Time Machine: Past, Present, Future, a
symposium held by the H. G. Wells Society to commemorate the 100th
anniversary of the publication of The Time Machine. The following is an excerpt from the
paper he presented at the symposium.—ed
It is not easy to determine the impact and influence
of any single writer on a single genre or school of expression. This
analytical exercise is even more challenging in the case of science fiction‑which
is more than genre or a community of artists. Science fiction today has
developed into a cross-media, global movement which synthesizes entertainment,
education, social and scientific commentary with folk and commercial activities‑all
cast in the imaginative field of "the sense of wonder."
In the case of H.G. Wells, it is important to at least
attempt this task. Starting with his seminal work, The Time Machine, Wells has been a dramatic and powerful
influence on science fiction. Much of Wells' work, from all periods in his
career, explores the concept of change‑social, technological and
personal. In this way, Wells has established the "deep structure"
of the contemporary science fiction phenomenon.
This paper is the result of a long-term collections
research project. From 1992 to 1995, I worked as co-curator with Dr. Allan
Weiss on Out of This World, an
exhibition on Canadian science fiction and fantasy at the National Library
of Canada in Ottawa. Out of This World was a joint project sponsored by the National
Library and the Toronto Public Library's Merril Collection of Science
Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy.
The thesis and content of the exhibition were
supported by extensive bibliographic and archival data. Dr. Weiss and I
dedicated over two years to reviewing and documenting the sf holdings of the National Library of Canada, the
Merril Collection and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
The result of our efforts was a Canadian Science
Fiction Database1 with over 10,000 entries relating to published
and produced works in print, radio, television, film, animation and comic
books, popular music and the stage. The database is a new source of
quantifiable information on the development and character of fantastic
expression in Canada.
Some of the findings of the database suggest that
Wells has exerted an important influence on the past and present nature of
Canadian science fiction and fantasy. I have addressed some of the findings
as answers to the following questions:
is the wider historical context? Canadian sf
does not exist in isolation‑therefore we first must consider
Wells' impact on world science fiction.
is the Canadian context? How is it meaningful to speak of Canadian sf as something distinct from the fantastic
fiction of other countries?
is the synthesis? Can we identify important Wellsian
influences and common patterns in Canadian sf?
TROUBLED ASSOCIATIONS AND HISTORICAL DEBRIS
Superficial examination of the relationship between
Wells and Canadians in the past would suggest a series of troubled and
unhappy associations. This historical debris must be cleared away.
While preparing this paper for The Time Machine
Symposium, I started to experience fears which might have been similar to
those of Canadian biographer Lovat Dickson when
he was about to be introduced to Wells in 1931.
Dickson recalled a long-standing
nuisance lawsuit initiated against Wells by a Canadian schoolmistress
concerning The Outline of History:
"Wells had only recently
won the final appeal but had not been able to recover the (court) costs.
The case must have cost him many thousands of pounds... Had this turned him
against all Canadians?"
Fortunately for Dickson's sake, it had not. The
biographer goes on to report that Wells' greeting was very friendly. Wells
told Dickson that it was a Canadian, Frank Harris, who published his first
essays in The Fortnightly (Dickson,
Wells might not have been so gracious had he been able
to foresee the instances of Canadian "Wells abuse" that would
occur in the future. It is an embarrassing list‑two low-budget, low-quality
film projects: a "sequel" to The
Food of the Gods and a 1979 "re-make" of The Shape of Things to Come. Also, from 1989 to 1991, a television series entitled "War of
the Worlds" was produced in Toronto. It is inaccurate to think of
any of these projects as dramatizations of the scientific romances as none
of Wells' original characters, themes or concepts are in evidence. Rather,
the producers seem to have acquired the rights to use Wells' titles. Toronto journalist Michael Coren's 1993 superficial and unkind biography of Wells
is just one more recent example of the difficult relationship between Wells
and certain Canadians.
While preparing my paper for The Time Machine
Symposium, I had some concerns similar to Dickson's. Have these unfortunate
associations turned students and scholars of Wells against Canada and Canadians? I hope not.
I do hope that these historical disagreements can be
put aside, because our exhibition research suggests that Wells has exerted
a significant influence on Canadian sf writers.
1. WELLSIAN PATTERNS IN WORLD SCIENCE FICTION
Wells is the literary equivalent of a "revolutionary
scientist". His scientific romances marked the territories and
established departure points for future writers. From this point of view,
the "revolutionary" Wells establishes the paradigm of time travel
and the evolutionary fable, while future "normal" science fiction
writers elaborate on the themes and concepts established by Wells. The Time Machine was the first
accessible time travel story. Subsequent writers such as Asimov, Clarke and
Heinlein, and even the producers of The
Terminator and Doctor Who, have
farther developed and explored this idea.
Wells' profound impact on world sf
was understood by one of the most influential American sf
writers, Robert A. Heinlein. In
his address to the 1941 World Science Fiction Convention entitled "The
Discovery of the Future,"2 Heinlein states that Wells
"did the pioneer work" and that he "happens to be the
greatest of science fiction writers" (1992: 163).
2. CANADIAN PATTERNS IN SCIENCE FICTION
Years before the Out
of This World project, scholars and critics such as John Robert
Colombo, Robert Runte, John Clute, David Ketterer and ÉlisabethVonarburg asked: is it meaningful to speak of Canadian
science fiction in anything except a geographical context, and if so, what
are the unique features of Canadian sf?
The work carried out for the exhibition indicated that
much of Canadian sf has been written within the
thematic fields set out in the Wellsian paradigm.
Our research also revealed that Canadian sf had content and form with more distinct and specific
a. Canadian sf often portrays the search for identity... at the level of the individual—"Who
am I?"—of the nation—"Who
are we?"—,and of the species—"What are we?". These related themes have particular
significance for Canadians; we have long debated our national identity and
even questioned whether we possess, or will continue to possess, one.
b. Canadian sf has a greater emphasis on the social and political
context than on scientific or technological concepts. Canadian sf
often asks societal "what if?" questions. What if the province of Quebec (or Newfoundland or Alberta) separates? What if Canada is invaded by (the United States, the Soviet Union or Germany)? What if society is someday
ruled by a sexist theocracy?
c. Canadian sf has a more active and meaningful connection to the
"mainstream" literary world. Canadian science fiction and fantasy is dismissed
by some as genre fiction and purely escapist entertainment. However, there
is not the pronounced alienation between writers of sf
and writers in other fields in Canada. Some of Canada's greatest literary talents‑Atwood,
Findley and Kinsella‑have
written works of science fiction, speculative fiction or magic
d. Much Canadian
sf has been written for non-print media. Historically, print markets in
Canada have been limited,
particularly for genre fiction. Radio was more accessible to sf writers because audio productions are more effective
for less cost than television or film dramatizations, and because of the CBC's cultural mandate to present radio drama to the
public in all regions of the country.
3. THE DREAMS
The world-wide impact of Wells as the "revolutionary"
science fiction writer has already been established. Wells had the same
influence on Canadian sf as he did elsewhere in
Are there common themes and shared values between
Wells and Canadian sf? The research for Out of This World suggests a number
of unique connections: Dedication to speculative social and political
commentary, reminiscent of the political commentary found in Wells' later
scientific romances, [and] a commonly recurring
theme in Canadian sf stories ...the innocent traveller from another world who becomes trapped in our
Works such as The
Unnamed Planet tetralogy [radio play-ed.],
anthologies, and the emerging body of Canadian sf
are often tributes to the enduring impact of Wells on Canadian sf.
1. The Canadian SF Database is not yet available for
public use. Drafts are currently held at the Merril Collection and the
National Library of Canada.
2. There is no indication that Heinlein was aware of
Wells' essay of the same name.
Dickson, Lovat. H.G. Wells: His Turbulent Life and
Times. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. Pelican Books. 1969.
Heinlein, Robert A. "The Discovery of the
Future", Guest of Honor Speech at the Third World Science Fiction Convention,
Denver, 1941 in Requiem: Tributes to
Robert A. Heinlein edited by Yojo Kondo. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
Weiss, Allan and Hugh AD. Spencer, "Aliens Among
Us" in Out of This World:
Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Ottawa and Kingston: Quarry Press and National
Library of Canada. 1995.
"Did you see those pieces where the ceiling fell
down?" A morning which begins with a question like that is only going
to get better, I tell myself. It is and I am still smiling. It is
important to keep on smiling. It is easy for me to keep on smiling; the
ceiling didn't fall in on my books. The person in charge of that department
is not smiling. She is having a bad day. I go upstairs and prowl my stacks,
staring at the lights, trying to check the ceiling, watching the floor for
bits of the ceiling.
These days, or more precisely these nights, I dream
the same dream over and over. It is based on a movie I saw many years ago,
in which the hero was in prison. He had to move cannon balls from one side
of the prison compound to the other, for no particular reason. As soon as
he got all the cannon balls to the far side of the prison yard, he then had
to move them back. Moving a library is rather like that, except that the staff don't have to move the items back. Equally, the
convict didn't have to unpack each and every individual cannon ball, so, in
my dreams, I think we are breaking even.
Unpacking, it turns out, is only a part of our
problem. I tend to think of problems in sequences these days, rather like
paperclips strung together. The longest string of problems is the building
deficiency string. A building deficiency is something about the building
that didn't get done right. Clean-up is an inevitable part of each
construction process, I say to myself, as I try to work around the offending
problem. This can be awkward, when, for instance, the deficiency involves
the shelving. It is difficult to unpack onto shelves which have something
wrong with them, like not being attached to the wall.
Some problems are not deficiencies. The mice, for
instance, seem to have moved with us. We're not quite sure how we managed
this. All I can be sure of is that the mice are highly stressed mice.
Everyone else in the building is sweating blood, trying to get the building
ready for opening, so it is only fair that the mice should be miserable,
too. Wherever they were nesting, we have overheated it (just testing),
cooled it to the point of freezing (still testing), dumped furniture on top
of it (What do you mean, it doesn't fit here?) and repacked and reorganized
Staffing problems are not a building deficiency,
either. Mary is in Scotland. Lorna is in the Maritimes.
Annette is making a break for it; maternity leave will release her from the
joys of unpacking. Giles has unpacked rather more than his fair share and
he is beginning to talk about making a break for freedom as well. Fine.
After he's finished unpacking the basement. No doubt this will involve
disturbing the mice. Perhaps we can borrow the copyshop's
white cat; it seems to have a placid disposition.
All staff members have developed a new nervous tic, a
sideways sweep with the eyes, just checking. "Lights? Yes, lights, present and accounted for. Do they go on? Yes,
good. Do they fall down? No, good. Next?"
The Merril Collection will be opening at our new home
at 239 College Street momentarily. Staff look forward to seeing you all at our opening
celebration, where they will be very, very calm...
The Infinite Diversity International Corporation
(I.D.I.C.), more commonly known as the USS Hudson Bay, is a charitable, non-profit
organization which holds its command crew meetings at The Merril Collection
once a month. I.D.I.C. is a Toronto-based Star Trek fan club which
participates in many different community outreach activities. Past outreach
projects have included sorting food at a local food bank during the Easter
Food Drive, collecting non-perishable food items for food banks, and
hosting blood donor clinics. In addition, club members have donated
reusable materials such as magazines, eyeglasses, clothes, and educational
texts to shelters for the homeless and Third World countries. Donations to Third World countries are co-ordinated through Global Ed Med.
Members of I.D.I.C. also staff local science fiction
conventions such as Toronto Trek and do security for community events such
as the Mississauga Santa Claus Parade.
I.D.I.C. publishes a monthly newsletter entitled The Voyageur featuring original
artwork and articles by members. Articles on space exploration, the
environment, and health issues, as well as reviews of Star Trek and other
science fiction books, movies and events, trivia quizzes, and Star Trek
news and gossip are allcontained
in this publication. The club also launched a fanzine entitled Holodeck One in July, 1994 which contained
short stories, poetry and logic puzzles created by members of I.D.I.C. and
other affiliated fan organizations.
I.D.I.C. is active on several computer networks
including Fidonet, the Internet, Usenet, GEnie, and CompuServe. Information about club
activities is disseminated on the nets and instruction is available to
members who wish to use their computers to communicate with others on these
The primary goal of the USS Hudson Bay is the
realization of the optimism expressed in the Star Trek philosophy. Club
members believe that they, as individuals and as a group, have the ability
to ensure the survival and advancement of humanity through to the twenty-fourth
century and beyond. They believe that this will be achieved through
improvements in human relationships, knowledge, technology and environmental
I.D.I.C. members believe that these goals can be
realized by contributions to charitable works through donations of money,
goods, and services; by participation in activities which reflect an
increasing concern for the environment; by promotion of healthy lifestyles;
and by promotion of tolerance, respect, and the just treatment of all
individuals. These objectives can also be achieved through education about
and promotion of space exploration and other technologies, by the
organization of social activities which nourish imagination, relationships
and the enjoyment of life, and by mutual support leading to the advancement
of the individual.
The USS Hudson Bay is probably the largest Star Trek
fan club in Canada, with approximately 230
members. Members of the club live not only in Toronto, but in St. John's, Newfoundland; Hamilton, Ontario; Beaconsfield, Quebec; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Kingston, Ontario; Yarmouth, Nova Scotia; Listowel, Ontario; Regina, Saskatchewan; Buffalo, New York; and Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Members are employed in
various professions including medicine, law, publishing, writing, graphic
arts, and acting. Some members are also employed in the hospitality and
tourism industries or are students at local colleges or universities. Ages
range from new-born babies to senior citizens in their seventies.
In June of 1993, members of the USS Hudson Bay
presented a series of skits for children at the Downsview
Regional Branch of the North York Public Library. The skits were designed
to teach the audience about the various activities in which they could
participate as members of the science fiction community in Toronto.
The club is now involved in organizing its own
convention planned with a similar educational theme in mind. The
convention, to be called Fleet Academy North, will take place April 26, 27
and 28, 1996 at the Holiday Inn in Yorkdale.
Convention guests will include science fiction author Karl Schroeder.
Planned activities include a writer's workshop, an artist's workshop, and
several sf related information panels.
I.D.I.C. would also like to establish a foundation
whose sole purpose would be to issue a scholarship to a disabled individual
which would enable that person to continue a formal education otherwise
unaffordable at an institute of higher learning. They hope to name the
scholarship after Gene Roddenberry, if the appropriate legal permissions
can be obtained from his estate. Call Lorraine Pooley
at (416) 251-3006 to find out more about I.D.I.C.
At OMNI magazine,
where she has been the fiction editor since 1981, Ellen Datlow
feels that change is the wave of the future. She talked about the changes
at OMNI and in the genre of
speculative fiction over coffee at Ad Astra 15,
the science fiction convention held in Toronto in June 1995. She attended as
a special guest.
"The last monthly issue [of OMNI]was in April
and with the September issue, we're going to go quarterly," she said
amidst the bustle and noise of the convention. "We're going to be
doing double-sized quarterly issues, perfect bound, I hope, which means
squared-off spines. I'll be having four stories in the September issue,
which will bring me up to date, because I've only been getting in one story
a month for the last few years anyway. So, hopefully, I'll be doing at
least the same amount of fiction."
As subscribers to the magazine have discovered, OMNI has discontinued offering subscriptions.
"It's going to be completely newsstand," says Datlow.
"Most magazines lose money on subscriptions. You get readership which
is kind of falsely inflated for the advertisers, but basically you don't
make money off subscriptions. Major magazines want people to buy newsstand
copies of each issue. It costs more and they get more money from it."
As the cost of paper has soared, the magazine has also
begun the transformation to electronic format. "It's a pretty
important technology," says Datlow,
"and I think a lot of people are getting involved with it. I think
that the people who run the company feel that it's the wave of the future.
"We've been on-line for about two years now. I
have America On Line. I have my own world, Ellen Datlow's Science Fiction and
Fantasy World; it's a bulletin board. We have a lot of interactive
material, where you can ask questions. We have chat sessions that are run
about three times a week by various volunteers. We have a letters-to-the-editor
department, where people can ask questions, and an "Ask Ellen"
thing, where people can ask me something."
In February 1995, OMNI
began to offer some fiction electronically, thanks in part to corporate
sponsorship by Chrysler Neon. Six novellas are available through America On
Line, until the end of the year. "We're getting people downloading
it," she notes. "I hope that more people will be downloading it.
The most so far is 500 [readers] per story, and in the scheme of things, I
don't feel that's very much. We would very much like more people to be
aware of it, to read the stories." For those with no access, however,
some of the stories are going to Gardner Dozois
at Asimov's magazine after six
"This is an experiment to see how it works. Right
now, Penthouse has an Internet
site that, apparently, is quite popular." She laughs and adds,
"Yeah, yeah, I think you can look at the pictures, too."
Does that mean that the whole magazine will some day
be available on the 'net, too? "I don't know how or when that's going
to happen," Datlow admits. `But that's what
we're aiming for, in addition to the quarterly issues."
As well as editing for OMNI, Datlow has assembled many
anthologies of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Some of her best known
work includes the World Fantasy Award-winning The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin's Press) and
several volumes of retold fairy tales (AvoNova),
all of which she co-edited with Terri Windling.
As a result, some of the world's best short fiction comes across her desk,
and she's noticed some trends within the genre.
"In the last few years, I think science fiction
has gotten more literary. It's become more science fantasy. It doesn't feel
like science fiction. It doesn't really feel like fantasy. It's almost like
surrealism. Or, it's almost like fantastic realism. It's just changing. I
know Analog seems to be making a come-back
with its hard science fiction. What I would like to see is hard science
fiction with heart and soul and characters. That's what every editor, I
think, wants. And I don't think there's enough out there.
"The alternative history and famous person story
has taken over the field and I think it's a real problem. It's totally
arbitrary. You can pick any part of history and just change it. I'm sorry,
but that's not a good story. It's cannibalizing the past rather than
creating something. It's not using your imagination.
"I can't see any particular trend in theme. I
hate to define a particular trend, because, as someone said in the last
panel, it's over by the time you mention it. And it's true—they usually
come out of nowhere. Cyberpunk came out of nowhere. I don't think you can
predict that. It just happens. That's it: you shouldn't be following a
trend, you should be creating your own."
Datlow says she reads Canadian
fiction. "I took two stories from Northern
Frights 2, Don Hutchison's horror anthology, for the Year's Best,"she says. "On Spec is very good and very
interesting, and I think that it has a good variety of material. I read the
first issue [of Transversions]and I thought it was terrific. I
recommended a lot of stories in Transversions, and
I have a great hope for that."
In spite of her enthusiasm for Canadian fiction, Datlow doesn't see much difference between Canadian and
American stories. "Unless you deal with politics, which are different
from country to country, I don't feel the other issues are that different.
But if there is a difference, I think the Americans would like to read
about that difference. That's going to impress an editor more. If it's a
good story, we'll buy it. What's unique about Canada is what the writer should be
writing about. Infuse your fiction with it, and that will get the attention
of the American editor, as long as it's not too esoteric. Don't be
intimidated by the American market. Believe me, we want new voices. It's a
joy to get different cultures."
Anthologies by Ellen Datlow
Blood is Not Enough (Berkley, 1989)
A Whisper of Blood (Berkley, 1991)
Alien Sex (Roc, 1990)
Snow White, Blood Red (AvoNova,
1993) with Terri Windling
Black Thom, White Rose (AvoNova,
1994) with Terri Windling
Ruby Slipper, Golden Tears (AvoNova,
The Year's Best
Fantasy and Horror series (St. Martin's Press, 1989—) with Terri Windling
OMNI Best Science Fiction, l (OMNI Books, 1992)
OMNI Vision One and Two (OMNI Books, 1993, 1994)
Little Deaths (Dell/Abyss, September 1995)
Off Limits: Alien Sex 2 (St. Martin's Press, March 1995)
Look for a
"revenge" anthology from Millennium‑UK in about a year.
In September 1962, Playboy
published an article by the late, great Charles Beaumont on the pulp
"What were the pulps?" Beaumont wrote. "Cheaply printed,
luridly illustrated, sensationally written magazines of fiction aimed at
the lower and lower-middle classes ...Were they any good? No. They were
By definition, the so-called pulps were magazines of
popular fiction handling such staples as adventure, action and romance.
Between their birth in the first years of this century and their demise in
the middle fifties, they represented the greatest explosion of mass
entertainment by way of the printed word that a thrill-seeking public ever
How to explain the euphoria of the pulps? Perhaps you
had to be there. You had to be young—at least in spirit. Perhaps you
had to be poor (most people were). You had to be part of that troubled,
more innocent time. I first discovered the pulps in the early 1940s, as a
youth growing up in the peculiar milieu of World War II. The science
fiction pulps were my favourites back then, with
their vivid (and now hopelessly optimistic) messages of life on far-flung
planets and the adventurous World of Tomorrow.
Ironically, the field of science fiction has often
attempted to eschew its humble pulp origins. In a lust for respectability, sf critics employ the term "pulp" to describe
bad writing. But the field of science fiction was virtually invented by the
pulps and many of its finest practitioners learned their craft in that
One of the side effects of the world's first sf magazine was that youthful readers discovered each
other through Amazing Stories'
letter column. They soon began to correspond with each other, produce amateur
fan magazines, and form local sf groups. They did
so in mutual recognition of the essential worth of something that most
people labelled as trash. They did not judge a
book by its cover—even if the book was called something preposterous
like Super-Science Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories. They
looked past the wildly lurid covers and they saw magic names like Bradbury
and Heinlein and van Vogt and Sturgeon and Asimov and... well,
I could go on and on. Yes, they were all pulp writers.
Hugo Gernsback'sAmazing Stories, which appeared in
the spring of 1926, was the first magazine ever to be devoted exclusively
to science fiction (then called "scientifiction"),
but it was not a pulp magazine. Gernsback went to
great trouble to avoid that stigma. His magazine was printed on expensive
book paper, was large size with trimmed edges, cost a staggering twenty-five
cents and... it was as appetizing as cold
While Gernsback has been
properly credited as the father of modern sf, the
fact is that the general pulp fiction magazines had been publishing science
fiction all along, but of a less didactic stripe than Papa Gernsback's attempts to educate and inform. Beginning
as early as 1910, adventure pulps like Argosy,
Blue Book and All-Story Magazine had featured
"scientific romances," stories of lost races, adventures on other
planets and scientific extrapolation. They were written by some of the top
writers of the time and most of them displayed the pulp virtues of good
plotting, fast pace and readability. Some are still readable today, whereas
many of the stories in Gernsback's
"respectable" science fiction magazine can only be regarded as
museum pieces, fossil records of sf's antiquarian
W. L. Clayton, publisher of a chain of pulps, finally
introduced a true science fiction pulp in 1930. Astounding Stories of Super-Science was published in standard
pulp paper format and was issued the first Thursday of each month. From its
beginning, the new magazine left science lessons to school text books.
Instead, it featured the driving action and heroic adventure so beloved of
pulp readers, introducing such ingredients as interplanetary wars and space
battles and suitably terrifying Bug Eyed Monsters (fondly referred to as BEMs) as staples of the genre.
It wasn't until later, however, when young John Campbell
took over Astounding that sf as we know it began to take shape. Campbell believed that in addition to
scientific accuracy and detail, a science fiction story should also feature
the elements of good story-telling to be found in general literature. He
even wrote a story, "Who Goes There?,"
to show how it could be done.
There was little question that Astounding Stories in the 1940s, under the dynamic editorship
of John Campbell, featured the field's most mature and innovative work. He
insisted on the highest standards of writing and attracted the best
writers. His rejection of all but the best meant that many lesser stories
by leading writers were available to the new magazines which swam in his
magazine's wake. Even so, I have to shamefacedly admit that Astounding never captured my
youthful heart the way such ragtag rivals as Startling Stories and Planet
Ali yes. Planet
It was one of the most outrageous pulps of the period.
The magazine's garish cover paintings made the
average circus poster appear circumspect. With artwork dominated by mighty-thewed warriors, semi-naked space Valkyries
sporting copper bras, and legions of leering BEMs,
Planet was enough to turn a
parent's head grey. If the covers weren't enough to grab you, the stories
boasted such titles as: "The Virgin of Valkarion,"
"The Beast-Jewel of Mars," "The Dead Star Rover,"
"Lorelei of the Red Mists," and "The Werwile
of the Crystal Crypt."
Was the magazine any good? No. It was Great. For
thousands of gawky kids it was just what the doctor ordered: an anodyne for
It was "The Vizigraph,"
Planet Stories' letter column, that introduced me to the curious delights of
science fiction fandom and its inventive vocabulary. Rival publications
featured equally wild and woolly readers' departments under such headings
as "The Reader Speaks" (Thrilling
Wonder Stories) and "The Ether Vibrates" (Startling Stories).
In the early forties the letter columns in the
Thrilling Publications group were hosted by a creature called Sergeant
Saturn. Surrounded by three elvish myrmidons
known affectionately as Wart-ears, Frogeyes and Snaggletooth, the old Sarge guzzled something called Xeno
in order to fortify himself against his readers' love-hate bouquets and
"Tap that Xeno, Frogeyes,
and douse the Sarge with inspiration," he
would growl. "He needs it this time out as any fool—even you,
Snaggletooth—can plainly see. Slice off my warts and call me smoothy, Wart-ears, and no offense intended."
Prime among fan complaints were the magazines'
untrimmed edges and cover paintings featuring undraped females and the ever-present
BEMs. Sometimes readers burst into poetry
("Roses are red, violets are blue; SPACE TRAP smells, and the drawing
too"). Sarge Saturn would usually reply in
suitably matching doggerel. The joys of indignation!
Meanwhile, over at Astounding,
less frivolous types spent their time picking holes in the science
articles, while loyal readers of Famous
Fantastic Mysteries submitted scholarly shopping lists requesting
reprints of various fantasy classics. Some of the fans who had letters
published in those old pulps included such future luminaries as Robert
Silverberg (plugging his fanzine), Jack Vance, William F. Nolan, Philip
Dick, and Poul Anderson.
It was Sergeant Saturn's fanzine review column that
induced me to spend allowance change on amateur publications. Most of these
were mimeographed, although a few lower budget efforts were
"hectographed" with a splotchy purple ink. They usually arrived
folded in two and locked with thumbnail-fracturing staples. Eventually I
even co-produced a fanzine with the help of a childhood chum. To our great
pleasure, it was reviewed favourably in the July
1948 Startling Stories by editor
Sam Merwin who, by this time, had dropped his
Sergeant Saturn disguise, and had gone on to publish such adult
"firsts" as Arthur C. Clarke's "Against the Fall of
Night," and Phil Farmer's groundbreaking "The Lovers."
As a memory jogger I've stacked a pile of old science
fiction pulps next to me as I write. Old friends all, the names of such now
neglected writers as Henry Kuttner, Edmond
Hamilton, Murray Leinster and Leigh Brackett leap
off the covers with an electric thrill that time has not diminished. Here's
a letter by yours truly (name misspelled) in the March '47 Startling Stories, and another in
July. It must have been an active year for me. I spot another of my letters
in the April Famous Fantastic
Mysteries and another in December. Look, here's a letter in the
February 1953 issue by a Kitchener, Ontario fan named John Robert
Colombo. Young John is planning to start a collection of Sax Rohmer books
and he's hoping someone will help him out.
Great magazines. Great memories. I hope you'll pardon
me if I bring this little essay to a halt. I've got some serious browsing
to do. You have a good day, too.
Don Hutchison is
the editor of the Canadian dark fantasy series Northern Frights and is author of the forthcoming bookThe Great Pulp Heroes.
Nowadays, science fiction people are almost as
familiar with time machines as they are with space ships. For the past
century, both fact and fiction have made space and time fierce rivals in
the battle to characterize our era. From Jules Verne to Deep Space Nine, space-age exploits
have probably held the edge in the popular imagination. After all, there is
something spell-binding in discovering new worlds and unfamiliar life
forms. But thanks to Wells and his profoundly scientific concept of time
travel, modern science fiction is also peppered with countless time-age
exploits. The Time Machine is
pivotal because it heralds the arrival of the "Time Age" for the
Both Wells' parents grew up in surroundings far
removed from the grimness of England's industrial revolution, and
their lives were much less affected by time than people caught up in the
web of modem technology. It was Wells' genius to grasp the pre-eminence of
time: in evolution, the history of the universe or in the sheer drudgery of
assembly line production.
After studying under Darwin's close disciple, T.H.
Huxley, Wells quickly realized that time, not space, was the key to unravelling the story of human evolution, and perhaps
tracing the history of the entire universe. His new "weapon"
enabled him to become a prophet—not a bad goal for a serious science
The Time Machine
Wells' writing career in 1895, but it is far from being the perfect sf novel. In reality, it's an 80-page novelette that
begins in a rather stilted style, is weak in plot and character and has
only minimal dialogue. But its brand new approach to time travel was epoch-making.
It was the first fictional work to suggest that time was a property of the
fourth dimension, the first to turn its time traveller
into a credible scientist and the first to attempt a study of society three
quarters of a million years hence, with humanity now divided into two
different species—the gentle, effete Eloi
and the cannibalistic Morlocks.
After painting a brutal picture of humanity's ultimate
fate, Wells finally hits his stride by propelling his machine all the way
forward to the final death of the solar system.
All this is quite an advance on old-fashioned
"Rip Van Winkle" tales, or Mark Twain's Yankee making his
dreamlike trip to King Arthur's court.
After 1895, Wells spent the next decade producing some
of the most memorable science fiction ever written. His Invisible Man stands out as a
classic of strange science and weird psychology, with none of the stylistic
faults of The Time Machine, and
his The War of the Worlds (1898)
is probably the greatest space invasion story ever written.
One of the high spots of Wells' golden age was the
publication in 1896 of The Island of Doctor Moreau. It's a bizarre tale of a scientist who goes to a remote island and
sets up a laboratory to challenge evolution itself by attempting to turn
animals into intelligent "human" beings. Any writer analyzing
Darwinism on this scale can only be dabbling in macro-time. Wells was pre-Einstein
and pre-Stephen Hawking, but his instincts told him that the 1890s was the
right decade for writers of "scientific romances" to incorporate
time into sf once and for all.
The Time Machine
may have been
pivotal in introducing the idea of time into science fiction, but it's
still only a jumping off point. The novel never hints at alternate
histories, reversals of time's arrow, or virtual time, all part of the
pyrotechnics of modern sf.
The serious reader can simply pick up Wells' book and
regard the work as a no-nonsense account of events in the year 802701.
Unfortunately, Wells did not use straight, fast-forward speculation again
in his sf. Instead, he decided to write
"real history": his 1,000-page recapitulation from the chaotic
birth of the planet to the rise of the modern nation state.
Personally, I believe there is a place for writing
"future history"; not the plodding predictions of the futurists,
or the veiled obscurities of a Nostradamus, but
speculative history tinged with a certain
Although he has fallen somewhat out of favour, another British writer, OlafStapledon, did achieve a brilliant combination of
time, history and sf. Two of his novels, The Star Maker, and Last and First Men, propel humanity
and the universe into the far future—a future that seems real rather
than imagined. This is speculative history on a majestic scale, something
Wells only hinted at in The Time
Machine. Nowonder some
admirers have compared Stapledon to Dante.
To Wells' credit, he did more than introduce time into
science fiction. He also introduced thought. But over the past century,
thinking sf has often had to yield to
swashbuckling space—or time—opera with both sides of the
continuum doing a sort of ritual fire dance to wow audiences and make them
believe they are reallypart of
the new cyber universe.
Wells would probably have laughed at our virtual
reality games and would have viewed the holodeck's
real-life-adventure memory banks as so much guff. Even a really clever time
novel like Isaac Asimov's The End of
Eternity (1955)would likely
have struck H.G. as rather trivial.
Whenever Wells wrote sf, he
had to make a strong point. Even his silliest science fiction story, The First Men in the Moon (1901)concludes with a spectacular
audience between a terran spaceman and the Grand
Lunar (ruler of the moon) comparing the peaceful, highly specialized but
totalitarian moon society, with the freer, if more violent, ways of earth.
Clearly, by the turn of the century the gloss was off
Wells' science fiction magic. Re-read The
Time Machine and you get the impression that perhaps the master was
right the first time. The key to great sf is to
dream up a few brilliant ideas, with flashy dialogue, frenzied plots, and
oh-so believable characters all coming second.
The 100th anniversary of The Time Machine might be a good moment to hope that future sf will produce more speculative history.
History need not necessarily be dull. Even after two
centuries, Gibbons' Decline and Fall
of the Roman Empire still makes engrossing reading, or to mention
something more contemporary: the factual Timelines that terminate S.M. Stirling'sMarching
Through Georgia seem far more satisfying than the 400 pages or so of Draka battles and melodramatic encounters that precede
In the final paragraph of The Time Machine, Wells describes a conversation between the
time traveller and the tale's narrator: "We
thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the
growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably
fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains
for us to live as though it were not so."
Wells probably abandoned the idea of putting time-forward
history into his novels because he wanted to become a "real"
prophet. But as German philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel wrote some 180
years ago: "An historian is a prophet in reverse."
This is the
second half of the interview I conducted with Sean Stewart at WorldCon in Winnipeg, September 4, 1994; this part further reveals his thoughtful approach to
writing. We expanded our discussion of religion and its portrayal in fantastic
literature, focusing on the role of religion, or rather the religious
outlook, in the lives of his characters. We also explored his views on the
meaning of evil and its role in his writing. The pursuit of philosophical
truths and, more importantly, principles of behaviour,
proves to be a dominant theme in his work.
SS: It's so obvious to me how
neatly The Lord of the Rings fits
into that God-shaped hole. In a society that had lost a sense of values, of
a moral centre, there it went, and I think the same is true of The Mists of Avalon, and probably as
many more really carefully understood, carefully apprehended and
articulated religious visions as there are, will be very successful fantasy
works. Dune‑there'sanother one, you know, with the
AW: So fantasy and science
fiction require us or at least allow us, to ask broader questions than you
get in a novel or short story, of what's being called around here the
"typical CanLit sort," where the focus
is primarily on the character's individual development.
SS: Yeah, that's right. And
there's nothing wrong with that. You know, we all like The Double Hook or whatever. But it's nice to be able to extend
the question of the individual into the question of the community, or
extend the question of the individual's relationships beyond their
relationship with their husband, to their relationship with their
existential position. "Where am I on the map of existence?" And
try to define it in some way other than, "I am three steps to the left
of my husband."
AW: And the whole question of
myth-making, which is so dominant in your fiction; and this
raised my interest in how you're perceiving the development of religion and
what happens when it seems to be getting lost. One thing I noticed your
protagonists facing in both books is the Void, a Godless universe, and your
detective [Diane] is very clear at a couple of points: "There can't be
nothing." Do you see religion as providing us
with a necessary simplifier? How's that for a loaded question?
SS: No, God has not been beating
his wife again. Well, it's a small quibble, but I will just stop for a
moment and quibble with the idea of religion as a simplifier. I think over
the history of human consciousness religion has been the most sensitive,
most complete, most completely articulated expression of people's
relationship to their universe, so it's the thing that by and large the
smartest and wisest people of the last 30,000 years have spent the majority
of their time on. I'm hard-pressed to believe that this is appropriately
seen as a simplifying act. I think it's a traditional science fiction
fallacy to view religion as some sort of way that people protect themselves
from the naked gaze of the true, the morally empty, universe. I think
that's a very common science fiction trope, but I don't think that's the
only way of reading the situation.
AW: When I said simplifier I was
referring precisely to that. The moral guidelines provided by religion that
allow you to make sense of the world around you seem to be something that
people need even when they have doubts that any of it is valid. It's as if
the very nature of having these answers available to you makes religion
something that people can't let go [of] even when intellectually they may
think, "Well, you know, what reason do we have for believing that
there actually is Somebody up there?"
SS: But, first of all, the
question of whether there is a God or not is a non-question. That's a long
argument, but it's like saying, "Is the universe red or blue?" It's
a non-issue. Secondly, a lot of religion does not work. Religion is big, so
it addresses everything somewhere. A lot of the religious traditions in
which I'm interested, it is not necessary that the universe have a moral
order. However, people are not the universe; it is necessary that people have a moral order. It's not
just a protection... it is not something you do in denial, even if you
absolutely, one-thousand-percent believe that the universe is morally neutral,
which seems like a good bet to me. You would still have to develop and
articulate a response to that in terms of your own action. It's certainly
not enough to say, "The Crab Nebula is morally neutral; therefore, I
will break into this car." And so, how we live as individuals and how
we respond to that environment which may be empty or may be morally neutral
or may be some damn other thing, is an important question, whether or not
you believe there's a God and whether or not He has a beard.
Speaking of unspoken holes, there's an unspoken hole
in this conversation, because I sort of can't exactly mention, and you of
course haven't read, the actual book about this, which is the book that was
written between Passion Play and Nobody's Son, and is an entirely
more intense meditation on these issues than Nobody's Son is. With any luck
I'll be selling it to Ace within the next two weeks. But if it ever comes
into existence it will be called Cloud's
End, and if you want to see my post-Nietzschean,
post-World War II, existentialist mythopoetic
version of a moral order as one would construct it after the death of God
in a fantasy context, then I invite you to read
that book [laughs].
AW: I'm very much looking forward to that.
SS: Yeah, it's not a bad little book. It's got some good things in
it. It's got—what is the line from Princess Bride?—sword
ladies, giants, tigers, lots of stuff. It's much longer than either of the
other two. It's about 570 pages in manuscript, so it's twice as long as Passion Play and almost twice as
long as Nobody's Son. Nobody's Son was written after I had
written Cloud's End, and I almost killed myself doing it. It took an
incredible amount of time, and Nobody's
Son was the first book where instead of saying, "How can I extend
my range some more?" I said, "How the hell can I consolidate what
I just did, and write for once a book that won't kill me to write, and that
people will enjoy. But Cloud's End
is the "for full credit" version of Nobody's Son, an entirely more in-your-face and savage
iteration of the issue or the theme. If it comes out there will be more
topic for the conversation.
AW: I've noticed in my reading
of 'CanLit' that evil is considered to be an
existing phenomenon for a number of people. It has its different definitions,
but [people] like Robertson Davies, and especially Timothy Findley, are
very strong believers that evil has an existence in the world. The
theocracy in Passion Play and the
crisis in Nobody's Son are both
social reactions to the emergence of evil in a concrete form (which happens
in science fiction novels)—the kind of moral decay that leads to the
theocracy in Passion Play and the
crazy magic that goes on in Nobody's Son. And so I'm wondering, based on
some of the things you've said about ignoring the cosmic "Crab
Nebula" form of moral order and coming down to the human and social,
whether you feel that evil is indeed an existing phenomenon at a social
level, and how would you define evil in that sense? Or is this too abstract
SS: No. I guess I can't answer
that in exactly I think the way that would be niftiest for me to answer it
for you. For my own self, what I'm interested in is people's responses;
often in the work I do there is something which is challenging and scares
the shit out of people, but I wouldn't characterize it as evil. I don't
characterize, for instance, the magic that comes out in Nobody's Son as evil; it is simply
that which has been denied by that culture for a long time. It's what is
sometimes magic and sometimes ghosts which someone else defines simply as
the past. The things you don't look at. And, I think, whether there is or
isn't evil, I'm more interested in how people react on the ground.
I'm interested in the ways in which they deny looking
at things, the ways in which they respond to potentially morally neutral
situations. I mean, one of the things that Cloud's End is about is that it's a more articulated fantasy
world. It's a civilization that has a lot to do with the sea, and the sea
has a habit of capriciously and without warning killing people. But that
doesn't make it evil, it doesn't make it good, it is simply outside that
frame of reference. But nonetheless, humans who live inside that frame of
reference have to evolve some way of dealing with the fact that they can be
capriciously killed. That's what we called the problem of evil back in
university. Why do bad things happen to good people? Or why does anything
happen to anyone? Or more precisely, how the hell do you live your life,
given that bad things can happen to good people?
AW: So you have to expand your
perception of the world around you to include the things that you've denied
SS: That sure as hell comes up a
lot. I mean, if you look at the stuff in Nobody's Son about the past, that's let out and denied for a
long time; and then in Passion Play
there's the shaping stuff and the empathy and trying not to feel other
people and then the risks when you do and things about yourself that you'd
rather not know. If you read Resurrection
Man, boy, you're going to get that in spades [laughs]. You know when
you've been denying that there's anything odd going on for a long time and
then you wake up and you find your own dead body in your room, you know
something is definitely going down.
AW: Time to open your eyes.
SS: Yeah. Resurrection Man opens with a scene of a man performing an
autopsy on himself. You can't get a more intense
metaphor than that [laughs.]
AW: Well, I'm going to let you
go, and I want to thank you very much for this. I've really enjoyed
chatting with you.