This is a lovely little slice of genre history. First published in 1887, Enrique Gaspar's El anacronópete is a time-travel story that pre-dates H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895; sections of an earlier version of Wells's work, "The Chronic Argonauts," appeared in 1888 in the Science Schools Journal). Long—really long—out of print, Gaspar's novel was unearthed in the mid 1990s by Nil Santiáñez-Tió and the Asociación Española de Fantasía, Ciencia-Ficcón y Terror, and finally republished in 1999. (The original is also now available to read for free online, through archive.org and other sites.) Now Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell have brought it to an English-reading audience for the first time, under the title The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey, accompanied by Francesc Gómez Soleri Rovirosa's (1836-1900) original illustrations, and an introduction that helpfully sets both Gaspar and his novel in the context of their, well, time.
Gaspar (1842-1902) was a diplomat and playwright best known for his reformist social dramas. Like Wells, he used fiction in part to challenge and edify readers, through interrogation of the assumptions and organization of the world around him; like Wells, as Molina-Gavilán and Bell argue in their introduction, Gaspar believed that art could "ultimately improve society" (p. xviii). Unlike Wells's Time Machine, however, the primary mode of Gaspar's time travel fable is wry wit—this is the sort of book that contains a chapter entitled "The Best One; Not Because It's Better but Because It's Last"—and a generous helping of outright farce. Its primary direction of travel, moreover, is not forwards into an imagined future, but back into a re-imagined past.
The latter aspect is presented early on as a sort of statement of intent; chapter one is called "In Which It Is Proved That FORWARD Is Not The Byword Of Progress," and concludes with our nameless and rather arch narrator asking, of protagonist Dr Sindulfo García's planned experiment in time travel: "What monstrous system was it that threatened to arrive at the truth by going backwards, in a century that seeks its ideals in tomorrow and accepts 'forward' as the formula for progress?" (p. 7). The time ship presumably could go forward, simply by reversing its current method of travel—which, Superman II-style, consists of flying against the earth's direction of rotation really quickly—but there is no doubt that the past is the preferred destination.
Spain, it is repeatedly implied, has a difficult, diffident relationship with the forward-looking nineteenth century, in part because there remains much in its past it has yet to deal with. It comes as no surprise when one of the travelers, Benjamín, begins speculating on how Spain's destiny might be altered by making changes to its past, like going back to the year 711 and preventing the Muslim conquest of Iberia:
"Since we are bound for yesterday and will arrive in the past bearing the experiences of History, wouldn’t we be able to change the human condition by avoiding the catastrophes that have caused so much turmoil in society? . . . Suppose we were to drop by Guadalete at the end of the Gothic empire."
"Don't you think that if we gave a course in morality to Cava and Don Rodrigo, or if we showed Count Don Julián—by reading him Cantù, Mariana, and Lafuente—the consequences of his treason, we would manage to change the course of events and avoid the Arab domination of Spain?" (p. 59)
This is a fairytale version of the historical events, in which arrogant King Roderick seduces (or rapes) nobleman's daughter Cava, and pays the price when that nobleman, Julian, turns to a convenient nearby Muslim army as the instrument of his revenge, thus helping create a Spanish Muslim world that would last in one form or another until 1492. The fairytale was originally created, as it happens, in medieval Arabic accounts. For Arabic writers of the ninth and tenth centuries, it rendered the Muslim forces welcome liberators of Spain from royal Christian tyranny; for the Castilian Christian chroniclers who adopted the tale from Arabic tradition in the thirteenth century, the tale located Spain's downfall in its own self-defeating in-fighting, making the Muslims tools of destiny and punishment for sin rather than actors in their own right. For all concerned, it personalized history, made it comprehensible and human-scale.
Benjamín remains captivated by the comforting fable that someone can be blamed, and that Spain could be different (and better) if a single past mistake—a "sin"—were corrected, instead of working with Spain as it actually is. Sindulfo, in what turns out to be one of the few wise things he has to say in the course of the novel, points out in response that, like it or not, Spain is a product of all of its past. Changing one thing would change everything:
Imagine that you and I are an omelette made with eggs that were laid in the eighth century. If the Arabs, who are the hens, didn't exist, would we? (p. 59)
There is a sense at points in the novel that Spain feels some need to prove itself on the quintessentially modern stage of scientific achievement. With marvelous but slightly fuzzy grandiloquence, we're told at the opening that Sindulfo's impending demonstration of time travel—which is captivating to its audience, even though they are "living in Paris, the self-anointed brain of the world" (p. 5; good snark)—will be all the more remarkable for the fact that it comes from a Spaniard:
Science had just taken a step that was going to radically change humanity’s way of life. A name—hitherto obscure and Spanish to boot—was coming to erase with its brilliant intellect the memory of the leading experts of the learned world. (p. 3)
At the end, too, while disingenuously apologizing for the poor quality of his jokes, our narrator again offers a reason why there might be a particular, pointed reason for writing a science fiction novel about Spain: "One must admit," he says, "that my work has at least one merit: that a son of Spain has dared try to unravel time, when it is a well-known fact that whiling away the time [hacer tiempo, in the slightly snappier original] is the almost exclusive pursuit of all Spaniards" (p. 178). Gaspar has a national stereotype to challenge, and also to satirize; as a reformist, he was keen to explore and foster new social attitudes in both real life and in his fiction, as can be seen in the interactions of the central characters, which are drawn to highlight and mock the calcified and unjust nature of existing hierarchies.
The novel's farce owes much to the fact that it was originally written as a zarzuela, a form of stage musical whose history in Spain stretches back to the seventeenth century. Elements of the zarzuela style remain in the story, from its episodic structure—our travelers stop off at various points in history (including ancient Rome, third-century China, and the time of the Biblical Flood), and there are two separate journeys and thus two "acts"—to the chorus line of Spanish hussars that pops up periodically to punctuate the action. Molina-Gavilán and Bell point out that the lead characters, too, echo zarzuela convention in the way they are arranged into pairings of male and female voices—and (of course) into love triangles.
Sindulfo, in particular, is a larger-than-life figure who is swiftly revealed to combine scientific genius with a towering conceit that pays only lip service to the notion that anyone except him has motivations or feelings of their own worth considering, and which would be sinister if it weren't so freely lampooned by both the narrator and the more earthy characters. The time travel experiment is no high-minded mission of scientific exploration—or at any rate, is far from being only that. One of Sindulfo's key reasons for traveling back in time, we learn, is so that he can essentially force his niece Clara—newly his dependent ward—to marry him (she has refused). He explicitly seeks a return to (what he sees as) traditional mores, because of the authority they will give him to override her lack of consent:
"Oh!" the wretched man would cry in despair, "Why did the law become so lax? Happy were the times when a tutor had the right to impose his will on his pupil. I wish I could transport myself back to that age, mistakenly called dark, when respect and obedience to one's superiors formed the basis of society! How I wish I could go back centuries!" (p. 32)
By the time we reach this stage of the story, it is already abundantly clear that the description of Sindulfo as "wretched" is firmly tongue in cheek. The dramatic irony is against him. "Being as prodigal in his studies as he was miserly in everything else," the narrator tells us earlier, "[Sindulfo] reached the age of forty without gaining even a rudimentary knowledge of love" (p. 24). A brief, slightly bizarre flashback episode early on shows us how Sindulfo married a woman who was mute; she later died, but not before it has been made clear—to the reader, if not to Sindulfo—that she married him largely to escape a life confined to her family home, and because no one else was offering. Gaspar minces no words in explaining Sindulfo's delusion over all this:
Not knowing that his case with the mute had been a marriage of convenience fobbed off on the first bidder, he came to imagine that his own face was genuine currency with which to acquire undamaged goods at a low price, and he was always shoving it in front of his niece who, innocent and loving, saw nothing in it but an uncle's face. (p. 30-1)
Clara, for her part, has no intention of marrying her uncle, but feels obligated to at least be nice about it, and not confess that she's actually in love with a soldier. Yet unlike the preternaturally childlike—and, at length, summarily abandoned—Weena in Wells's Time Machine, the closest thing that novel has to a female lead, Clara gets to comment on her situation and act for herself. Indeed, Gaspar uses her knowing awareness to play with the dramatic cliché of the embattled, blushing innocent:
Clara, in her joy, was on the brink of fainting; but as women have a talent for seizing opportunities, she lost consciousness only to the degree strictly necessary to require resting her head on Luis's shoulder for support. (p. 125)
Clara's maid, Juanita, on whom Benjamín has his eye—and who has no compunction about deriding Sindulfo as a "gasbag"—also has a military admirer. Naturally, when the foursome go voyaging back into the past, they inadvertently take with them Clara and Juanita's paramours. And the rest of their brigade. Much hiding, plotting, shouting, and general silliness ensue, often pivoting upon the fact that the movement backwards through time of the anacronópete also causes its passengers to de-age unless they are protected by application of a special handwavium lotion. A clutch of "antiques" bought by Sindulfo and Benjamín at great expense in their presence are revealed during the journey to be nothing of the sort—with the exception of a mummy from China, who turns out to be the wife of the emperor ruling in the period our travelers visit, and whose abrupt return to life gets them out of a sticky situation.
The translation hews closely to the Spanish of the original text, preserving Gaspar's playful alliteration (thus, for example, "Los dos amigos no tuvieron tiempo de rectificar ni de ratificar sus impresiones" (El anacronópete, p. 151) becomes "The two friends did not have time to rectify or ratify their impressions" (The Time Ship, p. 124)), and finding ways—as is discussed interestingly in the introduction—to represent the accents of the less-educated characters. I was, however, a little sad to see "it exploded with the boom of a hundred volcanos" (p. 177) shaved of the three exclamation marks that followed it in the original . . . !
In places the pacing is very much of its time—Sindulfo does quite a lot of speechifying about the mechanics of time and time travel early on, some of which is written in appealingly soaring prose but which cumulatively starts to wear on the reader—and the ending is both in keeping with the farcical tone that animates the tale and a bit of a cop-out for modern sensibilities. But overall The Time Ship makes for an entertaining—and in places gleefully subversive—read, and it offers a window onto an area of both nineteenth-century Spanish culture and the history of the genre that I knew little about. Thanks are due to Wesleyan University Press for supporting its publication, and to all involved for bringing it back to light for modern SF fans.
Nic Clarke is Lecturer in the History of the Islamic World at Newcastle University. (All the Oxford-resident books have now migrated northwards, along with about half of the books in the stacks, aka her parents' place. She has a lot of bookshelves, and still not enough space.) She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.