Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Time Machine (book)

Its very title, The Time Machine (1895) suggests that H.G. Wells’ tale of time travel is the first such book to suggest a literal journey in time, through the use of a scientific machine specifically built for that purpose.

In fact, Wells did coin the term "time machine" though there were a few stories which played with the concept of traveling backward in time written prior to this piece, which was serialized before its being revised into a book.

In my play, On the Dark Side of Twilight, I trace the history of vampires in literature, and how the definition of their existence had changed from era to era. Some rules, like their need to drink blood, definitively defines what it means to be a vampire, and so has remained constant. That they cannot walk in daylight was not true at first, and has recently been dismissed.

Some fun might be had writing a similar story on the history of time travel, and what ideas our imaginations can accept, and which they cannot. Wells did not trouble himself with the idea of paradoxes, never questions whether his protagonist - who has no name, only The Time Traveler - or whether or not to kill Hitler, who would only have been six at the time, anyway.

In fact, Wells does not even venture into the past, only the future, and in doing so he sets in this one story several paradigms for our idea of time travel, many of which have never changed, and has inspired countless imitators.

Unlike Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which she doesn’t actually describe how man reanimates man, just that it happens, Welles describes a few precious materials which compose the machine and make it work. We now refer to this as Techno Babble, a term devised to describe every word anyone says on Star Trek.

The Future, as defined by Wells, is originally assumed by the Time Traveler to have one set of realities, and as his veil of ignorance is lifted, he discovers to his horror is something entirely else. This “Discoverer’s Error” is a mainstay of plots for Star Trek and Dr. Who - these programs often presenting the opposite discovery, that that which appeared monstrous was merely misunderstood.

Mary Doria Russell’s award-winning novel The Sparrow even lifts the central conceit of Wells’ mystery, the concept of two sentient in a symbiotic relationship where one exists as food for the other.

I found the final passages of The Time Machine extremely affecting, especially or due to their brevity, in the which the Traveler leaps millions of years into the future, twice, the witness the Earth in its final days. As the globe ceases to spin on its axis, and either the Sun expands or the Earth comes nearer to it, the seas crust with salt, all appears reddish or pink to the eye … and giant creatures described as similar in appearance to crabs roam the shore.

The Traveler is nearly attacked by one and manages to escape with alacrity. I couldn’t help but be reminded by Stephen King’s Gunslinger, who had no means of escape when set upon by mutant crustaceans on a foreign beach and was terribly maimed.

Wells’ uses his time machine to ask what if, and to play out a fantasy of a future time where the worst fantasy of man’s inhumanity comes to pass. There are several allusions to the downfall of humanity through Communism, but it is Capitalism which is the true culprit, how a permanent underclass will eventually turn on its master. The image of workers underground while idle classes play above (a literal image from the Victorian period) is reflected in films like Metropolis, and many others.

Time travel has always been a tool for writers to reflect their own time back to their readers in metaphors which are exciting and easy to digest, with or without Jessica Paré.

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