cover image A Scientific Romance

A Scientific Romance

Ronald Wright. Picador USA, $23 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-312-18172-7

English-born historian Wright, who lives in Canada, is the author of several celebrated works of nonfiction, including Time Among the Maya and Stolen Continents, but his first novel is such a triumph that it's a wonder he didn't get around to writing one earlier. The plot is something of a curiosity: English archeologist David Lambert stumbles upon a Victorian time machine--the very one, it turns out, that H.G. Wells described in his famous novel. When Lambert discovers that he may have the same disease that killed his lover, he lights out for the future: A.D. 2500, to be exact. There Wright creates for him a vivid, compelling world, a depopulated, tropical dream of what had once been England. The book's central drama is Lambert's struggle to excavate and uncover the exact nature of the calamity that erased London. At the same time, he sifts through the shards of his own unhappy personal history--which he is, of course, tempted to touch up a little with the help of the time machine. The narrative bristles with fascinating characters, both fictional and historical, and Wright furnishes it with a rich store of enthralling scientific Victoriana. His writing is charming, unpretentious and wonderfully literate. J.G. Ballard explored this same territory in his disaster novels of the 1970s, but never with Wright's psychological insight or pathos. (Mar.)