Review: The Time Machine – HG Wells

time traveller

With the cold dread of someone who read the question wrong, I realise that I’ve mixed up my classic sci-fi authors. I’m sure no one’s going to notice.

Everyone knows the story of the time machine: a pair of robots, one with nine cameras that coincidentally gives a 360˚ view of whatever’s going on around her and the other with the voice of Robin Williams, inadvertently kidnap Jules Verne and take him on some madcap adventures. This might have been an attraction in Euro Disney.

When I returned to the park in later years, I was bitterly disappointed to find this slice of my childhood winkled out of existence. It’d been replaced, I believe, with a Buzz Lightyear shooting range.

Anyway, at this point I realised that the science fiction book I read, rather than, say Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea or Around the World in Eighty Days, was by HG Wells instead. In my defence, he made a cameo appearance in the attraction I was originally basing this on so I’m claiming some shred of relevancy.

Which brings us to The Time Machine, published in 1895. I struggled with it. A lot. Which isn’t a great recommendation because it’s more of a novella than a full-fledged novel and it took me a couple of months to get through, on and off. Then again, it was written nearly a hundred years before I was born so don’t I get brownie points for trying?

In short, the Time Traveller (there are very few names used throughout the book so the Time Traveller is all we know the protagonist as. The narrator doesn’t get a name either) regales a dinner party with his latest invention: a time machine.

The next week, he turns up late to another such gathering at his own house and soon recounts a tale of his exploits exploring the future. Spoilers a-comin’: the Time Traveller patronises the locals, induces Stockholm syndrome, pisses off an indigenous culture, gets his wheels stolen, sets a forest fire, gets the sole female character killed and escapes in the nick of time.

When it comes to characters, as mentioned, it’s been made that much more difficult to get on board with them because we don’t really know who they are. The bits of the narrative I enjoyed the most were the dinner parties, gatherings of stuffy men poo-pooing the theories of the Time Traveller.

But they’re well written and engaging, just a sprinkling of actions and observations give you a clear picture of the various men in the room. It’s interesting seeing that scene from a more independent source than the Time Traveller himself. The narrator enjoys poking holes in the excited ideas but by the end of the story he’s a lot less sure. The Time Traveller disappears and the narrator’s been waiting for three years, unsure of what fate he thinks that the Time Traveller has met with.

When the Time Traveller himself takes over the point of view, the storytelling nature of the recounting does kind of negate the jeopardy of the situations he finds himself in. Unless there’s some massive twist (which there isn’t), you know that he made it back because he’s alive. So perhaps we’re supposed to question whether or not any of it actually happened.

To be honest, I found it difficult to keep caring about the Time Traveller. He was difficult to empathise with at the best of times but the little characterisation he had wasn’t helped by the fact that he didn’t have a name. There was also some slippiness when it came to some aspects of the plot. He comes up with theories that never pan out, which is understandable but then there’s never any explanation for the names he uses for the races he encounters.

I ended up reading this book in two stages. The middle of the book was so painfully slow that I had to put it down for a little while. When I came back it was still building ponderously to an ending that tried to pack in far too much. Maybe it’s because I sped through the climax, willing it to end but it didn’t feel all that compelling.

And then there was a section after the escape from the Morlocks showing the degradation of humanity from the ditzy Eloi and the ominous Morlocks to a menacing reddish crab-like horror. Apparently that last bit was suggested by Wells’s editor. It… wasn’t great but at least I didn’t know that it was coming.

This is a towering classic of science fiction, the grandfather of many modern works. It’s almost impossible for it to unfold organically but that’s the fault of the material that came after it. The story is so well known that by the time the reveals come in the story they feel almost stale. You can’t come to this story with new eyes. At one point a mysterious underground ventilation system is revealed and it doesn’t take spidey senses to know what’s coming.

It’s a lot easier to pick up on the things that I didn’t enjoy because the best elements have already been lifted out by other people. Everyone’s* heard of the Morlocks.

*I haven’t done a survey. By everyone, obviously I just mean me.

It’s far from a perfect narrative and it’s definitely been built on dodgy scientific suppositions but it’s also a product of its time. You can’t expect a story from the 1890s to get everything right. People looking back a hundred or more years from now will probably scratch their heads over some of the dubious things we take as read.

Further reading:

And on the other side of the internet, my daily blog.

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