Reviewing a text that’s over 100 years old — and indeed one of the first examples of modern sci-fi — can seem like a daunting task. A straight beat-for-beat review of it is out of the question and frankly ludicrous: anyone who wants to know the story already knows the story, and even if they don’t, there are tons of ways to get that information already proliferating the World Wide Web. The best of these? Just go read the book — for free – yourself, on Goodreads.
Instead I think it’s important to revisit old texts and look at them, not in the context of which they were written, but from a more Freudian and ethnocentric perspective, looking back through the years. The thing about a Freudian reading is that it’s always changing, no two readings are alike, and thus the review of the work is always evolving as well. It’s from just such a point-of-view that I approach one of the forefathers of modern science-fiction and modern storytelling, HG Wells, and his story, The Time Machine.
So the first part of doing this type of analysis is to find out what I, as a reader, find disturbing or uncanny about this text, and then extrapolate from there what the text is about. With me, the moments in the text that made me twitch a little in a bad way were those few moments of unintended scientific racism, wherein the unnamed Time-Traveling protagonist attempts to explain himself by using epithets that would today be considered racially insensitive:
Conceive the tale of London which a negro, fresh from Central Africa, would take back to his tribe! What would he know of railway companies, of social movements, of telephone and telegraph wires, of the Parcels Delivery Company, and postal orders and the like?
And another such quote which refers to certain structures as ‘oriental.’ At first, it’s easy to diagnose this sort of quirk: My 21st-century reader’s mind responds to this as negative stimulus because I’ve been raised in a time when generalizations such as this would be considered extreme examples of racism, and an author wouldn’t ascribe them to their narrator unless that narrator were meant to be an antihero. However Wells, writing from for 19th century, wouldn’t have had these meanings at heart.
But that explanation is a bit too easy, and lets remember: the author is dead. In this case, both literally and figuratively.
So lets unpack this a little more. Why do the references to “nergos” and “orientals” both me? Because they’re terms that have long since been used to ‘other’ those people by the ‘normal’ culture of white males of European descent. As a culture, European explorers had a tendency to either vilify or mock the members of the nations they discovered of their travels, having come from their own land with superior technology. For example, sometimes Africans were treated as being so simple that they were almost a danger to themselves, and a less-than-human race; while other times they were treated as such a grand threat that they needed to be exterminated en mass for fear of an uprising. These two facts shouldn’t have been mutually acceptable in any thinking-person’s brain, but they were. How can a race be so dumb they’re barely human but still smart enough to outwit you and be a threat? Questions like these are never answered in the ethnocentric texts of the past, nor are the questions of the moral implications of taking a race you deem below yourself into sexual slavery, and what that says about you.
But wait: are we talking about history here, or The Time Machine? You know what: I think we’re talking about both. Just as the European explorers deemed the Africans either “dumb” or “demonic” with nothing in between, so too does the Time Traveler make the Eloi out to be a primitive tribe-like society that he is far superior to (to the point that he amazes them time and time again by simply lighting a match) and make the Morlocks out to be demonic villains via the cunning method the continuously outsmart the Time Traveler, when in fact both groups are intelligent. Well’s Time Traveler also side-steps the issue of “how can this race be both primitive and devious?” by making them two separate races: but they are not so just because the Traveler calls them so. Two different tribes, cultures, or societies? Certainly. But they both descend from man and are the same race.
Equally disturbing in this light is the Traveler’s relationship with Weena, a member of the Eloi group of peoples. This is a young girl that the Traveler first describes at multiple times as being “very young” and “childlike,” but as they spend more time together as he begins to learn their language he begins a romantic relationship with her and takes part in a ceremony-esque scene involving the giving of white flowers and kisses, after which she will not be separated from him, and he eventually resolves to take her back to his time when he leaves.
In case you’re missing the point, this European explorer has taken a child bride from a culture he himself believes is vastly less advanced than his own in all ways and intended to take her from her home land and keep her for himself. See what I’m getting at here?
However: none of this is a problem with the text of The Time Machine in and of itself, or its author HG Wells. Issues with a character or narrator are not issues with a text itself, in fact some of the best texts stir up intense emotional reactions, both positive and negative, within a reader. In fact more and more, I don’t believe The Time Machine to be a racist text, but that Wells was using The Time Machine to get a commentary on the racist norms present at the time past the reader’s biases and into the collective consciousness of our society.
Isn’t that what good science-fiction does? Aren’t we supposed to use these fantastic examples and extrapolate what we can learn about the real world from it? Aren’t we supposed to read X-Men and see the persecution against mutants, and take from that that persecution itself is wrong?
I think Wells was trying to relay how destructive and dangerous the mode of thought of the European Scientist / Explorer was, in a very clever way. One example of this is how unreliable a narrator the Time Traveler truly is: he mentions several times that he cannot remember certain events or circumstances in their entirety. And when dealing with that same child-bride Weena, he more than once says things like “I had to restrain her physically, perhaps a little too hard,” and things like that. And doesn’t the fact that he’s also physically abusive to the child-bridge he’s stealing from her native land make it all the more palatable? It’s worth noting that Wells here doesn’t use language like “I used the force needed to restrain her” which could be read more sympathetically, he’s using language that suggests the Time Traveler is on some level aware that his actions are wrong and is trying to justify them — both to the men he is telling his tale to and to himself.
Is Wells telling us a story of the ethnocentrism of European Explorers? I think so.
But that said, it is also important to understand how culturally significant The Time Machine is, whether you subscribe to that notion or not. Its contribution to the science-fiction genre and the “sub genre” of Time Travel narratives are immense and incalculable. There’s so much here that has become established formula in terms of how to construct a Temporal Narrative: the fact that rather than being about multiple time-travels, the narrative features only one journey: the one to the year 802701 and the subsequent journey back. The fact that the majority of the story’s conflict revolves around the fact that the Traveler loses the Time Machine. Both these facts are echoed over and over again: see Back to the Future: which features one trip into the past and the complication of figuring out a way home once there. See By His Bootstraps: a story in which the main character is brought into the future, and then paradoxically uses a time-machine in order to bring himself into the future. See “The Time Patrol” series by Paol William Anderson. All of these owe a great debt to the formula Wells originated here.
Regardless of what you think of it intellectually, The Time Machine is a book that should be read by all: and with free written and audio versions available on Goodreads, it’s one where you really have no excuse not to.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“…In case you’re missing the point, this European explorer has taken a child bride from a culture he himself believes is vastly less advanced than his own in all ways and intended to take her from her home land and keep her for himself. See what I’m getting at here?”