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The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey
Enrique Gaspar (translated by Yolanda Molina-Gavilán & Andrea Bell)
Wesleyan University Press, 240 pages

The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey
Enrique Gaspar
Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau was born to parents who were actors. Upon the death of his father, he moved to Valencia with his mother and two siblings. He studied humanities and philosophy, though he never finished his studies, leaving to work in the commercial bank of the marqués of San Juan. He had already written his first zarzuela by the age of 13, and at 14 he was writer at the La Ilustración Valenciana. When he was 15 his mother put on a performance of his first comedy. He moved to Madrid when he was 21 to dedicate himself to writing

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A review by Paul Kincaid

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Jules Verne sent his travelers on extraordinary voyages into space and into the bowels of the earth, through the skies and through the ocean depths, but he didn't send his characters on journey through time. That lack seems to have been filled by the Spanish writer, Enrique Gaspar, who indeed specifically mentions Verne in the penultimate paragraph of this curious novel.

Gaspar was an intermittently successful playwright and comic novelist who never earned enough from his writing to fulfill his dream of giving up the day job, which in his case was as a diplomat. Indeed, he had spent several years in Macau, China, shortly before this novel was published in 1887, which clearly influenced the plot of the book. Though he wrote many plays and novels throughout his life, this seems to have been the only one of interest to science fiction readers. The introduction, by the translators, Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell, suggests that some of his plays had scientific themes, though from the flim-flam explanation for time travel at the beginning of this novel I would guess that Gaspar's interest in science was neither deep nor technical.

The real interest in this novel lies in the fact that it features a form of time machine, and was published some seven years before H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895. (Though we should remember that the first iteration of Wells's time machine appeared in the aborted serial, 'The Chronic Argonauts,' in 1888.) There is no suggestion that Wells was influenced by Gaspar, or, indeed, had any awareness of the man. The Time Ship was not a great success when it appeared in Spain, and there were no English translations before now. Yet still, we get a form of time machine that predates Wells, and the work has curiosity value for that alone.

I am sure that Gaspar was deliberately trying to emulate the Europe-wide success of Verne, and had simply happened upon one medium that Verne himself had so far avoided. In its form, though not in its quality, the novel was typical of what Verne was doing. A disparate group of travelers are thrown together by circumstance. Most of the drama in the novel is generated within this group. There are scenic stops along the way, most of which contrive some element of threat, and every so often the action will stop for several pages while the author delivers a lecture. Even at his worst, Verne would handle all these elements far more deftly than Gaspar manages.

Just occasionally, Gaspar shows some inkling of the problems and possibilities that travel in time might offer. At one point, for example, the time travelers rescue the Chinese Empress Sun-che, who then claims to recognize one of the travelers. Ah-ha, we think, there is a hint of paradox here, but the issue is quietly dropped. Indeed, there is little sense that Gaspar has thought seriously about time and time travel at all. When Wells is laying out his groundwork at the beginning of The Time Machine he explores the idea of time as a dimension, and actually prefigures some of the ideas of Einstein. When Gaspar lays out his groundwork, he argues that differential cooling of the Earth released steam that caused the planet to spin, and that spin created time, so all that is necessary to travel into the past is to go very quickly in the opposite direction to the spin. Even in the 1880s, such a notion must have been patent balderdash. What's more, he argues that anyone travelling aboard the time ship would grow younger as they go into the past, until they regress to infancy and beyond. To counteract this, everyone and everything aboard the ship must be treated with a magic spray, but once treated food becomes inedible and machinery stops working. Except, of course, that the time ship itself is untreated and continues working throughout.

It's all nonsense, and I don't suppose it was ever intended to be anything other than nonsense. It's an excuse for a few colourful adventures and some very broad comedy. Don Sindulfo is a misanthropic genius who wants to marry his ward. His ward, meanwhile, has eyes only for a certain captain in the army. So Don Sindulfo invents the time ship so he can take his ward to a different time away from the influence of the captain where he can force her to marry him. Don Sindulfo's assistant, Benjamin, meanwhile, wants to travel back to ancient China where he believes he will find the secret of immortality. Of course, when Don Sindulfo, Benjamin, the ward Clara and her sharp-tongued companion Juanita board the ship, they find that the captain and his troop of soldiers have stowed away on board, and they are also presented with a bevy of superannuated Parisian prostitutes who have been promised the restoration of their youth if they give up their vile trade. All is set for general hilarity. Well, it is if you count as general hilarity the lower class characters, Juanita and her soldier friend Pendencia, mangling the language every time they open their mouths.

Meanwhile we get to witness a minor Spanish victory in North Africa (cue boasting about the might of Spanish arms), meet Queen Isabella at the siege of Granada (our time travelers predict the Moorish surrender), visit the court of the Chinese Emperor (with a chapter-long disquisition on Taoism and Confucianism), land in Pompeii on the day Vesuvius erupts (our time travelers are thrown to the lions), and even go back to the great flood. Most of these great moments in history serve as little more than colour slides to illustrate an uninspiring historical lecture, or as an exotic backdrop to the next stage in the ongoing battles between the various time travelers. The soldiers, en masse, are apparently killed at least twice then return from the dead to save the day. Don Sindulfo gets ever more mad, Benjamin ever more out of his depth, Clara ever more feeble and Juanita ever sharper tongued. And that's it, really: interesting as an historical curiosity, pretty dreadful as a novel.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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