travels land him in WWI, WWII, and a surprise nuclear holocaust in 1966, and he increasingly despairs of mankind as a whole as he tries to race forward to a time when war is but a distant memory.

He finds it, and finds it lacking. I’m not saying that George’s actions against the Morlocks were unjustified, but there’s something bitingly ironic about the fact that his main contribution to the world of the Eloi is exactly what he was trying to escape: aggression and war. For all his desire to find a peaceful paradise, he essentially seeks to recreate his own world, which, despite the fact that he sought to escape it, he still thinks of as the height of progress. Is this a story, then, of a man coming to terms with the justification for violence? Is the film, with its (compared to the book) exaggerated emphasis on the prevalence of war and George’s colonialist attitude, meant as a criticism of the potential hypocrisy of that mindset? Despite the parallels between the detonation of the bomb in 1966 and the fiery death of the Morlocks, the morality of George/The Time Traveler’s near-genocide is not explicitly addressed in either the book or the film, but that sort of thematic juxtaposition cannot be accidental.

** Page numbers come from my edition of The Time Traveler, which probably won’t match up with any of yours. ISBN: 0-449-30043-9

The Time Machine: A Product of its Times?

Although the creators of works of fiction pride themselves on originality, they do not work in a cultural vacuum, as their works are inevitably influenced by the literary paradigm within which they operate. In particular, the historical context surrounding a work of fiction has a significant influence on the content its creators choose to present, as the different versions of the Time Machine show. Wells’ original text was published in 1895, at a time when England’s accelerating industrialization had led to its emergence as an global economic power, and consequently allowing capitalism to gain acceptance as an economic and political ideology. Being an avowed socialist, Wells uses his text to draw out the potential negative consequences of capitalism, namely that segregation based on economic class might eventually lead to the evolution of two different types of humans and the dysfunctional society he describes – social commentary which Wells’ contemporary audience, surrounded by the ongoing debate between opposing political ideologies, would surely have been able to recognize.

By contrast, the adapters of the 1960 Time Machine film were working under the spectre of the looming Vietnam war and the Cuban missile crisis, so it is hardly surprising that themes such as the inevitability of human conflict and the appropriating of advancing technology for military purposes are raised in the film. Leaving behind the present in which George’s friends urge him to use his talent for inventing to serve the country in the ongoing Boer Wars, George travels into the future, only to find war whenever he stops: in 1917 during World War I, in 1940 during a World War II bombing of his neighborhood, and in a futuristic 1966, suggesting that conflict will always exist in human societies. The instruments of war depicted in the film also reflect our tendencies to use advanced technology to destroy rather than to create, as George finds that the war in 1940 is fought with zeppelins and bombers, while nuclear missiles and “atomic satellites” are used in 1966. Such themes would certainly have resonated with the audience of 1960, when the US and the Soviet Union were pursuing nuclear rearmament and there was a very real possibility that their hostile relations might erupt into war.

One other theme which the Time Machine films appear to address is that there will always exist human desires which our scientific advancements and technology simply cannot fulfill. In the 1960 film adaptation, George travels into the future in search of information about advanced technology to carry back to his time, which he hopes will help him to spread the message of peace; in the 2002 remake, Alexander invents his time machine to travel back in time and prevent his girlfriend from dying. Neither of the time travelers find what they are looking for through the use of their inventions, although for different narrative reasons. While George’s arrival in middle of the various wars could conceivably be attributed to mere chance (at least from his perspective, and not that of the film director’s), Alexander learns near the end of the film that as the death of his girlfriend was what drove him to invent the time machine, saving her would cause a time paradox, and thus would never be possible. Expressed as a necessary consequence of a physical law, this paradox simply serves to drives home the point that there will always be desires scientific advancements cannot fulfill, given the limitless nature of human wants.