Werner's Reviews > The Time Machine

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
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Nov 29, 08

bookshelves: science-fiction, classics, books-i-own
Recommended for: Fans of 19th century fiction (esp. science fiction), and of adventure fiction
Read in January, 1994, read count: 1

Wells was the first science fiction writer to posit time travel by mechanical means as a literary conceit for presenting both ideas and storylines that otherwise couldn't be explored in fiction; he had done this already in his 1888 story "A Chronic Argonaut," which is sometimes erroneously described as an early version of this novel, although the characters and plot are quite different. But it was through The Time Machine that the idea caught the popular imagination, and became a staple of the genre. (This work illustrates as well as any other the basic difference between Wells' "soft" approach versus that of "hard" SF patron saint Jules Verne; unlike Verne's technologies, this one isn't extrapolated from any existing knowledge and doesn't lay claim to any real probability as a prediction of future human achievement. It's just a pure and simple exercise in "what if?" regardless of scientific fact. Unlike many of Verne's technological wonders, it hasn't come to pass in the present (and Wells didn't expect it to). But it comes to grip with philosophical issues in a much more direct way than most of Verne's work.

As the book description above indicates, those philosophical issues are very much bound up with Darwinism, which the young Wells absorbed as a pupil of "Darwin's bulldog," Thomas Huxley. While the budding author never questioned the truth of what he was taught, he was much more ambivalent about its philosophical implications than the Social Darwinist, moneyed elite of his day (which embraced it with delight). He accepted the idea that "progress" would inevitably result in a Utopian conquest of nature that would abolish toil and scarcity --but he also recognized that, according to Darwinist dogma, without the toil, scarcity, and danger that supposedly functioned as the catalyst for continued upward evolution, the race would necessarily stagnate and devolve. Moreover, the sharp class divisions of Victorian society, with the genetic isolation and mutual antagonism of higher and lower classes, viewed through a Darwinist lens, was a perfect set-up for the evolution of separate and hostile species locked in a struggle for survival; and that one would become the prey of the other was as "natural" a phenomenon as the supposed ratchet towards "progress." And overarching this whole view of the world is the fact of the inevitable future exhaustion of the sun, which (in the absence of anything like Divine intervention) means that the world orbiting it is doomed to eventual extinction, rendering all human existence and achievement existentially meaningless. All of these ideas are worked out to their grim conclusions in the novel, leaving the narrator to observe, near the end, that "it remains for us to live as though it were not so" --a line that certainly serves as its own commentary!

Although I liked it, my rating of this novel isn't quite as high as that of most of my Goodreads friends. It's one of those novels, IMO, that are more important for their historical significance, and for the ideas they present, than for their entertainment value. Character development isn't strong here; we never even learn the Traveler's name, for example, and his interactions with the Morlocks and Eloi (even with Weena) aren't very deep. There is definitely danger and adventure; it's not wholly a novel of colorless ideas. But all the Traveler accomplishes in the end is bare survival, bringing back to the present a cargo of depressing ideas. For the original Victorian readers who shared his presuppositions (and for their counterparts today), those ideas would certainly be gripping and disturbing; and for readers who have never imagined time travel, that very concept would have been a striking source of wonder --like Capt. Nemo's submarine for Verne's original readers. But today, time travel is an old-hat concept for SF fans; it takes more than the bare idea to elicit wonder and excitement. And for readers who don't share his presuppositions, it's hard to suspend disbelief in his depictions of the future, while the ideas he's preaching fall flat. But they remain important ideas to understand, whether you agree with them or not, if you want to fully comprehend what Darwinism means philosophically.
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