Saturday, April 26, 2008

H G Wells' "The Time Machine" (novel, science fiction): Speculations on last days of humanity & of earth

Quote from novel titled The Time Machine by H G WellsIt's convenient to look at this novel - of 12 chapters & an epilogue - as 4 related but separate stories: preparation (ch 1-2); twilight of humanity (ch 3-10); twilight of earth (ch 11); & second journey (ch 12 & epilogue). These are my titles, not Mr Wells'.

Narrator is unnamed. Hero is simply called Time Traveller.

I've collected some interesting quotes from this novel in a separate post.

Full text of this story is available for download at Project Gutenberg - as both text & human-read audiobook. I've not read or heard either of these online versions, however.

Story summary: Preparation (Chapter 1-2).

This part is probably the most entertaining single time travel story I've yet read - though there is not much actual time travel involved.

Story is mostly told via evening idle talk among a few friends - at home of Time Traveller. Time Traveller himself appears to be some kind of English aristocrat - servants summoned by ringing the bell, etc.

He has his laboratory at home, & has made two time machines - a small demonstration machine he will use in these sessions, & a bigger one in the lab that will be used in rest of the story.

Demonstration involves sending the small machine to future by pressing a lever. "It will vanish, pass into future Time, & disappear." Or rather, "Into the future or the past - I don't, for certain, know which"!

This demonstration machine seems to be well imitated in sf literature. Several Kuttner/Moore stories feature its variants. It's also featured in C M Cornbluth's "The Little Black Bag" - also included in Hall of Fame series.

Story summary: Twilight of humanity (Chapter 3-10).

This is most of the novel, & usually not a kind of story I would have liked. But Wells gives the much written about theme an interesting twist: taking the political antagonism of haves & have-nots to an extreme.

Just when I was starting to get bored, there came a statement that hooked me to the story & made me see it in a different light: something to the effect - how much of land is off-limits to you in your own society if you are an ordinary citizen? I see a lot of it in Bombay. Is your city much different?

Anyway, this differentiation of haves & have-nots has led to humanity splitting into two separate species (Time Traveller went there in the year 8,02,701 AD - "date the little dials of my machine recorded"). Both are mentally far inferior to current humans:
  1. Eloi living in the open, always happy, at the physical & "intellectual level of one of our five-year-old children", don't do anything productive except engage in physical pleasures, vegetarian, & very fearful of dark & of members of the other division of humanity, Morlocks.
  2. Morlocks - nocturnal, live in underground caverns & tunnels where all factories had moved long back, cannot stand even a little light, run & maintain machines still underground but without understanding why, slightly smarter than Eloi, & they treat Eloi as cattle raised for meat - they actually pick members of Eloi off often enough for food, reason Eloi are so fearful of them them.
These appear to be the last days of humanity. All dangerous animals & pests have long been made extinct, along with "horses, cattle, sheep, dogs". And humans are simply not intellectually competent anymore - cannot even form coherent sentences of any complexity, let along grasp abstractions.

Story is in the form of Time Traveller's adventures through this world. And his just-in-time escape - he was trapped by Morlocks & was about to become food.

There is another story in Hall of Fame series - John W Campbell, Jr's "Twilight" - that is almost a straight lift off this story! I suppose that got included only because of author's name.

There is another theme touched upon in this part which I've seen in many other stories - not of time travel, but of traveling to alternate earths. The possibility that the physical space your body is currently occupying is already occupied by something else at destination! There was a novella among last year's Hugo nominees - Paul Melko's "The Walls of the Universe" - that described more than one such adventures in detail.

In Wells' version, you are continuously traveling - so you are bound to pass through other material some time or other if you travel far enough in time. "The peculiar risk lay in the possibility of my finding some substance in the space which I, or the machine, occupied. So long as I travelled at a high velocity through time, this scarcely mattered".

Story summary: Twilight of earth (Chapter 11).

When escaping Morlocks, Time Traveller ran in opposite time direction in panic, & eventually stopped when earth is in its last days - story is essentially author's description of this world. You've probably read several variations of it.

Story summary: Second journey (Chapter 12 & epilogue).

After returning to his normal time - a few hours after he started, but after several days of adventures in future - badly battered because of his adventures, Time Traveller has got a travel itch. So he's off to a second journey. And there is speculation that he's probably met a serious accident - for it's 3 years since he left, & there is no word yet.

Collected in.

  1. Ben Bova (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two A".

Fact sheet.

First published: According to ISFDB, 'Initially serialized in 1888 as "The Chronic Argonauts", but discontinued after three installments. First serialized in its present form in The New Review, in 4 parts beginning Jan, 1895. '
Rating: A