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.