“Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.”
Way back in the infancy of science fiction, before the proliferation of pulp sci-fi got popular and helped create the speculative-vs-literary rift that persists to this day, it was up to people like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to break the new ground that the pulps could take root in. Here’s a Kate Beaton comic that explains the differences in their approach:
Anybody who wants to write genre fiction has to ask themselves what their highest priority is: creating a brand new world that a reader can get lost in and escape to; or making a direct point that relates to something in real life, providing relevance but hindering escapism. The former is often characterized as “world-builder’s disease,” which can be harmful to an author if it gets in the way of writing stories or annoying to the reader if they want to get to the point. Wells doesn’t sidetrack the audience with an extended explanation of how the time machine works, since no explanation could make the idea scientifically plausible. Instead he describes its appearance enough to make it look interesting, then uses it to explore his unique, exaggerated extrapolation of the very distant future.
The bulk of the book is dedicated to the Time Traveler exploring the world of the Eloi and Morlocks, the two new species humanity has somehow evolved into in less than a million years, gradually putting together his guess at how everything changed. Nothing about this process is left to the reader’s imagination, which is understandable given that The Time Machine was written for an audience with almost no experience reading far-out fare like this. While I understand, thanks to the Time Traveler spelling it out for me, that the Eloi are the remains of the indolent upper class, who have regressed to permanent infancy because they don’t need to work, and the Morlocks provide for them in exchange for eating their flesh. I’m not sure what to make of the implications; the Morlocks, despite being an extrapolation of the exploited lower classes, are the more revolting party because of their pseudo-cannibalism. It could be interpreted as a call to rethink the class system, or a call to put the boot to the working class so they don’t hurt the rich.
So the Time Traveler gets his machine back after it was taken from him long enough for him to sketch a picture of this time period, which could have been the end of the story by itself. Instead, the Time Traveler’s curiosity takes him two steps further despite his near-death experience. He goes as far into the future as he dares, finding a desolate, eerie landscape where man as we know it has completely vanished, replaced with crustacean predators. The sun has grown weak and stopped moving through the sky entirely, a result of the earth’s rotation syncing with its orbit. I found this ending to the Traveler’s tale so much more compelling and haunting than what came before that it’s a wonder people talk so much more about the Eloi and Morlocks.
Ultimately, The Time Machine is at its most interesting as a time capsule. In addition to the peculiarities listed above, the story begins and ends with a frame narrative of the protagonist relating his experience to someone else. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein did the same thing, but managed to preserve tension despite that, whereas Wells dispenses with the pretense that the Time Traveller could possibly die over the course of the story. It’s almost more fun to ponder the influences of The Time Machine on the genre than to read it on its own merits. How many social commentaries draw from the Eloi and Morlocks as a foundation for their own constructed societies? Is there a connection with William Hope Hodgeson’s The Night Land? Did the scene the book mentions as being initially excised, which hints at humans devolving back into non-sapient animals over the eons, make it to many impressionable minds that could reincorporate the concept into their own work?
Check out The Time Machine if you have an academic interest in science fiction. At around one hundred pages, it’s short enough that any dedicated reader could finish it in half a day. More classic sci-fi and more H.G. Wells to follow.