The Booky Man: Next stop, Babylon?

Books Features

It’s a tempting notion, to travel through time. Maybe if you’re a guy, you’d like to go back to the past and ask that little high-school wallflower named Norma Jean Baker for a date.

What would life have been like? After all, Norma Jean pulled the ultimate ugly-duckling transformation, becoming Marilyn Monroe.

Still, to give speculation a full 360 degrees, you also have to wonder if sweet Norma Jean would have turned into Marilyn Monroe at all, if you’d been there to knock her stars out of alignment?

See, that’s the problem with time travel—reliability. Who knows what might really happen if you had a chance to go back and do it all again?

Maybe you’d think twice before you bought that Chevy Vega. Maybe you’d spend less time watching MTV. Maybe you’d pass up that weekend in Panama City … the one when you got that hideous tattoo of a flying eagle, one wing tattooed on each butt cheek, those flapping frantically as you raced out the door and down the beach without paying.

Of course, time travel is an endless trope in lesser media—movies and TV shows. You’ve got chestnuts like Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married, and old TV shows such as The Time Tunnel. These works exist purely on the idea that people love to imagine what might have been, what if, if I could just go back …

This concept started with the science fiction novella that is the subject of today’s Booky Man column – The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. Published in 1895, the book instantly made Wells famous and rich, and set him on a course, yes, through time to publish dozens more books, including famous titles The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man and War of the Worlds. (This last H.G. Wells title, of course, was famously dramatized by an American Welles—Orson Welles—in a CBS radio production so sensationally realistic that it panicked America the night before Halloween in 1938 into believing Martians were overrunning the country. This radio version of 9/11 cemented forever the fame of the writer, H.G. Wells, as well as that of the young director.)

H.G. Wells probably wished he could have time-traveled out of his childhood to just about anywhere else. He was born in Kent in the English lower class. His father was a gardener who made a bit extra as a professional cricket player, and his mother was a domestic servant. When his father fractured a bone in his leg and his cricketing days were ended, the family couldn’t support themselves. Wells was apprenticed out to a drapery-maker, unhappily, then as a chemist’s assistant. His mother took a job as a lady’s servant, a job that stipulated there would be no accommodations for a husband or children. Goodbye, muvah!

Wells, luckily, had books around him. He went back in time reading Plato and becoming very good at Latin. Through some luck right out of a Dickens novel, he won a scholarship and began studies in biology under Thomas Henry Huxley. From that break, Wells went on to deeper studies in philosophy and social reform. He became interested in the concepts of socialism—a natural course for a young man with such a poor and unsteady upbringing.

Wells also began to experiment with writing. He published a first version of The Time Machine in a school magazine under the title “The Chronic Argonauts.” When Time Machine published in 1895, Wells’s Dickensian life suddenly turned to one from Horatio Alger—rags to riches, with women and celebrity and travel. Oh, and diabetes and increasingly jaundiced views of the possibilities for the world.

Wells received 100 pounds for the science fiction novella that made him famous, and that more lastingly gave English the term “time machine.” It established him, along with writer Jules Verne, as the fathers of the literary genre of science fiction.

Here’s the plot, if time has been unkind to your memory of the book:
We meet the Time Traveler, an unnamed English gentleman inventor in Surrey. At a dinner one evening, the Time Traveler brings out a little machine that disappears after it is switched on—poof! It’s a time machine, says the scientist, and it just zipped off into the future. The host then tells his dinner cohort that a larger time machine sits just a few rooms over, ready to carry a person however far into the past or the future he would ever wish to go.

As good fiction will have it, the Time Traveler bugs out not long after the dinner party, fast-forwarding himself to the year A.D. 802,701. He finds there a fairy-like people, the Eloi, simple and childish, who apparently live as humans did in Eden, free of work, eating lots of fruits and nuts, like that. It’s a peaceable kingdom sheltered in futuristic but badly derelict buildings. Because humankind has mastered nature, people have evolved now so that intelligence and creativity and strength are unneeded.

The Time Traveler wanders about, fascinated, but he’s in for a shock. He finds his time machine missing. It’s been dragged off and locked into a structure, and the culprit is gradually revealed to be another species of human, the Morlocks. These are pale creatures like apes or Johnny Winter, who live below ground where they run the machinery and infrastructure that supports the elegant civilization on the surface. They also eat the tender, juicy Eloi, venturing out after dark to farm their delicious, carefully gardened crop of humans.

Do you sense here any editorializing from H.G. Wells? Might there be some dark skewering at work in his depictions of the leisured, blue-stockinged classes becoming the milksop, ready-to-be-eaten Eloi? Or that the downtrodden workers of the world evolved into cannibal brutes who live in the dark bowels of the earth?

Of course our Time Traveler meets a girl, a sweet Eloi named Weena whom he rescues from drowning. And our couple discovers a deteriorating museum where some old weapons and a box of matches suddenly play a big role. Morlocks attack in the night, of course, and … and … well, I’ll give no spoiler here … you can always travel forward in time to the end of the book review.

Here’s a passage from The Time Machine, displaying Wells’s style and imagination. First, the setting. To escape the Morlocks, our hero has leaped into the seat of his time machine and gunned the engine. He’s shot forward roughly 30 million years … and what Wells presents here is bleak, if one expects a long and happy human reign over the world.

The machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living. And along the margin where the water sometimes broke was a thick incrustation of salt – pink under the lurid sky. There was a sense of oppression in my head, and I noticed that I was breathing very fast. The sensation reminded me of my only experience of mountaineering, and from that I judged the air to be more rarefied than it is now.

Far away up the desolate slope I heard a harsh scream, and saw a thing like a huge white butterfly go slanting and fluttering up into the sky and, circling, disappear over some low hillocks beyond. The sound of its voice was so dismal that I shivered and seated myself more firmly upon the machine. Looking round me again, I saw that, quite near, what I had taken to be a reddish mass of rock was moving slowly towards me. Then I saw the thing was really a monstrous crab-like creature. Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with is many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennae, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front? Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there. I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flickering and feeling as it moved.

Hello! It’s Time … to get out of there, Time Traveler. Hit the throttle and come back to the present day. Supper is getting cold.

Let me now cite Wikipedia regarding time travel itself. Here’s what old Wik has to say: “One-way travel into the future is arguably possible given the phenomenon of time dilation based on velocity in the theory of special relativity (exemplified by the twin paradox), as well as gravitational time dilation in the theory of general relativity. It is currently unknown whether the laws of physics would allow backwards time travel.”

I know you’re disappointed, Booky Man reader. Who wouldn’t be? You might, conceivably, possibly, improbably, one day decide to make a time machine that would take you to the future … but then you couldn’t get back.

And what if you got there, and it was all giant crabs and pink salt?

You might prefer just to stay home. Maybe read a good book. Now there’s my kind of time machine; you can turn it off by just closing the pages … and you can travel anywhere, everywhere, any time you ever wanted to go.

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