One of my absolute favourites, I’ve read this very short novel many times. In his 1931 preface to later editions of the book, H G Wells modestly said that the concept wasn’t his (people were already discussing the possibility of time travel) and that the story is uneven in pace. However, he was proud that readers were still enjoying it. The Time Machine wasn’t the first time travel story but it’s certainly the one that caught the public imagination and was the first to popularise a time machine.
The story is mostly narrated by the unnamed Time Traveller, a scientist who is describing his adventures to a group of acquaintances, none of whom know whether to believe him. His tone throughout is one of disappointment, despair even, because the result of humanity’s progression is not what he’d predicted. Ultimately there was nothing else to fight for, nothing to be passionate about, causing civilisation to stagnate. The result of this is ‘degeneration’ of the species, which has separated into two kinds: the childlike Eloi, who frolic among the ruins and are preyed upon by the sinister underground Morlocks. You can see it as a crude social statement, a working class revolt, or you can see it as genetic engineering vs. natural evolution.
The whole tale could be a warning to us, although there is no indication of how the waning of human achievement is to be prevented. That’s the tragedy of Wells’ vision of the far future. Progress will pass its peak and humans will descend back towards animals. The other inevitability is the finite life of our Sun. After his dreadful time with the Eloi and Morlocks, the Time Traveller accidentally goes further forward in time instead of back, and sees everything on Earth winding down. There are evil crabs at some point, but eventually they are gone too. It’s utterly desolate.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect story. The character of Weena (a female Eloi who becomes attached to the Time Traveller after he saves her life) and her relationship with him are bit odd and it’s not clear whether he loves her romantically (problematic because she’s like a child). What actually happens to her is unclear too, but we could consider the Time Traveller an unreliable narrator, in which case this would sort out various problems with the plot. The story is more of a sketch than a novel and it would have been interesting to have it filled in more. Originally it was published in serial format, with some material about other descendants which didn’t make it into the book.
I’ve seen two films based on the book but they are not especially close to the original, as far as I remember.
First published in 1895. This edition was published in 2005 by Penguin, edited by Patrick Parrinder with an introduction by Marina Warner and notes by Stephen McLean.