Why Our Future is Doomed
How H.G. Wells Can Change the World With His Literary Work
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is a classic novel embodying everything a literary science fiction work is supposed to exemplify. Broadly speaking, The Time Machine looks forward towards the future but in a realistic and believable way. Wells is a pioneer of science fiction and his writings echo what Robert Heinlein observes about this genre. Heinlein says that science fiction possesses a didactic function and that it “prepares our youngsters to be mature citizens of the galaxy.” Modern critics and academia may claim science fiction to be worthless and trashy forms of fiction however
The Time Machine is studied widely at both the high school and university level. Wells and Heinlein understand the purpose and effect of science fiction that opponents of the genre do not, most notably, science fiction stimulates ideas in the audience that they never came to realize before. By looking at the world differently, more specifically humanity and its behaviours, Wells gives his reader a different perspective of the future in a pessimistic way.
The common mistake made by many people, most of whom may disregard science fiction as good literature, is that science fiction consists mostly of alien encounters set forth in the not-so-distant future. The only weapon of choice is the ray- gun and the location must be beyond planet Earth. It is true that many good science fiction novels follow the above guidelines but The Time Machine has a different view of the future that is usually held today. The vision of the future for humankind held by the people in the H.G. Wells era of the late 19th century echo that of the people in the modern world of the 21st century. We all believe that the human race will be more technologically advanced as well as more physically and psychologically advanced. In other words, our modern society will look primitive one hundred years later. Well's vision is the exact opposite of this belief. In the year 802,701, our world will regress and his idea and vision is that our modern world has reached its peak therefore we are beginning our decent back to the beginning of evolutionary development.
The Time Traveler is greeted with an awful look into the future as Wells establishes a harsh point of view for the protagonist. The Time Traveler describes what he sees with fear and eeriness, which automatically instills negativity upon the reader “huge buildings with intricate parapets and tall columns, with a wooded hill-side dimly creeping upon me through the lessening storm. I was seized with panic fear” (39). The Time Traveler fails to find anything that is healthy or pleasant in his new world. At first thought, mostly due to our belief given to us by Hollywood movies, one must be wondering where the tall, glass structures and flying cars are going to be introduced into the story. Wells' negative vision of the future will quickly erase that belief and the reader should understand that The Time Traveler is in a landscape that is far from reaching the glorious vision we commonly have of the future. Wells successfully opens the mind of the reader. Through his oblique vision of the future, the reader can now erase the common misconception of a perfect world and look into Wells' world. What Wells provides is not the truth, but rather he gives us an opportunity to look at the world in a different way.
The physical features of the landscape are not the only concept Wells has for the future. The people in the society, the Eloi and the Morlocks represent a dystopian society. Physically and psychologically, these two races of the future are regressing. The Eloi are feeble, fragile and shorter than a regular human would be today, as the Time Traveler describes “they looked so frail that I could fancy myself flinging the whole dozen of them about like nine-pins” (41). Wells presents another antithesis of what we might believe to be true about the future of our human race, particularly in our common Darwinian belief that we are supposed to be taller and stronger.
Darwin theorized that the human race evolves in order to survive and consequently reproduce. The Eloi do not care to pursue a dream of advancement either intellectually or technologically. It would make their lives easier, especially their ongoing battle between the Morlocks. Wells suggests that Darwin's theory is faulty because the Eloi fail to evolve in order to overcome and survive the wrath of the Morlocks. The contradictory thoughts about Darwin and survival cause the reader to think outside common beliefs. Wells accomplishes his goal a second time in this novel. Wells gets his readers to think more openly about the world and in a different way than what scientific theory tells us otherwise.
The Morlocks, like the Eloi, are the second race encountered by the Time Traveler who are also degenerating with time. They live underground, hate the daylight and live life like a nocturnal animal, as the Traveler describes “long-continued underground look common in most animals that live largely in the dark…those large eyes, are common features of noctural things” (64). The Morlock and the Eloi are representations of a strange and different form of humanity. However, Wells offers this view of humanity in a dangerous disguise. The Eloi are lazy. They survive off supplementary emotion and live off the hard work of other people however diseased and infected they are. Likewise, the Morlocks are more industrialized but their society is more or less negative in their actions. The Morlocks do not seem to appreciate their surroundings and their lack of sense to place aesthetic value on anything is what Wells contends to be what causes such a negative view of society. The reader learns to appreciate the present and not to obsess with the future. Through The Time Machine, Wells' other aim for the reader is to appreciate the world you have now and not the world which is beyond your control.
The Time Traveler digs deeper into the psyche of the Eloi and the Morlocks. He finds not only are their problems infested between their own race and their inner conflicts but that the real problem is their relationship with each other. Their relationship contrasts the battles of modern industry: worker versus manager. He observes “At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporarily and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position” (64-65). The weakness of the Eloi, on an evolutionary level, starts to make sense to the Time Traveler. Like the Capitalist, the Eloi are weak because they do not have to deal with hardship or actual physical labour like the worker. Essentially, the Eloi were living the good life, with everything provided for them and hence they lost the capability to survive.
Work becomes an issue in the story and this leaves the reader wondering about his or her level of contribution of work in the present world. The working classes in Wells' time, some might argue, work for their future. They believe that their reward for their hardship will come when they retire, or if they have strong religious beliefs, their hard work will get them into a better place in the after life. The Time Traveler is apprehensive “What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful” (39). Work, according to Wells, was the problem to be solved. This great example should prepare a child to be a “mature citizen of galaxy” because they will eventually have to endure hard work in any direction of life they partake. Work is essential and inevitable. It is not only necessary as a means to sustainable and healthy life but it is also essential for the intellect of human nature in its development.
Whether or not the reader is able to catch on to the undermining themes present in The Time Machine is, of course, based on the reader's critical thinking skills and level of education. Wells wrote the novel during the blitz of the industrial revolution and the beginning of what came to be a Capitalist Western world. Although these concepts might be different and new to the reader, one thing stands out and that is the time machine itself.
Many people take a retrospect look into their lives and wonder “what-if” in order to change some hardships they may be going through. Have they really considered what the future may hold or thought about how to get there? Wells changed the face of fiction with his time machine and he made it believable. Everything about the future, from the people to the landscape, from Wells perspective is hard to believe and consequently everything about the Time Traveler (and his circle of friends) are inherently real. The reader is going to identify with the Time Traveler more than any character in the novel.
The other technique that Wells uses in order to make this narrative more believable is the meta-narrative. The Time Machine is actually being told by another narrator, a personal acquaintance of the Time Traveler. This narrator is the only one who believes in the Time Travelers story and we have no choice but to take his sincere word for it.
The Narrator is optimistic, saying that even if the Time Traveler's story is true and that humanity is doomed then, "it remains for us to live as though it were not so" (106). All writers, especially the writers in the realm of speculative fiction, have a primary duty to entertain. However, fiction also has a duty to teach moral and ethical insights into human nature and shed light on the social and political issues reflecting the time. For better or worse, good speculative fiction has an ethical message and The Time Machine demonstrates these fundamentals of morality. It may be hard to pinpoint the starting age group at which this novel is intended to target due to its complexity but the ideas behind it can teach any child to think more broadly about the future. Wells does two things with this novel that a good science fiction story is supposed to accomplish.
First he delves into the morality of human nature and shows his views of humanity in the present and in the future. Secondly, he takes pleasure to examine the different sciences by bringing together the psychological, physical and medical world. Wells does not name the close friends of the Time Traveler but rather sticks to their titles. This shows the importance of how the sciences come together because it constantly reminds the reader who the experts in their respected fields are. Wells brings knowledge of the sciences along with a passionate belief that the knowledge is real. In rereading the first chapter alone one is bombarded with scientific facts and discussion that sets the reader's mind into inquisitive motion.
Wells does what a good science fiction writer is able to do according to Heinlein. By giving his readers a different, more pessimistic outlook about the future, Wells allows his readers to sharpen their critical thinking skills and realize how events today can misshape the future. The Time Traveler's enterprise into the future shows how the social classes and humanity should be further looked at rather than Darwin's theory or the uncontrolled parts of our environment. By looking at humanity's capacity to make moral choices, Wells shows how human change is needed more carefully than anything else.
The big picture is still being overlooked in today's Western society because we are still blaming technology (e.g. gas guzzlers, coal for electricity) for the fallout of the future rather than looking at our relationships with fellow humanity. Children should see the bigger picture after reading this novel in order to prepare to be “mature citizens of the galaxy” and conclude that Wells might be on to something: in this Capitalist world we are blinded by money rather than human responsibility.
Wells, H.G. The Time Machine/The War of the Worlds. New York: Random House, 1968.