The Time Machine: Possibility And Perception

The Time Machine, by HG Wells

Published: 1927

Time is that often-written-about-but-never-mastered subject that intrigues writers and readers. It has long been the wild horse that cannot be tamed, because narratively it’s a nightmare, and it lacks realism. Man-made time travel, in particular, is just something that cannot be comprehended. But, as HG Wells shows with his short story The Time Machine, that assumption is incorrect.

Time is as comprehensible as space, says the man known to the reader only as The Time Traveller. “Any real body must have extension in four dimensions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and — Duration,” and it is only man’s “natural infirmity of the flesh” that holds him back from mastering time as he has gravity. It is the story’s title time machine that is then unveiled, and it is all the reader is going to get in terms of scientific explanation. Wells, like Mary Shelly did in Frankenstein, gives the reader no further details as to how, despite The Time Traveller, like Victor Frankenstein, being a scientist. Of course, time travel isn’t possible (yet…), but the decision to explore the possibility no further, despite being on the cusp of doing so, is telling, without really telling. It’s not the how that’s important, it’s the possibility.

Because that’s what this short story is—possibilities. What lies ahead for Earth, how humanity will evolve, and whether it will flourish or fall, are all questions that The Time Traveller ponders and wishes to answer. Wells’s scientific mind runs rampant in The Time Machine, as The Time Traveller tries hypotheses on like clothes to see what fits. He is often wrong because his logical mind—so far out (or should that be long?) of its comfort/time zone—cannot comprehend the horrible truth.

The year is AD 802,701, and the Eloi are the descendants of the human race. These small, child-like people bear no signs of intelligence, because, as The Time Traveller slowly unravels, they are bred as livestock by, and for, their underground dwelling masters. The worlds in which both races inhabit are beautifully gothic and representative of the horror that society has become. Above ground is a run-down wilderness, where nothing is maintained and everything is left to dilapidate, die and decay. Down deep wells is the underground world of the Morlocks, where vast machinery drones on in absolute darkness. For the albino Morlocks, as they have evolved into a separate race, fear light, and feast on their Eloi cattle.

Adding to the gothic nature of the story is the way in which it is told. The nameless narrator recounts two separate meetings with The Time Traveller, during which he relays the tale to the reader. It is this story by the campfire form, coupled with The Time Traveller’s disgust at what the world will become in the future, with quite stupid descendants bred for their hides, that truly places the story in the frame of a warning to others, a fable arising from a fear about what the unknown might hold.

The Time Machine is that rare story that feels too short but accomplishes much in just a few pages. Time flies quickly, and that’s a scary possibility.

Rating: One Of Those Batteries Of The Future That Never Runs Out

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