Time Travel That Leads to a Dead End in Futuristic London

A SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE

By Ronald Wright

Picador

352 pp., $23

In the year 2500 it turns out that Oprah was right: Don't eat the hamburger.

"A Scientific Romance," by Canadian author Ronald Wright, is the latest warning from the dystopia department. It's been only a few months since John Updike published "The End of Time." Century marks have a way of inspiring such portents. In fact, Wright's novel picks up where H.G. Wells left off in "The Time Machine" a hundred years ago.

In 1999, David Lambert is a young archeologist from Cambridge, England trying to recover from the death of his brilliant girlfriend. His interest in antique machines leads him to an old letter from H.G. Wells, predicting the imminent reappearance of the device that inspired his classic science-fiction tale.

Driven by curiosity to pursue this clever hoax, David finds his skepticism blasted away when the Victorian engine crashes into the present and gives him an opportunity to escape his grief and failing health.

Looking ahead, he considers his future role as an expert on the past: "I can identify all those things my future colleagues have defined, in the way baffled archaeologists always do, as 'ceremonial objects': Rubik's cubes, wind chimes,...Franklin Mint models of the starship Enterprise. I can account for the fame of Warhol."

When he arrives in the year 2500, however, London offers none of the solace or employment he hoped to find. Completely abandoned, the city has lost its fight against nature. The sun burns freely through an atmosphere without ozone. The Thames sprawls far beyond its old banks through a tropical chaos of crumbling monuments and buildings. Crocodiles slink along the shore, competing for food with enormous feral house cats.

The forest has taken its revenge, a cleansing retribution for the arrogance of the 20th century's faith in "the divine right of things." mad cow disease has destroyed thousands of years of husbandry, the careless use of antibiotics has generated super-resistant viruses, and industrial waste has rendered human life almost impossible.

David tries to confront this lush but disastrous world as a trained professional, but he digs as much into the city's future as into his own past. Recording his findings on a solar-powered laptop, he muses, "Archaeologists are necromancers, not astrologers; aspiring to hindsight, not prognostication, though like astrologers we scan for patterns in events. And the price is loss of innocence."

Indeed, as he considers the carelessness and betrayal that led to his lover's death, David comes to realize his own participation in the collapsed culture that lies before him.

Wright's description of the dilapidated city and his analysis of the social and economic forces that led to this disaster are haunting and troubling. Dark as such apocalyptic warnings can seem, however, they're generated by a profound faith in mankind's ability to perceive the dangers ahead and change course. If Wright were a true pessimist, he wouldn't bother to raise such a compelling alarm.

It's unfortunate that the novel's frank sexual content makes it inappropriate for young readers who have enjoyed Orwell's "1984" and Huxley's "Brave New World," because Wright has written a tale of great suspense and insight. Here is a novel to remind us of our responsibilities to one another and our planet.

"One thing seems clear enough," David writes in horrible isolation, "nature didn't clobber us, except in self-defense."

* Ron Charles teaches English at The John Burroughs School in St. Louis.

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