The Time Machine by H G Wells

 

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.

Photo of H G Wells in 1920
H G Wells and His Most Marvellous Moustache (Photo by George Charles Beresford, 1920)

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).

26 thoughts on “The Time Machine by H G Wells

  1. I’ve often thought Wells should be considered more “social commentary” than “sci-fi”. “War of the Worlds” is a meditation on how transient our place on the food chain really is; “First Men on the Moon” illustrates the hazards of reckless expansion into unexplored lands; “Food of the Gods” gives us a ring-side seat to the consequences of messing with Mother Nature; and so on. “The Time Machine” is no exception there.

    Thanks for bringing in the old master himself. I look forward to your next post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right, Wells is all about the social commentary. The sci-fi elements in his stories are only there for him to make his point – not that I enjoy his books any less because of it.

      Thank you for reading! 🙂

      Like

  2. I’m glad you remembered how to blog. That would have been very awkward if you’d just posted a picture of the cover and said you forgot how to blog! 😉

    How was switching themes? Was it troublesome in anyway?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I really dodged a bullet there, huh? 😀

      Switching themes was actually surprisingly easy, although I do keep spotting the odd bit of crappy formatting that I missed when I first swapped. Mostly it’s the odd image that no longer sits right with the new theme and in-text links I forgot to remove the underlining from now that links are more obviously a different colour. Really little things.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I keep thinking about switching themes. But then I figure, why ask for trouble? I like the theme, not many people visit the site actual anyway. And WP seems hellbent for leather on making life tough, so I don’t want to give them any opportunity to cause mischief…

        Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s always fascinating to revisit an old read, and to do it through someone else’s eyes: back when I read this (and I’m talking of a few decades ago…) I took it merely at surface value, while your review shows that there are many layers I left unexplored. A re-read might be in order indeed, particularly since I didn’t know there was something of a sequel to it!
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wells is someone I appreciate as a forerunner of sf, but I’m glad his novels are so short because they feels rather wooden to me… I’ve read a few, years ago, but feel no urge to go back. But I’m happy to read a review from time to time, thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for reading! 😁
      Yeah, I felt this wasn’t the most organic of stories, but I do like the way he writes. I think it appeals to my mini historian brain.
      It’s fascinating to read as an sf forerunner as you say. 😃

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember this as such a pessimistic work, but then he’s quite noted for that, isn’t he? He was involved with the founders of the Fabian Society (including Enid Nesbit) and the zeal for societal change comes through on much of his writing.

    I’ve got The War of the Worlds to re-read for Vintage Scifi Month. I read some short stories of his many years ago (this one, obviously, The Country of the Blind and a few others), also The Shape of Things to Come and The Island of Dr Moreau; but the one I really must reread is When the Sleeper Wakes because I remember it ended quite abruptly and I felt I had missed out on something. I might have hung on to the small vintage hardback I read it in during the 80s but sadly can’t spot it at the moment…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooo, I’m looking forward to your post on The War of the Worlds then.

      Yeah, marvellously pessimistic chap, and his writing here seems far more an exploration of some ideas about society, rather than something written for enjoyment/the enjoyment of others.
      I didn’t know about the Fabian Society – will have to look into that. Thank you. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have never read any H.G. Wells but your review made me curious about, since it’s so short, I’ll try to squeeze it in my Vintage Science Fiction Month reading as well.
    (And I can’t quite call this cover glorious but I have to say I’ve never seen one quite like it before… 😂)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I never read any of Wells’ books, but I saw some movies based on them and always liked them. I remember the Morlocks being scary there. Maybe I should give reading the stories a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember a movie of the Time Machine where the Morlocks terrified me … I think that’s probably why I didn’t really find them frightening here.
      Wells is a good read, if you ever decide to give him a go. 😁

      Like

  8. I know I read the book waaaay back – but it didn’t make as much impression on me as the film, which gave me nightmares for months when I saw it as a child… I haven’t read any Wells for a very long time and really enjoyed your interesting, well written review:))>

    Liked by 2 people

  9. As part of the foundation of science-fiction, I can see the value in Wells’ works. But as a reader, I often find myself struggling with them because, as you and other commenters point out, Wells seems more interested in social commentary than big ideas and/or relatable or interesting characters. I realize that a large chunk of vintage SF is built around the big-idea and the characters only serve that big-idea so far as it goes. But I can’t help but feeling like I should like Wells’ stories and novels more than I end up doing. (I’m currently listening to The Invisible Man for VSM and it’s proving a struggle for me) .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I can’t help feeling like I should like Wells’ stories and novels more than I end up doing” – oh, I feel this! I feel this about such a lot of older sci-fi that is ‘classic’ or ‘significant’. I find it hard to separate my appreciation for the work in context, from my thoughts and feelings. It makes for interesting discussions though! 😀
      Thank you for reading!

      Like

  10. This is a book that I read quite some time ago but really enjoyed. It was really interesting reading this review. I particularly like the point you made about the Morlocks not being a particularly effective enemy and this got me to thinking. My first thought was that I suppose they didn’t really need to try any more because they already had their meals waiting, ready and happy on their doorstep, and programmed to behave. And this made me think that in jumping forward into the future Wells was also reflecting the past – maybe and overlaying it onto a possible future. Early man, foraging and hunting, rough and ready, jump forward and picture a little settlement with dogs, cattle and sheep – eliminating the need to go out and be wild. The animals behave – much like the Eloi. Just that Wells came up with a much more extreme version.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, yes! That’s a brilliant parallel! Another book I’ve just finished for Vintage SciFi Month has raised similar issues about how humanity is developing – our brains and technology mean that physical improvements (strength and robustness etc) aren’t carried forward …

      Liked by 1 person

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