Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Wells and Gibson

A Comparison of HG Wells 'The Time Machine' and William Gibson's 'Hinterland'.

1. Introduction.

The novelist and sociologist H.G. Wells wrote “The Time Machine” in 1895. William Gibson wrote the short story ‘Hinterlands’ which first appeared in the 1985 collection “Burning Chrome”. The intervening ninety years saw huge advances in scientific, communications and technological fields. Einstein discovered relativity. Man landed on the Moon. The industrial age was giving way to the digital era. By the mid 1980s, computers were in everyday use and the internet was emerging from its experimental stage (WorldHistorySite.com, 2005, online.)

Wells predicted hyperspace whereas Gibson predicted cyberspace. He coined the term cyberspace in 1984 to describe the new domain "in his seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer" (Wertheim, 1999, p226).

2. Wells.

The turn of the 20th century was crucialin the development of modern electric media. Debate about how these new technologies would be used were ‘rooted in the group-specific beliefs about how the world could be known’ (Marvin, 1990, p6). Wells was a socialist (Wikipedia, 2005, online) and a Darwinist (Spartacus, 2005, online) and these beliefs informed his writing. In The Time Machine’, the unnamed Time Traveller is able to use non-Euclidian geometry to “controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted” (Wells, 1953, p7.) He builds a time machine out of nickel, ivory and quartz (ibid. p16) and travels 800,000 years in the future. There the Earth is dominated by two races, the indolent Elois and the ‘inhuman and malign’ (ibid. p65) Morlocks. Due to their lack of interest in their environment, the Elois had ‘decayed to a mere beautiful futility’ (ibid. p66.) To Wells, this is a warning of the inevitable evolutionary process of the ‘last surgings of the now purposeless energy of mankind’ (ibid. p39). The time traveller journeys onward to the end of the Earth where only a 'great darkness' (ibid. p94) exists. The story is narrated in the past tense. This gives the fiction its potency and credibility - it 'happened'.

3. Impact of 20th Century advances

The mathematical fantasy of Well’s time machine became physical law when Einstein proved that there was indeed a correlation between space and time. In his special Theory of Relativity in 1905, Einstein asserted that ‘physical processes are independent of the uniformly moving frame of reference in which they take place (Galison, 2003, p16). Under general relativity ‘space has become not just a sea on which matter might sail, but a highly malleable substrate capable of forming complex structures’ (Wertheim, 1999 p181).

Underpinned by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle - “the more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known” (American Institute of Physics, 2005, online) – the solid Newtonian laws of the Universe were replaced by the ever-shifting ground of quantum mechanics. Wormholes and black holes moved from the realm of fantasy to scientific principle.

Einstein’s mathematics were validated by Edwin Hubble who discovered that multiple galaxies exist and that the universe is expanding. Hubble empirically “discovered the cosmos” (Time, 2005, online). This vast, new universe would become the playground of late 20th century futurists like Gibson.

4. Gibson's Travels

In "Hinterlands", Gibson does not explain how the time-travelling interstellar visitors get here. His central issue is the human response to its consequences. Earth has come in contact with a superior civilisation – “something you don’t wish on your worst enemy” (Gibson, 1985, p89). Astronauts pay a heavy price of death or insanity to bring back great advances for humanity such as the ‘Rosetta Stone for Cancer” (ibid, pp88-89). It is a "cargo cult time for the human race" (ibid. p89). Cargo cults are a “form of symbolic response and expression to the experience of rapid social and cultural change through colonization.” (O’Sullivan et al 1994, p268). Thus Gibson's time travel turns us into insignificant "flies in an airport, hitching rides" (Gibson, 1985 p91). His narrative is a jumpy present tense, broken into timeshifts that disorient the reader.

5. Conclusion

Both Wells and Gibson owe a debt to Plato’s The Republic. In Book VII, the Cave serves as a metaphor for the “shadows of true existence” (Constitution Society, 2005 online) and, by inference, the existence of dimensions beyond human understanding.

Wells' time machine with its saddles and levers is a pre-digital representation of this dimensional metaphor. Gibson works with bonephone implants (1986, p76) and the broadcast frequency of the hydrogen atom (ibid, p79) to deliver a vision of the future that is filled with "swirling multimedia merging and mutating into a consensual hallucination" (Chartrand, 2005 online).

Gibson would probably agree with Wells' description of the future in "A Modern Utopia" as a "thing of the imagination that becomes more fragile with every added circumstance" (Wells. 2004, online)


American Institute of Physics, 2005, Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)

Chartrand, Harry Hiller, 2005. Cultural Economics: Creators, Proprietors and Users

Constitution Society, The Republic by Plato, Book VII

Galison, Peter, 2003, Einstein’s clocks, PoincarĂ©’s maps, Hodder and Stoughton, London

Gibson, William, 1995 (1986), Burning chrome, Voyager, London

Marvin, Carolyn, 1990, When old technologies were new, Oxford University Press, New York

O’Sullivan, T, Hartley J, Saunders, D, Montgomery M, Fiske, J, 1994, Key concepts in communications and cultural studies, Routledge, London

Spartacus Educational, 2005, H.G. Wells

Time Magazine, 2005, Edwin Hubble

Wells, H.G., 1953 (1895), The time machine, Pan, London.

Wells, H.G. (Project Gutenberg), 2004 (1905), A Modern Utopia

Wertheim, Margaret, 1999, The pearly gates of cyberspace, Random House, Sydney.

Wikipedia, 2005, H.G. Wells

WorldHistorySite.Com, 2005, Some dates in the history of cultural technologies

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