Monday, October 13, 2014

"The Time Machine" by H.G. Wells: A Review

A long time ago when I was just entering teen-hood and had spare time to waste on doing nonsensical things, I was trying to construct a pyramid out of marbles.  Marbles being round and therefore not exactly conducive to stacking like bricks, this was a laborious and time-intensive goal.  Enter listening to audiobooks while I did these sorts of things. In fact, I’m not at all sure, so long after the fact, that these sorts of nonsensical enterprises weren’t created in order to be doing something while listening to audiobooks.  Like the chicken and the egg, I’m not sure which came first.* 

It’s a strange thing how sometimes two sensory memories, the sight of marbles, for instance, can be connected to others, such as the sound of The Time Machine being played on cassette.  But when I started composing this review, that’s exactly what happened.  Remembering my first experience with H.G. Wells made me think of what I was doing while listening to that audiobook for the first time over ten years ago.

When one hasn’t read any H.G. Wells, it’s easy to fall into a sort of way of thinking of his works that, while technically accurate, doesn’t really encompass all that his works are about.  The general idea among even those who haven’t read his works is that Wells was one of the first science fiction authors (or, really, science fiction anything since there really wasn’t science fiction-inspired art, music, fashion, comic books, movies or television until after literature had been created to inspire all those things in the first place).  They recognize him for War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and to a lesser extent The Island of Dr. Moreau.  Because of War of the Worlds, they connect Wells with another Welles, as in Orson Welles, the director/actor responsible for causing mass panic with his frighteningly-realistic radio drama on that alien invasion story.  Sometimes they get the two mixed up and think the radio drama came first and then the “novelization.”

What people who haven’t read his works often don’t realize is that Wells wasn’t just writing pulp fantasy with strange creatures and action adventure—though that’s a perfectly acceptable form of storytelling for entertainment, and his books do have that exciting element that make them page-turners.  No, his books weren’t just for entertainment.  They, like all good science fiction literature, movies and television, ask the question of “What If?”  They force us to look at our humanity, society, the things we accept as true without question, and evaluate them with fresh perspectives.  They invite us to look beyond ourselves as we are, and not only imagine what we could become, but encourage us to strive for it.

That’s the way The Time Machine is set up.  The story begins with an unnamed narrator relating the events of an equally unnamed Time Traveller.  Well, to be specific, he’s not a Time Traveller yet.  Having grouped all his buddies around him, the Traveller presents his theory that journeying backward and forward in time is not only possible, but it happens all the time, moving forward in time second by second.   Of course his friends, being the supportive one-dimensional characters they are, decide the best thing to do to help him overcome his obviously insane theory is to leave him alone to his own devices. They leave, and once alone the Traveller promptly jumps into his Time Machine and Pulls The Lever, instigating a wild, wonderful, and sometimes hair-raising adventure.  The only reason I can think that he didn’t just show his friends his cool invention (which apparently was hiding behind a curtain somewhere or maybe under a sheet right behind their chairs) and have them watch as he disappeared into the void of time to prove his theory was possible, is that he knew they’d want to come along too and was a bit selfish.  And since they weren't very good friends to begin with, I actually don't blame him.  

Though the Traveller seems to want to get a mere glimpse of the future—a “cross-section of time” if you will, to prove his theory before returning home—he is forced to make an extended stay in a specific time in the distant future, when a vital piece of his machine is lost—and later the machine itself is stolen.  In that future, utopia and dystopia live side by side, with the peaceful Eloi living an idyllic, lazy, and ignorant life on the garden surface of the planet, while the clever, monstrous, and violent Morlocks live below them. 

Now as I said, this story has a lot of elements of what I call “pulp adventure” or “dime novel” drama, similar to later authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Chronicles of Barsoom novels.  These novels always have mysterious creatures, thrilling moments of peril, and wide expanses of otherworldly scenery.  There is one particular moment, where the Traveller has gone underground into the Morlocks’ very territory in search of his machine, where he is running out of matches, and the light of those matches is the only thing keeping the photosensitive Morlocks from attacking…it still makes me shiver to recall it. 

But there is so much more beyond the adrenaline rush of the adventure of the story.  Firstly there is the analogy of Victorian classes to the Eloi and Morlocks.  This was Wells’ cautionary tale of how evolution would slowly bring justice to the languid upper classes; they would slowly lose all ingenuity and curiosity, while the subjected lower classes would use their knowledge of factories and industry to subject their former “betters” with a clever brutishness.  In such a world, the art and knowledge of past centuries would be meaningless; the Eloi would have no desire to learn, and the Morlocks would lack the ability to appreciate it. 

Just because Wells was writing with his own perspective of English aristocracy and the Industrial Revolution doesn’t mean that the caution can’t still be gleaned from the story in other ways.  I often wonder what Wells would think about things like Smartphones or Google, technologies that have made life so much easier, and yet allowed the humans using them to be less enterprising or curious.  We’re already seeing it in handwriting: “penmanship” used to be an actual skill taught in schools, and now few people can write or spell because typing and Spellcheck have replaced such archaic activities.  We live in an age when people have more leisure time than ever before…could this just be the first step to becoming Eloi, with so much free time that even an act of leisure, such as reading, would be deemed too much “work”?  After all, who needs to learn anything or have a good memory when your phone has WiFi or your hard-drive can store information for you?

*Though it was the chicken.  And probably the marbles.

Recommended Reading Age: I was about twelve when I read it, and while I found it awesome, I found it terrifying too  I'd recommend it therefore, for 13 and up.  Think PG-13 and use your own judgment on how sensitive you are to suspense.
Parental Notes: Frightening scenes.  Some parents might also want their young adults to wait until are more mature in order to carry on intelligent discussions on Wells' beliefs in evolution and socialism.
Availability: In public domain, this book is available in a wide variety of covers, styles, and is probably a feature of any self-respecting Wells collection such as this Leatherbound edition.  Like most science fiction novels, it is prone to having covers of the surrealist art movement, especially once you get into softcover.
Adaptations:  I've only seen the 2002 version through to the end, but it is not very true to the novel either in plot or in theme.  There is also a famous 1960 version which I have only seen enough of to say it has typical 60's special effects, aside from which I didn't see enough to gauge either acting or plot faithfulness.   

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