In a vaguely dystopian, high-tech future, Case – who has a full name, it just doesn’t come up often – is offered the chance to return to his old profession as a master hacker, which he was surgically prevented from continuing, in exchange for his assistance on an enigmatic job. The offer comes from a cybernetically enhanced assassin named Molly on the behalf of her employer Armitage, a mysterious figure with extensive resources and a military past. Molly and Case embark on an extensive espionage-based tour of the future society, extensively sketched by author William Gibson, and uncover the behind-the-scenes machinations of a deeply troubled artificial intelligence, which they do nothing to stop and leave to its own ends as they go their separate ways.
When summarized in a manner that assumes no prior knowledge, a blurb-style plot synopsis can’t help but omit the texture of the world Gibson builds (at least not at the expense of communicating crucial story beats). So much of Gibson’s storytelling is about the way you learn about the differences in his world by the differences in his characters – to a degree that, I think, goes beyond the obvious level at which the actions and speech patterns of the cast can be used for exposition in science fiction, and into something that sort of hybridizes character and setting (appropriate for a story so occupied with the hybridization of humanity and technology – especially when both of the former map onto both of the latter). If his characters read as somewhat flat without a sense of that setting I think it should speak to how important he makes his world to the reader’s understanding of the people within it, not a failing of his characterization overall. The most obvious way I could think of improving my above plot summary is therefore by the addition of some text to give the flavor of (ie) the Sprawl as written by Gibson, rather than, say, detailed character profiles. That’s not to say character profiles are of less merit overall – actually I’d say the better part of the science fiction we’ve read in the class so far would benefit from it in a plot-summary challenge like this – but in the specific case of Gibson’s writing I think it’s secondary to understanding the setting he’s thrust his characters into.
I’ll admit to starting off with something of a disadvantage in interpreting this work as instructed, since my prior knowledge of the Foundation series came from an apparently contrarian critical analysis that regarded the psychohistorians as fundamentally blinkered and the unpredictable Mule – a series antagonist who I’m now learning doesn’t even show up until the next volume – as the eventual hero of the narrative. But the fact that Asmiov considers acceptance, rather than defiance, of fate to be the cooler superpower doesn’t much change my understanding of the story itself: it’s a panoramic view of a fictional galactic empire over the centuries, zooming in on particular characters who feel history whizzing past their ears, like a longer, cozier, more market-friendly version of his short story “The Last Question”. Like in that story, Asimov is fixated on the notion of inevitable entropy, but not so much as something to despair over as something to puzzle out and solve, a secret game playing out behind the scenes for those informed enough and interested enough to participate. Our dear author looks at the yawning black void of forever and decides it’d be the ultimate playground for our Learned Science Protagonist(s). I mean, there’s almost a sort of delight in the words he gives Seldon during the character’s interrogation:
“It is possible, gentlemen, to reduce the duration of anarchy to a single millennium, if my group is allowed to act now. We are at a delicate moment in history. The huge, onrushing mass of events must be deflected just a little, – just a little – It cannot be much, but it may be enough to remove twenty-nine thousand years of misery from human history.”
It’s all of existence as H.G. Wells’ roundtable time travel chats, the rise and fall of civilizations as monthly, serialized installments of thrilling adventure. Starring, as always, the Smart People Who Figured It Out. Let’s say hi to them again. Let’s say hi to them forever.
The National Observer edition of The Time Machine isn’t so much an early version of the story as it is a serialized group of reflections on the topics that would ultimately become thematic elements of The Time Machine, using the narrative framework that would eventually underpin the more well-known version. Here the focus is far more on the story’s nature as something a high-minded man is relating in his parlor to a group of fellow high-minded men. This might actually make it more suited to its context, however – the National Observer is essentially a written version of this sort of forum, more a vehicle for the musings of its contributors than a literary publication. If any of Wells’ constituents were providing seven-part narratives, a) it’s not in evidence here, and b) it was likely for the sake of giving their thoughts on the affairs of the world a little more rhetorical weight than, say, an equivocating review of a French book about antisemitism. That he was later able to expand these roundtables about the fate of society into a classic work of science fiction is a credit to his talents as an author. Which is not to say that these early iterations of the concept are somehow inferior – honestly one my favorite parts about The Time Machine, in reading it, was the idea of it as something related, explained, possibly debated, in a cozy environment amongst friends. There’s plenty of that here. Plus, even the material that didn’t survive directly in the final product still had a noteworthy influence on it – check the later-excised “grey man” chapter in the New Review version, which has no parallel in the National Observer‘s telling of the Time Traveler’s post-12,203 return to the present, and you can find his thoughts about evolution from the “Time-Traveller Returns” chapter in action:
“The faintly human touch of these little creatures perplexed me greatly. If you come to think, there is no reason why a degenerate humanity should not come at last to differentiate into as many species as the descendants of the mud fish who fathered all the land vertebrates.”
Right down to the line about mudfish. Which might tell us something about Wells’ continuing intent for the story as it evolved into something more literary: as seems to often be the case with him (and much of early science fiction), he aimed to deliver a Rollicking Adventure Narrative set in a world whose excitement derived from its accordance with his theories about then-emerging scientific and sociological principles. So really, he kept on playing at the National Observer game. He just made it more fun to watch for outside observers.