Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


I hadn’t read this book since I was a teen, but decided it would work for a travel audiobook. Two of the three kids I had with me had read it already; only my youngest had not. Either way, it seemed to be a good option. 


The Time Machine was one of Wells’ earlier works, and grew out of the ideas in a short story, one of the first exploring time travel. In fact, the very term “time machine” was coined by Wells in this book, and has been used ever since. 

The original cover - Wells insisted that the sphinx be used, rather than a representation of the machine.


The Time Machine is a novella that feels very much of its late-Victorian time in language and style. There was, in fact, plenty that seemed to me to resemble, say, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, or any number of Verne or Haggard books. But the style itself belies a subtle shift in tone and theme from the earlier Science Fiction classics. Wells is not so much concerned with the Enlightenment idea of “progress,” the ever-increasing technological prowess which could bring humanity to a pinnacle of greatness. Rather, Wells expresses his concern that, given the state and trajectory of his world, degeneration was every bit as likely as progress.


I think some of this may be related to the fact that Wells grew up in an impoverished, working class family. His vision in this book of the laboring classes living for so many generations underground that they become unable to tolerate light comes directly from his own experiences and those of his family perpetually working and living in basements. The Industrial Revolution wasn’t, for Wells, a triumph of humanity, but a dehumanizing event that removed the lower classes from the land and indeed a connection to nature. Hence, he became a socialist, if a bit of a gloomy one. 


The story is pretty straight forward. The unnamed “Time Traveler” invents a time machine, which he essentially demonstrates in both prototype and actuality to a group of friends. He can’t exactly prove it, of course, other than to bring back a flower from the future. 


His tale of his journey takes up most of the book, with framing narratives by the unnamed narrator, one of his guests. The Traveler journeys forward roughly 800,000 years into the future, and discovers that humanity has split into two species, both of which appear to have greatly diminished intelligence. He sees the ruins of a great civilization, including an industrial engine of some sort that the book never explains how it runs or what it does. 


The surface of the planet has become a warm garden (because of the orbital decay of the earth, it is slightly closer), and is populated by small, beautiful, and childlike hominoids, the Eloi. As the Traveler later discovers, they are not the only human descendents. There are the pale, ape-like Morlocks, who have become underground dwellers, coming to the surface only at night. Light hurts them, like other cave-adapted creatures, but they have to brave the surface, in order to get food. It appears that many - maybe most? - other animals have gone extinct, so the Morlocks feed on the Eloi, who in turn eat only fruit. 


After some adventures in trying to recover his time machine, he is able to travel even further into the future, seeing a dying planet at the end of the sun’s life, populated only with giant crab-like animals and the butterflies they feed on. After returning to tell his tale, he sets off again, but this time fails to return. 


Wells invites the reader to consider two possible futures. In one, there is a triumph of socialism, and humankind attains some sort of utopia. But this is only what the Traveler thinks he has found, at first. And even then, he realizes that without struggle, without danger, without challenges to overcome, intelligence is wasted. And thus, in Utopia, humans revert to childhood, or a lower state of sentience. 


The reality in the book, however, is more bleak even than this. The continued domination of one class by another has permanently separated humanity. One interesting thing that Wells seems to have predicted, extrapolating from his own time, is the decreased social mobility through marriage. Not that humans have been that great at cross-class marriage - more often, upper-class men fathered children with those they enslaved or otherwise controlled. This has become more of an issue, however, in my own time, here in the United States. I am not sure what the solution is, although reducing income inequality would likely help. (And address other issues.) I don’t think a return to “rich white men marry beautiful lower class girls because they can” is a great scenario either. And also, just personally, I would have great difficulty finding happiness in a marriage to someone who was uneducated. 


But, as Wells notes, this is ultimately a recipe for even greater class difference and separation. 


I am not sure Wells is entirely correct about intellectual degeneration, though. I think he has fallen prey to an idea popular in his time, based on a misunderstanding of evolution. The idea that only those who face challenges - indeed hardship, potential starvation, and so on - need or benefit from intelligence - is, in my opinion, a misunderstanding of human nature. And, of evolution itself. 


First, I think it is pretty clear that intelligence is not necessary for natural selection. Mosquitoes are hardly brilliant individually, but they seem to thrive. And that is just one example. The key to survival is fitness for a particular niche (or, alternately, wide adaptability.) Sometimes intelligence helps with that - humans have used our skills pretty successfully - but in others, it is just a waste. Rapid reproduction suits the same purpose. 


But secondly, I think that human nature is such that we do not need the threat of starvation or danger to find challenges. Rather, humans seem really good at finding things to challenge them. If anything could be called “human nature,” it would be our natural curiosity, our desire to know things, to understand things, to build and create things. This, more than anything, is how we can be considered “in the image of God.” Future humans who have, perhaps, learned to live in harmony with nature, and have few direct dangers, would still find challenges and inspirations. 


Where Wells is more correct is that an oppressed branch of humanity - those reduced to mere survival while being brutalized - are likely to degenerate in intelligence. Or at least have it suppressed. We see this in the case of impoverished people. The trauma, malnutrition, unhealthy conditions, and lack of free time causes generational problems that can be easily seen and measured. 


I think what I noticed this time is that in my first reading, I noticed the plot more, and the underlying philosophy less. (Hey, I was in high school!) I also found that I had remembered things slightly differently. For some reason, I thought that maybe Wells had used a more racist division of humanity - I mean, the Victorians kinda did that a lot - but in this book, both races are clearly the descendents of white Englishmen - and the Morlocks are unnaturally pale because of their cave adaptations. 


Something I didn’t pick up on, apparently, was the one irritating feature of the book: the Expendable Female Sidekick™ that has to be killed off at the end, to avoid awkward sexual complications. Admittedly, it isn’t as bad in this book as in, say, King Solomon’s Mines, where the woman gets to help the white hero, saves his life, but has to be killed off to avoid the problem of interracial marriage. In The Time Machine, the Traveler doesn’t have a truly romantic relationship with Weena, and she isn’t really the same species after all. But still, killing her off fits the same basic mold. She helps him understand her world, discover the truth about himself, and then is sacrificed to avoid plot difficulties. 


With that exception, though, I thought the book stood up pretty well, despite being a century and a quarter old. I think next up for Wells, we need to read The Invisible Man, which neither the kids nor I have read. Wells deserves his reputation as a pioneer of Science Fiction. 


Our audiobook was narrated by Ralph Cosham, and is considered one of the classic versions of this book. 


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