Michael Starr, Wells Meets Deleuze: The Scientific Romances Reconsidered (McFarland, 2017, 208pp, £30.99)
Reviewed by Virginia L. Conn (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey)
Wells Meets Deleuze is an ambitious application of Gilles Deleuze to three key texts in H.G. Wells’ oeuvre – The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine – that, for all its utilization of rarefied jargon, is surprisingly readable and engaging. Following an introduction that lays out the tenets of Deleuzian theory (an approach that assumes familiarity with terms such as ‘rhizomatic/arboreal’ and ‘nomadic writing’ from the get-go), each of the following four chapters focuses on one particular text and its relationship to a specific facet of the Deleuzian theoretical approach. With each chapter building on its predecessor, the text culminates in an analysis of the author himself as an assemblage of his own sociohistorical and literary positioning.
This is a curiously academic choice of subject matter for the Critical Explorations series, which has tended to focus more on popular culture and media, and individual author studies, than it has on philosophical or theoretical interventions. This turn is not unwelcome, however, with Michael Starr putting Wells in dialogue with Deleuze through the theorist’s own statement that philosophy itself must be a kind of sf. The explicit concentration on individual texts as emblematic of larger themes serves not so much as a reinterpretation of a familiar author, but rather as a decentring and connective reconsideration of earlier approaches through an approach that refuses any recognition of origin or stable boundaries.
The introduction positions Wells as one of the most popular mainstream novelists during his lifetime, but also recognizes his importance as a speculative thinker who was, in many ways, ahead of his time. Beginning with a historiographical account of Wellsian criticism, the introduction offers a broad analysis of Deleuze’s philosophical methodology before explaining how this approach specifically relates to sf literature in general and Wells in particular.
It is interesting to note here that the author intends to perform a rhizomatic treatment of Wells’ work by ignoring chronology, but then specifically juxtaposes Deleuze’s (and Felix Guattari's) emblematic treatise, A Thousand Plateaus (1982), with his own treatment of Wells’ work, which is laid out in such a way as to be cumulative and linear. Starr thus professes the value of a Deleuzian reading without actually performing one – in effect, he does a non-Deleuzian analysis of Deleuzian theory insofar as it can be used to examine Wells. That being said, within such a cumulative (and arboreal) framework, Starr’s arguments are built in a convincing and elegant way.
Chapter one performs an extremely deft analysis of the significance of physical location in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), which is then connected to the Deleuzian concepts of ‘smooth’ and ‘striated’ space in relation to human and animal bodies. This theoretical set-up is unexpected but nicely executed, and leads to an exploration of three interconnected threads: spaces, transhumanism and becoming-animal, all of which serve to connect earlier readings of the novel.
Chapter two does a similarly skilful job of performing what Starr claimed Deleuze wanted to do with creative works – that is, not philosophize on them but treat them in and of themselves as a source of theory, especially insofar as the characters within The War of the Worlds (1898) are capable of identifying their trans-temporal unity with the Martians. This chapter also treats the defamiliarization in both time and place of the alien figure as a minoritizing space for the process of becoming.
Chapter three makes the case that, to a certain extent, Wells himself was writing to and for a more receptive future audience than his contemporaries and, thus, he and his work are nomadically oriented in time. More so than the other chapters, this argument seems to be written in direct rebuttal to previous academic work that treated The Time Machine (1895) as a text predicated on linear temporality, with Starr building on his earlier arguments about space and place to present a vision of time within the Wellsian narrative as refracted and diffuse.
Chapter four turns from the scientific romances to the author himself as a machinistic construct. In answering this proposition, Wells as a conceptual persona is subjected to an extended and far-reaching Deleuzian analysis that proliferates and flourishes. In this final chapter, Starr argues that the figure of Wells – through the intersection of his own willingness to self-fictionalize, tributary fiction, personification of the ideas he helped to create, and other historical forces – is reconstituted and rearticulated as an assemblage of socio-historical confluences exemplifying the very possibility of Deleuzian analysis.
Perhaps the most pressing and lingering question in this otherwise focused assemblage is for whom is this book written? Deleuzian theorists will doubtlessly already be familiar with the theoretical concepts Starr introduces here, and Wellsian specialists are likely to find the text’s insistence on the unique positioning of Wells himself of little use in applying these theoretical frameworks more broadly. In assuming a degree of familiarity with both Wells’ oeuvre and Deleuze’s theories, this text in many ways limits itself to a relatively small audience by fully explaining or exploring the basics tenants of neither.
That being said, for those who are familiar with both Wells and Deleuze at the outset, this book offers a nuanced, unexpected and exciting new lens for approaching what, in other contexts, may be all-too-familiar works and interpretations. The final chapter in particular is written with an effusive vision that lays bare the author’s love of his subject. The appendix of Wells’ appearances as a character himself in literature and media is a real delight, and interesting to read on its own in addition to supporting the arguments to which it serves.
Though perhaps written for a limited audience, Wells Meets Deleuze is a timely addition to the growing body of sf criticism that attempts to seriously grapple with sf as a literature worthy of analysis by tools that have historically been restricted in both use and scope. Rather than broaden or even re-evaluate the canon in order to better ‘accommodate’ Wells’ sf, Starr insists on its primacy and the connection of that particular approach to a sprawling array of contemporary concepts – predated, predicted, and often shaped by and in dialogue with Wells’ groundbreaking fiction.