The Time Machine is seminal science fiction work from H.G. Wells that basically invented the concept of time travel in fiction. Now it seems an obvious fictional device, like the dystopian novel after Huxley, but Wells came up with it first, and executed it so creatively here. It’s similar to Huxley having invented the dystopian novel
The story is fairly straightforward, and thoroughly Victorian. After dinner one night, a group of gentlemen move to the study for cigars and brandy, at which point their host, only known as The Time Traveler, tells them all that he has perfected a machine that allows him to move through time, just the same as they are able to move through space. He asserts that time is the fourth dimension, and we lack the ability to see it because we move along it at a fixed rate in a single direction.
Following the requisite harumphing from his skeptical guests, he brings out a working scale model of his machine and places it on the table in front of them. He sets it to move into the future, and then off it goes, disappearing from sight. Harumph, indeed. He then tells them to come back the following week, when he’s had the chance to test out his human-sized model, and he will blow their minds. The following week The Time traveler is a no-show for the start of dinner, but then shows up late from his laboratory, dirty and disheveled, and after cleaning up and eating his dinner, he tells them his full tale, which is what takes up most of the book.
The Time Traveller for some reason travels into the far distant future, over 800,000 years into the future, and discovers a world not surprisingly very different from his own. At first he meets a simple and friendly race of people he calls the Eloi, who are entirely benign, eating fruit, laughing easily, and only slightly interested in the Time Traveler. In my mind, the Eloi resembled Teletubbies, except white, and without the head ornaments.
Shortly after meeting the Eloi, he learns of another race that lives here, subterranean creatures called Morlocks, who come out at night, and steal Eloi for food. The Morlocks are engineers and interested in machinery of all kinds, and have vast machine works underground. He learns of the Morlocks because they steal his time machine on the first day, and he spends the rest of his adventure trying to get it back.
I was expecting this to be a purely Darwinian tale, but in fact is was social commentary as much as anything. According to the Time Traveller, these two races were both descended from humans, with the Eloi being the upper class and the Morlocks being the working class. They divided themselves at some point in history, and then evolved into completely different beings. I found this notion fairly silly, given human’s tendency to cross social boundaries pretty readily, but ok. And given the horrors of the Morlocks, it’s clear that Wells preferred a little social justice back in jolly old England.
Once very nice part of the story is that the Time Traveller then voyages into the far distant future, where we are really operating on geological time, or astronomical time, which renders his adventures with the Eloi and Morlocks rather quiant, and the concerns of his dinner guests back home rather silly. The universe is so vastly huge not just in space but in time, I was glad to see this book touch upon that as well.
I have two quibbles with the book. One is that at the first dinner party he sends his scale model into the future to demonstrate that it works, but he hasn’t set any mechanism to make it stop, so it just presumably just travels on into the future forever. If his goal was to persuade a bunch of skeptical scientists, he chose a very poor way to do it, since he really only proved he could make a scale model disappear. For a man as mechanically adept as the Time Traveller, couldn’t he have added a mechanism to make it stop one week hence, and reappear to his triumph at the next dinner party. This is what I expected would happen, and I was disappointed when it didn’t.
My other quibble is that I felt like it was a bit of a cop-out that time travel is never proven to the narrator or any of his guests. He tells the narrator to meet him back there a week later, but then he never turns up, so presumably he was permanently detained in some distant future. So the novel ends with the narrator saying, well who knows, but this felt like a lousy equivocation on Wells’ part to me, and I would have preferred that he convinced at least the narrator. Even if the proof couldn’t be shared with others, and only the narrator knew the truth, this would have been more satisfying than, well who knows.
These are both fairly minor quibbles regarding a very good book. As an early example of science fiction I enjoyed it much more than I did Verne, and it made me want to read a bit more of him, so see what other terrain he covered. But I can’t, because it’s not on the list, but I am happy to have covered this one, at least.