The article serving as the departure point for this review was something I stumbled across in the randomness of aggregate-site wanderings and is an excellent meta-critical frame to look at Wells’ The Time Machine. The article takes a look at the influences and evolution in the nature of paranoid delusions, and other cases of extreme breakdown in reality perception, and how the material that gets projected out from those suffering such mental illnesses has radically changed over the course of the last century. Contemporary discourse, knowledge, popular culture and fears, literature, and other elements play a large role in defining how these mental issues take form: from influencing machine paranoias reflecting popular fears of growing technological invasiveness to delusional certainty that 9/11 was staged for a Truman Show like self-centered reality show, the material of these mental fictions is a curious lens to look out into the world surrounding them. The key concept that I wish to review and discuss is something that is honestly less tied to the direct specifics of both the text and the article and more along the ruminative connections that arise between the two: that of speculative fiction, and specifically its failure to maintain contemporary relevance past a certain, however arbitrary, time span focused around its creation.
Clearly, past social and cultural critique present within Wells’ novella, one primary aspect of the work is speculation, on a myriad of topics from history, astronomy, evolution, and other assorted science fictions motifs; its being a nineteenth century product trying to peer into the future is obvious. That aspect intersects with the article somewhere in the nature of ego-based, or ego-lacking, “paranoid delusions” and other mental anomalies: the common thread being that in a way, the details of the self-centered narratives imposed on the world similarly evolve and change much in the same way science fiction becomes outdated in its ideas from generation to generation as the surrounding information present in the cultural discourse and zeitgeist changes. But it is the failure of these speculative fictions that is of interest here.
A slight departure is necessary to establish how this interest in the “failure” of this type of fiction arose. I remember starting to read The Mote in God’s Eye and being completely disappointed by the science “fiction” of it; after Star Wars, numerous Star Treks, and a myriad of sci-fi video games whose interactive and communicative boundaries far exceed that of filmed programming or books, expectations are high for the contemporary reader, especially to find excitement through sheer wonder of imagination. The hyper-awareness of the fiction’s failure is due additionally to knowledge that is now available that wasn’t at that time; any current space faring science fiction is naturally going to have to at some point acknowledge a form of propulsion in space (at or above lightspeed) which is a now an extremely legitimate scientific conversation—not as much fifty years ago. Mote gives us enjoyable terms like “Alderson Drive” and “Langston Field” to capture readers’ imaginations of space travel, but much like Star Wars’s “hyperdrive” these are but literary inventions with little substance other than the authors’ perceptive usage of words like drive and field to access a pseudo-scientific aesthetic; in an age now where astrophysics and mathematicians can say for certainty that propulsion based around space-time warping is a distinct reality, and one that solves numerous issues and paradoxes of space travel (such as the effects on time and mass as the speed of light is neared), the bar placed on the “fiction” is so much higher and anything less is easily disregarded as inferior which disintegrates a total appreciation of the work. It becomes clear that all speculative fictions are not made equal, and that they are heavily subject to obsolescence; perhaps because forward thinking speculative fictions seem rather modern there is an expectation for them all to hold water concurrently—a decade or two now highly marking generational differences is somewhat new to literature.
The concept of the “failure” of this type of fiction, though, is amazingly represented through breakdowns in the function of the human mind. This one quoted line from the article I feel encompasses the idea at heart here: “‘For an illness that is often characterized as a break with reality,’ they observe, ‘psychosis keeps remarkably up to date.’” There should be little more material needed to demonstrate the importance of contemporary relevance. If mental illnesses require it, then similarly functioning literary works obviously will suffer from clarity of apprehension. This point brings us back to a connection with The Time Machine, which of no doubt presents the speculative fiction issue across a broad range of topics from evolution, dying earth/humanity/civilization, and social critique.
I feel that this issue is peculiar in its being a problem isolated to science fiction, since no other genre uses the present reality as a launch pad into material that is ultimately far removed from what is currently observed. That there would be a connection to mental anomalies perhaps demonstrates to us the futility of trying to comprehend and communicate that which we ultimately cannot know and through trying each attempt equally falls flat and useless.