Recently I read The Time Machine for an assignment about scientific breakthroughs affecting 19th century literature. This is my review/thoughts on it.
Everybody will agree that H. G. Wells is one of the most important figures in early science fiction alongside Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. At some point or another we have all been confronted with one of his works in the form of of the actual books or through adaptations, cultural references and homages. My first encounter with him was an 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine in which a scientific genius creates a machine allowing him to travel into the future. Over the years I would come to know more of his works through research, further adaptations and even a comedy podcast called “Dead Authors Podcast” in which H. G. Wells, played by Paul F. Tompkins, travels into the past to fetch deceased authors whom he then interviews in front of a live audience. It ended last year, but the 50+ episodes are still available on iTunes and I can definitely recommend it.
Any way, the book is relatively short and easy to get through, but that is not a bad thing. I was dreading that this book would be self-masturbatory in its way of describing the science of the time machine or the discoveries. Do not get me wrong, the book does take its time describing these things, but without it coming off as the author showing off. It is almost exclusively done in a way that furthers the plot, such as the time traveller researching the new flora and fauna of the worlds he visits.
It is also clear that Wells made efforts to incorporate not only recent scientific discoveries such as evolutionary theory, but also ones that had not been introduced yet, such as the sun becoming a red giant in the future. As a bit of a geek with science, I looked this up, and apparently the theory of the sun evolving into a red giant was not properly introduced and taken seriously until around the middle of the 20th century, despite knowing about red giants a lot longer. I find it really cool that Wells then still used it.
One of my issues with it was that it still put the time traveller in a bit of a colonialist role, automatically assuming him as the most intelligent and that humans have degenerated into these savages with a simple language and childlike behaviour. He might treat them kindly in a lot of cases, but it still assumes that nature people like the Eloi are automatically more primitive, which is why the Morlock – who are even cannibals – are able to use them as livestock, despite them being primitive as well. This screams imperialism to me: “Oh they have a simple life in the wild, so naturally they are completely defenceless, and it is my job to help them. And the cannibals deserve to get burned and beaten”. Yikes.
I completely get that he feels a kinship to the Eloi and not so much to the Morlock, because he met the former first. Furthermore I completely get that this book is also supposed to be social commentary of workers becoming brutal as a result of being down-trodden for so long and the higher classes becoming more and more helpless and falling behind the workers in regards to technology and skills, but them devolving into a herbivorous nature species and an advanced cannibalistic species only makes me see the scorn of primitive tribes and the need to educate them.
What I like about it is that because time travel stories were not that common at the times, it does not have to spend time trying to invent the wheel and discuss time paradoxes or the ethics of time travel. He does not travel back in time, only forward, so he does not have to think of his actions having consequences in regards to his own time. It was nice to go through a story that was mostly focusing on the possibilities of time travel rather than its limitations. I also found it funny to make up theories about his actions in the time of the Eloi and Morlocks having consequences for the worlds he encounter when he travels further into the future. I mean he does accidentally burn down an entire forest, that has to have some sort of effect on the environment. But that is up to the reader to play with these thoughts, as Wells merely provides the setting and certain factors.
Despite tackling some tough scientific subjects and not being able to completely rid itself of the colonialism of its times, this book is quite good, it is easy to digest and I recommend it, because it is fun to explore the early science fiction works and how they appear in comparison to modern works of science fiction and to its contemporary scientific breakthroughs.