Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Old Wells and the Young Wells

The Time Machine was published in 1895 when Wells was a young man of just 28. And as I pointed out in my last post, the picture that Wells draws here of the future of humanity is pretty bleak.  However, I was surprised to find that when a new edition of The Time Machine was published in 1931, thirty-six years later, Wells, now 65, wrote a preface in which he all but denigrates his youthful endeavour. Not only does he now find his description of the social differentiation of humanity into Eloi and Morlocks rather crude, he is also quite apologetic about what he calls the “naïve pessimism” of the book, which he blames on the influence that Jonathan Swift had on his younger self and on the “dreadful lies” fabricated by late Victorian geologists who made everyone believe that in a million years or so everything will be over for life on earth because the entire planet will be frozen over. But science, Wells believes, has progressed enormously during the last thirty years, and now assures us with more authority than ever that in fact we’ve got “millions of millions of years” of further human development to look forward to. Assuming this to be true, “man will be able to do anything and go anywhere, and the only trace of pessimism left in the human prospect today is a faint flavour of regret that one was born so soon. And even from that distress modern psychological and biological philosophy offers ways of escape.”

So the young pessimist has turned into an old optimist, which I should think is rather unusual. Normally we start out as optimists, until life experience gradually transforms us into pessimists. And normally it is the optimists who strike us as naïve. “Naïve pessimism” seems almost a contradiction in terms. But I guess we can just as easily be naïve pessimists as we can be naïve optimists if our respective attitudes are rooted in prejudice and are expressive of our fears or hopes rather than an accurate assessment of probabilities based on a clear understanding of the facts. Yet if Wells’s early pessimism appears naïve to the old Wells, would not the old Wells’s optimism have appeared equally naïve to the young Wells? Not always do we become wiser when we get older, although we may always think we do. Is it really more informed, more astute and showing a firmer grasp of reality, to believe that eventually we “will be able to do anything and go anywhere”? That a completely limitless existence lies ahead of us? That even if this is all going to happen not now, but at some time in the future, science will find a way to help us survive until then, to “escape” from the present in which all those wonderful things that we will be able to do in the future are not possible yet? Life extension as the new time machine, an elevator to the future? Of course, before we really get there we won’t know who is more naïve: those who tend to believe that the scientific and technological advancement of humanity will eventually lead to a paradise on earth, or those who worry that it might end in some catastrophe or another.

But be that as it may, it appears that at the very end of his life Wells, now in his late seventies, went full circle when he once again changed his mind about the future prospects of humanity and became more pessimistic even than “that needy and cheerful namesake of his, who lived back along the time dimension, six and thirty years ago”, and whom he remembers, slightly embarrassed, but also with a certain fondness, in the 1931 preface to the new edition of The Time Machine. On the eve of his departure from this world, it seems to him that instead of evolving any further, it might be, all things considered, much better if humanity simply ceased to exist.


  1. Towards the end of his life Wells experienced the devastation of the second world war. So maybe not wonder his change of heart about the prospects of humankind.

    I think that if now there was to be another world war I would also have a change of heart and turn into a pessimist about the future of humankind.

    Michael, have you read Frankenstein? I'd like to hear your take on it.

    1. Yes, I have read Frankenstein. Funny that you should ask about that because as it happens I've just written an article on Frankenstein. It is called, somewhat facetiously, "Wanna live forever? Don't Pull a Frankenstein", and you can access it on my site:

    2. Good! Then you might find this of interest: