Dan Sandman

50: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 12/12/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Time Machine by H.G. WellsH.G Wells (1866-1946) was the most important exponent of the ‘scientific romance’, eclipsing the French writer Jules Verne, who had led the field since the 1860s. He was friends with Joseph Conrad and Henry James, once interviewed Joseph Stalin, and made a significant intellectual contribution to the early twentieth century, helping to found the League of Nations (1914 – 1920). An ethically concerned prophet of his time, he predicted the tank and the atomic bomb. Not only did he use his scientific education to make these predictions feel believable to the reader, Wells also produced highly entertaining stories that would sell millions. A giant of English literature, H.G Wells early novels, of which The Time Machine (1895) is the first, would spawn an entire genre, now known as science fiction.

I agree with Wells himself, who in a later preface said that he most admired the beginning section of his first book. The novel opens – ten years before Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity – with a scientific discussion about the fourth dimension Time, and how time could be, theoretically speaking, traversed. Talking after dinner, to a room full of intelligent men, the Time Traveler states that he has invented a time machine. Following several skeptical remarks, his hypothesis is demonstrated when a lever is pulled on a small mechanical device, spontaneously making it disappear from the room. The Time Traveler then takes his guests into the lab, to show them a larger version with a bicycle-like chair attached, and plainly says that he intends to explore time using his metallic looking machine. Just as our bodies can move from left to right, from thick to thin, and sometimes safely up in the sky (think air balloons), the Time Traveler’s body will cross all four dimensions: ‘Length, Breadth and Thickness’ (pg.4) and – Duration.

The idea of the Time Traveler character has been a staple of science fiction ever since – most recently seen in the film Interstellar (2014). Allowing characters to witness human civilization in the year 802,701 AD or to explore planets in far distant galaxies, gives a writer great scope for raising a social and political message. For example, the binary way in which the human species has evolved in The Time Machine raises concerns about the state of late Victorian England. In Wells’ realistically distant future (over eight-hundred thousand years hence), English society has become utterly divided along class lines. The Eloi live above ground, eating fruit and seeking pleasure; the Morlocks live in subterranean tunnels, trapped in darkness and feeding on flesh. It is a depiction of hell, where ignorance is rife, civilization is lost, and where socialist fears about class division are portrayed with Gothic horror.

Hugely imaginative and expertly weaved.

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