The Time Machine, written by H.G. Wells in 1895, is one of the biggest classics in science fiction. Indeed, the term ‘time machine’ itself was coined originally by Wells, and Wells is often considered to be one of the grandfathers of science fiction. This novella tells the story of an inventor who invents a time machine and travels to the distant future.
Being such a huge classic within the genre, it is hard to read The Time Machine without being actively aware of its classic status. Indeed, my decision to read it now was due to my interest in becoming more familiar with the biggest names in the science fiction canon. I think this intense awareness of its status is both because of how notable the story is for the genre, but also because many elements of the novella are distinctly and strongly of its time.
One clear example of this is the writing style. To a modern audience, the prose feels a bit too flowery, like it is trying a bit too hard to be as elegant as possible. But, this is a typical feature of Victorian novels, and compared to those other texts, The Time Machine (as a late Victorian text) is not a very extreme example of this. Thus, while the prose is slightly jarring in the beginning, it is quite quick to get used to.
Another example of the novella being of its time is the view of humanity that it both assumes and promotes. The novella begins with a conception of humans as these brightly shining stars in a dark universe, intelligent and beautiful and the most important beings that could ever exist. While it seems like this view is slightly challenged as the plot moves onwards, I feel the novella ultimately argues for this view more strongly at the end than it does at the beginning. To modern audiences, used to an ever growing interest in ecocriticism, the rights of non-human animals, and texts which explore morally dubious characters, this Victorian ideal seems a bit too simplistic.
Under this category can also be put the dystopic elements of the story. The future that the Time Traveller sees is a dystopia based on Marxism and Darwinism. Darwinism is used to explain how the future came to be, and Marxism informs the message that Wells aims to put forth, warning about the dangers of the capitalist division of labour. This message, and the science that is used to produce it, are a lot less nuanced than one would find in modern texts. However, The Time Machine remains an interesting example of how those topics were being thought of at the time.
But what is lastingly imperssive about this novella is the framing device it uses. The narrator of the story, rather than being the Time Traveller himself, is one of the Time Traveller’s friends, who listens and records the Time Traveller’s account of his travels. This idea, of course, is neither unique nor original, but the idea functions here in a number of interesting ways. For one, it complicates the arguments that the novella seems to put forth, which I discussed above. The extent to which the opinions are ones which the ‘author’ wants to support, and the extent to which they are simply those of the Time Traveller, is an interesting question. It would be easy to argue in either direction, though I will admit to being more on the side that the author’s views align quite closely with those of the Time Traveller.
Even more interestingly, however, this framing device brings elements of the fantastic to this tale. For Tzvetan Todorov, one of the earliest theorists of the fantastic, fantasy resides in that moment when one is faced with something unbelievable, and one cannot decide whether it is actually happening, or whether one is simply going mad. This novella captures that feeling of indecision: it’s hard to decide whether the Time Traveller actually went to the future, or whether he is lying. The narrator feels some of this indecision, but while the narrator seems to have reached a decision (choosing to call the Time Traveller by that title rather than by his name), the question is left open for the reader. This is supported by the unexplained elements in the novella (the Time Traveller makes no mention of having left the note that informed his guests to begin eating if he did not arrive in time, and it is unclear why a Time Traveller would leave such a note (why would he ever be late?)). By using this framing device, Wells intermingles science fiction and fantasy in an interesting way, and it is perhaps a good example of why the two genres (which so often seem so separate from each other) are so often clumped together.
So would I recommend Wells’ The Time Machine? I think that readers who are interested in reading a classic of science fiction will find a lot to like here, perhaps even more than they would initially expect. But readers who do not keep in mind the novella’s age might not be left with such a positive impression.