The Time Traveller’s Prophecy

H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, published in 1895, is more than a piece of highly entertaining fiction. It is also an interesting and important contribution to the canon of dystopian literature. Even before Wells, there was a tendency to equate futurity with social advancement, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, written just a few years earlier, which depicted a world of scientific marvels and communal harmony. It is interesting, however, that Wells the socialist was inclined to view man’s future pessimistically, as seen in his other time travel narrative, The Sleeper Awakes (1910).

Many people are familiar with The Time Machine in one form or another, including George Pal’s excellent 1960 film adaptation. In the world of 802,701 A.D. the upper classes and the toiling workers have become stratified to such an extent that over the millennia they have evolved not only culturally but physically into distinct races. The dwellers in the upper world are the Eloi—delicate, beautiful and completely frivolous. They are incapable of providing for themselves and live without toil in a landscape of magnificent ruins. It turns out that these crumbling structures are relics from a time (now quite remote) when mankind had reached the apogee of technological perfection. Meanwhile, the laborers and technicians, inhabiting vast underground workshops, have become the Morlocks. Deformed and hideous, as well as cannibalistic, they prey on the Eloi for whom they still provide food and clothing out of age-old custom.

The socialist theories which influenced Wells’ narrative proved simplistic. The old industrial order of the nineteenth century was relatively short lived. We do indeed see post-modern representatives of “Eloi” and “Morlock,” of over-refinement and barbarity; but they exist side by side rather than strictly segregated.  Still, in other ways The Time Machine was quite prescient. Wells speaks of the waning of struggle and the hardships of life that “put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision.” Increasing luxury has seen the fading of old codes and loyalties, including the institution of the family. Even according to Wells’ ambivalent ethical views such arrangements must become untenable in the long run: “This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.”

Material satiety is never enough to solve all of humanity’s problems. New forms of dissatisfaction will break out in ways that invariably confound the utopians. As Wells’ contemporary, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, wrote:

Envy is a thousand times more terrible than hunger, for it is spiritual hunger. If what is called the problem of life, the problem of bread, were once solved, the earth would be turned into a hell by the emergence in a more violent form of the struggle for survival.

For related commentary, see my post on Wells’ science fiction classic, The War of the Worlds.

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