Friday, November 04, 2005

Book Review: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Plot Summary (Spoilers Inevitably Follow)

H.G. Wells' novel opens with the Time Traveler explaining his plans to travel in time to a group of his Victorian peers (most only named by an occupational label.) The next scene is a dinner party a week later with the narrator and a few of the Time Traveler's previous guests. The Time Traveler enters the room in terrible shape. After he has cleaned up and has eaten, he begins to tell them of his trip in time.

The narratorial voice switches to that of the Traveler himself, and he tells them that he went to the year 802701 A.D. The England of the distant future is a beautiful place, almost a Utopia, but civilization is in majestic ruin. He first encounters the Eloi, a race of pretty, vacuous beings descended from humans. All other animals are apparently extinct, and the vegetarian Eloi have every need mysteriously provided for. Then, he discovers that someone has taken his time machine and he is frantic until he realizes that it has been locked in the bronze base of a nearby statue. He gives up on trying to free his machine, and later saves a drowning Eloi named Weena.

Weena tags along with the Traveler, and he soon discovers the existence of the Morlocks, a race of subterranean creatures descended from the human working class that maintain the underground machines that support the Eloi. He goes off exploring in the countryside with Weena in tow, and in the process of going through a ruined museum he lets the time get away from him and the Morlocks come out to attack after dark. He gets away from them, but inadvertently starts a forest fire and Weena is killed in the chaos.

The Traveler makes it back to the statue and finds that the doors are open. He goes inside to get his machine, and the Morlocks try to trap him. The Traveler manages to escape and goes far into the future to a time where the place he once lived is a beach with monstrous crabs. He travels on to an era near the end of the world, a time of darkness and cold. Then, he returns to his own time.

The only one who seems to believe his story is the narrator. The narrator goes into the lab to talk to the Time Traveller, but he and his machine are gone.


The Time Machine is a social doom prophecy. The future is presented as a place where the privileged have finally gotten a world where they can lead utterly carefree lives of leisure. Unfortunately, the centuries of soft living have turned the rich into weak and stupid creatures. Meanwhile, the working class has speciated into subterranean horrors that finally seek revenge on their former masters. This is to serve as an extrapolation of what Wells surely saw as a widening gulf between the rich and poor in Victorian England. Wells exaggerated the difference between the Morlocks and Eloi to warn the well-to-do and the British government that the social injustices of the day would prove ruinous if not corrected. Also, Wells warns everybody that the attainment of our ideal world, one with no pressure or work, would probably be fatal to the human race.

The Time Machine seems to compare favorably with mainstream literature of its day. When compared with more modern novels, science fiction or otherwise, parts of it seem a bit quaint and stuffy. Still, Wells was a good writer and the novel has a sense of wonder; it's a fine adventure tale.

On the surface, the circumstances and science sound good, but they don't hold up well if you know much about science. I accept the idea of the time machine, since that particular fantasy is central to the story, but there are a few other details that bothered me.

First, the Time Traveller describes the land as being devoid of fungi. The primary decomposers in an ecosystem are fungi; without them, you can't have a gorgeous landscape. I guess Wells just didn't want stinkhorns on his world.

Also, the Eloi are described as being disease-free. Perhaps science could get rid of parasites and viruses. But you can't kill off the bacteria; otherwise, the whole ecosystem goes down. No decomposition, no nitrogen fixation, no plants ... no Eloi. Since there must be bacteria, eventually you'll have disease, since bacteria mutate quickly and will occupy any ecological niche that they can get started in.

The behavior of the Morlocks rang a little false with me. They're intelligent enough to run the machines and lay a trap. Why didn't they use weapons while trying to hunt the Time Traveler down? Chimpanzees and even crows use primitive tools. I suppose Wells kept the Morlocks unarmed so that the hero could get away; a party of armed Morlocks could have easily brained him.

Also, I didn't completely believe the development of the Morlock society. I don't think a working class, no matter how subjugated, could be kept down for so long. It only takes one extremely able person to get a revolution going, and in the time frame the novel spans I'm sure that the workers would have already rebelled successfully.

I think Wells was accurate in showing the evolutionary changes that could occur in several hundred thousand years' time. The physical changes to the Eloi were pretty good; I have read other predictions that humans will get more androgynous and possibly smaller if automation progresses at its current pace.

However, I doubt the extent of their mental deterioration. I think that they would have had games and sports, and that would have almost guaranteed that at least some of the Eloi would not have been so small and weak. Humans love games; even in places where there is no literacy and no ambition, you have stickball and basketball and poker. The Eloi still had language, why not at least some balls to throw around?

My criticisms aside, I thought the novel has held up very well. Some of Wells' scientific reasoning was off, but the knowledge of the day was limited. The story is good and fast-paced, and the descriptions are engaging. The novel lacks the literary ammunition of other works of the same period, but it paved the way for a whole lot of really excellent science fiction stories and novels.