A Scientific Romance, Ronald Wright

Picador, 1997, 352 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-18172-8

As a unapologetic genre reader, few questions fascinate me more than the relationship between genre fiction and so-called “literary fiction”. What distinguishes a novel written from inside a genre from a novel written by a generalist, even though the two stories may share common elements? Part of the difficulty in answering the question comes from the idea that genre has its own gravitational pull: genre writers often start as young genre readers and keep reading in the genre (steadily but not exclusively, one hopes) until they’re ready to put pen to paper. It’s exceedingly rare that someone without any knowledge of a genre will write in it.

So when a book like Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance makes it in print, it offers a unique case study in how a smart outsider can write science-fiction without it necessarily being shaped by classic science-fiction. Wright is not a child of the SF ghetto: he’s a trained historian, an essayist and an academic. As an orphan work standing in the genre but not being linked to it, A Scientific Romance offers a glimpse into the common, sometimes unexamined engines of SF.

Actually, it’s not completely true to say that A Scientific Romance is not linked to genre SF: it’s just that its inspiration goes back a few decades earlier than most quick Heinlein knockoffs. A Scientific Romance uses no less an authority than H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as an explicit jump-off point (it must help that Wells is widely acknowledged as a literary giant). Here, our academic narrator gets is given a previously-unknown Wells letter announcing the return of the putative Time Machine. Everyone else thinks it’s a joke, but our narrator (haunted by the memory of a dead girlfriend) wants to believe. Carefully arriving at the appointed time and place, he finds the machine and starts refurbishing it, planning ahead for a little trip in the future.

The problem with using Wells as a distinguished ancestor is that you’re likely to miss out on what’s been done since, and so Wright pointedly ignores the whole body of SF time-travelling tales. This, interestingly enough, doesn’t damage the book as much as you may think: It allows A Scientific Romance to go places without being burdened by the baggage of genre SF, and helps give the book a very different flavour.

Alas, it’s a flavour leavened by endless rumination. Wright is an intellectual and so is his narrator, so it’s not sufficient to sketch a love triangle, a dead girlfriend and a twisted personal history. Oh no: There has to be pages after pages of endless introspection, of flashbacks, of self-pity and recrimination. Personal guilt is the fuel of literature, and there’s plenty of that in this novel, starting from the fact that the book is written as to the narrator’s dead girlfriend. At some point, you just want to slap the poor sap and tell him to be a genre protagonist, suck it up, buy survival equipment, step in the time machine and go get himself a foxy girl from the future.

By the time he actually cranks up the time machine and goes off flying in 2500, we have almost forgotten that this in fact supposed to be a time-travel novel. But if you were expecting the wonders of an advanced civilization or the wide-screen spectacle of an evolved humanity, brace yourself: Wright is a serious literary writer, and so his future London can only be abandoned, half-destroyed and overgrown with tropical abandon.

The most interesting element of this second part is seeing the protagonist use his training as an archaeologist and slowly piece together the factors that led to the fall of civilization. Clues can be found in the most unlikely places, and if the novel has a sharp commonality with genre fiction, it’s in those sections describing the future past in bits and pieces. A few scenes of uncommon power are to be found here and there, such as the brief passage where the narrator finds a building with four tall chimneys and, nearby, a bulldozer. Brrr. [P.202]

But this interest progressively phases out, even as the narrator meets the devolved remnants of the English people, indulges in a bit of anthropology, gets crucified for his sins and discovers what happened to him in another future. Naturally, human hubris gets blamed, along with the dangers of modern science and yadda-yadda: Someone should tell Wright that this story has been done before. Despite a good final chapter with flashes of interest, the novel sinks in the same self-introspective morass that nearly doomed its first section. In the manner of ruminative literary novels anywhere, there is no victory, no breakthrough, no palpable happy ending; just resignation at impending death, and a shrugging acceptance of the end of civilization.

In genre SF terms, there isn’t much in A Scientific Romance that hasn’t been done better elsewhere. The book is interesting, but more as an exercise in contrasts than a pure reading experience… although mileage may vary according to attachment to genre fiction. There’s a reason why genre readers don’t care too much for introspection, defeatism or knee-jerk rejection of science: It’s dull and, from a certain perspective, it’s exactly the kind of things that genre Science Fiction seeks to disprove.

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