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The Time Machine: Notes Towards an Analysis of Wells’s Novella

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the lasting appeal of H. G. Wells’s first great ‘scientific romance’

In some ways, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) is a ‘timeless’ text: it continues to enjoy huge popularity (as witnessed by big film adaptations in 1960 and 2002, as well as the fact that the novel itself has never been out of print and is available in a range of editions), it continues to exert a considerable influence on the literature and cinema produced since, and its very narrative structure – with much of the action of the novel taking place in a time that hasn’t happened yet, the year 802,701 – in a sense absenting it from its own context. But an analysis of Wells’s novella that sees it floating completely free of its 1890s context, much as the Time Traveller himself succeeds in leaving his late Victorian world behind, risks overlooking the extent to which The Time Machine is a novella deeply rooted in late nineteenth-century concerns. These concerns are neatly covered in Roger Luckhurst’s introduction to the recent Oxford edition of the novella, The Time Machine (Oxford World’s Classics).

In an interview published in 1899, Wells outlined his reasons for being so concerned with the future of mankind:

Why should four-fifths of the fiction of today be concerned with times that can never come again, while the future is scarcely speculated upon? At present we are almost helpless in the grip of circumstances, and I think we ought to strive to shape our destinies. Changes that directly affect the human race are taking place every day, but they are passed over unobserved. Read the rest of this entry

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Frankenstein, 200 Years On: Why Mary Shelley’s Novel Remains So Relevant

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits Mary Shelley’s misunderstood parable and founding text of science fiction

Frankenstein is one of a handful of nineteenth-century fictional creations that went truly global and became ingrained in the popular consciousness. Along with Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Mary Shelley’s character has flown free of the text which spawned it: Frankenstein has become synonymous with biological experimentation, the creation of hybrid ‘monsters’, and the perils of playing God. The Oxford English Dictionary includes the prefix ‘Franken-’, used to denote nouns implying genetic modification, most famously ‘Frankenfoods’. The OED also records ‘Frankenstein’ itself, in extended use, as both a noun and a verb.

2018 marks the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s first and most successful novel, written when she was just a teenager and published when Shelley was 20 years old. This fact is often repeated, but it’s worth stopping to reflect on the astounding precocity of the novel’s author. Dickens was 24 when his first novel appeared, and he was touted as a prodigy. Try naming another novel written by a teenager which has attained the status of a classic. Now try naming one that, arguably, spawned a whole new genre in English literature. There was, and in some ways is, nothing else quite like it. Frankenstein is not just a founding text but a foundling text. Read the rest of this entry

Karel Capek’s Apocryphal Stories

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the charming short stories of Karel Čapek

The modern meaning of the word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, titled R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), begins in a factory which manufactures artificial people, the ‘universal robots’ of the play’s title. The robots are designed to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race (shades, or rather a foreshadowing, of The Terminator here). This sense of ‘robot’ is taken from the earlier one defined above – namely, the Czech for ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudge’.

Karel Čapek himself didn’t coin the word. The word ‘robot’ was in existence before he wrote his play. But nor did Čapek come up with the idea of taking the word ‘robot’ and using it to describe the man-made droids that feature in his play. He originally called them labori, from the Latin for ‘work’, but it was his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Josef, himself a gifted artist, would later write a volume of poems from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in which he was interned. In April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war, he became one of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in Hitler’s Final Solution.

Most readers who know the name Karel Čapek associate it with robots and little else. Yet Čapek was also the author of some charming short stories and skits, which were collected together as Apocryphal Stories (Modern Classics). Read the rest of this entry