One thing I’ve always wanted to do since the first time I read an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling was to read all the books they recommend in the excellent essays they almost always include on the topic of the volume. I finally decided to do it, using the essay in After as my reading list. The book they listed as having started modern dystopian fiction is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Luckily, it is in the public domain so I downloaded a free copy and started reading, though I must admit I wasn’t expecting much from a science fiction novel published in 1895. And while Wells does get the science wrong in some places, there is so much more he gets right.
This is a dystopian novel and, as one of the earliest examples of that genre, it is also probably one of the best examples I have read. Dystopian literature excels when it takes some element of current society and takes it to its logical extreme. The Time Traveler, for that is how he is known in this novella, tells his weekly dinner guests that he has discovered a way to travel through time – that time is just a fourth dimension. His explanation is met with disbelief, and the next week his guests are met with a haggard and harried Time Traveler. This gentleman scientist recounts his tale of how he has traveled through time, and barely returned from his adventure. Over dinner, he narrates his adventure to his skeptical guests.
The feature of his current society that Wells explores is the increasing class division caused by the income inequality between the laborers and capitalists. As he has travelled forward in time to 802,701AD, this increasing mechanization has led to a utopian society where no one works, and all people live in harmony with nature, living lives of luxury among the beautiful surroundings. All disease has been cured, and necessity has been conquered. However, this utopian setting covers up a much deeper, darker reality.
Wells isn’t just writing as an entertainer, but as a political philosopher. He references Darwin and other intellectuals, and is engaging in an argument about the nature of man, the possibility of progress, and, interestingly, the necessity of necessity for the continuation of civilization. He has this discussion within a compelling story that left me physically tensing during the conflicts, but also mesmerized with the beauty of the language.
Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. 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 color 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.
Wells’ lyrical prose combined with a deeper philosophical argument and a gripping story combine to make an excellent novella that everyone should read. Rather than the violence-prone post-apocalyptic fiction that seems to make up a majority of the current dyslit offerings, this is intelligent, thoughtful storytelling that makes me want to go knock stars off the ratings of other books that I have read because they can’t compare to this classic work of fiction. I highly recommend The Time Machine for all readers.