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Time travel for the romantic
on February 4, 2003
It may seem to be a contradiction in terms, to use a time machine to travel into the future to pour over the details of one's past. But that's exactly what Ronald Wright accomplishes in his marvelous novel A SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE. Part futuristic travelogue, part nostalgic reminiscences of the past, ROMANCE is a thinking person's science fiction, a completely enthralling apocalyptic dystopia that reveals more about the present-day human heart than one would expect.
Taking a page from H.G. Wells's classic THE TIME MACHINE, Wright has fashioned a fiction based on the 'reality' of a fiction. Wright's protagonist David Lambert, archaeologist and devotee of Victorian machinery, discovers that Wells based his novel upon a factual incident. Lambert subsequently discovers the time machine, intact but riderless, and decides to travel to 2500 A.D.. What he discovers raises more questions than answers about the fate of humanity, but it also raises questions as to what events led Lambert to this point in his life. As he travels the futuristic England countryside, he retraces his past with his friend Bird, and the woman they both love, Anita. The farther Lambert treks through England, the farther his despair over past actions becomes.
Not having perused Wells's classic, I am unable to compare his and Wright's styles. I can reveal that there is a deeply pleasing antiquated feel to Wright's tale; something in his style evokes the nostalgic prose style of Jules Verne. The font also seems charmingly old-fashioned (and for anyone who doesn't believe a font can affect a story, please discover Chip Kidd's terrific novel THE CHEESE MONKEYS, which covers just such a format consideration).
Wright has penned several travel books, and his knowledge of the mechanics of travel shows through; Lambert is nothing if not prepared for his journey, and his time machine seems plausibly real. It is to Wright's credit that ROMANCE reads not as a tour book, but rather as a full-fledged story. His future England is left appealingly vague; jungle covers the land, manmade flora has taken root in an unexpected manner, and humanity has all but disappeared. Clues are revealed as to what occurred, but that is all they remain, clues. Mankind's ultimate fate is left to the imagination; what Wright reveals is frightening and confusing enough.
Wright is not only concerned with a 'what-if' scenario; he also is a curious traveller of the human conscience. His intention is not to simply provide the curious with yet another post-apocalyptic landscape; like the best of the genre (SWAN SONG by Robert McCammon, THE STAND by Stephen King, and THE POSTMAN by David Brin, to name but three), Wright wants to explore the human condition through the genre stereotypes. Lambert, despite his intention to map out the future, is plagued by his past. His love for Anita, his regret over Bird, haunt his every move. Wright may be attempting to show that we are the sum of our past actions, and no matter how far you travel, the past will never fail to judge your present actions. You cannot outrun yourself.
A SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE is not the novel for the reader who demands fast-paced action. Wright lays out his tale deliberately, with care and precision given to each step. Lambert's journey is highly unlikely, yet completely believable. His ultimate destination is heart-breaking in its simple acceptance of what makes a person happy. Wright's novel, despite the absence of characters, is a very real romance.