Sunday, April 14, 2013
The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells
I first read The Time Machine when I was twelve years old. I had seen the 1960 movie on television and was entranced by it (it remains one of my favorite films). Luckily for me, my step-father had impeccable taste in literature and had an old copy of Seven Science Fiction Novels of H. G. Wells that included The Time Machine. It is a very short novel and I managed to read it through in a couple days. It was a transforming reading experience. I suspect my taste in fiction is in a large part due to Wells and this story.
While it was Jules Verne who created the "scientific romance", Wells took this type of story to a whole new level. Verne's books often read more like travel-adventure stories with fantastic vehicles than science-fiction fantasies. Wells would take a completely fantastic element and give it a rational explanation. This was groundbreaking for a time when the fantastic was usually only represented as supernatural in fiction.
Wells' Time Traveler (we never learn his name) builds his machine and uses it to travel eight hundred thousand years in the future. He expects to find an advanced culture that has solved all the problems of human society. What he finds instead are the Eloi, doll-like people of limited intellect who inhabit a world of wild-growing gardens and massive buildings crumbling from neglect. He has a lunch of futuristic fruit with a group of Eloi and afterwards finds that his Time Machine has disappeared. Then things get really bad when he discovers the dreadful Morlocks; albino ape-men who live in a series of underground tunnels. It is the ghastly relationship of the Morlocks with the Eloi that drives the plot.
Wells had the good fortune to study under T. H. Huxley and he taught biology before he became a professional writer. The idea of the possible end-result of natural selection on human beings haunted him. What would become of human beings who live in a protected society where all natural predators are no longer a danger? Add to that the changes medical advances and technology just might make to the human species. These speculations fuel The Time Machine.
The Time Traveler himself is tough and smart but very fallible. As the story progresses he speculates on the mysteries of the Eloi. They seem like lazy children who do no work at all. Where does their clothing come from? Or their food? Why are they all so young? Most of his speculations turn out to be horribly wrong. Unlike most heroes from adventure novels he begins dangerously unprepared for what he finds and makes a series of tragic mistakes. No Jules Verne hero would be caught so unaware or make such blunders! Unfortunately for the Time Traveler, he seems just as human as we are.
The Morlocks deserve special mention as a particularly ghastly menace. Their threat builds throughout the story. I find them just as creepy now as I did when I was twelve. The scene where the Time Traveler makes his way through their pitch-black tunnels armed only with a handful of matches is an unforgettable piece of horror writing.
The Time Machine is a very dark story and that is one of the things that makes it so satisfying. Wells pulls no punches here. Perhaps he is a bit heavy handed with his message, but I tend to doubt it. I find his telling of the story extremely well crafted. This book has earned its fame and it is not surprising that it has remained in print for over a century.