An odd thing about science-fiction, set in the future, is that your perception of it will depend, to some degree, on how many years after the book’s publication, you happen to be reading it. That’s not true of every book, of course, but of some. Take “The Time Machine,” a science-fiction classic by H.G. Wells, published in 1895.
From the vantage point of the present, it can be classed not only as a science-fiction alone, but more narrowly, as a retrofuturistic novel, a work that presents a vision of the future as imagined in the past.
It was written in the era of gaslights, horse-drawn carriages, and the telegraph, but is set in a future, unimaginably far away—in 802,701 A.D.
It’s hard to know what effect it may have had on the reader of the 1900s.
But to someone in the 21st century, alighting upon it by way of an e-reader, it won’t be quite the same.
And not in the least, because we’ve already arrived in the future, described in the novella, but for the reason, that in the interval of the nearly 120 years between the time it was penned and now, much science has happened.
Yet, despite all our technology, no one’s yet managed to build an ingenious contrivance that will let us journey along time.
It introduced, in fiction, the idea that time isn’t an entity, independent of space, but another dimension of it—an idea put forward by Albert Einstein’s relativity theory, a decade later.
As the time traveler explains the recondite concept to his incredulous guests:
There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time.
[If] a civilized man … can go up against gravitation in a balloon, and why should he not hope that ultimately he may be able to stop or accelerate his drift along the Time-Dimension, or even turn about and travel the other way?
The book’s power lies in giving us hope that, one day, we will be able to move up and down the time stream.
The future, as laid out in it, isn’t at all, shiny, as one would imagine. It has no truck with anything with glowing screens; synthetic meat, grown in laboratories; space vacations; self-cleaning clothes, wearable computers, or ambient sounds. It’s eerily silent, weirdly primitive, and foliaceous.
When our gentlemen inventor, whom Wells doesn’t name, slams into a lawn, and looks about him, he spies a world that resembles one enormous, long-neglected garden, a “tangled waste of beautiful bushes and flowers.” Magnificent buildings, in a state of “ruinous splendor,” jut out here and there.
Humankind has evolved, sure enough, though not along the lines, popularly imagined. It’s lost its brain and brawn and split into two distinct species, neither of which has the likeness of the Homo sapiens.
The Eloi are fragile, homunculus beings, strictly frugivorous, who live terrestrially, while the Morlocks are cold, pale, meat-eating, subterranean primates.
Even our explorer is utterly disappointed at what he sees. “Were these creatures fools?” he wonders.
On his return from his tour of the extreme future, he tells guests, gathered around the dinner table, at his home, in Richmond: “For a moment, I felt that I had built the Time Machine in vain.” “You see, I had always anticipated,” posterity “would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything.”
He pieces together a sketch of this society, basing it entirely on what he sees and experiences. He finds no sign of social organization, political apparatus, or mode of transport. “Apparently the single house, and possibly even the household, had vanished.”
The natives dined and slept in colossal, communal buildings. “The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce, which constitutes the body of our world, was gone.”
Disappeared also had all evidence of private property and agriculture. Everything, it seemed, had been replaced by a bounty of greenery, but none of it, ornately sculpted à la Versailles.
Marveling fleetingly at the purity of the environment, he notes: “The air was free from gnats, the Earth from weeds or fungi. “Brilliant butterflies flew hither and thither.”
We must not forget that he was visiting from a city, which at the time, was choking with thick pea-soupers, grime, and soot. If Wells’ London wasn’t clean, then, at least, in his imagination, he could make it a place of bucolic charm.
Equally wondrous to the time tourist was the Eloi’s freedom from labor: “I had found them engaged in no toil.” He assumes he’s entered an “automatic civilization,” where everything is provided for automatically, possibly because it’s so advanced.
But his encounter with the Morlocks, revises his hypothesis.
When he clambers down the well-like structures that dot the landscape into the intricate tunneling below and hears the hum of heavy machinery, he gets a truer picture of this society. It was in this “artificial underground that such work as was necessary to the comfort of the daylight race was done.”
He theorizes that the Morlocks didn’t always live underground. As humanity progressed, more and more factories, workshops, and plants, migrated deeper and deeper, into larger underground spaces, until “industry lost its birthright in the sky.”
The workers moved downstairs as well. “Once they were there, they would no doubt have to pay rent, and not a little of it, for the ventilation of their caverns.”
Those who refused, or couldn’t afford to, would be starved or suffocated for arrears, and perished. Those who survived, he postulated, likely inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, adapted to the conditions of their new dark and dank ecology.
Overall, the story is Styrofoam light on hard science. It reads as though you’ve bumped into an accidental copy of an eugenics version of Karl Marx’s “Das Capital” (1867), for tucked into the narrative are economic theories of labor, capitalism, and means of production.
In the essay, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” (1917), Vladimir Lenin had asserted that the logical, eventual outcome of capitalism was colonialism. Wells may have tweaked it to say that it ‘d be the evolution of the species, along the “lines of social stratification.”
“So, in the end, above ground, you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground, the Have-Nots.” Without using Marxian jargon, he amply hints at the fact that the Morlocks are the “proletariat.”
In light of the chatter about the impending arrival of the paperless era, it’s interesting that Wells anticipates an epoch, which is altogether bookless.
When the time traveler steps inside the ruins of an “ancient monument of an intellectual age” and he sees, “brown and charred rags” hanging from it, he recognizes them to be the “decaying vestiges of books.” The sight of the “sombre wilderness of rotting paper” punches him in the gut.
One relic that survives the wear and tear of time is a box of matches, which he finds in an airtight case, in another gallery.
An astute observation made in regard to the Eloi, this rings true, even outside of it. “There is no intelligence where there is no need of change.” In the absence of new situations and new complexities to challenge us, we run the risk of turning poopy.
Wells may have foreseen global warming, although, at the time, he may not have known what may bring it about.
Our explorer noted that the weather was very much hotter than his own age: “I cannot account for it.” He speculates that it may be from the Sun getting fiercer, or the Earth scooting closer to it. Little would he have thought to blame humanity for it.
“The Time Machine” is a cautionary tale of our unimpeded and unrestrained attempt to conquer nature.