Durham and Wells

Durham is my favorite city in all England, so returning here was originally just for myself. Today I arrived thanks to my friend and colleague Jenny Mackness, Phd, who has been putting me up (and putting up with me!) at her home this week. Last night, knowing we were going to Durham, I looked up the Palace Green Library, just to see if there was anything interesting happening.

Oh my. How fortuitous! Guess whose work was featured?

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Yes! Mr Wells. Even in Durham, where I had checked the library holdings knowing I would find little for my own research, here he was. Wells had no connection to Durham, or really anywhere in the north. Except he does now, in the person of Simon James, Professor of Victorian Literature at Durham University, a Wells expert, and one of the creators of this exhibition.

Time Machines: The Past, The Future, and How Stories Take Us There is a fascinating exhibition, a marvelous interpretation featuring historical objects and books. I always look carefully at how museum exhibits are curated, how information and interpretations are presented — the process is similar to (sometimes identical to) historical interpretation, and determining the thesis and support of any exhibit is always fascinating.

Time Machines took the idea of “time travel” into several places: time travel occurs within stories, telling us about ourselves and our vision, but it also occurs in our dreams (when you go to sleep you awaken in a different time) and whenever we read a book (particularly the older ones I like to read). There were several jumping-off points in the exhibition, the first room presenting objects (water clock, astrolabe, a Book of Hours, and a digital alarm clock that kept beeping) that track time. On the wall was a “clock” of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Scrooge is taken back and forward in time)In cases were volumes of books like Artistotle’s Poetics (where narrative time always has a beginning, middle, and end), B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (which has 27 chapters but 25 you can rearrange), and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which flashes back to the expulsion of Satan from the garden. Each of these handles chronology differently. James Joyce’s Ulysses, where time seems almost non-existent, was there too.

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Since I’m studying H.G. Wells, my focus was on another room, where there were works on geology and evolution. The premise was that these ideas began with the work of James Hutton in 1788, and his theory of the age of the earth. The trajectory then followed, as it happens, Wells’ interests and education: from Hutton to Charles Lyell (with his Principles of Geology, 1830-33), then to Charles Darwin and natural selection, then T.H. Huxley’s lecture On a Piece of Chalk (delivered 1868). The development of ideas on evolution and geology  made it clear to Victorian scientists, authors, and artists that the earth was much older than had previously been believed. This perception affected concepts of the future, and the exhibit suggested that time travel novels (including Wells’ The Time Machine) were a direct result of this new understanding.  Thus the Victorian scientific imagination creates a historical context for the discussion of The Time Machine and other books about time travel, helping explain why these stories came about when they did. I didn’t realize that fictional works like Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) referenced natural selection — I’ll start looking for that sort of thing now.

One case contained books about those who time travel when they sleep or are otherwise made unconscious (Rip Van Winkle, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). Another displayed books about utopia (and dystopia), and I saw the expected titles: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), and William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890)But I looked in vain for Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes (1910), another story about someone who awakens in a time other than his own. It seemed to belong in that case!

Well’s manuscript for The Time Machine was there, borrowed from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where I was supposed to go last spring but didn’t). I was pleased to note the Wells scribbled and drew lines to insert things – I do that too.

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Other sections of the exhibition lost me somewhat. There was a room that contained, in addition to futuristic “mental time travel” works like The Minority Report (1956), science fiction novels and comics that defied stereotypes: feminist science fiction, futuristic stories of equality, books with time travel back to historically significant eras. All important works, but the film on the wall showed a timeline, extending horizontally, on which were the “traditional” fiction works of time travel and futurism. The animation then went back to where these other works were “missing”, and extended a line above or below the main timeline to “add” them as different strains.

This seemed contradictory to me. The beginning of the film had claimed that science fiction had been dominated by European white males, as writers and strong characters. They showed stereotypes of women and cultural minorities as characters in the works. Well, ok. But why add works that defied these stereotypes almost as sidelines – well, literally as sidelines – branching off on their own? Why not take these works, such as Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and put them where they belong chronologically, on the main timeline? Why not go to Wikipedia and add them to the story? Why not add Mary Shelley and Margaret Cavendish while we’re at it?

Perhaps it’s not so much that fiction has been dominated by European white males, but rather that we continue to perpetuate a timeline that shows that they did. 

The rest of the exhibit was fine, with a smattering of “what if” histories, Einsteinian physics, and imaginative computer-generated animations of the universe, but not as interesting as the analysis of fiction.

Time is the raw material for a historian. To see it through science, fiction, and science fiction lenses helped me view representations of time,  not just as chronology, but as cultural reflection. I often struggle with fiction and its historical role. Certainly I know it’s representative of its era, rather than what it depicts. But this exhibition educates the viewer, creating connections I would never have thought of.  It gives me a lot of ideas for my own teaching, and my own reading.