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01.23.06


time machine cuba

by William Gibson



  poster by Charles Whiteside

 

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I learned of science fiction and history in a single season.

History I found in the basement of an old brick house I happened to pass each day, on my way to elementary school, in a small town in Virginia.

This house stood vacant, but was in too conspicuous a state of repair to seem haunted, and had never interested me. One afternoon, though, I noted that workmen had arrived, and that some sort of renovation was being prepared for. Squeezing in past a sheet of plywood, I explored a series of cold, empty rooms. One of these (my heart beat faster) contained a damp old trunk. Having worked up the nerve to open it, I found only a few faded lithographs (as I now imagine they were) of airplanes. But these were airplanes unlike any I had seen, and they held my attention in a peculiar way. They were old, clearly of some other era, but exciting, and somehow frightening as well. Squatting there, staring at them, I felt as though some enormous wedge of information was being driven into my head. Various bits and pieces of half-knowledge were coming together, forming some new and utterly unexpected whole. I already knew, as if by osmosis, that there had been a war, though I didn't know when, or with whom. I had been raised, so far, by adults who sometimes spoke of "the war" as some previous time or era or world, but I had somehow never associated that with other, more vague ideas of some past and general conflict. I had read comic books about war, and played with military toys, but had never considered how those might fit into some way the world had actually been.

I had found World War II, in that trunk. I had discovered history, or it me, and I would never be the same.

Science fiction, then, I found on various wire racks, one of them offering a 15-cent copy of the Classics Illustrated version of The Time Machine — which must have led me, just as its publishers claimed to have intended it to, to Wells's text. When George Pal's film version was released, in 1960, I already felt, though secretly, that The Time Machine was mine, part of a personal and growing collection of alternate universes, and that no one else in the theater really got it.

Even more secretly, I had filled a Blue Horse lined notebook with elaborate pencil sketches for my own, actual, working time machine. It looked, I recall, rather more like the machine in the Classics Illustrated version than the one in George Pal's film. The Classics Illustrated time machine resembled a model of the atom, but I had imagined this, for my own purposes, as geared in some achingly complex spheres-within-spheres way that I could never quite envision in operation, but which would somehow allow it to move in three dimensions at once. That, I imagined, just might do the trick. I suspected, without admitting it to myself, that time-travel might be a magic on the order of being able to kiss one's own elbow (which had seemed, initially, to be quite theoretically possible) but I was determined not to admit it. The possibility was too delicious to relinquish.

Although I now think that I had no specific time-travel adventures in mind, no head-scratching paradoxes to be explored. I don't remember dreaming of exploring the past of the world around me, or of journeying to its future.

What I wanted was to attain the world of The Time Machine, the Morlocks' garden. Wells's Victorian future nightmare had become a favorite fantasyland, for me. Because it existed so far up the timeline as to be beyond history, and history, once acknowledged, had quickly become a sort of nightmare, one from which there seemed to be no escape.

History, I was learning, there at the start of the nineteen-sixties, never stops happening.

I had become an involuntary sponge for modern history, after my discoveries of World War II and science fiction. Much of the science fiction I was reading, American fiction of the nineteen-forties and fifties, had already become history of a sort, requiring an acquired filter for anachronism. I studied the patent Future History timeline Robert Heinlein appended to each of his novels and noted where it began to digress from history as I was coming to know it. I filtered indigestible bits of anachronistic gristle out of this older science fiction, reverse-engineering a model of the real past through a growing understanding of what these authors had gotten wrong.

In another trunk, in my own family attic, I had unearthed World War I. A much more substantial trove, this one: rolled memorial scrolls bearing the names of the hometown dead, and the lightly rusted and altogether astonishing mass of a Colt Model 1911 automatic pistol.

I watched the CBS documentary series Twentieth Century on Sunday nights, moved by the eminently sane Midwestern voice of Walter Cronkite, as he narrated aspects of the unimaginably complex and peculiar historical reality in which I was learning that I lived. I learned about D-Day, the concentration camps, the atomic bomb, and the Cold War. With these last two, Cronkite's restrained narration met my growing and secret terror at where history and science (or history as science fiction?) seemed almost certainly to be taking us.

And now, walking to school, past the house where I had discovered World War II, I passed the Post Office, newly marked with metal signs bearing the black-and-yellow Civil Defense symbol used to indicate fallout shelters. Sirens were tested regularly, along with something called "the system", and the dial of my first transistor radio was marked, twice, with that same symbol, indicating the two frequencies set aside for Civil Defense.

Freed by Wells and his literary descendants to roam, in my imagination, up and down the timeline, I had stumbled upon World War III, and the end of civilization.

Wells had discovered the end of civilization long before me. It must have seemed that it kept coming back throughout his life to oppress him, the vision of cataclysm and systemic collapse, fuelled by some basic immaturity of the species — to bring an end, at least temporarily, to modern history and technological progress. He must have expected it constantly, through World Wars I and II. He would have been terribly aware of it looming again, in the years immediately before his death, with the military use of atomic energy an established fact.

In 1905 he had imagined it arriving with the military use of aerial bombs against civilian targets, but then he would see Zeppelins bomb London, and after that the Blitz, and then the advent of the German rocket-bombs. In The Time Machine, wars are a thing of the immemorial past, something necessarily transcended on the way to some safer, more rational basis for society.

None of which mattered to me as I cringed my way through the heating up of the Cold War, expecting any moment the wailing of the sirens that would call us all into the basement of the Post Office. The television dramatization of Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, a popular novel set in a small Florida town in the immediate aftermath of nuclear war, had sealed my fate. Something akin to Sartre's dictum that hell is other people was dawning on me, and part of the cloud of constant secret terror I inhabited was some conviction that my neighbors, confined in what I imagined as the stifling darkness of a Civil Defense fallout shelter, would prove to be my own personal Morlocks.

The appeal of The Time Machine for me, then, become one purely of escape. I longed for Wells's ellipsis, the long blur forward, "night follow(ing) day like the flapping of a black wing." I longed to find myself on the far side of whatever terrible, inevitable history was about to happen. I saw, with utmost clarity, the World War II howitzers, on the town's courthouse lawn, dusted with the falling detritus of Chicago, and the sky above glowing with a new and deadly clarity.

I didn't understand that Wells himself had written a more thorough end to humanity, in The Time Machine, than any I imagined descending on America as I knew it. The perversely enjoyable melancholy that pervades the garden of the Eloi emanates not from the hidden underworld of the Morlocks, nor from their grisly symbiosis with their former masters, but from the exquisite and utterly deliberate job of world-wrecking Wells has performed for us. Writers before and after Wells have enjoyed the heady pleasures of reducing the great monuments of their day to imaginary ruin, but few have attained the degree of symbolic elegance, nor the convincingly forlorn realism, of the Palace of Green Porcelain.

Here, in what once was Kensington, site of Wells's scientific education and all of his early hope, everything Victorian civilization valued has long been ended, ruined not by war but by a devolution of the human species — brought about by the failure to recognize the eventual outcome of a disastrous course of affairs. If Wells rejected socialism as a panacea, he also saw its diametric opposite as an inevitable road to ruin: "Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and sunshine. And now that brother was coming back — changed!"

The Palace proves to be the ruin of a museum. A single humble box of safety matches, preserved in an air-tight terrine, is the treasure the Time Traveler takes with him from that museum of man. A last working token of technology: light and destruction both, in a palm-sized packet. Matches, camphor, and a heavy lever broken from a nameless piece of machinery, to serve as club and pry-bar.

He leaves the museum with the tools of his early ancestors: fire and the club.

I had my own ancient tool of destruction, and taught myself, crouching in secret places, to disassemble it, my impossible, scary, secret provision from history. I lightly oiled the parts and hid them separately, wrapped in rags. This being Virginia in the early nineteen-sixties, I easily obtained a box of ammunition, alarmingly heavy finger-thick shells with bullets the color of a new copper penny.

I possessed the pistol, it seemed to me, much as the Time Traveler possessed his matches and his makeshift club, though far less purposefully. He leaves the Palace of Green Porcelain with a plan, and I had no plan, only a global and unexpressed terror of impending nuclear war, and of the end of history, and the need to somehow feel in control of something.

Three years into my discovery of history, it was announced that Soviet ballistic missiles had been deployed in Cuba. My encounter with history, I absolutely knew, was about to end then, and perhaps my species with it.

In his preface to the 1921 edition of The War in the Air, Wells wrote of World War I (still able to call it, then, the Great War): "The great catastrophe marched upon us in daylight. But everybody thought that somebody else would stop it before it really arrived. Behind that great catastrophe march others today." In his preface to the 1941 edition, he could only add: "Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in that year, twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: 'I told you so. You damned fools.' (The italics are mine.)"

The italics are indeed his: the terminally exasperated visionary, the technologically fluent Victorian who has watched the 20th Century arrive, with all of its astonishing baggage of change, and who has come to trust in the minds of the sort of men who ran British Rail. They are the italics of the perpetually impatient and somehow perpetually unworldly futurist, seeing his model going terminally wrong in the hands of the less clever, the less evolved. And they are with us today, those italics, though I've long since learned to run shy of science fiction that employs them.

I suspect that I began to distrust that particular flavor of italics when the world didn't end in October of 1962. I can't recall the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis at all. My anxiety, and the world's, reached some absolute peak. And then declined, history moving on, so much of it, and sometimes today the world of my own childhood strikes me as scarcely less remote than the world of Wells's childhood, so much has changed in the meantime.

I may actually have begun to distrust science fiction, then, or rather to trust it differently, as my initial passion for it began to decline, around that time. I found Henry Miller, then, and William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and others, voices of another kind, and the science fiction I continued to read was that which somehow was resonant with those other voices, and where those voices seemed to be leading me.

And it may also have begun to dawn on me, around that same time, that history, though initially discovered in whatever soggy trunk or in whatever caliber, is a species of speculative fiction itself, prone to changing interpretation and further discoveries.

—Vancouver, August 8, 2004

 

 


William Gibson, the author of Pattern Recognition, Neuromancer, and many other remarkably layered fictions, is an enthusiastic and curious observer of the imaginative lives of humans, including his own. Check out the Wm. Gibson blog archive and these other personal essays/poetry:
      Since 1948
      My Obsession
      Agrippa: A Book of the Dead


Charles Whiteside, whose poster of Gibson among the Morlocks is photographed above, is a Seattle artist whose work can be seen in the galleries and on the streets.

 

 

 

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