Victor Fet, a colleague with whom I have shared adventures in art and science, offers Alice and the Time Machine (Evertype, 134 pages, illustrated by Byron W. Sewell) on the 150 anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the birth of H.G. Wells. The novella brings together Alice Liddell, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), John Dalton (of atomic theory fame), Charles Darwin, Francis Galton (Darwin’s half-cousin) and Wells, who arrives in Darwin’s time of 1862 from 1892 via a time machine. Together they determine that Alice’s mad tale is actually a message from the future, warning them of coming chaos, bloody wars, catastrophic pollution and tyranny. They form the Time Corps and use the time machine to contact scientists past and future to enlist their aid to try to change the world for the better. As they do their work, they notice changes in their own time. At the beginning of the tale, Wells is a nobody but becomes a famous science-fiction author while the other Wells fades in his memory as if a dream.
Ada Lovelace (mathematician) and Charles Babbage (early inventor of computing technology) are the first great thinkers the five time adventurers ask to join the Corps. A number of Russian scientists and other great thinkers (Fet is Russian) are also enlisted, a detail which Fet bases on the historical fact that Dodgson visited Russia.
Since they know what to look for, the Time Corps are able to save important papers and research that would have been lost to the future. They inspire Dimitri Mendeleev (periodic table) and Leo Tolstoy, among others. They seek to prevent weapons from being developed, but because the Time Corps can only go thirty years in either direction, Wells can’t see beyond 1922. He cannot know that the help they bring to Bernhard Riemann, the predecessor of Einstein, and the help they bring Marie Curie, will end up enabling the discovery of nuclear energy and the bomb.
Sinisterly, it is Galton (inventor of the concept of eugenics) that initially devises the plan:
“We will, within the biological time allotted us, enhance and direct discoveries—to harness the forces of Nature—light, ether, magnetism—and place those Promethean spirits at our service with new and inventive machines. We will work the betterment of the human race itself, learning and altering debilitating conditions, and advancing medicine in all fields; we will experiment, explore, and expand. We must become wise advisors to kinds and presidents.”
The Promethean reference directs the reader to think of Frankenstein, and contemporary audiences will balk at such faith in technological progress and the hubris that we can learn to control Nature.
Galton goes on,
“Eventually, society might even choose, instead of the degenerate aristocracy of to-day, to establish a sophocracy—a rule of sages. They may even breed the cadre as we breed thoroughbreds—why not?”
Alice and Ada Lovelace (who would be the breeders in such a scheme) are not enthusiastic about this part of Galton’s fantasy. Ada quickly shuts it down.
The beginning, describing fantasy time travel, is light entertainment; the middle turns somber as they begin to interpret Alice’s tale darkly; and the last few chapters are laced with cryptic warnings as Fet hints at the disasters that those who want to out nature nature and denature time may bring.
Fet’s extensive knowledge of the history of science allows him to make many clever references and his Lewis Carroll-like love of artfulness shows in the connections he makes across time.
–VN Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, 2015