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A Scientific Romance, Ronald Wright, Knopf, 1997, 309 pp.

The premise of a sequel to H. G. Wells' The Time Machine could have been treated in any number of ways. A literal-minded approach would have been a Wells pastiche, and the opposite (the Hollywood approach, to be facetious) would throw out everything related to Wells, retaining the association only for marketing purposes. Wright's approach is unique and difficult to describe properly. In some ways, A Scientific Romance untethers itself completely from The Time Machine and floats away into its own space, motivated by its own concerns and follies. Yes, there is a time machine and a trip to the future. Wells himself makes an appearance, by way of a letter left with his solicitors' firm, a letter which is to be given to a scholar of Wellsiana in the year 1999. However, the typical apparatus of science fiction is largely absent, and the thematic and stylistic links to The Time Machine are tenuous at best. It's a testament to the power of Wells' original accomplishment that most time travel stories in the century or so since the publication of The Time Machine have been pale imitations or blatant rip-offs. By using Wells' book as a non-linear launch point, Wright manages to better The Time Machine in ways that other time travel stories simply can't touch. Why? Wright's elegant prose, mainly, and the resultant density of idea and impression.

A Scientific Romance is divided up into four sections, each distinct from the others, so I'll discuss each separately. The book opens with "The Wells Device," in which we learn a great deal about our narrator, David Lambert. We also find out about David's close friend, Bird, and their relationship to the recently deceased woman, Anita. This section reads much like a novel by Graham Swift, or any number of any other recent British novelists who use highest quality prose to examine the foibles of human relationships. David gets ahold of the aforementioned letter from Wells, goes to the appointed place at midnight, New Year's Eve, 1999, and discovers the Wells device, a functioning time machine. The second segment is called "After London," where David is stranded five hundred years from now in an unpeopled future. David spends his time putting together pieces of what might have brought civilization to a crashing halt. "After London" brought echoes of Riddley Walker to my mind, especially in the texture of this future (more so in the third section of A Scientific Romance but here as well), but Wright has a much stranger explanation for society's collapse than Hoban used. The third part, "The Scottish Play," begins with David's contact with some of the few surviving humans, a clan of black people living in Scotland. The title refers to Macbeth, Shakespeare's bloodiest play, and the name of the local clan chief in the year 2499. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that "The Scottish Play" is also a reference to the phrase "passion play" when used to describe a re-enactment of Christ's crucifixion. The final part A Scientific Romance is quite short, around 30 pages, and is entitled "Tithonus." Tithonus is the man in Greek myth who asked the gods for eternal life but forgot to include eternal youth. A Scientific Romance ends with our intrepid hero getting into the Wells Device for another trip. This conclusion would have made me quite happy, except for the small hint of the dreaded It Was All A Dream ending.

David Lambert is the narrator of the novel, in its various bits and pieces that make up his journey through time. He is characterized as fully as can be. Somewhat vain, but with a great deal of self-knowledge, which he knows does not necessarily help him very much. Erudite, Oxford educated, and constantly leaping from one fascinating topic of conversation to another quickly enough to make Tristram Shandy proud. One of the triumphs of Wright's prose is the way it captures the flow of conversation between highly intelligent people. Simultaneously, Wright pokes a good deal of sly fun at academia -- Lambert studies the devices of the Victorian era, and this is another point of similarity to the A. S. Byatt and her scholars of Victoriana. And much like other recent works of art -- the Swift book which I've already mentioned, as well as Egoyan movies, especially Exotica -- A Scientific Romance is constructed like a puzzle of character. One of the climaxes of the book is a fight between Anita and Bird (279), which happened far in the past and which Lambert could have remembered for us at any point in the novel. Another piece of the puzzle arrives from a different direction a few pages later, when, through a cruel coincidence, David finds out what happened to Bird after David's departure from the year 2000.

As I've mentioned, the strongest trait of Wright's book is the writing. Here's an early passage, one of the first that really set my affections towards Wright's style:

"There was a time when I enjoyed walking in London, but lately it's become less pleasant -- beggars plucking your arm, spitty harmonicas in your ear, would-be muggers loping behind you, and the dogshit escalating in calibre as people trade chihuahuas in for Dobermanns. The other day a woman in rags even offered me a baby. London, the last metropolis that worked!" (23)

In the second section of the book, David comes across an old dump, partly eroded by a river. Here is his reaction (and I am again quoting an entire paragraph to give the full flavour of Wright's wonderful prose):

"All those things, Anita -- Zamfir recordings, yo-yos, xylophones, weedkillers, video games, train sets, televisions, stereos, snuff films, rocket silos, railways, pinball tables, one-armed bandits, oil refineries, nuclear piles, motorhomes, milk cartons, lipsticks, lawnmowers, lava lamps, Kleenex holders, Jacuzzis, hula hoops, houseboats, gravy boats, golf carts, footballs, fondue sets, drinks trolleys, cameras, bottles, beds, airliners -- all those splendid Things that made up the sum of the world, which we had to keep on making and buying to keep ourselves diverted and employed -- were just garbage-to-be. Ripped, smelted, sucked, blown from the raddled earth; turned into must-haves, always-wanteds, major advances, can't-do-withouts. And pouf! a decade later, a season later, it's ashamed-to-be-seen-in, clapped out, white elephant, obsolete, infra dig, inefficient, passe, and away it goes to the basement or the bushes or the ditch or the bottom of the sea." (160)

This should be the rallying cry of organizations like Adbusters and their ilk, with the juxtapositions of items like nuclear piles and motorhomes. Wright indicts the full range of consumerist insanity with one devastating paragraph, implying that none of it can separated, that the seemingly harmless merges with weedkillers and snuff films in the end and may have been no different all along. I won't argue that the entire book is so brilliantly written as this passage, but A Scientific Romance as whole does not let down its end of the bargain. Few books can claim that their highest points, in terms of ideas and the expression of ideas, are not overwhelmed by the tedium of the low points. A Scientific Romance is a rare achievement.

Last modified: January 7, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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