A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright. Pub 1997
I first read this book pre-2000, so not too long after it was published. It became a Desert Island book, one that I always list as an all-time favourite. Like others on this year’s list for me, it’s a favourite that I had not read in many years, so decided to revisit it. I can confirm it remains a favourite, and as with the other long-since-read books this year, was delightful and surprising – being so long since I read it, many elements were fresh and new.
The story is primarily science fiction (what the Victorians referred to as scientific romance), using some familiar main elements:
- time travel, and specifically the titular Time Machine from the HG Wells story (another scientific romance). David Lambert, the main character in the novel, is an archeologist by training, with an interest in machines from the 18th and 19th century. He learns of a letter from HG Wells purporting that the time machine was actually built and successfully used by a scientist in 1899, with a scheduled return on 31 December 1999 (in the midst of Y2K hysteria). David secures access to the London location of the machine’s alleged travel, and lo and behold it reappears as scheduled, empty but in working order.
- Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). While no longer the worry it once was, in the mid-90s it was verging on hysteria. A colleague and former lover of David’s dies of vCJD, and David is subsequently diagnosed with it. This looming death sentence motivates the main actions of the rest of the story.
- Climate change, or global warming as it was known then. While not as prevalent in the news back in the 90s, it was nonetheless an emerging concern. As the story progresses, the very long term effects become clear.
- Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), specifically cultivated lawn products and the development of grasses that grow anywhere. This was an early, and prescient, recognition of the challenges of messing with Mother Nature. Again, the very long term effects are startling.
- Pandemic, specifically something called Rapid Immune System Collapse or RISC. This, combined with vCJD and HIV (or Henry the Fourth, as they refer to it), coincidental with the changing climate, became insurmountable for the human race. “As society disintegrated and solar radiation rose, evolution would have smiled on in the dark. The cruel triage of natural selection, stalled by medicine for generations, would have resumed.”
With his vCJD diagnosis, David decides to go all in on the time machine. He rejigs it with the then-latest in computer technology and safety, and executes a departure in the year 2000 for a date 500 years in the future. His rationale: by then, there should be a cure for vCJD. The reality: vCJD is the least of the problems of the future. Climate change has turned London into a mostly-underwater wreckage and a tropical lagoon. Those lawn products have expanded and evolved to be a hardy never-dying sward across the countryside. In this watery jungle world, there is little evidence of what happened to people and civilization, so David decides to trek North in the hopes of finding more answers. In Scotland, he finds more pieces of information but then finds himself the captive of a small tribe of people (the MacBeaths) near Loch Ness; in a wry bit of comic relief, the MacBeaths’ mortal enemies are the tribe known as the MacDonalds, who’s sigil is a large M made from two golden arches.
Eventually escaping and returning to London, the novel ends with David’s departure in the time machine, aiming for the year 1988 and the time before so much went wrong, with the hope of trying to avert the catastrophes, even if just for himself and his friends. His final observations are not optimistic: “…human numbers may eventually rebuild…but the ready ores and fossil fuels are gone. Without coal there can be no Industrial Revolution; without oil no leap from steam to atom…A civilization such as ours ploughs up the rails behind; we had at best one chance to get it right.” (Aside: part of my affection for Wright’s writing is based on his splendid and prolific use of my favourite punctuation, the semi-colon.)
The majority of the novel describes David’s explorations of this future ruined world and its pitiful remaining humans, with minimal technical explanation of the time travel itself. He does not find what he’s looking for, but instead what he needed in order to make sense of his own life and his next steps. The story is well told, and David is a likeable and reliable narrator. You want him to find…something, but also perhaps to learn how to be content with what he has or had.
Fate: while my original copy of this book is lost (likely loaned out and not returned), I’ll hang on to this one in case I want to read it again in another 20 years.