As a major fan of early science fiction, I am ashamed to admit that I had never read The Time Machine before now. To some extent, I guess I did not feel that I had to because I loved the 1960 film with Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux so much that I watched it every time it was on TV when I was a child.
Despite my enjoyment of the film I was disappointed to find that I actually struggled to get into the book. Wells published this story in 1895 initially as a serial novel for the New Review. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator recounting a long speech made by the unnamed Time Traveller. For me, this style felt quite laboured. The narrator only provides his own narrative to set up and round off the Time Traveller’s account and it was probably this style that hindered my immersion into the story.
In terms of the plot itself, it differs a lot from the film. The Time Traveller travels to 802,701 AD to find two races descended from humans: the beautiful and aloof Eloi who frolic around the place; and the Morlocks who live in an industrialised underground society and breed the Eloi for food. Throughout the story, the Time Traveller presents the Eloi as the more human of the two races because of their compassion and gentleness. The Morlocks are seen as far less human because of their pale apelike appearance and cannibalistic ways. And yet, the Morlocks are the only creatures who have continued to have a relationship with their machinery and technology. As a child of modern society, I found that this made the Morlocks more relatable and human than the Eloi who had discarded all technology — or perhaps after years locked away in the dark, writing up my thesis I just became more Morlock-like.
The majority of the novel recounts the Time Traveller’s attempts to engage with the Eloi (who take almost no interest in him) and explore the dilapidated, future landscape of London. Towards the middle, the Time Traveller realises that the Morlocks have stolen his Time Machine and the Time Traveller violently and aggressively seeks to get it back. What is interesting about this is that the Time Traveller spent a long time trying to communicate with the Eloi who greeted him by tugging and pulling on his clothes, and yet makes no effort to communicate with the Morlocks who also greet him by tugging and pulling at his clothes but when they start grabbing at him he tries to kill them even before he realises they consume the Eloi.
Despite the claustrophobic descriptions of the encounters with the Morlocks underground, I never felt any real sense of danger throughout the novel (the encounters were often over before any real sense of danger emerged) until the end. After wresting the machine back from the Morlocks, the Time Traveller goes a further thirty million years forward in time (which made no sense to me as an escape plan). In the very distant future, Wells presents a subtly terrifying eschatological vision. The Earth appears to have stopped rotating, the sun is an enormous, red and dead presence dominating the sky. The tides have stopped and any trace of civilisation is long gone. Throughout this time I got greatly concerned that the Time Traveller’s lungs were going to explode or that he would suffocate to death. Clearly, I had forgotten that he was telling the story of his past adventures in the present after he had returned largely unscathed from the future. I think.
Whilst I struggled to immerse myself into Wells’ world at the start of the novel, largely because of my own issues with the style of the text, I did become engrossed in the story towards the end. And Wells’ depiction of the future stands out as one that is well-thought-out and has survived the test of time. Wells’ reputation as a visionary of the future is well deserved 122 years in the future because of this. His prose and language are dated, but not so that it is unreadable. There is a nostalgic feel to his writing and that makes for quite a pleasant dichotomy.