The Time Machine - Through the 1800s

(Read full series here)

Part II

Welcome back to The Time Machine! In last month’s segment, we talked about the origins of the science fiction literary genre and how Margaret Cavendish set the world record for the most semicolons used in a single piece of 1600s literature with her story The Blazing World .

This month, we’re jumping a couple hundred years into the future to discuss the foundational pieces of the 1800s and the role that they played in ushering in a new wave of science fiction in the 20th century. And while the true origins of the genre are still up for debate, the influence of several 19th century science fiction writers, specifically H.G. Wells, is uncontested.

The Western world was changing hard and fast in the late 1700s and the early 1800s. The explosions of Industrialization, capitalism, and Enlightenment thought, coupled with global political instability, gave rise to a new era of civilization, what we now refer to as “modern” society. And with modernity came a thirst for scientific and technological advancement. This new world, and this new way of living in it, was the perfect environment for literary authors to dream beyond the limits of what we already know.

I have previously written about the lasting impact of English author Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, specifically through testing the boundaries of the human body and what it means to truly be human. However, from the science fiction perspective, Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein is also the archetype of the mad scientist character, and she uses his experiment where he stitches together and reanimates parts of human corpses, to push the limits of scientific discovery. It was no longer just magic or spirits that could give life to dead bodies; it was also electricity. It was science.

Decades later, French author Jules Verne also started leaning on scientific advancement as the basis for his exploration of the world. In the 1860s, he began publishing a collection of his voyages extraordinaires, which included two now well known science fiction novels: A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869). In a style that Isaac Asimov called “absolute realism”, Verne would describe in great detail voyages to places that had yet to be explored, such as the moon, the bottom of the ocean, or the center of earth. And while Verne’s writings alone have had a lasting impact on the science fiction genre, he was also a profound influence on the focus of this month’s segment: H.G. Wells.

Reading H.G. Wells

As the 19th century was coming to a close, Herbert George Wells found comfort in the writings of Jules Verne, an interest that quickly spawned a writing career of his own. But where Verne leaned on scientific accuracy and everyday descriptions of his fictitious journeys, Wells deviated from scientific realism and sought adventure and excitement. This month, I decided to stick with two quintessential pieces from Wells: The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1897), both of which are classics that I would recommend to any fan of science fiction.

The Time Machine, which is also this column’s namesake, tells the story of a time traveler as he recounts his adventure into the future to a group of his weekly dinner guests. While stories prior to this had explored the concept of moving through time, Wells is typically credited with inventing the time machine as a device that can transport one into the past and the future. Likewise, the existence of a machine that can control time travel (rather than any sort of magical cause, which was common in fantasy stories at the time) is a distinctly industrial literary mechanism that would not have been possible to imagine without the mechanization of labor that is inherent in the modern factory.

This science fiction novella is also structured in a sort of layered first-person point of view, with both the primary narrator, one of the Time Traveler’s dinner guests, and the anonymous Time Traveler himself giving their accounts of the events (as both a storylistener and the storyteller, respectively).

In the story, the Time Traveler tells his guests about his journey more than 800,000 years into the future to the year 802,701. When he arrives, he is met with what he first believes to be a social paradise. The human-like inhabitants of the future are almost child-like in their nature, with seemingly no worries, fears, or toil. However, the Time Traveler soon discovers another race of inhabitants that occupy the subterranean underbelly of the world. This discovery of different races of future humans leads the Time Traveler to speculate on the role of Industrialization, inequality, and stratification in the future, all of which were primary social concerns in the 19th century Victorian England where H.G. Wells was living and writing.

As is common with science fiction stories, and as I attempted to replicate in my own short story, time travel is often used as a vehicle for a deeper exploration into questions about human nature. In The Time Machine, what begins as a majestic tale of time travel soon becomes an intense study on the nature of humanity and advanced civilizations. As he recalls his days spent in the year 802,701 (and eventually beyond that), the Time Traveler comes to question his initial theories and conclusions about the future, and he begins to consider the consequences of society advancing, particularly toward Utopia. What he observes is not the existence of a social paradise as he originally thought, but rather a society that, by abandoning its drive for intellectual advancement, has become complacent in its own destruction. Also of importance: this work is part of the Dying Earth subgenre of science fiction, which sets stories in the distant future and explores themes of the end of time and the depletion of the earth’s resources (see also: Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and Doris Piserchia’s Earthchild).

Coming off my enjoyment of The Time Machine, I started working my way through what is arguably one of the most popular works of H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1897), a gripping first-hand account of an alien invasion from Mars. Regrettably, I am reading this story for the first time after having already seen the 2005 Steven Spielberg film adaptation, and while the movie itself was enjoyable, I am confident that it is impacting my experience reading the novel.

However, the film is hardly the most memorable adaptation of this story in the last century. In 1938, American actor and director Orson Welles performed a modernized version of the story for a radio station that broadcasted out of New York City. While an announcement was made at the beginning of the broadcast warning of the fictional nature of the story, for the hundreds of listeners who tuned in after the announcement, the “flawless” realism (high praise from Isaac Asimov) of the source material was enough to send them into a panic. While the scale of the panic was evidently overblown in later news reports, the stunt launched the career of Orson Welles, who later went on to write, produce, direct, and star in the widely acclaimed 1941 film Citizen Kane.

While the adaptations are certainly memorable, I don’t want to overshadow the much-deserved success of the novel itself. As I mentioned last month, I am pretty new to the whole science fiction literary genre. So, while my experience with science fiction in television and movies taught me to always look for the message beneath the story, I am just now realizing how profound that message can be in science fiction literature. On Wells, Isaac Asimov once wrote, “He saw in science fiction not primarily the tale of the advance of science, but rather the reaction of human beings to that advance of science.”

So, yes, The War of the Worlds is an incredibly realistic story about an alien invasion, but it is also, first and foremost, a critique of the British imperialism that was occurring in the 19th century. Wells takes care to state in his opening pages his thoughts on the Martian invasion:

“And before we judge of them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

If one can momentarily look past the questionable way that Wells (through his narrator) refers to non-European nations, we can see a clear message: how can Europe be surprised by a hostile invasion from the Martians while simultaneously acting with that same level of hostility in Africa and parts of Asia? For someone living and writing in England during the height of British imperialism, to explore such topics of hypocrisy, even in the science fiction genre, was a bold move.

On a lighter note, if I have any critique of The War of the Worlds, it is the unexpected geography lesson that H.G. Wells provides as he recounts the invasion. From Horsell Common to The River Thames, I suspect that Wells named every single city, town, and geographical landmark in all of 19th century Southeast England at some point during the story. The frequency with which he named these locations would give Margaret Cavendish, with her semicolons, a run for her money.

So, if you are at all interested in the human experience during Industrialization, the exploration of Enlightenment thought, or the rise of modern society in the 18th and 19th centuries, you will definitely want to add The Time Machine to your bookshelf. Likewise, if time travel is your thing, this is a must-read. Throw in an interest in alien invasion literature and a critical analysis of British imperialism, and you can easily add The War of the Worlds right along with it.

Also, in what may sound blasphemous to some, I must admit that I do the majority of my reading with an eReader. However, my local used bookstore has an impressive science fiction/fantasy section, and I started loading up my bookcase a few months ago in preparation for this monthly column. So, let me just say: my 1968 printed edition of these two stories has some gorgeously discolored pages… and it smells so incredibly good. And somewhere among the soft, worn pages sits a small spot–a stain no bigger than a pencil eraser, a reminder of the 5am airport coffee that fueled my reading session that day. It is both a travesty and a beautiful contribution to the fifty-plus year history of the print. I can’t imagine reading H.G. Wells in any other way.

So, that’s it for the 1800s! Tune in next month for Aldous Huxley, the futurians, and the Radium Age (whatever the heck that is).

- By JL Snyder

Note: all biographical information for H.G. Wells, including the quotes from Isaac Asimov, comes from Asimov’s Introduction to the 1968 Fawcett Crest edition of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.

Missed Part 1? Read here.