Science Fiction Studies

#119 = Volume 40, Part 1 = March 2013


Nicholas Ruddick

Unheimlich Maneuvers

Matthew Beaumont, The Spectre of Utopia: Utopian and Science Fictions at the Fin de Siècle. Ralahine Utopian Studies. Bern: Peter Lang, 2012. xii + 310 pp. £40 pbk.

Simon J. James, Maps of Utopia: H.G. Wells, Modernity, and the End of Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. xiv + 230 pp. £50 hc.

Two monographs with titles similar enough to imply that they have a common subject, each by senior lecturers at English universities, each with bibliographies over twenty pages long beginning with Adorno and ending with Žižek—the reviewer would be forgiven for expecting a fair degree of overlap. Yet it is curious how little overlap there is: except for a mild common interest in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), these works might derive from two planets colonized at different epochs. Indeed, while both authors are eclectic in their reading, neither of them mentions or cites the other’s work.

Beaumont’s book is a collection of ten readable chapters mostly on utopian themes associated with the late Victorian period. Each of the first four chapters offers a different approach to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), the most influential work of American utopian fiction, which Beaumont has edited in the Oxford World’s Classics series (2007). The fifth is an account of William Reeves’s “Bellamy Library,” a late nineteenth-century British radical book publishing project inspired by Bellamy’s bestseller. The sixth turns its attention to the now largely forgotten British liberal-feminist newspaper Shafts (1892-99); the seventh to the “elective affinity” between socialism and occultism in the late Victorian age; and the eighth to the utopianism of Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891). Chapters 9 and 10 will be of the most interest to readers of SFS. The former applies Freud’s notion of the uncanny to The Time Machine, while the latter uses the motif of anamorphosis, here meaning the figurative use of deliberately distorted perspective, to offer a supplement to what might be called the (Suvin + Jameson) notion of sf as a genre whose chief value is its ability to cognitively estrange the reader, thereby allowing a perspective that reveals the contingency of ideology to those inserted within it.

Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” (“Das Unheimliche,” 1919) is a set of potent aesthetic insights that has been interpreted variously in the Anglophone world, perhaps because its key term does not translate easily into English. By Freud’s own definition, das Unheimliche is “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” “Uncanny” things are disturbing because they seem simultaneously alien and familiar; what is “familiar” about an uncanny phenomenon is usually apprehended only at a subconscious level. In German, heimlich means “familiar” in the sense of “associated with home,” though it has come more commonly to mean “hidden” or “secret.” When negating the former meaning, unheimlich means “unfamiliar,” but when negating the latter it may mean “unconcealed,” “not secret,” or “what is (inadvertently) revealed.” Thus in German the meanings of heimlich and its negation shade into one another, and for Freud such semantic instability among words associating home with secrecy suggests repression. He argues that the uncanny object is associated (especially among the respectable classes) with inadmissible sexual urges and therefore familiarity with it is repressed.

Beaumont shifts das Unheimliche from the sexual to the sociopolitical realm. He invokes a Marxian or revolutionary Uncanny in which capitalism secretes within itself—in plain sight—the means of its own future overthrow, namely the proletariat. For him, uncanniness signifies that the “agent of estrangement is not external to the present, but internal to it” (222). It is this repressed agency with which The Time Machine deals: the novella dramatizes, via the Time Traveler’s slowly dawning understanding of the relationship between the Eloi and Morlocks, the future return—with a vengeance—of those oppressed within late Victorian polity. What transpires in 802,701 A.D. is conducted under the sign of the Sphinx, which represents the riddle of how the future might be inscribed in, and therefore readable by, the present. Beaumont concedes that Wells was hostile to Marxism (240), yet feels that by the end of The Time Machine Wells “concurs with the conclusion of The Communist Manifesto [1848]” (251): thanks to the remorseless logic of history, the proletariat (the Morlocks) have risen up and triumphed over their former exploiters (the Eloi). But Marx tracks a future class evolution toward a utopia, Wells toward a dystopia.

Beaumont’s reading of The Time Machine draws usefully on a wide range of sociopolitical sources and is sensitive to Wells’s own class insecurities. Yet I feel that his argument is weakened by a failure to take into account the dimension that makes Wellsian sf so much more original, vital, and plausible than fin-de-siècle utopianism. He notes that “the sphinx ultimately stands for the historical destiny of nineteenth-century class relations” (230), but surely what Wells does in The Time Machine is to project these relations beyond historical into biological time. There is indeed an Uncanny in The Time Machine, but it is evolutionary, not revolutionary. In no sense have the Morlocks “triumphed” over the Eloi, regardless of their class origins. Rather, mankind has speciated—Hom. sap. sap. is an extinct common ancestor—as a result of the long separation of two formerly human breeding groups. Both sets of posthuman descendants have continued to reproduce, but under conditions where no struggle for existence has been necessary. Intelligence, no longer “kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity,” has disappeared from lack of use. By 802,701 history has long since ended: what remains is not a communist utopia but T.H. Huxley’s blind and remorseless “cosmic process,” dooming all organisms to the losing battle against time itself. (This is why Wells does not end The Time Machine in 802,701 but with the death throes of our last devolved descendant thirty million years hence.) Far from foreseeing the triumph of the proletariat, The Time Machine was a mortal blow to the “static” utopianism of Marx, Bellamy, and Morris.  

Beaumont begins his final chapter with a fascinating exposition of the meaning and significance of the elongated “anamorphic” skull disfiguring the foreground of Hans Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors” (1533). He then proposes that in sf, “the representation or inclusion of the alien other functions as a kind of anamorphic stain” (260), offering a new, estranged perspective on humanity that is at the same time uncanny. In particular, the novum, be it utopian or otherwise, like Holbein’s skull, infects and subverts the apparently eternal capitalist realities of status and commodity with its own otherness. Beaumont invokes the heimlich world of the present in The War of the Worlds (1898), rendered alien and uncanny by the “anamorphic stain” of the Martians. I like this idea, in that viewed from the right angle, the Martians disclose, unexpectedly but precisely, ourselves after a million years of “progressive” evolution. That is, Wells’s aliens are post-humans whose brains and hands have hypertrophied at the expense of every other aspect of our physiology and psychology, including sexuality and compassion. Hideous, loathsome, with intellects “vast and cool and unsympathetic,” they are truly uncanny because these aliens reveal the dreadful end of the “familiar” dream of Victorian progress.

Beaumont then less convincingly extends his idea of anamorphosis to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972) and Ian Watson’s “Slow Birds” (1987). The Zone in the former is surely not an uncanny space but one that emphasizes the absolute unfamiliarity of the truly alien so as to suggest the limits of human understanding and our cosmic insignificance. Watson’s slow birds may serve as a memento mori like Holbein’s skull, but I feel that their ontological status is too ambiguous to be truly uncanny. Rather, it is Watson’s narrative itself, slowly revealing that it is set in a parallel universe in which everything is both alien and familiar, that has the uncanny quality of subtle allegory.

While Beaumont starts with a rambling introduction (see below), Simon J. James commences clearly, succinctly, and strongly. In his brief preface, James states that “this book is primarily a literary study of H.G. Wells’s aesthetics” focusing “on those Wells texts of the greatest interest from the literary point of view (not necessarily only the fiction)” (x). He notes that Wells became in his lifetime “perhaps the most influential Anglophone writer of the first half of the twentieth century” (ix-x), yet many of his books “are not, simply, very good” (x). All this is true and commendably honest. It needs saying if one is to salvage something of Wells’s literary reputation—which is (outside sf circles) very low indeed. None of the major undergraduate English literature anthologies—the Norton, Longman, or Broadview—currently includes a single work by Wells.

James’s first chapter, “Of Art, of Literature, of Mr. H.G. Wells,” contextualizes Wells in an era of rapidly growing literacy, conditions viewed as a mixed blessing even by the more liberal cultural gatekeepers. Wells himself was riven by ambivalence about the function of literature. Was the novel merely a cheap, trashy means of entertainment accessible to all? Or was it an infinitely painstaking art form too exquisite for all but the most discerning and leisured reader? James notes that Wells was “the first writer in the canon of English Literature to have been trained as a pure scientist” (except he was trained to be a science teacher and he still is not canonical) and had an “antagonistic” imagination (13, 19). He saw that the superb traditional classical training of his contemporary George Gissing did not liberate this writer, an upstart like himself, from the struggles and injustices of which Gissing wrote so movingly, nor did they garner him a significant readership, cultural influence, or comfortable living. Ever the Martian astronomer, the aged Wells noted in 1944 that “No literature is permanent, because no language is permanent,” though typically he followed the truism with a provocation, “all literature is journalism and will pass away in this changing world” (qtd. 35). 

James’s next chapter, “The History of the Future,” ought to be central to his argument, in that it was with the scientific romances, which form its subject, that Wells produced works “of the greatest interest from the literary point of view.” But I found this chapter disappointing. James seeks in it to examine how three forms of Wellsian originality interact to produce the scientific romances: an ingenious blending of representational modes that caused Joseph Conrad to apostrophize his friend as “O! Realist of the Fantastic”; a generic inventiveness enabling him to update and transform the Gothic romance; and an ability to translate his scientific (particularly Darwinian) training into literary terms. The product was the new form of fantastic-realistic fiction called scientific romance. But in his case studies James starts with The Sea Lady (1902)—neither a scientific romance nor a work exhibiting particular modal or generic virtues. For James, though, this work encapsulates Wells’s “scepticism towards the authority or reliability of social and linguistic forms” (47), and this “scepticism” will be the thread that he pursues through the remainder of the chapter. A passage such as the following on the Sea Lady’s tail suggests over-interpretation to force a point: “a purposefully Gothic excrescence, a bodily assertion of the inaptness of existing discourse to contain the range of experiences that consciousness might be asked to process” (48).

For James, The Time Machine “dramatizes a crisis of intelligibility” (52), as when the Time Traveler continually recalibrates his interpretation of what he finds in 802,701. But looked at from a different angle, the Time Traveler’s agnostic empiricism, while causing him frequently to stumble into error, does still lead him toward an ever more plausible explanation for what he has seen. Scientific induction infused with Huxleyan skepticism is surely a superior epistemological tool to the traditional “convenient cicerone in the pattern of the Utopian books” who forces us to swallow the novum whole. The Time Machine demonstrates that, after Darwin, a utopian Epoch of Rest, whether it be chez Marx or Morris, is founded on a naïve illusion.

In The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), James sees Wells interrogating late-Victorian aestheticism, embodied by the artistic torturer of the title: “Here the aesthetic—Moreau’s egoistic quest for perfection—corrupts the scientific—the disinterested quest for knowledge” (66). But this equation is a little facile. Moreau is certainly a monster of egoism, but what he seeks, in burning out the animal, has little to do with aesthetic perfection. He has adopted a pseudo-Darwinism that supposedly legitimizes his false understanding of the interrelatedness and plasticity of organisms and his “freedom” from ethical constraints. And did Wells really believe that science was a “disinterested” quest for knowledge? In his selfish egoism, Moreau does resemble Griffin of The Invisible Man (1897), but not at all the Time Traveler, who publishes his discoveries as seventeen papers on physical optics (see 61). James has little to say about The Invisible Man except that it anticipates certain psychoanalytic tropes and culminates in an image of unintelligibility, ironically in spite of the frequency with which the word “glass” appears in it and the “transparency” of its subject. His most interesting reading, that Griffin “dreams of a bodiless existence as pure mental abstraction” (72), would seem to connect Griffin with the Martians as another example of how humanity’s desires to transcend the body end in psychopathy. But as The War of the Worlds, Wells’s most sustained and popular achievement in scientific romance, is analyzed in this study only as another set of examples of Wells’s “mistrust of written language” (44), this thread is left unpursued.

James’s remaining three chapters suggest that he has little interest in Wells as an sf pioneer. He tells us bluntly in “The Uses of Literacy” (on Wells’s realist fiction) that Tono-Bungay (1909) “is Wells’s finest piece of work” (105). “The Idea of a Planned World” has an opening section on Wells’s relation to the Platonic utopian tradition in general and on A Modern Utopia (1905) in particular, but then reverses to cover The First Men in the Moon (1901) as “a transitional text between the scientific romances and the utopias” (145). (If so, why not deal with it first?) Then we fast-forward to In the Days of the Comet (1906), which “hybridizes the three genres of utopia, realism, and scientific romance”(153). James’s final chapter, “Education and Catastrophe,” on Wellsian social improvement, deals briefly with The War in the Air (1908), more briefly still with The World Set Free (1914), The Outline of History (1920), and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and finds almost nothing to say about such not inconsequential novels as Ann Veronica (1909), The New Machiavelli (1911), and Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916). Experiment in Autobiography (1934), surely a considerable literary achievement, is mined mainly for its biographical data. There is no mention anywhere of such frequently anthologized stories as “The Star” (1897), “The Country of the Blind” (1904), and “The Door in the Wall” (1906). 

Both Beaumont’s and James’s works share a flaw that can be summed up simply: neither is quite a book, by which I mean a substantial contribution to knowledge that is more than the sum of its parts. Beaumont’s is a collection of eight individual articles on utopian subjects and two on sf, associated by contiguity. Its introduction (to which falls the task of unification) begins with the “interstitial” status of utopia; refers to the ghost as a liminal phenomenon; cites a memorable phrase, “ghosts of the future,” from one of Bellamy’s stories; refers to Jacques Derrida’s (not exactly accurate) observation, deriving from the Ghost in Hamlet, that a “visor effect” enables one to look without being seen; invokes another “V-effect,” the Verfremdungseffekt of Brecht; and then moves on to estrangement and anamorphosis. This is not an argument but a trail of associations, all interesting, each worth exploring, but incapable of integrating the chapters that follow.

James’s is not-quite-a-book in a different way. Here a single declared subject—those writings of H.G. Wells with surviving literary value—should ensure that the volume does not enter the world as an invertebrate. But as the relegation of Wells’s name to the subtitle suggests, the author was not able to find or forge that unity. Perhaps this was to be expected: Wells continually reinvented himself during a long life spanning an age of unprecedented change. The Wellsian oeuvre is too enormous and too varied, the Wellsian biography and psychological profile too full of contradictions, to be fitted neatly into standard pigeonholes. To his credit, James does his best to be fair and comprehensive, citing innumerable secondary and tertiary sources—it would seem that almost everyone who has written about Wells is mentioned at least once. But the result is at best a number of general observations about “H.G. Wells” that do not hold true beyond a specific instance.  

These two works, both flawed in different ways, bear titles that promote them as serious monographs on important subjects. Beaumont’s book is indeed (largely) about utopias and (partly) about sf, but the “Spectre” of its title is hocus pocus. James’s book is about H.G. Wells, but as the subject could not be contained within the frame, its title is a series of catch-all tags: “Utopia”; “Maps”; Modernity”; “Culture, End of.” But perhaps I am being too harsh: in these incipiently post-literate times, it is pleasant enough to add to one’s library two book-length texts that are at least scholarly, lucid, and take H.G. Wells seriously.  


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