My life in outer space

The Time Machine – HG Wells (1895)

The Time Machine (Penguin Classics)

Wells’ debut novel certainly made its mark since not many other names are today remembered from the gulf that separates Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1812) from the inception of Wells’ body of Scientific Romance.
It is a brief novel, at some 30,000 words, but one in which not a sentence is wasted.
The introductory chapter is intriguing, one in which the narrator introduces us to The Time Traveller ‘(for so it will be convenient to speak of him)’ and his dining companions, of which the narrator is one, referred to by their occupations (lulling the reader into thinking that this may be a true story by protecting the names of those involved) apart from Filby, curiously, who is described as an ‘argumentative person with red hair’. There is also a Very Young Man, a Provincial mayor, a Medical man and a Psychologist. To these six The Time Traveller demonstrates his prototype Time Machine which vanishes before their eyes, and promises that he will soon prove to them that he himself has travelled in Time.
The narrator returns for the next invitation to dinner at which there is now an additional Editor, Reporter and a Silent Man. The Time Traveller arrives late, dishevelled and starving. Having eaten and changed his clothes, he then proceeds to take up the narration of his adventures in Earth’s Far Future.
Wells’ descriptive prose is as fresh and controlled today as it was a hundred years ago. His descriptions of the journey through Time are some of the best-remembered and oft-referred to scenes in genre history.
More importantly, Wells’ view of the future of Humanity is a complex one and based on a soundly Darwinian extrapolation. Certainly Wells’ is depicting what he feels may be the ultimate result of rigid class division between the elite (the Eloi) and the working class (The Morlocks; those below stairs) although at the same time, as Patrick Parrinder points out in ‘Science Fiction: Its Teaching and Criticism’ Wells is also attacking the concept of the toil-free Utopia by suggesting that the indolent and feckless Eloi could be the ultimate result of such a concept.
Brian Aldiss points out in ‘A Trillion Year Spree’ (Paladin. 1988) that Wells was also evoking for the Victorians a potent symbol of their social, physical and perhaps private lives.
On the surface are the Eloi, beautiful, childlike, innocent. The perfect façade. But beneath the surface lies corruption. One can interpret this in a number of ways, from the physical streets and homes of The Victorians – who would not be keen to discuss or even think of the sewers which lay below – to the façade of Victorian society which masked such evils as child prostitution and workhouses.
It is to Wells’ credit that he was not tempted to placate the reader with any form of happy ending. Weena, the Eloi girl is lost – presumably to the cannibalistic Morlocks, and the Time Traveller escapes into the future to a dark entropic time where the sun has grown huge and red and the land is left to the dominance of crustaceans and amphibians flopping about in the shallows of a twilight world. It is a thesis of Darwinian pessimism if nothing else, and very controversial for its day, as well as being as scientifically faithful to the science of the time as it could be.
There is an amazing sense of wonder created here, albeit a negative one, for Wells, by employing this Darwinian nihilism reduces Humanity to the status of a mere aberration, an irrelevance within the Universe thrown up by the whims of Evolution and just as dispassionately thrown aside.
Conversely the posthumous sequel, Stephen Baxter’s ‘The Time Ships’, although brilliantly written and catching Well’s laconic yet atmospheric style, throws this pessimism to the winds and presents a future, indeed an infinity of alternate futures in which Humanity (in the form of evolved and beneficent Morlocks) populate the Universe.

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