Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"The Ingenious Unravelling of Evidence": Empathy, Extinction, and Wells's the Croquet Player

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"The Ingenious Unravelling of Evidence": Empathy, Extinction, and Wells's the Croquet Player

Article excerpt

Long ago, H. G. Wells saw the future. And like one recent vision, it is a future without us. (1) Interestingly, as we become increasingly capable of imagining a world without humans, we have also become increasingly attentive to the subject of empathy, in popular culture, the humanities, and the sciences. Involved in this curious relation are parallel phenomena for which our interest increases as their material basis decreases or is culturally disavowed: missing links and cryptozoology, extinction narratives and ancestry research. The archeological search for links in our evolutionary history continues even as kinship with nonhuman animals is increasingly repudiated, and the less scientific search for imagined or exotic animals continues even as the already remote possibility of finding such creatures diminishes as diverse habitats disappear. Similarly, apocalyptic narratives increase even as we collectively behave as if our actions do not hasten our demise, while, at the same time, we seem to have less understanding of our past even as the nostalgic project of ancestry research nets greater corporate profits each year.

In The Time Machine (1935), and in a number of essays on evolution or extinction also published in the 1890s, Wells articulated a speculative evolutionary theory, a shockingly naked vision of nature unencumbered by everyday anthropocentricism. (2) His hypnotic, little-known 1936 novella, The Croquet Player, continues this story of evolution, turning both to the future's entanglement with the past and to culture's entanglement with nature. Prescient, Wells's novella speaks to the parallel phenomena inhabiting the strange relation between extinction and empathy.

Even many Wellsians aren't familiar with The Croquet Player, though it surely is, as John Hammond ([1998] 2003: xviii) claims in his introduction to the Trent edition, "one of the finest and most carefully written of his stories." In the first of the novella's three movements, Georgie Frobisher, the frivolous player of the title, encounters Dr. Finchatton at the French resort Les Noupets; in the second, Finchatton tells Frobisher the story of the ancient, amorphous evil connected to the paleontological discoveries around the rural village of Cainsmarsh; and in the third, we discover that Finchatton is the patient of the psychiatrist Dr. Norbert, who reframes Finchatton's tale for Georgie as the world crisis of modernity. The novella is, as the back cover of the University of Nebraska Press edition has it, Wells's "prophetic, disturbing glimpse of the primitive distrust and violence that gnaw at the heart of the modern world" (2004).

It is not difficult to read The Croquet Player as a revision of the concerns elaborated in The Time Machine--the celebrated 1895 novel described by Wells in a preface to the 1931 reprint as his "one idea ... a profound root" (xvii). As Robert Philmus (1998: 427) notes, Wells proclaimed the latter "the book which 'fairly launched' him as a writer," revisiting it in Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island in 1928 and reconceiving it as The Croquet Player in 1936. Of course, the world had changed dramatically since the publication of The Time Machine. The threat of a second world war led Wells to consider the extinction of humanity not as a distant future but as a possibility inherent in the present, just as the present is inhabited by the past. In this way, we might say that The Croquet Player imagines time travel without the machine--a glimpse of the evolutionary history and future written in our bodies.

The Croquet Player is plotted along the lines of the best science writing, characterized by Wells (1894c: 301) in his essay "Popularizing Science" as "the ingenious unravelling of evidence." Science is for him a mystery story, and the line between discovery and hoax, archeology and cryptozoology, metaphor and mysticism can be fine but diffuse. In this sense, the novella also appears as what, in the preface to an omnibus edition of his science fiction, Wells (1934: vii) called "a good gripping dream. …

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