The Time Machine

By H G Wells

Unravelling The Victorian Future

The idea of communism among the Eloi at first strikes the Time Traveller as Utopian - as do other aspects of the initial experience of the future. The architecture "more massive than any buildings of our time", though derelict by 802,701 betrays shades of the Wellsian techno-utopia that was to characterise his later Utopian writings such as The Shape of Things to Come (1933). Arriving in 802,701, the Time Traveller speculates: "What might not have happened to men? What if cruelty had grown into a common passion?" and indeed the world seems at first devoid of any violence. Moreover, it is an Eden-like physical paradise: "My general impression of the world I saw over their heads was of a tangled waste of beautiful bushes and flowers, a long-neglected and yet weedless garden." He is "surrounded by an eddying mass of bright, soft-coloured robes and shining white limbs, in a melodious whirl of laughter and laughing speech." Moreover, "The ideal of preventative medicine was attained... even the process of putrefaction and decay had been profoundly affected by these changes... Social triumph 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 economic struggle. The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce which constitutes the body of our world, was gone... We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!" At one point, the Time Traveller even refers to the year 802,701 as a "Golden Age" - the term used by the Ancients when referring to a mythical past age of harmony and peace. Even when it becomes clear that this idle and ideal future is actually in a state of decline, the Time Traveller speculates that this decline has come from a previous Golden Age of knowledge: "Some day... the whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co- operating; things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature. In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs."

None of this would-be Utopianism is simply a piece of Wellsian whimsy: it is an essential positive grounding that is mercilessly undermined as the true picture of the future is revealed. Fin de siècle Victorian Britain was steeped in Utopianism, and the Time Traveller is a personification of what Wells was seeking to portray as this wrong-headed optimism. The literature of the late nineteenth century is littered with Utopias - in America alone there were more than a hundred in the fifteen years before the publication of The Time Machine. A central text of these new future-Utopias was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887) in which a young man falls into a hypnotic sleep and wakes in the year 2000 to a highly mechanised society where poverty and injustice have disappeared, private capitalism has been replaced by public ownership, and everything is operated in the interests of the harmony of the State. And in 1890 poet, artist and social reformer William Morris published News from Nowhere - in part a critical response to Looking Backward - which features a man who wakes after a long sleep to find himself in the twenty-first century, in a rural, rational, communistic Britain of skilled craftsman and youthful, beautiful people. Wells is taking the ideas of both an ordered mechanised world and a rural idyll, and overturning them. He is ruthlessly turning the Victorian dreams of a Utopia into a nightmare; twisting the promise of progress and harmony into a warning of regression and conflict. Neither does Wells shy away from referencing that which he subverts: At one point the Time Traveller observes that "In some of these visions of Utopias and coming times which I have read, there is a vast amount of detail about buildings, and social arrangements, and so forth. But while such details are easy enough to obtain when the whole world is contained in one's own imagination, they are altogether inaccessible to a real traveller amid such realities as I found here." And he puts his wrong-headed guesses about the future world down to the fact that "I had no convenient cicerone in the pattern of the Utopian books."

In many ways, The Time Machine is the beginning of an Anti-Utopian and Dystopian tradition that was later to produce the likes of Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four and any number of other science- and speculative-fiction assaults on the future. It is, however, marked out from the political Dystopias that were to follow it by its evolutionary context. Wells is not only attacking the political and class arrogance of the English upper classes, but also the biological arrogance of a species "we so prematurely call Homo Sapiens" (Wells, The Conquest of Time, 1942). For a start, there is the matter of the huge time- periods involved. For instance, in the future, the Time Traveller ponders the processional cycle of the stars: "Only forty times had that silent revolution occurred during all the years I had traversed. And during these few revolutions all the activity, all the traditions, the complex organizations, the nations, languages, literature, aspirations, even the mere memory of Man as I knew him, had been swept out of existence." Wells is making the point that human history may have a long span, but it is little compared to evolutionary time, which is a fraction of geological time, which is a tiny slice of universal time. Also, whilst the Time Traveller does make mention of the "State" and implies an ideology of quasi-communism amongst the Eloi, there is clearly little vestige of a political system or intellectual framework left to these future-men: any ideology has become fixed by evolution as biological instinct. The idea of social behaviour as a biological trait was picked up by the Social Darwinists, and today this baton of human social behaviour as an innate product of evolution has been passed to the field of socio-biology. Indeed a perception of socio- biology as the natural successor to Social Darwinism has done little to help its image within the social sciences. (See Further Reading).

It can be difficult to appreciate the strength of Wells' 'prediction' given that, thanks to its fame, the final revelation of the true nature of society in 802,701 is generally known before the book is approached. The Time Traveller takes some time to reveal the full picture, but the final conclusion is reached through a process of increasingly pessimistic theories about the state of man. And he leaves clues to the potential trouble in paradise. No sooner has he suspected that mankind might be united by a common passion, he speculates, "what if in this interval the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful?" And, as an Eloi seems to think that the Time Traveller came from the sun in the thunderstorm, he quickly realises that the Eloi are not geniuses he might have hoped for: "were these creatures fools?... I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything. Then one of them suddenly asked me a question that showed him to be on the intellectual level of one of our five year-old children... A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind. For a moment I felt that I had built the Time Machine in vain." And then on discovering the presence of the Morlocks his preconceptions are knocked again: "The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of today. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man." But of course, even this is not the full reality of the horror that awaits man.