Wells: The Time Machine

September 22, 2009

Yesterday was the birthday of H.G. Wells.  If I had a time machine, or even if I might someday have a time machine, I would have posted this then.

The Time Machine (1895)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2002)
86 p.  First reading.

The Time Machine was the first novel that Wells published, and Arthur C. Clarke has called it his “masterpiece”.  The case could be made that it initiated the modern genre of science fiction.  My own judgment is that it is a good book, but I did not enjoy it as much as some of Wells’ others.

Although it is a time-traveling story, it is not at all concerned with the conundrums for which time-travel is infamous.  Wells sends his character far, far into the future — nearly a million years — so that there is less danger of his initiating self-intersecting chains of causation.  Instead, the time machine functions as a generic device to transport the hero into another world, one far different from our own, though the lingering temporal connection with our world provides Wells with an opportunity for melancholy reflection on the passing away of all earthly things.

In this future, human beings have evolved into two distinct species, one which lives on the surface of the earth in simplicity and apparent tranquility, and another which dwells underground in a series of caverns and tunnels.  (The similarities of this social structure to that observed in The First Men in the Moon are striking.)  Nothing from our time has survived, save a few trinkets in a ruined museum.  These two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks, are essentially alien races, and part of the interest of the novel is in observing the two groups and trying to deduce their histories and character.  The book is an historicist’s dream: though they are rational creatures, at least to some extent, there is little evidence that their moral code bears any resemblance to ours.  Neither our science nor our art nor our religion has survived.

Wells attempts to introduce scientific concepts into some parts of the story.  The time-traveler describes traveling through time as “like” traveling through space, and argues that space and time are similar to one another.  This was a decade before Einstein made this notion a cornerstone of his theory of special relativity (in a much more precise form, of course).  I don’t claim that Wells invented the idea — Poincaré had discussed the idea at about the same time that Wells was writing, and perhaps someone else had aired the idea earlier — but I do note that Wells was clearly aware of the leading scientific speculations of his time.  In a late chapter, in which our intrepid time-traveler journeys even further into the far future, he brings in the concept of tidal locking.  (Does anyone know how long it would take for the earth to tidal lock with the sun?)

This is mostly a book of ideas: about evolution, about impermanence, about politics, about the conditions for intelligence, and many other things.  There is little plot, and less character development.  But in its own way it is a clearly conceived, neatly executed book.

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