Review: A Week In Future Wales: Classic time-travel novel gets long-awaited English translation
A Week in Future Wales is described on the cover as ‘the classic Welsh language time-travel novel’. This is the first English translation, finally with us more than six decades after the first publication in 1957. It gives me, and other non or basic-Welsh readers, a welcome opportunity to read a much-loved and influential author reflecting on what choices might shape our shared future.
Strands of possibility
Ifan Powell is a young Welshman, sceptical about nationalism, though he loves his language. He meets a scientist who argues that time is like a plaited rope. The past is the braid, set in place, but the future is still multiple, the strands capable of different patterns. The past is made, but the future is full of the possibilities of the present. Ifan, the scientist says, has the potential to go forward; despite his scepticism the young man agrees to try the process.
He finds himself in 2033 Cardiff. Free Wales is indeed idyllic, from global success in football to cutting edge science. The air is clean, nobody is obscenely wealthy and no-one is grotesquely poor. Transport is easy, Welsh is spoken everywhere and the people are both friendly and cheerful. Independent Wales in in several clubs of states, including alignment with other pacifist nations, and Ifan notes the pointed remarks about the benefits of losing a national inferiority complex. On a whistle-stop tour he visits coal mines and meets the Home Secretary and attends an evening of music and dance (noson lawen, here translated as ceilidh).
Not all is plain sailing. At one point he is captured by the Purple Shirts, fervent loyalists seeking reinstatement of the old united kingdom, who want him to go on television to promote the virtues of such governance in his own time. He refuses and they torture him. It turns out that his assailants are indeed two bad apples in a mostly good barrel of men and he is released. Even in utopia, it seems, constitutional strains run deep.
Free Wales also includes Mair Llywarch, actress daughter of Ifan’s hosts. Of course, Ifan and Mair fall in love and Ifan becomes keen to stay in this utopian future. Mair’s father persuades him to return home, saying that the wrench away from 1957 is too unstable, and he might be yanked into oblivion at any moment. With tears and sighing, the lovers are parted.
Back in his own time, Ifan pines. He decides he wants to return and find Mair. The scientist warns him that he may not find himself on the same strand but he will not heed; inevitably, he finds himself somewhere very different. In this 1933 Cardiff, Wales no longer exists, having become simply West England. Cardiff is a bloated travesty of grey apartment blocks and the country is a barely inhabited mixture of flooded valleys, mines and pine forests. Welsh is unheard; he finds just one speaker, an elderly woman with dementia who lights up briefly at hearing the tongue before relapsing into defensive English. He does find his Mair, here known as Marie Lark, but she does not recognise him and calls the police.
In West England, everyone must be in a political party, though there is little difference between them, and stay in party-appropriate hotels. There is unrest, born he is told, of great inequality and lack of opportunity. This 2033 bears a considerable resemblance to the portrayals of the Eastern Bloc of the time: badly lit, violent, surveilled and arbitrary. On this occasion, far from being rescued, Ifan finds himself on the run and only manages to escape by fierce concentration on his desire to get back to 1957. This strand, if dominant, would create a very different pattern for the future of country Elis loved so deeply.
The journey from then to now
In the introduction to the 1994 Welsh edition, Elis remarked that ‘the two enemies of Wales’ future were the despair of the few and the complacency of the many.’ This is of course still true, for people anywhere who imagine a future where none are left hungry, ill-educated or desperate while others have more resources than they can ever use. Even then, he noted, we were half way along the timeline that Ifan Powell travelled so fast, and today those imagined futures are just around the corner.
His projections add 2033 to that magic roster of 1984 and 2015 (Back to the Future). Dates near enough to test the reality against the author’s imagination and conduct a simultaneous chronological examination on our own times and his. It is always amusing and sometimes instructive to see how well those insights hold up. Of course, our Cymru/Wales has elements of both those futures. Our trains are indeed problematic (despite the promises) and it might well be argued that Cardiff is growing too fast in comparison to the rest of Wales. The Wenglish Elis disliked (as demonstrated in his novel Shadow of the Sickle) is far more common and Cymraeg itself more widely spoken than he could have hoped for. The devolution-genie is not going back in the bottle, but the growth in indy-curiosity has yet to see sustained commitment at the ballot box. That particular fascinating parlour-game gets plenty of additional material from Elis.
Inevitably, for such a book, there are comparisons to other fictions. The most obvious is Wells Time Machine, another meditation on the choices we might make now affecting generations to come. (The relevance of such choices, as I write during the UK’s first ever amber heat warning, are not lost on me.) Also apposite is Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, in which Connie Ramos is presented with an apparently idyllic future which sends her back to her own time determined to fight for change. In one key characteristic, however, Elis is closer to Wells (and indeed other Golden Age science fiction authors); his women are plot devices and placeholders, still shaped by their relationships to men. Both Elis’s visions of the future would fail the Bechdel test, for there is barely a moment in which two women speak to each other let alone talk about something other than the men around them.
It is also an apparently very white Wales, despite the undoubted diversity of Cardiff long before the mid-1950s. The author does not mention anything to do with race or ethnicity, except for the debate about English/Welsh relations which is so central. It was perhaps a missed dramatic opportunity for Elis that in his complex economic and social re-imagining he overlooked the strength of the multiple communities that had been settled in South Wales for generations. It plays into the concerns of many the Welsh nationalism is at best colour-blind and at worst exclusive in its vision of the future. Of course, this too is a common failing of the authors of the time: Simak, Heinlein and indeed Wells himself were not noted for their anti-racist awareness.
The future is a different country, but it is still Wales
It is timely to recognise what is different about this book, and in particular what appears to be distinctively Welsh. Of course, the relationship between language and nationhood is deep in its roots and it would be difficult to think of another sustained work of modern fiction in which an indigenous language itself plays such a role. For example, Nga Waituihi O Rehua or The Chronicles of Rehua (by Dame Katerina Te Heikoko Mataira, published in 2013) was first published in te reo Maori but does not use the language itself as a vehicle for realisation.
The specific Welshness goes wider than that. Elis is very interested in the economics of the future. He gives us substantial chunks of discourse on the topic, perhaps more engrossing for the nerds among us than those seeking literary prowess, but I found them fascinating. In both futures, Wales is still largely an extractive economy, reliant on coal in particular. (Climate change was barely thought of: it was five years to go before Silent Spring came out) In Free Wales, almost all enterprises are co-operatively owned, with aggressive taxation on overlarge or multiple businesses. Although people still put money under the mattress, no-one can easily either get over-weeningly wealthy or export their riches elsewhere. It would be very interesting to model such an approach in today’s diffuse, knowledge-driven, globalised yet splintered economy.
Perhaps this emphasis on the money is unsurprising. A key challenge for a small country such as Wales, where so much of the wealth and opportunities have been held elsewhere for so long, is how to pay its way. Answering not only the material question (how much money will we have) but the formal problem (what currency will we use) is essential for any nationalist movement, and particularly acute for the smaller countries contained with the currency union known as Pounds Sterling. In my own fictional explorations of a future Wales I have found it essential to address these problems, identifying the exports, trade and industries which the country can successfully grow from its present situation.
In both versions, religion matters, with a surprising resurgence of Catholicism in West England. For Elis in 1957, Wales is still fundamentally a devout country. Of course that is not the case today, but I am not aware of any other novelist of his period who would have thought it so important to the identity of his people. And of course the basic topography is fundamental. In Free Wales, it is relatively easy to travel north to south or east to west; West England has seen a deterioration even from today’s lamentable difficulties. Elis describes very specific points and vistas with great affection and a winning attention to detail which can only bring pleasure to readers who know the spots he describes while being fully real to those who have yet to discover them.
Wythnos Yng Nghymru Fydd has long been known amongst Welsh readers. It is a welcome addition to the translated canon, showing the specificity and value of writing in Cymraeg. Elis’ reflections on our choices and their implications are welcome, and offer some useful spurs to our contemporary debates. I am in no position to comment on the actual translation but Morris has given us a highly readable and entertaining book, well worth a read by anyone with the least interest in our constitutional or economic future.
You can purchase a copy of A Week in Future Wales here.
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