H. G. Wells’s first novel, The Time Machine, enjoyed instant popularity and rescued its author from obscurity and poverty. The Time Machine was the first of Wells’s classic “scientific romances,” which, along with some of Jules Verne’s “extraordinary voyages,” provided the foundation of the modern genre of science fiction. Previous visions of the future in fiction had been exactly that: dreams, which were implicitly banished to the realms of mere possibility when the dreamers awoke. Wells wanted to solidify his vision of the future, to give it the status of reality, so he invented a machine capable of traveling through time.
Such a machine was thought impossible, as Wells knew perfectly well, but he also knew that its invocation would provide his story with a new kind of plausibility and narrative force. To this end, he was careful to provide a clever “explanation” of the manner of the machine’s functioning, invoking the idea of duration as a fourth dimension comparable to the three dimensions of space.
Although Wells once referred to his story, in a moment of excitement, as “the new Delphic Oracle,” The Time Machine ought not to be seen as an attempt at prophecy. In its later phases the story does try to come to grips with what Wells considered to be inevitable—the extinction of humanity when the sun runs out of fuel—but in its more interesting phase it is best construed as a warning. Wells extrapolated to a horrific extreme the division of English society into a leisured aristocracy and a mass of downtrodden workers, the lovely but effete Eloi having degenerated to the point where they have become the prey of the monstrous Morlocks.
Readers can now see, after the passage of a mere hundred years, that no part of this vision will come to pass. What seemed inevitable to Wells no longer seems inevitable to readers today. Modern scientists know that the sun gives out heat by virtue of nuclear fusion, not because it is on fire, and that it will not burn out nearly as quickly as Wells imagined. The seemingly fundamental division of society that Wells magnified in his vision of eight hundred thousand years has already been rendered less than fundamental.
It should be noted, however, that The Time Machine seems rather old-fashioned to modern readers to some extent because of the novel’s own success, both as a literary landmark and as an example of how to imagine the future. Wells’s time machine became the archetype of a vast range of imaginary machines the uses of which have opened limitless imaginative territories. Unlike the far more modest machines employed by Verne’s voyagers, which were careful extrapolations of existing vehicles, the time machines, spaceships, and dimensional gateways of genre science fiction became devices that can transport characters into an infinite number of hypothetical worlds. While they do so, they stoutly maintain the pretense that these are no mere fairylands; rather, they are worlds that could and actually might exist.
The fact that this is a pretense—in other words, a fiction—does not detract from the seriousness that the best of such imaginative work can devote to the description of hypothetical worlds. It is at least arguable that one of the most encouraging lessons learned from this serious contemplation is that the extinction of humanity need not be inevitable, even though the sun is not eternal, because the universe beyond the solar system is not inaccessible in any absolute sense.
Wells’s depiction of the society of the Eloi and the Morlocks was not the unprecedented leap that his invention of a time machine was. That kind of extrapolation of the familiar to caricaturish extremes has long been a standard method of satire. The Time Machine, however, is not a satire; its rhetoric is not calculated to make the extreme seem absurd but rather to make it seem tragic. The novel is science fiction instead of satire, so the argument of this parable is not simply that the divisions in society that it exaggerates are foolish or unjust; rather, it is that they possess an internal dynamic that is ominous and dangerous.
It is difficult for twenty-first century readers to appreciate how unusual it was for a nineteenth century writer to see the world as something essentially in flux, subject to constant and irresistible change. Previously, the great majority of people, and virtually all literary discourse, had seen change in terms of a lurching movement from one potentially stable state to another. Before Wells, before the scientific discoveries regarding evolution, relativity, and uncertainty, and before the popularization of ideas that follow from such discoveries, the world was seen as a place that might achieve stability. Utopian dreaming was a matter of choosing some static ideal that would obviate the need for further change. Wells’s early scientific romances constitute a brilliant exploration of the vast spectrum of possibilities implicit in a world where change is constant and insistent.
If readers accept that the future is as yet unmade, and that it is unforeseeable in principle as well as in practice (or, to put it another way, that God plays dice with the universe), then the real function of futuristic visions is to warn of the pitfalls that might lie ahead for humanity. The best of such books are not those that depict changes that come true, even in part, but those that help to prevent the futures they foresee. For this reason, The Time Machine should be regarded not as a dated work whose image of the future is obsolete but as an authentic triumph of the nineteenth century imagination.