Time Machines Go Both Ways

Past and Future in H.G. Wells and W.H. Hodgson

by

A response to Andy Robertson's "A Sequel to THE TIME MACHINE? The Science-Fictional Underpinnings of THE NIGHT LAND"


To begin with: a synopsis: the novel in question was published within a few years of the turn of the nineteenth century. It is supposedly edited from the words of the person to whom it happened, and is a tale of time travel and disturbing threats from an underground, sub-human race. It shows a deep awareness of the scientific method, but coupled with this is a pessimistic vision which culminates in a dramatic description of the dying Earth.

Most people will probably assume that I am talking about The Time Machine (1895). In fact, I am thinking about William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland (1908). My point, however, is not to suggest that Hodgson may have been indebted to Wells's masterpiece, but rather to underline areas of difference between the approaches of Wells, the science fiction writer, and Hodgson, the fantasist.

In The House on the Borderland, and The Night Land (1912), Hodgson was attempting to communicate a vision which Wells had already articulated and which has remained central to much sf up to the present day. The nature of this vision will (I hope) become clearer as I continue, as will the nature of Hodgson's attempt to forge a narrative which would encompass it. Briefly, however, Hodgson looks to the past to frame his fictions, to the Gothic-novel tradition of haunted houses and ghosts, ghouls and other supernatural horrors. This self-conscious archaism is as much a feature of his writing style as it is the subject of his stories. However, the paradox of the Gothic — which looks to the stories and modes of the past as subjects for fiction — is that it has often developed as a way of both commenting upon the writer's contemporary society and speculating on the future. Witness, for example, Edgar Allan Poe's position as a writer of both “Gothickry” and early sf.

William Hope Hodgson is known today as a writer of horror and ghost stories which were composed at the time of a great upsurge in British fantasy. The works of, among others, Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen had their roots before the First World War, influenced (perhaps) by the fin de siècle Decadents and the sense that the uneasy peace which had settled over Europe was about to be torn apart. The distinguishing mark of such fantasy (which includes related writing such as the Jamesian or “English” Ghost story) is a retreat from contemporary industrial society. Machen's fiction most certainly possesses a brooding quality, haunted by underground, supernatural races and monstrous occult forces, while Dunsany's lighter (more ironical) works have a pervasive, feudal melancholy. Even M.R. James, the most “establishment” figure among major writers of the fantastic and supernatural, possesses an enigmatic sense of ennui as the Unknown erupts among his antiquarians and scholars. Yet by the 1920s, Wells had already written some of the most significant sf in the English language, covering most of its major themes, and was being reprinted in the early American SF magazines.

If fantasy can be described as, in general, pessimistic and conservative, then sf is usually characterised as optimistic and radical, a hymn to the marvels of science. Although there is — particularly with regard to the American pulp sf tradition more or less founded by Hugo Gernsback — some truth in this division, it is for the most part an oversimplification. The type of sf crystallised by Wells and after him, Olaf Stapledon, is less concerned with reassurance and more with charting possibilities, which may well be the opposite of the cosy technical “fixes” popularised by Gernsback and his followers. Even in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898), humanity is only saved from alien invasion by the evolutionary accident of the Martians having no resistance to Earthly disease.

The major difference, if there is one, between fantasy and sf is how writers adopting the two genres organise their fictions, and the use they make of the notion of change. Since Wells, sf has frequently been used — most notably by the writers associated with the Michael Moorcock-edited New Worlds magazine in the 1960s — as a metaphor for entropy and decline. It embraces the possibility of change rather than fearing it, following the lines of feasibility to their logical conclusions as opposed to rearing backwards from them, in the process using imagery with an often playful sense of exuberance, whereas fantasists such as Tolkien in the UK and Robert E Howard in the USA stop history some time before the Industrial revolution and prefer magic to machinery. Returning to The House on the Borderland and The Time Machine, the essential difference is that, in thought and writing technique, Hodgson is looking backward while Wells is facing forward — even though, in both novels, a journey into the far future is the dramatic centre of events. The flow of time, in both these novels, is acceleration forward into the future. But time, as the quantum physicists tell us, can flow both ways. When Hodgson's protagonist moves forward in time his entire apparatus of imagery, ideology and language is taking us back. Time machines are mental constructs, and they can point in both directions at once.

While Brian Stableford firmly places Hodgson as a writer of “scientific romances”, he distinguishes him from Wells, M.P. Shiel, and John Beresford precisely on the point that “they all built their metaphysical systems around ideas derived from evolutionary philosophy” while to Hodgson “the force that must ultimately win was the force of decay.” Yet both Wells and Hodgson share this image of the dying, desolate earth. I would like to suggest that if there is a fundamental difference, it lies in the road to this vision. In doing so, I will concentrate on Hodgson, though to set the scene I need to mention how Wells's Time Traveller views his future. As befits the rational, late-Victorian scientific gentleman it is through the method of observation, hypothesis and testing the hypothesis against experience. His judgement is provisional — on observing the similarity between Eloi genders he concludes that it is due to social ease and tranquility: “This, I must remind you, was my speculation at the time. Later I was to appreciate how far it fell short of the reality.” Harmony has lead to diminution of the elan vital and a fall in population. “That would account for the abandoned ruins. Very simple was my explanation and plausible enough — as most wrong theories are.” And the Eloi are, of course, the descendants of ruling Capitalists as the Morlocks are of subjugated labour — “though for myself, I very soon felt that it fell far from the truth.”

In apparent contrast to The Time Machine, the construction of The House on the Borderland is more complex. Although both novels are presented as “reported” texts, The Time Machine is related (by a narrator/editor) directly from the words of the Time Traveller, whereas The House on the Borderland is introduced by an account, signed by Hodgson, describing his reaction when the manuscript of the tale “was given into my care”. With the MS, there is an account (signed “Berreggnog”) of how, while on a fishing trip in the remote west of Ireland, two companions discovered the MS in a weird ruin. Hodgson's characters, in so far as they have any social identification, are literary men and gentry; Wells's are intellectuals and practical men: the Psychologist; the editor, the sceptical Filby. Wells, moreover, is writing within a present shared by his narrator and his readers, one that is contemporaneous with the tale's composition. Hodgson, in contract, describes events which — from the evidence that they happened in the youthful years of a now-old man — are possibly eighteenth-century. In both setting — the remotenesses of rural Ireland — and structural patterning the book recalls Charles Maturin's Terror Romance Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).

Once beyond the series of framing narratives, with the atmosphere of the uncanny already set by the “strange wailing noise” heard by Berreggnog and Tonnison we have the story of an unnamed recluse, beginning with an initial out-of-body experience which takes him beyond space to a vast plain where stands an enormous green structure in the shape of the house from which he came. Among the mountains surrounding it are vast forms of mythological deities. A naked thing with swine-features attempts to enter the house. He is involuntarily drawn towards it, but the same force raises him up above it, leaving it “clutching upwards, with an expression of desire upon its face, such as I have never seen in this world,” and returns him home. Later, his dog disturbs something in a nearby ravine. This turns out to be another swine-thing, which sends him driving his sister back to the safety of the House. Much ambiguity arises from the fact that the sister sees nothing of the creatures and his apparently insane behaviour leads her to attempt to escape, while he sees in her a madwoman who cowers in terror at his touch.

Underground explorations reveal a huge Abyss beneath the house, and an apparent (the manuscript is here fragmentary and dreamlike) visit by the shade of a lost love warns the recluse to guard the house. Then follows another journey, but through Time, not Space. In an episode reminiscent of the time-travelling in Wells — though innocent of any mechanical contrivances — the narrator's perception of time speeds up, sunrise to sunset becoming first a matter of seconds and then to all intents and purposes instantaneous. His dog, sleeping by his side, falls to dust. His journey takes him beyond even the far future visited by Wells's Traveller, to a desolate Earth, one face to the sun, which, sputtering fitfully from the energies of the falling Inner Planets, is itself travelling through deserts of black space towards the vast Green Star, which it is suggested may be the cosmos's Central (binary) Sun. The House, together with the crew of swinefolk, collapses into the Abyss.

The Recluse first meets with, then parts from, his Lost Love on the shores of the Sea of Sleep and discerns human faces in the globes emanating from the Central Suns: images (so Hodgson himself suggests in his Introduction) of the world of “thought and emotion, working in conjunction with, and duly subject to, the scheme of material creation”. He finds himself on the Plain of his first experience, drifting into the huge House-analogue, and is back in his chair. Did it all happen? Beside him his dog is dead.

Strange happenings continue to take place. He is injured, and the wound becomes phosphorescent with corruption. The narrative closes with a final, disjointed confrontation, in the manner familiar to readers of so many first-person accounts of mounting supernatural terror, with something mounting the stairs to fumble at the doorhandle. Conveniently, instead of attempting to escape or prepare to defend himself, the narrator has continued writing to the end — his manuscript breaks off half-way through a word.

The Time Machine begins with mathematical and scientific speculation. The Time Traveller is, at least up until his actual arrival in the future, in control of his creation. The House on the Borderland, though, exhibits no such control or logic, the time travelling of its protagonist being entirely involuntary. Hodgson's traveller has no command over what happens to him in his visions and no explanation for the connection of the Swine-things who invade his house with the horrors he sees on the Plain where the giant green analogue of his house broods under a ring of fire. While the story is presented to the reader as dream or madness, Hodgson (as editor) is careful to note discrepancies with observed scientific fact, as when the narrator experiences hearing “the occasional, soft thud of falling matter” in his journey through time. A footnote points out that sound could not have carried through the attenuated air, implying that some other sense must have been in operation. Additionally, possible astronomical anomalies are carefully noted.

While both novels present subterranean menaces and apocalyptic visions , there are important differences in their treatment of them. Wells's Morlocks arise from the structure of the story and, although they are explained, they remain horrific precisely because of their links to social conditions in contemporary England. Hodgson's swinefolk have no such overt connections and, in consequence, they remain Gothic horrors from some dark interior of the psyche. Wells's vision of a dying Earth concludes with the sun's eclipse revealing a black, starless sky and life remaining only (perhaps) in the form of a round, tentacled object “hopping fitfully about”. So much for dreams and progress. Hodgson's annihilation of the solar system is, however, more complete and even more nihilistic: an endless progression of stars swallowed by up the galaxy's Central Suns. Human progress is an idea which is not even considered in Hodgson's universe, a cosmos of inexplicable horror where the physical world is only a shadow of more disturbing planes. The Time Machine ends with the stoical reflection that if human civilisation is, in the long term, futile then “it remains for us to live as though it were not so,” and its structure of observation — hypothesis — testing means that even this conclusion may not be based on full knowledge of the facts — as Stephen Baxter in <span class="book-title">The Time Ships</span> cleverly reminds us. Much of Wells's subsequent writing was an attempt to suggest ways of living as though the ultimate decline “were not so”. Hodgson remained fascinated by the Abyss and the dead Sun — the ultimate Nothingnesses at the end of time. The House on the Borderland concludes with the horrific death of a man whose name we do not even know.

The persuasiveness of Hodgson — and there is truth and a scientific approach in his work — is the truth of textual studies rather than scientific exploration. It is the creation of verisimilitude through footnotes dwelling on weak points in the argument, of mystery by unexplained references to events outside the story (such as the narrator's lost love) and the complex “editorial” situation. The House on the Borderland — which presents at least three cosmic journeys, one of which only exists as fragments — gives us an illusion of literary truth by creating an image of an old, half-obliterated manuscript but by doing so makes the story less decipherable. Hodgson has dislocated his narrative and distanced the reader from it in several ways. Paradoxically, the very features which give a reality to the text by treating it exactly as a recently-discovered manuscript which has been through several layers of exegesis — the anonymity of the narrator and the presentation of his manuscript within layers of editing, the lack of formal logic between parts of the story, the inclusion of scientific anomalies in the text and the attention drawn to them, and the fragmentation of the text itself when it reaches the point where the narrator is reunited with the soul of his lost love — are also the ones which proclaim its artificiality.

By the time we reach the actual story which Hodgson presents to us as the central part of the book we have passed through a dedicatory poem from Hodgson to his late father: in other words, a text which we can see as presented by the “real” author and in some way outside the following text, (although the poem evokes precisely the images which are most central to the novel; of the incursion of something from out of space and time, of opening a door and listening to “the sorrowful cry/Of the wind in the dark ... the sound that bids you to die”. Following this is the “Introduction” in which Hodgson is now in the persona of the editor of the manuscript which was “given into my care”, suggesting that this “mutilated ... simple, stiffly given account” may possess an “inner story”. Next is another poem, which we are meant to take as written by the manuscript's author. Entitled “Grief”, it is a lament for loss, and presumably it is about the Lost Love of the succeeding text: a footnote tells us that it appears to have been written before the manuscript. Next a chapter describes the finding of the manuscript — and this is balanced by a concluding chapter describing the discoverers' responses on having read it.

The structure of the narrative itself has been analysed by Brian Stableford who finds convincing reason to suggest that the novel is built from an initial short story which is essentially chapters XXIV-XXVI of the novel (the concluding chapters of the Recluse's account), expanded as chapters V-XIII, and linked by the visionary sequences one at least of which (the highly fragmentary Chapter XIV recording the reunion with the Lost Love and which is presented as a damaged portion of the manuscript) may have been an attempt by Hodgson to incorporate his own dream-experiences. Certainly the novel as it stands is a series of patterns which seem to weave in and out of each other: a more sophisticated version of the patterning in Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer which not only is constructed out of a series of framing narratives and stories-within-stories but also uses the device of the “broken narrative”:

Here the manuscript was illegible for a few lines ... A long hiatus followed here, and the next passage that was legible, though its [sic] proved to be a continuation of the narrative, was but a fragment.

Without doubt, though, the central image of the novel is the time-trip . At this point, The House on the Borderland becomes a work which fuses the Gothic novel tradition — the old house, hauntings, supernatural threats and madness — with the newer, twentieth-century concern with knowing — even if also fearing — reality. We have the notion, unforgettably dramatised by Wells, that the earth will come to an end, increased and emphasised. The narrator observes the slowing-down of the solar system, the dwindling of the very sun into ashes, with horrified and careful detail. Even the baleful Green Sun to which our dead star is attracted may be similar to the Black Hole which sf speculation has sometimes put at the centre of our Galaxy, and while Hodgson's “swine-things” may be Monsters From the Id (the “desire” of the creature's gaze in the Recluse's first experience may be significant) they are reached through those dimensions which are fundamental to post-Wellsian science fiction: Space and Time.

If, in The House on the Borderland, the modern sf approach exists within a very traditional Gothic framework, then The Night Land has no such reservations, possessing unashamedly full-blooded sf elements. The remnants of humanity are huddled inside a fortress-pyramid, surrounded by monsters of all kinds, some of which are supernatural, others which may be material beings from other parts of the cosmos and others (the Humped Men, the Giants) which may be mutated descendants of humanity. It is a time perhaps glimpsed in The House:

And so, in that supremely future time, the world, dark and intensely silent, rode on its gloomy orbit around the ponderous mass of the dead sun.

The Earth-Current (a relative of Bulwer-Lytton's “vril” or the ley-line energy beloved of New-Agers) supplies energy to the Pyramid and among other concepts which have since become a part of science fiction are a form of telepathy called Night-Hearing, the Air Clog (a force field?) and the now-familiar idea of food tablets. The Night Land could well be one of the earliest fully-fledged examples of the post-holocaust quest-narrative and, with its bleak images of a beleaguered humanity in a world grown totally hostile, still trying to understand the nature of phenomena such as the Seven Lights, the Road Where the Silent Ones Walk, or the Watcher of the South, it is still one of the most powerful.

Like The House on the Borderland the story proper is framed by an introductory narration, in this case a preface which explains how the narrator met his Heart's Desire, the Lady Mirdath, courted and married her, and lost her in childbirth. Hodgson's language — of which more later — sets this in late mediaeval England, but of place we are given only the vaguest details. The real story begins when the narrator's dreams himself a youth in the Last Redoubt, where thanks to his “night-hearing” he senses the presence of another fortress in the unending darkness. The mind he is in most contact with is that of a young woman called Naani who, it transpires, “remembers” his “earlier” self: in simpler terms, she is a reincarnation of his Lost Love. The title of the book, The Night Land, of course refers to the fact that this is a realm of darkness far beyond even Wells's vision of a fading sun, but there is also a strong sense in which it refers to the fact that this epic quest takes place in the narrator's dreams:

... for of late a wondrous hope has grown in me, in that I have, at night in my sleep, waked into the future of this world, and seen strange things and utter marvels ... and have visited in my dreams those places where in the womb of Time, she and I shall again come together.
... it was not as if I dreamed; but, as it were, that I waked there into the dark, in the future of this world.

Perhaps we have, in this long and unwieldy book, an equally long and unwieldy pun on the term “Dark Ages”.

The mixture of science and spiritualism in The Night Land can be easily discerned by examining what we are told about how this world came into being:

A dim record there was of olden sciences (that are yet far off in our future) which, disturbing the unmeasurable Outward Powers, had allowed to pass the Barrier of Life some of these Monsters and Ab-human creatures, which are now so wondrously cushioned from us at this normal present.

There are forces of Good and Evil abroad in The Night Land which contend for the souls of humanity, as well as beings (such as the Silent Ones) who are mostly neutral but who will not allow interference without dire consequences. However, the scales are, it seems, balanced on the sides of the horrors. For instance, shortly after the narrator hero rescues Naani/Mirdath — alone among the millions of the “peoples of the Lesser Redoubt” — a sinister spinning sound heralds the approach of “one of the great Evil Forces of the Land” and the pair in their extremity are saved by “a clear burning Circle, above us in the night ... one of those sweet Powers of Goodness, that did strive ever to stand between the Forces of Evil and the spirit of man”. The pair are saved, but the episode is preceded and followed by the horrific deaths of a nation. Why, we are perhaps entitled to ask, are only two saved and millions of others horribly killed? To provide a plot for the novel, is the flippant answer, but out of the episode comes a pervasive sense of doubt and despair which is at odds with any message that “Good” may be superior to “Evil”. Such labels are inapplicable in The Night Land, where Humanity is the victim of contending forces and the “sweet Powers of Goodness” are unaffected by human notions of morality. However advanced these humans are, their path is fixed. Wells has his Time Traveller deduce the nature of his future-world and he offers us several possibilities as this body of evidence grows. Hodgson's narrator speculates, but the underlying nature of his world is the same at the beginning as at the end. There are no surprises once the scene is set. Static, The Night Land broods eternally around the Great Redoubt.

There seems to be a consensus that the vista of frightening cosmic loneliness envisioned in The Night Land is staggering in content, but that the style in which it is presented is sickly, verbose, over-sentimental and grotesque. Any discussion why Hodgson chose to write his novel in a particular way is really a matter for the literary biographer he so badly needs, but two things strike a careful reader. First, that there is clearly an attempt to create a sense of alienation and mystery, a depiction of a future so unutterably separated from our time that the very memory of our era has been lost. Second, that Hodgson was actually partially successful in this attempt.

Whereas Hodgson creates the alienation in The House on the Borderland by his organising and fracturing of narrative, in The Night Land he does so by his employment of a series of sledgehammer blows at language itself. In an earlier version of this paper I described Hodgson's prose style as possibly based upon the archaic language of William Morris's attempts at medievalism and “excruciatingly awful”. Now, I am less sure. Hodgson's archaism is obviously pastiche and, unlike the mock-seventeenth century prose of E.R. Eddison (author of The Worm Ouroborous and the “Zimiamvia” trilogy), it rarely progresses beyond pastiche. Eddison's archaic prose is capable of expressing high drama, tension, intrigue, wit, mystery and eroticism; it is sinewy and flexible. Hodgson's is capable of expressing little but maudlin romanticism. Throughout The Night Land the reader is filled with suspicion that the writer has adopted a style which does not necessarily arise from the events of the story. It may be argued that the language does spring from the introductory chapter, which describes the romance between the narrator and Mirdath the Beautiful, but unfortunately this “Gilbert and Sullivan” eroticism is precisely the weakest part of the novel. While Wells himself was not immune to the convention of presenting his protagonist with a flimsy and submissive Beauty to dominate (cf Weena the Eloi in The Time Machine) the second half of The Night Land is full of passages which read like entries in “Bad Sex Writing” competitions:

And truly her knees did so tremble that she had not stood, let be to walk! And I caught her up again; and I kist her, and I told her that I did surely be her Master, in verity, and she mine own Baby-Slave.”

He does go immediately on to protest "And truly you shall not laugh upon me" but the temptation in hindsight is too great. It is more instructive, however, to look at why Hodgson is writing in this manner.

No doubt there are biographical explanations. Hodgson spent some extremely physical years at sea in the Merchant Marine as a teenager and some of his “realistic” stories suggest a brutal regime. When he returned to shore, he opened a School of Physical Culture. The narrator of The Night Land is fully aware of the attractions of his own body:

But surely she denied me a moment of the vest, and stood before me, and had an admiring and wonder, very sweet and honest, because that my arms did be so great and hard with muscles. And indeed I did be very strong, as you have perceived; for I did be alway in affection of the Exercises that were taught in the Upringing of all the Peoples of the Mighty Pyramid; and by this explaining, you shall understand that I was like to be strong; but indeed, I owed the straightness and shaping of my body to the Mother that bore me. And afterward, in all my life, had I taken pride of my body to be of health and to have strength; and surely this is a matter very fit for pride; and to be told bravely and with honesty.”

Throughout his narrative — in this very distinctive breakdown of tenses to create what is in itself a tangling of time — Hodgson's language is on the verge of disintegration. To take a passage at random:

And she still to have no speech with me, but in a little to begin that she sing in a low voice; and to have her pretty body very upright and lithesome, and to go forward with a wondrous dainty swing, so that my heart told me that she did all be stirred with small thrillings of defiance unto me, and with thrillings of love ...

Grammatically, this is like little ever dignified with the title of “the English Language” — at least, to modern ears — but does not its overt strangeness suggest that we are in a world where the normal laws of narrative language (not to mention sexuality) no longer apply? To gain some clue to Hodgson's touchstone here, we must remember that this is a story in which a young and pure hero sets out from a castle and battles Giants, Monsters, and Spiritual danger to rescue a Maiden in Distress. We must remember the armour which protects him, and his weapon, the Diskos, which he wields like a whirling sword or axe. We must remember that despite the “wondrous dainty swing”, the cuddlings and kissings and frequent occasions of nudity, the relations between the narrator and Naani are thoroughly chaste. We must remember the English of Malory, with its “wit you well,” “that should little need,” and “Then the king, at the queen's request, made him to alight and to unlace his helm”

This is a tale of chivalry, reminiscent of tales of medieval knighthood. The rescue party which vainly sets out to save the Lesser Redoubt has to undergo a spiritual and physical preparation before they set out, to ensure that they are “as it might be, holy”.

Even so, however, the self-conscious archaism of the language is at odds with the world Hodgson is describing. He is creating a picture of the far future, of a world in terminal decay, but the language and (to some extent) the coy flirtatiousness and rather nasty chauvinism of his love-interest drags him back to the past. This is a story which incorporates what was to become science fiction in its concern for the future, its assumption of scientific and technological development, even in its late-Victorian concern to present a rigorously scientific paradigm for the realms dabbled in by spiritualists (Hodgson also wrote stories featuring that interesting fusion of genres the “psychic detective”). Yet our mental journey into the far future is pulled back by the fact that what we are reading is a dream or series of dreams by someone who in our terms is a dweller in the past, yet who is constantly addressing us, the readers: “for as you may know from my past tellings” ... “Now, as you shall perceive” ... ”and yet I have no certainty in this matter, as you do perceive ...” Just as the narrator can only share his confusion, we are unable to create a stable location for the voice by which Hodgson tells his tale.

“In writing it down I feel with only too much keenness the inadequacy of pen and ink,” writes Wells's narrator of The Time Machine. “... and truly you to know how I mean; only that I have no skill of such matters” stammers Hodgson's narrator of The Night Land. In one disclaimer we have a conventional underpinning to what we know will be a skilful narrative; in the other we have — what, an ironic admission of failure? Not quite, I think, because somehow Hodgson has created literature which is worth the attention. Faced with a vision embracing the end of the Victorian era — the dashing of its ideas of progress and the culmination of its spiritual and social doubt — Wells and Hodgson crystallised this in the motif of a dying Earth. Wells, in keeping with his rational, modern approach, expressed it in straightforward prose, the clear scientific narrative of the twentieth century. Hodgson, on the other hand, took the more audacious step of attempting to manipulate the language and structure of his novels in order to create a verbal analogue of the spiritual dislocation embodied within them. I cannot say that I think he succeeded, in his mock-Medievalism and Victorian sentimentality, but then again perhaps he did not altogether fail.

William Hope Hodgson stands at the head of a more fractured approach to language and narrative, an approach designed to create atmosphere and underline what is said, rather than to describe accurately and in scientific detail. William Burroughs's “cut-ups”, Michael Moorcock's ironic, oblique 1970s “Jerry Cornelius” stories, Brian Aldiss's occasional Joycean word-play and nouveau roman approach and J.G. Ballard's iconic imagery are all examples of this technique employed by later writers whose trajectories bring them within the boundaries of science fiction. While I do not think that Hodgson was a successful as these writers in realising this method in his work, I do believe that he can be most rewardingly read not as a minor dabbler in “Gothickry” but rather as a writer on the borderland of speculative fiction and genre sf — one who developed some of their concerns with a vision which looked towards the future, but a literary technique which was refined from the past.

Both the apparent ascendancy of the Morlocks (emphasised with the final dramatic scene on the beach below a dying Sun) in Wells and the threat of evil supernatural forces in Hodgson suggest that humanity's place in the universe is necessarily beleaguered and weak. Wells explores an immediately modern, collective future. Hodgson's futures are individual, despairing. Both fictions suggest that models of both physical reality and social constructs are only provisional. Human consciousness itself seems only contingent on the kind of life an educated Englishman would live. Hodgson's is the Englishman of the past: literary, chivalric, sentimental and the light of civilisation in the darkness of uncouth races and spiritual desolation. Wells's is the Englishman of the future extrapolated from him; curious, arrogantly confident and culturally determined by the discovery that the universe was not created for the English ruling class to play with, but might still serve as recreation for his technocratic successors. Both seemed to find unease in those stereotypes. Wells, however, was more congenial to an audience which could accept his final conclusion that even if civilisation is doomed to failure in the long run “it remains for us to live as though it were not so”: an ambiguous stoicism which is perhaps the nearest the succeeding history of the Twentieth century can look to for optimism.


A note from Andy Sawyer:

This is based upon material which appeared in William Hope Hodgson: Voyages and Vision edited by Ian Bell (1987) and was later revised as a conference paper at the "Time Machine: Past Present and Future" Conference organised by the H.G Wells Society, July 26–29, 1995.

The author is currently engaged in further revision and research on this topic, and is aware that in the light of current scholarship on Hodgson he disagrees with his former self. A number of inaccuracies and changes of emphasis therefore remain to be addressed, but the author would be very grateful indeed for comments, corrections, and suggestions which please mail direct to him.

[I don't have current contact information for Andy Sawyer. The link that formerly accompanied this essay was broken. I have located a brief article about the Out of this World Project. — KC]


© 2001 by Andy Sawyer, Science Fiction Foundation Collection, University of Liverpool.