Time Machine, The by Wells, H.G., 1895

Time Machine, The by Wells, H.G. - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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This is probably one of the best known SF stories of all time, maybe running a close second with Wells' other masterpiece, The War of the Worlds. As such, I doubt that there is too much that I can say about it that has not been said before. So as usual with these incredibly well known pieces of literature, I will just give you the bare bones of the story, tell you why I think its masterpiece, and wrap up with the most brilliant commentary that I can manage.

The Time Machine is essentially the story of what happens at a dinner party. The time traveler, a man of science and an inventor, makes it a habit to have a weekly get-together for his friends and their guests. One evening the time traveler shows his guests his latest invention; a machine that will allow him to travel in the fourth dimension, that of time, without affecting his place in any of the other three dimensions. After dinner the time traveler makes a date with the others for dinner the next week, finishes work on the time machine, and travels to the year 802,701. There he meets the lovely, tiny and peaceful race of the Eloi. The Eloi wile away their days making love, bathing, eating fruit and pretty much hanging out. The time traveler at first thinks that they are communists, as they seem to have no individual proprietary interests at all. They are beautiful to behold, and without any visible industry, so the time traveler decides that they have advanced to a state of knowledge such that they are able to provide clothing, shelter and food without effort, but are also able to deal with waste and corpses with no visible infrastructure at all. During the week that the time traveler spends in the future his views and opinions on the Eloi change a great deal, especially after he encounters another race, called the Moorlocks. The Moorlocks live underground, are ugly and ape-like in appearance, and in fact do maintain a technological base.

Wells' book is an absolute masterpiece. I cant recall how many times I have read this book throughout my lifetime so far, but each time I read it I am struck by the expertise with which Wells brings his character to more and more moments of epiphany, every one of which shocks and peels off another layer of his Victorian sensibilities. For example, as the time traveler first begins to explore the future of year 802,701 he tries to put everything that he sees and experiences into the narrow world view that he grew up with: In this case, that of a Victorian era Londoner. He calls the Eloi communist, for example, and he posits that the Moorlocks were at one point the underground workers of the once superior Eloi, but because of some worker's revolt the Moorlocks have risen from their proletarian shackles and taken control of the economy and political engines of society. But when he goes underground and sees what the Moorlocks really are and that their purpose is to harvest the Eloi for food as meat beasts he realizes with a shock that evolution has played quite a trick on the human race. It has separated us into two different genotypes, the beginnings of which may well have come from social division, but the effect of which is something much, much bigger and more natural than social class structuring and nationalism. It is true that Wells deals with other issues in the book, primarily class-struggle, but in my opinion evolution has always been the most important theme of the novel. He depicted to the casual eye the former upper classes as they would like to have been: Calm, happy, beautiful and wanting for nothing. But in the end they were nothing more than cattle. Wells was throughout his long life a social scientist. He believed in the potential of humankind, even if he did posit time and time again that it would take a great calamity to realize that potential. But here all the pretentions are put away. This is the story of the end of humanity, and nowhere in it is the grand potential of the human race. It is in this context that Wells makes big comments about society and its ills, particularly that of the Victorian patricians, but he also gives a visionary view of what biology could do to us in the future. Here itís the interplay between biology and society that really makes the work stand out as a masterpiece. Here is how the time traveler came to this realization:

The enemy I dreaded may surprise you. It was the darkness of the new moon. Weena had put this into my head by some at first incomprehensible remarks about the Dark Nights. It was not now such a very difficult problem to guess what the coming Dark Nights might mean. The moon was on the wane: each night there was a longer interval of darkness. And I now understood to some slight degree at least the reason of the fear of the little Upper-world people for the dark. I wondered vaguely what foul villainy it might be that the Moorlocks did under the new moon. I felt pretty sure now that my second hypothesis was all wrong. The Upper-world people might once have been the favored aristocracy, and the Moorlocks their mechanical servants: but that had long since passed away. The two species that had resulted from the evolution of man were sliding down towards, or had already arrived at, an altogether new relationship. The Eloi, like the Carolingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility. They still possessed the earth on sufferance: since the Moorlocks, subterranean for innumerable generations, had come at last to find the day-lit surface intolerable. And the Moorlocks made their garments, I inferred, and maintained them in their habitual needs, perhaps through the survival of an old habit of service. They did it as a standing horse paws with his foot, or as a man enjoys killing animals in sport: because ancient and departed necessities had impressed it on the organism. But, clearly, the old order was already in part reversed. The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear. And suddenly there came into my head the memory of the meat I had seen in the Under-world. It seemed odd how it floated into my mind: not stirred up as it were by the current of my meditations, but coming in almost like a question from outside. I tried to recall the form of it. I had a vague sense of something familiar, but I could not tell what it was at the time.

As good as the main body of the book actually is, Wells unfortunately elected to use my favorite part as denouement. After the time traveler escaped from the Moorlocks temple where they had taken and hidden his time machine, he accidentally went forward in time. Partly out of panic and partly out of curiosity the traveler moved 30,000,000 years in the future, to a point where the tidal movement of Earth had stopped and the sun had evolved to its red giant phase. He was attacked by giant crab-like creatures so he jumped forward again, watching the Earth and the sun die entropy deaths. The things that the traveler saw were amazing to read about.

Of the fifty-three novels that Wells wrote in his lifetime this may be one of his two or three best. Is it dated? Yes. Very. It may qualify for the term "archaic," but that should not stop you from reading it, because its just incredible. Wells otherwise was a slightly above average author. His ideas were fantastic, but his execution was a bit off, mostly because his similes were a bit broad and hard to understand. Wells' most important contribution probably is that he rescued the SF novel from becoming a novel of character instead of a novel of ideas. Published for the first (of uncountable) times in 1895, its one of the first books ever that can actually be called Science Fiction, even though that term did not come into use for several more decades. There are several versions of this text out there, so when, not if, but when you go out to get this book, try to find one that has all three major sections reintegrated back in to the work. Five plus out of five stars.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)


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