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Dunne, J W

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1875-1949) Irish engineer and author, in South Africa and the UK from early manhood; employed by the British War Office in 1906 to develop the monoplane he had envisioned, though nothing came of this. His two fantasies – The Jumping Lions of Borneo (1937 chap) and the more ambitious An Experiment with St George (1939) – are of some mild interest, but Dunne is now remembered almost exclusively for his theories about the nature of time, which he developed in order to explain his sense that dreams are often Precognitive. In An Experiment with Time (1927; rev 1929; rev 1934) he began to articulate his appealing thesis that time was not a linear flow but a constant, a sort of stacked geography, a palimpsest accessible to the dreaming mind. Time does not pass; we pass through time through stages of perspective, the ultimate viewer – the "superlative general observer" – being a kind of godhead whose Immortality we share. The impact of this idea was sufficiently broad that the phrase "Dunne dreams" became a widespread nonce term for precognitive dreaming.

Dunne's early work resonated perfectly with the time-hauntedness of interbellum UK writers of the supernatural, from E F Benson and Frank Baker to Alison Uttley (1884-1976). The writers of Scientific Romance most clearly influenced – some of whom were in fact inspired by Dunne's notions to write this kind of fiction – were probably John Buchan, whose novel The Gap in the Curtain (1932), with its shared moment of Precognition resembling a glimpse through a nonphysical Time Viewer, is clearly argued in Dunne's terms; James Hilton, where Immortality in Lost Horizon (1933) is presented in terms consistent with the theory; J B Priestley, whose Time Plays – most notably Dangerous Corner (1932), Time and the Conways (1937) and An Inspector Calls (1947) – are indebted to Dunne, and whose nonfictional Man and Time (1964) and Over the Long High Wall: Some Reflections and Speculations on Life, Death and Time (1972) guardedly advocate Dunne's more fruitful intuitions; H G Wells, whose The Shape of Things to Come (1933) takes the form of a Future History written by a man who has derived his manuscript from the kind of dreaming Dunne describes; and C S Lewis, who name-checks Dunne in That Hideous Strength (1945). Further instances include J Leslie Mitchell's Gay Hunter (1934); Warwick Deeping's The Man Who Went Back (1940); Ralph L Finn's The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet (1948); H Beam Piper's Murder in the Gunroom (1953) and also his Paratime Police sequence; Ronald Wright's A Scientific Romance (1997) instances Dunne to tentatively explain proleptic flashes experienced by its protagonist as he prepares for the literal Time Travel that shapes the text; there are others. From about 1927, Dunne's work was known to and influenced Robert A Heinlein, initially through initially through Wells's "New Light on Mental Life: Mr J W Dunne's Experiments with Dreaming" (10 July 1927 New York Times Magazine); Heinlein based the protagonist's Time Travel in For Us, the Living (2004) (written late 1938) on Dunne. And Vladimir Nabokov obscurely uses the Dunne hypothesis to structure the narrative of Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), an influence less visible in the text than in notes made by the author at the time of its construction.

In later books, such as The Serial Universe (1934), The New Immortality (1938), Nothing Dies (1940) and the posthumous Intrusions? (1955), Dunne ludicrously sophisticated his intuition-heavy theory, postulating various serial levels of Time, all numbered and leading by an infinite regress to God. Later books to use his time theories – like, for instance, Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden (1958) – are Equipoisal between sf and fantasy, weighing toward the latter. [JC]

see also: Dimensions.

John William Dunne

born Curragh Camp, Country Kildare, Ireland: 1875

died Banbury, Oxfordshire: 24 August 1949




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