Review of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The Time Machine is the seminal science fiction work from H. G. Wells that basically invented the concept of time travel in fiction. Nowadays it seems an obvious fictional device, like the dystopian novel after Huxley, but Wells came up with it first, and executed it very creatively here. The story is fairly straightforward, and thoroughly Victorian. After dinner one night, a group of gentlemen move to the study for cigars and brandy, at which point their host, only known as “the Time Traveler,” tells them all that he has perfected a machine that allows him to move through time, just the same as they are able to move through space. He asserts that time is the fourth dimension, and we lack the ability to see it because we move along it at a fixed rate in a single direction.

Following the requisite harrumphing from his skeptical guests, he brings out a working scale model of his machine and places it on the table in front of them. He sets it to move into the future, and then off it goes, disappearing from sight. Harrumph, indeed. He then tells them to come back the following week, when he’s had the chance to test out his human-sized model, and he will blow their minds. The following week, the Time Traveler is a no-show for the start of dinner, but then shows up late from his laboratory, dirty and disheveled. After cleaning up and eating his dinner, he tells them his full tale, which is what takes up most of the book.

The Time Traveler for some reason travels into the far distant future, over eight hundred thousand years ahead, and not surprisingly discovers a world very different from his own. At first he meets a simple and friendly race of people he calls the Eloi, who are entirely benign, eating fruit, laughing easily, and only slightly interested in the Time Traveler. In my mind, the Eloi resembled Teletubbies, except white, and without the head ornaments.

Shortly after meeting the Eloi, he learns of another race that lives here, subterranean creatures called Morlocks, who come out at night and steal Eloi for food. The Morlocks are engineers and interested in machinery of all kinds, and have vast machine works underground. He learns of the Morlocks because they steal his time machine on the first day, and he spends the rest of his adventure trying to get it back.

I was expecting this to be a purely Darwinian tale, but in fact it was social commentary as much as anything. According to the Time Traveler, these two races were both descended from humans, with the Eloi being the upper class and the Morlocks being the working class. They divided themselves at some point in history, and then evolved into completely different beings. I found this notion pretty silly, given humans’ tendency to readily cross social boundaries, and a pretty ham-fisted exploration of Darwinism, but okay, sure. And given the horrors of the Morlocks, it’s clear that Wells is making some sort of social justice commentary about jolly old England, but I’m not sure what.

Once very nice part of the story is that the Time Traveler then voyages even farther into the distant future, where we are really operating on geological time, or astronomical time, which renders his adventures with the Eloi and Morlocks rather quaint, and the concerns of his dinner guests back home rather silly. The universe is so vastly huge not just in space but in time; I was glad to see this book touch upon that as well.

I have two quibbles with the book. One is that at the first dinner party, the Time Traveler sends his scale model into the future to demonstrate that it works, but he hasn’t set any mechanism to make it stop, so presumably it just travels on into the future forever. If his goal was to persuade a bunch of skeptical scientists, he chose a very poor way to do it, since he really only proved he could make a scale model disappear. For a man as mechanically adept as the Time Traveler, couldn’t he have added a mechanism to make it stop one week hence, and reappear to his triumph at the next dinner party? This is what I expected would happen, and I was disappointed when it didn’t.

My other quibble is that I felt like it was a bit of a cop-out that time travel is never proven to the narrator or any of his guests. He tells the narrator to meet him back there a week later, but then he never turns up, so presumably he was permanently detained in some distant future. So the novel ends with the narrator saying, “Well who knows?” This felt like a lousy equivocation on Wells’ part to me, and I would have preferred that he convinced at least the narrator. Even if the proof couldn’t be shared with others, and only the narrator knew the truth, this would have been more satisfying.

These are both fairly minor issues regarding a very good book. As an early example of science fiction I enjoyed it much more than I did Verne, and it made me want to read a bit more of Wells, to see what other terrain he covered. Although none of his other works are on the list yet, I am happy to have covered this one, at least.

Excerpt from The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

“I cannot convey the sense of abominable desolation that hung over the world. The red eastern sky, the northward blackness, the salt Dead Sea, the stony beach crawling with these foul, slow-stirring monsters, the uniform poisonous-looking green of the lichenous plants, the thin air that hurts one’s lungs: all contributed to an appalling effect. I moved on a hundred years, and there was the same red sun—a little larger, a little duller—the same dying sea, the same chill air, and the same crowd of earthy crustacea creeping in and out among the green weed and the red rocks. And in the westward sky, I saw a curved pale line like a vast new moon.

“So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth’s fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away. At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens. Then I stopped once more, for the crawling multitude of crabs had disappeared, and the red beach, save for its livid green liverworts and lichens, seemed lifeless. And now it was flecked with white. A bitter cold assailed me. Rare white flakes ever and again came eddying down. To the north-eastward, the glare of snow lay under the starlight of the sable sky, and I could see an undulating crest of hillocks pinkish white. There were fringes of ice along the sea margin, with drifting masses farther out; but the main expanse of that salt ocean, all bloody under the eternal sunset, was still unfrozen.

“I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained. A certain indefinable apprehension still kept me in the saddle of the machine. But I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct. A shallow sandbank had appeared in the sea and the water had receded from the beach. I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock. The stars in the sky were intensely bright and seemed to me to twinkle very little.

“Suddenly I noticed that the circular westward outline of the sun had changed; that a concavity, a bay, had appeared in the curve. I saw this grow larger. For a minute perhaps I stared aghast at this blackness that was creeping over the day, and then I realised that an eclipse was beginning. Either the moon or the planet Mercury was passing across the sun’s disk. Naturally, at first I took it to be the moon, but there is much to incline me to believe that what I really saw was the transit of an inner planet passing very near to the earth.

“The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.

“A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.

Public Domain.

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