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A Scientific Romance

by Ronald Wright

It’s perhaps fitting that Ronald Wright, best known for his travel writing, has chosen time travel as the subject of his first novel. In A Scientific Romance, a young British archeologist named David Lambert acquires a strange document written by H.G. Wells. It explains how, while working on his book, The Time Machine, Wells had an affair with one Tatiana Cherenkova. Tatiana built a working time machine in 1899 and disappeared into the future, having programmed the machine to return exactly a century later. Which it does indeed, with David there to greet it at the turn of the millennium.

Driven by his archeologist’s curiosity and the desperate hope of finding a cure for his illness (the human equivalent of mad cow disease, which also killed his former lover, Anita), David uses the machine to travel five centuries into the future. What he finds is a desolate Britain in which the only inhabitants are a small settlement of black-skinned Highlanders living on the shores of Loch Ness.

In the context of the novel, this isn’t as silly as it sounds. Whereas a lesser writer might have turned this tale into a kind of millennial Soylent Green, Wright’s novel is sophisticated and intelligent. In his excellent opening, he wisely avoids concocting an elaborate technical description of the time machine and instead draws the reader in with a compelling literary mystery. Where Wright stumbles is in the lengthy second section, in which David and the time machine are plopped into the 26th century. For far too long, David describes his exploration of the uninhabited country in his journal. Without dialogue or other characters, the narrative quickly becomes a tedious waiting game that leaves the reader wondering what exactly David is searching for: A trace of Tatiana? A cure for his disease? Any human contact? All of these, surely, though there’s no urgency in the writing, and Wright never really conveys the loneliness that must surely be eating at David.

When David at last stumbles upon the settlement in Scotland, the novel comes to life again, and Wright carries the story toward an ending that, though inevitable, is wonderfully unsentimental and satisfying. It’s unfortunate that Wright’s imaginative premise and skillful storytelling are somewhat overshadowed by the novel’s poor pacing.