Saturday 12 October 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: E is for the Eloi and Elysium

In an earlier post I dealt with some misconceptions people often have about nineteenth-century literature. And proving it’s not all frills, frocks and runaway marriages is H.G. Wells – one of those with a claim to the title ‘Father of Science Fiction’.

Wells gives us invading aliens, mad scientists carrying out warped experiments and the kind of time traveller who has become archetypal. It’s a leap in terms of medium, but not in content, from Wells to films which form most people’s experience of the genre today. The same fears surface again and again, in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Wells and in twenty-first century cinema, – our potential inferiority to another species, the isolation of being trapped in a different time and, perhaps most pointedly for the issues currently facing the planet, the unsustainability of our current population levels.

Watching 2013 summer blockbuster Elysium recently the echoes of Wells were even clearer. The central premise is very close to that of 1895 novel The Time Machine. At a future date (much more distant in the Wells) society is divided – the rich live above in luxury (on the surface of the Earth in Wells, in a spaceship in the movie), while the poor live and toil below (on Earth in Elysium, under it in The Time Machine). But how closely does this parallel run? Are Wells’s idle Eloi so very like those who live in Elysium and what can the differences teach us about the fears of our own age and that of the Victorians?

Film poster - Elysium
An interrogation of labour conditions and industry is one thread tying this text and film together. Matt Damon’s Max (central character in Elysium) is one of the unlucky ones, and works in a grimy factory which would certainly fail to pass a health and safety inspection. And initially, Wells’s time traveller thinks the underground Morlocks must be similarly ill-kept workers:

‘At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position.’

Reflecting on our own labour market – with foreign unseen factories providing many of our (luxury) goods - Max’s factory is far distant from Elysium. Out of sight and out of mind, and peopled with a range of racial groups speaking various languages, so that it seems universally ‘foreign’. Wells likewise draws on experiences of industry in his own time, and even quotes examples of subterranean labour, with corresponding social commentary:

‘No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you—and wildly incredible!—and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Evidently, I thought, this tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky. I mean that it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end—! Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?’

There is, however, a key difference. The time traveller is wrong. This is not all that he is witnessing. Elysium suggests the only difference between humans is their level of wealth – the commentary is economic – and physical superiority is determined by access to medical attention, not genetic predisposition. It shies away from telling us how people were picked for this spaceship world to start with and is clear on the fact that you can ascend with the help of money. But what happens in The Time Machine is evolutionary division between the haves and have nots, demonstrating Wells’s interest in emerging evolutionary theory.

Wells had trained under Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’) and was an active participant in contemporary evolutionary debates. His Eloi demonstrate the potential threat of degeneration. They don’t have to fight to survive and become too weak to fight when necessary. And in his Morlocks he rejects the idea of ethical evolution. Moral behaviour is not innate, nor the necessary result of biological ‘progress’. Ultimately cosmic evolution will win out, as the time traveller sees when he ventures even further forward in time, and man will be obliterated.

Elysium takes on none of these issues. The ‘superior’ beings up above are made by machines – those which doctor to their ills or the military exoskeletons which allow them to participate in killer action sequences. But its democratic ideology will not allow for biological division.

There is one last major difference. Elysium ends just when things are about to get ethically interesting. The film refuses to address the fact that everyone cannot live in Elysium. Are we meant to presume that there were always enough medical resources but that those above weren’t sharing? But the screenplay has specifically told us this is not the case. Wells’s Morlocks bite back (literally). Damon and crew also put up a fight but in order to achieve a universal happiness and prosperity which is obviously unachievable. Wells isn’t afraid to ask the big questions about humanity’s future and to propose at times unsavoury answers. And that’s why his work remains the standard for science fiction.

Are you a victorianist? Or do you just like films? Let me know what you made of Elysium and its flirtation with Wellsian ideas below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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