- The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey
Even before Enrique Gaspar’s The Time Ship was published, the likes of the BBC and the London Times had broken the news: H. G. Wells’s time machine had not been the first. The Spanish diplomat and playwright Gaspar published El Anacronópete in 1887, eight years before The Time Machine. Time machines such as Wells’s have served as convenient condensations for modernism’s interests in the temporal and the mechanical, and The Time Ship now adds a geopolitical dimension to our understanding of the time machine as a modernist figure. Gaspar’s ship moves in space as well as time, and with its global wandering articulates some of modernism’s cosmopolitan anxieties about the national, the colonial, and the global.
Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell’s translation makes Gaspar’s novel available in English for the first time as part of Wesleyan University Press’s Early Classics of Science Fiction series. While the novel engages with broader modernist concerns, the editors’ introduction first addresses The Time Ship’s relation to Wells’s novel. Since “the name H. G. Wells [is] synonymous with the time machine trope,” Gaspar’s work strangely seems to both displace and derive from the better-known latecomer (xviii). Noting this anxiety of anachronistic influence, Molina-Gavilán and Bell more broadly describe nineteenth-century Europe’s fascination with moving in time. Before Gaspar, writers such as Edward Page Mitchell and Camille Flammarion had already written about time travel—Gaspar had in fact tried to adapt Flammarion’s Lumen for the stage in 1875 (xiv). Wells’s and Gaspar’s common innovation—and what perhaps lends the former some of its canonical force—is the machine, that is, a vehicle capable of bearing corporeal actors through time. While other writers were turning to mystical or psychological means, Gaspar and Wells both introduced a mechanical method for time travel.
Yet aside from this common feature, Gaspar’s novel bears little resemblance to Wells’s; in their introduction, Molina-Gavilán and Bell almost seem relieved to proceed to a discussion of Gaspar’s work on its own terms. The Time Ship is something of a light picaresque in which a large cast of characters—including French prostitutes and Spanish hussars—heads backwards rather than forwards in time. While Wells’s characters dream of learning Greek from Plato or of witnessing a communist future, Gaspar’s characters have other, more comical motives for the journey: Don Sindulfo, a mad scientist, hopes to return to an era that will allow his forced marriage to his captive niece, and the linguist Benjamín (it is useful to have a translator in tow) seeks the secret to immortality, apparently to be found in China or with the biblical Noah. The novel does provide a dose of critique with its mockery of social foibles, but The Time Ship remains lighthearted in tone. Better known as a playwright, Gaspar initially drafted the piece as a zarzuela (a comic opera), and the novel relies heavily on its dialogue and its often-absurd [End Page 813] spectacle. The characters deceive one another, shrink into babies, and fly from volcanoes; it seems almost natural that they may slip into the earlier draft’s songs.
Aside from the characters’ haphazard journey, the novel remains moored in its era, reflecting many of the late nineteenth century’s sensibilities and debates, particularly the “newfound belief in the perfectibility of individuals and society, and both optimism and misgivings about the consequences of science and technology” (xxi). The novel opens with Don Sindulfo introducing his invention at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris. His longwinded description of physics seems notably ahead of its time. According to the wealthy scientist, the “atmosphere” is made of uneven temporal sedimentation; it “appears full of folds and clefts . . . hills and plains, the work of time” (15). To travel backwards or forwards, Don Sindulfo’s ship will travel at high...