REVIEW: The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

Author: H.G. Wells

UK Publisher: Penguin (this edition)

Genre: Science fiction

“I’ve had a most amazing time…”

So begins the Time Traveller’s astonishing firsthand account of his journey eight hundred thousand years beyond his own era – and the story that launched H.G. Wells’ successful career. With a speculative leap that still fires the imagination, Wells sends his brave explorer to face a future burdened with our greatest hopes… and our darkest fears. A pull of the Time Machine’s lever propels him to the age of a slowly dying Earth. There he discovers two bizarre races – the ethereal Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks – who not only symbolise the duality of human nature, but offer a terrifying portrait of tomorrow as well.

A few years back, I went on a bit of a spree trying to read literature that would “improve” me. This meant trying to batter my way through a lot of classics. It took a lot of work, but I finally made it through Emma. Lorna Doone was tackled on a kindle while driving across Canada. I read the Great Gatsby in one sitting on the plane back to the UK. I really enjoyed Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and I stumbled across The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells and thought it was wonderfully chilling. I never got around to reading The Time Machine, however, and given as lockdown has presented me with a lot more reading time than anticipated, I thought I’d seize the opportunity.

I had been pleasantly surprised by how easy The Island of Dr Moreau was to read, and at a mere 91 pages, I thought this would be a similarly easy undertaking. I was, sadly, incorrect. Where Dr Moreau was eldritch and unsettling, The Time Machine opens with a dense discussion of Victorian science and dimensional physics. It was definitely a bit of Wells flexing his scientific understanding to show off. I found it quite tricky to get through, although ironically this was my husband’s favourite part of the book and he said he felt it went downhill afterwards when the actual time travelling started.

The narrative is almost like a nature documentary, with the Time Traveller set apart from the other figures in the story as a sort of unbiased observer and impartial scientific voice. Except he’s anything but impartial, he’s judgy as heck. He describes the Eloi as beautiful, but as soon as he finds their societal values and methods different from his, he describes them as childlike, simple, and utterly useless. He seems charmed by their appearance, but otherwise mourns the loss of intellect and production. He treats them as pets, and the one he does “adopt” – Weena – he seems to care for only as long as it is convenient to do so, and he doesn’t take her comfort or safety into account. He only starts to see the Eloi as something more worthwhile when he encounters the Morlocks, but he doesn’t make much of an attempt to confirm his biases towards the Morlocks either.

At some points, the novel seems to trend towards being dangerously socialist. The Time Traveller talks about how the idle lifestyle of the wealthy and aristocratic has led to a race of beautiful idiots, incapable of any productive labour or higher thought. He talks of how the wealthy hoarding land and wealth pushes the working classes into a shrinking area of resources and space. He talks about how the poor are forced into constant industry, into the dark and literally underground. But then it progresses into these people lose civilisation, lose morals, and eventually become cannibalistic monsters. But while he seems to think this stratification of society is bad, he never empathises with the Morlocks in the same way he does with the Eloi.

He spends a bit of time going on about how the Eloi are the result of humanity no longer needing to struggle. Humans, he posits, are at their greatest when they are having to strive against something, to achieve something. When there is no longer need for struggle, then humanity will atrophy and become useless. What this overlooks is that there never ceased to be a need for struggle or work, it was just entirely forced upon another class of society. Funny how, after mourning the loss of mankind’s greatness due to lack of work when examining the Eloi, he doesn’t equally look at the Morlocks and start praising them for their noble industriousness. In fact, right from his first encounter with them he assumes they have nefarious intent based entirely on their appearance. He doesn’t try to investigate, he doesn’t try to explore their culture, he makes unconfirmed assumptions and then decides to run with them. At no point, either, does this philosopher and scientist show the slightest bit of self awareness on the hypocrisy of his assumptions and reactions. While he does identify times where he was wrong – such as the idea that there is no industry on future Earth, or nothing to cause fear – he doesn’t have the humility to go “I know I said humans were better then they had to deal with adversity, but I mean rich humans, and only a little adversity. The kind that doesn’t make you sweaty or too hungry.”

The last part of the novel is almost a different book as he shoots himself a thousand thousand years further into the future from where he was (which was already around 800,000 years on from where the book started), and finds himself on a dead Earth. Nearly dead. The planet has ceased to spin, the sun has grown larger and cooler, and half the world is an arid wasteland bathed in red light. One stop brings him to a beach filled with giant, crab-like creatures, the next to a world empty for all apparent life save a black, ball-like entity floating in the sea. These scenes are more tonally like Dr Moreau, that unsettling feeling of something very far from human, and I liked them a lot, but they felt a little pointless in terms of the greater narrative. They were plotless snapshots, and another chance for Wells to show off what he had perhaps learned about the lifecycle of stars and planets.

I’m glad I read it, and can add it to my list, but it isn’t the Wells I’d recommend to anyone who wanted to pick up his work for the first time.

Briefly:

  • A surprisingly dense piece for such a short book, it is more of an exploration of the philosophy of human nature with a bit of Victorian Science thrown in for flavour than it is an adventure story.
  • There are definitely some outdated views here, mostly in the complete lack of awareness of the narrator’s hypocrisy, lamenting that humans have become useless through lack of industry, but then being horrified at the creatures formed by the humans who were forced to take on all the industry.
  • If you want to tick Wells as an author off your list, I’d recommend The Island of Dr Moreau instead.

Rating: 2/5 – it was interesting seeing the science that would have been fairly modern at the time being used for fiction, in the way we extrapolate today, but otherwise I think it’s a book that hasn’t necessarily aged well.

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