“Halloween, All Souls, the Day of the Dead… Now is the literary season for backward-glancing strolls through the graveyard, and I know of no book in which ghosts that play a richer, more haunting role than in H. G. Wells’s “The Time Machine.” Of course, Wells’s novella, first published in 1895, isn’t usually viewed as a ghost story—rather, as a pioneering foray into science fiction. Still, when Wells’s unnamed hero, identified only as the Time Traveller, burrows thirty million years into the future, he comes out upon a world where everyone is dead; Wells brought the ghost story to its logical ne plus ultra. And the ghosts themselves? Thirty millions years hence, the human race is so long-extinguished that its spirits haunt us by their prolonged absence, their unbroken inactivity. They fail even to vibrate the air, on an exhausted planet where “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 it happens, “The Time Machine” belongs to an era of formidable competition for writers of supernatural fiction: the so-called golden age of the English ghost story, that pre-Great War era which included Henry James and M. R. James and Oliver Onions. The book illustrates the chilling principle that, scary though it may be to inhabit a ghost-riddled world, a ghost-free world is scarier still. In his despairing moments, Wells sometimes envisioned the human race as doomed, but between his periodic bouts of melancholy he was an irrepressible optimist, for whom any show of life was a show of hope. The past isn’t irredeemable so long as someone is around to learn from it. The scars of ancient battlefields, the vainglory of the pyramids, the sabre-rattling of Shelley’s Ozymandias—these things are not fully extinct so long as we’re here to deride and deplore them. But what if no one’s still around? It turns out that sediment and rock—the compressed geological strata of the ages—do not bury anyone as irrecoverably as does the invisible, accumulating strata of time itself. In the end, the real gravedigger isn’t Ares but Chronos.
Perhaps the weightiest phrase in “The Time Machine,” the most disclosive of Wells’s ambition and method, is the innocuous-looking “even now.” It and its variants (“even today,” “even in our own time”) drum through the book’s hundred or so pages. The bulk of the novella takes place in the year 802701 A.D., when the Time Traveller discovers that the human race has bifurcated into two species: the comely, mellow, frugivorous Eloi, who laze around in an earthly paradise, and their hidden counterparts, the hideous, industrious, subterranean Morlocks, who, in a kind of vestigial cannibalism, feed upon them. How did Homo sapiens come to such a pass? Well, the root causes can be discerned “even now,” when there is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Evidently, I thought, this tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky… Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?
At the base of Wells’s great visionary exploit is this rational, ultimately scientific attempt to follow “the drift of the current in spite of the eddies,” to tease out the potential future consequences of present conditions—not as they might arise in a few years, or even decades, but millennia hence, epochs hence. He is world literature’s Great Extrapolator. Like no other fiction writer before him, he embraced “deep time.” It’s rare that one can say of any novel that its existence is inconceivable without a nonfiction precursor. (I suppose it could be said of some Marxist novels and “Das Kapital.”) But it’s impossible to imagine “The Time Machine” in a world that did not first include Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and the work of Charles Lyell (1797-1875), who along with James Hutton is often called the father of modern geology. Lyell wrote:
However much we may enlarge our ideas of the time which has elapsed since the Niagara first began to drain the waters of the upper lakes, we have seen that this period was one only of a series, all belonging to the present zoological epoch… How much more enormous a duration must we assign to many antecedent revolutions of the earth and its inhabitants!
Charles Darwin, who once declared, “I always feel as if my books came half out of Lyell’s brain,” tracked the implications of deep time into biology. But in the case of Wells, who revered both authors, this viral concept jumped species, so to speak, infecting the brain not of a scientist but of a novelist.
Wells’s Earth is a place of incessant evolution; everything is perpetually in struggling flux. There is no such thing as progress, at least in the Victorian sense of the ongoing march of human betterment. The Time Traveller surmises that it was progress—specifically, scientific advancement, the elimination of pests and disease—that removed productive struggle and led to the devolutions of the languid, layabout Eloi, who cannot muster the ardor for serious art or urgent carnal love. Perfection suggests stasis, and there is no stasis in the medium of time, whose essence is mutation.
Readers who have the good fortune to come upon the book first in childhood will likely find its most compelling vision in the divided world of Eloi and Morlock. With their pale, hairy, apelike bodies, indistinct faces, glowing red-gray eyes, and—especially—breathy little chucklings, the Morlocks are creepy, and the climactic moment when they close in upon the Time Traveller, their soft, palpal hands reaching out as if to assess just what sort of eating he might provide, remains nightmarish after many rereadings. But the greater authorial feat—to my mind, one of the great leaps of imagination in all English literature—arrives when, just in time, he re-boards his time machine (clambering into the saddle like many a beleaguered hero in those matinee Westerns that would flicker into existence in the upcoming, twentieth century) and again flings himself into futurity: this time, thirty million years forward. In the most haunting section of the book, the Time Traveller does nothing but stand on the shore and look and ponder. He has found the ideal prospect from which to mull over the end-stopped Story of Humankind.
In his “Letter to Lord Byron,” W. H. Auden quarrels with the “Retort of all who love the Status Quo: / ‘You can’t change human nature, don’t you know.’” Auden’s point is that human nature does indeed change, as we continually discover more about the world and ourselves. Consider two nineteenth-century Englishmen, each standing on a desolate shore: the poet Keats in his sonnet “When I have fears…” and Wells’s Time Traveller. Keats’s poem was written in 1818, when he was twenty-two, and finds him presciently contemplating his early death:
Then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
Both figures are—one metaphorically, the other literally—at the ends of the earth. But what a distance between the two! Both may be contemplating the eternal, but Wells’s is a bigger eternal, encompassing Lyell and Darwin and deep time. Earlier on his journeying, in the land of the Eloi and Morlocks, the Time Traveller chanced upon a long-abandoned museum of natural history, whose dinosaur fossils redirect his thinking to the Jurassic—even further back than his upcoming forward voyage to the world’s end. He has looked far afield.
In the interval between Keats’s contemplation of the shore and the Time Traveller’s, infinity itself was growing restless—or restlessly growing. As Wells surely was aware, the years before the appearance of “The Time Machine” marked the German mathematician Georg Cantor’s establishment of ascending orders of the infinite: the proof that some infinities are larger than others, with others larger still—infinities ad infinitum. Wells embraced and embodied the arrival of new mathematical scales. A “new heaven and a new earth” was materializing, not through religious revelation but through dogged scientific discovery and powerful induction. Wells brought us literally a new heaven—his Time Traveller noting the shift in the constellations over the eons. Significantly, humanity’s steadfast compass is lost; the North Star had found a new lodgment.
Keats’s vantage is remote from our own, but Wells’s feels familiar. We’re all at home on the Time Traveller’s shore, the one where astronomical numbers beggar the imagination. Of course the numbers have grown exponentially in the century and a quarter since “The Time Machine” appeared; we now live in a world where scientists make measurements in picometres and parsecs, and speak authoritatively of what may have happened in the first thousandth of a second after the Big Bang, thirteen-plus billion years ago. But the Time Traveller nevertheless ventured farther out than most of us can still assimilate. You might say that his big is our big.
Astronomers have had some sport over the years pointing out the errors in Wells’s projections. But he did something nobody had ever done before: he painted a mural for all succeeding novelists, a sort of backdrop on which the saga of Homo sapiens was drawn. At the end of the novella, riding off once more on his machine, the Time Traveller vanishes. The speculation is that he’s dead, perhaps deep in the past, perhaps deep in the future, there’s no telling which. His passing leaves the distant dying Earth’s darkening shore completely empty—except of course for the invisible author, the amazing Mr. Wells.
“The Time Machine” is sometimes dismissed as a kid’s book, but Wells belongs to all of us, and we to him. Surely, other than Wells, there is no English writer of the nineteenth century who would feel remotely at home among our iPhones and space probes, our test-tube babies and computer viruses. He could have settled among us. Swallowing mightily, he would have said, “What’s next?” His ghost is huge. And here to stay. ∆
– From an essay by Brad Leithauser, The New Yorker, October 2013