Science fiction and sociology: Considering ‘The Time Machine,’ H.G. Wells’s pioneering science fiction novel

December 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 13, 2014

The year he turned 29, Herbert George Wells published his debut novel. It was the first of dozens of volumes penned by Wells and the start of an incredibly fertile period for the author. Within four years, Wells had produced seven books, four of which made a lasting impact on the then-new genre of science fiction.

These volumes were the science fiction novels The Time Machine and The Wonderful Visit and the short story anthology The Stolen Bacillus, all published in 1895; a third science fiction novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and a comic novel, The Wheels of Chance, which plays off of the newfound popularity of the bicycle, both published in 1896; and two additional science fiction novels: The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, published respectively in 1897 and 1898.

In 2003, the Barnes & Noble Classics imprint compiled The Time Machine and The Invisible Man in a single volume that included a timeline of Wells’s life, a short biography of the author, explanatory and interpretative notes, and four contemporary reviews of the two works. The biography and notes were written by Alfred Mac Adam, a professor of literature at Barnard College (who, interestingly, appears to specialize in Latin American literature).

(Disclosure: A cousin of mine formerly worked as an editor in Barnes & Noble’s publishing division; I believe that it’s been years since she held that job, and I have no reason to believe that she had anything to do with the production of this edition. I purchased a copy of this volume earlier this year at a secondhand bookstore.)

Of these two works, Wells’s first novel, The Time Machine, is the more stilted. The bulk of the book consists of a story related by the otherwise unnamed Time Traveller, a British scientist who hosts weekly Thursday-night dinners at his estate. In the first chapter, the traveler, as I shall refer to him, describes his “investigations into the geometry of Four Dimensions,” of which the first three are spatial and the fourth is temporal. The chapter concludes with a curious demonstration by the traveler: He displays a small model of his time-traveling machine that vanishes upon activation.

The second chapter, and indeed most of the rest of the book, takes place the following Thursday night. The traveler’s friends (including Hillyer, the book’s narrator and purported author) gather as usual, but the host himself appears belatedly. “I was in my laboratory at four o’clock,” he tells his guests, “and since then…I’ve lived eight days…such days as no human being ever lived before!”

A few sentences later, he launches into a description of his travels, which covers the next 62 pages. The journey starts with — well, not a bang, but certainly this memorable descriptive passage:

The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. I supposed the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air. I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things. The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through, her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greenness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous color like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.

The traveler stops in a mostly benign far-future English countryside. The peaceful hills and vales are interrupted here and there by odd statues, such as a large white sphinx that looms over the spot where the time machine comes to rest, and large buildings, most of which are communal residence halls.

The traveler finds bountiful trees and plants bearing all manner of edible fruit. But the only fauna in evidence are the Eloi, a people possessed of childlike size and intellect. The future is not only without animal predators, it lacks even such annoyances as gnats. The traveler concludes that the human race, after manipulating nature to make it fully amenable to peaceable existence, has devolved into the simple-minded Eloi.

Our narrator has yet to apprehend fully the ecosystem of the future, however. He eventually realizes that the wells that dot the landscape lead to an underground charnel house populated by the pallid, apelike, darkness-loving Morlocks. These proletariat workers are the ones who clothe and feed the Eloi, the traveler realizes — although it takes him some time to understand that the Morlocks do this because it makes it more convenient for them to feed upon their aboveground compatriots.

The traveler and his petlike companion, a female Eloi named Weena, explore a building he calls the Palace of Jade Porcelain. This abandoned museum contains many useful artifacts of the past, including matches and a jar of camphor — both flammable items that he knows he’ll be able to use to fend off the Morlocks come nightfall.

But that evening, as the traveler makes his way back to Weena’s residence hall, the pair are surrounded by a swarm of Morlocks. A vicious battle ensues; in desperate straits, the traveler resorts to setting a forest fire. He survives the night, but Weena is lost.

The man returns to his time machine and travels even further into the future, pausing occasionally to dismount his machine and survey his surroundings. The Earth ceases to rotate, and the land that once was England faces the sun 24 hours a “day”; the hillside where the machine is located becomes a beach populated by immense crablike creatures; the sun expands, although its light begins to fade, and the planet cools.

The traveler, stopping more than 30 million years in the future, sees a spherical, tentacled creature moving along the red sea before him. Feeling faint, he remounts his machine and returns to his 19th-century home.

The traveler’s guests aren’t sure how to respond to his story. The doctor hesitantly tells his host that he is suffering from overwork. (The traveler laughs heartily at this remark.) The newspaper editor calls the tale a gaudy lie.

After lying awake most of the night thinking about the account, Hillyer goes back to the traveler’s house. There he finds the traveler preparing for another excursion — this time he carries a camera and knapsack that will enable him to document his journey. The traveler promises to return shortly, and Hillyer settles in to wait. The main narrative ends with these haunting words:

But I am beginning now to fear that I must wait a lifetime. The Time Traveller vanished three years ago. And, as everybody knows now, he has never returned.

A half-page epilogue follows in which Hillyer wonders about the traveler’s fate and speculates about how the future might actually unspool.

Wells’s first novel is striking but uneven. The Time Machine’s main drawback is that some of its passages read like a sociology lecture, and not a good one. Take, for instance, this passage, which comes as the traveler describes the ventilation system that appears to connect the wells and buildings:

Conceive the tale of London which a negro, fresh from Central Africa, would take back to his tribe! What would he know of railway companies, of social movements, of telephone and telegraph wires, of the Parcels Delivery Company, and postal orders and the like? Yet we, at least, should be willing to explain these things to him. And even of what he knew, how much could he make his untravelled friend either apprehend or believe? Then, think how narrow the gap between a negro and a white man of our own times, and how wide the interval between myself and these of the Golden Age! I was sensible of much which was unseen, and which contributed to my comfort; but save for a general impression of automatic organization, I fear I can convey very little of the difference to your mind.

A little of this goes a long way; alas, as perhaps might be inevitable in one of the earliest science fiction works, The Time Machine contains a fair amount of this type of relatively dry prose.

Still, there’s some value to Wells’s speculation about the possible fate of mankind. Also, the traveler’s overall experience — and especially his unknown fate — is compelling stuff, both wonderful and terrible in its way.

The Time Machine isn’t for every reader, and it certainly isn’t for the very youngest science fiction enthusiasts. But those with an interest in early science fiction, or a desire to sample late 19th century English literature, will find this to be a rewarding book.

Author’s note: I assessed the other novel in this collection, The Invisible Man, in this post. Thanks as always for your attention and consideration, dear readers!

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