Monday, 7 August 2017

Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance (1997)

This sort-of sequel to The Time Machine was Wright’s first novel. I remember it creating a small buzz on publication (it won the 1997 David Higham Prize for Fiction for instance) though it’s probably true to say it’s dropped off the collective radar rather since then. That may be because it’s so solidly tied to its decade: written 97, set 99, heavy with the now-passé doomsdayisms of that weird pre-millennial moment—when Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease (remember that?) had narrative plausibility as the agent of imminent apocalypse—plus many specific cultural references that, a mere two decades later, now have the lavender scent of the hopelessly out-of-date.

Still, it’s a shame that it has sunk into the cultural mulch. In many ways it’s a very interesting novel: jauntily and sometimes lyrically written, witty and wry (although the Wells connection proves something of a feint, in the end). The novel’s premise is that the Wellsian time-machine is real: Wells, we’re told, liaised with Tesla, and developed a working model with one of Tesla’s students, Tatiana Cherenkova. The machine is programmed to appear in Chelsea in 1999. Our narrator, David Lambert, a public-school-educated Cambridge archaeology graduate, intercepts it, finding Tatiana’s clothes inside but no Tatiana. He upgrades its 19th-century telemetry with a bit of 90s computer whizzery and jumps to 2500 AD. This leads into the novel’s strongest portion, a 130-page account of Lambert's trek across a future Britain entirely—it seems—depopulated, jungly, flooded and thronged with weird fauna. The protagonist picks his way through the wreckage of the intervening centuries attempting to decipher the disaster.

Lambert is haunted by the death of his on-off girlfriend Anita, and his broken relationship with his quondam best friend Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker (not that Charlie Parker, though this novel's ‘Bird’ is also a jazz musician: a long-haired white bloke motorcycle-nut living on his uppers). A large proportion of the novel is devoted to Lambert's exasperatingly interminable recollections of his time with the sexy Anita and the volatile Bird. Anyway: eventually Lambert reaches Scotland and discovers a tribe of racially-black future-Scots, scratching a living farming llamas on the banks of Loch Ness. Here the novel rather abruptly shifts gear into a post-apocalyptic replay of the crucifixion via Macbeth, entertainingly written but a bit random. Lambert survives being nailed to a cross and makes his way back to London by boat. The novel ends with the increasingly ill Lambert recovering his machine and planning his backward journey.

There are several ways in which this putative Wellsian novel is quite at odds with the spirit of H.G. For example there is the question of class. Wright gives every indication of being really quite posh, and on the level of content but also of tone this doesn't read like a lower-middle-class individual's novel. Another has to do with sex. There's a deal of sex in the book, ingeniously and vividly described, but it's all rather more repellent than is ever the case in sex-positive Bertie ‘I Like Sex, Me’ Wells. For example, early on Lambert attends an orgy in Chelsea:
Soon there was a merry scene: daisy chains, sandwiches, people stacked up like mating toads, woman on all fours, men pumping them at either end, and two or three complaisant slashers delicately inscribing each other with razor blades. The room filled up with the sounds of a milking barn, the semen smell of unripe Brie. [A Scientific Romance, 41]
I really don't mean to sound like a prude, but surely only the most hardened bufophile is going to find the description of ‘people stacked up like mating toads’ erotic. The purpose may not be titillation, of course, though the sheer quantity of the novel given over to a la recherche du bonks perdu with Anita rather suggests otherwise: Lambert addressing his memory-Anita on the subject of a pushbike ride they took together ( ‘A glorious day, you in white shorts with midriff bare ... a saddle with a long leather snout between your legs.’ [188]) or recalling ‘you let me bind you with silk and spray my pearls in your hair. Oh Anita!’ [146] and the like. So hard to write sex well, of course.

But the biggest difference between Wright's novel and anything Wells wrote is its most powerful and memorable section: Lambert's trek north and its proto-Atwood, proto-VanderMeer weird nature writing. Wells in his writing is largely uninterested in flora and fauna, and spends little time on describing landscape. But in this portion of A Scientific Romance Wright achieves brilliance by only detailing flora and fauna and landscape. Maybe the whole book would have been better if the Wells connection had been excised completely and a generic own-brand time machine had been deployed.


  1. Somewhat off topic, but I spotted a (paywalled online) Times obit of Dame Helen Alexander today that might mildly interest you - it mentioned that her grandmother Moura was a lover of Wells and Gorky (so presumably Moura Budberg). The Economist (of which she was ceo at one point) obit is not behind a paywall and simply mentions Gorky's lover, and but not by name.

    1. Interesting: thanks for the pointer.