Tag Archives: utopia is dystopia

Thinking through The Time Machine–Part 2

fig. 1. In the year 802,701 everyone will be either New Wave or Post Wave. Taken from the Eternity Comics version of The Time Machine, 1990.

In my first post on Thinking through The Time Machine, I proposed that the principle idea that lay at the heart of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine—that utopia is dystopia—became the ground and guiding principle of 20th century science fiction.

What is most troubling about The Time Machine is how bleak its perspective is upon human nature. Even before the ultimate revelation of Eloi and Morlock society, Wells’ protagonist ruminates upon the “quiet” that has befallen future humanity. In the year 802,701, Well’s Time Traveller—“for so it will be convenient to speak of him”—finds the ruins of an advanced culture and the childlike Eloi playing amidst the debris. At first, the Traveller speculates that the Eloi are what remains of the ineluctable decay of full luxury communism.[1] However, he is soon proved wrong. Upon discovering the presence of another species, the Morlocks, the Traveller revises his picture of a fallen, degenerate communism and replaces it with a picture of a fallen, degenerate capitalism:

At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position.[2]

For those familiar with the text, more revelations were to follow. In particular the horrible truth of the relationship between the Eloi and Morlock—though strictly speaking, the Morlocks, given that they have speciated and are no longer of a natural kind with the Eloi, are more subterranean cowboys than cannibals. Nonetheless, what remains consistent across the Time Traveller’s speculations, and the successive revelations of his errors, is the single “truth” that any human society derived of the struggle against material want and natural alienation, is doomed:

I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety. The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.[3]

In the two alternatives Wells presents—communism or capitalism—there is no escape from social entropy. The only real choice appears to be one of how best to ameliorate the decline. This is what I mean by arguing that Wells in effect proclaims utopia is dystopia. Despite the best laid plans, once a certain “ease” is achieved the rot sets in.

After the commercial success of The Time Machine and his early scientific romances, Wells’ would turn to the project of outlining a vision of utopia. What his early work and later “socialist” thinking shared was this dim view of human nature. At the heart of Wells’ picture of the future of humanity is the necessity of its decline—unless, that is, something was done about it. In works like Anticipations (1901), Wells’ would preach, to stave off for a time the necessity of decline and destruction, a eugenics Hitler would, perhaps, have been proud of. Such thinking was considered “progressive” in some corners, for instance among Fabian socialists who courted Wells’ “visionary” thinking.

To be fair to Wells, he soon moderated some of the more excessive racist and eugenicist remarks found among his early utopian speculations in Anticipations. However, across his work Wells’ vision of “socialism” had little in common with the various contemporaneous Marxist and Anarchist conceptions. Wells was no advocate of self-emancipation. For him, the shit of ages could only be removed by way of those better educated and disposed to remove the dirt—people such as himself. Indeed, Wells’ pessimism and disdain for the lower orders remained one of the constants of his mature work and so-called utopian vision.

In the realm of the burgeoning science fiction of the 20th century Wells’ wager—that short of a dictatorship of people like himself the future is dystopia—would soon be met, in part, by Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon’s vision in the 1930s was more Homeric and cosmic than Wells’. In contrast to Wells, Stapledon believed that the second law of thermodynamics, while inescapable, did not have any moral or social import—apart, that is, from the necessity for all finite things to pass in the infinite order. Stapledon is the Pulp Hegel to Wells’ more pedestrian analytic of apocalypse. Stapledon’s epic of the rise, fall, then rise and fall again of the human and its many progeny over billions of years is vastly preferable to Wells’ small-minded glimpse of eternity.  

fig. 2. Wells’ grim speculation at their most expansive. From the Marvel Classics Comics version of The Time Machine, 1976

Nonetheless, I am less interested in the literary criticism of Wells’ work than I am in its suggestive qualities. I am more interested in using Wells work beyond its limitations. For instance, in a future post I will look at his wildly speculative notion of the speciation of humans based on the capitalist polarity: i.e. of workers and bourgeoisie evolving ultimately into Morlocks and Eloi. Based as it is on the faulty logic of Ray Lankester’s notion of social degeneration, it is perforce ludicrous. But precisely because of this, and particularly considering Wells’ grim satirical intent, it is a fiercely suggestive idea.

Similarly, if we leave aside Wells’ undoubtedly dubious thoughts on the nature of social “evolution”, and his pessimistic and questionably “scientific” conclusions, we are struck by the stark beauty of his evocation of the passage of time—something Olaf Stapledon picked up on. The real force of The Time Machine’s narrative is best summed up in the Time Traveller’s headlong flight into far futurity. And there, ultimately to find the “vacuous naiveté” of the Schellingian absolute made manifest, that cosmic night “in which, as one says, all cows are black”.[4]

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.[5]

[to be continued]


FOOTNOTES

[1] H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, chapter IV (Heinemann text, 1895).

[2] Ibid., chapter V.

[3] Ibid., chapter X.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface, paragraph 16, Pinkard translation, 2018.

[5] Wells, The Time Machine, chapter XI.

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.