An existential crisis of a time traveler

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. A Book review.

The Time Machine is a Scientific Novel written by Herbert George Wells and published in the year 1895. It’s about a scientist which has invented a time machine which takes him forward to the year 802,701 AD. The scientist discovers that mankind has evolved into small, weak and slothful fruit eating beings, called the Eloi. What at first looks like a utopia without social problems the scientist soon discovers that the Eloi fear the dark and not without good reason.

So to the readers that haven’t seen the films or read the book, and want to I advise you to STOP HERE!

Here is a link where you can buy the book:

 https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781909621534

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Background

So I tried to give myself time to explore the background of the story – since stories don’t form in a void and there is a lot more to them than meets the eye. The author was born in Kent in 1866, into a lower-middle-class family. His parents were a shopkeeper and a lady’s maid. Wells studied biology under T. H. Huxley before he became a writer and I think that is something that has more or less influenced him and his ideas. At the time Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection was a ground-breaking discovery and gained popularity among a wider audience than naturalists and those studying biology. What would later come to be called Social Darwinism started to emerge, and you can see that it influences his writing.

Wells was a very political man and he didn’t hide the fact that he was a socialist, he actually met with Lenin once, and tried to bring Stalin and Roosevelt together without any luck. Whether or not you like his novels, Wells was an influential mind, who had a ripple-effect on ideas and politics during his life. Most notable is The Rights of man (1940) which would later become a building-block for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Wells wrote about many things but the themes he touched on more often than not were science, history and social issues. The theme of The Time Machine is no different: time, time travel, science and evolution of man or the fate of humankind and life on earth. There is a very interesting BBC documentary about Wells, called The Story of H. G. Wells, and if you are interested in him as a political thinker, an author or his other novels, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, I recommend seeing it.

 

My thoughts

I have been struggling with writing and putting forth my thoughts on this book. The main reason being I have not concluded my thoughts on this book yet. In my first draft I wrote in conclusion that “I like this book, albeit I don’t think I would read it again, the reason being that I prefer novels with more complex characters and plausible plots.” However, contemplating the themes, subjects and ideas that are put forth in the book directly and indirectly, I am not nearly finished. Reading and researching this book, has most certainly given me food for thought.

 

Theme and influence

The Time Machine, despite its name is much less about time and time travel than it is about human evolution and society. I mentioned before that Wells was a socialist, and under the influence of Darwinism or more correctly Social Darwinism, when he wrote the novel. In it Wells speculates where capitalism and the social class system, along with science and technology might lead us in our evolutionary development as a species. Note that this was in a time when people knew that species evolved but not how. Wells writing reflect the common cliché and misconception of a linear evolution of man from “uncivilized” to “civilized.”

Wells ideas reflect the mainstream ideas at that time, and although they were racist, his ideas on human evolution and the European man later changed as his book the War of the World testifies. The book is meant to be a sort of critique of imperialism and colonialism, and how the Europeans treated other races, in this case it was the ill treatment of Tasmanians. So he created a world where the civilized European man met his superior from another planet:

“And before we judge them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

So even though Wells ideas on human evolution and the races was heavily influenced by social Darwinism and the conception of “survival of the fittest” and “inferior races.”  He realized that it was not scientific or morally right to use Darwinism or Herbert Spencer’s ideas about “survival of the fittest” to justify wrong-doing or ill treatment of other nations and other races.

Wells was a humanitarian and a pacifist and he was very concerned about the impact of war and especially the power of new technology in warfare. So even if you may dislike him for the Social Darwinist influence in his literature, you may like him for his humanitarian and pacifist side. Now I could write a whole lot about Wells and his life and work. However I rather urge my readers to just search the web for information about him if they want to know more. Whatever your view on him or his writings, he was a very interesting man.

 

Credibility of plot, events and character

Now to a much lighter note. Before I researched the book or the author I wrote about the credibility of the story. In retrospect it is maybe not so very important, because credibility is not the aim of the story.

One thing that baffled me is why the time traveller isn’t better prepared for the time travel itself? Why didn’t he take better provisions for the travel into the future? A sensible and smart person/scientist/engineer that has just invested countless hours working on and building a time machine would surely take with him at least a small backpack with some food, tools and scientific equipment to be able to take with him home specimens for later reference? It just makes sense, you don’t conduct a scientific experiment ill-equipped, right? I mean what was his purpose for building the time machine, to prove that he could? To gather information about the past (if possible) or future? To see into the future? To know his own fate? Know the fate of mankind? In the book it seems that he is most interested in knowing the fate of mankind and life on earth. But how come? I mean we all know that one day out species will become extinct. To think otherwise is a little naive.

Perhaps the time traveler was just disappointed that our downfall would be so inelegant? Our existence so insignificant?

What does it matter, humans’ pursuit of knowledge if in the end it is going to get passed down to unintelligent or cannibalistic descendants? There is no point is there? So I guess what we are witnessing is the existential crisis of the time traveler in his scientific pursuit of knowledge? Poor fellow.

I know that this is perhaps not meant to be the heavyweight of the story, i.e. the character building or to mention every little detail the scientist did. The main point is his travel forward in time and what it revealed. Which is that according to his inspection, man has evolved into two distinct species from the two separate social classes (in this world apparently the capital owning aristocrats do not commit the folly of falling in love with the occasional working class hero…hmm?) Okay so I don’t find that all too credible either, I mean even the Neanderthal and Modern man coupled (Wells didn’t know that). Let’s pretend that all the romantic ”class-traitors” were shot on the spot, so that there was no mingling between the classes, there is still the mystery of the aristocrats fruit-appetite!

What aristocrat in his right mind wouldn’t choose a steak every time given the choice between venison and cucumber? Perhaps there are no animals to feed on? From the Eloi menu to the Morlockian. When choosing protein to eat, did the Morlocks just happen to favour Eloi over rodents/bugs/larvae? Why? And how was it settled between them? Over a game of rat-worm-Eloi? I mean I know cannibalism is not unknown among primates and humans, but for the love of god why didn’t the Morlocks’/working class do an uprising and steal all the fruit??

So when the Morlock went above ground and saw the Eloi with the fruit basket he decided it was much easier to eat the Eloi and leave the basket? Really?

I know this is supposed to be every socialist’s dream of vengeance, I mean how often does karma literally feast upon the elite and aristocrats? Morlocks’ are the most perfect social justice system imaginable. Way to go Wells!

Moral of the story

I mentioned before that the story has a very existential feel to it. It paints a world were God is dead and we have not evolved to become the (physical or moral) übermensch Nietzsche hoped we could become, but the exact opposite: at best infantile fools and at worst cruel monsters. Even the main character, falls into despair when faced with the grim reality of the world, that in the end we will disappear and everything that we will have done in our lifetime will, in the cosmic scale, not matter. So what matters then?

Maybe we don’t have to go to the year 802.701 AD to witness humankind’s worst hour. After all our species has a tendency of being Janus-faced, embodying both Eloi and Morlock traits. Depending on our circumstance and society’s influences we can fall prey to Eloian naivete or unintelligence or be devoured by Morlockian apathy or monstrosity. Maybe these traits are what Wells considers the beginning of our demise. Wells wish to have the epitaph “I told you so. You damned fools,” written after his death underlines that view on the faults of man.

So what is the moral of the story? Is there any moral lesson to be found in it? Maybe Wells intention is to look beyond our own existence, and to measure our life and legacy in a more cosmic scale. What do we want to leave behind? When we are gone, how do we want to be remembered? And when there is no one to remember us and nothing to remember us by, if God exists, how would he want Him to perceive us?

Maybe, in the end the only moral lesson in this story is that we should join the communist party and overthrow government, establish a meat-eating utopia where everyone will train their brain-muscle on a daily basis, bathe in the sun and eat growth hormones? What do I know!

 

Conclusion

To sum up my thoughts on the book. I think that the book is a good one. Although the characters are not very complex and you don’t get much information about them, and the narrator, we never get to know much about him either. The plot is interesting and original at the time the novel was written but not credible in my opinion, because I guess a scientist would be more careful and prepared for such a time-travel journey. However, oversight on part of the characters makes the story incredible, but then again if that character were rational as any scientist should be, there wouldn’t be a story, would there?

In the end this is maybe not meant to be a credible story or one with a moral lesson. Perhaps it is only meant to stretch our imagination as our mind is probably the only time machine most of us will ever travel on (I did a little research, and there are a few self-proclaimed time-travelers living in our modern era and some people claim that Wells, himself, was a time-traveler because of his ability to foresee many things).

I would really like to hear my readers thought on this book. Whether you enjoyed the reading or not, tell me what you think about the story. This book has, since I finished reading it, continued to be a source of contemplation, and I really enjoyed the lyrical ending in the epilogue:

 “And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”

Even if we humans were bereft of the things that make us “fit to survive” (our intelligence and strength), the things that really matter and make us human are our ability to feel empathy and love. What good is intelligence, if there is no love?