The Time Machine Essay - Critical Essays

H. G. Wells


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Time Machine is the first of a series of early novels by Wells that profoundly influenced later science fiction. These “scientific romances,” as Wells called them (the term “science fiction” not yet having come into circulation), include The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). In these works, Wells powerfully expresses many of the anxieties of his time. In the aftermath of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, science had replaced Scripture as people’s chief means of understanding the universe and their place in it.

Although The Time Machine introduces the first time machine in science fiction, Wells was not really concerned with plausible methods of time travel. His chief interest was in the social and biological implications of evolutionary theory. Many of his concerns remain valid.

Most of The Time Machine deals with the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks. Humanity has split into two subspecies, one of which preys on the other and both of which have degenerated from modern civilized humanity. Wells’s main point is that true progress is impossible when society is divided rigidly by class. In an ironic reversal, the Eloi, descendants of the idle rich who figuratively fed off the poor, are now themselves literally devoured by their former victims.

The vision of the end of life on Earth thirty million years in the future was governed by Wells’s determination to counter the optimism of nineteenth century ideas about progress. This scientific apocalypse is presented not as a bang but as a whimper, with the Time Traveler watching the last living thing in its death throes.

Given post-Darwinian knowledge about past extinctions of dominant species, there is no reason to be confident about the advancement of humankind. Devolution, or regression to a more primitive state, is as realistic a possibility as evolution to a higher state, and eventual extinction is likely.

Although The Time Machine has the force of a realistic work, it often is read as a parable. As such, it has generated a rich variety of critical interpretations. Most critics agree that it is one of the small number of masterpieces in the field of science fiction.