Here’s the plot, its basic situation one that Plautus would recognize: A rich, middle-aged pedant named Don Sindulfo Garcia falls in love with his young niece Clara, who naturally enough spurns him. Besides, she has given her heart to a worthy young army officer, her cousin Luis. Clara’s maid and companion Juanita — a brash country girl, who speaks her mind and mangles the language — is simultaneously in love with Luis’s orderly, a good-hearted lunk named Pendencia.
Burning with lust and jealousy, Don Sindulfo dreams of taking Clara back in time to some remote era, when women knew their place and he could compel her to marry him. “Happy were the times when a tutor had the right to impose his will on his pupil. I wish I could transport myself back to that age, mistakenly called dark, when respect and obedience to one’s superiors formed the basis of society! How I wish I could go back centuries!” His close friend Benjamin — a scholar and polyglot, whose role in the action corresponds to that of the clever valet in an opera — chimes in that he himself would like to travel to ancient China to learn the secret of immortality, supposedly possessed by the last empress of the Han dynasty.
Theorizing that the eternal revolution of the earth’s atmosphere creates time, Don quite readily constructs an electricity-powered ship that can navigate air currents back into the past. As he pedantically explains, sort of:
“I rise to the center of the atmosphere, which is the body that we are trying to unmake and that I shall continue to call time. Because time — in order to become wrapped up in the Earth — marches in the opposite direction to the planet’s rotation, the Time Ship, so as to unwrap time, must travel contrariwise to it and in step with the spheroid; that is, from west to east. The globe takes twenty-four hours for each revolution on its axis; my machine navigates at a speed 175,200 times faster, with the result that in the time it takes the Earth to produce one day in the future, I can undo 480 years of the past.”
Don Sindulfo informs an enthusiastic French audience that he’ll soon be able to “have breakfast at seven in nineteenth-century Paris, partake of lunch at noon in Russia with Peter the Great, dine at five in Madrid with Cervantes . . . and, overnight en route, disembark at dawn with Columbus on the beaches of virgin America.” He also notes that anyone who travels on the Time Ship would obviously grow younger, eventually disappearing, unless treated with a jolt of a special immutability current.
At this point, Gaspar, whose other plays and writings are largely satirical critiques of contemporary society, grows increasingly farcical. Just before he takes off in the Time Ship, Don Sindulfo is asked to help reform morally decayed French society by carrying along a group of middle-aged prostitutes. What? Why? The government’s idea is this: He will take along “a dozen ladies bordering on forty — young enough that OLD age hasn’t yet forced them to abandon their dreams, but advanced enough for women of their sort to harbor hopes of success — and offer them a return to their twenties in sixty minutes. It will follow that, enlightened by experience and having learned their lesson, when finding themselves again in possession of their charms they will take the path of moderation and abandon that of vice.” Right.
Meanwhile, Luis and Pendencia, accompanied by a group of their fellow soldiers, steal onto the Time Ship, intending to run off with Clara and Juanita. Need I add that when the great adventure begins, the soldiers are still on board, hiding in the hold?
Perhaps the most amusing chapter depicts the aging prostitutes gradually being transformed into 20-year-olds. Everything, including their clothes, reverts to an earlier state. Gray hair grows blond. A false tooth is sent flying out of its socket when the original pops back in. Silk ribbons turn into caterpillars, and cloth into raw cotton, before crumbling into nothingness. The newly young women giddily hug and kiss each other, even as their clothes disappear. Fortunately, the “immutablity fluid transmitter” is administered before they start to become children.
By this time, the madcap adventures are only beginning. The Time Ship hovers above a famous battle, observing its action first backward, then forward. Amorous soldiers, untreated by the immutability formula, grow into babies — to the chagrin of the prostitutes, as well as Clara and Juanita. The travelers from the future even find themselves caught up in a power struggle for the Chinese throne. And, gradually, the search for the secret of immortality leads the company back to the time of Noah and then to the beginning of time itself.
In precis — and I’ve left out a good many of the miraculous reversals and coincidences — “The Time Ship” probably sounds like a lot of fun. It is, and it isn’t. Info-dumps abound. The characters are the flattest of comic types. The prose isn’t as sparkling as it should be, and the slapstick is pretty obvious and corny. If you want to read an early-time travel novel that is truly funny and crisply written, try E. Nesbit’s “The Story of the Amulet” (1906). Certainly, Gaspar’s “The Time Ship” possesses nothing of the somber, haunting power of Wells’s “The Time Machine.” Nonetheless, it inaugurates one of science fiction’s most potent subgenres, and for this alone, it deserves to be remembered and honored. Moreover, the period illustrations by Francesc Soler are exceptionally charming.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room.