The Time Machine

H. G. Wells

1895

(A push on a lever, a blurry dizziness, a clap of thunder… and a veil falls away to reveal the world of our far distant descendants.)

Time Travel, by Sara Raber (2011), created using Apophysis. Sara's artwork is available at FineArtAmerica.com.

 

Breaking the rule that you have to proceed constantly forward in time at precisely one second per second is as old as the human imagination, appearing even in ancient stories where a god or a bonk on the head could slip you to another point in history. Surprisingly enough, though, the idea of a device or vessel that can carry one through time in the way that wagons and boats carry us through space is apparently less than a century and a half old. Perhaps the backwards-running clock in an 1881 Edward Page Mitchell story is the first time machine in literature; or else, if you have to be able to climb into the thing for it to count, then Enrique Gaspar’s “anacronópete” of his now little-known 1887 novel of that name narrowly beats out H. G. Wells’ 1888 story “The Chronic Argonauts”. Evidently the hyperindustrializing and engine-happy Americans and Western Europeans of the late 19th century, inspired no doubt also by the first stirrings of modern physics, were beginning to let their minds wander as to what a precisely engineered assemblage of gears and rods and bolts might be able to do. The Time Machine is the quintessence of this concept in literature, and is one of the best science fiction stories we have, even given the golden age of that genre that followed.

To cut to the chase, our inventive Time Traveller (we never learn his name) hosts a dinner where he shows some friends a handheld model time machine that actually works, one of the guests with the flip of a tiny lever sending it vanishing off to… who knows when. With that successful trial, the host has the confidence to enter the real thing in his laboratory, which he does on the afternoon of his next scheduled dinner. Seated in the saddle in this spherical metallic contraption, he speeds through time to the year 802,701 (according to the dials). Landing on a soft lawn beneath a giant marble sphinx, he soon discovers that the human race has split into two strange forms: the Eloi, a graceful and childlike surface-dwelling people, and the Morlocks, pale hairy subterranean creatures. The Time Traveller befriends one of the Eloi, named Weena, with whom he explores and does his best to avoid or fight the predatory Morlocks. He loses his time machine to the crafty creatures, and then loses Weena during a battle amid a forest fire. He barely recovers the machine and escapes, travelling further forward in curiosity as to the fate of the earth. As 30 million years pass, the sun grows large, dim, and red, and life on earth decays gradually to desolation. From the brink of obliteration he returns to the present, where after seeing to his injuries, grubbiness, and hunger, he relates the entire story to his dinner guests. (By the way, this takes nearly three hours, and forms the vast majority of the novella; I know the timing because I listened to the audiobook!) His guests disbelieve him. After bidding them good-bye he enters the time machine again and never returns. He leaves two flowers on his table that the Eloi had playfully stuck in his pocket-- the only evidence of his journey.

This is a fun novella to read, full stop. One need not get embroiled in other realms of significance-- its symbolism, its physics and anthropology and politics. Nevertheless, some will want to delve into these things, and this particular story rewards us for doing so if we choose. For me the two most intriguing chords The Time Machine strikes have to do with future human evolution, and the possibility and nature of time travel.

To touch on the first of these first, Wells, through his science-minded protagonist of course, has a remarkable grasp of evolution, and of adaptation in particular. I mean remarkable for 1895, but also remarkable for writers in general, of novels or anything else, to the present day. Much of this was due certainly to his study of Darwin and other evolutionary writings, in which he was greatly interested. Indeed Wells was a biologist by training, and his first publication was a biology textbook. He frequently infused even his most technological writings with an understanding of natural history, ecology, and evolution, displaying knowledge that is a rarity in the genre even today. His ideas in the War of the Worlds, for instance, that Martians might die of a rampant infection in a novel environment or that an invasive red weed could sweep across England, make that novel as interesting biologically as it is, shall we say, astrobiologically. The Time Machine, however, is more surprising. Some of the explanations that he incorporated or implied were proposed prominently in the late 19th  century, such as in Darwin’s Descent of Man. Other explanations, however, are thoroughly reasonable today in 21st century evolutionary biology, but we do not generally think of them as having been typical back when he wrote (it would take a more astute historian of biology than myself to know whether the ideas had been raised at all). Wells is well known for his uncanny ability to predict advances in technology (e.g., tanks, planes, nuclear bombs, TV, spaceships, satellites, and biotech); and to this I would not be surprised if we must add the skill of anticipating certain future trends in evolutionary science, or at least wisely selecting from among the vast array of going ideas in his day. Here are perhaps the ten most striking points of evolutionary realism in this novel:

  1. Pervasiveness of adaptation. The differences between the Eloi and the Morlocks, and their differences from us, are considered to have trait-specific functional explanations. This is typical today, and was the hunch of Darwin, but at the fin de siècle there was a debate raging between those who attributed evolutionary change to selection vs mutation (and of course the answer was “both”). Wells wisely stayed away from the mechanism of inheritance, which in his day was poorly understood; but he fully embraced adaptation to an extent we would not see as the dominant trend in evolutionary biology for several decades.
  2. Individual selection. Even Darwin had difficulty separating descriptions of natural selection in terms of group vs. individual advantage. We know now that selection is most powerful at the individual level, and even when it sorts among groups, individual-level language can still handle the situation. All of the adaptations mentioned in The Time Machine are discussed in terms of, or at least imply, individual selection. This level of care was hit or miss in popular and even some professional science writings until the 1960s.
  3. Allopatric divergence and reproductive isolation. Wells realized that physical separation (in this case, some humans above ground and some below) and reproductive isolation (within-caste marriage requirements) would have been necessary for evolutionary divergence to occur. The Time Traveller was explicit about both of these features.
  4. Rate of speciation. Nobody in Wells’ day would have had the faintest clue how long it would have taken for humans to diverge into the Eloi and Morlocks. We have a better idea today, but our knowledge is still far from definitive. Based on working estimates, Homo sapiens probably diverged from our common ancestor with H. heidelbergensis around 400,000 years ago, and from our common ancestor with H. neanderthalensis about twice that long ago. So 800,000 years is thoroughly reasonable for speciation to occur in a human lineage, and although the novel doesn’t give us much to go on, the degree of difference between modern humans and Neanderthals could be in the same ballpark as the differences between the Eloi and Morlocks. To be honest, though, the changes in limb length and hair of the Morlocks seem way too rapid for that timescale and moreover are not straightforwardly predictable; and the cognitive and behavioral changes (outlined below) in the Eloi seem too dramatic to be realistic as well.
  5. Troglodytism. Some of the features of the Morlocks, including loss of pigment, carnivory, and large eyes and poor eyesight in the light, are typical of animals that live underground or in caves. Even more interesting is that, with respect to divergent selection pressures in light vs dark habitats, again Wells is ahead of his time. Assuming a human generation time of about 25 years, the Time Traveller went 32,000 generations into the future. This is within the range over which recent research suggests cave and surface forms of the Mexican tetra Astyanax mexicanus have diverged in pigmentation and eyesight.
  6. Relaxed selection and trait loss. Darwin and (especially) later biologists, influenced by August Weismann, suggested that in evolution, if you don’t use a trait, it will reduce and atrophy through relaxation of selection for functionality combined with natural selection for efficiency. Again the Time Traveller has suggested or implied just this mechanism for the loss of several previously functional traits in the evolution of the Eloi, such as intelligence, stature, omnivory, musculature, creativity, curiosity, cooperation, and perhaps the size of ears and mouths.
  7. Evolution of sexual dimorphism. The two main reasons why males and females differ in obvious ways beyond their reproductive structures are sexual selection (especially male competition for females, and female or mutual choice of mates), and selection for female fertility and fecundity. These have led in the human ancestry, for instance, to more aggression and larger size in males, as well as musculature, prominent facial bone structure, and deeper voices. In women, selection for childbearing and for signaling fertility to males has led to wide hips, softer facial features, distinctive fat deposition patterns, and permanent breasts. The Time Traveller notes that the sexes look alike in the Eloi, suggesting a dramatic reduction in sexual selection and fertility/fecundity selection. This is precisely what we would expect with the very high survival, absence of conflict, and low reproductive rate (in evolutionary terms, extreme K-selection) that the author describes of the Eloi.
  8. Paedomorphosis. Humans and domestic animals live in a much safer environment than their ancestors did, and as a result have evolved a lax development that matures at an earlier stage, with the result that we and our domestic animals have evolved to look and act more juvenile for our lineages. The Eloi have essentially become even more extremely self-domesticated, in that they have lived through thousands of generations of coddling and protection from danger. Thus it is predictable that they would evolve to look and act like our children in a wide range of ways, with big eyes, short stature, playful personalities, no facial hair, and low sexuality. Wells is explicit about all of these.
  9. Ecological dominance and niche construction. The typical forces Darwin identified as imposing selection on animals were predators, parasites, disease, weather, climate, and starvation; subsequent research has borne that out. Humans, however, have become ecologically dominant, such that we ourselves are our own most significant source of selection. Another phenomenon that has ratcheted up with this is that we modify our habitat to suit ourselves, thus creating the environment that ends up shaping our evolution. These two ideas of ecological dominance and niche construction are explicit features of the evolutionary story of both the Eloi and the Morlocks, but were not widely realized in evolutionary biology until the 1970s and 2000s, respectively.
  10. Evolution of intelligence & cooperation. The most impressive evolutionary realization of Wells in The Time Machine is that our high intelligence, curiosity, and creativity as humans evolved through struggle and conflict as we interacted with each other in social groups. This, more fully explicated, is now termed the “social intelligence hypothesis”, and has emerged as the best explanation of our phenomenal intelligence just since the 1970s, from a rich field of competing theories. Wells also portrayed the Eloi as having lost their ancestral altruistic or cooperative tendency (despite communal living). This too is a corollary of the social intelligence hypothesis, which proposes that cooperation arose in the service of group competition. Thus Wells is turning the social intelligence hypothesis around under relaxed selection, suggesting that without conflict and competition, both intelligence and cooperation would decline. These ideas are extraordinarily sophisticated for his day, and would be eminently suitable for contemporary discussion among evolutionary anthropologists today.

Whether any of these outcomes, especially #7-10, would have been realistic for the future evolution of humans in the environment Wells imagined is another question, of course. In all likelihood, the ancestors of the Eloi would have continued to fight group against group and thus changed much less from their Homo sapiens ancestor. Wells’ rosy communist conceptions of human nature influenced him here (although obviously he viewed the endpoint with chagrin!). Most likely, sexual and other social selection and selfish conflict and competition are not going away, which means cooperation and intelligence will not go away... if we persist another 800,000 years that is, of which we should be far from confident.

 

SNOP (Sci-fi Nerds Only, Please)—you’ve been warned; seeking realism in the unreal and attending geekily to detail are pervasive henceforth:

I can’t help musing on H. G. Wells’ concept of time travel as it manifests in both the brief dinner discussion and the activity of the time machine itself. I doubt anyone would dispute that we can mark the beginning of serious thought and argument about controlled time travel with this novel. Wells kicked things off in a mighty way. However, the bare snippet of discussion he permits us to overhear among the dinner guests focuses on just one of the many uncertainties and paradoxes that arise with the concept of time travel. To wit, if an object moved into the future but stayed in the same place, wouldn’t you still see it there in all the intervening moments? And if an object moved into the past, wouldn’t you have already seen it there and in fact still see it there unless somebody had moved it (which would surely be remembered)? Actually this raises two interesting questions. One of these regards the status of the memories of everyone who has actually lived through the first version of a past that has now been changed through something moving backwards into it-- would those memories update, and how? But we’ll set that aside, as in this story we’re primarily interested in the future. The other question is a pickle Wells puts himself into with his character’s explanation of the possibility of time travel. All physical objects get from point A to point B by going through the space in between (Wells knew nothing of exceptions to this rule as indicated later by quantum mechanics, and besides, those objects are minute and cannot carry humans with them!). Wells has his Time Traveller say that the key to time travel is realizing that the fourth (time) dimension is just like the other three, and not of a radically different sort. If so, then we can infer that movement of an object through time will likewise move through all the intervening time. This conception provides no option for a time leap, but only movement back and forth at various temporal speeds. So in this context, as one of the dinner guests asked of the model, why does the time machine cease to be at the original time point when it goes into the future? If the time machine was in the lab at 3:58, then 3:59, then at 4:00 it increased its velocity along the time dimension into the future, this does not mean that suddenly the object was not in the lab at 4:01 or 4:02. It still was there then, but for that object the duration spent at those time points was much shorter than for everyone and everything outside of the machine. This, the Time Traveller says, results in a “diluted presentation”—below the threshold of perception—similar (he says) to the way we cannot perceive a speeding bullet or the spokes of a spinning wheel. This is as far as his explanation goes at the time. I think it is insufficient, and the analogies bad, as one can discover painfully by stepping into the path of a bullet or sticking a finger into the spokes of a spinning wheel. Yes, visual perception of such objects in rapid motion is ineffective, but that doesn’t mean the objects aren’t still occupying all the spatial trajectory without exception. So he hasn’t really explained why the time machine disappears and why, for instance, he could wave his hand through the space the model occupied. He does a somewhat better job later, as he’s about to slow down the thing at the future date:

“I was, so to speak, attenuated--was slipping like a vapour through the interstices of intervening substances! But to come to a stop involved the jamming of myself, molecule by molecule, into whatever lay in my way; meant bringing my atoms into such intimate contact with those of the obstacle that a profound chemical reaction--possibly a far-reaching explosion--would result, and blow myself and my apparatus out of all possible dimensions--into the Unknown. This possibility had occurred to me again and again while I was making the machine; but then I had cheerfully accepted it as an unavoidable risk--one of the risks a man has got to take!”

-III.

So the blurring, so to speak, that makes the time machine disappear to our eyes is not just a matter of perception after all, but existence. It allows a time machine and anything in it to move through external objects. On his theory there is a sense in which matter moving through the time dimension at an increased rate is not as solid or compacted as matter moving at the typical rate. So here, in contradiction to the Time Traveller’s earlier argument, we do see a feature of the time dimension that is not true of the three spatial dimensions, and so there is something special about it after all that doesn’t boil down solely to a peculiarity of our constitution as timed entities, forced to move along that trajectory at a constant rate.

Another distinction to the time dimension we could bring up at this point relates to extension and movement. As far as I can tell, Wells conflates or synonymizes these two qualities in the time dimension, stating sometimes that an object of a particular duration is extended over that time period (in the way a yardstick extends 36 inches in length); and other times he describes this as movement through time, at some velocity. This conflation is easy to do, because apparently in time there is only one thing going on, whereas in space there are two things. A yardstick extends in three dimensions by specific amounts, and can also move in any one or more of those same dimensions; but a yardstick’s extension in time would seem to be synonymous with its total movement (duration) in that dimension. If we consider this object's temporal extension to include any form it takes, including any combination of mass and energy, this value would simply be the duration of the universe. That’s certainly not like the spatial dimensions!

I find the Time Traveller’s idea fascinating, but false, that the only reason that we view the fourth dimension as a different sort than the other three is because of a “natural infirmity of the flesh”. I would turn the tables on him and say that the only reason why time travel seems to us reasonable enough at all such that a book can be written about it—nay, hundreds if not thousands of stories and books-- is because of a natural infirmity of the flesh.  We can follow The Time Machine without immediate confusion and ridicule upon the Time Traveller’s return to the dinner, only because Wells has arranged the story such that as long as we don’t think too much we won’t be offended in our natural assumption that there is only one timeline-- that time is unilineal—and that we can only be in one place at a time. But the story violates that assumption. If we think about it for a bit, nearly all time travel stories, as cleverly constructed as some are, prevent us from really taking the possibility of time travel seriously if we take our uniqueness as individual selves seriously. And that is regardless of our knowledge of physics. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Time travel has frequently been a source of paradoxes of interest to physicists and philosophers. They are usually grouped into two categories: consistency problems and causal loops. One example of a consistency problem is going back and killing your grandfather before your parent is born—if you succeed, how can you possibly be alive to have done that? A causal loop is when something in the future affects something in the past, which then affects that thing in the future. The reason we consider these problems is because we assume that there is only one timeline and everyone on it is unique and singular; otherwise, we could just say that killing your grandfather prevented a different version of your grandfather from having a different version of your parent. In fact that latter way is probably the natural, if subconscious, way we interpret the situation, as ridiculous as it is. "After all," (we think to ourselves), “I remember my parents—they were indeed alive and did have me. Even if I go back and kill my grandfather, I’m still here, ain’t I?!” Thus, although time travel supposedly involves going back and forth on the same timeline, traversing the same times more than once, we instinctively unravel and stretch it all out in our minds into a single consistent narrative, because that’s what we assume of life. The Time Machine carefully avoids breaking this bubble of an assumption.

After leaving at 4pm and spending 8 days at another time, our Time Traveller decided to re-enter that original day at around 8pm, rather arbitrarily. It was thoroughly his fault he was late, as it would have been just a few taps to the lever and he would have had plenty of time to eat and dress before his guests arrived—even a day or two to heal if he wanted. But at any time earlier than 4pm that day his earlier self would already have been there, which would cause a problem. Arriving back home at a time after he left is therefore convenient for the story writer, as it leaves the protagonist only fully materialized at one place at any given time. However, note that his attenuated self is present twice at all time points between 4pm and the furthest in time he went—that means two of him at a time at all time points, one him on the way there and one him on the way back. That means two machines too. When he came back from the death of the sun and whizzed backwards through the year 802,701 without stopping, he was for a brief moment passing through the week during which the time machine was in that sphinx pedestal; the machine passed through the machine for that week. By the way, of course, if he really wanted to take Weena home he could simply have stopped on the backward trip and gotten her. But he’d better stop there before he initially arrived, or else there’d be two of him there and two time machines. Let’s just probe that further. If he did arrive when he was already there, and could manage to convince his other (flabbergasted, to be sure) self to take an immediate jaunt into the future for a bit and then come back, and they decided to return precisely when both of them were already there discussing the matter, then there’d be four of them! With a little planning you could have a whole population of Time Travellers and just as many time machines, as many as you like, never needing any additional materials or anything, all in the same place at the same time and totally stymying the Eloi and kicking major Morlock butt. In fact he could do this back at home too and get so much more done in life, increase his publication rate way beyond the measly 14 it is during this story, send one of himself to family reunions and faculty meetings while another rests at home, carry money back and forth in order to multiply it exponentially, and so on.

The moral of this ramble is that most time travel stories including this (probably the best) one necessarily open the world up to a proliferation of matter, violating the conservation of mass-energy, including a proliferation of selves, violating in addition, well, common sense at least. So unless you think that’s all OK, or too abstruse to worry about, or don’t mind an ad hoc solution such as a rule prohibiting occupying the same time twice (some stories do that!), such stories might be frustrating in the same sense and to the same sorts of people as is Rian Johnson’s weaponized hyperspace crash in a certain unmentionable latter-day Star Wars movie. Certain sorts of time-travel stories won’t encounter this particular issue, for instance time travel that can only go forward, or invokes conceptions of alternate reality or jumping between timelines, or involves eternal beings that can enter and escape time at will.

All this having been said, I didn’t really care about such problems while reading, and H. G. Wells is ingenious for realizing the paradoxes that he did and hiding most of them from us. Not until the 1920s and later did science fiction aficionados (and philosophers, and cosmologists) really start thinking about temporal paradoxes in earnest, leading to such curiosities as the grandfather, Fermi, and Newcomb paradoxes, and the butterfly effect. But Wells decades earlier had his characters thinking about several of the issues, and laughing at time travel’s “practical incredibleness, the curious possibilities of anachronism and of utter confusion it suggested.”

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SUMMARY

Although not parsed this way by the author or any publishers, the book can be seen in three parts: the dinner discussion on time travel; the adventure at year 802701; and the search for the end of the world.

 

  1. Dinner discussion on time travel (chs.I-III; see the bottom of TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE for how the chapters are parsed)

 

The discussion just begins. We have no setting, no cast of characters, and indeed we never get a name for the protagonist. We just learn that the Time Traveller has something unusual on his mind—a “recondite matter”—to share with his dinner guests. [In fact the other, presumably earlier, “Holt” text does begin in a typical way, introducing the main character as a prominent mathematician and so on; but evidently Wells decided he wanted to jump right in.] The Time Traveller begins with an argument for the possibility of time travel, which goes like this: Geometric features like lines and planes and even cubes are abstractions. They only really exist if they extend in the fourth dimension. An object that has no duration has no existence. Time is just a dimension, like the other three. We are tempted to think of time as a different sort of thing from height, length, and width because of our peculiar constitution as beings whose consciousness moves along the time dimension incessantly and at a constant velocity. Moreover, just as we can represent an object by drawing it with depth perspective on a piece of paper, thus demonstrating three-dimensional geometry in only two dimensions, we might be able to have a four-dimensional geometry. In fact he has been working on this for years. The goal is to incorporate time into constructed objects, thus creating “three dimensional representations of [a] Four-Dimensioned being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing.” Hence the possibility, at least in theory, of a time machine. Then, just as gravitation restricts our movement in one dimension but we can override that restriction with balloons, we might be able similarly to use such our 4-D object to violate or alter the restrictions imposed by the forces that push us along the time dimension. Then he excitedly shows his guests precisely such a machine, first in a small model form, which he claims can move equally easily through any dimension. A guest tests it according to the Time Traveller’s instructions, and the object vanishes, off into either the past or the future.  Everyone thinks it’s some sort of trick, a sleight of hand perhaps.

 

For a second dinner, with an overlapping guest list, the host is late. He arrives discombobulated, grimy, banged up, and exhausted. He excuses himself to clean and change clothes, and the guests are incredulous. They do not believe he had travelled time, but something sure did happen—as an editor said among the humorous comments, “A man couldn’t cover himself with dust by rolling in a paradox, could he?”

 

When he joins them and has had his fill of food, he insists that he would not argue that evening, nor suffer any interruption, but just wishes to tell his story from beginning to end, and then go to bed. He is tired, and has lived 8 days since 4pm that day. They agree to let him speak, and so the story begins.

 

The real machine is in the lab; it is apparently spherical, and its mentioned parts include ivory bars, a brass rail, nickel bars, a quartz rod, starting and stopping levers that are removable, and a saddle in the middle of it all. It’s held together with screws, and lubricated with oil.

 

The Time Traveller tells that he entered the machine and pushed the lever forward. A strange feeling ensued, and he confirmed with an exterior clock that he had just moved through several hours in a span of seconds. Then he went for it. The atmosphere around him got “faint and hazy” and he experienced a “helpless headlong motion”. “An eddying murmur filled my ears, and a strange, dumb confusedness descended on my mind.” An engaging description follows of the view of the world as he accelerated through time. Eventually, “Night followed day like the flapping of a black wing”.

 

  1. The adventure at year 802701 (chs.IV-X)

 

He carefully stops the machine after a while, and finds from the dials that it is the year 802,701. He lands on a lawn, near a large white marble sphinx with wings outstretched, atop a great bronze pedestal. [This forms a landmark, even a centerpiece, of his experiences at that time. The wings form an obvious symbol, but also the sphinx itself suggests a riddle he has to solve in order to move onward. And indeed he spent much of his time there trying to figure out what had happened over the last 800K years, and also how to recover his time machine!]

 

Immediately upon arrival he meets the Eloi—four foot tall, fragile figures with sandals and short tunics. They are beautiful but frail, given to laughing and playing with flowers. They have “a graceful gentleness, a certain childlike ease”. They are large-eyed, pink-skinned, dull, mild, largely uninterested in the world around them and of short attention, unintelligent, with a simple language. There is no evident difference between males and females. They eat only fruit. The Time Traveller notes, “I never met people more indolent or more easily fatigued.” They dance around, and at some point place a couple of white flowers into his pocket. As he tells this story to his friends “later” at the dinner, he removes them from his pocket and lays them on the table.

 

They live communally in a large yet dilapidated palace. Indeed the Time Traveller explicitly supposes that this is the ultimate apex of communism as a social doctrine and way of life. With the eventual absence of all conflict and struggle, their life became a paradise. Nobody needed to work, there was no disease, no overpopulation … utopia!  There was no wildness even in nature, as he looked around. No agriculture either—“the whole earth had become a garden… One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another.” Science had evidently progressed, including selective breeding of animals and plants, agriculture, medicine, until nature became thoroughly subservient and solicitous to all the needs of humans. “It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise.” Then he had a eureka moment—that’s why they’re so dull and soft and unintelligent! Intelligence comes from struggle. “Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness… This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.” Indeed the civilization of the Eloi appeared to be in decline. There was no industry, no work, no maintenance of buildings. Dancing and singing and playing with flowers were all that was left of the artistic. Eventually, he thought, even that would be gone, and all energy would decline into “a contented inactivity”. He thought he had answered everything—but how wrong he was, at least part wrong anyway.

 

Then things get complicated, both practically and in terms of his explanatory theory. He loses the time machine. He also notices wells in the ground that appear to be ventilation shafts. He can make sense of none of the technology he sees, although that is hardly surprising with the advancement of the ages. His ignorance becomes fascinating to him—he compares himself to how a Central African would feel if he were brought to London and then back to Africa to explain what he saw to his countrymen. Yet, given the small difference between those two human groups, compare the much larger difference [10x as much to be precise!] between himself and these people he has met! But these people seem so unable to provide for themselves—how can that be explained? How can they be so uncreative and unindustrious, yet not be in need? He notices now also that he can find no cemeteries or crematoria, and no sick or old people.

 

At one point an individual falls into the water and begins to drown. Nobody tries to rescue her. The Time Traveller jumps in and rescues her, for which she is effusively grateful. She becomes inseparable from him, and they form a “queer friendship”. Her name is Weena. In his words, “she was exactly like a child”. Weena, and all the other Eloi, are deathly afraid of the dark. She will not go near the ventilation wells or stay out late, and desperately wants the Time Traveller to follow the same rules.

 

Then he sees his first Morlock: a “white, ape-like creature running rather quickly up the hill”. It was “dull white, and had strange large greyish-red eyes; also that there was flaxen hair on its head and down its back”. Eventually he sees one of these loathsome creatures scrambling down a ventilation shaft, “like a human spider”. The shafts lead, he discovers, to another civilization below the earth!

 

“…gradually, the truth dawned on me: that Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper-world were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages”

-V

 

They are subterranean, they are the workers, enslaved by the Eloi in the past, adapting to darkness with their paleness and sensitive eyes. That is how the Eloi live without industry or ability—the Morlocks provide for them. The Time Traveller continues his theorizing: humans had split into two forms, made possible by a separation between the “Capitalist and the Labourer”, the former living on the surface off of the produce of the latter in underground factories. Long ago, the rich had kept the poor away from everything on the surface, and so the poor stayed underground, and there they worked [Wells had actually been familiar with such underground workhouses as a child]. With marriage rules keeping them separate as well, divergence began to occur. Haves above, have-nots below, renting from those above with the produce of their labor. Evolution continued, each race adapting to its place, the Morlocks no less to theirs than the Eloi to theirs. Hence the Eloi’s “triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man.”

 

He goes down a shaft and sees that the Morlocks live in darkness and misery amid machinery, and eat meat—including Eloi meat, he comes to realize. He defends himself with matches, and eventually escapes their clutches. He realizes that the reason the Eloi are afraid of the dark is because the Morlocks now emerge at night and hunt them. They still produce for the Eloi, perhaps now out of habit; but in a way they were beginning to get the upper hand: “clearly, the old order was already in part reversed”. [I must say they did not try very hard to stop the man, and do not seem to be very strong in general; nevertheless they were scary enough. Perhaps they have only become as strong as they need to be to hunt the weak Eloi.]

 

He then explores a bit further from his landing place with Weena, in particular a Palace of Green Porcelain, which he discovers is a museum of human history and natural history, even way back to his time! At some point he hears the patter of Morlock feet, and grabs a metal lever as a weapon and a jar of flammable camphor, and leaves, hoping his new tool can get into the pedestal where, he supposes, the Morlocks have stowed his machine.

 

He starts a forest fire to scare off the Morlocks when the light begins to fail and he is still far from the sphinx and the palace of the Eloi. He then goes into the wood, outrunning the fire and carrying Weena, as the Morlocks began to emerge and attack. He stops, puts Weena down, and fights! [An excellent fight—it’s amazing how violent action can be exhilarating to the reader when the suspense is long sustained and we have not become inured by too much action. And just as the reader feels it, the Time Traveller as narrator admits to feeling it too, which is delightful.] Eventualy he is saved by the advance of the fire and the Morlock’s fear of it. Weena, however, is lost and presumably dies in the fire or at the hands of the Morlocks. Eventually the beasts get so disoriented in the light of the fire that they mill about aimlessly and are no longer a danger.

 

He makes his way back to the sphinx in the morning, only to find that the doors to the pedestal are open!  But it is a trap—the Morlocks are waiting for him, and he must fight them off as he struggles to insert the control levers in their proper places and—just in time—is off in time.

 

 

  1. The search for the end of the world, and return (chs.XI-XII)

 

The Time Traveller, speeding forward in time at a breakneck pace, seeks to find more secrets of the future, especially the fate of the earth, before returning, despite his exhaustion. He had already perceived an increase in the heat of the sun and movements of the stars such that constellations were gone even in 802,701. This leg of the journey reveals other visions, including monstrous crabs, the growth and increasing redness of the sun, a green slime eventually dominating the landscape, and ultimately an “abominable desolation” with white flakes floating down in the sky, and further still, darkness and complete silence.

 

“So I came back”, comes the almost humorous beginning of the last chapter after that terrifying denouement to world history.

 

The only verbal reply to this tale, after a pause, is a quip by the newspaper editor, who says merely, “What a pity it is you’re not a writer of stories!”

 

After the rest of the guests leave, the narrator comes back with the Time Traveller into the house, and asks him again whether he was telling the truth. The Time Traveller does not skip a beat, but says he’ll prove it in a half hour. He goes into the laboratory, vanishes in his machine, and never returns.

 

Three years have gone by, and the narrator wonders where the Time Traveller went; whether he went backward or forward. He ponders human history and our approaching destiny, as he holds two shriveled flowers—the only evidence of the Time Traveller’s journey.

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TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE

[There are two very different texts of The Time Machine. All passages are from the typically reprinted Heinemann, not the Holt, text. Parsing was into 12 chapters and an epilogue; see below the quotations for particulars. All passages in quotation marks are spoken by the Time Traveller character, unless otherwise noted.]

 

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.

-I.

 

“Clearly,” the Time Traveller proceeded, “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and--Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.”

-I.

 

“[a] Four-Dimensioned being… is a fixed and unalterable thing”

-I. [a fascinating idea: once you realize time is a dimension, then any existing entity, including all four of its dimensions, can indeed be conceived as fixed and unalterable, in a medieval or even Platonic way.]

 

“Time is only a kind of Space”

-I.

 

“Then there is the future,” said the Very Young Man. “Just think! One might invest all one's money, leave it to accumulate at interest, and hurry on ahead!”

“To discover a society,” said I, “erected on a strictly communistic basis.”

-I. [In a witty discussion of what one could do if time travel worked; “I” is the narrator.]

 

“Upon that machine,” said the Time Traveller, holding the lamp aloft, “I intend to explore time. Is that plain? I was never more serious in my life

-I.

 

“As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. I supposed the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air. I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things. The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous color like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.”

-III.

 

“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 childbearing becomes an evil rather than a blessing to the State; where violence comes but rarely and off-spring are secure, there is less necessity--indeed there is no necessity--for an efficient family, and the specialization of the sexes with reference to their children's needs disappears. We see some beginnings of this even in our own time, and in this future age it was complete.”

-IV.

 

“I had happened upon humanity upon the wane.”

-IV

 

“Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness.”

-IV

 

“…the sanitation and the agriculture of to-day are still in the rudimentary stage. The science of our time has attacked but a little department of the field of human disease, but even so, it spreads its operations very steadily and persistently. Our agriculture and horticulture destroy a weed just here and there and cultivate perhaps a score or so of wholesome plants, leaving the greater number to fight out a balance as they can. We improve our favourite plants and animals--and how few they are--gradually by selective breeding; now a new and better peach, now a seedless grape, now a sweeter and larger flower, now a more convenient breed of cattle. We improve them gradually, because our ideals are vague and tentative, and our knowledge is very limited; because Nature, too, is shy and slow in our clumsy hands. Some day all this will be better organized, and still better. That is the drift of the current in spite of the eddies. The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature. In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs.”

-IV

 

“What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? 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. Now where are these imminent dangers? There is a sentiment arising, and it will grow, against connubial jealousy, against fierce maternity, against passion of all sorts; unnecessary things now, and things that make us uncomfortable, savage survivals, discords in a refined and pleasant life.

“I thought of the physical slightness of the people, their lack of intelligence, and those big abundant ruins, and it strengthened my belief in a perfect conquest of Nature. For after the battle comes Quiet. Humanity had been strong, energetic, and intelligent, and had used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. And now came the reaction of the altered conditions.

“Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. Even in our own time certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure. Physical courage and the love of battle, for instance, are no great help--may even be hindrances--to a civilized man. And in a state of physical balance and security, power, intellectual as well as physical, would be out of place.”

-IV.

 

“This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.”

-IV

 

“We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity”

-IV

 

“At once, like a lash across the face, came the possibility of losing my own age, of being left helpless in this strange new world. The bare thought of it was an actual physical sensation. I could feel it grip me at the throat and stop my breathing.”

-V

 

“But I was too restless to watch long; I am too Occidental for a long vigil. I could work at a problem for years, but to wait inactive for twenty-four hours—that is another matter.”

-V

 

“Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all.”

-V [when he had lost his time machine and was frustrated at his inability to get it back]

 

“There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization… this tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky. I mean that it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end--!”

-V (explanation for evolution of the Morlocks).

 

“Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people--due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor--is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land”

-V (explanation for the withdrawal of the poor to underground in human history)

 

“And this same widening gulf--which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich--will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.”

-V

 

“Such of them as were so constituted as to be miserable and rebellious would die; and, in the end, the balance being permanent, the survivors would become as well adapted to the conditions of underground life, and as happy in their way, as the Upper-world people were to theirs.”

-V

 

“…clearly, the old order was already in part reversed. The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear.”

-VII

 

“Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future. I thought of the great precessional cycle that the pole of the earth describes. Only forty times had that silent revolution occurred during all the years that I had traversed. And during these few revolutions all the activity, all the traditions, the complex organizations, the nations, languages, literatures, aspirations, even the mere memory of Man as I knew him, had been swept out of existence.”

-VII

 

“I rolled over, and as I did so my hand came against my iron lever. It gave me strength.”

-IX

 

“The strange exultation that so often seems to accompany hard fighting came upon me.”

-IX

 

“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.

“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 unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. 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 of needs and dangers.”

-X [incredible evolutionary wisdom here. Some of these concepts would not be broadly appreciated by evolutionary anthropologists for another century or more].

 

 

“So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth's fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away.”

-XI (as he traveled forward in time)

 

“The story was so fantastic and incredible, the telling so credible and sober.”

-XII

 

“I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man's culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know--for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made--thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank--is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story.”

-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.”

-Epilogue, last sentence.

 

Editions differ, either naming the chapters (variously) or leaving them unnamed, and some further subdividing certain chapters for a total of 14 or 16. Thus here I present the starting text to each chapter as it is parsed in the version I reference in the quotes above.  

1 – “The Time Traveller…”
2 – “I think that at that time none of us quite believed…”
3 – “I told some of you last Thursday…”
4 – “In another moment we were standing face to face…”
5 – “As I stood there musing…”
6 – “It may seem odd to you…”
7 – “Now, indeed, I seemed in a worse case…”
8 – “I found the Palace of Green Porcelain…”
9 – “We emerged from the palace…”
10 – “About eight or nine in the morning…”
11 – “I have already told you of the sickness…”
12 – “So I came back.”
Epilogue – “One cannot choose but wonder.”

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READ THIS WHEN...

…you wonder about the future evolution and ultimate fate of humanity

or,

…you find yourself tangling with the paradoxes of time travel

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU'D LIKE:

(for the time traveller:)

  • Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court  (1889)
  • Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder”  (1952)
  • Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity  (1955)
  • Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle In Time  (1962)
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five  (1969)

 

(for the fan of Wells’ sci-fi novels)

  • H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
  • H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1897)
  • H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man (1897)
  • H. G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon (1901)
  • H. G. Wells, The Sleeper Awakes (1910)
 
 
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FIND THIS BOOK:

Hardcover
The Everyman library is always a good bet. This one comes with The Invisible Man and War of the Worlds as well.

 

Paperback

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One Comment Leave a comment.

  1. on 23 October 2020 at 10:13 am Uldis Roze Said:

    Re H.G. Wells The Time Machine:
    It was wise of Wells to picture the future in terms of development of science, not development of human history. By 1895, the work of Darwin had built the great highway to biological understanding. Physics would soon follow a similar flowering. But who at this time could have predicted the collapse of the Russian, Austro-hHngarian, and German empires in 1917-18, the collapse of the British and French empires post-1945, the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, the possible collapse of the American empire in xxxx?

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