Thinking through The Time Machine

The truth of The Time Machine laid bare, having deleted a false idea and replaced it with the right one. Adapted from the Marvel Classics Comics version of The Time Machine, 1976.

Utopia is dystopia

My thoughts often return to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Its stark beauty and tragic breadth—30 million years compressed into a short novel. Alongside of Shelley’s Ozymandias and Olaf Stapeldon’s Last and First Men, it is one of the great evocations of the cosmic (in)significance of humanity. And yet its utter pessimism regarding human nature, and now laughable theories regarding evolutionary degeneracy are hard to take. Unfortunately, it is here, in the 1890s, in which the scientific romance, science fiction in all but name, is given a manifesto: utopia is dystopia. The Time Machine is the real beginning of science fiction simply because of this; the line in the sand that marks off the ephemera of utopia from that of science fiction proper.

Before The Time Machine there is no science fiction. At best there are different types of speculative fiction and non-fiction.[1] It is only with Wells’ success, both commercially and as a model for the writer of science fiction, that the formula “utopia is dystopia” comes to dominate.

Considering that Wells became known for his utopianism, we do well to remember how miserable is his view of human nature in the works that not only made him famous, but established him among the advanced guard of twentieth century science fiction. Indeed, when later turning to speculations on the possibilities of socialism, Wells distrust of human nature—particularly of the “lower orders” of the human—remains on display. His was a vision of the dictatorship of knowledge, or rather the dictatorship of those in the know (i.e. as Wells imagined himself). As George Orwell intimated some years later, Wells’ socialist world-state is fascism or Stalinism in all but name.[2]

But I digress. My main point is just this. In The Time Machine, Wells’, through the adoption of a perspective of evolutionary pessimism, established a powerful formula which is the real pivot upon which science fiction came into being. That is, utopia is dystopia. Indeed, and as I have attempted to briefly argue above, his own later utopianism is founded upon this early “insight”. No doubt the experience of the rapid degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s were also powerful impetuses to establishing this formula as the chief distinguishing mark of science fiction. But it was Wells’ who provided the model.

In future posts I will return to thinking through The Time Machine. The text, so slight in its own way, is so dense with content and context. No doubt, there is still much to be said regarding my claim that Wells’ work is the manifesto of pessimism that lies at the heart of the science fiction. Indeed, the historical context of Wells work is of key importance in this regard. There is also the need to understand Wells as an exemplar of science fiction itself, or at least its emergence as a distinct genre, rather than as the beloved solitary genius (beloved, that is by many of the early purveyors and proselytisers of SF).[3] Additionally, Wells’ conception of the speciation of class difference, though questionably presented under the guise of evolutionary science, is nonetheless rich in metaphorical suggestions.

Slowly, a project begins to take shape: to overcome the dystopian heart of science fiction is simply to overcome science fiction. And then, at long last the horizon will appear free again, even if it should not be as bright; and at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face danger; and all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; and the sea, our sea, lies open again; and perhaps there never yet has been such an “open sea.” [4]


[1] I would argue that the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, apart from the convenience for vendors and buyers of books, is at times fraught. No doubt the most fictional of fictions speaks to the time in which it was composed. But consider the following examples of utopian fiction predating Wells work: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News From Nowhere. Both are impossible to understand without the context of the aspirational socialist politics from which and for which they spoke. Though in the strict sense fictional, these works were presented as aspirational oughts to the brutal is of 19th century capitalism. Indeed, they are of a different order to those present-day fictions that are little more than illusory “escapes” from the boredom of capitalist alienation and despair.

[2] “Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based”. George Orwell, Wells, Hitler and the World State, 1941.

[3] The French writer J.-H. Rosny aîné comes to mind as a contemporary working in the same rapidly coalescing field; indeed who did not share Wells’ early pessimistic visions. I have written on Rosny aîné here.

[4] Adapted from Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #343, translated Walter Kaufmann.

11 thoughts on “Thinking through The Time Machine”

  1. It does seem the case that when superior societies are seriously proposed in novels that you might think of as science fiction, this is actually part of an attack on science fiction itself. Women’s Press and other feminist stuff comes to mind. Even our friend Kate McNamara’s “Amethyst House,” bit DIY published, is most obviously eutopian when it cuts up science fiction. My own view, that I hope to air on youtube soon, is that all fiction must pass.

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    1. The attempts to revalorise the utopian moment of SF misjudge the nature of the task at hand. SF should not be reformed; rather it must be overcome, along with all fiction (as you say). The dystopian heart of SF is not unrelated to its capitalist nature. Not only is SF, like all fiction, organised around the reduction of human creative powers to the artificially separated poles of production and consumption, it was founded upon a deep skepticism toward the possibility of overcoming the irrationality of the capitalist “utopia”—and so, by association, any utopia. And so the formulation “utopia is dystopia” which proves to be no threat to the present order, but also a pithy sales pitch to boot.

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      1. Are there any early “utopias” that depict capitalism as an ideal? Or, was the utopian movement in science fiction on the whole anti-capitalist? I know for certain that later in its history (this comes from browsing lwcurry.com online for rare books) that there are plenty of “socialist” dystopias in the 20th century — but they tend to be reactionary rather than formative. Unless I’m missing a whole body of work…

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      2. I haven’t come across any literary examples of a capitalist utopia—and I would be interested to find some (not that I’ve looked that hard). My impression is that 19th century utopias, at least those being generated in Europe and the US, are in large part reactions to the burgeoning horrors and reality of capitalism—hence mostly socialist or anarchist in form.
        I feel that the idea of “utopia” is baked into capitalist reality, in the sense that capitalism as it was classically presented—e.g. by Adam Smith—proclaims human nature as essentially capitalist. In this sense capitalism then is the “utopia” at the end of the long wandering through feudalism and slavery to the promised land of the free market.
        I came across an article (https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/utopia/?p=196) that argued that Wells, in The Time Machine, presented the Time Traveller as moving from a speculation upon the utopian communist nature of Eloi society to the realisation that the combined Eloi/Morlock society was in fact a capitalist dystopia. The main problem with this argument is that Wells, in the guise of the Traveller, considers both outcomes as dystopian—in the sense that the utopian heights of both orders lies in the past of their “degenerated” present. The real key to Wells’ perspective is his belief that through the achievement of “utopia” humankind is deprived of its restless innovatory spirit. Consequently, the social achievements are overcome by the reassertion of habitual nature—in effect, there is no Eloi or Morlock “society”, merely animal habit. It is an incredible perspective I’m keen to return to in future posts.
        My main intent with the article is to point to what I consider the constitutive flaw in SF considered as a distinct literary genre—i.e. that it’s “departure point” as a literary form is Wells proposition that utopia is dystopia. Further, I feel that those who wish to reform SF in a more progressive or even utopian direction misapprehend this constitutive flaw. Hence the need to overcome SF rather than reinvigorate it or reclaim it. I will attempt to clear up what exactly I mean by such an overcoming in later posts (a hint: its related to the Marxian-Hegelian conception of aufheben/sublation).

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      3. It’s been far too long for me to comment in any sustained manner on The Time Machine — I read it in my teens and remember more from the movie version than it… hence my comment that was far more a tangent (alas). But your comment and article made me curious enough to look for my original copy, that I apparently no longer own.

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      1. As for the question of “waste of time.” Ehh, Anthony already knows, but as a PhD wielding historian, I find reading anything in my decades of interest fascinating, regardless of their political stance (even if they are radically different than mine). I might bash them on my site regardless! hah.

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