There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former dimensions and the latter…
I’m on a science fiction kick, returning to the classical goodies like Frankenstein and Brave New World. I have also been swooning over Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood. But after helping my mother downsize her own book collection, I stumbled upon an old favourite: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
Most of my mother’s library is going be donated, including a twenty-plus year collection of National Geographic, all of Stephen King’s novels, and Michael Crichton works. A few of her classics can’t be let go such as a hard-cover collection of Sherlock Holmes and multiple volumes of Mark Twain. I’ve snatched these for my growing collection.
What makes these editions special is their publication dates and their aesthetics. My copy of The Time Machine is soft with a variety of academic preludes. In other words, it’s packaged for the contemporary reader. My Mom’s hardback edition, however, was published in 1931! And comes with illustrations by W.A. Dwiggans. It’s like a time capsule.
It was ten o’clock to-day that the first of all Time Machines began its career. I gave it a last tap, tried all the screws again, put one more drop of oil on the quartz rod, and sat myself in the saddle…
Just as the Time Traveler slips into the folds of time to discover what once-was and what will be, so do readers become time travelers with fiction—travelers equipped with questions. What was our society like so many moons ago? What were the hopes and dreams of the late nineteenth century? What might our future look like? Human creatures like to speculate both forwards and backwards in time.
The Time Traveller wonders about the destiny of human society. When the Time Traveller asks what one would do with a Time Machine, an enthusiastic young man replies: “To discover a society … erected on a strictly communistic basis.”
I think Wells is being quite shrewd here—communism in some circles is the ultimate end of human societal development. The final dot on a timeline representing human history. Wells ponders this prophecy by elaborating what the future of human society holds. It isn’t pretty. And it isn’t communist either.
To be honest, The Time Machine isn’t a speculation about distant technological advances and the sprawl of human life across galaxies. Perhaps, this tale is more pessimistic as it grapples with Social Darwinism—a prominent intellectual feature of the period Wells was writing within. Nietzsche, a contemporary, would grapple with Darwinism in his own writings. Herbert Spencer, however, is the original proponent of Social Darwinism.
In short, Social Darwinism (which is now debunked) theorized that human society and social groups “evolve” via a “survival of the fittest” logic. Often, Social Darwinism is deployed as an apologetic tool for exploiting or taking advantage of groups of people.
Man had been content to live in ease and delight upon the labours of his fellow man, had taken Necessity as his watchword and excuse, and in the fullness of time Necessity had come home to him…
It isn’t an entirely recognizable human society that the Time Traveller discovers in the future. The world is dominated by two species, who are perpetually at war with each other. On the surface, simple-minded humanoid creatures dwell, living an almost care-free existence. At night, from the depths of a hollowed earth, a monstrous species emerges to devour the weak and young of the surface dwellers.
Wells’ short novel depicts a twisted vision of the future, which naturalizes the antithetical forces of two classes: the rich and the poor. The surface dwellers represent the rich, the decadent, and the bourgeoisie living a relaxing and joyful lifestyle. Below, the creatures of the dark slave away with their machines, depicting the wretched of the earth.
Wells devised an interesting satire of Social Darwinism. The creatures of the night, standing in for the proletariat, become and remain the savages of capitalist ideology, but are “consuming” the bourgeoisie for sustenance. The structure of domination capitalism suggests—the bourgeoisie feed off the labour of the proletariat—is reversed.
The future the Time Traveller stumbles into is neither a capitalist or a communist utopia. Rather, the grim reality is one all too familiar—a reality comprised of violence and exploitation. At the heart of this novel is a dystopia, if anything.
The crux of this tale is that the Time Traveller recounts his voyage to an audience of upper-class individuals. A doctor. A psychologist. And a young man we might consider in our time and place to be an overly enthusiastic entrepreneur. All of whom remain skeptical of the Time Traveler’s adventure, holding onto perfection of their society.
Take it as a lie–or a prophecy…Consider I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race until I have hatched this fiction. Treat my assertion of its truth as a mere stroke of art to enhance its interest. And taking it as story, what do you think of it?
My approach to discussing H.G. Wells classic novel has been sort-of academic. But I think this reveals the beauty of texts such as My approach to discussing H.G. Wells classic novel has been borderline academic. But I think this reveals the beauty of texts such as The Time Traveller. I am drawn to talking about it beyond the structures of story-telling.
In many ways, The Time Machine has not aged well as stand-alone fiction. Frankly, it is a boring novel after the novelty wares off. Even the plot is thin, rushed, and ultimately unsatisfying. It’s pure speculation in a Christopher Nolan sort-of way. The point I’m trying to make here is that we should not be reading books for plot and character alone.
The Time Machine might not be the greatest representation of the science fiction canon (the enthusiasm is there, to be sure), but it contains within its pages many of the conversations occurring in its time and place. It is a gold mine of social and political ideas.