Science Fiction Studies

#82 = Volume 27, Part 3 = November 2000


The “True Riddle of the Sphinx” in The Time Machine. Numerous scholars have debated the significance of H.G. Wells’s Sphinx. Edward Shanks prefers mythic to allegorical readings of Wells’s early romances, especially The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau: “whereas an allegory bears a single and definite interpretation, a myth does not, but can be interpreted in many ways, none of them quite consistent, all of them more alive and fruitful than the rigid allegorical correspondence”(qtd. in Bergonzi 42). Recent scholars have largely approached The Time Machine as a myth, and the mythic image of the White Sphinx has inspired interesting scholarly discussions of its meaning and Wells’s reasons for using the image.1               

Most obviously, it derives from the Sphinx of the Oedipus myth. As David Ketterer notes, “The presence of the Sphinx suggests that, like Oedipus, the Time Traveller must solve a riddle” (340).The original riddle of the Sphinx centers on an analogy between a solar day and the duration of an individual human life: in the morning or infancy, man “walks” (crawls) on four legs; at mid-day or adulthood, on two legs; and in the evening, or old age, on three (using a cane). One way to interpret the Sphinx in The Time Machine is to extend this analogy to human evolution, as David Lake does when he argues that because the “rise and fall of Man” is the primary subject of the novella, the Sphinx, “this leprous, crumbling sphinx,” “represents the ‘three-legged’ stage, the decay of Man in the future world” (78). Yet one could argue upon good textual evidence that in this story the day of Man has ended, the individual has died, and Man is already extinct. As the Time Traveller remarks, “even the mere memory of Man as I knew him had been swept out of existence” (71).                

Frank Scafella also mentions the connection between the White Sphinx and the Sphinx of the Oedipus myth: “The Time Machine must be a variation of Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx on the road to Thebes” (255). Scafella’s primary concern, however, is with the connection between the Sphinx and science: he cites Sir Francis Bacon’s essay on the Sphinx (printed in De Sapienta Veterum Liber [1609]). Bacon, he notes, links the Sphinx to science; the riddle is thus essentially an inquiry about the nature of knowledge. Given this link between the Sphinx and science or epistemology, Scafella argues “certain parallels between that fable [i.e., the Oedipus myth] and the Time Traveller’s adventures are direct and highly suggestive of the emergence, establishment, and predicament of the scientist in the modern world” (255). Scafella’s is a valuable addition to the discussion concerning the Sphinx: playing Wells off against Bacon, he has augmented critical appreciation of The Time Machine as a scientific romance (256).                

Leon Stover, in his critical edition of The Time Machine, argues that the White Sphinx represents the Sphinx of Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present. Borrowing from two related sections in “The Sphinx”—Chapter 4 of Past and Present—Stover defines the riddle of the Sphinx as the

immense problem of Organizing Labour, first of all Managing the Working Classes, [which] will, it is very clear, have to be solved by those that stand practically in the middle of it; by those who themselves work and preside over work.” This “‘Organization of Labour’ is, if well understood, the Problem of the whole Future, for all men” who in future pretend to govern men. (3)

So while Stover’s reading is consistent with an interpretation of Wells’s novel that is often made—Wells emphasizes the class division and labor problems facing Victorian England—he identifies an alternative source for Wells’s Sphinx in Thomas Carlyle. 

Two other Wells scholars have briefly considered the significance of the Sphinx. David C. Smith remarks upon the Sphinx “statue,” parenthetically describing it as evoking “a sort of Ozymandias motif” (59). And Bernard Bergonzi has alluded to the use of the Sphinx as a familiar and popular image of Wells’s day. But while Bergonzi correctly points out that the Sphinx “was a familiar object in fin-de-siècle iconography”—citing Oscar Wilde’s poem “The Sphinx” (1894) and other works to support his claim—he relegates his discussion to a brief note, ignoring other possible sources for the White Sphinx (Bergonzi 1961, 217 note 43).

If David Lake is correct when he observes “This Sphinx really does dominate the story,” he is also right to argue that “Bergonzi’s interpretation of [the Sphinx] as a typical fin-de-siècle motif is insufficient” (77). I agree that, although the Sphinx has been the central topic of scholars writing from a variety of critical perspectives, the discussion remains incomplete.

I believe that scholars have overlooked one important source for Wells’s sinister and ominous image: a passage from T.H. Huxley’s “The Struggle for Existence: A Programme.” The influence of Huxley on Wells’s philosophical outlook, especially as it concerns evolution, is well known—as Patrick Parrinder says: “if Huxley was the classical philosopher of evolution, his pupil was its romantic poet” (18). And David C. Smith, arguing upon good evidence that The Time Machine “was written for T.H. Huxley,” states that Wells’s intent “was putting evolutionary theory into fictional practice” (48).2                

In my reading, the influence of Huxley can be seen quite specifically in Wells’s  Sphinx: Wells echoes a passage in Huxley’s article that more directly bears on Wells’s choice of this image than the Oedipus myth, Carlyle’s Past and Present, or Bacon’s “Sphinx; or Science.” After arguing that the object of society is to limit the “struggle of existence,” Huxley writes that

however shocking to the moral sense this eternal competition of man against man and of nation against nation may be; however revolting may be the accumulation of misery at the negative pole of society, in contrast with that of monstrous wealth at the positive pole; this state of things must abide, and grow continually worse, so long as Istar holds her way unchecked. It is the true riddle of the Sphinx; and every nation which does not solve it will sooner or later be devoured by the monster itself has generated.3 (169)

Huxley, “classical philosopher of evolution,” redefines for his former student “the true riddle of the Sphinx,” which has not yet been solved. Indeed,ignoring the riddle, the descendants of the Victorian Capitalists as Wells imagines them, the Eloi, are devoured by the Morlocks, the laboring monster that Victorian society has generated.      

For Wells, the “true riddle of the Sphinx” is reducible to the following question: “How can man be stirred out of his complacency?” A clue to Wells’s answer can be found in comparing another passage from “The Struggle for Existence” to The Time Machine. Huxley writes that “Pessimism is as little consonant with the facts of sentient existence as optimism” (164). The Time Traveller is too much of a pessimist, and so he appropriately disappears entirely from the universe of the story, probably to look for the Golden Age in some remote past era. The anonymous narrator, on the other hand, is too optimistic. His response to the Time Traveller’s conclusion that human civilization will eventually destroy itself is pitifully inadequate: “it remains for us to live as though it were not [true]” (90). Indeed, in my reading of The Time Machine, the narrator represents the widespread optimistic complacency that Wells would spend the rest of his life denouncing.                

Identifying Huxley’s “Struggle for Existence” as a direct source for Wells’s White Sphinx in The Time Machine enriches our understanding of his scientific romance and reinforces one common interpretation of the meaning of the Sphinx—it prompts the Time Traveller to speculate that the degenerate Eloi and Morlocks have evolved from the capitalist and laboring classes. Certainly the White Sphinx is a futuristic revision of the Sphinx of the Oedipus myth, and its connections to Bacon’s and Carlyle’s Sphinxes of science and the problem of organizing labor, respectively, are important. But the most direct and significant source for the Sphinx comes from Wells’s teacher and mentor, Thomas H. Huxley.—John S. Prince, Ball State University

                1. See Bernard Bergonzi, “From The Chronic Argonauts to The Time Machine,” in The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances (Manchester: U of Manchester P, 1961) 23-61, and a revision of this chapter, “The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth,” in H.G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1976) 39-55. See also Robert J. Begiebing, “The Mythic Hero in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine,” Essays in Literature 11 (1984): 201-10.
                2. Smith cites a brief letter from Wells to Huxley, dated May 1895, which Wells sent to Huxley, enclosing a copy of The Time Machine. Huxley saved the letter and it can be found in Huxley Papers–General, Vol. 28, Imperial College of Science, London, 233-34. The letter is reprinted (as letter 224) in David C. Smith, ed., The Correspondence of H. G. Wells, Vol. 1. (London: Pickering, 1998), 238.
                3. The Goddess Istar, with her “terrible aspect” (164), represents Nature as a cruel and malevolent force. Huxley incorporates this ancient mythical image to stand for the view of Nature espoused by nineteenth-century Naturalism. Nature and civilization are at odds with one another, and the “struggle” resulting from the class division between capital and labor only helps to advance Istar’s agenda, to the detriment of human civilization.

Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H.G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances. Manchester: U of Manchester P, 1961.
Huxley, T.H.“The Struggle for Existence: A Programme.” The Nineteenth Century 23 (Feb 1888): 161-80.
Ketterer, David. “Oedipus as Time Traveller.” SFS 9.3 (November 1982): 340-41.
Lake, David J. “The White Sphinx and the Whitened Lemur: Images of Death in The Time Machine.” SFS 6.1 (March 1979): 77-84.
Parrinder, Parrinder. “The Time Machine: H.G. Wells’s Journey Through Death.” The Wellsian 4 (1981): 15-23.
Scafella, Frank. “The White Sphinx and The Time Machine.” SFS 8.3 (November 1981): 255-65.
Smith, David C. H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.
Stover, Leon, ed. The Time Machine: An Invention: A Critical Text of the 1895 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1986.
Wells, H.G. The Definitive TIME MACHINE, ed. Harry M. Geduld. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Report from a Grand Master. I have just returned from New York. There  I received the title Grand Master of Science Fiction. The awarding authority is SFWA—the Science Fiction Writers of America. Every year, as you know, voting takes place for various literary awards: best novel, best short story, best media presentation, and so on. Occasionally other awards are made, as was the case this year. On Saturday May 20th, Daniel Keyes was instituted as Writer Emeritus, and I was elected Grand Master. I heard there was some intensive lobbying for this title by other writers. If so, they were disappointed. I knew nothing about the vote until the decision was carried.      

The awards ceremony was held at a banquet at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Times Square, New York: five hundred people attended, including writers, publishers, editors, media guys, and literary agents. The speeches were more intellectual, more amusing, more full of a good-humored family feeling than is customary at similar gatherings. Presiding over the event were Paul Levinson, President of SFWA, and Scott Edelman, until recently Editor of Science Fiction Age.                

I am only the second British writer to receive this award, the first being Arthur C. Clarke. Initially, I felt myself to be undeserving of the honor. However, after some soul-searching, I came up with a number of  exculpations for my presumption in accepting. Among my qualifications are the following: I am the only writer to have sold short stories to both Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. I have been telling stories for 65 years. (In my acceptance speech, I recounted how I had begun as an oral story-teller when a small boy at school.) For evidence of this long continuance, David Aronovitz of Rochester, MI, has just published in a limited edition a story I wrote at the age of thirteen entitled “The Rain Must Stop,” complete with my original four color illustrations and a photo (David Aronovitz, 701 E.Snell Road, Rochester, MI 48306). Among my best-known novels are Non-Stop, Hothouse, Greybeard, Report on Probability A, The Helliconia Trilogy, and Somewhere East of Life. Frankenstein Unbound was filmed by Roger Corman. My three hundred-plus short stories have achieved wide circulation around the world, and will shortly become available through my website.         

I have won Hugo, Nebula, and BSFA awards for fiction, plus a score of awards for criticism. In 1999, at Futuroscope, Poitiers, I was presented with the Prix Utopia. My most recent novel, written in collaboration with Sir Roger Penrose, is in fact a utopia—White Mars Or, The Mind Set Free. My history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, standing against  provincialism and sexism, as well as supporting the idea of scholarship, changed the way readers thought about the genre and its origins. For years, I toured with my own small acting company, SF Blues, performing plays and sketches to convince audiences that the power of sf resided in the word rather than special effects.     

I helped forge international links with sf publishers and writers round the globe, founding the First International SF Symposium, held in Japan in 1970.  Later, on the inspiration of my friend Harry Harrison, I was present at the founding of World SF in Dublin, in time becoming its president. World SF operated during the Cold War: its members kept open channels of communication between both sides of the conflict.  Its meetings took me to every continent, excluding only Antarctica, where, so far, no sf writers live. Our greatest success was in Chengdu, China, in 1991, a meeting attended by writers from every Chinese province bar one.  

Writer Emeritus Daniel Keyes is a good example of the remarkable ways in which sf succeeds and slowly permeates society. Keyes’s story “Flowers for Algernon” was published in a science fiction magazine in the 1950s and was an immediate success. It tells of a moronic janitor whose IQ is greatly increased by scientific means. Charlie is soon reading Goethe in the original and discoursing easily with learned men. But, like the treatments of L-dopa in Oliver Sachs’ Awakenings, the effects cannot be stablized. Slowly, as Charlie is all too well aware, he sinks back into moronism again. The story was so effectively told that it touched all hearts. Keyes was persuaded to expand the story into a novel. It too was a great success, and was made into a play. A radio drama followed, and a Broadway musical. Then came the film Charly, starring Cliff Robertson. At every stage, Keyes had to fight to retain his downbeat ending. The book is still in print, and currently being reprinted in hardcover in Japan, where it is especially popular. Here we have another remarkable and humane story-teller to emerge from the sf field. Keyes has written other successful books, but the powerful story of “Flowers for Algernon” has been a dominating factor in his life.—Brian W. Aldiss

Law and SF. I teach “Law and Literature” at Bloomsburg University as part of our minor in legal studies, and last year edited a symposium on “Law, Literature & Science Fiction” which was reviewed in your journal: much appreciated your comments. That symposium was printed in Legal Studies Forum 23.3 (1999) and is on line through the Academic Universe database. I wanted to call to your readers’ attention the fourth annual meeting of the “Law, Culture, and the Humanities” conference at University of Texas–Austin (March 8-11, 2001). I went to their first meeting and found it quite interesting, providing a chance for younger scholars to make presentations (and contacts). Unfortunately, this announcement will be printed too late for the deadline for proposed papers (October 1 for next spring’s meeting). But the web address for those wishing to attend may be found at: <www.yale.edu/lawweb/lch>. Finally, I am working with several people on papers for a book on law, literature, and sf, to follow up a book I edited in 1996 for Peter Lang, Law and Literature Perspectives. I would be delighted to hear from scholars with ideas and proposals.—Bruce L. Rockwood

Another Online Legal Studies Journal. Let me follow up on Bruce Rockwood’s note to say that Picturing Justice, the online journal of law and popular culture, welcomes submissions (up to 2000 words) on any relevant topic. Science fiction is a particular interest of mine and I would welcome some law and sf topics. As managing editor, I am delighted to talk with you about the journal, and you can send submissions directly to me: Paul R. Joseph, Associate Dean for International and External Programs, Nova Southeastern University Law Center, 3305 College Ave., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33314. (954) 262-6171 (v), 262-3835 (f). You may visit PJ at:<http://www.usfca.edu/pj>.—Paul R. Joseph

Olaf Stapledon Panel Discussion and Library Exhibit. On Monday June 26th 2000, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (via a pre-recorded video) introduced a panel discussion at the Royal Society of Arts (London) featuring Stephen Clark, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Liverpool, sf author Gregory Benford (whose introduction to Last and First Men is part of the latest edition of the novel from Orion’s “SF Masterworks” series), biologist Jack Cohen, and physicist Freeman Dyson. The purpose of the panel was to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Olaf Stapledon, whose novel Last and First Men was published 70 years ago in 1930. Sir Arthur’s enthusiastic description of the book, which had more influence on him than any other, was followed by the panelists’ discussion of their own appreciation of Stapledon and his works.                

The panel was associated with a symposium on “Science and Theological Imagination in Science Fiction” organized by the Templeton Foundation, which featured the above panelists plus Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology at Cambridge University, Orson Scott Card, Mary Doria Russell, James P. Mackey (Thomas Chalmers Professor of Theology at the University of Edinburgh), and philosopher Mary Midgley, formerly of the University of Newcastle.  

Before the panel discussion, participants and the public were invited to view a small exhibition, held at the University of Liverpool library, of reproductions of material from the Olaf Stapledon archive. This included book jackets (much amusement was provoked by the Galaxy Books edition of Odd John) and manuscript pages, as well as letters to Stapledon from H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, and J.B.S. Haldane. A welcome attendee of the discussion (which otherwise drew what is known as a “small but enthusiastic crowd”) was Olaf Stapledon’s grandson, Jason Shenai, who seemed pleased that his grandfather was remembered.—Andy Sawyer, University of Liverpool Library

Pearson Wins Pioneer Award. At this summer’s annual meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association, Wendy Pearson was awarded the organization’s prize for the best scholarly essay of 1999 for “Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer,” published in SFS #77 (March 1999). We congratulate Wendy, who is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Wollongong in Australia. She is also the author of “After the Homosexual: A Queer Analysis of Anti-Sexuality in Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women's Country,” published in SFS #69 (July 1996).

Journal for Gene Wolfe Studies.The first issue of Ultan’s Library—a new on-line journal devoted to essays and reviews about the sf author Gene Wolfe—appeared this summer. The Summer 2000 edition features Dr. Nick Gevers on the LONG SUN sequence, Dr. Jeremy Crampton on the Soldier novels, Dr. Peter Wright reconsidering THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, Robert Borski on The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Michael Andre-Driussi on Strange Travelers, and Nigel Price on On Blue Water. The issue also includes a comprehensive bibliography of Gene Wolfe criticism. The journal’s website address is <http://www.english.bham.ac.uk/ultan>; the editor can also be contacted at <j.m.laidlow@bham.ac.uk>. If you wish to review the journal and require a printed version, please contact the editor at the e-mail address above, or by postal inquiry to: Jonathan Laidlow, Modern Languages and Classics, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK.

CFP: 2001 SFRA Conference. The Science Fiction Research Association’s 2001 meeting will be held from May 24 to 27, 2001 (Memorial Day Weekend)
at the Schenectady [NY] Ramada Inn & Convention Center. Conference theme is “SF in the Next Millennium: Looking Forward while Remembering the Past.” C.J. Cherryh, David Weber, Jane Yolen, and Vincent Di Fate will be the guests of honor. SFRA solicits papers, paper proposals, and panel proposals; the 2001 Conference will focus on the prospects for science fiction in the coming millennium and its historical roots, including space opera, Tolkien, storytelling, the media, literary criticism, teaching sf from an international perspective, and globalization. Topics that demonstrate sf’s connection to and relevance for other disciplinary studies are particularly welcome, as are papers on the guests of honor. For a paper proposal, send a 250 word abstract (there is a maximum 20 minute reading time for the finished paper). Include a title, your name, mailing address, phone number, and e-mail address. Receipt of proposal will be confirmed by e-mail.                

For a panel proposal, send a panel name and a 250 word abstract; include the panel title, the panel chair (who may be one or more of the presenters), mailing address, phone number, and e-mail address of each presenter. Receipt of proposal will be confirmed by e-mail. Mail or e-mail proposals to: Barbara Chepaitis, Programming Chairman, SFRA 2001, 19 Hillside Avenue, Schenectady, NY 12308. E-mail: <chepaitis@aol.com>. Deadline for all submissions is March 15, 2001.—Kenneth Andrews

MLA SF/Fantasy Session. The Discussion Group on Science Fiction and Fantastic and Utopian Literature will present a panel at December’s Washington meeting of the Modern Language Association; the topic is “Race in the Fantastic.” The panel is scheduled for Thursday, December 28 from 10:15-11:30 am in Park Tower Suite 8210, Marriott Wardman Park. The session Chair is Alcena Madeline Davis Rogan, and the paper topics are as follows:
1.“What About the Bhangradoggirls? Racial Segregation in Jeff Noon’s Vurt,” Sujata Iyengar, Univ. of Georgia
2. “A Hollywood Koan: Zen Masters in Sci-Fi,” Sheng-Mei Ma, Michigan State Univ.
3. “Leopard Boys of Science: George S. Schuyler’s Black No More and the Fantasy of Racial Transformation,” Charles Martin, Florida State Univ.—Alcena Rogan, Lousiana State University

Online Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database. There is a new online resource for students of sf and fantasy. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database is a searchable compilation and extension of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Index (1878-1985), Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Index (1985-1991), and Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Index (1992-1995), including material located since publication of the last printed volume. Most material was obtained and examined by the compiler; the remainder was verified in a reliable secondary source. The database contains over 50,000 individual items as of June 2000.                

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Reference Database is an inclusive tool, designed to cover all aspects of science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and weird fiction. History, criticism, commentary, fan writings, and some reviews are included, but book reviews are not indexed at this time (they are available in the separate Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review Index). Science Fiction generates the largest number of entries, followed by Fantasy and Horror in that order. Approximately 90% of the entries are in English. Most of the citations to pre-1980 non-English language material were supplied by David Samuelson and supplemented by several European contributors, most notably Luk de Vos of the Netherlands. Coverage of non-English language material is representative only. The majority of this material is from France, Germany, and Italy, but several other languages are represented. Non-English language material is entered by author, title, and imprint. Subject headings are applied where possible.     

Material is sought from a wide variety of sources. The List of Magazines Surveyed identifies those titles regularly examined for material. The list is not inclusive for all magazines that have generated titles included here, but it does indicate the primary source journals that are regularly surveyed. No list of books analyzed is provided, because searching a book title in the “imprint” field will show whether it is indexed fully.—Hal W. Hall

[Ed Note: There is a link to this excellent site on the SFS webpage.]

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