The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

The Time MachineThere is deserved regard for H.G. Wells, and it is he more than anyone else who turned scientific romances or fantastic voyages of the 19th Century into what is called science fiction today. Incredibly, The Time Machine was Wells’ debut novel, built upon his earlier short story The Chronic Argonauts (1888). The Time Machine was written at the request of the publisher of the Pall Mall Gazette and published in serial form in The New Review. It was first published in book form in May 1895.[i]

I’ve read The Time Machine at least three times before this reading, but probably not for at least 15 years. The edition I read was the gorgeous yellow hardback Gollancz 50 edition, published in 2011. There is an introduction by Stephen Baxter, which I didn’t read, and there are no notes or explanations in this edition.

Time travel is a concept that’d been around for some time before Wells tackled the subject. Of course, we all travel forward in time (one second at a time, etc.). Others before him had written about going back into the past (Paris avant les homes by Pierre Boitard) or waking in the future (News from Nowhere by William Morris and of course, Rip Van Winkle). However, none had tackled the mechanics of time travel, and like Morris and others before him, this concept allowed Wells to explore his political views in a non-controversial, non-threatening forum.

The story begins with The Traveller explaining to the narrator and others, the concept of time. It has a similar tonal feel to Flatland – explaining time in terms of geometry. Very factual. Lures the reader in to what must be a serious treatise on the topic. Interestingly, this is not a tale narrated by its main protagonist, but is told in its (almost) entirety as a second-hand re-telling; a reportage, if you will. The other significant thing in the first couple of chapters is the naming of the characters. We have the Provincial Mayor, Medical Man, Psychologist, Editor, even the Silent Man. All except Filby. Which is odd.

It is difficult to read a classic and a novel that you’ve read and enjoyed previously without prejudice, but after only a dozen or so pages (in a relatively short book – this edition has 125 pages) Wells storytelling and imagination is already giant leaps ahead of his genre predecessors.

The Traveller arranges to meet with the narrator and others, but returns ‘late’ with them waiting for his news. Most of the bulk of the rest of the book is our narrator quoting The Traveller’s strange story. This is when Wells turns the previous genres of the utopian fantastic voyages and makes them science fiction. He takes the classic trope but adds elements of science. While the actual workings and mechanics of the time machine itself aren’t explained, the concepts of time travel are; while there is experimentation, observation and hypotheses (imaging that he may stop in something solid for example). The Traveller describes his journey into the future until he slows and is literally thrown into the future. It is 802,701 AD. Blimey. Take that William Morris (2003 indeed)! That leap of imagination is extraordinary for the time Wells wrote in.

Thus he meets the child-like Eloi and in particular Weena. He learns a little of their life-style and their language. It appears, on face value, to be a wonderful utopia in which they live, with no pain and an easy life. It is a communist life with no ownership. There is a dig, perhaps at specific works such as those by Morris, Swift, More, or a more general note to previous fictions, which in my eyes highlights the genius of Wells. He knows this is a fiction, so when The Traveller lands in utopia, he doesn’t find out everything. He only knows what he sees and experiences. “In some of these visions of Utopias and coming times which I have read, there is a vast amount of detail about buildings and social arrangements and so forth. But while such details are easy enough to obtain when the whole world is contained in one’s imagination, they are altogether inaccessible to a real traveller amid such realities as I found here”. Very clever writing.

File:The Time Machine (1st edition).djvu
Full scan of the 1st (1895) edition of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (public domain)

What is different here to previous fictions, however, is that everyone is weak. There is no need for strength. No-one works. No-one fights. There is no illness. So in a society where everyone is weak, but the same, strength isn’t required. However, as The Traveller soon discovers, paradise is far from perfect. We meet the Morlocks and here I think Wells rushed everything. It is a short (albeit serial in first production) story, but the speed of intuition from the protagonist based on little evidence is hard to relate to. Fine, so he’s a genius inventor who has made a working time machine, but the leaps of reasoning concerning the Morlocks’ origins could have done with a little more fleshing out. There is the proper social commentary which is Wells’ satire on the class divide of England at that time. But too quickly it’s over and narrative obstacles are soon overcome.

The coda, however, is completely unexpected and something no other writer had dared to consider. The end of the solar system, if not the universe (not just England, or Europe or the world). The Traveller goes so far into the future, what he sees is almost beyond the realms of imagination.

Of course, females (well, the one female character– Weena – which says everything) gets very short thrift. Without spoiling the plot, Weena’s fate is shockingly sad. Of the times for sure, but Wells was a meant to be a political socialist and generally inclusive. He could have done better.

It’s not just the ideas and styles which make The Time Machine a revolutionary story. The writing itself is brilliant, almost poetic (“You know that great pause that comes to things just before dusk?”). It’s very readable with interesting narrative and proper character development based on events, rather than storyline contrivances, and features the understanding of one’s place in the cosmos. This isn’t a narrow-minded viewpoint of one man’s vision of life at the time, but a holistic viewpoint of the universe we live in. It has an almost nihilistic quality that this is all going downward towards nothingness. I suspect Wells understood the second law of thermodynamics.

In the end, The Traveller informs our narrator that he is going back into time but three years later, he hasn’t returned. Perhaps, half a century before the Many Worlds theory of quantum physics, Wells understood what time travel could mean.

A brilliant piece of genuine science fiction with a couple of caveats, which would have taken it to the very top of the literature tree. Better treatment of Weena (and more women generally), and more observation, evidence and experimentation when The Traveller works out how the Eloi and Morlocks came to be. Still, so much more a proper science fiction story than almost anything that came between it and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


[i] Hammond, John R. (2004) H. G. Wells’s The time machine: a reference guide. Greenwood Publishing Group.


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