11 April 2016

Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 104 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1895)
Acquired and reread March 2016
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

It's been a long time since I read this; it might be the only one of Wells's 1890s scientific romances I didn't have cause to reread at some point during graduate school. But here I am at last, and I'm glad I did. It's depressingly easy, sometimes, to forget how brilliant H.G. Wells was during the 1890s. Not only does he invent the genre we now calls "science fiction" by looking at the stories around him (time travel narrative, utopian narrative, future-war narrative) and figuring out how they work and then outdoing them all,* and not only does he have a better grasp on what science actually is than all his contemporaries, but he's just a really good writer. Like, there's some seriously gripping stuff when the Time Traveller fights the Morlocks, and Wells's eye for detail is great. That final sequence, with the Time Traveller on the beach of the dying Earth under a dying son, is a haunting image that I have remembered since reading this book in childhood.

One thing that struck me this time out was the scale of it all, and how inconceivable it really is. The Time Traveller ends up in the year 802,701 A.D. We currently think that homo sapiens evolved around 200,000 years ago; in 1895, things were a little less certain, and some thought the species might go back to the Pliocene (which ended 2.5 million years ago) or even the Miocene (which ended over 5 million years ago). Still, the gap between the Time Traveller's native period and the future era he travels to is longer than recorded history-- and yet he's constantly trying to figure out how this future world descends from his contemporary society. That's ridiculous, but I'm pretty sure it's the Time Traveller's mistake, not Wells's. One mustn't overlook that this is a very mediated story (the narrator is telling us a tale that the Time Traveller told him, so our access to what actually happened is pretty distant). The Time Traveller is constantly projecting narratives onto events that turn out to be false, though he always thinks that this one that he's currently operating under, this one is right... up until it's proved wrong. He has little self-awareness; no matter how long he's among the Eloi, for example, he seems to keep expecting Weena to act like a human of his home era. Anyway, it's patently absurd to find an answer for the biological divisions of the year 802,701 in the class divisions of 1895; he wouldn't look for an answer to the problems of the Victorian era in the events of 798,912 B.C, and yet he does the opposite.

He can't help it: we like to impose our narrative on history, and many of our narratives are nationalistic. (And we see in The War of the Worlds and The War in the Air evidence of Wells's obsession with the dangers of nationalistic narratives.) I was reminded of "England, Long and Long Ago," a piece on geological history from an 1860 issue of All the Year Round. As you can tell from the title, it makes this history of geology a history of England, even though the time of the iguanodon was 125 million years ago, long before "England" has any meaningful existence. We impose our narratives on history, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the museum; there's an 1862 issue of All the Year Round that shows how the narrative of "England, Long and Long Ago" has been concretized in the form of "Owen's Museum." Of course, Wells shows how pointless this all is: when the Time Traveller goes to visit the museum to discover the story of the future, there's nothing for him there to discover. The museum is useless as a record of history, because 800,000 years is more than any human being or human institution can cope with. But the Time Traveller doesn't see this for what it is, and keeps trying to impose a familiar Victorian narrative on events that don't allow for it. But the fact that the span of evolutionary history wrecked this museum makes me think that Wells saw what his protagonist did not.

This, of course, raises the issue of what else Wells saw that the Time Traveller did not. I mentioned earlier that the narrator is always expecting the Eloi in the general and Weena in particular to act more human than they actually do. The touch of the Eloi he finds attractive; the touch of the Morlocks he finds repulsive. He sees the Morlocks as brutes and monsters, but it is the Eloi who do not tend their children, leaving them to fend for themselves. The Eloi are beautiful... but they have little else that convinces you of their humanity. Meanwhile, the Morlocks are cunning and possess intelligence and curiosity. But what if he's just projecting a narrative onto events again: the Eloi are beautiful and therefore good, while the Morlocks are hideous and therefore bad. Because of the influence of the George Pál film, no doubt, I always imagine that at the novel's end, the Time Traveller has returned to the future to help the Eloi make a go at it... But reading it this time, I started to wonder: What if he was backing the wrong side?

* Of course, Wells has to explain how his take is better than others'; the narrator specifically states that he has no guide in the future world, unlike in all those other utopian books you read.

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