This was a delight after the turgid prose of The Night Lands. It’s a concisely written novella that is a solid read and had a strong impact on twenty first century science fiction. Because of this, most genre aficionados will have some idea of the plot. I highly recommend it.
Essentially, our narrator is a member of a regular gathering of intellectuals, who meet regularly for discussions and dinner, answering the age-old question of what the proto-nerd/geek subculture did back during the Victorian period. All of the friends have sobriquets (except for poor old Filby) such as ‘the Provincial Mayor’, ‘the Medical Man’, and the ‘Time Traveller’. Most of the story is the Time Traveller telling his adventure to his friends, one of whom is our Narrator. The Time Traveller tells of how he’s invented a time machine, but there’s much scoffing by his guests. The Time Traveller demonstrates the device; he vanishes and turns up late for dinner in a a frightful state – clearly more time has passed for him than for his guests. The Time Traveller tells of how he travelled forward to the year 802,701, where the world is a lush paradise and humanity has bifurcated into two races – the Eloi, who live on the surface as hedonistic, simple-minded, flower-gathering hippies, and the Morlocks – carnivorous albinos who live underground. The Time Traveller starts to explore the area but before he can return, discovers that his time machine has gone missing, forcing him to adventure! (A Doctor Who plot device staple.) The far future is neatly evoked, with lush gardens and mysterious buildings named by the Time Traveller ‘the White Sphinx’ and ‘the Palace of Green Porcelain’; the passing of the ages is keenly felt when the Time Traveller finds that one of these buildings is a museum of human history. The slow, gradual decline the world is one of the tropes I enjoy about this sub-genre. The poetic sense of decay is evoked nicely with the Eloi living amongst the ruins of their ancestors but being unable to comprehend them.
One of the themes in the novella is the degeneration of the class system; where the ‘aristocrats’, the Eloi are little more than vacant-minded flower-gathers, and the workers, the Morlocks, labour in the darkness but come up to feed on the Eloi each new moon. The Time Traveller ruminates about how this came to be:
‘At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position. No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you―and wildly incredible!―and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Evidently, I thought, 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―! Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?’
The philosophical Time Traveller also posits the idea that without innate violence of humanity, there can be no progress; as a comment on the apotheosis of communism, the evolution of the cow-like Eloi is viewed as a highly undesirable state:
‘For countless years I judged there had been no danger of war or solitary violence, no danger from wild beasts, no wasting disease to require strength of constitution, no need of toil. For such a life, what we should call the weak are as well equipped as the strong, are indeed no longer weak. Better equipped indeed they are, for the strong would be fretted by an energy for which there was no outlet. No doubt the exquisite beauty of the buildings I saw was the outcome of the last surgings of the now purposeless energy of mankind before it settled down into perfect harmony with the conditions under which it lived―the flourish of that triumph which began the last great peace. This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.’
The Time Machine is also a good adventure novel, with the Time Traveller venturing into the Morlock’s underground darkness to find his time machine, and then fighting them off with fire when the raid during a new moon. The Time Traveller has a female friend, one of the Eloi, who is obsessed with him after he rescued her from drowning, but he he seems not to view her as a person, perhaps due to her inherent simplicity. (Alas, also an adventure story staple.)
After the Time Traveller eventually finds his Time Machine, he journeys further into the future, seeing the death of the world, and even the moment when the stars go out. When he finishes his story, his dinner guests don’t believe him; only the Narrator does. The Time Traveller offers to prove further time travel to the Narrator, and leaves for one more journey, but does not return.