Just as J. G. Ballard and Ray Bradbury, the eerie foresight with which H. G. Wells told of a dystopian future feels increasingly palpable. Nay, is actually here, despite any rosy “we can make a change” attitudes to the contrary. And unlike, say, Philip K. Dick, Wells does not predict a future in which humans have evolved (some more reluctantly than others) with technology, but one in which humanity has devolved entirely.
Released in 1895, on the precipice of the turn of the century, Wells’ The Time Machine was very much influenced and affected by the ceaseless “advancements” of the Industrial Revolution. With the creation of many factories during this period of exponential economic growth, with it came the atrocious working conditions that would later be exposed in books like The Jungle. It was this aspect of human sacrifice at the cost of “efficiency” that sowed the seeds of Wells’ basic idea for what the very distant future would look like. Distant even from now, for the time our protagonist ends up in is the year 802,701. A year that, from the looks of it, we couldn’t possibly ever make it to (for at best, we’ll get to the year 3000 without enduring some unfixable cataclysmic event). Yet in the era of the late 1800s, perhaps humanity was more hopeful despite a certain jadedness that came with the same force as the various smoke clouds that polluted London and beyond.
And yes, it is naturally England in which our narrative takes place, with its capital being the pioneer and epicenter of production (which is perhaps why the British still inexplicably and residually believe themselves to be superior). Specifically just outside the city in Richmond, Surrey, where the main subject of the story hosts a dinner party for well-to-do types, among them doctors, newspaper editors, psychologists and even the provincial mayor. It is the narrator of the haunting tale who refers to the time traveler as just that (for this was an era when we could still describe people by their professions or primary hobbies–in the present, that would be rather difficult to do).
Starting with the Time Traveler’s introduction to his dinner guests of the basic tenets of geometry taught in school being false, he prepares them for the sight of his “experiment,” or rather, time machine. It is with this setup that the next time they arrive for dinner, they find their host is late, returning disheveled and visibly distraught as he eats with gusto a plate of mutton. As though ravenous from days of starvation. And indeed, the Time Traveler has been gone for over a week on his journey into a future that the narrator had postulated might be “a society erected on a strictly communistic basis.” For, yes, it bears noting that Wells was an avid supporter of communistic tenets in his life and work (even if his intrinsic racism shone through in both avenues). Alas, instead of finding the harmonious socialistic structure the narrator was hoping for, the Time Traveler instead unearths a sort of social degeneration, stumbling first upon a childlike faction of “humanity” (or the trace existence of it) in the Elois.
Dainty and easily distracted, this fruitarian group lives in large, elegant buildings that display signs of deterioration. Since the Elois are incapable of giving him a coherent response to his questions about their life, the Time Traveler must deduce everything for himself, climbing to the top of a hill that overlooks London to take in a complete view of the city. Except, it’s not really a city any longer, least of all in the Industrial Revolution sense. Instead, it has transformed into, for all intents and purposes, a massive garden.
Initially, the Time Traveler supposes this is a form of utopia. No war, no famine, no strife. Just a pure and innocent existence. As one critic of the story, Paul Youngquist, puts it, “The time traveler enters a future that he expects to be, socially speaking, far in advance of his own. His first encounter with the Eloi, sweet vegetarian flower children who neither toil nor spin, seems to betoken a Golden Age that has eradicated violence, possession, hunger, even family. That’s the future the time traveler wants, but not the one he gets.”
For no, rarely do we get what we actually want or expect. And that has never applied so acutely as in the present epoch. A period that our Time Traveler might have been even more horrified to witness as he would walk through entirely empty streets, filled with the lingering aura of a fear-stricken population hiding inside–or perhaps he would assume the rapture had occurred (then again, intelligent beings of reason don’t believe in such religious fairy tales). In any case, his theory about a pacifist nation is quickly kiboshed when he apprehends the Elois’ paranoid terror about the advent of the darkness, particularly nights without any moonlight.
What’s more, upon returning from his jaunt up the hill, he discovers his prized (and essential) time machine has gone missing. He notices a sphinx-like structure nearby that he posits his machine has been dragged to, thanking his foresight in having taken out the levers that make it function before leaving it unattended. Without having to do much sleuthing as to who the culprit behind the theft might be, the Time Traveler is approached by the Morlocks when night falls, startled by their troglodyte aesthetic. And yes, here’s where Wells’ racism rears its ugly head, for they are naturally “dark” creatures. The ones who work tirelessly underground to give the pale Elois the luxe life aboveground they’ve become so accustomed to. It is then that the Time Traveler is gobsmacked by the revelation that his first impressions of the future were completely off. For the divide between classes has become cemented in a far more horrific way than it was even during the Industrial Revolution.
Like the rich, the Elois are useless, incapable of doing anything for themselves, while the Morlocks, who do all the work, are relegated to the subterranean areas where they cannot be seen. For the wealthy have never liked to look too closely at the help that makes their world go round. It’s icky.
After gaining access to one of the many tunnels they live in through a well, the Time Traveler learns that the truth about the future is grimmer still. For the Morlocks have taken on the rebel mantra, “Eat the rich,” quite literally, meaning that the dynamic between Elois and Morlocks is more primeval than just rich versus poor, further reduced to livestock versus “cattlemen.” For the Elois have grown so comfortable over time that they’ve lost all sense of the inherent human instinct on how to protect themselves from the dangers of this form of “lower class uprising.”
Youngquist states of the vast divide between the two factions, “If the Eloi are decadent deadheads, the Morlocks are slithering brutes. Neither class offers much to look forward to. But that’s not the worst of it. Politics in Wells’ future reduces to a simple adage: eat the rich. The Elois are just cattle on the hoof, a domesticated food source for the carnivorous Morlocks. In most critiques of class society, the haves feed upon the have-nots. Not here. In this world the underclass consumes its betters–literally. The problem is less that human society is unjust, but that it has ceased to be human.”
This, in all frankness, does not appear to be a prediction very far off the mark if things continue at the rate they’re going (which, of course they will). For the Time Traveler made the same mistake that many people would: having faith in humanity’s persistence of intellect. Alas, though not as “elegant” a narrative, the dysgenics explored in Mike Judge’s 2006 movie, Idiocracy, also prove that no one living in their own “present” time could ever fathom just how mentally degenerate their ascendants will be. Much the same as the Time Traveler, Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) enters the future (though not with as much enthusiasm, and only ending up in the year 2505, much earlier than the future the Time Traveler finds himself in) with the expectation that things will be vastly improved. Instead, it is a world of post-humanity. Because intelligence is very much the wheel that makes the mechanism of human progress and achievement turn. Yet without much in the way of frontal lobes, the population is a debased, unrecognizable husk of what the human at his or her zenith was (and no, Wells certainly doesn’t make a good case for “pan-gender” folk, as being genderless in this future is part of a lack of humanness). It is thus that the Time Traveler remarks, “It is a law of nature we overlook that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger and trouble. There are natural laws more imperious than time. Change and danger breed true humans. Without them humanity degenerates.”
Unfortunately, as machinery and technology simplified everything for humans, they became increasingly less prone to that intellectual versatility. So it is that the Time Traveler mourns for the loss of his own, familiar kind, lamenting, “I grieve to think how brief the dream of human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes–to come to this at last.” Society’s long-standing wish to get to a state of harmony and stasis ended up turning it entirely on its ear. As Youngquist succinctly summarizes, “Wells depicts a society wrecked by its success. It pursued too literally its dreams of peace and prosperity.”
As the Time Traveler tries to wrap his head around this new existence with the logic from his own era, it dawns on him that he cannot apply it to this breed. For they are no longer human. The great horror is not only that little has changed from a class struggle perspective, but that “Wells’ time traveler enters a post-human world in which art and industry have dissociated completely. Nobody knows why they do what they do–they just do it. Rational awareness has died, leaving behind only pastoral or carnivorous instinct.”