Saturday, April 3, 2010

#23: Speaker For the Dead, #15 The Time Machine

Speaker For The Dead:

“This is how humans are: We question all our beliefs, except for the ones that we really believe in, and those we never think to question.” 
“No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one's life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.”  
“It's the most charming thing about humans. You are all so sure that the lesser animals are bleeding with envy because they didn't have the good fortune to be born Homo sapiens.” 
Speaker for the Dead is the original sequel to Ender's Game, and it takes place about 3,000 years after the events of Ender's Game have occurred. In fact, Orson Scott Card intended this novel to be his magnum opus, a true masterpiece of Science Fiction and philosophy, while Ender's Game (originally actually a short story or novella) was slated as a simple lead-in to Speaker for the Dead. However, Speaker for the Dead actually has very little to do with the plot of the original novel in the Ender sequence; the Hive Queen, Ender Wiggin, and his sister Valentine are still alive due to all the almost-light-speed traveling they've been doing, but everyone else has died of natural causes, including Peter, Ender's brother, who became leader of the Hegemony of Earth after the events of Ender's Game. In this time period, humans have begun to colonize planets outside the Solar System, and a few dozen planets have been begun to be colonized. Ender and his sister travel all over space, with Ender performing "Speakings" for the dead. Many other speakers for the dead crop up, but he is the original one.
What a Speaker does is this: he uncovers many facts about the deceased and presents them all honestly and factually, stressing the good things that person has done in their life and how they lived it, but also not leaving out the bad parts or the crimes they may have gotten away with. Thus, the Speaker creates a more poignant, powerful atmosphere at the deceased's funeral while truly illuminating their character for all to see and appreciate. Speaker for the Dead has become a sacred task, and in fact it was all invented by Ender Wiggin at the end of Ender's Game. Ender's unintentional murdering of an entire race of aliens, the Buggers, or the Formic people, is another theme in this novel. He was a military-bred child genius, and at the end of Ender's Game he plays what the generals tell him is a very complex game, when in fact, he is controlling an Earth assault on the Formic planet (evidently his genius has been recognized). He mercilessly destroys the Formics and blows their planet to smithereens. The only Formic left is the Hive Queen, a cocoon that Ender tries to find a suitable planet for, so the race can reestablish itself.
In this novel, Ender travels to Lusitania, a colony planet of Portuguese-associated people to investigate (and Speak for the deceased) a mysterious brutal murder of Pipo, a biologist who is studying the newfound alien piggies: apparently simple, reasonably cute creatures found on Lusitania, and the only other sentient race found so far. Ender has been called by Pipo's depressed and bitter daughter, Novinha, to find answers. This book focuses on Ender's interaction with the people of Lusitania, and his solving of the mystery of Pipo's death, why these seemingly peaceful creatures would kill a man who had gained their trust and respect so viciously, with his stomach cut open and his entrails arranged neatly out of his body.
Speaker for the Dead is an interesting and stimulating novel about how alien life is never going to be easily understood by humans, and about respect and the proper treatment of the dead. Is it as interesting and engaging as Ender's Game, almost on par with it in fact, and quite a good read. Of course, read Game first, but this story does not have much to do with Game, due to the 3,000 year time separation. This novel was intended to be the big one in the series, but Game stole all of its thunder. Many people dismiss the seemingly endless Ender sequels, but this is definitely one that is well-thought out and quite different from Ender's Game-- less focused on action and more contemplative and emotion-laced ( as opposed to the sometimes disturbingly emotionless murder in Ender's Game) throughout its entirety. 

The Time Machine:

“We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow. With out them we grow weak like the Eloi in comfort and security. We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence. ” 
“To sit among all those unknown things before a puzzle like that is hopeless. That way lies monomania. Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all.”  
“We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existence, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave.” 
The Time Machine by H.G Wells is the original time travel story, period. This very short novel (only about 90-120 pages depending on the font size) is still the time travel story against which all others pale. But its shortness and simplicity should not fool the reader. This book is certainly an adventure, but there is also some thought-provoking philosophy about socialism, and the ethicality of time travel itself. I have found in reading science fiction that many time travel stories introduce new dilemmas to time travel, but, after reading the Time Machine, it becomes apparent that H.G. Wells had already thought of most of them!
The plot is quite familiar to most, and fairly straightforward: The Time Traveler, set against the background of Victorian England, builds a machine with which he can travel through time. After a brief introduction to our protagonist, most of the novel focuses on his voyage to an era in which humanity has split off into two separate sub-species: the weak, peaceful, useless Eloi, and the dark, barbaric, underground-dwelling, cannabalistic Morlocks. The Morlocks apparently represent the working class, which makes the Eloi's semi-utopian existence possible. The Eloi's stagnant, peaceful, workless society thus represents the wealthy upper class. It soon becomes evident that the Morlocks hold the true power in this society --they are feared by the Eloi, and kill and eat them often.
It becomes apparent to the Time Traveler that the Eloi will probably perish as a race soon. Wells takes this opportunity to introduce the reader to some of his socialist philosophy, and it is quite convincing in places. The Time Traveler's love of the Eloi, Weena, is the central arc in this story, as the Traveler tries to stop Morlocks from killing her, as well as stealing his machine. The Traveler also briefly visits Earth in the far future, where he sees the sun swelled to enormous size, and the entire Earth as a wasteland home to strange, writhing creatures.
The novel ends rather abruptly, but the reader has been given much to think about by the time this wild ride is over. All in all, The Time Machine is an excellent introduction to Science Fiction, and it's probably the first book I'd recommend to someone starting out SF. You can get to the more complex stuff like Star Maker, Dune, Dying Inside, and The Man in the High Castle eventually, but if you are a SF fan and haven't read this, drop everything and read it; it is a pioneering, seminal work of SF.


Reading The Time Machine: Then and Now 

When I first read Wells’ The Time Machine in sixth grade, it was a cool action-adventure story, revolving around an idea that I could really let my imagination run wild with. When I read it for a second time in high school, I remember being surprised at Wells’ insight and technical skill as a writer –he wasn’t some dusty old Brit churning out mindless popular fiction as I probably assumed when I was younger. And now, when I read The Time Machine as a college senior, I’ve done a complete 180 from my initial reading; I see it more as a fascinating catalogue of philosophical musings, covered in the disguise of an entertaining science fiction story.
As pertaining to the themes of our course on Utopia and Dystopia, I enjoyed the way that Wells gradually reveals the dystopian nature of the world of 802,701 A.D. to both the Time Traveller and to us as readers. We start off with a first impression: the sweet, serene, child-like Eloi living in a seemingly quiet, calm land. They seem not to have to work for anything, and the bare necessities of life like food and shelter are provided for. But even then, in this seeming utopia, both the Time Traveller and the reader begin to question. What do these Eloi do all day? Aren’t they bored? What do they have to strive for and to be hopeful for? And of course, there’s the fact that all of them seem so foolish and weak. It’s one of those moments that made me, as a reader, wonder if there really is such a thing as the perfect utopia after all? Even the laziest person would admit that a world with no problems, and thus, nothing to work toward fixing, could get incredibly boring, incredibly quickly. A land filled with chronic boredom, and likely depression and other mental problems resulting from such boredom, does not sound at all utopian to me.
But, on the other hand, if a society has problems that need fixing, can we still call it a utopia? It’s definitely a hard group of questions to think over, and I know that I don’t have an adequate answer quite yet.
Wells’ gradual reveal of the true dystopian nature of the world of 802,701 was well-done, and as a reader, I welcomed the conflict and the problems brought about by the Morlocks. It goes back to what we started to cover in class about why dystopias tend to appeal to readers more than utopias. We just love seeing things go wrong!
As we learn more about the Morlocks, again, Wells really got me thinking. The Morlocks as a repressed working class who have turned the tables and begun to swallow up, both figuratively and literally, their capitalist oppressors? There’s something that sixth-grade me definitely glazed over. The jab at unchecked capitalism makes a lot of sense when you consider that Wells lived in Industrial Revolution-era England, and likely saw some stunning inequality and worker abuse in his day. The way that Wells presented the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks suggests that Wells finds faults with both classes, and more accurately, with the big picture system itself. If I had to guess how Wells thought of the rich and the working class after having read this novel, I would guess that his own views are not too far off from those of the Time Traveller. He probably frowned upon rich factory owners who did little to no work themselves, and saw their actions as indicative of eventual decline and future stagnation. Concerning the poor, working class, Wells probably saw their maltreatment as dehumanizing, depicting as he did, a future where they seem more animal than human. And I’m sure Wells also recognized the fact that those who are abused, in turn, often rise up and abuse others themselves when they have gained some kind of power.
To end my blog post on The Time Machine, I’d just like to list a few quotes that especially stood out to me, and my thoughts on them. If anyone else has some thoughts on these quotes, I’d be really interested to hear them…
“We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow. With out them we grow weak like the Eloi in comfort and security. We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence. ”
This quote, for me, encapsulated what Wells is trying to say about the importance of moving forward and struggling against challenges for societies as a whole. William Gibson, a great cyberpunk author whose work I enjoy, had a nice exchange in one of his short stories that expresses something similar– ” ‘Hell of a world we live in, huh? …But it could be worse, huh?’
‘That’s right,’ I said, ‘or even worse, it could be perfect.’ ”
“We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existence, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave.”
I just liked this quote on a personal level because I think a lot of people focus too much on the future, constantly stressing and all, without taking time to enjoy the present. Obviously everyone has to plan for the future to some degree, but what’s the point of being in school, constantly stressing about life, and then getting a job and constantly stressing about retirement, and then retiring and constantly stressing about death? That kind of existence sounds truly dystopian to me.

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