Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Time Machine, H. G. Wells

Title: The Time Machine
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: OK

Some time back a friend gave us an anthology of science fiction by H. G. Wells. I am reviewing each of the novels within that anthology separately, as they were originally published that way. They appear in the order they were written, and this is the first, originally published in 1895. As I reread it in 2006 it is 111 years old. Wow.

This is a classic tale of science fiction. A man from the late 1800s creates a machine to let him travel through time, does so, and sees the distant future. In its time, it must have been an astounding thing to read. Alas, I wish that it held up better than it has.

My criticisms may be too harsh given it really has been 111 years since the book was published. If so, and if they offend, I apologize.

First, the language doesn't go over well to modern readers. Sentence structure and paragraphing are very different now, and on several occasions I had to stop and go back to find out where I had misunderstood something. Double negatives were more common then, and the flowery speech of the writer blocked my absorption of the story at times. I can imagine a current middle school student being very frustrated trying to read this book purely because of the language.

And then there is the science, gone very wrong by today's standards. Even side stepping the issue of how to travel in time, Wells's presentation of the end of the earth isn't right. He has the sun swelling up to something vaguely like a red giant in 30 million years, the planet no longer rotates, the moon is gone, and an eclipse by an inner planet darkens the sky. There are just too many things wrong in there for me to swallow them all now. Back in 1985, I am sure that wasn't the case, but to a reader with modern sensibilities, those issues grate a bit.

More problematically, though, Wells uses this book as a vehicle for discussing a possible result of capitalist society: the division of humanity into Eloi and Morlocks is an outcome of the separation of the classes taken to an extreme. Whether Wells believed such a thing was possible, I don't know, but the presentation is pretty simplistic by modern standards.

I know this is a classic work, and that it has a high place in the world of science fiction history, but much deeper and more believable work has been done since. Wells blazed a new trail, and I am sure it wasn't easy. Later writers of science fiction owe him a debt, but that doesn't mean we should shy away of stating a work's weaknesses.

For those interested in learning more, the work is available in full text versions in several places on the Internet. And the wikipedia entry is also interesting reading, though I am not certain of its accuracy. (It claims that in the 30 million year future, two planets may have fallen into the sun. The text uses the word "eclipse", so I doubt that description, but then again, we are dealing with old prose, and I may have misread or misunderstood.)

If you're interested in Wells himself, or in old SF, this is a must read. If you're looking to read good SF as viewed from our current perspective, this one is more than a bit dated.