Late this afternoon I realised what day it was. On the back of that realisation was another, that I’d not yet written this post, and, more worrying, that I’d forgotten how to do this bloggy thing: I’ve been staring at the screen, then at my notes, then at the screen again for about two hours now.
This is going to be messy …
My motivation for rereading The Time Machine for Vintage SciFi Month was two-fold. Firstly, I wanted to read something from way back when the term ‘science fiction’ had yet to be coined, and secondly, I wanted to prepare for K W Jeter’s sequel Morlock Night (imagine my delight upon discovering that Jeter’s book was published in 1979 and is therefore eligible for Vintage SciFi Month!).
But what do you say about a barely-ninety-pages-long story that’s been around for a hundred and twenty plus years? Nothing new, that’s for sure.
I like this story. I like the pattern of it, I like the things Wells notices and the way he writes, even in this earliest of his “scientific romances”, and I like that it’s not a story so much as an exploration of ideas. None of the characters are particularly fleshed out, the Time Traveller himself isn’t the most likeable of protagonists, and the Morlocks never truly realise their potential as an antagonistic or enemy force. Nevertheless, Wells packs in a discussion of the nature of Time, a heap of social commentary, a meditation upon where technology will take us and how it will change us and a beautifully fatalistic prediction of Where We’re All Eventually Headed.
If there’s one aspect of the story I truly dislike, it’s Weena. (That name!) I’ve read a couple of online articles that suggest Wells was pro-early-feminism, and I can’t square that with his depiction of the Eloi female, Weena. She’s like a caricature of the perfect Victorian wife in some ways, delicate, child-like, blindly affectionate and reliant upon her male protector, but there’s no hint that Wells is being funny here. Frankly, I’m glad she gets lost in the wood/dies in the fire, because the Traveller’s plan to take her back to his own time was just plain weird.
The aspect of the novella I feel most ambiguous about is the Morlocks. They’re just not that scary (which, of course, assumes that they’re supposed to be). The Traveller expresses physical disgust almost every time he encounters them, but I didn’t really connect with this. I found the Eloi far creepier, with their tiny, fragile bodies, (not one maternal bone in my body, I’m afraid), utter disinterest in the world around them and complete lack of self-preservation. At least the Morlocks had some drive and curiosity left …
And the aspect I enjoyed most this time round, (that I don’t think my fifteen-year-old brain noticed at all), is that humanity is not really at the centre of the story. Late Victorian Britain must have been feeling pretty good about itself – having witnessed the leaps and bounds made by scientific minds such as Bazalgette, Bell and Brunel, Faraday, Kelvin and Stephenson, and reaping the rewards of industrialisation, (not to mention having stuck its dirty finger in as many overseas pies as it could lay its hands on) – must have felt, perhaps, that there were no heights it couldn’t reach. Certainly, the Time Traveller doesn’t expect the frail Eloi to be the inheritors of the earth. But not only does Wells give us a future in which humanity has devolved, he takes his Time Traveller further forward, and further, so that his readers can see a future in which we no longer exist. In which there is no evidence that we ever existed.
Not such a shocking idea to us now perhaps, but I keep thinking how that must have been received by his first readers in 1895. I know I’m being incredibly simplistic in suggesting that all of Wells contemporary readers would have believed that humanity was on the up and up, but I still feel that showing the human race within a larger time scale, and thus so very small, must have been disorienting. Like the first time Thumbs and I watched Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System after which we just sat there, our scale of measurement frantically readjusting itself, while we kept saying things like, “we’re just so small!” and “we’re, like, nothing, man!” There’s nothing more humbling than seeing how little impact you truly have.
What I have enjoyed in the few H G Wells books that I’ve read, is his habit of taking an idea and turning it about slightly to see what might happen. Here, in The Time Machine he asks: if Time really were a fourth dimension that we could move around in as we do the other three … what then? And: if society remains clearly split between a rich upper class for whom a poor lower class toils, how might this express itself in our physical evolution? I enjoy his answers as much as his questions and revisiting The Time Machine has made me curious to read more of his work than the obvious ones. Some of the titles that are immediately attractive to me are When the Sleeper Wakes, The First Men in the Moon and (my favourite) The War in the Air: And Particularly How Mr Bert Smallways Fared While it Lasted.
[Note: The cover pictured above isn’t from the copy I have, which is just a bog-standard Penguin Classic, but it’s just one of the glorious covers that have been done for this book over its looooong publication history. There was no artist credit on ISDB unfortunately.]
So have you read any H G Wells? Did you enjoy what you read?
(And if anyone has read a biography about him that they could recommend I’d be very grateful).