Sunday, 6 November 2011

Some of my favourite reads, No 1

The Time machine by H G Wells

This book has been as influential in its own sub-genre, time travel, as Wells other novel The War of the Worlds has been in alien invasions, in as much as the concepts he used have given the SF genre a whole bunch of ideas which have been consistently exploited ever since.
This rather short novel, just 102 pages in my edition, is well known but also not known very well. Many people have only experienced this story from the various movie versions which do not in any way capture the sense of wonder that old HG managed to instil into this wonderful story and since movies usually deviate from the original story line, the broader aspects of this novel are usually lost.
I first read when it when I was a teenager, long before I saw any movie versions and I have re-read it many times since and it still holds just as much appeal.

The story has all the ingredients of a good yarn, it involves a lost device that no one can duplicate, a journey into the unknown, with unexpected discoveries of vast scope, love interest, an implacable enemy, loss and a mysterious ending.
Although written in Victorian times it is still very readable, the language is not so different from modern writing and the ideas he coined have never really aged and have been used again and again.

The central character of the story is never named and only referred to as the Time Traveller. He shows his friends a model of what he claims is a time machine and in front of their sceptical gaze, starts the model which vanishes, apparently moving endlessly into the future.
Nothing is explained about how the machine works, or how it is powered but it certainly does something inexplicable.
The next time we see the Time Traveller, is when he arrives late and in a dishevelled state to a dinner party he had arranged with the same friends and on arrival, and only after eating like a starved animal, tells them a fantastic story.
He has built a full scale version of the time machine and claims he has just returned from a trip to the far future.
He spins a tale of discovery and adventure in a distant time where humans have evolved into two separate species, Eoli and Morlocks. He sides with the Eoli and befriends a small woman called Weena, but his time machine is captured by the Morlocks. He eventually recovers his machine and escapes, leaving Weena in the hands of the Morlocks.
In his haste to get away, he accidentally travels to the far distant future and finds the Earth barely habitable with a swollen dim red giant for the sun with strange creatures evolved into ominous and dimly seen forms in the feeble sunlight. He returns back to his own time and relates all this to his friends who are understandably sceptical.
For proof he shows them a flower (in winter) that no one recognises. Determined to rescue Weena, he rests, re-equips himself and sets off on the machine but never returns.

There are so many things about this story that I have never lost, for instance the atmosphere created by the abandoned museum he finds and does not have the opportunity to explore fully. With all its future wonders and hint of strange and incomprehensible machines, it leaves the reader wanting to know more. What could you find in a place like that?
The landscape is littered with ruined and abandoned architectural marvels we never get to explore, and when he arrives at the aged and near dead Earth in the really distant future, here is another understated event with just enough detail to leave you hungry for more. He has created a whole new world with an entirely new ecology, tidally locked to face the sun with one hemisphere forever bathed in the crimson sunlight of a dying sun with the other hemisphere in perpetual dark. What mysteries are here? We never find out, the Time traveller is alarmed by one of the creatures coming towards him and he flees into time again, this time to return home and relate his story.

In some publications, there is an extra part to his tale that somehow got left out of the later printings, called The Grey Men, where after fleeing in panic from the Morlocks into the future he stops his flight before his final excursion to the extreme far future. In this short chapter he encounters small grey rodent like creatures, that he realises are the final stages of humankind’s descent into primitive creatures. This has only occasionally been included in certain printings over the one hundred and fifteen years since its first publication, but since it contributes nothing more to the main story, it is no great loss.

Because the Time Traveller never returns from his second trip the reader must speculate as to what happened.
Did he reach Weena? Was he successful and settled down with her in the future, helping the Eloi to defend themselves against the Morlocks? Was he killed by the Morlocks? Did his machine break down and leave him stranded somewhere?
Having left the reader in such a state of not knowing, many other authors have tried to write a sequel to fill in the gaps but, with mixed results.
Some have been really bad and others brilliant, continuing in the same vein and style with considerable success, but the most significant aspect of this story, and what I feel makes it such a great one is that you are left wondering what happened. A tidy ending giving you all the answers often destroys the charm.
A good case in point of that is Arthur C Clarke’s wonderful ‘Rendezvous with Rama’. A large asteroid sized object enters the solar system and it soon becomes obvious it is not a natural object, but is steered and has come from another star. An expedition is sent to explore it and find it is hollow. They manage to get on board discovering an artificial environment full of mysteries, but they cannot find the builders. Time for exploration is limited because it does not seem to be stopping and it is soon apparent it has not come to visit the Earth at all, but is only using our sun to give it a sling shot to help it on its way to its real destination and is not in the least bit interested in us or our solar system.
The first novel finished with the object speeding on out of the solar system and much like The Time Machine there are many unanswered questions left open, but Clarke finished by saying that the builders seemed to do things in threes, which suggests there will be two more following the first. If he had left it there, it would have been a great novel, but he wrote a series of sequels which essentially ruined the mystery and spoiled the whole thing for me, culminating in a novel I was unable to finish because I got bored with it.
Unlike Wells, Clarke wrote his own sequels although as collaborations with other authors, but The Time machine has had several new authors attempt a sequel to this book.

One of the best in my opinion is ‘The Time Ships’ by Stephen Baxter. The cover leapt out at me when I saw it in the book shop because it showed a scene so well drawn, I immediately recognised it was from Wells’ The Time machine. I had to buy it just to see what it was about and was not disappointed. I read this book from cover to cover in only a few hours. Baxter has introduced the idea that traveling to the future, returning to your own time and then attempting to return to the future again will not work because by returning home and telling people about your experiences in the future, will change that future. So the Time traveller’s second trip pitches him into a different version of the future with disastrous results.

One of the not so good sequels I have read was ‘A Scientific Romance’ by Ronald Wright. It was, he declared on a radio programme I happened to listen to, not Science Fiction. This was said with a sense of disgust for such a low genre, despite having written a story that involved a fictional scientific device. So much for snobbery, but I did not find his extension of the Wells story very entertaining and do not recommend it. It was rather like a lot of mundane 60s SF and more of a post apocalypse novel, complete with disused ruined motorways.

Another book loosely based on The Time Machine is Time After Time, by Karl Alexander
This book is the basis of a movie of the same title and is a strangely entertaining romp, where the Time Traveller is H G Wells himself and it takes the form of a chase through time in an attempt to capture Jack the Ripper. Not a serious attempt at a sequel but fairly entertaining.

Yet another is a rather strange Stem Punk version of Wells’ theme, Morlock Night which similar to The Time Ships, suggests that messing with the future has dire consequences. The author had a second agenda where he wanted to somehow revive King Arthur whom legend says will return in a time of England’s greatest need, and we sure need him in this odd novel. Entertaining and fast paced, but a little predictable towards the end and not a best fit of Wells’ style.

Finally, one of my favourite Wells universe novels is ‘The Space Machine’ by Christopher Priest. Christopher Priest is one of my top ten fave authors and has written some great books. One I particularly like is the Prestige, which has also been made into a passable movie.
The Space machine is a wonderful example of imaginative writing, much in the style of Wells which cleverly combines both of Wells’ novels, the Time Machine and The War of the Worlds into a single story. He does a masterful job blending the two stories seamlessly into a single master work, resulting in a novel that is well worth reading.

There are many more Time Machine sequels, some of which I have read and forgotten as soon as I put the book down, some of these I put it down within a couple of chapters. I assume there will be more to come, The Time Machine is such a durable idea and with so much scope for making up an ending to the story, it will no doubt be returned to over and over again.


  1. I'm ashamed to say I've never read it. (I was always a John Wyndham girl) But I love the Rod Taylor film - especially the sequence where he's watching the fashions change on the dressmaker's dummy.

  2. Not read or seen the movies of any of these,Snafu, but I suspect that if anybody could build a time machine, you could... x

  3. This genre has never been one I was interested in, but your review of The Time Machine has sparked my interest...I think I might try a copy from the library!

  4. Snafu, science fiction is just not my cup of tea. But don't be discouraged, it's just we old ladies who are out of date. Frankly, I'd rather read anything you have written. You know, I hope, that you are just an excellent writer. I'm always so impressed when I read one of your blogs. You ARE writing a book, I hope!!

  5. Thanks for the comments y'all. SF has been a big part of my reading but when HG was writing, there was no such genre. The term SF was coined in the late 1920s and even now there is no agreed standard definition of what it is. The common image is gadgets and spaceships but writers in this field have a much wider scope than just that. Many are about the effects of outside events and changes on the human condition and quite often are warnings of what may happen. Orwell's 1984 is a case in point. public Security cameras were pure SF when that was written.