There are significant spoilers for the entire novel in this review.]
Title: The Time Machine
Author: H.G. Wells
Publication Date: 1895
Producer: 2017 Spokenworld Audio & Ladbroke Audio Ltd/Fantom Publishing
Narrated by: John Banks
Recording Time: 3 hours, 22 minutes
The book’s protagonist is an English inventor, named by a narrator as “the Time Traveller.” The Time Traveller hosts a dinner party as the novel begins, wherein he explains time travel. Like the protagonists, almost none of the dinner guests present are ever identified by name. They are instead named by their profession or by their physical description.
The narrator recounts the Time Traveller’s lecture, to his dinner guests, that time is simply a fourth dimension. He explains that in addition to length, breadth, and thickness, in order for a thing to exist, it must also exhibit duration. Thus, he explains, time is the fourth dimension along which the conscinousness of man travels. The Time Traveller demonstrates a model machine for travelling through the fourth dimension, first, before revealing that he has built an actual time machine capable of carrying a person through time. At a dinner party the following week, the Time Traveller tells his guests that he has used the machine to travel through time. The Time Traveller then becomes the novel’s narrator henceforth.
The Time Traveller uses his machine to travel forward to A.D. 802,701. Here, he meets the descendance of modern humanity, the Eloi, a society of small, beautiful, childlike adults. They live in small groups in a futuristic yet dilapidated buildings. The Eloi eat a fruit-based diet and are surrounded by gardens from which they can eat. The Time Traveller’s efforts to communicate with the Eloi are difficult because these people have child-like attention spans. The Eloi are happy and carefree except for a great fear of the dark. The Time Traveller explores the world around and comes to the conclusion that the entire earth has become a garden and that communism was at some point globally achieved.
After a time of exploration, the Time Traveller returns to the location where he arrived and discovers to his dismay that the time machine is gone. After observing groove marks in the grace, he concludes that it has been dragged by persons unknown into a nearby sphinx, where he cannot follow due to heavy bronze doors which are locked from the inside. Sometime shortly after, the Time Traveller discovers the existence of the Morlocks, a separate branch of human descendants who evolved underground to look pale and ape-like. The Morlocks only come to the surface during the dark due to their aversion to light. The Time Traveller notices many “wells” across the landscape and comes to realize that these wells are actually air shafts to the Morlocks’ underground homes. The Time Traveller realizes that the machinery and industry that allows the above-ground paradise of the Eloi to exist at all is done by the Morlocks.
Convinced that the Morlocks have his time machine, the Traveller climbs down an air shaft and explores the Morlock’s subterranean world. While down there, he realizes to his horror that the Morlocks hunt and eat the Eloi due to a lack of other food.
Separate from this, the Traveller saves an Eloi woman named Weena from drowning. None of the other Eloi were even aware of her plight. After this, Weena tries to stay near the Traveller and he develops feelings of affection for her. Weena helps him learn some Eloi words and she goes with him to a distant structure called “The Palace of Green Porcelain.” Once they arrive, the Time Traveller realizes that the building is a now dilapidated museum. The Time Traveller finds useful supplies in the museum, including matches and lever which he intends to use as a mace against the Morlocks. The Time Traveller now plans to bring Weena back to his own time after he retrieves his time machine from the Morlocks. The journey from the museum, back to Weena’s home, is too long to make before dark, so the two camp in the forest between the two locations. At first, the Traveller starts a small fire to keep the light-sensitive Morlocks at bay and distracted while he and Weena move deeper into the forest. Later, though, a band of Morlocks attacks them, causing Weena to faint. A larger number of Morlocks surround them and the Traveller is certain he and Weena will die, when suddenly he discovers that the fire he lit earlier has now spread wildly. Weena and the Morlocks are lost and then left behind as the Time Traveller flees from the fire. He is deeply saddneed over Weena’s loss.
When the Traveller returns to his original arrival site, he sees that thte Morlocks have opened the Sphinx’s doors and are using the time machine as bait to capture him. Their plan would have worked, except that he reattaches the levers which make the machine operable and moves further ahead in time to escape them.
The Traveller arrives at a point 30 million years in the distant future, and sees a now dying earth. Among the life that remains are enormous red crab-like creatures chasing after enormous butterflies. The Traveller continues to jump forward through time, and he sees Earth’s rotation cease, so that one side is always facing the sun in the way that one side of the moon always faces earth. He sees all living things on earth die out.
Finally, the Traveller returns to his own time, arriving at his laboratory only three hours after he departed and late to his own dinner party. He then ate and told the guests the preceding story. To prove his tale the the guests, he shows them two strange white flowers Weena had put in his pocket.
At this point, the original narrator from Chapter 1 takes over and says that he returned to the Time Traveller’s house the next day. The Traveller was preparing for another journey, while promising to return in a short time. The narrator then tells the reader that he has waited three years and the Time Traveller has not yet returned.
This is a great short novel and the narration of John Banks is outstanding.
The narrator’s explanation for “time” as a fourth dimension is clear and well-given. I suspect that a physicist might take exception with the particulars given but it makes sense enough conceptually for the reader.
I enjoyed the narrator’s opining on mankind’s downfall, too, in a philosophical sense. It seems perfectly rational and relatable that achieving a global paradise might ruin us as a species. Ingenuity, courage, strength… those are not necessarily important qualities when you have everything you need already. In fact, the restlessness which accompanies those qualities might have been viewed as problematic. And so…
At some point, the Morlocks realize that the above-ground Eloi are helpless. They also realize that eating the Eloi would improve their own diet. The Time Traveller arrives to observe the post-paradise ruin of our species.
Of course, as the narrator notes, the Paradise was always corrupt as it was built on the labor of an unseen troglodyte near-slave class of people. There is a certain feel of divine justice in how things played out, even if we feel that the Morlocks are grotesque. They are grotesque because they were made to be so. The Eloi made monster and were eventually tormented by them.
Interestingly, there is actually some modern day science which agrees with this H.G. Wells “two divergent species” prediction. Oliver Curry, from the London School of Economics, predicts this type of an outcome could happen much sooner than 800,000 years from now. From a Daily Mail article on his findings:
The human race will one day split into two separate species, an attractive, intelligent ruling elite and an underclass of dim-witted, ugly goblin-like creatures, according to a top scientist.
100,000 years into the future, sexual selection could mean that two distinct breeds of human will have developed.
Of course, even the article admits that this prediction is strangely similar to the outcome predicted in The Time Machine – and we can wonder if perhaps the scholarship here was unduly influenced by Wells’ book.
It is difficult for me to imagine a human future like this, though. First, I find it difficult to believe that we might set aside our in-fighting long enough to create a utopia. Second, even if we did, I suspect that the innate human restlessness, which dies out in the Eloi, would preserve itself through exploration before it disappeared entirely. We see some of that now in the modern push for being an interplanetary species.
I also doubt the eventual formation of two branches of our species because it presupposes a long-maintained class structure which has never been part of the human story. Societies always include low-born who climb high, through wit or beauty, and high born who bring once great families low through corruption or incompetence. Nations fall when this churn slows too much. Perhaps that truism might be avoided if machines or artificial intelligence got involved, but if it did, then we’d have an entirely different science fiction story. Don’t let my critique lead you to believe that I didn’t enjoy the story, though. Time may eventually prove Wells to be right.
In addition to the novel’s philosophical and scientific underpinnings, which engaged my intellect, I thought the novel excelled because its emotional elements also engaged my heart. In a short space of words, I grew to care about Weena – just as the narrator did – and I was sad to see that she did not survive. I am left to wonder, given the novel’s ambiguous ending, if the Traveller attempted to use his time machine to go back to the future in order that he might save her from the Morlocks and the fire.
I really enjoyed this book. I plan to read more of H.G. Wells in the future.