The Time Machine: Then and Now

It’s been about fifteen years since I first read The Time Machine.  It was so unlike anything I’d read before.  Afterwards, I even wrote my own time-travelling story, which was more like fan-fiction than anything else.

I don’t often reread books, but as I build my H. G. Wells collection, I figured I’d reread each book and see how it held up over time.  (No pun intended!)  The Time Machine was the first book by Wells I’d read and seemed like a natural starting point.

The story begins in Victorian England.  A group of friends – a doctor, a journalist, a psychologist, and others – gather at the Time Traveller’s house for their customary meal and conversation.  The Time Traveller at this stage has just created a model of his machine which he says he can build at full-scale and use to travel through time.  The demonstration leaves his guests skeptical, but not long after that, the Time Traveller shows up to one of his own dinners, bedraggled and telling a wild story of adventure and romance.  The rest of the book is a flashback (or is it a flashforward?) which follows his exploits into the future, where the human race has become split into binary factions, the childlike, helpless Elois and the industrious, sinister Morlocks.

I’d like to think I was an astute child, but the sheer selfishness and stupidity of the Time Traveller was apparently lost on me.  For the most important trip of his life, he leaves very unprepared, which comes back to bite him later.  More disturbing is his romance with the woman-child named Weena.  The age difference is ambiguous, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he seems more interested in his own well-being than hers.  Overall he’s a terribly unlikable narrator, and the worst of it is, Wells doesn’t seem to realize that.

The story itself is still exciting, even this many years later.  Unlike the recent adaptations of Doctor Who, which follow a breathless plotline, Wells makes use of “negative space,” if you will, to highlight the more perilous moments.  There’s almost a pastoral bent to his descriptions of the futuristic countryside, forests, and rivers.  It makes for a poignant contrast between the appearances of peace and the realities of warfare (or rather, terrorism), which the Morlocks inflict on the peace-loving Elois.

Is the plot realistic or plausible?  Not really – but I’m not sure it was intended to be. It does, however, give you an insight on the late Victorian psyche, at least from Wells’s perspective.

If you like classic steampunk, then you have to read The Time Machine.  If you can rewind to childhood and read it then, all the better.

H. G. Wells on Victorian Short Stories

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Lately I’ve been wandering down memory lane with H. G. Wells’ The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911).  This collection holds, in the words of Wells: “all of the short stories by me that I care for any one to read again.”  Some are new and some familiar – two of them are personal favorites, which I’ll be mentioning in Monday’s podcast episode (“Nine Creepy Victorian Short Stories”).

In the Introduction, Wells gives us a little recap of the short story form and its writers, as far as it had evolved in the late Victorian era.  He praises Kipling, whose writing “opened like window-shutters to reveal the dusty sun-glare and blazing colours of the East.”  J. M. Barrie also gets a mention, along with Henry James, Stephen Crane, Jerome K. Jerome, and Edith Nesbit.  Other contemporaries are listed, whose names are less known to modern readers.  Joseph Conrad alone is noted as having, in Wells’s eyes, continued in the 20th century to write pieces comparable to his pre-1900 work.

The golden age of short stories was not critic-free, Wells recollects.  For example, there was a question of what constitutes a short story.

There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what any one of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes’ reading or so.

Personally, Wells did not care to put a solid definition on what makes a “short story.”  In his view, a short story meant just two general properties, and those were a) “achiev[ing] the impossible,” and b) taking around 15–50 minutes to read aloud.

I have always enjoyed short stories, and to this day, I prefer them over novels.  They also appeal to me as a writer, because my inspiration tends to home in on a specific scene or piece of dialog, which doesn’t necessarily fit in a longer form.

What are some of your favorite short stories (or short story authors)?