What is this “Victorian 1978” thing, you ask? Look here, and all shall be revealed.
Should you not wish to click on the link, in brief: Remember the Moby Illustrated Classics they used to put in McDonald’s Happy Meals? I do. The ones I read were mostly from the Victorian era, and they made a huge impact on my young self. I’m going back to reread the originals, trying to recreate those glorious childhood summers.
HG Wells doesn’t go into much detail about how his time travel works (he certainly does not use our own secret yerba mate technique), but his might be the first honest-to-Einstein machine built to travel through the 4th dimension. He also busts out the science when he takes a peek at the end of all things: the sun and planets have moved closer together, the atmosphere is thinner, and giant slime-crabs are pretty much running the show, having made their long comeback from the Triassic. This is all true to his time period, what I like to call the Science Is The Shit Era. We’re still in it, of course.
The questions he poses are what give science fiction that middle-of-the-back itch: the “What If?”s. It seems like recent time travel stories are most interested in the Grandfather Paradox – ie if I went back in time and killed my grandfather, would I ever be born… to go back in time to kill my grandfather? (This is the “time loop” thing from every 15th episode of Star Trek.) Wells’ story doesn’t address this at all. His is focused on the future of mankind. What will happen if we keep going the way we are now? He finds his answer 800,000 years in the future. It then leads to thinking about social questions, eg what happens when one group does all the work and another reaps all the reward? (Ah – and then we circle right back to Star Trek.) My favorite quote speaks to yet another question: what should we actually work towards?: “It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble.” I read that as, if all we’re working towards is a life of ease and security, then we’re actually unmaking our best selves. Perhaps a life of comfort should not be humanity’s – or any individual’s – goal.
The Time Machine blends a bit of dystopia with utopia. The Eloi have a mostly idyllic life – no work, all play – except for when they get eaten by Morlocks. And not only that, but the vapid existence of this faux Garden of Eden is a kind of hell for anyone with a brain or a creative impulse. They literally live like animals: eat, drink, sleep, procreate, get eaten – they don’t do anything, they don’t make anything. And the Morlocks? They have at least a kind of cunning (however twisted their diet) and the teensiest bit of motivation, like when they set a trap for the Time Traveler. It’s prey and predator; it’s nature, humanity losing its humanity. There’s a scene that captures it for me. In the middle of a forest fire, the Time Traveler watches while trapped & blinded Morlocks blunder around in panicked circles “making uncanny noises to each other”. He looks up through the smoke at the cold night sky at stars which are totally unaffected by the entire sweep of human existence. We had, through our own actions, devolved into cannibals who’d not only lost the ability to make fire, but were flat-out terrified of it. Game over. Meaningless game over.
Okay, it’s mostly dystopia.
The book does not end there, though, and perhaps not all is lost. In fact, the iconic 1960 movie adds a few interesting details. Though in both the Traveler makes it back to 19th century England and then hops back onto the machine and disappears [sorry, spoilers – but come on – you’ve never read or seen The Time Machine?!], in the movie it’s clear that he’s going back to where he was, to rebuild human civilization. So with that act, there is a glimmer of hope that the humanity of the distant future might actually survive and, who knows?, maybe one day flourish again.
After he has disappeared, the friends of the Time Traveler note that he has taken with him 3 books, though they are not sure which – there are just three empty slots on his bookshelf. He’s going to rebuild civilization, and he chooses 3 specific books… but which ones?
Which would you choose?