Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

11 Nov 2011

(Novel) The Time Machine by: H.G. Wells

(Reaction) Time to Think by: Jose Angelo Singson

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The late nineteenth century was marked by great progress in technology and the sciences. To many people these new discoveries sparked the hope that these advances in machinery and medicine would end many of humanity's oldest and most persistent of woes: disease, hunger, violence, and exploitation.

H.G. Wells was a supporter and firm believer of science as a panacea of sorts for man's manifold concerns or least it seemed that way in the first few chapters of The Time Machine. As the story continues, readers see that the narrator of the book (effectively Well's mouthpiece and in-story avatar, merely referred to as the Time Traveler in the novel, later abbreviated to T2 in this reaction) gradually becomes more disillusioned because he comes upon a future in which it seems that the only real progress made is in humanity's capacity for cruelty and self-ruination.

The novel is not just a suspicious philosophical critique of the human condition but also a socialist critique by the author of capitalist practices he had seen during his time. In contrast to Animal Farm's warnings about communism/totalitarianism, The Time Machine is a Socialist admonition alerting the reader of what may befall mankind if capitalism continues to abuse people (workers) for the benefits of the rich. All this is done using a science fiction backdrop.

Wells also uses the Morlock revolution to introduce communist concepts of class consciousness and social stratification. The laborer class; in this case the Morlocks, are the underdogs of their society. Over time they become aware of their social standing and refuse to take it. Eventually they organize and overthrow the ruling class Eloi.

The T2 states his observations of the distant future he ends up in: the working class has been forced to live underground and has remained there for so long that they have evolved into a separate, fully subterranean race barely reminiscent of humans. The upper class, the Eloi, in contrast remained on the surface, maintaining their human appearances. Their civilization, pretty much at its technological peak, provides each citizen with all the amenities they need. This of course has its downside as it literally blunts the populace into weaklings too lazy and too simple to function outside their Edenic habitat.

The subterranean race - the Morlocks - at some undefined point in the novel, ran out of food or couldn't produce food anymore and turned to hunting and eating the Eloi to survive. Although the T2 blandly states that this reversal of fortunes was due to the need to survive, the author may have had more in mind. Wells was a believer of Marx and he might have intended the Morlocks' revolution as an allegory for; and this is purely my speculation, what he believed to be an inevitable socio-economic revolution that would occur during his time.

I find this ironic because as you read through the book one sees that there is no evidence of the Morlocks as upholding higher ideals such as freedom or equality, so I cannot say for certain that the overthrowing of the Eloi was done because they felt that they were being maltreated.

Even more ironically the Eloi, as one reads through the novel, had a complete lack of moral ascendancy as well. Although they were the elites of their time, their advances in technology were only used to for one end: to enhance food production and eliminate the corresponding struggles associated with this.. This focus effectively turned them into lotus-eaters, or very badly put, little better than feedlot cattle when the Morlocks take to farming them.

Wells turns his book into a Victorian-era fable urging his readers (during his time of course) to evaluate the situation they were in: the industrial revolution has further divided the classes. Perhaps he was warning his readers to pause and consider the possibility of themselves walking the path of the Eloi should capitalism be allowed to run rampant without a proper system of checks and balances.

Wells also uses his novel to critique the idea of social stratification. The concept of a caste or class system is not a new phenomenon. In the western world prior to the 19th century a person was born into a caste (peasants, nobility, clergy, etc...) and stayed there until death. Come the 19th century though, this trend no longer held true. There was an increase of literacy because of the improvement of printing technology. Currency was standardized and as a result a new class system began to emerge but not dictated by one's lineage but rather opportunities available.

Suddenly more people had opportunities take up old professions previously limited to nobility, such as medicine and law. The development of new technologies and fledgling scientific disciplines gave rise to new professions, like writing and psychology. In fact, these two professions are already represented: the T2 has a writer and a shrink as guests.

However, the industrial revolution also had its downside. With the migration of rural laborers into the cities en masse the difference between the rich and poor became even more apparent. Wells focuses on the struggle between two races in his vision of human civilization 800,000 years forward as an illustration of the struggles he saw in his own time. When the T2 first encounters the Eloi, the he initially believes society has evolved into a form of communism.

The Time Machine also criticizes Social Darwinism, a social theory that gained great popularity and great notoriety during the late 19th-century. It was an adaptation or rather an application of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to explain the occurrence of a social hierarchy, especially with regard to the rich and poor.

As per Darwin, different environments encouraged the reproduction of species whose traits allowed them to survive most effectively. The offspring of the surviving species, in turn, would become even better adapted for their new environment, and this cycle of adaptation would continue ad infinitum. This idea was a concept that Social Darwinists frequently exploited: the notion of natural selection.

Social Darwinists assert that the social environment was every bit like a natural environment. Ergo, individuals who succeeded in surviving were biologically suited to succeed and to continue to do so as they went on to the pinnacle of humanity. Conversely, those who failed to succeed had failed because they were biologically inferior. They failed because they didn't have the right stuff and by Social Darwinist standards, deserved to die out for the betterment of the populace. In his novel Wells tries to debunk their postulates and points out the many holes in their arguments.

In The Time Machine, the physically perfect Eloi initially seem to be the ideal denizens of the future. T2 soon realizes though that their advancements of civilization have all but damned them. The Eloi have removed all the pressing requirements for survival but in the process though they have become feeble, languid, and tragically stupid. It the process of perfecting their civilization that renders them imperfect. Ergo, evolution produces problems when applied to society.

The simple fact is this: mankind changes his environment to suit his needs even as mankind himself changes biologically/physiologically. Ergo, a changing environment may not necessarily always produce desirable changes in man. Therefore the theory that Social Darwinists posit that those who succeed in a particular environment are naturally biologically superior cannot possibly be defensible.

Wells makes use of even more irony to hammer his point home: the supposed biologically perfect Eloi turn out to be little more than food for the supposed inferior Morlocks, and even the T2 himself reverts to a more savage mode of existence in dealings with the Morlocks, relying on matches and a broken lever to defend himself against the Morlocks in the Palace of Green Porcelain, a vast museum holding the ruins of technologies and scientific achievements of the past. Though the T2 is in the future (802,701 AD to be exact) the behavior of its inhabitants and tools they use are pretty much of prehistoric man. Fire is his most effective weapon against the Morlocks. It is ridiculously ironic that the T2 must devolve for him to survive in the evolved world of 802,701 AD.

Review:

The Time Machine, despite being a work of science fiction comes off as a really dry bit of reading for me. Perhaps it's the Victorian English or maybe the cold, standoffish manner of the protagonist or the cynical evaluation of the nature of humanity that just rubs me the wrong way.

I found the book tiresome, and although I rather enjoyed the idea of how things would pan out if allowed a peek that far into the future, I think it could have been a better, more enjoyable read if the hero was developed a bit more and if the novel nagged less about the dangers of eugenics and the yawning divide between the haves and the have-nots.

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