Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

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The Time Machine by H. G. Wells book cover
The Time Machine (1895) is H. G. Wells’s uniquely innovative story of time travel, which fuelled the imaginations of subsequent science-fiction writers. Over dinner, a Victorian scientist discusses with his incredulous companions a new invention he has been working on: a Time Machine. In an effort to prove the efficacy of his endeavour, the pioneering scientist propels himself forward in time to the year 802,701 AD using his device. It is a strange and unsettling time – the human race has split into two distinct strains: Eloi, pampered and weak rulers of the new world; and Morlocks, savage beings that dwell in the deep passages beneath the earth. The path home from this unsettling dystopia is far from straight-forward and the unnamed time traveller – vulnerable and alone – must fight his way back to his own age, taking on an adventure story that encompasses themes of entropy, devolution, decay, and utopian satire.

As much as The Time Machine is about the leap to a great dystopian future, it is far more firmly rooted in Wells’s Victorian age than one might imagine. The influence of both Darwin and Marx – whose ideas were at the forefront of thought at the time – are clearly in evidence in the novel, and Wells’s ideas and cautions about the mechanisation of the world run contrary to the strong stream of modernity that ran through Victorian and Socialist attitudes about technology and labour at the time.

Following Darwin’s theory of natural selection there was much discussion about whether the human race could or would ‘devolve’ into a weaker, less perfect/complex form. Clearly, this makes the erroneous assumption that biological natural selection moves a species towards a more perfect/complex form, when, of course, (put simply) it maintains the genes best adapted to reproduce, that is all. But, what one has here, is an interesting discussion of where natural selection might lead – could it shift social power, or bring down those that apparently benefit from all of the world’s advantages?

At first glance, the Elois appear the lamentable ruling class, weakened by the lack of physical labour and ill-fitted to survive in a world where their every need is not met. The Morlocks – a far hardier yet fearful Other – represent the working class, the mass on whose labour the few survive. This dynamic reflects not just the English society in which Wells existed, but so too the relationship between Colonial ruler and native. The Time Traveller adopts very easily the role of Imperialist – with superior strength (linked with masculinity), health, culture, and knowledge – in a foreign (/ future) land. He treats both the Eloi and the Morlocks as Others, and a lower form of being to himself – giving him more rights, and less need to feel remorse when he is forced into conflict with those who co-habit the new world. Indeed, it should be noted that the Time Traveller’s violent emotions are not always an appropriate response to the utopian world he discovers, perhaps like the colonising alien, who reacts more dramatically than he would amongst his ‘own people’. Despite his initial fear that these Othered beings may attempt to consume him – a nod to a literal form of Darwinian competition, or the Imperialist’s fear of cannibalism amongst the natives – the Time Traveller is quick to lament the loss of physical prowess amongst the new inhabitants of the world. For him a world without danger breeds effete and sub-standard beings.

However, as the novel develops, one finds this simple metaphor cannot hold; the Eloi enjoy the benefits of the ruling class – beauty, pleasure, and relative affability – but they are weak, lacking in reason, and many of the qualities that an Imperialist Male is taught to value. The Morlocks, while savage and ill-adapted for light, are resilient and prey on the Eloi. Both races exhibit qualities of both ruler and ruled, and, ultimately, there isn’t a coherent social message because of this. If the vision Wells conjures is a warning, then it is unclear whether it warns against the ruling classes weakening to the point of becoming prey, or of the mistreatment of the working man. For this reason – the multitude of possible readings of the Elois and Morlocks – it’s hard to read The Time Machine as a parable, but does make it interesting as a more complex piece of art.

In projecting forward many thousands of years into the future, Wells depicts a world that has ‘devolved’ to a poor state – it is not a prediction but a warning of where humanity could be headed, should it not heed the dangers of ‘progress’. For Wells, above all social conditions, nature is the most powerful force acting on the world. While humanity falls prey to its own failings again and again, nature is a force beyond the control of people, with the power to shape the world more powerfully than any man. Here, there is some slightly muddled use of thermodynamic laws, as Wells appears to link the decline of the cosmos (specifically the Sun), with a loss of energy amongst individuals. There is an overriding caution in placing too much faith in technology and science – important as both are – as one sees the consequence of over-mechanisation in the future world, as well as the great power of nature to destroy, in this case, via the sun as a diminishing resource. The time machine itself warns, too, of the dangers of meddling with technology.

Wells would later acknowledge that The Time Traveller does, at times, feel like the work of an inexperienced author, but the writing itself is solid. While the pacing can feel a little slow and ponderous by modern standards, Wells blends the adventure story with larger themes. Most of Wells’s Victorian readers would have been well versed in the tradition of Adventure stories, on which The Time Machine draws heavily, the most significant difference here being the travelled continuum, i.e. the substitution of extreme temporal geographies for spatial ones. Ultimately, The Time Machine catches the reader’s attention, whether through its themes or its exciting narrative.

This was the book that really propelled Wells’s career as an author and by writing fantastical visions with a scientific approach, he, through The Time Machine, created a new path not only for his career but for a genre of writing too. In his early scientific romances, Wells was particularly revolutionary in grappling with a world in a state of constant change, rather than – as was the common conception – a world searching for a more perfect static ideal. Some of Wells’s work will feel dated to modern readers, but it is worth bearing in mind that he was writing at the genesis of modern Science-Fiction. Where The Time Machine is muddled or fails, later authors – even Wells himself – would improve on the foundation laid here. So many of the questions addressed by time travelling narratives originate with Wells, and for this reason The Time Machine is essential reading for any science-fiction fan.

Wells's writing does date quite noticeably, but having said that, I'm probably not in the best position to judge not being a huge Sci-Fi fan. Seems like a must-read to me, though.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Time Machine on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Time Machine on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of The Time Machine on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of The Time Machine on Amazon (US)

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