Can the Man Reads III: H.G. Wells, The Time Machine


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I have always been fascinated by books that give us a glimpse of the future, a picture of what we might see coming around the bend.  H.G. Wells is one of many classic authors that really spurs this excitement in readers.  The radio performance of his novel War of the Worlds famously enamored the American public into thinking that an alien invasion was taking place during the 1930’s.  It is easy enough to be in awe of his stories and the imagery of his prose, but Wells was also an unprecedented visionary of literature in his day.  He published The Time Machine in 1895, an era that was defined by horses and steam engines.  At this point in history there was no scientific foundation for the idea of time-travel, let alone the possibility of an actual time machine.  The Time Machine was written without any serious connection to real possibilities of time-travel. Yet by the time Wells had passed away in the 1940s, Albert Einstein had already laid the mathematical groundwork making time-travel a theoretical possibility.  Well’s fantasy slowly changed from romantic fantasy into a physical possibility for the future.  It seems as though the best authors prove to us all that imagination is often more important than what we believe to be possible.

 

In addition to the historical context of the book, Wells crafted a masterpiece of fiction when he penned this brief account of a scientist known only as the Time Traveler.  To anyone who is unfamiliar with Wells, I have to suggest The Time Machine as an ideal introductory work.  The book stands at an unintimidating 108 pages, and the verbiage tends to pleasantly suggest a visit to the thesaurus rather than a reevaluation of one’s education.  The story moves quickly (almost too quickly by the end), and is viscerally crafted with fantasy and adventure.  Upon finishing the book I humorously thought to myself, why do we ever bother with reading anything that stretches into hundreds upon hundreds of pages. Despite the slight size of the work, it contains an astounding number of insightful allusions, parables, and predictions.  Wells uses the adventurous plot to postulate his own interpretations on human nature, economics, and prejudice.

 

One of the most important discussions that Wells delves into during the adventures of the Time Traveler is the fate of a society divided by capitalism.  Writing during a time when class distinctions were sharp and often immutable, it is clear that Wells understood an important perspective on socioeconomics.  When the protagonist of the book begins to ruminate on the future state of humanity, he admits that it can all be traced back to our human nature.  We want the comforts and excesses of the world so badly, that eventually they become the evils of our society.  We exploit our fellow man willfully and without mercy so that we may live a life that is cleaner, easier, and more enjoyable.  The Time Traveler notes that there very well may have been a time when this system worked, but that it is fundamentally flawed.  In the mind of H.G. Wells, the social division between laborers and the bourgeois creates a society that is hopelessly divided into two completely different races.  After hundreds of thousands of years the working class becomes pushed underground, relegated to obscurity, while the “higher” people eventually descend into a mental and physical malaise.

 

The fundamental point of the work that I found is that, while we make decisions for the short term, the consequences of those decisions stretch into eternity.  Having a society that worships fine clothes and luxury cars may only divide society on economic lines, but ultimately it is something much more than that.  The system doesn’t work, it has never worked, and in the long run it really doesn’t work.  Above all else The Time Machine is a dire call for long-term perspective and understanding the consequences of human desire.  It is a message that is shrouded in mystery, action, fear, compassion, and a story that will have you wishing for more.  Ultimately, the novel serves as a cautionary tale about the permanence of human actions.  Our decisions do not only impact our lives, they stretch far beyond us into the future.

 

-J.A. Young

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