#113 = Volume 38, Part 1 = March 2011
Justin St. Clair
Borrowed Time: Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day and the Victorian Fourth Dimension
“Walloping Wellesianism!” cried the Professor, “it’s just a whole junkyard full!” Up and down the steeply-pitched sides of a ravine lay the picked-over hulks of failed time machines—Chronoclipses, Asimov Transeculars, Tempomorph Q-98s—broken, defective, scorched by catastrophic flares of misrouted energy, corroded often beyond recognition by unintended immersion in the terrible Flow over which they had been designed and built, so hopefully, to prevail…”—Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (409) In the twenty years that have elapsed since the appearance of Bruce Sterling’s essay “Slipstream,” his neologism has not exactly turned the publishing industry on its ear. While it may not have coalesced into a popularly recognized category, however, slipstream certainly continues to burble alongside—or more accurately, perhaps, against the current of—mainstream fiction, still holding out the promise, as Sterling suggests, of a “helpful, brisk competition to SF.”1 A recent novel that would have fit squarely on Sterling’s “slipstream list,” had an aberration of chronology allowed it, is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006). A delightfully messy whale of a novel, Against the Day ostensibly runs from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 through the First World War, contains several hundred characters, real and imagined, and scores of intersecting plots and subplots. The various characteristics of slipstream that Sterling enumerates are nearly all present: Pynchon “screw[s] around with the representational conventions of fiction,” displays “an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality,’” and exhibits “an inherent dementia” of ontological proportions.
Sterling’s observations on the tendency of slipstream toward bricolage, moreover, seem ideally suited to an investigation of Pynchon’s peculiar methodology:
Slipstream is also marked by a cavalier attitude toward “material” which is the polar opposite of the hard-SF writer’s “respect for scientific fact.” Frequently, historical figures are used in slipstream fiction in ways which outrageously violate the historical record. History, journalism, official statements, advertising copy ... all of these are grist for the slipstream mill, and are disrespectfully treated not as “real-life facts” but as “stuff,” raw material for collage work. Slipstream tends, not to “create” new worlds, but to quote them, chop them up out of context, and turn them against themselves. (emphasis in original)
Pynchon scholars who have made it this far may already be bristling. A notoriously meticulous researcher, Pynchon certainly does violate the historical record, but these violations are rarely “outrageous.” If anything, Pynchon delights in verifiable historical details that merely appear counterfactual—an excavation, if you will, of history’s outrageous minutiae. (Did you know, for example, that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand toured the United States as a young man? Or that the Chinese underworld once hired actors to play out stereotypes on New York City streets to satisfy the salacious expectations of tourists?) Despite a slight discrepancy between Pynchon’s methodology and Sterling’s formulation, however, Against the Day generally exemplifies what Sterling sees as slipstream’s attitude toward source material. All is grist for the novel’s mill—from dime novels to Dreiser, alchemical meditations to Minkowskian spacetime. And this, in part, is the competition such a novel can offer sf: in addition to a “respect for scientific fact,” Pynchon is also willing to revisit castoff models and discarded systems, willing, as the epigraph suggests, to pick over the junkyard of failed and misbegotten machines, willing to recycle material others have rejected.2 In the sections that follow, I examine the various ways Pynchon reclaims both proto-sf time-travel narratives and attendant conceptions of the fourth dimension. Indeed, Pynchon might have subtitled his novel A Cultural History of the Fourth Dimension, since the variety of discarded fourth-dimensional discourses he engages—within literature, art, mathematics, physics, and spiritualism, to name several of the most prominent—serve as something of a catalogue of late-Victorian and Edwardian hyper-spatial hypotheses.
Popularizing the Fourth Dimension. From a broader cultural perspective, any consideration of the Victorian fourth dimension must begin with three prominent popularizers: Charles Howard Hinton (1853-1907), Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838-1926), and Herbert George Wells (1866-1946). In many respects, Hinton’s reach, at least in hyper-spatial terms, extended a bit further than that of either Abbott or Wells, for Hinton not only devoted much of his life to popularizing the fourth dimension but also influenced the other two men’s engagement with the subject.3 The son of renowned author, aural surgeon, and sexual revolutionary James Hinton,4 the younger Hinton was a character of Pynchonian proportions who cut a swashbuckling path across several continents. Following a bigamy conviction in England in 1886, Hinton fled to Japan with his original wife, Mary.5 After a spell as a middle-school teacher in Yokohama, Hinton made his way to the United States. He taught mathematics at Princeton University in the mid-1890s, and while there, invented a gunpowder-powered pitching machine, complete with curveball-generating mechanical fingers.6 It is unknown whether Hinton spent too much time on the ball diamond or committed, perhaps, another breach of conjugal decorum, but soon after unveiling his pitching machine, he was fired from his post at Princeton. An assistant professorship at the University of Minnesota followed, then stints in the US Naval Observatory (thanks, in all likelihood, to the famed astronomer and fan of the fourth dimension, Simon Newcomb), and a position in the patent office in Washington, DC. In a somewhat fitting and seemingly fictional fashion, Hinton dropped dead while attending a banquet in 1907, having just offered a toast to “female philosophers.”
Hinton embarked upon his career as “the chief populariser of the concept of the fourth dimension in English” with the publication of “What Is the Fourth Dimension?” in Dublin University Magazine in 1880 (Throesch, “Charles Howard Hinton” 29). The title of Hinton’s article, as Gibbons notes, “suggests that the term was already sufficiently in the air for people to be asking what it meant” (136). Granted, Dublin University Magazine may not have afforded Hinton the broad popular audience he later came to enjoy, but the essay was reprinted and widely circulated, first in the Cheltenham Ladies’ College Magazine (1883), then as a pamphlet with the sensational subtitle “Ghosts Explained” (1884), and finally as the lead piece in his famous collection, Scientific Romances (1886).
It is, in fact, the collection Scientific Romances that best illustrates Hinton’s methodologies and objectives in popularizing the fourth dimension. In the opening essay, for example, he operates analogously, describing various geometric constructions in two and three dimensions, and encouraging the reader to imagine the extension of such formulations into a fourth. The collection’s second piece, “The Persian King,” operates allegorically, an extended fable about thermodynamics masquerading as period Orientalism. The remaining three romances—“A Plane World,” “A Picture of Our Universe,” and “Casting out the Self”—are similarly disparate in their approaches, the final one a maddening mnemonic exercise involving the memorization of the relative positions of twenty-seven cubes arranged 3x3x3 to form a larger cube.7 Hinton’s approach, in short, is as fragmented as it is indirect, and Throesch convincingly argues that Hinton was less interested in the fourth dimension per se than he was in elevating human consciousness. “Hinton’s study of the fourth dimension,” she observes, “was concerned with phenomenology—how the mind senses and interprets phenomena—rather than a phenomenon in itself” (“Charles Howard Hinton” 31):
the fourth dimension, for Hinton, was a vehicle for expanding the possibilities of human perception, to offer new and different perspectives on the world. Like Maxwell’s demon, Hinton’s fourth dimension is a fiction born out of the desire to illustrate that the human mind formulates reality, and that reality is always open to other formulations. Like a science fiction writer who wishes to engender cognitive estrangement in his or her reader by constructing a scientifically plausible but fantastically alternate reality, Hinton attempts to allow his readers to “see” the fourth dimension by a variety of narrative strategies. (41; emphasis in original)
And, indeed, until his death in 1907, Hinton continued to develop perception-expanding narrative strategies that appeared not only as tracts and in popular periodicals of the day but were also gathered into book-length collections.8 Among his various narrative approaches to the fourth dimension, Hinton, it should be noted, also introduced the term tesseract to describe the fourth-dimensional analogue of the cube in A New Era of Thought (1888).9
The second significant popularizer of the Victorian fourth dimension was the scholar, clergyman, and educator Edwin Abbott Abbott, who, in 1884, pseudonymously published a one-off satire of nineteenth-century society set in a two-dimensional world. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions was an anomalous event in Abbott’s intellectual life. “To most Victorians,” Ian Stewart notes, “Abbott’s most important works were his theological and scholarly ones” (xviii). While Abbott’s obituaries and even his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography may have omitted Flatland entirely, it was, nonetheless, a significant contribution to popular fourth-dimensional discourse during his lifetime, and, perhaps ironically, the only one of his writings that is still well-known today.
The novella is told from the perspective of “A. Square,” a four-sided geometrical character who inhabits a two-dimensional world. Much of the book is devoted to describing the quirks of two-dimensional society—from the culture’s contempt for women to its absurd devotion to hierarchical designation. In addition to satirizing the follies and foibles of Victorian culture, however, the book expressly endeavors to introduce readers to the notion of a fourth dimension by way of an analogy. A. Square, whose only conception of the universe is two-dimensional, and who is physically confined to a planar existence, is visited by a three-dimensional Sphere, whose appearance in Flatland (that is to say, his intersection with the plane on which A. Square lives) is a “magic” circle, seemingly able to change size and disappear at will (by moving, that is, through the plane or out of it entirely). A. Square’s initial incredulity and inability to countenance a dimension that he cannot see is clearly meant to mirror the skeptical reaction of many Victorians, unwilling to consider the fourth dimension “real” so long as they were unable to verify it physically.10 Eventually, however, the Sphere peels A. Square off his plane, lifting him into the third dimension and enabling him to experience the third dimension directly.
A. Square’s reaction to his newfound perspective approaches a religious epiphany. Abbott’s satire is not altogether subtle, however, and immediately after A. Square’s revelation, the author quickly hammers the analogy home lest an unmindful reader somehow miss it:
O, my Lord, my Lord, behold, I cast myself in faith upon conjecture, not knowing the facts; and I appeal to your Lordship to confirm or deny my logical anticipations. If I am wrong, I yield, and will no longer demand a Fourth Dimension; but, if I am right, my Lord will listen to reason.
I ask therefore, is it, or is it not, the fact, that ere now your countrymen also have witnessed the descent of Beings of a higher order than their own, entering closed rooms, even as your Lordship entered mine, without the opening of doors or windows, and appearing and vanishing at will? On the reply to this question I am ready to stake everything. Deny it, and I am henceforth silent. Only vouchsafe an answer. (137)
The Sphere grudgingly admits that inhabitants of the three-dimensional world do, on occasion, hear tell of “Beings of a higher order,” but he is himself loath to sanction “the theory of a Fourth Dimension” (137). In many respects, Abbott’s Flatland operates as an extension of Hinton’s essay “What Is the Fourth Dimension?” Hinton introduces the concept of sentient geometric figures in a two-dimensional world; Abbott merely fleshes them out a bit, adds a narrative framework, and suffuses the whole with a satirical solution.11 As Stewart notes, Hinton not only “lays the groundwork for Abbott’s entire cast of characters,” but he also “set[s] up the same ‘dimensional analogy’ that informs the storyline of Flatland” (xxi-xxii). Abbott’s objectives also mirror those of Hinton. “The drive behind his development of this so-called hyper-space philosophy,” writes Throesch of Hinton, “is to disrupt nineteenth-century epistemology” (“Approaching New Spaces” 172). Likewise, Abbott, for all his mathematical affections (or affectations, perhaps), is also more interested in influencing Victorian cognition than he is in rigorously engaging non-Euclidian geometry.
It is safe to assume that the third significant popularizer of the Victorian fourth dimension, H.G. Wells, needs less of an introduction than either Hinton or Abbott. A relative latecomer to the fourth dimension, Wells nevertheless made an immediate and lasting impression with his proto-sf classic The Time Machine (1895). Just a few paragraphs in, the nameless “Time Traveller” explicates the novella’s famous novum:
“Clearly ... any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time.” (4; emphasis in original)
What is unique about Wells’s popular formulation is his temporalization of the fourth dimension. “Before Einstein and Minkowski’s work in the early 1900s,” Throesch notes, “the concept of the fourth dimension was primarily spatial, and was the result of the development of non-Euclidean geometry in the first half of the nineteenth century” (“Charles Howard Hinton” 29). Of course, a welter of wacky four-dimensional theories was circulating on the margins of popular discourse, as we shall briefly discuss in an upcoming section; Wells, however, had the foresight—or good fortune—to champion “a new idea in science—that the fourth dimension might also be viewed as time, not necessarily space” (Kaku 59).
In a preface written for a 1931 edition of The Time Machine, Wells revisited his groundbreaking popularization:
That one idea is now everybody’s idea. It was never the writer’s own peculiar idea. Other people were coming to it. It was begotten in the writer’s mind by students’ discussions in the laboratories and debating society of the Royal College of Science in the eighties and already it had been tried over in various forms by him before he made this particular application of it. It is the idea that Time is a fourth dimension and that the normal present is a three-dimensional section of a four-dimensional universe. (viii)
While the later work of Einstein and Minkowski may have validated Wells in certain quarters as some sort of sf prophet, Wells himself admits that he could not have done any more with the fourth dimension than he did. “I did not in the least know how to go on such an exploration,” Wells writes, for “I was not sufficiently educated in that field, and certainly a story was not the way to investigate further” (viii).12 In any event, Wells represents something of a turning point in popular discourse concerning the fourth dimension, a fulcrum positioned between spatial conceptions grounded in nineteenth-century geometry and the spatio-temporal theories of twentieth-century physics.
Writing Against the Day. Perhaps the most notable formal feature of Against the Day is its unrelenting and seemingly comprehensive pastiche of period popular fiction.13 While a complete account of the novel’s appropriations is beyond the scope of this essay, it warrants mention here if only to excuse an inability to summarize the book in any satisfactory manner.14 Granted, as Pynchon’s tomes go, Against the Day is fairly accessible; its relative linearity, however, is overwhelmed by the sheer weight of its several hundred characters and scores of plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots, all dexterously intercut and juxtaposed. At the center of it all, you might say, is anarchist bomber Webb Traverse and his four—the number looms large in Against the Day—children: Frank, Reef, Kit, and Lake. We follow the Traverse children across multiple continents— sometimes they traipse separately, sometimes their paths intersect—as they all attempt to come to terms with their father’s assassination. This would be enough material for an ordinary novel, but Against the Day is no ordinary novel. We have, in addition to the various generic episodes engendered by the Traverse family, a nod to just about every conceivable popular literary mode from the 1880s to the 1920s, including several engaging Edisonades featuring a band of intrepid boy aeronauts known as the Chums of Chance, a variety of Victorian detective tales starring Lew Basnight as a poor man’s Pinkerton turned psychical sleuth, and a couple of John Buchan-esque WWI-era spy thrillers thrown in for good measure. And that only scratches the surface of this 1085-page doorstop.
It should come as little surprise to any reader wading through the dime-novel dialogues and pulp-fiction plotlines that Pynchon might find reason to engage the fourth-dimensional discourses of Hinton, Abbott, and Wells. Their fictions, after all, are the representative hyper-spatial popularizations of the era Pynchon seeks to reproduce. Hinton, in particular, seems a figure of Pynchonian sensibilities, given to rejecting the narrative strategies of his day. “The juxtaposition of the varying texts contained within the Scientific Romances,” Throesch writes, “creates a dynamic that highlights the ‘gaps of indeterminacy’ in a way that is different from more traditional nineteenth-century literary texts” (“Charles Howard Hinton” 42). Pynchon, likewise, employs a fitful narrative strategy, hopping nimbly from storyline to storyline, from one recycled historical fragment to another. Moreover, Pynchon usually eschews traditional nineteenth-century literary texts in favor of more ephemeral forms of popular fiction, rendering the day not as historical hindsight might have it, but in the light—however contradictory, ill-considered, or irrational it might appear—of contemporaneous discourses.15
A reasonable place to begin might be with Pynchon’s “Trespassers,” mysterious interlopers who hover “off-screen,” as it seems, and, at two significant points in the novel, materialize briefly. On both occasions, the Trespassers interact with the Chums of Chance, the boy aeronauts who, in their airship Inconvenience, float above the proceedings for the majority of the story. In fact, Against the Day both opens and closes with a Chums episode, and their role in the novel is arguably second only to the travails of the Traverse family. The Chums, moreover, occupy a place of privilege in Against the Day, owing, as the narrator says, to their “dual citizenship in the realms of the quotidian and the ghostly” (256). As stylized storybook heroes—the novel mentions no fewer than eleven imaginary volumes of their adventures, including The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit and The Chums of Chance and the Caged Women of Yokohama—the Chums are pointedly more “fictional” than their earthbound brethren. As a result, the Chums’ interaction with surface dwellers is limited to special occasions—the aeronauts, for example, are permitted “ground-leave” at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, for “the great national celebration possessed the exact degree of fictitiousness to permit the boys access and agency” (36).
Despite this fictional figuration, the Chums possess a greater dimensionality than the novel’s “more realistic” groundlings. This is a playful inversion of traditional notions of characterization, where “flat” characters are taken to be cartoonish, underdeveloped, and two-dimensional, and “round” characters are regarded as realistic, dynamic, and three-dimensional. While the Chums may be dime-novel cut-outs, their dimensionality is instead informed by the Wellsian dictum quoted above: “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration” (Wells 4; emphasis in original). Granted, the Chums are pointedly not real bodies—much is made of their lack of duration, their seeming immunity to the flow of time. The narrator, at one point, explains that the Chums have “no retirement plan, in fact no retirement. Chums of Chance were expected to die on the job. Or else live forever, there being two schools of thought, actually” (254). What the Chums do have, however, is “thickness”—access, that is, to the sky, a kind of verticality denied the “flatlanders” over whom the Chums drift.16 As Miles Blundell, the Chums’ mess cook and resident metaphysician, in a rare English-speaking moment, articulates: “We went from two dimensions, infant’s floor-space, out into town- and map-space, ever toddling our way into the third dimension, till as Chums recruits we could take the fateful leap skyward” (427).
While Against the Day typically amalgamates its pilfered fragments, the groundlings-as-flatlanders conceit remains remarkably consistent throughout the novel.17 In the case of Abbott’s Flatland (and Hinton’s dimensional analogy on which it is based), two-dimensional creatures are only able to perceive three-dimensional beings that intersect their plane of existence. Likewise, two-dimensional groundlings in Against the Day are unable to see the three-dimensional Chums floating in space above them. The earthbound characters often have a vague awareness of the Chums’ presence, but little more than that, as the airship Inconvenience is “more conjectural than literal” when apprehended “from the ground” (255). Reef Traverse, for example, returning his father’s body for burial, brings “with him a dime novel, one of the Chums of Chance series, The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth,” which he reads by the light of the fire. After several nights of this, he finds “himself looking at the sky, as if trying to locate somewhere in it the great airship…. Sometimes, when the light was funny enough, he thought he saw something familiar. Never lasting more than a couple of watch ticks, but persistent” (214-15). Despite Reef’s conviction that the Chums are watching over him, however, the boys are all but invisible, for while their presence might be felt by those traversing the ground, the aeronauts’ access to a higher dimension ensures that they remain unseen.
Near the novel’s end, the Chums of Chance attend the annual convention of a group of balloonists known as the “Garçons de ’71”:
Everybody on the Inconvenience was invited. The festivities would be pursued not on the ground but above the City in a great though unseen gathering of skyships.
Their motto was “There, but Invisible.”
“The Boys call it the supranational idea,” explained Penny Black, wide-eyed and dewy as when she was a girl, recently promoted to admiral of a fleet of skyships after Bindlestiffs of the Blue had amalgamated with the Garçons de ‘71, “literally transcend the old political space, the map-space of two dimensions, by climbing into the third.” (1083)
Once again, we find the third dimension mapped onto the airspace above the earth’s surface, while the groundlings below are confined to a space defined only by—to use the Wellsian nomenclature—Length and Breadth. Given the constraints of their world, moreover, the two-dimensional surface dwellers are unable even to see the residents of “Spaceland” (as Abbott terms the universe of three dimensions) unless, by some, shall we say, deus ex machina, they are ripped from their plane and taken into space.18 Pynchon, in short, has co-opted the Hinton/Abbott dimensional conceit, replacing their geometric spheres with similarly shaped hot-air balloons, and peopling the earth’s surface with two-dimensional figures only slightly more variegated than those found in Flatland. And, as Hinton and Abbott use two-dimensional constructs in order to make apparent the notion of a fourth dimension, so too does Pynchon, who offers the Chums’ interaction with two-dimensional groundlings as part of a larger consideration of Victorian fourth-dimensionality.
The Chums’ first direct encounter with their fourth-dimensional counterparts, the Trespassers, occurs during the boys’ visit to Candlebrow University. Candlebrow, in the novel, serves as the site for “the First International Conference on Time-Travel, a topic,” the narrator notes, “suddenly respectable owing to the success of Mr. H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine, first published in 1895, a year often cited as a lower limit to the date of the first Conference” (407). It is at Candlebrow as well that the Chums, with Tom Swiftian enthusiasm, visit the municipal dump, a junkyard overflowing with discarded time machines (the description of which appears as this article’s epigraph). The most intriguing aspect of the Candlebrow episode, however, is the appearance of the Trespassers. These visitors from the fourth dimension are clearly an amalgam, hyper-spatial time travelers whose characteristics are borrowed and blended from a wide variety of period sources. One source that appears to have been in Pynchon’s purview is The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901), a collaboration between Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford that, to be charitable, has not aged particularly well. For the most part, The Inheritors is a thinly veiled political satire (although, at more than a century’s remove, its objectives are often a bit obscure). Given his well-documented interest in the Boer War (1898-1902), Pynchon may have been drawn to the piece for its satirization of Joseph Chamberlain, British Colonial Secretary from 1895 to 1903; it is, however, the novel’s “remarkably weird” opening—to quote Conrad himself (Collected Letters 234)—that seems to prefigure the Trespassers in Against the Day.
The Inheritors opens with an encounter between a writer named Granger and a visitor from the Fourth Dimension, a woman who provides Granger with a brief vision of “something beyond, something vaster—vaster than cathedrals, vaster than the conception of the gods to whom cathedrals were raised” (8). The visitor convinces Granger that he ought “to consider [himself] as relatively a Choctaw” (10), for as the colonizing Europeans had effaced the Native American culture, so too would the denizens of the Fourth Dimension “come in swarms” and “devour like locusts” (16). The appearance of the Trespassers in Against the Day is strikingly similar. Upon their arrival, Chum Chick Counterfly receives “a momentary vision of a ship’s passageway somewhere, perhaps inside a giant airship of the future, crowded with resurrected bodies of all ages” (413). The parallel vision of a vast quasi-religious beyond is further amplified by Chick’s interpretation of the arrival of the invaders from the Fourth Dimension, in which he uses the same Native American analogy employed in The Inheritors:
“So this is supposed to be like Squanto and the Pilgrims,” Chick reported to the plenary session called hurriedly the next morning. “We help them through their first winter, sort of thing.”
“And suppose it isn’t that,” said Randolph. “Suppose they’re not pilgrims but raiders, and there’s some particular resource here, that they’ve run out of and want to seize from us, and take back with them?”
“Food,” said Miles.
“Women,” suggested Darby.
“Lower entropy,” speculated Chick. “As a simple function of Time, their entropy level would be higher. Like rich folks taking mineral waters at some likely ‘spa.’”
“It’s our innocence,” proclaimed Lindsay, in an unaccustomedly distraught voice. “They have descended on our shores to hunt us down, capture our innocence, and take it away with them into futurity.” (416)
What, precisely, the Trespassers seek never becomes clear. Mr. Ace, the first four-dimensional figure whom the Chums meet, offers them “eternal youth” if they agree, as he puts it, “to accept a commission from us now and then—though, regrettably, with no more detailed explanation than you currently receive from your own Hierarchy” (415).
After their first encounter with the Trespassers, the crew of the Inconvenience begins “to find evidence of Trespass everywhere, some invisible narrative occupying, where it did not in fact define, the passage of the day” (418). The Chums, now disabused of the notion that they will live forever in an ageless present, experience immediate and comprehensive existential distress, and pause to spend a furlough as a harmonica marching band in what appears to be an alternate timeline. They recover their senses soon enough, however, and continue on as storybook heroes of the sky, though now susceptible to the ravages of time. As Miles Blundell puts it: “after all these years of sky-roving, maybe some of us are ready to step ‘sidewise’ once more, into the next dimension—into Time—our fate, our lord, our destroyer” (427).19
Several hundred pages later, the Chums reencounter the Trespassers. Miles Blundell descends from the Inconvenience for a more-or-less friendly chat with one Ryder Thorn, a Trespasser who was also apparently present at Candlebrow, but of whom no mention—at least, until this point—has been made.20 Following coffee and rolls at a patisserie in Belgium, a leisurely bicycle ride, and an impromptu ukulele jam session, Thorn shows Miles the fields of Flanders, ten years (or thereabouts) before they are to be strewn with “corpses by the uncounted thousands” (554).21 “Our people,” Thorn tells Miles, “know what will happen here ... and my assignment is to find out whether, and how much, yours know” (553). During this conversation, Miles instantly realizes that
there had been no miracle, no brilliant technical coup, in fact no “time travel” at all—that the presence in this world of Thorn and his people had been owing only to some chance blundering upon a shortcut through unknown topographies of Time, enabled somehow by whatever was to happen here, in this part of West Flanders where they stood, by whatever terrible singularity in the smooth flow of Time had opened to them.
“You are not here,” he whispered in speculative ecstasy. “Not fully manifest.”
“I wish I were not here,” cried Ryder Thorn. “I wish I had never seen those Halls of Night, that I were not cursed to return, and return. You have been so easy to fool—most of you anyway—you are such simpletons at the fair, gawking at your Wonders of Science, expecting as your entitlement all the Blessings of Progress, it is your faith, your pathetic balloon-boy faith.” (555)
The Chums’ encounter with visitors from the Fourth Dimension ultimately functions, then, as a Hintonian exercise, epistemological rather than ontological. The “fourth dimension” is not primarily interesting as a conjectural geometric hyper-space, or as a temporal medium traversed by some sort of Wellsian conveyance, but as a conceptual device (and hence Pynchon, evincing little interest in advocating for a particular fourth-dimensional figuration, commingles and combines). Throesch notes that the majority of Hinton’s work appears to ask a single question: “What if ... the bulk of human knowledge is based upon a misapprehension?” (“Charles Howard Hinton” 32). Pynchon borrows this approach—along with the fourth dimension—and proceeds to unmoor the Chums of Chance twice over: first, the boys are disabused of their delusions of everlasting youth, followed in close succession by the revelation that the denizens of the fourth dimension are not deific interlopers but rather are themselves denied all agency. These perceptual alterations largely serve to interrogate our own possible misapprehensions; we, too, are simpletons at the fair, gawking at the Wonders of Science, expecting as our entitlement all the Blessings of Progress; and Pynchon’s deft manipulation of Victorian fourth-dimensional discourse leads ultimately to a consideration of the role of bygone narratives in rendering our own present.
Other Fourth Dimensions. As “four-dimensional space became a distinctive element of the nineteenth century’s vocabulary” it also became “a conception that served a diverse set of ends” (Valente 124). Hinton, Abbott, and Wells, in other words, may have popularized hyper-space, but they were certainly not the only Victorians peddling additional dimensions. In his usual eclectic fashion, Pynchon incorporates a wide range of these dimensional alternatives into Against the Day, in effect surveying what Michio Kaku calls “the Golden Years of the Fourth Dimension” (62).22 In the rest of this section, I will offer a critical anatomy of Pynchon’s survey.
Spiritualism. The first, and arguably most pervasive, of these other hyper-spatial hypotheses proposes that the fourth dimension might provide a quasi-scientific explanation for paranormal phenomena, the existence of a spirit world, and perhaps even a human afterlife. That Hinton’s first scientific romance was subtitled “Ghosts Explained,” despite containing no references whatsoever either to ghosts or to a spirit realm, reflects the prevalence of popular conceptions of a spiritualist fourth dimension.23 Granted, such circulating discourses were neither consistent nor unified (a fact my single subheading may belie), but given late-Victorian interest in the occult, the fourth dimension soon began appearing in all manner of non-secular contexts.24 Hinton’s essays, in particular, were championed by noted Theosophist C.W. Leadbeater, while works by other “eminent scientists, such as The Unseen Universe, or Physical Speculations on a Future State (1875) by the physicists Balfour Stewart and Peter Guthrie Tait, became useful points of reference for Spiritualist proselytizers” (Valente 126). Arguably the most famous case of a fourth-dimensional intersection of spiritualism and science is the collaboration between American medium Henry Slade and German physicist Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner, who became convinced, upon witnessing Slade’s séances, that the charlatan could disentangle knots from the fourth dimension.25
In Against the Day, the spiritualist fourth dimension is most notably engaged by way of a mystical organization known as the True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys (a.k.a. T.W.I.T.), a neo-Pythagorean cabal of psychical detectives. After stints in Chicago and Colorado, Lew Basnight relocates to London and is adopted by these “devotees of the nut cutlet” (219). The T.W.I.T.’s entire operation is structured around contemplation of the tetractys, a four-tiered, triangular numerical set (arranged like an inverted set of bowling pins), the idea being “to look at the array of numbers as occupying not two dimensions but three, set in a regular tetrahedron—and then four dimensions, and so on, until you found yourself getting strange, which was taken to be a sign of impending enlightenment” (220). Not only does Pynchon use the T.W.I.T. to parody the mental gymnastics Hinton introduces in “Casting out the Self,” but the organization also serves as a send-up of the entire spectrum of dimensionally curious mystics, including “the Theosophical Society and its post-Blavatskian fragments, as well as the Society for Psychical Research, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and other arrangements for seekers of certitude” (217).26
Russian Dimensions. While the majority of the fourth-dimensional discourses heretofore discussed circulated primarily in Western Europe and the United States, the years immediately following the Victorian era saw a rise in Russian interest in hyper-spatial hypotheses. Ever the polymath, Pynchon manages several references to this particular phenomenon. At one point in Against the Day, for example, Kit Traverse is ambling down a Göttingen street “when out from behind a bush jump[s] a demented young man screaming ‘Tchetvyortoye Izmereniye! Tchetvyortoye Izmereniye!’” (616). Kit is completely perplexed, until his Russian-speaking companion, Yashmeen, deigns to explain:
“Fourth Dimension! … They’re all over the place lately. They call themselves ‘Otzovists.’ God-builders. A new subset of heretics, this time against Lenin and his Bolshevists—said to be anti-Materialist, devout readers of Mach and Ouspensky, immoderately focused on something they call ‘the fourth dimension.’ Whether Dr. Minkowski, or in fact any algebraist in the street, would recognize it as such is another matter. But they have been able with little effort to drive the Materialists in Geneva quite mental with it. Lenin himself is said to be writing a giant book now, attempting to refute the ‘fourth dimension,’ his position being, from what I can gather, that the Tsar can only be overthrown in three.” (616; emphasis in original)
The phraseology and particulars of the passage make it clear that Yashmeen’s mini-lecture was lifted—more or less wholesale, as Pynchon is often wont to do—from the third chapter of Michio Kaku’s Hyper-space: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension (1995). In that same chapter, Kaku credits the writings of P.D. Ouspensky as being primarily responsible for the introduction of the fourth dimension into Russian intellectual discourse, and Ouspensky, thereby, as having an influence on everything from the Brothers Karamazov to the Bolshevik Revolution. Pynchon, for his part, cannot resist a time-travel joke, presumably directed at a handful of date-obsessed history buffs: “By 1906,” he writes of Göttingen, “there were Russians everywhere, and many brought copies of young Ouspensky’s book The Fourth Dimension” (602); young Ouspensky’s book, it turns out, was not published until 1909.27
Modern Art. If Hinton can be considered the foremost popularizer of the fourth dimension during the later decades of the nineteenth century, Ouspensky seems to have assumed the mantle, to a certain extent, during the early decades of the twentieth. A key figure in linking the three realms briefly considered in this section—the spiritualist, the Russian, and the artistic—Ouspensky’s fourth-dimensional treatises had far-reaching effects. In addition to influencing the Russian Futurists, for example, Ouspensky’s second book, Tertium Organum (1911), was translated into English by a progressive architect and “authority on the fourth dimension,” Claude Bragdon (Massey 135). For whatever reason, the fourth dimension reached the artistic world a bit later than it did other intellectual communities, “thirty years and more after the professional scientists had put the idea into general circulation” (Gibbons 139).28 In the first several decades of the twentieth century, however, the fourth dimension, or various synthetic conceptualizations thereof, had a marked role in the development and theorization of artistic movements from cubism to surrealism.29 “To the avant garde,” notes Kaku, “the fourth dimension symbolized revolt against the excesses of capitalism. They saw its oppressive positivism and vulgar materialism as stifling creative expression” (62-63).
In Against the Day, Pynchon renders the artistic fourth dimension in precisely such a fashion. A fictional Italian divisionist named Andrea Tancredi, whose “paintings were like explosions,” (585) is in sympathy “with Marinetti and those around him who were beginning to describe themselves as ‘Futurists,’ but failed to share their attraction to the varieties of American brutalism. Americans, in fact, seemed greatly to annoy him, particularly the millionaires lately dedicated to coming over and looting Italian art” (584). Tancredi’s annoyance with American capitalism soon blossoms into a violent revulsion, and the artist turns from painting futuristic fourth-dimensional conveyances (recognized, incidentally, by one of the novel’s time travelers as versions of the vehicle that had deposited him in the novel’s “present”) to building what he calls “an Infernal Machine” (585; emphasis in original). The device, ostensibly some fourth-dimensional weapon, is invisible to the novel’s earthbound characters, giving “off a light and heat Tancredi alone could sense” (742). Once he has completed his infernal machine, Tancredi attempts to use it on the novel’s evil arch-capitalist, Scarsdale Vibe, in the hopes that it “would bring Vibe down and, some distant day, the order Vibe expresses most completely and hatefully” (742). Vibe’s henchmen, however, gun Tancredi down as he approaches, and, as the narrative camera pulls away from the scene, we find the robber baron frantically goading his hired guns to desecrate the corpse: “Make sure you damage the face, fellows. Battli! battli la faccia, yes? Destroy it. Give the little shitass’s Mamma something to cry about” (743). As with czars, Pynchon seems to suggest, capitalists can only be contested in three dimensions.
Conclusion. In the preceding sections, my consideration of hyper-spatial hypotheses largely excludes two crucial domains: nineteenth-century advances in non-Euclidean geometry and twentieth-century developments in quantum physics. Against the Day includes them both, and in spades: from Riemann’s zeta function to Minkowski’s spacetime to Einstein’s relativity, the narratives of “hard science” appear alongside the implausible, the irrational, and the downright fraudulent. Pynchon, as I suggest above, displays what Sterling calls a “cavalier attitude toward ‘material’” characteristic of slipstream writing, freely intermingling ostensibly incompatible narratives of the fourth dimension. In one fitting example of such commingling, a debate between two characters over a solution to the Riemann problem ends with one of them exiting the room through a solid wall (592). Science, in other words, is far from sacrosanct. And while the text may emphasize the political inefficacy of an artist’s rendition of the fourth dimension, or question the motives of snake-oil spiritualists peddling access to a dimensional beyond, it also critiques the pathetic balloon-boy faith of technophiles and positivists. In Against the Day, circulating discourses are not measured by their veracity or verifiability; they are weighed according to their effects.
In his 1998 polemic “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction,” Jonathan Lethem imagines an alternate past in which Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow wins the Nebula Award, “the highest honor available in the field once known as ‘science fiction’—a term now mostly forgotten.” In the world Lethem hypothesizes, the sf establishment embraces slipstream (though Lethem does not use the term explicitly), and the sf genre itself “is gently and lovingly dismantled.” From Lethem’s perspective, this development would have had a number of positive repercussions. First, we might have avoided the re-ascendance of balloon-boy narratives—the “cartoonified” and “deeply nostalgic” fiction typified, in Lethem’s estimation, “by those three savants of children’s literature”: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and J.R.R. Tolkien. This may well have allowed readers to “graduate from a craving for fictions that flatter and indulge their fantasies to that appetite for fictions that provoke, disturb, and complicate through a manipulation of those same narrative cravings.” Moreover, and most importantly for Lethem, the embrace of slipstream would have released “a ragged handful of heroically enduring and ambitious speculative fabulators” to “the rocky realms of midlist, out-of-category fiction.”
Gravity’s Rainbow, of course, did not win the Nebula, nor has slipstream yet found favor with an extensive readership. Pynchon’s recent novels, however, continue to offer the prospect of a slipstream alternative, as did his early ones: V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow all appeared on the “slipstream list” included with Sterling’s original essay. If we take Against the Day as exemplary slipstream, then, perhaps the novel itself allows us to enrich the genre’s working definition; in short, an additional manner of characterizing slipstream might be to conceive of it as a matter of narrative dimensionality. In Constructing Postmodernism (1992), Brian McHale, following Fredric Jameson, juxtaposes sf and historical fiction, noting that sf “accomplishes for our imaginations the sorts of things that historical fiction once used to accomplish; in particular, it helps us historicize our present by reimagining it as the past of a determinate future, just as historical fiction once helped us in a similar way by reimagining the present as the future of a determinate past” (238-39; emphases in original). Pynchon does not merely make both alternatives “occupy the same textual space,” a feat for which McHale praises Sterling’s and William Gibson’s 1990 novel The Difference Engine (239; emphasis in original). Rather, Against the Day helps us historicize our present by reimagining it as the future of a determinate past’s determinate future—a tangle that at first may seem as difficult to unravel as one of Zöllner’s knots. We need not rely on the charlatan Slade, however, for the novel itself contains characters with access to a higher dimensionality: the Trespassers, who, as virtual slipstreamers, intervene to show the limits of a number of period discourses. Despite this fact, the future the Trespassers inhabit is both determinate and past—they are limited, confined, and, as Ryder Thorn hisses, “have no choice” (554). As characters from a “higher” or more “contemporary” narrative dimension, however, the Trespassers function as an embedded ironic device, a rent in the narrative fabric that short-circuits both discursive presuppositions and also period discourse, holding out promise against “the day and its dread” (86).
1. Bruce Sterling’s essay “Slipstream” originally appeared in the fanzine SF Eye in 1989. All quotations herein are from an online version and are thus unpaginated.
2. In the preface to their anthology Steampunk, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer “highly recommend Thomas Pynchon’s recent steampunk homage, Against the Day” (ix-x). Characterizing Pynchon’s Victorian excavations as an homage to a late twentieth-century genre is a dubious proposition; it should be noted, however, that Pynchon’s retrofuturism is, in many respects, coterminous with a steampunk aesthetic.
3. For consideration of the connections between Hinton and Abbott, see Banchoff and Stewart. Wells, meanwhile, owes a debt to Hinton not so much for the figuration of the fourth dimension in The Time Machine (1895) as for the term “scientific romance,” which appears to have originated with Hinton: see Hinton, Scientific Romances, and Stableford (5).
4. The elder Hinton, who despised the ideal of the “passionless woman” and advocated for female sexual pleasure, was reportedly fond of remarking, “Christ was the Savior of men, but I am the savior of women, and I don’t envy Him a bit!” (qtd. Rucker, Fourth Dimension 64).
5. Mary Hinton, née Boole, was the daughter of logician George Boole, the creator of “Boolean logic” so important to the field of computer science.
6. For a contemporary account of the device, see Hinton’s article, “A Mechanical Pitcher.” The pitching cannon was evidently a minor celebrity in its own right, performing before luminaries and starring in a number of exhibitions. In an obituary for Hinton, Gelett Burgess recounts an elaborate prank staged during one demonstration of the device. Hinton was interrupted by a planted postman, and, protesting the disruption vociferously, proceeded to read aloud the message that was so urgent it had to be delivered mid-lecture. The students in the lecture hall amusedly assumed someone was pranking their professor, but discovered the joke to be on them halfway through the missive, which included an account of a baseball game played in 1950. As Rudy Rucker notes in his introduction to Speculations on the Fourth Dimension, “[t]here is something magically apt in this story of Hinton, the student of spacetime, seeming to receive a message from the future” (xiii).
7. The exercise presented in “Casting out the Self” is something of a dumbed-down version, Hinton claims, of the one he himself mastered. Hinton’s supersized cube was 36x36x36, and he memorized, he alleges, the relative positions of all 46,656 cubes: “Each of the cubes was an inch each way, and I learnt a cubic yard of them. That is to say, when the name of any cube was said, I could tell at once those which it lay next to; and if a set of names were said, I could tell at once what shape composed of cubes was denoted. There were 216 primary names, and those, taken in pairs, were enough to name the cubic yard” (Scientific Romances 207).
8. Hinton produced four additional scientific romances, “The Education of the Imagination,” “Many Dimensions,” “Stella,” and “An Unfinished Communication,” which were bundled into the volume Scientific Romances, Second Series (1896).
9. Hinton’s tesseract most famously appears in Salvador Dalí’s 1954 painting Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus).
10. Indeed, even Abbott’s dedication lays bare this objective: “To / The Inhabitants of SPACE IN GENERAL / And H.C. IN PARTICULAR / This Work is Dedicated / By a Humble Native of Flatland / In the Hope that / Even as he was Initiated into the Mysteries / Of THREE Dimensions / Having been previously conversant / With ONLY TWO / So the Citizens of that Celestial Region / May aspire yet higher and higher / To the Secrets of FOUR FIVE OR EVEN SIX Dimensions / Thereby contributing / To the Enlargement of THE IMAGINATION / And the possible Development / Of that most rare and excellent Gift of MODESTY / Among the Superior Races / Of SOLID HUMANITY” (v; font as in original).
11. Consider this brief snippet from Hinton’s essay “What is the Fourth Dimension?”: Suppose a being confined to a plane superficies, and throughout all the range of its experience never to have moved up or down, but simply to have kept to this one plane. Suppose, that is, some figure, such as a circle or rectangle, to be endowed with the power of perception; such a being if it moves in the plane superficies in which it is drawn, will move in a multitude of directions; but, however varied they may seem to be, these directions will all be compounded of two, at right angles to each other. By no movement so long as the plane superficies remains perfectly horizontal, will this being move in the direction we call up and down. And it is important to notice that the plane would be different to a creature confined to it, from what it is to us. We think of a plane habitually as having an upper and a lower side, because it is only by the contact of solids that we realize a plane. But a creature which had been confined to a plane during its whole existence would have no idea of there being two sides to the plane he lived in. In a plane there is simply length and breadth. If a creature in it be supposed to know of an up or down he must already have gone out of the plane. (Scientific Romances 6-7).
12. With the latter assertion at least, readers of this journal may beg to differ.
13. By claiming that Against the Day engages in a comprehensive pastiche of period popular fiction, I should say that I am not employing Fredric Jameson’s famous definition of pastiche as “blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs” (17). Jameson condemns pastiche as ahistorical imitation that “randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the ... styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles” (18-19). Instead, I mean to suggest that the novel is a pastiche in the popular sense of the word: a stylistic amalgam (or, as the OED would have it, “[a] novel, poem, painting, etc., incorporating several different styles, or made up of parts drawn from a variety of sources”). Furthermore, Against the Day often pays homage to the popular fictions it recycles, another hallmark of pastiche (at least as it is commonly understood). Granted, the characterization is not quite so simple: not only do Pynchon’s recyclings range from reverential recastings to mocking caricatures, but scholars have defined “pastiche” and “parody” in a host of contradictory fashions. Situating the novel within the larger debates over pastiche and parody is beyond the scope of this essay, but interested readers might begin with the careful critical analyses of these genres found in Hutcheon and Hoesterey.
14. For broad overviews of the novel’s generic borrowings, see Clute, and McHale, “Genre as History.”
15. As if to expose the novel’s narrative sensibilities from the outset (not to mention its political overtones), Pynchon, on page 6, has a dog—yes, the furry, four-legged variety—reading Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886).
16. The ever-punning Pynchon makes light of the Wellsian word choice in one chummy exchange. The boys, arguing over a previous mission nearly gone awry, manage to turn a thickness-as-the-third-dimension/thickness-as-chummy-conduct pun into a chubby penis joke (to say nothing of the dementia-nal/dimensional wordplay that follows): “A somewhat hollow pronouncement, given the all-too-predictable thickness of association between you and Counterfly.”
“You want thick?” snarled Darby, “Here, try this.”
“Our operating altitude,” Chick endeavored to explain, “and the presence of unknown volcanic gasses, may have affected my judgment then, it’s true. But this time I intend to remain on the ground, with no dimensional issues.”
“Except for the Fourth, of course,” warned Miles Blundell, his voice solemn as if issuing from mortal distances. (411)
17. Even the notion of “time travel” in Against the Day is remarkably catholic. Dalsgaard convincingly argues that Pynchon includes three different modes of time travel in the novel: orthogonal travel (that is, a departure at a 90-degree angle from time as we know it); travel facilitated by way of curved, rotating, or circular time; and multiversal travel across alternate realities.
18. Early in Against the Day, the detective Lew Basnight is taken aboard the Inconvenience to surveil anarchist activity in Chicago. In many respects this episode replicates the experience of A. Square in Abbott’s Flatland, plucked from his planar existence and lifted into the third dimension to gaze back at his world below. Lew’s two-dimensionality, moreover, is emphasized by way of a denial of his “Duration.” His past—apparently notorious—is a mystery to him: “all he could produce was this peculiar haze” (37). On being taken aboard the Inconvenience, Lew is flummoxed by the mere existence of the Chums, of whom he has never heard. The narrative, meanwhile, immediately disappears down a rabbit hole: instead of a description of the surveillance flight, we are shown Lew wandering around some alternate—fourth-dimensional, I would argue—“Chicago.” This new dimension is “like the world he had left but differing in particulars which were not slow to reveal themselves” and Lew soon finds himself ensconced in an Escheresque, geometrically impossible approximation of a hotel (38). Lew, the narrator tells us, has “learned to step to the side of the day” (44). Later in the novel, Lt. Dwight Prance is also taken aboard the Inconvenience “and on to an uncertain fate” (787). This ascension to three-dimensionality follows an access of enlightenment brought about by the Siberian Tunguska explosion of 1908, which leads Prance to ponder the dimensional limits of his earthly life. Like Lew, Prance begins as a “flat” generic stereotype—the British adventurer-spy à la Kipling or Buchan—only to be “raised” to a higher level by a transformative experience, a transfiguration literally reflected in his elevation into the Chums’ airship. The only other “groundling” to travel with the Chums is Professor Heino Vanderjuice, whose ongoing mathematical studies of dimensionality apparently grant him free passage.
19. This passage may include a nod to Murray Leinster’s early alternate-history tale “Sidewise in Time” (1934), in which a mathematician predicts an imminent temporal apocalypse that will cause various areas of the earth’s surface to be displaced onto disjunct historical timelines. The annual awards given, since 1995, for the best works (long- and short-form) of alternate history are dubbed the Sidewise Awards in honor of Leinster’s story.
20. This tête–à–tête between the three-dimensional Miles Blundell and the four-dimensional Ryder Thorn occurs, it should be noted, on neutral two-dimensional “map-space.” The location, moreover—the topographically challenged Low Countries, one of the flattest areas on Earth—is an apt continuation of the ongoing groundlings-as-flatlanders trope discussed above. To this the narrator calls specific attention, immediately noting that: “The terrain was flat, easy cycling, allowing for speeds of up to twenty miles an hour” (553).
21. Whether this reflects their relative ages and/or dimensionality, or is merely some vagary of the novelist’s ear, Miles Blundell’s first name and Ryder Thorn’s last are used consistently throughout the episode.
22. While Kaku considers the fourth dimension’s “Golden Years” to extend from 1890 to 1910, a period that includes the Edwardian era, the twenty-year span from 1880 to 1900 might just as easily bear the mantle. Interest in the fourth dimension, however, continued beyond its heyday, surfacing notably in pulp sf of the 1920s and 1930s. While most of the generic source material woven into Against the Day is contemporaneous with the ostensible historical setting, Pynchon, as anyone who has read him can attest, is undaunted by anachronism. For example, one of the episodes in the novel, the so-called Vormance Expedition, is, as many reviewers noted, largely a reworking of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness (1936), pulp fiction that postdates the action of Against the Day by more than a decade. The relevant episode in Against the Day, which slips into the typically Lovecraftian first-person narration of a horrified diarist, describes an Arctic expedition, the discovery and excavation of a mysterious creature, and ultimately the ruination of what would appear to be an alternate “New York City.” I would argue that we are to read this mysterious creature as fourth-dimensional and that Nelson Bond’s short story “The Monster from Nowhere” (1935) is also a likely source for Pynchon’s pastiche. In “The Monster from Nowhere,” a fourth-dimensional creature is captured on an expedition by an explorer familiar (it would appear) with Abbott’s novella Flatland. The three-dimensional explorer, thinking analogously, traps the partially manifest creature with an iron spike, as a flatlander might trap a human finger inserted into its two-dimensional world. In Against the Day, the diarist’s reflection on the failed expedition may well have been lifted directly from Bond’s short story: Perhaps in their haste to be rid of us, they had missed seeing, as had we, how imperfectly contained the object really was. As if it were the embodiment of a newly-discovered ‘field’ as yet only roughly calculated, there lay our original sin—the repeated failure, back there up north, to determine the distribution of its weight in ordinary space, which should have offered a strong hint, to any of us willing to devote a moment’s thought, that some fraction of the total must have escaped confinement. (145; emphasis in original)
23. Of the prominent popularizers, Hinton was not alone in his flirtations with the supernatural. The aforementioned Simon Newcomb, despite his rigorously mathematical approach to the fourth dimension, repeatedly referred to hyper-space as “the fairyland of geometry.” Such characterizations, which appeared in mainstream periodicals including Science and Harper’s Monthly Magazine, both reflected and perpetuated popular associations between the fourth dimension and the paranormal (see Newcomb, “Fairyland” and “Philosophy”). Edwin Abbott Abbott, meanwhile, as an Anglican cleric, had a slightly different approach to the supernatural, and, while most critics only find social satire in Flatland, Banchoff does argue that it can be read as “theological fiction” (369).
24. Valente claims that Spiritualism “was then distinguishable from both liberal trends within Christianity and the esoteric mysticism of Theosophy” (125). While I have no quibble with Valente’s assertion, I have conflated the three herein as a single “realm,” an expediency that reflects the liberal comminglings of Against the Day.
25. The third volume of Zöllner’s Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen [Scientific Papers], published in 1879, which details the Slade “experiments,” was translated into English by Charles Carleton Massey as Transcendental Physics in 1880 and reprinted numerous times during the ensuing decades. For a discussion of Zöllner and Slade in the context of German Spiritualist discourses, see Treitel.
26. In one notable scene, Lew Basnight and the T.W.I.T.’s “Grand Cohen” attend a séance presided over by a Spiritualist named Madame Eskimoff. The Grand Cohen, at the séance’s end, launches into a fanciful speculation on the nature of the Victorian age, gleefully commingling a number of hyper-spatial hypotheses to suggest that the “real” Queen Victoria may be elsewhere, held captive in a lateral world “impervious to the passage of Time in all its forms,” while the Queen Vic in our dimension is merely “a sort of ghostly stand-in” (231). The classic study of the diverse Spiritualist movements in turn-of-the-century Britain is Oppenheim; there is also excellent discussion of the Society for Psychical Research and its influence on late-Victorian Gothic literature in Luckhurst (181-213). Ashley offers an exhaustive anatomy of the psychic detective in popular fiction, much of which Pynchon undoubtedly digested in order to generate his satirical portrait of the T.W.I.T.; the most famous of these figures was Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, a character who first appeared in an eponymous 1908 collection of stories. Blackwood himself was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a qabalistic sect interested in diverse magical practices that was founded in 1887 and whose membership also included Arnold Bennett, Aleister Crowley, E. Nesbit, and William Butler Yeats.
27. For more on the publication of Ouspensky’s The Fourth Dimension, see footnote 35 in “Transcending the Present: The Fourth Dimension in the Philosophy of Ouspensky and in Russian Futurism and Suprematism,” which is the fifth chapter in Henderson. Incidentally, given Against the Day’s other future technologies (i.e., the space-age cigarette lighter that Chum Chick Counterfly unaccountably possesses ) and future terminologies (i.e., the word “nooky,” which one Chum uses, another finds unfamiliar, and a third prophesies will remain unfamiliar “until the year 1925 or thereabouts” ), the issue of young Ouspensky’s book appearing three years early is almost certain to be a playfully intentional anachronism.
28. Gibbons offers an “extremely general explanation for the long delay,” suggesting that it took “the optimistic dawn of a new century” for “the artistic possibilities of the Fourth Dimension” to make themselves apparent (139). “[I]n other words,” he writes, the utility of the fourth dimension to the arts required “early twentieth-century ideological synthesis” and it “was not until about 1910” that the fourth dimension “could be equated with the new ‘cosmic consciousness’ and ‘placed’ in an artistically and philosophically productive context” (139). More specifically, he suggests that fin-de-siècle scientific advances (i.e., the development of x-ray technology and the discovery of radium, both of which were “explained” as having fourth-dimensional properties) caught the fancy of the art world and fomented an artistic investigation into already circulating fourth-dimensional discourses.
29. For a discussion of the influence of fourth-dimensional theorizing on modernist artistic practices, see Henderson’s landmark study. See also Perloff (127-28) for an analysis of Ouspensky’s influence on the Futurists in particular.
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