Monday, 28 January 2013

H.G. Wells’s Time Machine and the Future of Humanity

I must have been seven or eight years old when I first met the time traveller. My parents and I were spending the day at my grandparents’, as we did on most Sundays, and as usual I was bored stiff because nobody would talk to me, my grandparents didn’t have any games or toys, and there were no books that invited me to read them. All they had was a mean old dog who barked madly and threatened to bite me whenever I tried to get up from the sofa or made a movement that alerted him to the fact that I was still alive. He seemed determined to change that. But on this particular day I was lucky. Not only was the dog exhausted from a long walk in the park and for the time being showed no interest in harassing me any further, I was also granted permission to switch on the television. They were showing a film, and it had just started. It was “The Time Machine”, the 1960 version with Rod Taylor, and for the next ninety minutes or so I was lost to the world.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that impressed me as much as this one. I was not only fascinated by the idea of time travelling, but also utterly enthralled by the story woven around it and the images that brought the story to life. For many weeks after, I had recurring, nightmarish dreams of the beautiful and gentle, but rather dumb Eloi and the creepy, demonic Morlocks with their greenish skin and red eyes, who scared the hell out of me.

It was many years later that I finally read the book by H.G. Wells on which the film was based. I was already in my twenties, and by then the idea of time travel had lost some of its early fascination for me. The Morlocks, too, were rather disappointing. So I can’t really say that at that time the book made a lasting impression on me. However, last night, more than twenty years later, I read it again, and I was surprised to see what a marvellous writer Wells actually was. And the future of humanity that he shows us is a far cry from the superglossed one that transhumanists and other enhancement enthusiasts keep dangling in front of our noses. What awaits us in his vision is not an “engineered Paradise” (David Pearce), nor “lives wonderful beyond imagination” (Nick Bostrom), even though at first glance it looks like a paradise and it was actually meant to be one. It’s a dystopia that started out as a eutopia, and that still disguises itself as one. But Wells shows us that every paradise has a dark side, that there’s always a price to pay, and that what seems to be progress may well prove to be humanity’s downfall. It is quite likely that as a species we will develop further, and it’s even possible that we are able to steer that development in the direction that appears most desirable to us. But that doesn’t mean that we will like what we will get. We tend to think of the posthuman as something that is better than a mere human, more advanced, an improved human. But the posthuman may just as well turn out to be in some important respect less than human.
But of course, for Wells it’s even worse than that. Wells’s time traveller travels further and further into the future until eventually even those shrunken versions of our present selves have vanished. Wells allows us a glimpse at a time when we’ll all be gone for good, and there will be nothing left. It will be as if we had never existed, the world an empty, desolate place. No humans, no posthumans, nothing, just tohu wa-bohu. It’s a truly chilling prospect, masterly set on scene by Wells:
“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.”
Surprisingly, however, the novel ends on an optimistic note. The time traveller has brought home from his journey two flowers from the pre-desolation future and passes them on to the story’s narrator before he leaves once more, never to return again. Those two flowers provide some comfort to the narrator, despite everything that is going to happen, because they remind him of what truly matters in life:
“And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”
In the longest run our prospects may be very bleak indeed, but as long as we can hold on to that “mutual tenderness”, all is not lost.


  1. Speaking of time travel I finally re-saw a movie I remember enjoying: Final Countdown. It is about an American aircraft carrier (Nimitz) that goes backing in time, forty year, to the Japanese preparing to bomb Pearl Harbor. The Nimitz could have done a lot to alter the course of that innovation but the delema was what it would do to history.

    Anyway, it was still fascinating to watch. Imagine, the Nimitz, a nuclear powered carrier, had more firepower on it than was used throughout the entirety of WWII.

    1. I don't know that one, but it sounds interesting. Thanks for mentioning it.