The Book That Started It All: The Time Machine

200px-The_Time_Machine_Classics_Illustrated_133 (1)Okay, well not really. There are numerous precursors to science fiction that predate H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. However, I think this is one of the classic pre-science fiction science fiction books. It is a short novella about a man who manages to invent a time machine and then goes on an eye-opening trip far into the future. It extrapolates on Darwin’s theory of evolution and late Victorian ideas about cultural evolution while adding enough adventure and suspense to make it a quick and enjoyable read.

I suppose I had preconceived notions of the Time Traveler going back in time, but he does not do this. Instead, he goes forward to a technologically-regressed state of humanity (or should I say states of humanity). There are now  two species of humanity: the Eloi, cute, short, and generally vapid beings that live on the surface, and the Morlocks, ape-like, nocturnal underground beings, who are at first elusive then ominously ever-present as the narrative continues. Wells skillfully keeps readers guessing at the mystery of who has taken the Traveler’s time machine once he arrives in the far future by slowly introducing the Morlocks along with the Traveler’s theories about how humans evolved into two species. He throws in enough mysterious symbols (sphinxes, Phoenician symbols, great but decayed buildings) to build up an aura of mystery and intrigue even if it reads as a little date in the early 21st century. He uses a frame narrative of the Traveler explaining his exploits to his fellow Victorian gentlemen, but this does not intrude or interrupt the narrative so much as add some minor depth to the story.

What I found most interesting was the way the story was not so much about adventure (except on the surface level), but more about a philosophical imagining of how humanity might regress from its current state into a more primitive one. Wells is quite critical of the myth of human progress in this book and explores in this book how the class system might actually hinder humanity. There are interesting tidbits on evolution as the Traveler hypothesizes that the eventual lack of war, ambition, conflict, or tension brought about by the eventual triumph of the capitalist system causes the evolution of humanity into two different states. The bulk of the narrative deals with this interesting setup but the Traveler does go even farther into the future and witnesses the final decline of Earth itself. In this moment, Wells becomes existential as the Traveler wonders both implicitly and explicitly what the whole of human history can mean given the vast scope of geological time and the eventual collapse of all life itself as stars die out.

Wells’s novella deserves the fame it has achieved and stands up as an excellent piece of writing. I am glad I took the time to read it as it is one of those classics that most people “know” but have not actually read it. I would highly recommend reading it. It is short, punchy and not too idea heavy or contextually specific to be inaccessible  I read a Broadview edition which included very helpful annotations for the more arcane bits of Victorian lore/culture.

Wells, H.G. The Time Machine. 1895. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.


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