The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

the-time-machine-by-h-g-wells coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Various Companies
Published: 1895
Reviewer Rating: two and a half stars
Book Review by Vincent W. Sakowski

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Published in 1895, The Time Machine distinguishes itself as being the first novel to introduce the concept of time travel. The novel tells the story of “the Time Traveller,” an unnamed Victorian scientist who travels into the future to the year 802701. There he encounters two new races of people: the playful, child-like Eloi, who spend their days in leisure, singing and dancing, soaking up the rays, and the Morlocks, a subterranean group that runs the machinery, producing goods but also preying upon the Eloi at night.

Their existences are very simplistic and repetitive. Both races are frozen in their evolution, with no desire for change or growth. The Time Traveller is ill prepared for his journey and spends much of his time wandering around fending off the Morlocks, until he makes his escape. He travels further into the future witnessing Earth’s eventual demise, before returning to his own time and telling his tale to a group of friends, then disappearing once more. Initially, it is an interesting view of the far distant future, where “modern” civilization has long since disappeared, and has restarted in a different way. New information about their development is revealed sparingly, and the story becomes dull at times, as the Time Traveller is repeatedly pawed at, pick-pocketed and has to fight off the Morlocks– though conveniently, his levers to operate the time machine are never stolen.

He makes little attempt to communicate with either race, and the Eloi quickly become bored with him, while the Morlocks only seem concerned with subduing him. As in a number of his novels, Wells uses a questionable narrator. In this case, the story is told through a friend of the Time Traveller, who never witnessed the events firsthand, and who also claims to have little scientific knowledge. So, if there are holes or errors in the narrative, or if you don’t believe him, he can’t be held responsible. Thus, while the narrator (ultimately Wells) weaves a fantastic tale, he’s also covering his tracks against any potential criticism– which is a good idea in that the book suffers from a lot of bad science. That is, even if one accepts the concept of time travel, there are plenty of other mistakes throughout.

As a scientist, the Time Traveller is far from being objective and making observations with a critical but unbiased eye. Rather, he is a deeply flawed character, who often acts irresponsibly. His first test is to send a small time machine into the past or future, but it doesn’t matter to him where or when it ends up, the consequences of someone finding the machine, and any subsequent impact. He doesn’t even know for certain it has worked, only that it has disappeared. However he believes it has traveled through time, and he’s willing to make a similar journey, even without much evidence to support his theories. (Fortunately, he makes a successful journey.) Although he travels 800,000 years into the future, he brings no tools, provisions, extra clothing or weapons, only a box of matches– which come into play much more often than desired. Throughout his story, he describes his theories and judgements, only to say how wrong he was, and later reveals the truth of the situations in question. He also takes a great deal of satisfaction in hurting the Morlocks. It is not simply a matter of self-defense, but taking pleasure in dealing out pain and retribution against what he sees as an inferior species.

So, the question becomes, is this how Wells perceived scientists– as being scurrilous and irresponsible– at least to some degree? Is he attacking and warning against the dangers of unchecked scientific research and pursuits? It appears as though he is getting in some social commentary: both in his unfavorable portrayal of the Time Traveller, and as he shows this new civilization on the wane, which is the result of subjugating Nature in the future through selective breeding, genetic engineering, and eliminating diseases and insects. With Nature mastered long before, the Eloi have become content with play, and the Time Traveller sees the future where they do even less, until they finally disappear along with the Morlocks.

Since it is the first novel about time travel, the importance of The Time Machine cannot be overlooked. It has inspired many other works of literature and film, including two movies based on the book, as well as a number of scientists attempting to make time travel a possibility; at least in theory. In and of its time The Time Machine is an interesting piece of fiction, but it doesn’t hold up as well as other works of that period, including from Wells. Despite its occasional social commentary and tackling the concept of time travel, the story leaves something to be desired. In the end, like reading many of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, this novel reveals that sometimes the ideas contained within are better, more interesting, and more important than the story itself. It is a fair read, but if you’re interested in reading some classic Wells, try The Island of Dr Moreau and The War of the Worlds, which are much more satisfying as far Wells’ works are concerned.

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