Saturday, 30 January 2016

The New Accelerator


Dear Reader,

You are invited to participate in the following experiment in literary criticism. This will take around around 45 minutes (spread over the weekend if you like). Thank you for your interest. Onward!

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It's Friday evening, precisely nine o'clock. 

For the past twenty minutes or so I've been re-reading The New Accelerator, the short story by H. G. Wells,  and am now about to write a blog about it. In keeping with the spirit of the original story I'd like to make this an experiment with you, my reader. A successful outcome depends on your full and willing collaboration.
Ready? 

Let's go.

Whether or not you've read The New Accelerator before I'd like you to skip this at-the-time-of-writing-still-unwritten blog - apart from this paragraph of course, which I've almost completed - and. immediately read (or re-read), the story, because much of what I'm about to write will amount to an extended spoiler and in any case I need the time while you're away to start writing the blog.. So, off you go (and you can click on the link provided to read it online). I'll see you back here in what -  about twenty minutes? 

I glance at my watch. It's Friday evening, a little after 9 o'clock. I look up.

Still here? Look - will you please humour me, just this once? My plan, you see, is to write this blog in real time, over the next couple of hours, and to involve you, my reader, in the process. I'm not sure whether this will work, or even whether it's worth attempting. So please - read the bloody story (not too quickly), and I'll see you back here in, let's make it half an hour? This should give me time to complete around a quarter of this blog. It's your last chance to be part of a groundbreaking interactive experiment in literary criticism. Off you go. 

I glance at my watch. It should now be about half an hour later where you are, if you're working with me, as I hope you are. It's about an hour later where I am because I had a call from an old friend who wanted to catch up and then I found an unfinished bar of fruit and nut chocolate and the time flew by. It's now almost 10 o'clock where I am, so we're already quite badly out of synch, and I'Il have to do what I can to make up for that. I hope you enjoyed the story. I'm sure you did. While you were away and before my friend called I checked the Wikipedia entry for Wells and knocked out the following . . . 

The New Accelerator first appeared in 1901 and was published in book form two years later in a collection called Twelve Stories and a Dream. The author was 35 when he wrote it, and died 13 years before I was born. I gave my  son, a copy as a fourteenth birthday present, or rather a volume of Wells's short stories which included this one. This meant a lot to me and will, I hope, to him, because among many other things it's a story about time, and how we pass through time, about what time does to us, what our lives are for, and how time can be spent, or wasted. It's also a story about how drugs can mess with your mind.

The opening paragraph of The New Accelerator is an excellent example of solidly-crafted Edwardian prose: briskly informal, unmistakably masculine in its bluff, keen-as-mustard register, and with a hook in the final sentence that connects Wells's story with the writings of De Quincey and Baudelaire in the past and William Burroughs in what was still then the future.

Certainly, if ever a man found a guinea when he was looking for a pin it is my good friend Professor Gibberne. I have heard before of investigators overshooting the mark, but never quite to the extent that he has done. He has really, this time at any rate, without any touch of exaggeration in the phrase, found something to revolutionise human life. And that when he was simply seeking an all-round nervous stimulant to bring languid people up to the stresses of these pushful days. I have tasted the stuff now several times, and I cannot do better than describe the effect the thing had on me. That there are astonishing experiences in store for all in search of new sensations will become apparent enough.

'These pushful days' - a cobwebby phrase for a familiar situation. We don't write like this any more, because we don't think like this any more, not in our world of stress management regimes and flexible working hours. At the turn of the last century there was intense interest in Scientific Management, better known as Taylorism, a management theory the main object of which was improving economic efficiency through greater labor productivity. Time - and the relation of time to labour - had never been so rigorously commodified. It was as if time itself, once the property of all, was now privately owned and managed. We can still relish the subversive implications of Professor Gibberne's discovery of a world-changing wonder-drug that will lead to 'the absolute acceleration of life' and, of course, the absolute acceleration of death.

The setting isn't the populous capital or some bustling industrial city but genteel Folkestone, now a fading resort but then a very respectable middle-class holiday destination on the Kent coast. Wells's description of the Gibberne residence is so precise that I'm sure I'm not the only reader to have scoured the Upper Sandgate Road for a detached house with Flemish gables and a Moorish portico, a ground floor room with mullioned bay window and 'an Early English carved oak gate'. My money's on number 150, on the right as you head to the sea. Wells, having moved to Folkestone for his health in 1896, lived nearby in an imposing pile called Spade House designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Voysey. It's now a residential nursing-home, a place for people who are fast running out of time, and visitors are not encouraged (unless, of course, they have somebody to visit).

Gibberne is boyish and impulsive and no crackpot scientist, but what he stumbles across is a  not a mild tonic but a colossally powerful stimulant, a mega-benzedrine that accelerates the user's metabolism thousands of times, to such a speed that his movements become too swift for the human eye to see. He becomes invisible to us, while the world we inhabit appears motionless to the user, who is free to move around, inspecting it at his leisure. What a great idea!

It really is a great idea, but Wells, who was never short of great ideas, does remarkably little with it. As later 
writers would discover,  narcotic writing is seldom compatible with anything as mundane as a plot. It's all about 
sensation, perception, self absorptions. There's no plot, simply a description - and a wonderfully vivid description - 
of the experience of being under the drug's influence. The two men do little but move unseen through a holiday 
crowd, and there's a single mild act of delinquency involving a yapping lapdog. It's they, not Wells, who seem to 
lack imagination. But I'm glad the author left things at that and didn't, for instance, work it up into some kind of 
crime caper in which the protagonists fund an increasingly expensive addiction by invisibly looting shops and 
banks. Something like The Invisible Man, and I'm thinking of James Whales's film version of that Wells story.

But I'm also getting ahead of myself, and can now slip in something I wrote earlier, to buy me some time:

(I'm afraid my formatting has suddenly gone to pieces . . .)

Amphetamine was first synthesised in Berlin in 1887 by the Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu who named the new compound phenylisopropylamine, but it was only forty years later that any  pharmacological use was found for amphetamine until 1927, when the trailblazing American psychopharmachologist Gordon Ales resynthesised Edeleanu's compound and, like Gibberne, and tested it on himself. In the mid-1930s Smith, Kline and French retailed the base form of phenylisopropylamine,under the brand name Benzedrine - the closes we have yet come to a commodified New Accelerator and, by Gibberne's standards, a very pale imitation.

A euphoric Gibberne (and I assume the name should be pronounced with a hard 'g', as in gibbon, and not a soft 'g', as in 'gibbett'), still under the influence of an earlier dose, persuades the anonymous narrator to join him in an informal trial. "It kicks the theory of vision into a perfectly new shape!" he claims, and this it certainly does, although I'm not clear what theory this might be. The preliminaries are brilliantly handled by Wells. Gibberne delivers a series of deadpan practical instructions and portentous warnings, part health and safety nostrums, part music-hall conjuror's patter. The narrator shuts his eyes and waits for the drug to kick in. After a minute or two he opens them and looks around. Nothing appears to have changed until he is confronted by irrefutable evidence that he has passed into another world - a billowing curtain appears frozen in mid-air and, when Gibberne opens his hand to release his empty drinking-glass, it doesn't fall crashing to the floor but remains quite motionless, descending imperceptibly slowly.

I glance at my watch, This is going reasonably well so far, but I really want to avoid summarising the story, which of course you you know by now, and to get on to some kind of commentary, or interpretation. Can I ask you to go back to the story and read again the scene in which the narrator and Gibberne leave the house by the ground floor window, up until the point where they are both revolted by the winking man? Read slowly - not just to enjoy the simple pleasure of Wells's efficient, unflamboyant prose, but to give me time to get ahead, to the things I want to say about sex and death and money.

It's now later. Here's what I wrote next:

Accelerated and disinhibited, the two men venture out together through the ground floor window and make their way a few hundred yards southward onto the Leas, the landscaped municipal gardens on the cliffs high above the sandy beach. It's a clear, hot August bank holiday weekend, 'every colour incredibly bright and every outline hard'.

The Leas are today slightly scruffy but pretty much as they were at the beginning of the last century, and as Wells describes them - manicured, with a bandstand, lawns and space for picnic and kite-flying, and the perfect locale for recreational drug use. There are today fewer amenities for fewer holiday-makers, and the local authorities have never made much of the Wells connection. This is surprising, especially given the competition from nearby Margate with its Turner Gallery, Tracey Emin installations and the promenade shelter where T. S. Eliot could 'connect nothing with nothing'. 

Stuck, and connecting nothing with nothing, I glance at my watch. It's much later, but still (as always) now. You are reading this in your time. I am writing this in my time. You can read much faster than I can write. I type much slower than I think. It's an issue. What time is it where you are? What time is it now?

Outside the familiar has become hauntingly strange or, in the narrator's saloon bar idiom, 'deuced queer':

An immovable cyclist, head down and with a frozen puff of dust behind his driving-wheel, scorched to overtake a galloping char-a-banc that did not stir. I gaped in amazement at this incredible spectacle.

It's a sunlit, white flannel and straw boater, Jerome K. Jerome kind of world that the two flâneurs can inspect at their leisure. As social observers they are doubly disengaged because the holiday-makers they scrutinise are themselves on leave of absence from everyday life. It would be a very different story if set in, say, more familiar Wellsian environments -  the crowded South London suburbs or a remote Kentish village.

But all is not well, as they examine that static, galloping horse-drawn char-a-banc:

The effect as we walked about the thing began by being madly queer, and ended by being disagreeable. There they were, people like ourselves and yet not like ourselves, frozen in careless attitudes, caught in mid-gesture. 

Time to get away from the many small wonders of the story - the bee sliding through the air like a snail and the red-fced party wrestling statically with a windblown newspaper - and think a bit about the implications of Gibberne's elixir.

The scenes of provincial life observed and described on the Leas are not of life as we know it but a simulacrum of life. It's lifeless, and not only because there's no movement. There seems to be no vitality either -. the holiday crowd is 'smitten rigid' and what begins as a high-spirited excursion soon becomes a journey through a sunlit necropolis. Esse est percipere said Bishop Berkeley - 'to be is to be perceived' - and as the two men cannot be perceived by the rest of humanity they soon begin to experience a disabling loss of self, a state we would diagnose today as drug-induced paranoia. Wells doesn't explore this in much detail - but  what we he describes is a paradoxical state of death-in-life, an addict condition. The two men are invisible, spectral, unable to communicate with the world of the living, or to interact with it. In the midst of life they are in death; but also in the midst of death they are excessively alive. They are revenants, animated corpses who return from the dead to terrorise the living. (Folkestone's Wikipedia entry tells me that the town's cultural highlight is an Annual Zombie walk, which attracted  200 participants in 2012. They could aim higher, although this link to the animated dead certainly resonates with a deeper meaning of The New Accelerator. Perhaps the same people could arrange an Annual New Accelerator walk. That would really be something.)

What Wells depicts, rather than examines, is the immediate freedom granted by any drug, a liberation from the quotidian,  that also necessarily brings the user closer to death - not only in the infinitesimal sense mentioned by Gibberne but in a profounder, existential sense. Wells raises important questions about selfhood - what it is, how it is sustained by the individual within the social order, but he doesn't offer answers to these questions because he's not that kind of writer. Like his narrator he is 'given to paradoxes about space and time' but is essentially a practical man, preferring mechanics to metaphysics. As a writer he has a canny tradesman's eye for detail - the commercial version of the Accelerator elixir will, we learn, be sold 'in three strengths: one in 200, one in 900, and one in 2000, distinguished by yellow, pink, and white labels respectively'. He's less good on character, but this is not a flaw in his short stories so much as a defining characteristic. The science is wonky and one doesn't have to be a physiologist to know that accelerating the heart rate by several thousand times would be instantly fatal - although Wells touches lightly on this side-effect as if it's simply a trade-off:

"You see," said Gibberne, "if I get it as an all-round thing it will really do you no harm at all - except perhaps to an infinitesimal degree it brings you nearer old age. You will just have lived twice to other people's once --"

That's quite rock and roll, isn't it? 'Live fast, die young'; 'better to burn out than fade away', all that. Mutability and oblivion are at the dark heart of The New Accelerator - the fear of, and the irresistible attraction towards,  personal extinction expressed through a skewed romantic impulse to live more intensely. Stepping outside time is an essentially romantic undertaking, and narcotic writers like Burroughs are romantic in the 19th century sense. One of Burroughs's intentions through cut-ups and other 'experiments' was to crack time open and see what came out. Today's romantics, obsessed with parallel dimensions as a result of their understanding (or rather misunderstanding) of quantum physics elect to see the possibility of stepping  outside time as a liberation. Drugs aid this.Conventional novels take place over time - the time taken to write, the time taken to read and the time portrayed within the story, so by breaking up the chronology Burroughs was engaged in a metaphysical battle with - well with what? The random sub-division of eternity'? He wanted to free himself - and us - from the tyranny of linear time and drugs, at least in his view, interrupt time and offer the chance of liberation.

Or as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu put it 600 years before Christ and several millennia before Burroughs : 'The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.' 

Spatial and temporal paradoxes abound in the story - either reported with relish or ignored entirely. The science is enjoyably haphazard and inconsistent. Gibberne's flannel pants begin to singe when he runs, with a suggestion of hellish retribution for the scientist who flies in the face of nature - but that yapping lapdog, kicked high into the air above the bandstand should really burst into flames (WOOF!) at such speed. (There's an old Star Trek episode, back in the long-ago future of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, called Wink of an Eye. and it's a direct lift from Wells. It's pretty good, although Star Trek fans have flooded the internet with pedantic quibbles about the science. This might lead us to suppose there's something a bit odd about Trekkie priorities - but we knew that anyway.)

Science-fiction of this Edwardian vintage is not so much a genre as an oxymoron, at least in the case of Wells, who is if anything a great social satirist and one of the only important writers to deal. almost exclusively, with the lower-middle class, which happened to be his own class. 

I glance at my watch. Ach. No time left to go into Wells in detail. He was, let's agree, a complicated, highly intelligent buffoon and a compendium of conflicting convictions - a utopian socialist and visionary who believed in eugenics, in the perfection of the race through family planning and selective culling. He was fiercely anti-Zionist, a profligate philanderer, a squeaky-voiced crypto-fascist and, for quite some time, the most famous writer on the planet. You can look him up on the internet.  You can also find most of his fiction online, although my advice is to shell out on the books. But don't let's get started on the comparative merits of print and electronic  publishing.

Today medical science is dedicated to slowing down the effects of time and postponing the end of all flesh. We are all living much longer (which, politicians hasten to assure us, is unquestionably a Good Thing). Cosmetic procedures, faddish diets and collective self-delusion together create the illusion of prolonged health and vigour and the semblance of youth, or at least the absence of decrepitude. We are all in a state of denial concerning the only thing we have in common. Gibberne's potion offers benefits, but at a price:

Suppose a man repeatedly dosed with such a preparation: he would live an active and record life indeed, but he would be an adult at eleven, middle-aged at twenty-five, and by thirty well on the road to senile decay.

Accelerated senility and/or early death are the opportunity costs. We are most of us likely to live long enough to witness our own physical and mental decline long before oblivion gets its hooks in. Of course we trade off experience against longevity every time we indulge ourselves in booze of fags or recreational drugs or bungee-jumping or whatever adrenalin-boosting sensation best meet our needs or whims. But death, and our fear of death, is behind everything, beneath everything, driving everything and overshadowing and ultimately thwarting all that we do. Timor mortis is merely the tip of the iceberg. Gibberne's elixir brings death incrementally into the world.

Not just death. Sex. It's a commonplace view that any new technology will swiftly be co-opted by pornographers - from daguerrotypes to Google Glasses there's an immediate appropriation and exploitation by a huge, rapacious industry. Likewise in literature, although more slowly and relatively respectably. There's unsurprisingly no sex in The New Accelerator but the implications of Gibberne's drug have been explored by, among others, Nicholson Balker in his 1994 novel The Fermata, in which the central character, Arno Strine, freezes time to engage in opportunistic sexual depravity and nothing else. 

Wells is a wobbly libertarian. The market will manage the consequences of the commercial distribution of the Accelerator:: 

Like all potent preparations it will be liable to abuse. We have, however, discussed this aspect of the question very thoroughly, and we have decided that this is purely a matter of jurisprudence and altogether outside our province. We shall manufacture and sell the Accelerator, and, as for the consequences - we shall see.

'This shit will probably kill us. Let's do another line' as Tom Waits croaked. Not just death and sex. Money. If - and this isn't a very big if - we agree to admire The New Accelerator as a satirical allegory, or allegorical satire, we are presented with a future society made up of two antithetical, pharmacologically-defined communities, a society built around collective addiction to Gibberne's Nervous Accelerator and its correspondingly potent Retardant. A society in which a hyperkinetic minority lord it over a slow-moving, even inactive underclass doped to the gills with mental and physical sedatives. A society in denial at the thought of decay and death, with a compensating tendency to fetishise youth and beauty, however artificially attained, and endorsing a state of cultural adolescence that now extends well into middle-age. Picture a society out of synch with time, and addicted to self-realisation and self-fulfilment though self-medication. Look around you. 

I glance at my watch for the last time. I may mention that this introduction has been written at one sitting and without interruption, except for the phone call and, without the use of any stimulant apart from the fruit and nut chocolate. I began just after 9pm and the time is now very nearly half past eleven and time for me to turn in. If you've read this blog, or at least skimmed it, you'll have done so in a fraction of the time it took me to write it. You may never re-read it, which is fine by me, although a writer without readers is like an unperceived accelerated Gibberne on the Folkestone Leas. But you will, I hope, return to The New Accelerator during the time remaining to you, because it really is the most wonderful story.

Thank you for reading this, and thank you for your time.


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