H.G. Wells: THE TIME MACHINE

H.G. Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE is one of the foundational science fiction novels. Published in 1895, it was Wells’ first novel, though it’s short enough that later anthologists have reprinted it as a novella (e.g. in the second volume of THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME). But compilers of reference books and reading guides overwhelmingly consider it a novel, if only because it’s been published as an independent book so many times over the past years.

It’s one of the earliest SF novels I read, in part because the 1960 film version, by George Pal, was one of the earliest SF movies I saw — in late 1966, I think, when I was in the 7th grade. (The junior high school I was attending showed the film in 15 or 20 minute increments during lunch breaks, and I missed the first couple installments at the time, not seeing the entire film until years later.) I just watched the film again, a couple months ago, and so picked up the novel one more time. I read it every decade or so, because it’s short, evocative, and I need to keep it clear in my mind against the memory of the film.

I shouldn’t need to summarize the novel for anyone reading this blog, but the bare bones are worth repeating: a lone genius gentleman in 1895 expounds to his friends about the fourth dimension; he’s taken 2 years to build a machine to travel through time; and when he uses it, he travels to the far future, to the year 802,701 AD, where he finds a social order split into passive Eloi and monstrous Morlocks, in a reflection of the social trends the author perceived when he wrote. The Time Traveler (he is never named) escapes the Morlocks and travels even further into the future, arriving on a cold beach where a dying sun shines on monstrous crabs, and then even further to when an eclipse masks the sun and leaves the world in total darkness, before returning to his present and telling his story. And then departs again, leaving fragmentary flowers. “One cannot choose but wonder,” concludes the narrator.

This time I read an edition from Oxford University Press with an introduction and copious notes by Roger Luckhurst, the British writer and academic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Luckhurst). His comments emphasize the extent to which Wells was influenced by the great discoveries of the 19th century — the geologists’ discoveries of the age of the Earth; Darwin’s discovery of the evolution and changing of species, and how these portended a distant future of change and changes in mankind. Elsewhere I’ve essayed about science fiction as the branch of literature that responded to technological and social change, but this broader perspective reveals how SF is part of the greater shift in humanity’s perspective and understanding of the universe. (Olaf Stapledon, whom I’m reading now, took an even more expansive view.)

This time I summarized the ways in which the book and film are different.

How the book is different than the movie:

  • It has the famous end of time scenes at the end (in the film, the Time Traveler escapes the Morlocks and returns immediately to his own time)
  • The TT explores the Palace of Green Porcelain — a counterpart to an actual museum in Wells’ day — though in the film there is a scene with speaking books that resembles the discoveries there
  • The TT accidentally starts a forest fire that blinds the Morlocks, then has to wrestle them away during the night
  • The book is infused with themes of evolution, class differences, and the future of humanity

How the movie is different that the book:

  • The movie has early scenes of the TT stopping a couple decades into the future, and watching fashions change in a store window
  • The movie has the TT engulfed in volcanic rock, which takes time to erode
  • The movie has a futuristic dome instead of the large structure Wells describes
  • The movie has the Eloi speak broken English
  • The movie employs the gimmick of the air raid siren to draw in the Eloi, and then the term ‘all clear’, which might have seemed familiar to audiences 15 years after World War II, but which seem ludicrously anachronistic today, especially as projected hundreds of thousands of years into the future
  • The movie has the TT destroy the underground lair of the Morlocks — as if this one area is the whole world — because, in Hollywood, the good guys must defeat the villains, not merely escape them.
  • The movie has the TT advance at the end, but only far enough to see a corpse disintegrate, before returning to the past
  • As the TT leaves again at the end, he takes three books with him.

In this novel Wells can be fairly said to have invented the idea of time travel, an idea that would be endlessly explored by later science fiction writers. Curiously, in the introduction Wells mentions one implication of time travel — the idea of compounding interest — which the film omits.

What I especially noticed on this reading, triggered partly by Luckhurst’s notes, is how sophisticated Wells’ speculation about the potential future of humanity were, given his time, compared to modern nonfiction analyses of human evolution and psychology. A few passages from Chapter 6. Page 32:

Strength is the outcome of need: security sets a premium on feebleness. This work of ameliorating the conditions of life–the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure–had gone steadily into climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another.

Page 33:

What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision. And the institution of the family, and the emotions that arise therein, the fierce jealously, the tenderness for offspring, parental self-devotion, all found their justification and support in the imminent dangers of the young. Now, where are these imminent dangers? There is a sentiment arising, and it will grow, against connubial jealousy, against fierce maternity, against passion of all sorts; unnecessary things now, and things that make us uncomfortable, savage survivals, discords in a refined and pleasant life.

Indeed, a theme of much current evolutionary and psychological thought is that human nature reflects the protocols of primitive life on the Savannah, when people lived in small tribes; and this nature is sometimes at odds with the protocols of modern life, of living in large cities with multicultural neighbors. (This discomfort is reflected in current politics.)

Wells goes there, page 34:

Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. Even in our own time certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure. Physical courage and the love of battle, for instance, are of no great help–may even be hindrances–to a civilized man.

And so Steven Pinker has described how the reduction of violence over the past few centuries has been the dismissal of ‘honor culture’ that glorifies personal valor at the cost of killing others. A curious trade-off, which Wells’ novel might be seen as exploring the consequences of.

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