Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

I’ve read statements claiming H. G. Wells is the father of science fiction, and there does appear a degree truth in it.  Certainly other writers had taken steps, most notably Jules Verne with his voyages extraordinaires, but it was Wells who latched onto the ideological potential of the genre and began writing stories.  Seeming to spawn a sub-genre with each book published, The War of the Worlds looks at humanity’s reaction to an alien invasion; The Invisible Man deals with identity problems; The Island of Dr. Moreau tackles biological modification; and The First Men in the Moon is a very early look at lunar life.  Each book a vehicle for his political agenda, these and other of the author’s works employ what are now standard sci-fi motifs to expound upon sociopolitical concepts.  Wells’ debut in long form, the 1898 novella The Time Machine, is one such book.

The Time Machine is a foremost frame story.  It opens from the point of view of an unnamed narrator at a dinner party hosted by a person called simply the Time Traveler.  Amongst the group sit men of learning—a medical doctor, psychologist, and others—who listen as the Time Traveler expounds upon dimensional physics, interest and discord arising in the discussion’s wake.  After demonstrating with a small time machine to the disbelief of some and amazement of others, the Time Traveler invites the group to return the following week, hoping to be able to report on a larger machine he has been constructing.  When the guests return, they find the Time Traveler strangely absent from his home.  But soon enough he emerges from the shop.  Weary in body, clothes in rags, and feet bloody through the socks, he begins the narrative of his adventure in time.

It is thus the Time Traveler’s story which forms the bulk of the narrative.  Traveling thousands of years into the future, truly an adventure it is.  I will let the reader discover it on their own, but suffice to say the version of existence he encounters bears some resemblance to our own, but by and large significant developments have altered the scene in eerie, unsettling fashion.  Wells using the setup to present his political agenda, action is interspersed with philosophizing until such time the reason the Time Traveler has come to look so ragged is fully explained.

Wells was a socialist, and the ideology’s fingerprints are all over the story.  The Time Traveler having an interesting story to tell on one hand, on the other his adventure makes some very deep assumptions about the political direction of Western civilization in Wells’ time, particular with regard to the organization of industrial labor.  Obviously intended as a warning, the scene described is at times shocking.  Thus, like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, The Time Machine uses a mirror in the future to reflect today—or at least Wells’ day.  Though still not ideal, many of the social ills Wells identifies have straightened themselves out to some degree, human rights taking small but significant steps in the time between.  In non-Western industrialized countries, however, Wells’ warning remains fully relevant.

Written in the style of the time, The Time Machine features a direct, expository narrative that takes the time to fill the reader in on the minutiae of the scene at hand.  Given it’s also a first person narrative wherein the Time Traveler is addressing his dinner guests, the reader is subsequently the object of the theorizing and scene setting as he attempts to decipher his surroundings.  Mystery the bait, the Time Traveler describes the curious predicaments as they happened to him one at a time, giving the reader the sensation of having an inexplicable world unveiled before them, answers slow but steady in coming. 

In the end, The Time Machine is a time travel parable that uses the trope to comment upon the state of labor in Wells’ era.  Though able to be appreciated as an adventure alone, readers should still be prepared for doses of philosophizing, particularly with regard to socio-political ideology.  Ignoring the paradoxes much of time travel literature focuses on, the novella is a cautionary.  Written in a highly descriptive style, Wells tells a story that has faded some in the century that has passed since its publishing, but is still able to be enjoyed.  But perhaps more than anything, The Time Machine set the tone for the myriad of time travel stories that followed.  (See here for that myriad and be amazed at the variety of quality.)  Thus readers looking for classics in the genre will do well to pick up this novella, as alongside Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle, Wells is one of the great pioneers in the field.  I’m uncertain whether Yevgeny Zamyatin read Wells, nevertheless there remain significant parallels between We and The Time Machine, the former easily able to be a new perspective on the latter.  It is almost certain, however, that Orwell and Huxley had read the novella given that both were heir apparent to his usage of the genre. 


  1. Thanks for the interesting commentary! I read this book a long time ago and didn't notice the sociological ideology. I'm eager to re-read it now that I'm more aware of Wells' viewpoints. I've read a few of his short stories (as well as Invisible Man) recently, and plan on re-reading the rest of his novels.