Science-Fictional Moments In Modernist Literature
Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 20, 2011
So, I just finished reading Proust’s Sodom And Gomorrah. It was really good. And very different from all the other volumes. Actually, every volume has been different from all the other volumes. But instead of talking about how awesome it is to finally see some male homosexuality (Proust got the women out of the way [The Gomorrans, he calls them] way back in the first book, which is really just so typical, you know?), I am going to talk about how awesome it is to see someone talk about cars in a turn of the century book!
Between 1880 and 1920, the world was totally turned on its head, technologically speaking. It was like computers getting invented, except times a billion. Cars, planes, telephones, refrigerators, electric lights, radios, submarines, movies, and probably about a bazillion other things I am forgetting were all invented and/or made generally available during this forty year period.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this period is also when literature got totally flipped on its head. The kinds of stories people wrote, and the kind of stuff they wrote them about, changed dramatically.
But you know what people didn’t write about? How weird it was that they could suddenly, like…drive wherever they wanted, or talk to people hundreds of miles away. I guess this should not be that surprising. There are not many books, nowadays, about how cool and strange it is to now have the internet. There are books from 1990 with no internet, and then there are books from 2010 with lots of internet, but no book where it’s suddenly like, “And then I suddenly had access to all the information there is.”
But it’s a weird feature of Proust that he takes the time to lovingly explain each new introduction of technology, and how he interacted with it, and how he was introduced to it, and how he came to love/hate it and eventually not care about it anymore. It’s weird because of all the stuff he leaves out (like, oh, every single one of his male relatives?). And yet he has time for this?:
“She did indeed think that we might stop here and there on our way, but supposed it to be impossible to start by going to Saint-Jean de la Haise. That is to say in another direction, and to make an excursion which seemed to be reserved for a different day. She learned on the contrary from the driver that nothing could be easier than to go to Saint-Jean, which he could do in twenty minutes, and that we might stay there if we chose for hours, or go on much farther, for from Quetteholme to la Raspelière would not take more than thirty-five minutes. We realised this as soon as the vehicle, starting off, covered in one bound twenty paces of an excellent horse. Distances are only the relation of space to time and vary with that relation. We express the difficulty that we have in getting to a place in a system of miles or kilometres which becomes false as soon as that difficulty decreases. Art is modified by it also, when a village which seemed to be in a different world from some other village becomes its neighbour in a landscape whose dimensions are altered. In any case the information that there may perhaps exist a universe in which two and two make five and the straight line is not the shortest way between two points would have astonished Albertine far less than to hear the driver say that it was easy to go in a single afternoon to Saint-Jean and la Raspelière, Douville and Quetteholme, Saint-Mars le Vieux and Saint-Mars le Vêtu, Gourville and Old Balbec, Tourville and Féterne, prisoners hitherto as hermetically confined in the cells of distinct days as long ago were Méséglise and Guermantes, upon which the same eyes could not gaze in the course of one afternoon, delivered now by the giant with the seven-league boots, came and clustered about our tea-time their towers and steeples, their old gardens which the encroaching wood sprang back to reveal.”
The car gets a good twenty or thirty pages in Sodom And Gomorrah, and it is glorious. I would love to assemble an anthology just composed of works and excerpts like this, totally science-fictional stories about people coming to grips with really weird new technology. Like, is there an account of what Native Americans felt when they first saw people riding horses? Or when people rode their first railroad train? That would be really neat. Does anyone have any good suggestions for said anthology?