Wednesday, May 18, 2005

I have no idea who might be entertained by this

The recent time-traveler convention at MIT reminded me of the following bit of science fiction. I wrote it about a decade ago, and I've always been unhappy that it never found its way into print. (Now that I have a blog, though, there's no stopping me!) My idea was to write a time travel story in a form that would not at first be recognizable as a story at all. The readers would have to "excavate" the plot and so forth from something that appeared to be a quite different sort of text -- in this case, a literary essay. They would then perceive a truth that eludes even the narrator. The trick would be to strike a balance between being too obvious and too subtle. Borges did this sort of thing in several of this stories. You can judge for yourself whether I pulled it off.

Writing the story entailed a good deal of research into early science fiction, and all of the scholarly discussion -- with the exception of anything to do with my hero, of course -- is reliable. (Quotations of real people, on the other hand, are almost never real -- except for the Borges citation at the end.) I had a blast writing this and re-reading it ten years on. I will be somewhat surprised if anyone else finds this amusing, but on the off chance, here it is.

Edward Eaves: Forgotten Prophet
This essay is the introduction to a forthcoming edition of The Moon-Dwellers, by Edward Eaves, published by Erewhon Press. This is the first volume in a planned series of re-issues of the works of this fascinating and neglected author. The other volumes, including two other novels and a collection of short fiction, should see publication by 1998, the centenary of the publication of Eaves' first novel.
* * * *

From our vantage point at the end of the twentieth century, the history of science fiction at the beginning of this century is dominated by a single great name: Herbert George Wells. The scope of his imaginative vision and his considerable powers of literary expression make this valuation both proper and inevitable. His best novels --- The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, First Men in the Moon, The Island of Doctor Moreau --- have never been surpassed as exemplars of thoughtful scientific romance. His short stories --- "The Country of the Blind", "The Crystal Egg", "The Land Ironclads", "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" --- are cameo masterpieces. It has been said that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato; it could perhaps be said that modern science fiction is a series of footnotes to H. G. Wells.

But the admitted preeminence of H. G. Wells also somewhat obscures our vision of his times. Beside the giant figure of Wells there stand others, contemporary with him but of lesser stature, who played their own important roles in the development of science fiction. Some of these other names are remembered today, though not for their forays into the genre: Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London, to name but three. Still others are almost wholly forgotten except by a few enthusiasts: George Griffiths, M. P. Shiel, and Grant Allen. Despite their relative obscurity as pioneers of science fiction, these writers had a collective impact on its that was in some ways almost as great as that of Wells himself. One of the most obscure, and yet most important, of these forgotten prophets was Edward Eaves.

Edward Eaves is virtually unknown today. There has not been an edition of one of his novels in print since 1930. Yet Sam Moskowitz has called Eaves "one of the great originals" in the history of science fiction, and Brian Aldiss has added:
Eaves presents a paradox. Though H. G. Wells was an infinitely better writer, Eaves at his best had an imagination almost without peer. His novels and stories foreshadow most of the major ideas and many of the plot contrivances of later magazine science fiction. It is also arguable that he influenced some of Wells' greatest work. Yet he has been thoroughly (and unjustly) forgotten.
The publication of the current volume redresses in small measure this injustice. Perhaps we may yet see a long-overdue revival of interest in the science fiction of Edward Eaves.

* * * *

Edward Eaves was born in Massachusetts, probably in 1868. We actually know relatively few hard facts about his background and early life. Eaves was always an intensely private man, living in near-seclusion even after his marriage in 1905. Strangely, even though he was in person almost a hermit, he carried on a voluminous correspondence with many of the luminaries of his age, including Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Henry James, and G. K. Chesterton. Many of his letters have been preserved among the papers of these more famous men, and most of the information we do possess about Eaves' biography comes from them.

Eaves was by his own account the only son of two teachers, and he grew up in a household in which current intellectual issues were the common subjects of dinner conversation. He amassed a wide-ranging but largely informal education. It is evident, for instance, that he acquired a keen appreciation of the science of his day. When he later turned to writing stories, they were marked by both an easy familiarity with the latest scientific findings and a shrewd talent for extrapolation. This happy combination of understanding and imagination doubtless sprang from the open and intellectually vigorous atmosphere of his early home. Eaves was obliged, for reasons that he never made clear, to leave his home at an early age; however, he was to continue his education by voracious reading throughout his life.

During the next decade or so, Eaves traveled extensively, probably as a seaman on various ships (as implied in a 1901 letter to Kipling, in which he refers to himself as "a mariner of sorts over a period of years"). Some of his stories, such as the space romances The Moon-Dwellers and The Star Wanderers, show some understanding of maritime life, albeit translated to outer space. He was evidently familiar with many cities on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the Mediterranean, but it was to London that he was finally drawn, arriving there late in 1897.

In London, Eaves decided to settle down. This raised the practical problem of making a living. As he put it in a later letter to A. N. Whitehead, he found himself
. . . in my thirtieth year, far from the country of my birth, with meager and declining savings and very little desire to continue my wanderings. I was casting about for some other useful employment when I came across one of the stories of H. G. Wells --- The War of the Worlds I think it was --- that was then being serialized in one magazine or another. I enjoyed it immensely. And the thought came to me, if I could write stories like that, I might be able to make some money and have some fun at the same time. So I tried it.
Try it he did, and his first novel A World Aflame was serialized in Pearson's Weekly the next year. His brief literary career, which lasted only seven years altogether, was launched.

Though his writing was inspired by the pioneering science fiction of H. G. Wells, for his first novel Eaves chose a literary genre that was already popular and well-established: the future war story. From George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (1871) through the work of many other writers, English popular literature had portrayed dozens of imaginary future conflicts. George Griffiths (the pen-name for G. C. G. Jones) had become one of the best-selling authors of the decade with The Angel of the Revolution and its sequel, Olga Romanoff; and the year before Eaves wrote, M. P. Shiel's The Yellow Danger had appeared. These stories tended to mix melodrama with the apocalyptic, seasoned with a dash of racial or social philosophy. The most interesting of them contained meticulously imagined battle scenes filled with a plethora of future armaments. Wells' "The Land Ironclads" and Conan Doyle's "Danger!" were two shorter examples, both of them remarkable for their accurate forecasts of real aspects of future war (armored tanks in the first instance, submarine warfare in the second).

Eaves' book was fairly conventional stuff: a mad European dictator threatens to take over the world with the aid of rockets and aircraft, but is opposed by an alliance of Britain, Russia, and America. The daring actions of the hero, John Napier, in a series of exciting but extremely improbable adventures, both in the air and on the ground, thwart the mad dictator and win the affections of a beautiful girl. The whole thing is so energetically written that it is almost possible to overlook the somewhat awkward prose and the utter lack of real character development. (Besides, these were staples of the genre and it seems unfair to criticize.) Eaves' first book was pure pot-boiler, but even so it had some significant features. His predictions of wireless communication (radio), the use of airplanes for bombing cities, and the strategic role of submarines, for instance, stand up well as predictions of the First World War.

A World Aflame was a success, and a book form was published the following year. Eaves was encouraged by the popular response. Moving to a comfortable flat in South Kensington, he began to turn out an increasing number of stories and articles, most of them recognizably science fiction. He also experimented with writing detective stories. His fictional detective, Henry Tyler Sperling, is a Cambridge mathematician who solves mysteries by mathematical calculation and logic. These stories are admittedly awful and were never very popular, but they are interesting biographically in that they show that Eaves had somehow acquired both a considerable mathematical education and a familiarity with Cambridge life. (The suggestion by critic Frank Guthrie that Eaves had earned a Cambridge degree under an assumed name is, of course, mere speculation. On the other hand, it is likely that Sperling is modeled on Cambridge mathematician A. N. Whitehead, with whom Eaves exchanged frequent letters and occasional visits for years.)

The very next year (1899) appeared one of the best and most important of Eaves' novels, The Moon-Dwellers. In it Eaves gives a first-person account of an expedition to the Moon, as simply and directly written as the accounts of polar expeditions that were widely read at the time. The expedition, outfitted at fabulous expense by the Royal Geographic Society, travels from the Earth in a space vessel powered by rockets and finds the Moon a hostile, airless place. The explorers move about on the rocky lunar surface in pressurized air-suits that are provided with heating and cooling mechanisms to protect the wearer from the rigors of the lunar day and night---possibly one of the earliest, and most sophisticated, descriptions of spacesuits in science fiction.

After a dry and almost matter-of-fact beginning that describes the expedition's arrival and first few days on the Moon, the novel begins to pick up steam when the explorers find the ruins of an ancient civilization, ruins that have stood on the unchanging lunar surface "for a thousand times longer than the Pyramids have stood in Egypt." The description of the silent, unimaginably ancient ruin is one of the best passages in any of Eaves' books:
We moved to explore the closer structures with an awe that was compounded by the eerie silence of an airless world. These had evidently once been buildings, perhaps three times higher than they now stood, for the remains of the upper walls and the roofs lay among them. There was no paint or ornament on the dead grey stone; or if there had been once, it had been disintegrated by uncounted centuries of baking in the harsh lunarian day and freezing in the long night. Captain Allen, fearing that we might trigger some further collapse, instructed us by sign-language not to enter the buildings, and we signaled agreement. Dividing into two or three parties, we made our way down the wide street over the hexagonal paving-stones, peering through the doorways of the nearby buildings, straining to see clearly through the windows of our air-helmets. All was strange, and angular, and very alien. After a time, we despaired of finding any object or place with a recognizable design or function . . . .

. . . Of the physical form of the moon-dwellers that had built the place there was no sign, unless it was the shape of the doorways. These were perhaps twice the height of a human doorway, wider at the top than at the bottom, and disturbingly narrow.
Eventually, the expedition learns that the interior of the Moon is riddled with caverns, the deepest of which are filled with breathable air; and the race which built the ruined city still survives deep underground. Almost as soon as the human explorers discover these caverns and then the ancient race, the moon-dwellers turn menacing. An exciting pursuit and pitched battle in the dark lunar caverns ensues, with the survivors of the expedition finally escaping and leaving the Moon in their rocket. The moon-dwellers themselves are suggested in a fragmentary way rather than clearly drawn: tall beings like moving trees, with slender, whip-like tentacles, who communicate in musical piping sounds. The net effect is reminiscent of the Old Ones in H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and doubtless was one of Lovecraft's influences.

Another influence that Eaves surely had was upon H. G. Wells, whose own account of a lunar voyage, First Men in the Moon, was published only two years afterwards. Wells' heroes arrive on the Moon with the aid of the gravity-shielding substance Cavorite instead of rockets, but once there they also find a hidden society of alien beings living in caves deep within the Moon. Wells, of course, adapted the basic idea with his usual brilliance into both an evolutionary speculation and a social allegory, aspects that are not to be found in the exciting but fairly superficial novel by Eaves. Be that as it may, there can be little doubt that Eaves influenced Wells very strongly in his fictional depiction of life within the Moon. First Men in the Moon has been called the first great modern interplanetary romance, but in fact that honor belongs to its precursor and probable inspiration, The Moon-Dwellers.

Strangely, though it was a better and more inventive book than A World Aflame, The Moon-Dwellers was only an indifferent commercial success, one of the least popular of Eaves' books. There are several possible reasons for this, including the lack of much conventional human interest. (This is the only Eaves novel which does not have a love-story.) In fact, Eaves tended to win the least acclaim for the best of his work. The Moon-Dwellers is nevertheless of crucial importance because of its influence both on Wells and, directly and indirectly, on later science fiction.

* * * *

At about this time, Edward Eaves was also writing shorter imaginative stories, which met with a more enthusiastic readership and gave Eaves a reputation as "the second H. G. Wells." Eaves, like Wells, was quick to recognize the suitability of the short story form for the development of science fiction ideas. Re-reading his stories today, one is struck by the number of modern science fiction cliches that first saw light in their pages. To be frank, the uneven quality of Eaves' writing sometimes makes the stories seem like cliches even when the ideas are freshly invented. A few examples will suffice to make the point:

In "A Plague of Flies" (1899), a scientist afflicted by a pathological fear of insects discovers a poison that destroys all insect life on Earth. This may be the first ecological science fiction story, for Eaves sketches the resulting disintegration of the food chain with an almost modern appreciation of biological interdependence. The story ends with a few surviving human beings searching for food in an environment that is rapidly becoming desert.

"In the Pyramid" (1900) concerns an archaeologist who discovers that ancient visitors from Mars helped to construct the Egyptian pyramids.

"The Machine Man" (1901) depicts a scientist afflicted by a progressive paralysis, who gradually assists and then replaces parts of his body with mechanical contrivances---becoming thereby one of the first cyborgs in literature.

The eponymous specimen in "The Egg of the Dragon" (1901) is brought back to London by an expedition returning from central China; it turns out to be a preserved dinosaur egg, which hatches when warmed. The resulting havoc as the young and fast-growing dinosaur terrorizes London probably inspired the similar episodes at the end of Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912) and countless imitations.

In "The Somerset Meteorite" (1902), a meteorite exerts a strange and frightening influence on the inhabitants of a small English village. The resulting plot is familiar to any watcher of science fiction and horror movies: it is more or less The Invasion of the Body Snatchers set in post-Victorian England.

"The Discovery" (1903), one of Eaves' later stories, is written almost entirely as a conversation between two astronomers. They have just discovered that the Sun will soon explode; but rather than cause the world-wide panic and suffering that such an announcement would surely evoke, they decide to destroy their data and agree not to disclose their findings. (The story was actually produced as a short play in London in 1904, among the earliest dramatic presentations of science fiction.)

In most of these stories, the idea takes primacy over plot and character. This is a tendency shared by Wells and others, and it is a tendency that is notable in science fiction stories to this day. Science fiction is, after all, a literature of ideas, and such conventional story elements must often take a back seat. The few exceptions to this rule among Eaves' stories were mostly written in the later years of his short career.

* * * *

Eaves published his third novel, The Ashes of the Phoenix, as a serial in 1901, with the book appearing later the same year. A sequel to his popular A World Aflame, the book was a sure-fire hit, and was the only one of Eaves' serials to run in Pearson's Magazine, the more upmarket of publisher Arthur Pearson's stable of periodicals. In this sequel, sixty years have passed since the victory in the global war described in the first book. A second, devastating world conflict has been fought, virtually destroying civilization and reducing every city to ashes. John Napier, the protagonist of A World Aflame, returns as an old man, the leader of a small remnant of civilization that is fighting for survival against hordes of hostile barbarians.

Napier's character has become considerably more three-dimensional since his appearance as a two-fisted hero in the first novel. In the sequel, he is almost a tragic figure, haunted by his vivid memories of the vanished glories of civilization and by his grief for his lost wife, who died in the conflagration. His painful past has been transmuted into an almost obsessive concern with the future, giving him an indomitable will to survive and prevail in the new barbaric world.

The Ashes of the Phoenix is one of the early post-apocalyptic stories, a variety pioneered in 1884 with Richard Jeffries' After London. These became a staple of later science fiction, particularly after the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945; but they had a long pedigree before that. Eaves' version, as its title suggests, ends on a hopeful note. The marauding barbarians are defeated and conquered by Napier's little band, who use their superior knowledge of science in a variety of inventive but far-fetched ways. In the last scene, a school is established so that the children of the barbarians can be taught to read and write. Civilization, we are led to believe, will soon rebuild itself and rise again like the Phoenix.

If The Moon-Dwellers is the first modern interplanetary romance, then Eaves' next book, The Star Wanderers (1902), is the first modern interstellar epic. Since The Moon-Dwellers, popular stories of space travel were becoming somewhat more common; Wells had published First Men in the Moon just the year before, and even George Griffiths had published A Honeymoon in Space in 1900. Eaves evidently felt the need to draw his canvass larger still. The central characters in The Star Wanderers are the crew and passengers of an interstellar spaceship that becomes lost in a remote region of space and must therefore search from star to star to find the Earth again. Along the way they visit three different planets which resemble the Earth and on which they have various adventures. First, they discover a planet which is like the Earth of one hundred thousand years ago. On this planet they find groups of stone-age humans and pre-human ape-men, who are engaged in a bloody war; the travelers are able to tip the balance of power in favor of the humans before they depart. On the second planet, they encounter a civilization with obvious similarities to ancient Rome. At first hailed as gods because they descend from the sky, the travelers soon run afoul of the local authorities and wind up in the coliseum. They escape by fomenting a slave rebellion, return to their ship, and leave to continue their search. The third planet resembles Earth even more closely than the other two, but it is the Earth of the distant future. On this planet all war and disease have been eradicated, and the inhabitants live thousand-year lifespans of peace and plenty, aided by their telepathic powers. They welcome the travelers and show considerable hospitality, building them houses and providing them with every comfort. The travelers are at first disposed to stay; however, they eventually recognize their houses as cages. They are, in effect, on display as specimens of primitive beings. Evading (with difficulty) their telepathic captors, they continue their voyage and eventually find the real Earth.

This interstellar version of the Odyssey is probably one of the original sources for a great deal of today's popular science fiction. It is even possible to discern the kernels of Star Trek plots among its loosely-connected episodes. (The fact that the central character has an unmistakable resemblace to Captain James T. Kirk makes the connection irresistible!) The widespread influence of The Star Wanderers, however, does not alter the fact that it is an overly long, poorly constructed story. The action is formulaic and repetitious. It was certainly written in haste; Eaves himself admitted as much in a 1904 letter to G. K. Chesterton:
Well, I freely admit that The Star Wanderers is actually rather awful in places. To tell the truth, I was rushed by the magazine deadlines, and did not have the time to put it together properly. You will know something of that . . . . It is also too long; but there were so many things I could have thrown in, the wonder is that it is as short as it is. On the next book, though, I will take the time to get it just right, and damn the deadlines.
The next book was his last and best novel, called In the City of the Sphinx (serialized in 1904 under the title, A City of Tomorrow). With this book Edward Eaves established himself as one of the fathers of another sub-genre of science fiction, the anti-utopia. Eaves was in fact one of the literary forebears, along with Jonathan Swift and Yevgeny Zemyatin, of both Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World.

The world of In the City of the Sphinx lies in the far future. It is a world that is materially prosperous and scientifically advanced, but in which all human action is rigidly controlled by giant "electric brains" that supervise all of society. The electric brains are, of course, what we would call computers; and the master computer of the entire world, known as the Sphinx, is one of Eaves' best creations---a machine so wonderfully imagined as to become almost a character, yet remaining always a machine.

The hero of the story is a clerk named Roger, who works in the Records Department, in which capacity he tends the electric brains by providing them with information to read---books, statistics, reports, newspapers, etc., all scanned in a moment by the vision lenses of the brains. One afternoon, as Roger walks home, a mysterious old man approaches him on the street, gasps out a peculiar nursery rhyme, then abruptly collapses and dies. The old man has said,
(A, B, C, D)
Nothing ill will frighten me
(One, two, three, four)
If I open wide the door.
Roger reports the incident and fills out the requisite forms, but for some obscure reason does not mention the old man's rhyme to anyone.

Some time later, Roger is dealing with the records of a young woman named Anna, whose strong-willed and outspoken nature have earned her several years in special socialization schools. Since Anna has now reached her eighteenth birthday with no sign of becoming tractable, she is scheduled for corrective brain surgery. Roger impulsively decides to rescue her. He alters the information in her dossier, causing her to be released from the school and given a job in the Records Department. They soon meet and fall in love, which is a serious crime in their society; eventually discovered, they are captured by the police and brought before the Sphinx for trial. The ultimate verdict and the sentence of the Sphinx are mathematical certainties, but Roger decides to argue his case anyway:
"By what right do you judge us?" Roger demanded, his voice trembling slightly.

"By the right of superior knowledge," came the unbreathing voice of the Sphinx. "I learn more in one day than a man learns in a lifetime, and I am a thousand years old. It would be foolish not to accept the judgment of a higher intelligence."

"But you don't know everything!" cried Anna.

"Perhaps not. Perhaps you can tell me something that I do not know," said the Sphinx.
There follows a sort of riddle-game, in which Roger and Anna try to stump the Sphinx with questions. Eventually Roger realizes that he and his colleagues have worked for centuries to make sure that the electric brains do know everything; in desperation, he seizes on the one piece of information that he has ever kept to himself. He recites the old man's rhyme. It has an astonishing effect:
Suddenly the harsh actinic glare from the lenses of the Sphinx diminished, and the vast hum that filled the Great Hall seemed to falter, pause, and resume again with a different tone. The guards at the portal of the Hall, responding to some invisible signal, bowed low, left the room, and silently closed the enormous doors behind them. Anna and Roger looked at one another fearfully, certain of the nearness of death, and clasped hands.

The voice spoke again, this time more softly. It said, "What is your command, O my Master?"
The nonsense rhyme is actually an ancient password, devised by the builders of the Sphinx to maintain control over it and then almost forgotten. With it, the all-powerful Sphinx is now his servant. Roger, the first computer hacker in the history of science fiction, has broken into the system.

The end of the story is somewhat weak. Roger realizes that he now has absolute control over the world, to reshape it as he wishes. The prospect frightens him. He learns from the Sphinx that there is a small colony of people on a remote island beyond the control of the electric brains. He asks that he and Anna be given the means to travel there, and his orders are instantly obeyed. The novel ends as he and Anna are approaching a beautiful island, their new home, in their airship.
"Will we ever go back?" asked Anna, gazing at the tropical sunset that turned the waves far beneath them as red as wine.

"Someday," said Roger, his own gaze a million miles further off. "When we are wiser, perhaps. Or else, if you and I do not return, then our children will, or their children. It will not be an easy thing to remake the whole world; and when the time comes, I think we had better be ready."
In the City of the Sphinx was Eaves' least popular novel at the time of its publication, though it is of greater interest today. Its future anti-utopia is wonderfully imagined, full of small, almost off-hand details that are startlingly familiar to the modern reader. Computers and computer programs, broadcast television used as a means of social control, psychological conditioning and psychosurgery---these are presented rather casually, yet all are real science fiction innovations and, on occasion, chillingly accurate prophecies of the future.

* * * *

This was the last novel of Edward Eaves. There followed a few short-stories; then, after his marriage in the summer of 1905, he ceased writing altogether. His last stories are workmanlike (Eaves had improved as a writer over the years) but generally unremarkable---with one major exception, almost the last fiction he ever wrote: "The Hermit of Holybridge," which appeared in The Strand in 1905.

In this story, Eaves turned at last to the one major theme of science fiction that he had never explored: time travel. The narrator, a young Oxford student who has returned to his native village of Holybridge for the holiday, learns of a strange new resident in the town. This is the Hermit (as everyone calls him), a reclusive but apparently well-to-do man who has purchased a small farm at the edge of town and taken up residence there. The Hermit is civil enough to those he meets on his infrequent trips into the village, but he volunteers no information about himself and is quite skillful at deflecting questions. The village busybodies are abuzz with speculation: the Hermit is Royalty living incognito, or a fugitive criminal, or perhaps a famous playwright working on a new play.

The young student decides, after a chance encounter, that the Hermit is a highly educated man and worth knowing better. On the pretext of asking to borrow a book, he arrives at the Hermit's doorstep; but finding the owner of the house momentarily out, he lets himself in and has a look around. Inside he finds simple living quarters, great piles of books and newspapers, and several rooms filled with complex electrical and mechanical apparatus that he does not begin to understand.

Upon his return, the Hermit is at first angry at this intrusion, then eventually won over by the student's curiosity and admiration. "You must be the greatest inventor who has ever lived!" says the young man, sweeping his arm around to indicate the mountains of scientific equipment. The Hermit smiles and shakes his head. Finally, he decides to satisfy the student's curiosity. They sit down before the fire and the Hermit tells a remarkable story.

The Hermit is, of course, a time-traveler from the future, trapped in the present time by an unfortunate accident, unable to return to his own era.
"You mean---a time-traveler like the man in The Time Machine?" I asked incredulously.

"Well, yes, a bit like that, though the exact technique is rather different than Wells supposed."

"And all of this---?" I indicated the rows of curious apparatus that occupied every cupboard and shelf. "Are you trying to build you another time-traveling machine?"

He smiled sadly. "No, that is quite impossible. If you found yourself in the time of Henry VIII, could you build a telephone? Or an aeroplane? It is as hopeless as that."
The Hermit's time machine is enormous, the size of a large building; and it operates only as a transmitter, not a Wellsian self-contained vehicle -- "a door, not a carriage." By mistake, the Hermit has been sent too far into the past, decades before the existence of any machine able to return him to the future and thus beyond any hope of rescue.

The young man asks why the Hermit has become a recluse, since his advanced scientific knowledge could so greatly benefit present-day humanity. The Hermit replies,
"Yes, you're right. I could do all of those things. Even though I was not trained a doctor in my own time, I probably know enough medicine to cure some of your worst diseases. I could produce a revolution in your science and industry. I even know quite a bit about the next European War, in which millions will perish, and could possibly find a way to prevent it. But I must not."

"You must not prevent a war?" I cried. "For God's sake, why not?"

"Because that would prevent the future---my future, my home---from ever coming about at all. If I disturb the past that I am condemned to live in, then the future I come from, with all of its thousands of millions of inhabitants, will never exist."
In these lines Eaves discovers one of the principal themes of the time-travel story: the dangerous possibility of changing the future by modifying the past. A short time later, Eaves gives this theme what is for him an uncharacteristically personal touch:
"Look," said the Hermit at last. "Let me show you something." He reached into the pocket of his coat and drew out a small leather pouch, from which he produced a photograph of a young woman. He let me study it by the firelight. She was a lovely woman, with long golden hair pulled backwards in a strange fashion and skin as dark as a Spaniard's. Her open face was alight with humor and grace. (The photograph itself was made of a smooth, flexible material that I did not recognize.)

"She's beautiful," I said, handing the portrait back to him. He received it and gazed into the face.

"My wife Laurel," he said simply. "That is, my wife that will be, after she is born, which will not happen for a century or so." I wondered if I saw tears in his eyes, but his voice remained calm and steady. He continued: "Less than a mile from this house lives someone whom, I happen to know, will become her great-great-grandfather. He does not know it. He never will know it. But suppose that some action of mine, by purest accident, causes him harm? Or suppose that what I do prevents him from meeting the woman who is destined to be his wife and to bear his children? Then my wife, whom I love more than my own life, can never be born."
Eaves, having invented the "grandfather paradox", almost calls it by its modern name.

The Hermit convinces the student to tell no one of his real origin, and the student leaves to go back to Oxford. In a particularly skillful twist, Eaves contrives through the Hermit to tell the reader what the narrator never understands: that it is the narrator himself who is the great-great-grandfather of Laurel. In a sense, the Hermit has, however remotely and indirectly, made contact with his wife over the gulf of time.

* * * *

It is tempting to think of Edward Eaves as the Hermit, living in an unbroken solitude and dreaming of the future. I believe that this story, perhaps his best, gained much of its emotional power from just this resonance. But the solitude of Edward Eaves did not long remain unbroken. In July of 1905, Eaves wrote to Whitehead:
I am overjoyed (and still a little surprised) to be able to announce that I am married! I can hardly express what a wonderful thing this is, beyond all expectation . . . . This probably means for me a long vacation from story-writing. Sarah and I have plans to travel through Europe.
The sudden and unexpected nature of the Eaves' wedding -- he had not mentioned it even three weeks before, in a letter to Kipling -- does not seem to have made the marriage less happy. In fact, the couple became inseparable. Sarah Eaves evidently had brought some financial resources of her own to the union. This, together with his own small savings, was sufficient for Eaves to give up his writing as a source of income. He therefore simply stopped, never publishing another word of fiction. So ended, in sudden nuptial bliss and financial independence, one of the most brilliant careers in the early history of science fiction.

The Eaves family moved to Switzerland, where they purchased a villa near Lugano. For a time they earned their living by tutoring local students in English and mathematics. Edward meanwhile made a number of shrewd and forward-looking investments of their money in radio and automobiles, and in a few years they were able to live quite well on the income from their holdings. They acquired Swiss citizenship in 1911 and lived there through the First World War and for most of the period between the wars. Edward and Sarah were known to their neighbors as cultured but private people, who kept largely to themselves and received few visitors.

Edward Eaves died in Lugano in 1938, and his wife followed him within a year.

* * * *

What are we to make of Edward Eaves? He was not a great writer or a particularly deep thinker. Brian Stableford groups him with the "minor" writers of scientific romance of the pre-war years; yet such a simple classification does not tell the whole story. It is true that most of his stories were indifferently written, strung together with contrived plots and little serious characterization; but the same could be said of Edgar Rice Burroughs, certainly a "major" writer in the history of science fiction.

The significance of Edward Eaves lies not in the influence of his literary style but in the range of his imagination. He had an almost uncanny knack for envisioning new technologies. He had an equal gift for understanding the thematic possibilities in a science fiction idea, possibilities that other writers would explore for decades. If Eaves were to read a science fiction book or magazine of today, or watch a science fiction film, he would find much that would be familiar and recognizable to him.

Jorge Luis Borges has written that every writer of literature creates his own antecedents, by developing and perfecting aspects of past works that were previously unseen and unknown. We can thus understand the meaning of the past only from the standpoint of the future. In this sense, the whole panoply of twentieth century science fiction has made the work of Edward Eaves great indeed.

Benjamin Schumacher
Gambier, Ohio
October, 1995
Dr. Schumacher is a physicist at Kenyon College, where he teaches and conducts his research into black holes, quantum mechanics and information theory. He is a lifelong reader of early science fiction, and is an acknowledged authority on the works of Edward Eaves. He has been an Eaves enthusiast since he was a boy, when he ran across an old copy of The Moon-Dwellers in a public library during the very summer in which Neil Armstrong first set foot on the lunar surface in the Sea of Tranquility.

3 Comments:

Blogger scerir said...

Yes, yes. Much more than simply entertaining. Thanks. Thanks again.
-Serafino (Italy, Adriatic coast)
PS: here and there, on the web, i.e. in a paper by Bennett, I read about Schumacher's interpretation of teleportation, or EPR, in terms of - so to speak - advanced and retarded 'actions' between entangled particles, via the source. This would be another interesting subject!

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