Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Time Machine finished; House of Seven Gables started

I saw the most recent film version of The Time Machine a few years ago, so I was surprised to learn that the protagonist (simply identified as the time traveler) did not make several stops in time. He travels about 800,000 years into the future right away. He finds two races there that are descendant from humans: the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi are beautiful and fair, but also stupid and weak. They live on the surface of the earth and seem carefree, except for at night. They are afraid of the dark because of the Morlocks, who live beneath the earth, but occasionally come up to the surface at night to take an Eloi.

Sound like a spoiler? Not if you've seen the movie Ransom. Or if you watch the TV show The Big Bang Theory (which you should watch, by the way). Or if you've read one of many novels that reference Eloi and Morlocks. Or seen one of many films or TV shows that also reference them. The Time Machine is one of those landmark stories that changes the face of sci fi, and has inspired many creators within the genre, so that you may know about it without having read it. It's the first time travel novel. Traveling through time is described in such an engaging way - the time machine remains in the same spot in space, but the time traveler witnesses people, and then the transition from day to night, moving rapidly around him - that it has been adapted and reused numerous times.

For all the contributions to the sci fi genre, the basic story is about social problems. The time traveler is a socialist (as is H.G. Wells), and sees the struggle between the Eloi and the Morlocks as the result of the flaws of the class system. The upper class have evolved into the simple-minded Eloi, and the lower class have evolved into the industrial Morlocks, so accustomed to living in darkness that they've become nocturnal. He believes that a failure to resolve the class problem and make all people equals is the cause of all this.

He also treats the Morlocks like monsters, and plots an attack against them. The attack is not without reason in the story, but also reveals a clear flaw in Wells' socialist argument; he wants fair treatment for the lower class, but only if he approves of their behavior.

The time traveler makes one more journey before returning to his own time, and that trip is millions of years into the future, to the very end of this planet's existence. He finds a world barren of most forms of life, heated by an expanding sun. The time traveler ponders his disappointment that humans devolved rather than evolving, and at this point the novel gets very melancholy. At the same time, it paints an iconic picture; a time traveler, at the end of the world, having travelled as far forward as he dares. Even through his gloomy mood, his adventurous spirit is apparent.

For all the flaws I find in the social message, this spirit of adventure is what made this story such a page-turner.
I've started The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I chose this one because I just got back from Savannah GA, and I wanted to read a ghost story.

Despite my excitement over a spooky tale, things are slow going so far. Do you know what Hawthorne loves? Commas.

If anyone has successfully finished this novel, please contact me to let me know that things get better. Or to offer your sympathies. Both are welcome.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lolly Willowes finished; The Time Machine started

I’ve just finished Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, the first of these books that I’d not heard of before the list. I was a bit skeptical going in, as I often am with books I’ve never heard of. I’m glad to say that it exceeded expectations. The story slips easily between reality and surreal fantasy without excuse or apology. I can easily see Warner's style as an influence of Jeanette Winterson.

More than anything, I found myself relating to the main character – Laura Willowes, called Lolly by her nephew and nieces in that way that children tend to rename a person completely – and felt that in her situation, I would have made the same choices. Laura is a child in the late Victorian era in England, comes of age in the Edwardian period, and suddenly finds herself a middle-aged spinster in London in the 1920s. She lives with her brother and sister-in-law, who take her in after her father dies, and she is stuck in a humdrum life of being the helper to the lady of the household in a house that is not her own. After so many years of womanly silence, she decides she will take what finances are hers and move to the countryside, so that her life can be her own again. In the countryside, she becomes a witch.

And why not? Her new life permits her the liberty to forgo British manners, to dress as she likes, to come and go as she pleases. She is free from the expectations of a gentlewoman, and yet as a witch she has an identity that is uniquely feminine.

In her position, I could easily do the same thing. Uninterested in men, manners, and proper society, I would prefer the label of witch for the freedom it comes with (either that, or I’d have to find the world of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet and live in it). Laura enters into witchcraft with an unshakable will; she learns that her country town is full of witches, and she is taken to a midnight pagan Sabbath to celebrate her initiation. It turns into a mildly Dionysian revelry that she finds just as unsatisfying as the boring dance socials she used to attend in London. When a young masked man who acts as a proxy for the devil in their celebration welcomes her with an erotic gesture, Laura has quite enough of their ridiculousness, and storms off to find her own devil in the simplicity of nature. She literally does find him. Satan appears to her in the aspect of a simple woodsman, a relatively harmless demon who purchases her soul in exchange for the opportunity to “show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business.” The sin that gives Laura’s soul over to Satan is the sin of rejecting the expectations of a respectable woman.

She sells her soul willingly, and finds no shame in her new life. She even loses her brief concern that the other witches in her community won’t have her after she stormed out of their Sabbath – the good thing about living with witches is that she is among “people who prefer their thoughts to yours.”
Next up is The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It's one of two Wells novels on the list, and I believe these are the only novels on the list that are considered major influences of the steampunk sub-genre of science fiction (unless you count Frankenstein, which is arguable). Mostly that makes me wish that Jules Verne were also on the list.