Monday, December 26, 2011

The Time Machine (1895)

     The cynic could argue that the reason I have two of 1895's most celebrated works of fiction included in this year's reading project is because both are relatively short.  I am not going to be so disingenuous as to protest that length was not a factor.  While The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is a classic work of American fiction that is routinely assigned for school children to read, analyze, and expound upon, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895) is generally considered more a piece celebrated amongst science fiction devotees and fans of late Victorian era authors.
     Somewhat surprisingly, Wells' story is rife with philosophical opining on the nature of man and the interactions of a capitalistic, classed society.  Sure, this is something that any fan of 20th Century science fiction would expect – the dressing up of modern day social ills and concerns in the safety of a removed society or land – but it feels much more forceful as Wells' Time Traveler is relating his opinions directly to his contemporaries.  He need not have had his adventures through time to view some of humanity's conceits as harmful and reductive, leading us against any kind of idealized society, but the far distant future allows Wells to make the distinctions so stark that there can be no argument of the dangers of the underlying conditions.
     I should note that Wells writes The Time Machine in the style of a man recounting a tale.  Nearly everything is a man being quoted, and he quoting those who appear in his story.  This is not a style of which I am a fan.  It feels – from the perspective of one who came to be a reader in the last fifth of the 20th Century – as dated and artificial.  However, Wells is more adept at working this way than Conan Doyle was with the Sherlock Holmes short stories; the former never crafts a line as telling as "I suppose a suicide who holds a pistol to his skull feels much the same wonder at what will come next as I felt then." (Chapter 3)
     The story is relatively simple.  The Time Traveler tells some assembled guests that he has figured out that time is a dimension and therefore one must be able to move through it as easily as through 'length, breadth, and thickness' in a manner other than the unalterable, observable march of time.  To accomplish this, he has constructed a time machine.  Soon after, he takes the machine for a spin through time (going much further into the future than one would expect to be safe).  He promptly spends about a week in this first future, meeting creatures, eating fruit, tromping about on foot, battling cannibals, and setting the forest on fire before rescuing his machine.  He then travels to even more distant futures that reveal nothing about the nature of humanity.  At some point he manages his wits, returns to his own age, and eats a good meal before recounting his tale.  He subsequently takes the machine on another trip, but he never returns from that one.
     There are quite a few lines and passages that address the deeper issues (or are just very cleverly written).  My apologies for not noting specifically what each is addressing within the story.  I may revisit this in the near future and make those corrections, but I simply ran out of time when putting this post together.
  • " Seeing the ease and security in which these people were living, I felt that this close resemblance of the sexes was after all what one would expect ; for the strength of a man and the softness of a woman, the institution of the family, and the differentiation of occupations are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force.  Where population is balanced and abundant, much child-bearing becomes an evil rather than a blessing to the State : where violence comes but rarely and offspring are secure, there is less necessity—indeed there is no necessity—for an efficient family, and the specialisation of the sexes with reference to their children's needs disappears." (Chapter 4)
  • "Strength is the outcome of need ; security sets a premium on feebleness.  The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilising process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax.  One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another." (Chapter 4)
  • "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." (Chapter 4)
  • "What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigor?  Hardship and freedom : conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall ; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision.  And the institution of the family, and the emotions that arise therein, the fierce jealousy, the tenderness for offspring, parental self-devotion, all found their justification and support in the imminent dangers of the young." (Chapter 4)
  •  "I don't know how to convey their expression to you.  Suppose you were to use a grossly improper gesture to a delicate-minded woman.  It is how she would look." (Chapter 5)
  • "But I was too restless to watch long; I am too Occidental for a long vigil." (Chapter 5)
  • "I think I have said how much hotter than our own world was the weather of this Golden Age." (Chapter 5) [I mostly like this because it works with the introduction of greenhouse gases brought on by the Industrial Age, carrying it on to what we now know to be the conclusion.]
  • "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 temporary and social differences between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position." (Chapter 5)
  • "Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?" (Chapter 5)
  • "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." (Chapter 5)
  • "Before I had felt as a man might feel who had fallen into a pit ; my concern was with the pit and how to get out of it.  Now I felt like a beast in a trap, whose enemy would come upon him soon." (Chapter 7)
  • "Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants ;  but that had long since passed away.  The two species that had resulted from the evolution of man were sliding down towards, or had already arrived at, an altogether new relationship." (Chapter 7)
  • "Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother out of the ease and the sunshine.  And now that brother was coming back—changed!" (Chapter 7)
  • "Possibly they had lived on rats and suchlike vermin,  Even now man is far less discriminating and exclusive in his food than he was—far less than any monkey.  His prejudice against human flesh is no deep-seated instinct.  And so these inhuman sons of men—!" (Chapter 7)
  • "These Eloi were mere fatted cattle, which the ant-like Morlocks preserved and preyed upon—probably saw to the breeding of." (Chapter 7)
  • "She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human." (Chapter 8)
  • "Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of ambition.  But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre 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." (Chapter 8)
  • "I understood now what all the beauty of the over-world people covered.  Very pleasant was their day, as pleasant as the day of the cattle in the field.  Like the cattle, they knew of no enemies, and provided against no needs.  And their end was the same." (Chapter 10)
  • "I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been.  It had committed suicide.  It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last.  Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety.  The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work.  No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployment problem, no social question left unsolved.  And a great quiet had followed." (Chapter 10)
  • "An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism.  Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless.  There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change.  Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety if needs and dangers." (Chapter 10)
  • "Consider I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race until I have hatched this fiction." (Chapter 12) [I like this clever appropriation of Puck's sentiment from A Midsummer Night's Dream.]

     I came to own this book because I purchased the Dover Thrift Editions H.G. Wells box set.  Part of this was because five books for $8 (which was my cost through Amazon at the time) seemed like a great deal.  As a fan of science fiction (but hardly a devotee or expert), I felt that I needed to get around to reading Wells and Verne if I were going to pretend to treat the genre seriously.  I had picked up The Works of Jules Verne (a Borders published collection of five novels and three short stories in one hard cover book) many years prior, but I am loathe to write in it to make notes or highlight text.  The DTE books, by nature of their low cost, do not instill any sense that marking them up is disrespectful.  To me, the DTE books exist to be read rather than preserved.  They don't exist to look pretty on the shelf like the gilded edged Borders book of Verne stories.
Say what you will about Simon Wells' The Time Machine (2002) – I'll say that I found it to be frustrating and under formed – but it takes all kinds of liberties with the story and content of the original.  While it may come off as less paternalistic in its condemnation and evaluation of humanity, the added elements make for a less compelling tale.  Seeing as how can likely read the book in close to the same time it takes to watch the movie, I would strongly suggest investing the time in reading.
     I would imagine that serious science fiction fans have read The Time Machine by the time they reach high school.  This is probably unfortunate, as much of what Wells is assessing would be unknown to readers of that age.  Likewise, there may be many who are only familiar with the story through the film depictions of it.  I remember seeing the 2002 movie with a friend from high school who assured me that it was fairly faithful to the original tale.  Clearly, that is not the case and I am left to conclude that my friend had never read the story in the first place.

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