The Time Machine

Extract from new post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

There’s an elegant simplicity to the structure of The Time Machine, developed perfectly in a mere 35,000 words; like several of Wells’ iconic ‘scientific romances’, it is more novella than novel. In a tight framing narrative, an old friend of an unnamed, 40-year-old inventor referred to only as ‘the Time Traveller’ begins with an after-dinner conversation in which the inventor explains his theory that ‘Time is only a kind of Space’, following the theories of the mathematician Charles Howard Hinton later published in his 1897 pamphlet What is the Fourth Dimension? (Wells acknowledged in his 1931 preface that this concept of time ‘gave me a frame for my first scientific fantasia’.) He concludes with a demonstration, sending an intricate model ‘into the future’, which, of course, all the guests believe is a clever magic trick. He then shows them the full-size time machine, announcing that, ‘I intend to explore time.’ A week later, the friends assemble at the inventor’s house again, though he is strangely absent, having left written instructions that they start without him. About halfway through the meal, he arrives:

The Time Traveller then takes over the narrative, recounting his adventures, which began at ten o’clock that morning, though for him a week has now passed…

He was in an amazing plight. His coat was dusty and dirty, and smeared with green down the sleeves; his hair disordered, and as it seemed to me greyer—either with dust and dirt or because its colour had actually faded. His face was ghastly pale; his chin had a brown cut on it—a cut half-healed; his expression was haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering. For a moment he hesitated in the doorway, as if he had been dazzled by the light. Then he came into the room. He walked with just such a limp as I have seen in footsore tramps. We stared at him in silence, expecting him to speak.

More by luck than judgement – he stops the machine when he can no longer stand the ‘nightmare sensation of falling’ – the Time Traveller tells of how he arrived in 802,701 AD. The landscape is described in Elysium, even Edenic terms – ‘the whole earth had become a garden’ – populated by small, child-like humans, the ‘Eloi’ (the plural of the Hebrewword Elohim, meaning ‘lesser gods’, in the Old Testament). They seem healthy and contented; they live in huge communal buildings, and although they wear clothes that are obviously manufactured, they don’t appear to work. The Time Traveller’s initial thought is ‘communism’, and the world of the Eloi would seem to reflect the utopian future of William Morris’ News From Nowhere, which depicted an idealised agrarian society where there was no private property, no money, no government, no cities, no crime, no punishment, no marriage or divorce, and no class system, while people worked on the land because they enjoyed being close to Nature. ‘You see,’ explains the Time Traveller, ‘I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything.’

But when something’s too good to be true, it usually is. The Eloi eat only fruit ‘with their hands’; their language is rudimentary, and they have no conception of writing. Fire, to them, is a ‘novelty’. They have no sense of social responsibility (the Time Traveller rescues a female, ‘Weena’, from drowning while no-one else bats an eyelid), and possess the intellect and attention spans of five-year-olds. Having first jumped ‘at the idea of a social paradise’, the Time Traveller begins to wonder if he has ‘happened upon humanity upon the wane’. This depressing realisation is followed by his terrifying discovery of the ‘Morlocks’, the ‘ape-like’ troglodytes that hunt the Eloi at night, leading to an even more horrific conclusion: ‘These Eloi were mere fatted cattle, which the ant-like Morlocks preserved and preyed upon.’ The name ‘Morlock’ hints at the Canaanite god ‘Moloch’, who was associated with child sacrifice in the Book of Leviticus.

This is the point at which Wells’ original novel deviates from the film versions: the George Pal adaptation of 1960 starring Rod Taylor, which everyone loves, and the 2002 remake with Guy Pearce directed by Wells’ great-grandson, Simon Wells, which everyone hated. A lot of fun in their own ways (the Simon Wells’ film – though not a patch on George Pal’s – is better than the reviews would have you believe), neither of these movies want to engage with the politics of Wells’ novel. While, therefore, both take on the original premise, the screenwriters (David Duncan in 1960 and John Logan in 2002) cannot resist making the Eloi more attractively ‘human’ and turning the child-like and doomed idiot Weena into a beautiful love interest (first Yvette Mimieux and then Samantha Mumba). In both cases, the Time Traveller leads the Eloi in revolt against the Morlocks, saves the day, gets the girl and, by implication, sets the human race back on the right track after a bit of an evolutionary wobble. Wells, on the other hand, offers no such clear-cut divisions between good and evil leading to an unproblematically happy ending. His novel, like most of his writing, is a work of complex scientific and social commentary.

Wells was a committed Socialist and an evolutionary biologist. At university, he had studied under Thomas Henry Huxley – known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ for his advocacy of the Theory of Evolution – and Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, the author of Degeneration: a chapter in Darwinism (1880). Lankester theorised that ‘degeneration’ was one of three general paths that evolution might take, the others being ‘balance’ and ‘elaboration’. Wells’ protagonist has travelled in search of ‘elaboration’ but what he finds is ‘degeneration’. As yet unaware of the Morlocks, his initial theory is one of stagnation after all the trials of life – poverty, disease, hunger, war and overpopulation – have been overcome:

I thought of the physical slightness of the people, their lack of intelligence, and those big abundant ruins, and it strengthened my belief in a perfect conquest of Nature. For after the battle comes Quiet. Humanity had been strong, energetic, and intelligent, and had used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. And now came the reaction of the altered conditions.

He further draws an implicit analogy with the fall of the Roman Empire, a decline that greatly troubled the Imperial Victorians:

No doubt the exquisite beauty of the buildings I saw was the outcome of the last surgings of the now purposeless energy of mankind before it settled down into perfect harmony with the conditions under which it lived—the flourish of that triumph which began the last great peace. This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.

Although the Time Traveller soon abandons his hypothesis based on new and disturbing information – ‘Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough—as most wrong theories are!’ – this is already a bleak conclusion for the author who once predicted the hyper-intelligent ‘Man of the Year Million’. Although his argument is only half-made at this juncture, Wells is already flying in the face of established Victorian historiography, the so-called ‘Whig Interpretation of History’. In this model – which although essentially teleological is still largely accepted as true to this day, at least outside academia – human history is perceived as a journey from a dark and terrible past to a glorious present and a better tomorrow through democracy, personal freedom, and scientific progress. In evolutionary terms, Darwin had concluded The Origin of Species with a similarly positive sense of forward trajectory, suggesting that it is the nature of Life to evolve into more complicated and perfect forms. As the Time Traveller understands, however, history is much more cyclical than that – as is evolution – with great civilisations rising and falling, degeneration and decay inevitably following the high watermarks of culture and achievement. The monumental architecture he sees scattered around the landscape, slowly rotting away, recalls Shelley’s Ozymandias: ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

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