Monday 2 July 2012

H.G. Wells: The Time Machine.

H.G. Wells. [A]
Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) is, of course, the well-known British writer (also painter cartoonist and teacher) who shares with Jules Verne the title of "Father of Science Fiction".

Wells was born to a lower middle-class family from Kent. An intellectually active boy growing up during the Victorian era, Wells had the chance to observe first-hand the realities of inequality and class segregation and gradually evolved into Fabian socialism.

Eventually, as a professional writer, Wells associated himself with the avant-garde literary journal The Yellow Book and had contact with other influential intellectual circles, like the upper middle-class Bloomsbury Set (one of whose members was John Maynard Keynes).

Here, however, I will not dwell on his personal life and will have very little to say about his social milieu.

I will focus, instead, on Wells' higher education. Wells had a Bachelor degree in Science, from where he became interested in Darwinism.

From his understanding that evolution does not necessarily lead to higher intelligence, and that the division of a population into two different branches does not require physical separation, just that two castes of the original population do not intermingle, Wells speculated about the future of a permanently unequal humanity, modelled upon Victorian Britain.

The result of such speculation was one of Well's best known (and most deliberately misinterpreted) dystopian novels, "The Time Machine".

The Time Machine

In Wells novel, the unnamed Time Traveller advances in time to an epoch inhabited by the child-like Eloi, which Wells describes thus:
"One of these emerged in a pathway leading straight to the little lawn upon which I stood with my machine. He was a slight creature--perhaps four feet high--clad in a purple tunic, girdled at the waist with a leather belt. (...)
"He struck me as being a very beautiful and graceful creature, but indescribably frail. His flushed face reminded me of the more beautiful kind of consumptive--that hectic beauty of which we used to hear so much."
The Eloi lead lives of ease, free of toil, amid the ruin and decrepitude of their civilization.

According to Mike Jay's excellent essay "Man of the Million Year", contemporaries easily recognized the Eloi "as a satire on the Bloomsbury and Yellow Book set, the art-for-art's-sake aesthetes lazing in the sunny uplands of society while the brutalised workers toiled beneath them".

But, if the carefree Eloi do not toil for their living, where does their sustenance come from?

Events suggest the Time Traveller an answer: the Morlocks:
"I turned with my heart in my mouth, and saw a queer little ape-like figure, its head held down in a peculiar manner, running across the sunlit space behind me. (...)
"My impression of it is, of course, imperfect; but I know it was a dull white, and had strange large greyish-red eyes; also that there was flaxen hair on its head and down its back".
Incapable of ascertaining what had happened, this is what the Time Traveller guessed:
"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!"
I won't give any more spoilers, and rather encourage readers to read the whole book by themselves.


Twenty years later, another author described in much more sober terms the consequences of a wrong resolution to human kind's fundamental dilemma:
"Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration - a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism (...)" (The Junius Pamphlet, chapter 1. Rosa Luxemburg)
Choose wisely, it's your children's future.

Image Credits:
[A] Wells pictured some time before 1916. Wikipedia.


  1. Wells a painter?

    He did little cartoon pictures, picshuas, but I've not heard him called a painter before.

  2. You are very much right.

    Would cartoonist fit the bill?