One of the gaps I’ve spotted in my reading life is classic sci-fi. I tend to like science fiction when I do pick it up, but I’ve noticed that I don’t read very much of it, and when I do I gravitate toward newer releases. So this year I’m hoping to read more YA sci-fi, more sci-fi from female writers, and more classic sci-fi. So I turned to H. G. Wells, to start. Specifically, to Wells’ The Time Machine.
About the book: an unnamed scientist, referred to throughout the book as the Time Traveler, hosts a dinner party with a range of notable guests to reveal his latest invention: a device that moves through space’s fourth dimension: time. What he shows them is a prototype, too small to carry a human. But when the narrator returns for another meal with the Time Traveler, the scientist barges in late and in disarray, with a wild tale about the future of Earth and humanity that none are quite sure whether or not to believe.
“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.”
Published in the 1890s, The Time Traveler was Wells’s first science fiction novel(la), and one of the first printed stories about the possibility of travelling unchronologically through time.
There are two storytellers within this book. Our main narrator is an observer at the Time Traveler’s dinner party and a witness to his presumed return from the future. He notes facts and suppositions objectively, leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind about the truth of affairs. The middle part of the novel is narrated by the Time Traveler himself, as he speaks in a long, uninterrupted monologue about his experiences with the time machine. He leaves less room for interpretation, though he does admit when he’s deduced something rather than seen it proven firsthand. The Point of the novel seems to be to start a discussion about what is possible rather than forcing the reader to adopt a certain stance about what the future holds for our world.
“I do not remember all I did as the moon crept up the sky. I suppose it was the unexpected nature of my loss that maddened me. I felt hopelessly cut off from my own kind- a strange animal in an unknown world.”
There’s an impression of reading fantasy when one gets to the Time Traveler’s exploration of the far future, but one of the reasons this book has stood the test of time so well seems to be that even the most bizarre details within are grounded with rationalization. Wells draws on real research and opinions of the time to create his narrative, and he takes the Time Traveler far enough into the future that the scope of the story does not become outdated as the novel ages. The Time Traveler considers the entire future of our race and planet, which is just as unproven today as in 1893. The Time Traveler doesn’t just meet the Eloi and Morlocks (the humans of the distant future) and wonder at their strangeness- he considers how their society functions, and speculates on the path that humanity has taken to reach such a point and where its behaviors will take it next.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the premise is that the Time Traveler does not find super intelligence and world peace ahead for humanity; though there are bright spots in the darkness, the creatures he finds past year 800,000 AD are not a hopeful omen for humankind. It really puts things in perspective to think about how little some things will matter in the grand scheme of so many years, and yet, each person alive is helping to drive the planet toward its real inevitable end, good or bad.
“I must have raved to and fro, screaming and crying upon God and Fate. I have a memory of horrible fatigue, as the long night of despair wore away; of looking in this impossible place and that; of groping among moonlit ruins and touching strange creatures in the black shadows; at last, of lying on the ground near the sphinx and weeping with absolute wretchedness. I had nothing left but misery.”
But Wells doesn’t stray too far into the philosophical. Instead, he speculates openly and leaves the reader to decide what to do with the story’s implications, right up to The Time Machine’s ambiguous end.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a short, worthwhile read that’s great for anyone just starting out in the science fiction genre and seasoned pros alike. It’s very readable for a 120+ year-old classic, and Wells’ bio is equally fascinating (the edition I read seems to contain about as many pages of introductions and notes as the story itself takes up). I definitely want to read more of his work, and more science fiction in general. I think there’s still so much of this genre that I haven’t even glimpsed yet, and I’m looking forward to delving deeper.
- For more classic sci-fi, you can’t miss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This is a novel about a scientist attempting to bring life back to the human body after death; his creation doesn’t turn out the way he expected, but the monster of the story isn’t who you think. Even more than science, this is a book about morality and showing acceptance/kindness toward people you don’t understand.
What’s a genre you want to explore more thoroughly in 2019?
The Literary Elephant