The Time Machine by HG Wells

A vision of the future…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In Victorian England, a group of friends have gathered for dinner to find that their host is absent. He soon arrives, dishevelled and grubby, and starving. Once he’s cleaned up and eaten, he tells them why he was late. He has invented a machine that allows him to travel through all four dimensions – a time machine – and has been on a trip to the far distant future. There, he has seen the result of millennia of evolution, with mankind breaking into two distinct sub-species – the peaceful, childlike, vegetarian Eloi and the cruel and evil Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground in the sunshine, spending their days in idle playfulness, but when night falls they huddle together for safety. The Morlocks live underground and can’t bear daylight, but at night they emerge from their tunnels…

While this is a book that says a whole lot about loads of things, first and foremost it’s a great adventure yarn and none of the over-analysis (with which I’m just about to join in!) should take away from the fact that at heart it’s simply a jolly good story – the kind of thing at which the Victorian adventure writers, like Wells himself, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and others, excelled. It’s full of great imagery and dire danger, and is hugely imaginative. On the other hand, it tells us a great deal about Victorian concerns regarding science and society at the time of writing in 1895. Evolution was a subject being much debated, as was the rising political philosophy of communism, and Wells works concerns about both of these into his story.

As he tells his tale, the Time Traveller muses on why mankind should have evolved as it has by the year 802,701, and with each new piece of information that comes to him, he reassesses his theories. The Eloi, he thinks, might prove that mankind needs challenge in order to develop – having achieved a perfect life with nothing left to strive for, the Eloi’s intelligence has faded and they have become less than their ancestors. The Time Traveller thinks they may be the outcome of a move towards an egalitarian, communist society at some time in the past… until he meets the Morlocks. Were the Eloi, he speculates, descended from the wealthy – the ruling classes – living comfortable existences while the workers struggled? And are the Morlocks therefore the descendants of those workers, forced into intolerable conditions in mines and factories, with no time to enjoy sunshine and the finer things of life? The point he’s making about Victorian society and working conditions is clear but he doesn’t labour it to the point of distraction from his tale. (It reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s discussion of contemporary Victorian fears about “degeneration” in her book The Wicked Boy – the idea that if the theory of evolution is accepted, then logic dictates that regression is as possible as advancement, and that some believed that the criminality of the poor was proof that this might already be happening.)

Given that the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, over whether evolution should be banned from being taught in American schools, was still some thirty years in the future, the question of geological time versus Biblical time was still a matter of controversy in some quarters (still is!), but Wells tacitly accepts the science of geological time’s vastness – that the world has existed long enough for evolution to have happened at all. But then the Morlocks steal the time machine, so the Time Traveller has to put philosophising to one side and get on with the adventure…

Dare I watch it?

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the book, which is edited by Roger Luckhurst, Professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. His introduction is excellent – clear, concise and jargon-free. He starts with a mini-biography of Wells, then goes on to discuss his style, putting his early books more into the category of scientific romance than science fiction which hadn’t really got under way back then, although Wells was to become influential on future writers in the genre.

As well as discussing the scientific and social points I’ve mentioned above, Luckhurst also shows how Wells was referencing and responding to literary and artistic movements of his time, especially the then popular trend for utopian novels. Luckhurst discusses Wells’ position in relation to other contemporary writers, suggesting a class divide (almost inevitable in Britain), with relatively lower class, less elitely educated writers like Wells and Haggard being looked down on by the snobby modernists – Woolf, James et al. Wells himself apparently poked fun at the convoluted sentence structure and internalisation so beloved of the snobs modernists, eschewing their elitism in favour of telling a darn good yarn. I know whose side I’m on!

HG Wells

The book also includes two essays by Wells on scientific issues of the day, plus an alternative version of the vision of the far future in The Time Machine – Luckhurst explains that the story was printed in a variety of different forms, as Wells continued to tinker with it throughout his life, never fully satisfied with it. There are also great notes, clearly explaining any terms that may be unfamiliar to a modern audience, and indicating where Wells is referencing other works or artistic or scientific movements.

The story of course is brilliant – it’s a classic for the reason that it’s hugely enjoyable to read. But I must say the reading this time was greatly enhanced for me by the extras included in this excellent little volume, just as I found with my other encounter with Roger Luckhurst as editor of The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft. Reading this reminded me that, while it’s great to be able to download classics free of charge, sometimes it’s well worth investing in a well put together and informatively edited edition instead. Highly recommended – story and book both.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics, via Amazon Vine UK.

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62 thoughts on “The Time Machine by HG Wells

  1. Oh, this really is a classic, isn’t it, FictionFan? The story itself – the adventure – is enough to recommend it, but as you point out, there’s a lot more. It’s almost allegorical, but Wells didn’t lose sight of the story part of it. That’s really hard to pull off.

    • That’s what I love about these Victorian writers – they never lost sight of the adventure even if they were also trying to say something serious about society too. It also means they stand up really well to re-reading at different ages – I loved these books as a child and still do as an adult… 🙂

    • Thank you! 🙂 Oh, that’s good to know about the film – I couldn’t decide whether it would be fun or just really cheesy. I’ll have get hold of a copy…

  2. A very thorough, excellent review.
    Wasn’t Guy Pearce in the remake of the film? I recall hearing about how bad that was. The book, however, is great.

    • Thank you! 🙂 Ha – I’m not sure who was in it but when I was looking at images I kept coming across warnings to avoid the remake and stick with the original! I think I’ll follow that advice… 😉

  3. I love Wells and after reading your lovely review, need to check out this particular edition. It was worth noting how he continued to “tinker” with this book…always, evolving and adding new knowledge to his work. Interesting theory to add to to others, in a nuclear age, of why people build underground tunnels and why the ruling class would find the need to go below and stay there for a very long time. Excellent Review😊

  4. Glad to hear you enjoyed this one so much! Yes, it’s a classic, and your brilliant review does it justice, FF. Can you imagine what our world will look like in the year 800,000???

    • Aw, thank you, Debbie! 😀 Ha – I’m having difficulty trying to imagine what the world will be like next year at the moment! I quite fancy the idea of skipping a few centuries and maybe getting to a place where people have learned how to behave sensibly… 😉

    • I love that era too – there were so many developments in science and philosophy happening and, though it might not be fashionable now, the Empire meant people were much more involved with the rest of the world than we tend to be now. And Wells manages to pack a lot into a small space, without ever forgetting that books should be fun even when they’re being informative… 😀

  5. Great review of a great book. Wells had his faults, but he avoided most of them in his science fiction (or scientific romances). It’s amazing how often the Eloi and Morlocks appear in other guises in later SF and fantasy – obviously, Wells had something to say that still resonates.

    • Thank you! 🙂 I’d forgotten just how good this one is – I may even prefer it to The War of the Worlds, though that might change again next time I re-read it! Yes, SF more than any other genre does seem to recycle ideas – not a bad thing, since it lets people re-examine issues in the context of their own time. But these Victorians were such great writers they’re hard to match… 🙂

  6. This is one of those classics I feel like I really should read but still haven’t got round to. I think I’ll add it to my Goodreads To-Read list, that way it’s official lol

    • Ha! These lists will be the death of us all one day! 😉 Seriously, though, this book is a great read – Wells never forgets that first and foremost books should have a great story, and all the other stuff should never get in the way of that. Plus his books tends to be very short – this is really novella length. If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  7. Fascinating book review! I read this last year and found it very intriguing. It was interesting what you said about how he was looked down upon by authors such as Woolf (who I confess I have still not read). His example is a great one of how to consider ideas and still be entertaining!

    • Thank you! 🙂 Although it was a re-read for me I hadn’t read it since I was a teenager, so remembered so little of it, it was pretty much like reading it for the first time. And I’d actually forgotten just how good it is! Ha! Yes, I enjoyed that he was a bit rude about the modernists… mainly because I always feel like being rude about them myself! I always prefer books that look out to the world rather than inwards to the person…

      • That is an interesting distinction between books – those that look outward vs. those that look inward. I’m going to have to think about my favorite books to see which category they fall into. 🙂 I wonder if one can divide movies up in a similar way…

        • I suspect that’s why I read more male authors than female in lit-fic – until recently, female writers have kinda specialised in more domestic subjects, while males write about politics and suchlike. Huge generalisation, I know! And maybe now that women participate in life outside the home more, their books will reflect that more. Hmm… interesting question! I’d think movies are probably more geared towards looking outwards – easier to get across in film, maybe. But maybe the likes of Woody Allan would count as looking in?

          • My grandmother and sister read more male authors, too…I wonder if that is the reason (they speak of liking a good story rather than getting too mired in a character’s inner feelings). That’s a good point about women authors…it would be interesting to see if the kind of fiction woman have written has changed in the past twenty years or so. Woody Allen…that could be! And I wonder if the style of acting could reflect that. I think of actors from the ’30s as being more outward and method actors as being more inward.

            • Yes, I always prefer a good story to feeeeeeelings! I’ve often thought of doing an analysis to see whether what women write about has changed but I don’t think I read enough contemporary stuff to make a definitive judgement. But I wish someone else would! Good point about the acting style – even today there are some actors who really specialise in action stuff and others that you know as soon as you hear their name it’ll be something more thoughtful/political…

  8. Great review. I’m jealous of your Vine copy! I have an absolutely ancient complete/collected works, got from a second hand shop at some point, barely holding together. I read this aged about 13 or 14, and it utterly terrified me, I had on and off nightmares for years, and can still remember (quivers in extreme anxiety) the traveller touching down at some point far, far in the future, and I think all that was left was some kind of crab life. I too preferred it to WOTW. Ooh, you might have nudged me to read again. No doubt it will reconnect me with the nightmares, too.

    BTW – I will FINALLY be starting American Pastoral next month!! I’m doing a ‘buddy read’ of it, after finishing, ditto, an utterly exhausting and highly distressing similar, of Andersonville, the 1956 Pulitzer prizewinning book about the American Civil War, and the prison camp. Harrowed. It is very long, and quite relentless in its depiction of the awfulness our species seems to engage in with such delight. I have to keep putting it down, and frantically go searching for kitten pictures!

    • Thank you! Yes, I was lucky to get this one and I spotted it didn’t make it to VfA so presumably all the copies were snapped up. I also got the same edition of The Island of Dr Moreau which is good since it’s on my Classics Club list – I’ve never read it before. But sadly not WOTW – I’d have liked to read the intro to that and find out all the things I’ve missed…

      Ooh, I hope you enjoy it – well, not enjoy – I hope you’re as impressed by it as I was. I’ve never heard of Andersonville, and looking it up on Amazon it would appear that some writer has issued a book with the same name but turned it into a demon and gore book! Baffled me for a moment till I realised there was another one by Mackinlay Kantor, which I assume is the one you’re reading… I look forward to your demonless review!

      • There are REAL demons aplenty in Kantor’s book – his ‘imaginary’ soldiers are also interweaved with some of the real high up and powerful individuals who were involved in the monstrous camp. I am holding back from reading some of their stories till I have finished the book, but I understand that the individuals depicted as most vicious and culpable, were.

        It is most assuredly NOT a feel good book though, and there are no joyous characters – or not for long. Gone iwth the Wind it aint

  9. I read this as a teenager and then discussed my half-remembered thoughts when Owen used this as a springboard for a fairly scary art project but I wish I’d had a version which pointed out some of the parallels to the period they were written in, especially if it was jargon free! That idea that we can regress as well as evolve is one that isn’t often acknowledged.

    • I can imagine any art project based on this one would end up scary! Yes, I like the jargon free appraoch – so often with literary criticism I get so annoyed at the use of silly words that I can’t bear to read it. But this one told me just enough to be interesting without trying to appear overly intellectual – good stuff! And it was interesting to make the connection with The Wicked Boy…

  10. I read this many moons ago and have it on my classic club list to reread. I remember enjoying it and will keep this review in mind when I finally get round to picking it up again. Great review.

    • Thank you! 🙂 It was a re-read for me too, but from so long ago that I really remembered nothing but the bare outline – I’d forgotten just how good it is! I have The Island of Dr Moreau on my Classics Club list and managed to get a copy of it in this same series, so I’m looking forward to that too…

  11. I’ve never read anything by Wells, I’m embarrassed to admit! This was an excellent review, FictionFan – I am *this* close to adding it to my TBR! I think I need to do a Classics Club one of these years. There are so many I haven’t read and don’t seem to be getting to in my “normal” reading!

    • Thank you! 😀 I love Wells – well, his main books anyway – I think he wrote a lot of other stuff that’s kinda been forgotten now. But this one and The War of the Worlds are great, and I have a copy of The Island of Dr Moreau to read soon, so I’m looking forward to that.

      Ooh, yes, you should join the Classics Club! It’s a great way of forcing you to make time – I’d got out of the habit of reading classics because of all the review copies, but honestly I love them so much, and I’ve found being in the Classics Club great fun so far…

    • Aw, thank you! 😀 I definitely recommend this volume – it gave just enough extra to be interesting without swamping the story in overly academic analysis. But the story is more than strong enough to stand on its own too… 🙂

  12. What a well-written review. I’ve read your post on Rebecca first. But, speaking of the *classics*! Of course this is one. This book has probably spawned more movies and shows that H.G. Wells would have thought. This particular volume sounds good. (Btw, The Classic Stories of Horror by H.P. L. I do not have, but I have all the stories through several old paperbacks….may look for the Luckhurst edited version.)

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, these adventures stories are just as much classics as any of the ones that get dissected by English Lit departments, and much more fun usually! I do recommend the Lovecraft book – again I found the introduction and notes gave me all the information I wanted without drowning me in irrelevant detail or academic jargon…

  13. I loved this one too. The book is much better than the movie, but the movie is worth watching for some laughs (especially after just reading the book since it’s always fun to compare). I’ll have to look out for the Lockhurst introductions now – thank you!

    • I nearly always find the book is best, but I love making the comparison. Good to know this one is fun, intentionally or otherwise! I must get hold of a copy. I do like his introductions – they give just enough info without swamping the reader in irrelevant detail… if you ever get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  14. I LOVE books that give me footnotes and whatnot to understand reference. I used to think they were “college books” for kids who were too “stupid” to get the references. But, then I got older, still didn’t get the references, and decided I was being a poo.

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