H. G. Wells Module Week 6: The Time Machine (1895)

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895)

* First published in 1895, Wells's first novel. But Wells had been working on the idea for some time: first as "The Chronic Argonauts" in Science Schools Journal April-June 1888 and then as a series of articles in the National Observer (1894), then, serialised in very different form in the New Review (Jan-May 1895).

* Types rather than individuals. Only Filby, of the narrator's friends, has a name: the others are "the Psychologist", "the Provincial Mayor", "the Medical Man", "the Very Young Man".

* Scientific speculation at the beginning: the nature of time.

* "Above ground" vs "subterranean" motifs: the ventilation shafts have been likened to the ventilators of the underground kitchens at Up Park, where Wells spent time as a boy (his mother was housekeeper). But the "underground race", often threatening, was a commonplace in fantastic fiction -- e.g. Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871).

* "I'm starving for a bit of meat": we later discover the importance of the Traveller's flesh-eating. His disgust at the Morlock's cannibalism must be seen in contrast with this. Also, his indifference to his servants -- assumption that they are there to work for him perhaps equals the Eloi's indifference to the Morlocks.

* Can we trust the Traveller? His theories that the Eloi are the Masters of the World in their decadence. But "plausible enough -- as most wrong theories are!" We see him entertaining a number of theories about how this society came to be.

* The White Sphinx: his first sight of the new world. An enigma -- implying the riddle of the Sphinx -- "What goes on 4 legs, 2 legs and finally 3 legs?" (to which the answer is "a man" or "mankind").

* The Eloi: androgynous, child-like creatures: "all had the same form of costume ... the same girlish rotundity of limb. (Ch 6) ... First account of Weena. "I caught the poor mite and drew her safe to land" but then a little later: "I met my little woman, as I believe it was." (Ch 8)

* Evolutionary process. Both Morlocks and Eloi are evolutionary developments of humanity. Note the round, flopping, tentacled thing on the shoreline: see "The Plattner Story" and "The Man of the Year Million", and Baxter's The Time Ships for development of this vision. The final vision of the Dying Earth: another powerful sf image. [See William Hope Hodgson, The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912).] Bleak cosmic pessimism of final image. Our final end is destruction, and "a remote and awful twilight". But "If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so."

* And also: note the sight of the eclipse: at first he thinks it is the moon but "there is much to incline me to believe that what I really saw was the transit of an inner planet passing very near to the earth."
** What makes him believe this? He is still speculating, theorising. What is there in subsequent sf to suggest that Wells's original bleak vision may not be so bleak after all?
How competent is the Traveller? Do we overlook the comic elements of the novel?

"Our chairs, being his patent, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon." (p. 1) Are we meant to take this literally, rather than as an extended metaphor for "extremely comfortable chairs." Compare Frank Herbert's "chairdogs" (Whipping Star). Probably not, yet the way the language forces us to conceive of these chairs as active, almost sentient, is purely science-fictional.

Stephen Baxter, The Time Ships (1995)

* More sophisticated theory of time. The Divergence of Histories: by returning the Traveller has changed the past, and therefore the future. We see viewpoints of different futures: alternative histories.

* Insertion of other Wellsian images: the "land ironclads" and domed cities.

* The Traveller's aversion to the Morlocks: his physical disgust. Baxter points out the Traveller's fear and aversion to the body. "It is clear enough to me that you have a morbid fear of the body and its functions." (p. 529)

* The Traveller's final descent into the earth, reflecting his second trip into the unknown in The Time Machine and also -- explicitly stated -- his coming to terms with his ignorance and fear of the body, of darkness and depths, and the working classes.

How successful is The Time Ships as a sequel? Does the rescue of Weena work? Although the Traveller does have a romantic relationship (Captain Hilary Bond), is there a "romantic" aspect to his quest to rescue Weena or is this merely obligation? Unlike the future-Morlock Nebogipfel, she appears to have no character whatsoever and is hardly noticed by the author.

Explanation rather than enigma.

Other sequels/echoes:
Morlock Night (K. W. Jeter, 1979) -- perhaps the original "Steampunk" novel.
The Return of the Time Machine (Egon Friedell, 1946, written c. 1935 [Baxter sugests it may have been as early as the 20s]: develops Wells's scientific and philosophical theories of Time.
The Space Machine (Christopher Priest, 1976): "Prequel" to The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.

*Nb Foundation 65: the "Time Machine issue" which includes John Huntington on "The Time Machine and Wells's Social Trajectory", W. M. S. Russell on "Time Before and After: The Time Machine", Baxter on sequels to the novel, and a review of The Time Ships.

Don A Stuart, "Twilight" (1934)
"Don A Stuart" was John W. Campbell's preferred pseudonym for fiction from 1934.

Begins, like Wells, as a "club story" narrated by the person to whom it happened (who is not the narrator of the story). But the late-Victorian intellectual dining-room ambiance is replaced by the wide open spaces of America and the barroom talk of working people. A time-travel story of the far future, in which we hear about the far future of the human race: a civilisation of perfect machines and humans who have lost the faculty of curiosity. "Wondrous machines" and "gentle, kindly people who had -- forgotten." "Little misshapen men with huge heads."

Campbell's "poetic" style, the "dying fall"; pessimistic. Is this a retelling of the Time Traveller's early theory that he has come to a stalled utopia? Is this, also, a story in conflict with Campbell's reputation as a propagandist of brash, gung-ho science fiction? What is the central theme?

"So those people did not understand the things that fed and clothed and carried them."

Contrast the Time Traveller with Ares Sen Kenlin, an "experiment in genetics".

* "But -- he wasn't an ordinary man."

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