Avid readers know it matters greatly when in life one encounters a certain work, whether the particular piece of literature is considered a classic or something much less enduring or edifying. The biblical Book of Ecclesiastes has little interest or resonance for an adolescent, who expects to live forever, but can be excruciating to read for someone in middle age. Words, stories, and “teaching moments” of all kinds often seem to find us precisely at that time in our life when we are most open to receiving and appreciating them.
When in my early teens I first attempted to read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), I had difficulty making sense of it, and found the ending disappointingly inconclusive. Far in the future, the Eloi were depicted as the innocent, peaceful, sunlight-dwelling victims of the vile, predacious, subterranean Morlocks. Good and evil were clearly defined, so why was the clever time traveler unable to help the Eloi vanquish the bestial Morlocks at the end? Why did he just hop back into his time machine and…leave them behind?
I hope that Wells’ novella is still required reading somewhere, because it obviously has had enormous influence on subsequent speculation about the fate of the human race. There have been at least two movie versions of the story that I am aware of, one produced in 1960 and the other in 2002. Both are interesting to compare, given that over four decades of pop culture development separate the two films.
In scenery, special effects, costumes and tone the earlier version closely resembles an episode from the original Star Trek, as well as then current science fiction entertainment like Forbidden Planet (1956). Wells’ original ideas were reworked to include mid-twentieth century anxiety about nuclear annihilation, and the story ends on a more positive note than the original: the Eloi have been taught by the time traveler to defend themselves against the Morlocks, and it is implied that the time traveler intends to return to the Eloi with three important books, (unidentified), in order to alter their future in a more hopeful direction. (Sort of a temporal violation of the “Prime Directive”, but with good intentions.)
The 2002 film is predictably much darker, more cynical, and more complex. The motivation for the creation of a time machine is a doomed romance, recalling Captain Kirk’s anguish in the first season Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” (1967). There is more thoughtful consideration of theoretical problems with time travel, (e.g., temporal paradox), and both the Eloi and the Morlocks are depicted as more socially complex, hierarchical and intelligent. The Morlocks are ruled by telepaths who control and organize their more ferocious underlings in their raids on the Eloi.
Interestingly, the 1960 version involves the salvation of the Eloi through education and group effort, (i.e. social change), whereas the 2002 film emphasizes individual struggle and escape. The time traveler and one of the Eloi women manage to destroy the Morlock city almost single handedly by causing a kind of temporal explosion with the time machine. The two then start a new life in a relatively Morlock-free world of the future.
Wells’ The Time Machine is a much darker vision of the future than either of these two film versions. His mournful notions about the future of humanity and of the earth have strongly influenced subsequent speculation about the future of our cities, our politics and economics, even our physical appearance. He was evidently very impressed with both Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as well as Karl Marx’s ideas about class struggle. The influence of both of these nineteenth century gentlemen is evident throughout Wells’ novella.
To paraphrase Marx, Wells’ “big idea” is that a highly successful human society—one that effectively provides for every need and avoids all struggle and conflict—contains the seeds of its own destruction. Which destruction is essentially a genetic devolution to either imbecility (the Eloi) or bestiality (the Morlocks). But Wells cleverly up-ends Marx: the Morlocks, the subterranean descendants of the working class that once provided their labor and service to the bourgeois Eloi, now keep the literally “upper” classes alive—as a food source. Socialism, of course, is to blame:
Social triumphs, too, had been effected. I saw mankind housed in splendid shelters, gloriously clothed, and as yet I had found them engaged in no toil. There were no signs of struggle, neither social nor economical struggle. The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce which constitutes the body of our world, was gone. It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise…
Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness…No doubt the exquisite beauty of the buildings I saw was the outcome of the last surging of the now purposeless energy of mankind before it settled down into perfect harmony with the conditions under which it lived…This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.
After recovering his stolen time machine from the Morlocks, Wells’ narrator sets his machine to go even further into the future where the sun has dimmed to a red giant, and the Earth’s flora and fauna have reverted to a primordial level. The haunting scene recalls Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle of stories, which involve a decadent society in decline beneath an aging, dwindling red sun, (see also Forbidden Tree and Forbidden Fruit in Zothique). It may also remind readers of the last few chapters of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, (1908). However, the time traveler is visiting an era still further into the future, when the sun is about to wink out and leave the Earth a dark, icy world. (H.P. Lovecraft has also explored this theme of vast expanses of time and change, in his marvelous 1936 story The Shadow Out of Time, also well worth perusing.)
The overall tone of Wells’ The Time Machine is remarkably sad and resigned. There is a wonderful episode when the time traveler and his female acquaintance, Weena of the Eloi, are exploring an ancient museum—essentially a ruin featuring still earlier ruins: fossils, statuary, antiquated technology. It is a nice touch, encapsulating the image of time as a destroyer. The narrator discovers the remains of a library, surveys the “decaying vestiges of books” and has an Ecclesiastes moment:
But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this somber wilderness of rotting paper testified. At the time I will confess that I thought chiefly of the Philosophical Transactions, and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics.
Bloggers and aspiring writers may experience a twinge of dismay when reading these lines. As an aside, I am currently reading Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder (1956), a fascinating—and now historical, though not ancient—collection of essays and reviews about the science fiction field circa the 1950s. Knight’s reviews are clever and insightful; he is covering the genre at the tail end of the Golden Age, just before its translation into television series and popular movies. But except for a small handful of authors, among them Asimov, Bradbury and Heinlein, most of his colleagues have since crumpled and disintegrated into obscurity—and within the span of a single human life.
As Ecclesiastes would say—and avoid reading this if you are three decades or younger:
Is there anything of which one can say “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is not remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.
Which may not always be a bad thing…