Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Chronic Argonauts by H. G. Wells

One giant leap for time travel fiction
With his first novel, The Time Machine, published in 1895, H. G. Wells not only staked his claim as one of the preeminent writers in the nascent genre of science fiction, he also firmly established the concept of time travel in the world of popular culture. His innovative novel would go on to spawn thousands of imitators, and still does to this day. Yet Wells had already broken this fertile ground earlier with his lesser-known short story of 1888, “The Chronic Argonauts.” This story was the first work of fiction in which an explorer traverses time through the use of a man-made device—a time machine—rather than through magic, divine intervention, or a natural phenomenon such as sleep. Though it deserves praise for its ground-breaking invention, “The Chronic Argonauts” is not in the same literary league as The Time Machine, and its value primarily lies in its influential role as a precursor to that later, greater work.

The Welsh town of Llyddwdd is roused from its bucolic slumber by the arrival of a strange, reclusive scientist named Dr. Nebogipfel. When the doctor takes up residence in the town’s requisite creepy old house, much speculation arises on the part of the local populace as to what nefarious projects he is engaged in there. Because of its fish-out-of-water-in-a-small-town plot and the tangential connection to unexplained phenomena, this story more closely resembles a mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than it does a science fiction tale. It is not so much about the direction of the scientist’s research as it is about the townspeople’s reaction to him. When the doctor explains his theory of time travel to an acquaintance, he gives a brief outline of the more thorough treatise on the subject that would appear in the first chapter of The Time Machine. Unlike Wells’ great novel, though, in “The Chronic Argonauts” we never actually get to see the past or the future. Time travel is only discussed, alluded to, and hinted at. This turns out to be the story’s biggest surprise: it ends without delivering the goods.

Today’s readers may find difficulty with Wells’ thesaurus-wringing prose. He packs every hundred-dollar word he can think of into each successive sentence, including some like “zymotic” and “eyot” that even the Oxford dictionary has forgotten. This gives a tongue-in-cheek feeling to the narration that may or may not be intentional. Wells certainly does portray the consternation of the Welsh villagers in a humorous light, but when it comes to Nebogipfel’s research, he’s all business. This story won’t be remembered for its plot or its prose, but rather for its sheer visionary inventiveness. What have since become clichés of the time travel subgenre were brilliantly original when they sprung from Wells’ pen. The countless imitators who have sprung from the template of Nebogipfel are a testament to the endurance of Wells’ imaginative vision.

Fans of this story may also enjoy the tribute piece “Nebogipfel at the End of Time,” by Richard A. Lupoff, a short story included in the inexpensive Time Travel Megapack from Wildside Press.

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