Monday, August 27, 2012

Michael K. Rose Presents: Classic Science Fiction
#2 The Time Machine by HG Wells

Herbert George "H.G." Wells is one of three men who (along with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback) have been given the unofficial title "The Father of Science Fiction." If you have not read any of his work, you have certainly heard of it: The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man. Only one other writer of the time period had as much of an influence of science fiction: Jules Verne.

Wells's love of literature began accidentally. When he was a boy, he broke is leg and was bedridden. His father brought him books from the library to help him pass the time. Later, his mother, separated from his father, went to work as a lady's maid at a country house in Sussex. He would occasionally visit and the house, having an extensive library, introduced him to many of the classics.

HG Wells
The Time Machine has its roots in a short story Wells published in his college newspaper called "The Chronic Argonauts" (1888). It also involved the use of a time machine but what makes The Time Machine unique is the scope of the work. The narrator does not only travel forward in time to a recognizable future, but travels to the year 802,701. What he finds there is nothing less than a reversal of the classist society in which Wells lived. In his mind, our habit of separating society into two groups: an affluent elite and those who are forced to serve them, will ultimately lead to not only a social and economic separation but a biological separation as well. As society advances, the elites will continue to drive their servants underground, out of sight. The above world will become verdant and idyllic and below the ground, where the workers toil in darkness, will be the machines that create the goods that make the leisurely lifestyle of the elites possible.

Eight hundred thousand years hence, they have evolved into the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi are small and beautiful yet simple-minded creatures. They spend their days playing, eating and relaxing. Belowground, the Morlocks, the descendants of the working class, have evolved into brutish, ape-like creatures. They still provide for the Eloi, providing them with food and garments, but they have come to take something in return: the Morlocks feed on the Eloi.

Wells's future is clearly the imaginings of a man interested in socialism. The class structure has been subverted, and those who kept the working classes down for so long are now no more than animals being butchered and harvested for meat. This is no vision of the noble poor proving that they are inherently better than the rich, as was the case in much of the socialist literature of the time. This is a dire warning that the class system of Britain as it then existed could not continue without severe consequences.

Of course, the class systems has not disappeared but has been globalized. Those of us in affluent countries no longer have to see the very bottom of society: they live not just in other neighborhoods but in other countries, on other continents. But what would really interest Wells, I believe, would be the degree to which we have come to rely on machines. I wonder what Wells's vision of the future would be if he'd lived in our time. He would see that we are growing increasingly sedentary; he would see Western society resting on its laurels; he would see an increasingly automated way of life, in which our every whim is seen to by machines rather than a subservient class. Would the mindless, simple Eloi who are our descendants be ruled over by a network of machines? Will our ever-increasing dependence on technology remove from us the ability to solve problems, to dream up novel ideas? With any and all information literally at our fingertips, will the mind atrophy as it is required to do less and less work?

It is a fun thought experiment to imagine our future. Tell me, if you could press the levers of Wells's time machine and travel forward ten, a hundred, a thousand years, would you like what you found? None of us live for ourselves alone. We live for all humanity, and we live for the future of our species, our planet. Science fiction helps us to understand this. But is understanding enough? What can take us to the next step, what will make us take action to ensure a bright tomorrow?

At the end of Wells's book, the time traveler disappears, along with his machine. Has he gone to try and save the future? Well, you and I can do that in the here and now. The Time Machine may not be an accurate depiction of the future, as things currently stand, but at the very least it should make us consider the possibilities, both wonderful and horrifying.

You can download a free eBook of The Time Machine at Amazon or Project Gutenberg. You may also be interested in Michael K. Rose Presents: Classic Science Fiction #1 -- "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum 

Original Classic Science Fiction image: C.E. Space Scene 1 by Gale Titus
Images of HG Wells and the cover of The Time Machine courtesy of Wikipedia

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