Friday, March 7, 2014

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

Accept no adaptations
The science fiction creations of H. G. Wells have become such an indelible part of popular culture that his stories may seem quite familiar even to those who haven’t read them. Whether they realize it or not, everyone’s probably seen at least one movie based either directly or indirectly on his 1895 novel The Time Machine, and pretty much every piece of time travel fiction written since this book’s publication bears the mark of its influence. Nevertheless, no matter what you think you may know about Wells from the various adaptations of this work, you are doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t read the original source material.

The Time Machine opens with a group of English gentlemen gathering for food, drink, cigars, and intellectual discourse at the home of their friend. The narrator, one of the guests at this dinner, never names his host, but only refers to him as the Time Traveller. The Time Traveller explains to his guests that he is working on a mode of transportation through the fourth dimension. He even demonstrates a miniature prototype of his time machine, which allegedly vanishes into the future. His guests are incredulous, but depart having been amused by this baffling parlor trick. When his colleagues return the following week, they find the Time Traveller in a terrible state—dirty, dishevelled, bloodied, and haggard. When questioned by his friends, he reveals that he has just returned from a perilous voyage to the year AD 802,701. As his audience listens in a mixture of shock and disbelief, he relates the story of his epic journey into mankind’s distant future.

Although written over a century ago, this book shows little signs of age. There’s nothing antiquated about the prose that would hinder the 21st century reader from enjoying this wonderful novel. The story is still remarkably fresh, engaging, and thought-provoking. The opening dinner party starts out lighthearted enough, but once Wells moves into the scientific subject matter, it soon becomes apparent that this is going to be more than just an entertaining adventure. Some deep thinking will be required. As Wells’ conception of Earth’s future begins to take shape, each layer of his visionary world is built upon a sound philosophical or scientific foundation. To delve too deeply into Wells’ thought in this review would be to spoil too much of the story. Suffice it to say that since the story concerns mankind’s descendants, Darwinian evolution obviously plays a large part. Wells depicts the state of affairs in the 800th millennium as the result of the natural, social, political, and economic forces he saw at work in his own time. Though the reader may not agree with the author that this is the way the future of humanity is going to pan out, one can’t help but admire how ingeniously and thoroughly Wells has thought out every last detail. Despite what you might have seen in the movies, there’s not a trace of campiness in this book, and no special effects could do justice to Wells’ visionary imagination. Beyond the thrill ride the plot provides, there is a stunning depth and breadth to Wells’ thought that clearly elevates this work above typical genre fiction to the level of literature.

I was so pleasantly surprised by The Time Machine, I’m now eager to read many of Wells’ other works. My guess is The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau are all worlds better than their inadequate adaptations and, like this novel, contain hidden treasures just waiting to be discovered.

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