H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is a big story packed into a surprisingly small number of pages. It’s so short that I’m not sure it even qualifies as a novella. It’s not so much that there’s a lot of plot crammed into this story, it’s that there are huge ideas that other writers could spend hundreds of pages exploring.
The story begins with an unnamed Time Traveler talking to a group of friends about the nature of the fourth dimension, Time. The friends are quite willing to listen to him, but they don’t believe that it’s possible to travel through time. A small demonstration doesn’t convince them. Suddenly, it’s a week later. The friends are gathering for dinner when the Time Traveler appears, muddy, bloody, and missing his shoes. All this happens in the first few pages, and then the real story begins. The Time Traveler tells his friends where he’s been for the past week–their time.
The Time Traveler has used his machine to travel far, far into the future, to the year 802,701. When he gets there, he soon realizes that there are no such things as humans anymore. The people he encounters have evolved into indolent, uncurious, and childlike creatures. They don’t build, farm, or do much of anything except indulge in their small pleasures. The Time Traveler turns into a social philosopher, speculating on what might have lead to such a transformation. Though he doesn’t mention him by name, Wells blends Darwin deeply into the Time Traveler’s train of thought. It basically boils down to, with everything provided for, there’s no need to strive.
Shortly thereafter, the Time Traveler is forced to reevaluate everything when he meets the Eloi’s (the childlike people) dark twin, the Morlocks. These subterranean people have turned into violent nocturnal hunters. This time, the Time Traveler theorizes that social classes have become so different that humans diverged, evolutionarily speaking. The Morlocks steal the time machine and, after a horrible forest fire that took the life of the Time Traveler’s Eloi friend, the Time Traveler steals the machine back and goes further and further into the future. He even sees the sun’s death. At last, he goes home to his own time.
The Time Traveler, sure that his friends didn’t take him seriously about his adventure, loads up for another voyage and disappears into time. He is never heard of again.
What affected me most about this book was the Time Traveler’s visit to a museum. Sometime between his time and 802,701 AD, people put a museum together that house exhibits on chemistry, technology, natural history, and more. The museum has clearly been abandoned for a long, long time. The books and organic artifacts have long since rotted away. The metals are brittle. Both the Time Traveler and I felt an ineffable sadness at all that knowledge gone to waste. The Eloi have no curiosity and the Morlocks would just have tried to destroy the rest. There’s no one left who would care.
When the Time Traveler began his theorizing about the Eloi, he seemed optimistic, like it was a good thing that people no longer had to struggle so hard to live–even if it’s made people stupid and childlike. There wouldn’t be any more wars, fighting, pollution, or any of the other downsides of our own civilization. But the price was intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and creativity.
It’s a very curious vision of the far future and, I would think, against the pattern of most science fiction. It’s easy to think of history as an upward trend, progress and science making life better for everyone. Technology will make things better. But the view of future history in The Time Machine turns this interpretation on its head. There is nothing guiding history and people have evolved into something other (technically, two somethings). When the Time Traveler goes even further into the future, there’s nothing left except giant crabs and lichen. It’s a strange and disturbing thought to think of an earth with no humans left on it, the end of human history–maybe even of any sentient beings altogether.
It’s short, but The Time Machine leaves you with a lot to think about.