Friday, December 20, 2013

On "The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells ***

I have not read much science fiction outside of the work of Philip K. Dick, who forged a reading list of mine a couple of years ago, so I've decided to embark on a reading list of classic science fiction.

I say I haven't read much, but in fact, I actually read quite a bit of the nineteenth-century science fiction (Jules Verne particularly comes to mind) when I was a kid. Forced to read one thousand pages per quarter from a select reading list, Verne and authors like him were often my staple. Had more contemporary science fiction books been on that list (and in the school library), I'd have definitely tried them. Thing is, I loved sci-fi--mostly because of Star Wars (something I probably wouldn't find myself drawn to as much as an adult, prequels notwithstanding)--or so I thought. But the few times I've read more contemporary stuff, I've usually been disappointed. I think that's because, as with sci-fi movies, while I like philosophical ideas and intense thrills, I'm not much for action. I'm more of an Alien fan than an Aliens fan, for instance.

So the reading list this time will include mostly those twentieth-century masters I haven't ever read, and I'm hoping they'll be interesting more for their ideas than for their action and, in addition, that they'll be at least fairly decently written. (The other issue I have with much genre fiction is the degree to which authors rely on cliches, but a good author, I've found, often doesn't, meaning that when younger, I often dismissed genre fiction out of hand when I should have considered each work separately, because as I discovered when reading a mystery list about a decade ago, there are some really brilliant genre writers out there. The classics are often classics for a reason, and I was wrong to be snooty about them.

The Time Machine, however, was a bit of a disappointment. I enjoyed the first few chapters, as Wells waxed poetic on ideas about physics that I would have thought postdated him (the connection between traveling through time and traveling through space, and the dynamics of the fourth dimension), but the story got rather hokey once the narrator headed off into the grand future.

Of course, the description of future was itself a social commentary. In it, humankind had evolved into two factions: a light and a dark, a good and an evil. But while the ones who lived above ground were peace loving, they had become so appeased with easy living that they failed any longer to advance. For Wells, this seemed a dangerous proposition. We must struggle if we are to evolve (there seemed a slight critique of communism here, as if the greed of capitalism is something we should want, as opposed to the peace communism would supposedly bring). But by the same token, those below ground had descended to the lowest rungs of decency, becoming essentially cannibals, even as they continued to use machinery.

Most of the plot revolves around the narrator's time machine being stolen and him attempting to recover it so that he can get back to his own time, a familiar plot indeed, though perhaps unique in Wells's time. The book is available online here.

No comments: