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Book Review: The Time Machine by HG Wells


time machine hg wells Book Review: The Time Machine by HG Wells

Wellss The Time Machine scarcely needs an introduction, so deeply incised is it on our collective social consciousness. Its one of those speculative novels that stands ahead of the crowd for several reasons: its themes of evolution and social class (er, and time travel), its status as one of the early popular works of science fiction, and its readability. And though it didnt quite strike the same readerly chord with me as The Invisible Man (see my review), I cant help but admit that Wells is in good form with this novel.

This famous novella is the account of an unnamed narrator, a scientist and futurist, who claims to have returned from a rather long-distance voyage indeedbut by long-distance, I mean, of course, chronologically rather than geographically. The man, it turns out, has 'spent a good deal of time as a time tourist some eight hundred thousand years in the future. And during this time he has had a truly unusual ethnographic encounter: he finds himself living amongst a society of human so far evolved that they are scarcely recognisable. But simple, linear evolution is not all that he encounters. It turns out that our future selves have split into two separately evolving groups, and our unnamed narrator spends his voyage attempting to understand the habitus of each.

Perhaps whats so fascinating about this book is its sense of utter alienation. The fact that the story is that of an unnamed narrator, but is in turn told by a similarly unnamed narrator, already positions the reader in such a way that they feel removed from the situation. Moreover, the narrators sheer inability to become a part of these societies despite his concerted efforts to learn and understand their ways is deeply moving, as is the fact that he struggles to be accepted by his peers, who are disbelieving of his tale to the end.

(While the social aspects of this novel are fairly hard hitting, there also seems to be an interesting commentary on story going on here. The fact that the narrators tale is automatically accepted as apocryphal, and nothing more than mere entertainment, is intriguing enough in itself, particularly given that the narrator positions himself as a man of serious learning (albeit one who jaunts off in a time machine just for the heck of it rather than for any scientific purpose). But language and narrative are also given a subordinate position in the world of the Eloi, the evolved (devolved?) humans with whom the traveller lives. He speaks of their language as simple and lacking abstract concepts, and their interactions seem to carry little information.)

The two future human races are highly specialised (in a not-so-subtle commentary of the hard-workin commoners vs the lazybum elites), with the Eloi a group of languid hedonist gadabouts, and the Morduk their more industrious counterparts doing more than their fair share to keep the world turning. But its a sort of loosely symbiotic relationship, with the Eloi reliant on the industry of the Morduk, and the Morduk cannibalising the Eloi come nighttime. I say loosely, though, as the Eloi live in fear of the Morduk, and are characterised as having been reduced to a sort of infantalism (an interesting trope that recurs through much speculative literature) as a result of their historically failing to pay attention to the sorts of pragmatic stuff generally required to get around in the world. But Wells is not so condemnatory as one might expect: he places judgements on both species, as well as on the modern-day narrator himself (who begins a relationship with one of the Eloi, and is characterised as a rather self-indulgent scientist), and endlessly asks the question of what makes someone human, and is one type, or aspect, of humanity better than another?

Still, perhaps what I personally found most interesting about the novel is its Philip K Dick-esque (okay, I know thats an anachronism) play on reality. The time travellers machine is described in such sketchy terms that it can scarcely be believed as an instrument of science, and the time travellers account is similarly sketchy and bizarre. The very nature of time travel means that hes away for only a short period of time, and the only proof of his travels is a crunched up flower. And given that the narrative is told in a twice-removed manner, the reader cant help but wonder whether any of the novel is true at all. Did the time traveller truly engage in such chronological shenanigans, and did he experience what he claims? Or is he simply using an imagined future to provide a warning about the current state of society? But the reality is that neither the truth, nor the journey matters: its only the outcome.

The Time Machine is the type of book that one could dissect for days, and remains surprisingly relevant today. Those very same questions regarding the role of science, the distribution of work and knowledge, of the origins and definition of humanity, and on notions of class and capitalism echo around us today, making for some interesting, and pertinent discussion.

Rating: star Book Review: The Time Machine by HG Wellsstar Book Review: The Time Machine by HG Wellsstar Book Review: The Time Machine by HG Wellsstar Book Review: The Time Machine by HG Wellsblankstar Book Review: The Time Machine by HG Wells (excellent)

Purchase The Time Machine from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA

See also our review of The Invisible Man

See also our review of The Island of Dr Moreau



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