H. G. Wells
Nicholas Ruddick, Editor
(Broadview)When I was thirteen or so, I picked up H. G. Wells' Seven Famous Novels. It quickly became a turning point for me. Before, books were something they crammed down my throat in school, but Wells was a writer who knew how to capture the imagination of the young, and he took me over for a year or so. I would lie in my bed of an evening --- this was long before television --- and read and reread "The Invisible Man," "The War of the Worlds," "The Island of Dr. Moreau," and "The Time Machine." Broadview has just put out this annotated version of "The Time Machine" and I picked it up, fearful that the magic might have fled; but after the first page, I was hooked, yet again.
Many of the references and techniques of narration that were meaningless back in 1946 now come into focus. There is the novelistic device of guests, gathered around the dinner table of Time Traveller, waiting to hear his unbelievable story: all upper class stuff (thus made more believable) with the champagne, and "the lilies of silver" that "caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses."
There are the characters --- the editor, the psychologist, the narrator, the silent man (who drank a lot), and Filby, "an argumentative person with red hair."
Many of the philosophical devices were lost on me in 1946. The reason for the existence of the Eloi, there in the far future, those creatures living out their silly lives in a sunny, Eden-like paradise. And below them, literally, the Morlocks, hidden away in the dark --- slimy underground creatures with huge eyes, who we learn, feed off the merry carefree Eloi.
There were references I didn't get --- to Grant Allen, Darwin, Carlyle. There was some reference to economic determinism: the existence of the underground creatures harked back to the poor turn-
of- the- century laborers working in dark, hot, sweatshops, who evolved into those ghoulish creatures. They serve the Eloi --- making their clothes and their shoes --- but, at the price of making potted meat-pies out of them at suppertime. § § §
This time around, I was unprepared for the elegance of Wells' language. Take the key description of time travel itself, where, as he moved into the future, the landscape grew "misty and vague:"
I was still on the hillside upon which this house now stands, and the shoulder rose above me grey and dim. I saw trees growing and changing like puffs of vapour, now brown, now green: they grew, spread, shivered, and passed away. I saw huge buildings rise up faint and fair, and pass like dreams. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed --- melting and flowing under my eyes.
And then, the sun and moon and stars, starting with a fine and poetic reverie:
As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day....Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous colour like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space, the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.
When he finally stops --- in the year 802701 --- The Time Traveler visits The Palace of Green Porcelain, a dark and dusty and fall-apart museum, where he finds a room of decaying books,
that had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough. Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified.
§ § §
Wells was a student of T. E. Huxley, with all that it implied: agnosticism (Huxley invented the word); fascination with the implications of Evolution; a desire to explain science to "the working man;" a concern with "man's place in the universe."
The Time Machine was Wells first popular piece of writing, published when he was but twenty-nine. It is a wonderful science-fiction tale, expertly paced --- with just the right surprises at the right time. Too, with its spare but lucious use of language, it yokes together that combination of arrogance and science and intellect that represents England in the last days of Victoria: a time of great ambition, overweening confidence, and knowledge that it was the job of the colonialists to remake the world through rational thought and sheer force-
of- character. We have here a tiny magnifying glass, taken from the museum --- one that magnifies the surety of those who gloried at England's place in the universe. The Time Machine tells us all we need to know about the spirit of Empire England, a story of the passion not only to colonize the world, but the past and the future as well. § § §
In this edition of Wells' tale, the notes are more than helpful --- both for facts as well as suggesting influences, poetics, style. These are, for example, Ruddick's thoughts on Wells' choice of the name for the subterranean denizens of the future, Morlocks --- which combines
allusions to "mullock" (garbage, low-class human trash), "warlock" (evil spirit, male witch), "Moloch" (god of Ammonites to whom children were sacrificed, viewed as a devil by Christianity), "Mohock" (an eighteenth-century London ruffian), "more" ("death" in French) ... and "locks (suggesting both imprisonment and hairiness.)--- L. W. Milam