Tag Archives: Olaf Stapeldon

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.