H.G. Wells: The Time Machine

The Time Machine was Wells’ first published novel and is widely regarded as the first example of fantastical science fiction. For this reason it is damn nearly impossible to write anything new or useful about it, and unwilling as I am to provide a simple plot overview, I’ll just take a quick look at its underlying themes and let its reputation speak for itself.

The book opens with a brief description of the nature of time as a dimension, which is all well and good. The Time Traveller shows off a miniature version of the time machine which, when activated, dissapears. The protagonist then embarks upon his journey, meeting the coddled and cattled Eloi, and the menacing but squishy Morlocks. My main issue with this book is the fact that the time traveller is referred to as ‘the time traveller’. The framing narrative demands that he tells his story to a crowd of sceptical listeners, and it would be nice to be allowed to be included in this group, but any doubt in the mind of the reader is short-circuited by this call-forward. This kind of literary self abuse was, sadly, prevalent at the time of writing when authors felt that to unduly excite the reader was somehow improper, so I can’t berate Wells too harshly for this, but it does bug me.

The main plot set in the future hangs together very well, and is nicely paced. As a vehicle for Wells’ prophetic vision it works extremely well, but the vision itself is a little unclear. At first it appears to be a Utopia, then it turns into a dystopia when it is discovered that the Morlocks have been forced underground by the inequalities presented by a class system. However there is no sympathy for the Morlocks who are presented as cannibalistic, stupid, and thoroughly revolting at the same time as being technologically adept and cunning. Ultimately, the book does criticize the class system by representing both sides as equally horrible and therefore issuing a warning to all quarters, but this is only allusively dealt with. In its unwillingness to choose a side it echoes both Victorian society with its love of power and wealth balanced by its guilt and humanitarianism, and presages Wells’ 1897 A Story of the Days to Come in its liberal refusal to fully condemn capitalism and individual wealth. It does, however, conform rather beautifully to Suvin’s conception of SF’nal cognitive estrangement.

Overall the book is an entertaining read, and whilst less steampunk than many credit it with (this monicker being applied mainly due to the time machine being made of brass, in my opinion.) it is also a forerunner more of post-apocalypse novels than is frequently recognised, I am Legend, for instance, contains a similar lonely, embattled protagonist. A monumental achievement and spectacular work of the imagination that still reads extremely well.

Related posts:

The Island of Doctor Moreau

The War of the Worlds

H.G. Wells’ Short Stories 1893 – 1896

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~ by Snake Oil on January 13, 2012.

7 Responses to “H.G. Wells: The Time Machine”

  1. It’s probably strange that on some level I do feel sympathy for the Morlocks, and I’d be interested to learn more about their technology. They were driven to become what they were through circumstance and by no choice of their own, and yet they are the ones that come out on top. Yeah, the Eloi get to frolic in the sunshine, but the Eloi are also dinner… :P

    • I agree. There is something pitiable about the Morlocks, and something intriguing as well. The description of the booming throb of their machines from deep underground is certainly intriguing, and one feels that a more current author would probably have sent the protagonist on a extended quest through the underworld in search of the time machine. Quite typical of a Victorian gentleman that he ups sticks and goes to a museum instead!

      • Indeed. There’s a steampunk book that I want to read eventually called “Morlock Night,” based on a what-if scenario where the Morlocks duplicate the time machine and travel to Victorian England. I think it would be fascinating, just because they’re such intriguing creatures. A quest through the underworld would have been epic!

  2. “The framing narrative demands that he tells his story to a crowd of sceptical listeners, and it would be nice to be allowed to be included in this group, but any doubt in the mind of the reader is short-circuited by this call-forward. ”

    That was an incredibly popular literary device at the time. It was thought that having your main character “tell the story to someone else” made everything the author was presenting more believable. It’s a device that I’ve always had a tough time wrapping my head around.

    No question that The Time Machine has been incredibly influential in so much that was written since. Which begs the question: if Wells had never written it, what would our dystopian and time travel fiction look like?

  3. It was interesting how despite the Time Traveller’s interactions with the Eloi that he did not develop a more critical view of the Morlocks. He maintained a sort of scientific distance and so did we through him, from both the Eloi and the Morlocks. And even when he travelled forward, it was always from that objective stance. Probably due to, as you so well put, “when authors felt that to unduly excite the reader was somehow improper”. I like how you put that!

    • Good point. I haven’t really considered the role of objectivity in Wells to any great extent. It is quite odd that the narrator does maintain that distance in his relationships, because otherwise he is frequently depicted as a rather passionate character given to violent displays of emotion. It does make one actually think about the principle’s reliability as a narrator, and whether he is merely trying to seem like an objective scientist in front of his self-selected audience.
      My word, you really have managed to set the old thinking gears in motion!

  4. […] second publication after The Time Machine was this little known gem. Dealing with the story of an Angel who has inexplicably travelled […]

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