Time Story Story Time: H.G. Wells' The Time Machine

Mama Fisi
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Of course, the grand-daddy of all time-travel stories is The Time Machine by H.G Wells, in which a nameless scientist invents a complex series of gears, rods, and levers, which enables him to travel to  the distant future, where he sees the eventual fate of the human race.  He meets a charming female named Weena, who in the book, is somehing like a child or a chimp, a semi-intelligent pet of the Time Traveller.  In the film, Weena is played by Yvette Mimieux, certainly no chimp, who manages to look impossibly pretty, impossibly sexy, and impossibly innocent all at the same time.  It's this version of Weena that figures in most of the follow-ups and sequels to the novella.

The novel, published in 1895, became a cornerstone of time travel and dystopian/utopian futurist writing.  It was inspired by Wells' own socialistic attitudes, plus the prevailing theories about social degeneration and the conflicts between the leisured class and the industrial workers that made that leisure possible.

In an earlier short story, The Chronic Argonauts, Wells created a character who had invented a device for travelling through time, and who is forced to use it to escape from an angry and superstitious mob, taking with him his only sympathetic friend, who then returns some weeks later to relate an incredible tale of his adventures with the "Anachronic Man."  Seven years later, Wells expanded this concept into the novella we now know as The Time Machine--coining that term for the title.

At a dinner party in Richmond, outside of London, England, the Time Traveller astounds his educated friends by demonstrating a tabletop model of a device which he claims can move through the "fourth dimension" of time.  Further, he reveals that he has built a full-scale version, which he intends to use to explore time, showing it off to his incredulous guests.

A week later, the Time Traveller shows up late for the accustomed dinner looking dishevelled, pale, and haggard. Unable or unwilling to answer the questions of his guests at first, he leaves them to eat while he goes to put himself in countenance, and the new members of the party resort to making jokes at the scientist's expense.

When he returns to the dining room, he still refuses to speak until after he's eaten, then insists that they not interrupt him while he tells his story.

His description of the weird sensation of travelling through time, of feeling like he is falling while watching images flickering past him in a headlong dash, is at once vivid and dreamlike.  He seems to be not so much controlling the machine as being a passenger hurtling along on a jet stream of time.  While the machine cannot move in space, its ability to vibrate so swiftly that it seems invisble to observers keeps it safe from harm as buildings fall and rise around it--it is, in effect, in another dimension.  Still, there is a danger in stopping when something else is occupying the same space, and 'jamming myself, molecule by molecule, into whatever lay in my way' with the possibility of blowing himself, the machine, and whatever they crashed into into the Unknown.  This causes him to hesitate to tyry o stop, but eventually, he hauls back on the levers, and sends himself hurtling out of the Machine, which has come to rest at the base of a large marble Sphinx on a bronze plinth. The dials on his machine record that he is in the year 802,701 AD.

He is about to right his machine and flee, gripped by a sudden terror that the builders of the Sphinx might be hostile toward him, but before he can mount the saddle, he sees a beautiful, slightly-built humanoid being emerging through the bushes, and decides to stick around.

The fragile creature shows no fear of the tall newcomer.  Presently a group of about ten of these dainty beings gather around the Time Traveller, curiously exploring him with their tiny fingers; but when they show an interest in the tme machine, the scientist wisely plucks the starting levers from the control panel, and puts them into his pocket.

In attempting to communicate with the exquisite, cooing beings, the Time Traveller suddenly realizes that they are not at all of advanced intellect, as he had expected them to be, but are actually very simple, like small children.  They deck him with flowers, then lead him to their living quarters in one of the ancient buildings near the Sphinx.

The Time Traveller then describes the luxurious, although strangely dilapidated, surroundings, and how the little people eat a strictly vegetarian diet, and are incredibly indolent.  He attempts to learn some of their language, which amuses them at first, then bores them.  And after a while, the Time Traveller comes to disregard hs hosts, for they have the attention span of the small children they resemble, and he feels disappointed by them.

As he explores, he decides that the little people have grown soft and have lost the outward appearances which differentiate the sexes because life is so easy for them that they do not need things like strength and family units.  The passage of Time had rendered up to Mankind a social paradise where security set a premium of feebleness.  Physical tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, have been extinguished by the triumph of Civilization.

Feeling pleased with himself for having deduced all this, the Time Traveller returns to the palace as night falls, and is horrified to discover that the Time Machine has vanished.  Knowing that it could not be worked without the levers, he realizes that it must have been carried off and hidden, and goes to demand its whereabouts of the small humanoids, frightening them with his wild panic.

In the morning, he is thinking more clearly, and tries to convey to them what he's searching for, but they merely laugh at him, which inspires him to want to throttle them for being so simple. 

Eventually, he discovers that the pedestal of the Sphinx is hollow, and that his machine had been dragged through a hidden doorway inside it.  But when the Time Traveller attempts to ask the wee folk about the pedestal, they behave as though he had offered them a grave and indecent affront.  Attempting to force one of the males nearer the statue results only in a reaction of terror and repugnance.

After next trying to beat his way into the pedestal with a rock, the Time Traveller becomes aware that the little people are now avoiding him.  Realizing the futility of either forcing his way in, or of alienating his hosts, the Time Traveller determines to try to ignore the problem and work on learning their language--which turns out to be extremely simplistic, mainly two-word sentences and no abstract ideas.

His subsequent explorations of the vicinity reveal a number of cupola-covered shafts, which at first he takes for wells, but which in time he realizes are air vents, from which a strange and continuous thudding emerges.  As he tries to figure out what manner of technology these people possess, it occurs to him that he has seen neither cemeteries, nor aged, nor infirm members of the society.  A further puzzle is their apparent lack of all industrousness, yet the fact that their clothing would need periodic replacement. 

On his third day in the future, the Time Traveller saves one of the little weaklings from drowning in a stream when none of her companions make any effort to rescue her, and she becomes gratefully attatched to the giant stranger, presenting him with a garland of flowers and following him everywhere, crying so plaintively whenever he tried to leave her behind in his rambles that he began to feel that she was more of a trouble to him than a comfort.  But he eventually does come to be fond of her, the way a man becomes fond of a dim but faithful dog.

Learning that her name is Weena, he also discovers from her behavior that the little beings are terrified of the dark, and of being alone after sunset, but the Time Traveller draws no conclusions from this singular fact.

The day after the rescue, however, he encounters a strange, white apelike animal scrambling around in the ruins, disappearing into one of the air shafts.  After giving the matter some thought, the Time Traveller realizes that this beast is actually a human descendant, too, part of a race living underground.  He postulates that over the course of history, the laboring class was forced to live underground, while the wealthy Capitalists remained in the sunlight spaces.

A few days after his disconcerting discovery of the presence of the Morlocks--for so they were called by the elfin Eloi--the Time Traveller, in the face of Weena's pleas against it, descends into one of the air shafts to go exploring belowground, with only a box of matches to light his way. Unfortunately, he had wasted half of his matches dazzling the Eloi, who had no knowledge of fire and admired his party trick.  Having arrived in what he had anticipated would be a highly advanced future without feeling it necessary to bring weapons, medicine, a camera, or even some tobacco, the Time Traveller is at a distinct disadvantage when he finds himself surrounded by curious Morlocks, who withdraw only for as long as a match will blind their huge, moon eyes.

By the light of those matches, the narrator catches glimpses of great, hulking machinery, and joints of raw meat laid on stone tables.  He wonders what animal supplied those joints, for he had earlier learned that all domestic animals had become extinct ages ago.  But he scarcely has time to think about this, as the grotesque troglodytes press him, and he barely makes it back to the ladder in the air shaft.

Fearful, now, of the threat from below, the Time Traveller determines to make arms and a secure place to live, against the waning of the Moon, which is when the Morlocks can come to the surface.  He takes Weena with him to explore a strange, green building he had seen from a hilltop, and Weena amuses herself by sticking flowers in his pockets--two of which he still has with him upon his return to 1894.

They walk all day, but as night falls, the Time Traveller is too weary and disoriented to continue; even the constellations are different.  As he reflects upon how far the human race had degenerated, it suddenly occurs to him what furnished the meat in the Morlocks' den.  The Morlocks were husbanding the Eloi like fattened cattle or sheep.  Even though he feels that this was probably the indolent Eli's just deserves, he still feels an overwhelming revulsion for the Morlocks, and a sympathy for the more human-like Eloi.  He thus determines that, after creating suitable weapons, he was going to batter his way into the Sphinx, reclaim his time machine, and take Weena with him.

Arriving at last at the Palace of Green Porcelain, the Time Traveller discovers that it was once a museum.  Absorbed by the curious and crumbling displays, the Time traveller does not notice that he is wandering further and further into a dark area until Weena alerts him to the presence of some Morlocks lurking in the shadows.  He snaps off a lever from one of the ancient machine displays and arms himself thus with a mace.  In another gallery he makes an even more important find: a box of well-preserved matches and a jar of camphor.  With these items, he could make a nice, bright torch to use against the light-hating Morlocks.

Deciding to push towards home as far as possible, and then to spend the night protected by a fire, the Time Traveller and Weena set out, but are ambushed by Morlocks as dusk falls.  In order to stave them off, the Time Traveller sets a fire, which fascinates Weena, but which in short order sets the forest aflame.  But the Morlocks come on, and make a grab for Weena, who faints in terror as the Time Traveller beats them back for a moment.  The Time Traveller is much fatigued from his long journey, however, and when he falls asleep for a moment, a great crowd of human rats descend upon him, snatch away his matchbox, and start biting him.  He obtains his iron bar and determines to make the Morlocks pay dearly for their meat.

At that moment, it becomes evident that the woods are on fire, and the Morlocks run away in terror.  The Time Traveller looks for Weena, but she is gone, and so he runs after the Morlocks away from the onrushing conflagration.  As the fire grows, the Time Traveller realizes that the Morlocks are now quite blinded by the light of it.  Taking refuge on a bare hillock, he next describes a hellish vision of the terrified Morlocks blundering right into the flames, and when morning comes, he can see the old museum, and from it, get his bearings for the Sphinx.  Limping for home, he is nearly overwhelmed by a sense of sorrow and loss, over Weena's death, over his plight at being stranded in this dismal future--but finding several matches in his pocket gives him new hope.

Upon arriving back at the Sphinx, the Time Traveller is filled with the bitter irony of his first impression of these laughing, beautiful little people and their world. 

After a refreshing sleep, the Time Traveller prepares to lay seige to the Sphinx, only to find its door open, and his Time Machine--freshly oiled--sitting inside.  It is, of course, a trap, and the doors slam shut as he is examining the device.  He chuckles to himself as he hears the Morlocks advancing, only to have his glee turn to terror when he realizes that the matches will only light if struck on their own box!

As the Morlocks begin pawing at him, he narrowly manages to mount his machine and slip the levers into place by feel, and in a few moments, he is whisked away into the stream of time.

But in his haste to escape, he has not only mounted the machine awkwardly, but thrown the levers full forward, and after a while he realizes that he has gone so far into the future that the sun has become a bloated dull red mass in the twilight sky, the earth tidally locked in its orbit.

Bringing the machine to a slow and gentle halt, the Time Traveller finds himself on a beach beside an oily sea.  The air is so thin that he finds himself gasping for breath.  What he at first takes for large red rocks, turn out to be monstrous crabs, which come to investigate him. 

He quickly puts a month between himself and the crabs, then begins hopping forward in time by a thousand years or more, watching as the earth decayed, until the only life left visible is a green slime on the rocks of a nearly-dead planet.  The sun is eclipsed, and the Time Traveller, nearly overwhelmed by a sense of desolation, returns to his own time.  As he arrives, he watches his housekeeper walk backwards through his lab, and then, after sakily dismounting, realizes that his machine, which had started off in the south-east corner of his laboratory, was now resting against the north-west wall--the distance that the Morlocks had dragged it across the lawn.

He concludes by telling his guests that he wouldn't blame them for not believing him, and asks them what they think of his story--taking it as pure fiction.  His listeners don't openly scoff at him, but even the evidence of the strange flowers, and the half-healed scars on the Time Traveller's kuckles and face, don't fully convince them; such is their doubt, that the scientist himself has to go look at his machine, to reassure himself that his adventure really happened.

The next morning, one of the Time Traveller's more intimate friends arrives to follow up on the machine, and finds the man himself preparing to take another trip--this time with a camera.  The Time Traveller begs him to wait for a half an hour, and he would bring him proof that the machine really and truly does what he says it can do.  The friend agrees, and settles down with a paper to wait; but he suddenly remembers that he has a prior engagement, and goes into the lab to offer his apologies to the Time Traveller, opening the door to the lab just as a nearly-translucent image of the scientist in his whirling machine vanishes right before his eyes. 

The friend decides to blow off his other engagement, wanting to be there when the Time Traveller returned with his nextincredible story and promised specimen...but three years later, the friend has to conclude that the Time Traveller will probably never return.


This is a hell of a fun read, written in a prose both clear, and florid enough to remind you that it came out in the Victorian era.  It gives you just enough information to sound plaudible, but not enough to resort to handwavium to explain how things work.  The social commentary is interesting both in an historical context, and as contemporary ideology--for aren't we still hearing about the inevitable dichotomy of the Haves and the Have-Nots?

Oddly, I don't find the Morlocks to be nearly as monstrous as most other people have made them out to be.  Sure, they're pale, lumpy, apelike creatures, with broad, ugly faces and huge, dark-adapted eyes, but they don't strike me as the brutal, sinister beasts of, say, George Pal's production.  They seem to take pretty good care of the Eloi, even if it is in the interest of fattening them for table.  It's interesting that the Eloi, being more human-like, and pretty, inspire sympathy, first from the Time Traveller, and then, from the readers, even though they're vacuous and indolent, and don't seem to have any emotions outside of amusement and fear.  To me, they seem far more like animals than the Morlocks do.

Neither of these races can really be considered to be "human," though--they're evolved, or devolved, or sidewaysvolved, into new and distinct species, the way we've evolved from tree shrews.  The Eloi in the story almost sound like the "Grey Aliens," with their flimsy bodies, large eyes, small mouths, and long, "tentacle-like" fingers.  The only difference is that the Eloi are pink, and oh, they've got hair.  The Time Traveller first says they're about four feet tall, but later, he says that Weena is small enough for him to carry in one arm, so possibly she is even a child, rather than an adult of the species.  And the Morlocks are similarly small of stature.

Over the years, "The Time Machine" has inspired numerous sequels, movies, comic books, and other cultural references.  "The Planet of the Apes" was based on a similar theme.  There's even graduate-level courses in analysis of "The Time Machine."  Clearly, it resonates with us--why?

Well, Mankind is a curious creature, and what he doesn't know firsthand, he tells stories about.  Both the distant past and the distant future fascinate us; we collect artifacts from history, hoping to understand where we came from, and we want to project ourselves into the future, not only through our own artifacts, but bodily, hoping to shape the future in ways our ancestors failed to shape their future.  Wells addresses this with his description of the rotting collections in the old museum--books falling to unreadable shreds, rusting contrivances, dessicated specimens in smashed glass cases.  We are so terrified of that tyrant, Time, that we do everything we can to elude him.  So is it any wonder why the notion of being able to travel through Time fascinates us so?

Some people want to observe history, others would like to be able to change it; Wells' Time Traveller just wanted to survive it.  His work has been viewed as anti-Utopian, but I would say that his projections of the distant future are based more in scientific fact than in sociological conjecture--especially his vision of how the world will end, as a dead planet spiralling inwards toward a bloated red sun.  How the Morlocks came to farm the Eloi might be more open to debate, of course, and could make for an interesting story of its own.  I mean, do they even need to be human...?  The Time Traveller assumed they were our descendants; what if they were really beings from another planet, who had either conquered the Earth, or colonized it after some calamity had wiped out life as we know it?  What if those strange flowers and fruits were not evolved, so much as mutated?

Makes you wonder...