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The Time Machine
      The Utopian Vision of H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells
      Justin E.A. Busch
Phoenix SF Classics, 102 pages
      McFarland, 212 pages

The Time Machine
The Utopian Vision of H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells
Herbert George Wells was born in 1866 in Bromley (an outer London borough) and was educated at the Normal School of Science in London. He worked as a draper's apprentice, bookkeeper, tutor, and journalist until 1895, when he became a full-time writer. In the next 50 years he produced more than 80 books including The Invisible Man (1897), When the Sleeper Awakes (1899), The First Men in the Moon (1901) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). After World War I, he wrote an immensely popular historical work, The Outline of History (2 volumes, 1920). He died August 13, 1946, in London.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Man Who Could Work Miracles
SF Site Review: The First Men in the Moon
SF Site Review: The Time Machine and War of the Worlds

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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In 1888, the Science Schools Journal, the magazine of the Normal School of Science, published an incomplete serial by the journal's founder and former editor, H.G. Wells. The serial was called 'The Chronic Argonauts' and over the next several years Wells would return to the idea obsessively. In 1894, for instance, he used it as the basis for a series of science articles in The National Observer. The editor of The National Observer then founded a new magazine, The New Review, and commissioned Wells to turn his science articles into a serial story, and the serial in turn became Wells's first novel, The Time Machine, the first of four books to come out by Wells in 1895 (the others being a book of humorous essays, a collection of short stories and a fantasy novel).

The history of this short novel is instructive. It shows Wells developing and exploring the idea consistently over several years, as his rate of production (at least one book a year and more often two or three for every remaining year of his life) would preclude him from ever doing again. In many ways, The Time Machine is his most complete work, a thorough development of the Darwinian ideas he had absorbed at the Normal School of Science and that would form the bedrock of everything else he did throughout his career. It is also a most unusual book, because in no other novel would he reach as far into the future, in no other novel would he imagine so comprehensively the death of everything, and in no other novel would he confront directly what we now term the post-human. Though it was the novel he wrote first, it is the full stop that comes at the end of everything else he wrote later.

Curiously, given much of what he would write in the twentieth century (and given the other book under review here), it is the one work where Darwinian thought is applied to the utopian ideal, and it is the utopian ideal that is found wanting. The Time Traveller's first thought, on encountering the devolved society of the Eloi, is that utopia has failed: "Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness" (34). The Time Traveller almost immediately rejects this theory, but towards the end of his stay in the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, he returns to something very like that first notion: "No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed" (64).

The great quiet of utopia is anti-evolutionary, because evolution can only proceed where there is contest. Where there is no contest, evolution does not stop, it goes into reverse, and as inertia slows the world until it stops at that terminal beach that is probably the most haunting image in the entire novel, so devolution slows human progress until it stops in the fateful ruin that is the world of the Eloi and Morlocks.

Justin E.A. Busch begins his extended essay with The Time Machine, though he rarely touches the work again, perhaps because its austere scientific view that extends beyond human society is antithetical to everything else he tries to argue in this book. From The Time Machine, Busch takes the idea that Utopia cannot be an end in itself, it can only be a process. We must struggle towards Utopia, secure in the knowledge that we can never reach it, because to reach Utopia is a kind of death. I agree with this starting point; it is almost the last thing in the book that I agree with.

Busch's position is that everything Wells wrote (and he quotes extensively from utopian novels, mainstream novels and non-fiction) contributes to one coherent utopian vision, though he assumes such a position rather than arguing for it. Having foreseen the end of humanity, and with it the end of the world, in The Time Machine, Wells devoted the rest of his career towards advocating a route towards Utopia. I find this a difficult enough position to accept, since I find it hard to see, for instance, Men Like Gods, A Modern Utopia, The Shape of Things to Come and his advocacy for the United Nations as being all part and parcel of the same conception. But Busch takes it a step further: for him, Wells is unquestionably right in everything he propounds. Any criticism of Wells is dismissed as superficial or a travesty. The only moment in the entire book when Busch comes close to saying that Wells is wrong about anything comes in a footnote, when he describes the militaristic origin of the Samurai in A Modern Utopia as "a lapse of imagination on his part" (184, n27), a fairly gentle rebuke but even so hidden away as if he dare not risk suggesting even the slightest flaw in his hero's vision within the body of his book.

The key to Busch's argument is that fiction is the only way to convince people generally to follow a utopian path. Philosophy, through its inherent appeal to reason, might change the minds of some people through argument, but the emotional appeal of fiction is needed to make the majority see the possibilities of the utopian path. This is a strange argument on many levels. To start with, the only utopias with which Busch compares Wells's work are Plato's Republic and Thomas More's Utopia (the latter dealt with rather grudgingly), both of which were, of course, written as works of philosophy; so it looks as if he's loading the scales in Wells's favour even before he starts his discussion (though it is arguable that the political effect of More's Utopia over the centuries has been far in excess of anything Wells achieved, since it fed into real-world projects as varied as the utopian communes during the English Civil Wars and the political philosophy of Karl Marx). What he noticeably does not do, however, is make any reference whatsoever to earlier and contemporary fictional utopias with which Wells might well be expected to be familiar, works such as News from Nowhere by William Morris, Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, We by Yevgeny Zamiatin (this latter, for instance, was available in an English translation well before Wells wrote such works as The Open Conspiracy, which might have benefitted from Zamiatin's dystopian version of an entirely open society). If fiction is the strongest instrument in the propounding of utopian ideas, why are none of these fictions taken into consideration? Come to that, if fiction is what gives Wells the edge over Plato and More, why does Busch give equal space and weight to so much of Wells's non-fiction, such as The Open Conspiracy or What is Coming?

One other thing that made me uneasy about Busch's explication of Wellsian utopias is that I wasn't always certain that we were getting at what Wells actually believed, rather we get, as Busch puts it: "the sort of view Wells presumably (and, I would argue, given the nature of his project, necessarily) holds" (131). Given that the project, as he puts it, often seems to originate more with Busch than with Wells, that necessity could be questionable to say the least. At one point, for instance, he declares, without supporting argument, that Wells's views on freedom are essentially existentialist, then quotes Sartre and de Beauvoir to fill in perceived gaps in his thinking. The problem is an historical one: Wells was already dead when the philosophy of existentialism first became widely known in the UK, so he is unlikely to have been an existentialist as such. And however much his views at one or other stage of his long and prolific career might have appeared to coincide with those of existentialism, it is hard to imagine, say, the Wells who was a friend of James and Conrad also being any sort of existentialist; while the Wells of the 1940s is unlikely to have had sympathy with the contemporary attitudes of Sartre across the Channel in Occupied France. In other words, the sweeping equivalence of Wells and existentialism is, on the surface at least, unconvincing, and so this assertion needs far more supporting argument than Busch provides.

What we do get is an account of a utopian process that is illustrated variously from Wells's works, but without anything other than the author's assertion to suggest that they were ever intended to be brought together in this way. For instance, Wells undoubtedly presented a World State in a number of works, and in general regarded it as a good thing (hence his active support for the idea of the United Nations). But the World State we glimpse in The Sleeper Awakes does not seem to be the same as the one in A Modern Utopia or indeed the one that grows out of war and disaster in The Shape of Things to Come. The different World States appear to be nearer or farther away in our futures depending on the story he has to tell, they come about by different means and are governed in different ways. The samurai whose wise counsel directs A Modern Utopia (and who come closest in all Wells's work to the philosopher-kings who rule Plato's Republic) are clearly not the same as the toga-clad rulers in The Shape of Things to Come. And though Wells obviously expects human misery to decrease, crime and violence to fall away and wisdom to increase as we move towards this World State, he is never entirely clear about the ways that this might come about. What is more, the terminal vision of The Time Machine tells us that for Wells the World State could never be an end in itself, though the nearest he ever comes to looking beyond this staging post on the unending journey to Utopia is the rocket ship at the end of The Shape of Things to Come (an ending that might also suggest some familiarity with Zamiatin's We).

Busch begins his case by looking at the individual, the people who will make up Utopia and those who will need to be convinced of the case to start moving towards that process. Though here he seems to rely primarily on the four-fold division of humanity that is presented in A Modern Utopia but which is never actually replicated anywhere else. Throughout this chapter, indeed throughout the entire book, it is curious that Wells's actual political views never get a look it: the word 'fabian' is absent entirely, 'socialist' tends to be used only in quotations from someone else. Marxism is never mentioned without a metaphorical spit, and Wells's ideas are described as "squarely in the tradition of classical liberalism" (72). This doesn't actually pervert Wellsian politics, but it does muddy the waters, and it adds to the impression that what we are getting here is the Wellsian utopianism that Busch wants to find, unsullied by nasty stuff like politics.

From the individual, Busch takes us into a chapter entitled "The Role of the Novel," though this turns out to be mostly devoted to discussing the role of education. It is also where we really start to see the partiality of Busch's perspective. He raises several objections to Wells's views from a variety of commentators, but generally phrased in such a way that they can be dismissed off-handedly, generally in fewer words than it takes to voice the objection. And if the objection cannot be simply dismissed, it is made to seem irrelevant. The serious charge of anti-semitism that has been laid against Wells is one that I am not sure does stand up to thorough scrutiny, but it cannot be swept aside as airily as Busch deals with it, and when he adds: "remove every single testily phrased comment about Judaism from his work, and the utopian project will remain unchanged" (70) you start to wonder why he thought to raise the issue in the first place. If you are not going to treat it seriously, why put it in there? But then, the fact that he reduces criticisms of Wells to their weakest possible expression tends to make his defence of Wells seem equally weak. He is particularly poor in defending Wells against charges of scientific dictatorship. But then, in the next chapter on the World State, Busch engages at length with the conservative views of F.A. Hayek, and because he is prepared to argue in detail the result is the best and most convincing engagement with Wells's views in the entire book. It is a real pity that this level of discussion could not have been sustained throughout the book because it would have been immeasureably stronger as a result. But in fact it is barely sustained for a chapter, and when he moves in the next chapter to discuss issues of freedom in the World State and in the final chapter to discuss death, the arguments pro and con seem less convincing than ever. Because he believes that Wells is unquestionably right in everything pertaining to utopia, he appears to consider that any critic must be so obviously wrong that no spirited or detailed defence is actually required.

But enough of Busch's contentious volume, let us turn once again to The Time Machine, probably one of the half-dozen or so most important works in the entire history of science fiction, and a book that is a joy to read again and again. This new edition is intended for schools; it is annotated (though not as extensively as I would have liked) and each page has a wide margin for the student to make their own notes. What's more it comes with two critical essays. 'The Time Machine: A Melancholy Satire' by series editor Paul Cook does more to set the political context of Wells's work in four pages than Busch can manage in 170. But accompanying this is a slightly revised extract from The World Beyond the Hill, the tendentious history of science fiction by Alexei and Cory Panshin. As a straightforward factual account of Wells's early life and career, this is fair enough, but their perversely mystical belief that science fiction is a form of transcendental myth making comes through all the time, and could not fail to give any student new to science fiction a very peculiar and far from accurate impression of the genre.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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