Voyage from Dome's day to doomsday book

John Sutherland enjoys his flight in a revamped Time Machine; A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright, Anchor, pounds 9.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Set in late December 1999, this is the first of what will be a numerous and remunerative genre: millennial novels. The nervous-Nineties invariably induce in the Western world an apocalyptic hysteria, better expressed by literature than public festivals. A Scientific Romance is, among other things, an end-of-the-world fiction, replete with allusions to the Book of Revelation. Above all, as the Wellsian title indicates, this is a homage to the father of 20th-century science fiction (or "speculative fiction", as some have preferred to gloss SF).

Wright's scientific romance (H G Wells's preferred term) pays homage to The Time Machine. By a nice coincidence, Time is to be the great theme of the Millennial Dome Experience (if they get it up in time). This novel provides an uncomfortable overture for that jubilation, as did Wells's picture of racial degeneration and the final heat-death of the solar system.

Literary historians will have happy hours exploring this book's intertextual tissue. This is a novel about novels. It is not, of course, the first of its kind, although it may be the cleverest. In 1976 Christopher Priest produced The Space Machine: a scientific romance, a fantasia also based on The Time Machine and dedicated to Wells.

In its often baffling cleverness, Wright's novel recalls Brian Aldiss's homage to the mother of SF, Frankenstein Unbound. But A Scientific Romance is more ambitious in weaving together a whole library of works: not just Wells's fable, but Richard Jefferies' lesser known vision of a future drowned England, After London, Mary Shelley's The Last Man, William Morris's News from Nowhere and M P Shiels's surreal visions of planetary catastrophe. And few cognoscenti will read it without being reminded of J G Ballard's beautiful and prescient vision of global warming, The Drowned World.

Beneath its mantle of literary sophistication, Wright provides a gripping story - almost as gripping as Wells's original. It takes the form of a "message in a bottle": a found manuscript. The narrator, David Lambert, is an industrial archaeologist, curator of the Museum of Motion in a converted St Pancras Station.

Professionally successful, Lambert has a disastrous personal life. He has betrayed his best friend, "Bird" Parker. Bosom friends at Cambridge, David seduced Bird's bird, the Egyptologist Anita, while on a dig in the East. Bird flunked out of Cambridge and is now a down-and-out. Meanwhile, Anita has died of a wasting illness - CJD, as it turns out. More ominously, it seems that David himself (along with the whole British population) may also be infected. He suffers strange interludes of paralysis and hallucination.

Amid this crisis, David is put in possession of a mysterious letter from none other than H G Wells. It emerges that the novelist and his lover Tania (an anagram of "Anita") actually did create a time machine in the late 1890s. She took off and is due to return a century later, on 31 December 1999, the eve of the millennium.

The machine duly makes its appearance, but without Tania. Lambert takes possession of the vessel and launches himself into AD 2500. He discovers a future England scorching under the man-made and man-destroying greenhouse effect - a desert with oases of tropical jungle. Humankind (with sheep and cows) has been almost entirely eliminated.

The bulk of the narrative is a laptop-computer journal of Lambert's odyssey from Canary Wharf (half-submerged by the swollen oceans), through a wasteland England to Scotland. Here he falls into the hands of a tribe of genetically- mutated Scots - Celtic barbarians hybridised with hottentots to supply a survival blend of brutality and leathery pigment (this is not a novel which will help the devolution cause). It is Easter and the Macbeths, as they call themselves, have their own anniversary celebration in mind for their fairskinned captive. Ominously, Lambert is 33 years old.

A Scientific Romance keeps the reader hooked with the traditional elements of suspense and surprise. An accomplished performance, it is Wright's first novel. He has, however, written well-received travel books and the novel is embellished with Douanier Rousseau-like descriptions of a globally warmed England, habitat of crocodiles, piranha and tapirs. A friendly puma, called Graham, stinks and litters in St Paul's.

It's the hardest of tricks for a novelist to sustain, but throughout there is a pervasive hint of Ambrose Bierce's story "An Episode at Owl Creek". Could this all be the fevered product of a microbe-infected brain, the result of an unlucky hamburger in the poisoned 1980s?

Comments