Monday, August 29, 2016

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

One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now--if I may use the phrase--be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age. Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved? Into the manhood of the race: for I, for my own part cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man's culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know--for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made--thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank--is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers --shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle--to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man. (116-117)

The question of time travel has always been of interest to man. If you could go back and time, when would you and what would be the repercussions of our actions in the present world? Likewise, what would it be like to venture into the future - into a world unknown? It is this latter question that H. G. Wells explores in his classic story The Time Machine first published in 1895.

In this narrative, Wells tells the story of an unnamed time traveler who builds a time machine and ventures into the future into the year 802,701 only to return a week later. What he discovers allows Wells to explore through the means of narrative the dual worldviews of capitalism and communism.

In this futuristic world, the time traveler finds the descendants of humanity broken into two groups. Those on the surface are the Eloi who are described as somewhat lazy human-like creatures who live a largely care-free, vegetarian life. Later in the story, the Time Traveler saves an Eloi, named Weena (the only named character in the narrative) because the rest of the Eloi do not seem to care to risk their own lives.

Below the surface are the Morlocks who are meat-eating machine builders who steal the time machine. They are cannibals who live in the dark and hunt Eloi at night. Naturally, they are the story's antagonists and the Time Traveler is only at danger when he is near them.

These two people-groups are the basis of Well's political ideology. Through the means of narrative, Wells, as many scholars have pointed out, is not merely telling us a good story, but making a prediction about the worldviews of communism and capitalism. To Wells, capitalism creates two classes: the haves and the have-nots. The Eloi represent those who have benefited from the riches of capitalism off of the back of the workers. They have since grown soft. The Morlocks, on the other hand, represent the working class who are the under-dwellers who after millennia of capitalism have become savages.

Here we see Well's criticism of capitalism which is sympathetic to communism. Yet to leave the critique of the book there is misleading. Before the Time Traveler discovers the wicked Morlocks, he assumes that in 802,701 he has finally arrived at the modernistic dream of Utopia. The Eloi are largely at ease because there is no longer anything to struggle against. No class warfare, no racial bigotry, and no gender bias. The secular hope of that mankind would progress to a type of heaven on earth, at first, was witnessed by the Time Traveler. When this was his presumption, Wells is critical of communism, though briefly.

As to Well's view of economics and politics, I will leave it to his biographers. I, however, read such classics as a Christian and there is something rarely discussed among critics and scholars of The Time Machine. Many see this as a criticism of unchecked capitalism in Victorian England and perhaps that was Well's intention, but something bigger is going on here: the vanity of the modernity. Wells describes a dystopian future of perpetual war and violence. There is no peace or Ubermensch here, just the same evolutionary struggle for existence. In Well's crystal ball, the future is not bright, but dark. Even after escaping to 802,701 AD, the Time Traveler moves millions more years into the future only to briefly see the earth begins its slow, natural destruction. Even the descendants of the Eloi, in this far future world, are not more evolved but actually devolved.

Maybe Wells is criticizing free market capitalism but it is hard to believe that communism will save us from such a dark future. Whether he meant to or not, Wells puts a mirror before the modernists and shows that their experiment is vanity. Man left to his own intellect cannot and will not save himself. This is the real value of The Time Machine. The future is dark apart from a vision bigger than political-economic debates among (post)modernists. Ecclesiastes explained that centuries ago. Maybe the unnamed Time Traveler should have gone to the past and spoken to Solomon. He could have told him the same story without the danger and hassle of losing his time machine tot he savage Morlocks.
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