Friday, 22 May 2009

The Time Machine by H G Wells

I surely must have read this at some point in my youth, but I can't recall it. All I can remember is watching the 1960 film version and that memory only involves Yvette Mimieux in a starring role, which gives a clear idea of adolescent priorities. So it was with some interest that I read this prior to discussing it with the Classic SF group.

H G Wells (1866-1946) was of course one of the pioneers of modern science fiction, writing such classic works as The War of the Worlds (invasion from Mars), The War in the Air (foreseeing aerial warfare – in 1908), The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon and The Shape of Things to Come. He also forecast – and named – the atomic bomb in 1914, in The World Set Free.

The Time Machine was Wells' first novel, published in 1895, and made his reputation. It is narrated by an unnamed guest at a Victorian dinner party given by a man identified only as the Time Traveller, and consists of the Time Traveller's account to his guests of a journey to the future from which he had just returned.

The story was controversial on publication because its principal theme was that mankind would evolve. Since resistance on the part of fundamentalist religious groups to the idea of evolution in general, and human evolution in particular, still exists even today, their condemnation is not surprising. What must have been even worse to many people is that Wells showed a humanity which had devolved into two degenerate races: the small and beautiful but unintelligent Eloi, who lived an apparently idyllic existence on the surface of a garden-like world, and the hideous and evil subterranean Morlocks. The novel, or more precisely novella since it is only 80 pages long, principally deals with the Time Traveller's stay with the Eloi and his encounters with the Morlocks.

A particularly interesting suggestion in the story, also obviously prompted by Darwin's theories, was that the decline of humanity had occurred because civilisation had become too successful; the upper classes lived such idyllic lives that the evolutionary pressures which had sparked the development of intelligence had disappeared. The lower classes, slaving away in the darkness, had similarly become adapted to their environment. In the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, the ruins of an obviously glorious past (still in our future) were still scattered across the landscape.

Leaving the world of the Eloi behind, the Time Traveller rushes into the far future. He stops only when the sun has become a vast, dim and stationary red ball in the sky. All is silent, with just a few creatures scavenging a living in the thin air of a cold and almost dead world. For me, these brief images carry more evocative power than the rest of the story.

The themes of The Time Machine are as relevant today as they were then; the style of the story-telling has changed a lot, but the ideas still resonate. The impact which they had on a Victorian world largely unexposed to science fiction can be imagined. About the only anachronism is the short timescale, which only reflects the lack of knowledge when the story was written. The Eloi and the Morlocks are said to live just over 800,000 years in the future, the end of the world in only 30 million years. Compared with modern works there is also a total lack of characterisation, but that doesn't really matter here – this was a novel of ideas.

H G Wells is one of the few novelists whose work reached beyond its powerful influence on the genre, extending to a genuine impact on ideas in wider society. He also did more than write fiction; for the latter part of his life he became what would be known today as a futurist, concentrating on writing forward-looking works such as The New World Order and The Future of Man. Much of his later fiction also departed from SF, focusing more on society as in The History of Mr Polly, which I recall having to study in school.

The Everyman edition of The Time Machine which I have contains a lot of related material, including a chronology of Wells' life, a 23-page introduction to the story, comments on the text (plus an additional section which was omitted from the published novel) and the varied critical assessments of the work. Useful additions which add to the appreciation of one of the most famous SF novels ever written.

5 comments:

The Gray Monk said...

It's many years since I first read The Time Machine and it still has a ring of truth to it. The theme of a human race devolving or evolving into a much baser form than at present is one that runs through a number of scifi stories from the early 20th Century and seems to have some support in the genetic research showing how the genome is degenrating in some groups. It was a bleak picture then, but an exciting one.

WCG said...

The Time Machine is an amazing book, especially for 1895. And it was Wells' first published book? Equally amazing. (Plus, it's short, only novella length, which I know is something you prize, Tony.)

But we don't really have to worry about human evolution these days. We'll be directing our own genetic makeup soon enough.

Anthony G Williams said...

Yes, I think that we will be taking command of our own development in the foreseeable future, probably in ways which we don't imagine at the moment (this is generally the case in the history of major technological advances!).

The other interesting issue is our relationship with IT, and the possibility of integrating it into our bodies.

FreeRangeAuthor said...

You might want to try Stephen Baxter's sequel, THE TIME SHIPS. I think he got permission from the Wells estate, even though TIME MACHINE must be public domain by now. Did England have copyright in 1895?

-- Seattle

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks, I wasn't aware of that one. I am a bit wary of Baxter's work as I have found it to be very heavy going - and exceedingly long.