The Time Machine was H. G. Wells’ earliest novel (well, more of a novella), and sits as one of the early originators of the science fiction genre. In these “scientific romances”, Wells seeks to use the adventure tale to explore the possible outcomes of scientific progress, and speculate on the future of mankind. In this story, the Time Traveller, an unnamed scientist and inventor, has contrived to build a machine that he can use to travel along “the Fourth Dimension” – Time. It opens at one of his weekly dinner parties, where he explains to his guests – including the narrator, also unnamed – his theory, and demonstrates a working model of the machine. A week later, he appears late to dinner having just returned from a journey in time, and proceeds to narrate the story of his visit to the year 802,701.
The future that Wells has envisaged is a troubling one, grounded in his socialist leanings and the tension between the poor working class and the aristocracy. When the Time Traveller first arrives, he finds a race of small, delicate, and simple-minded beings called the Eloi, who live in a world transformed into one giant garden, free of disease and most larger animals – the Eloi feed only on fruit. He at first sees this as evidence of the culmination of progress and an ultimate communist society: a world where everything is provided, all hardship is eliminated, and the human race has degenerated into these weak and unintelligent creatures simply because there was nothing left to challenge them. This theory is disturbed, however, by the discovery of another race living under the ground: the Morlocks. Pale, blinded by daylight, and still in possession of some intelligence (able at least to keep running the machines housed in their caverns), the Morlocks are carnivorous, and it soon emerges that the source of their meat is the Eloi.
This second race of the descendants of mankind brings him to a different conclusion of the history that has led them there: the ultimate victory of aristocracy, the working class driven more and more out of sight until they live entirely beneath the ground, and in the end the evolution of the upper class on the surface and the lower class in the caverns into entirely separate species. In Wells’ year of 802,701, the Eloi have long since lost any need for intelligence, having all things provided from below, while the Morlocks, having somehow lost their original food sources, have taken to using the Eloi like cattle.
The story does contain more than scientific and philosophical speculation – when he arrives in the future, the time machine is stolen, and hidden by the Morlocks. His efforts to retrieve the machine, and to survive attacks by the Morlocks, provide the tension for the story. It doesn’t entirely lack for action.
The narration, however, is relatively detached, objective – the observations of a scientist. Most of what the narrator sees in the book is grounded in actual scientific ideas of the time – though some have not retained credibility. Before returning to his present, the narrator takes a tour millions of years into the earth’s future, to see the sun huge and bloated, the earth’s rotation stopped, and a planet passing close enough to earth to block out the sun – elements my annotated edition informs me were likely based on the theories of “tidal friction”, later recanted, of George Howard Darwin – son of the more famous Darwin.
It’s definitely a very interesting read, even simply for the perspective it gives into how science saw the universe back in the 1890s. The characterisation is a little thin, but Wells provides enough of a plot to keep things interesting – and prevent the work from becoming too dry. These “scientific romances” seem to have a certain charm unique to the genre that makes it easy to see why they’ve stood the test of time.
Next week: Above/Below by Stephanie Campisi & Ben Peek.