SF Masterwork of the Week: The Time Machine

The SF Masterwork of the Week for the end of August, is H. G. Wells‘ seminal time-travel novel, The Time Machine. Continuing our new regular feature – thanks to our good friends at SFX, who have kindly agreed to allow us to republish SFX Book Club articles covering our SF Masterworks and/or SF Gateway titles – this tour through one of the all-time classics of SF is guided by none other than Gollancz‘s very own master of time and space, Stephen Baxter . . .



In his house in Richmond, a late-Victorian scientist we know only as the Time Traveller puts together a bicycle-like Time Machine: “The night came like the turning out of a lamp, and in another moment came tomorrow . . . Presently a fresh series of impressions grew up on my mind – a certain curiosity and therewith a certain dread . . .”

HG Wells’s images of time travelling are memorably vivid, and were portrayed well in the 1960 Hollywood film. But consider the Traveller’s first reactions: curiosity and dread.

The Traveller arrives in the year 802,701 AD. England is like a dilapidated garden, peopled by the gentle, rather childlike Eloi. At first the Traveller thinks nature has been conquered, and humanity is decadent. But the Eloi are being kept alive by the Morlocks, who tend dimly-glimpsed machines in deep caverns. In return the Morlocks are using the Eloi as cattle. Both Eloi and Morlock are degraded forms, the long-term result of social discrimination.

The Time Machine was Wells’s very first novel, published when he was 29. On one level it’s a social parable, on another an evolutionary myth. Social division and the destiny of mankind were both central concerns for Wells.  But holding it all together is a quite terrific adventure story.

It’s not, however, as you might think, a tale of exploration. The Time Traveller is no explorer! He’s a gadgeteer; his interest is in his Machine rather than in the destination: “If you’ll stop to lunch, I’ll prove you this time travelling up to the hilt, specimens and all.” Remember he’s supposed to be a scientist. He takes no equipment – not even a camera, that first trip – and wanders about future England making random observations and social speculations. His reactions to Morlock and Eloi are more visceral than intellectual. He’s curious, but he’s a tourist, not an explorer – and perhaps the more likeable for it, and a good protagonist to deliver what Wells could see is the central source of wonder of the sub genre of future-time stories he was pioneering: to see what lies ahead, to see how it’s connected to my time.

But then the Morlocks take away the Machine. Suddenly the Traveller is stranded, and curiosity turns to dread. Stranding your characters is a simple narrative trick, familiar to any viewer of Doctor Who who can never understand why anybody would leave the safety of the TARDIS. As the characters struggle to get home you get a readymade plot. Wells did it again, stranding his narrator on The Island Of Doctor Moreau (1896). And then there’s The First Men In The Moon (1901): “’By the way,’ I said, ‘where exactly is the sphere?’”

Maybe these stranded heroes are reflections of Wells himself. According to scholar Warren Wagar the young Wells was “a short, fattish, broadshouldered man, his voice high and thin, his blue eyes bright and dreaming. He walked with a vulgar little bounce. He was the everlasting Cockney never able to forget years of hunger and ill health in a fin de siècle adolescence . . . he was the resentful ex-counter-jumper of the Southsea Drapery emporium . . .” Behold HG Wells, stranded among the snobs.

Arguably Wells had written all his best SF by 1901, aged only 35. After that he wrote novels of modern-day society and ambitious works of popular science and history, and built up a public reputation as a prophet of the future. But the raw power of his storytelling declined.

The Time Machine, however, lives on. It was a founding work of modern SF, and for its allegorical power has become recognised as fine literature beyond the genre boundaries. Above all it has endured because it’s just such a great story, with a tremendously sympathetic protagonist. It’s no wonder SFX picked the Time Traveller as one of its 20 greatest SF heroes (issue 211): “He’s both a dreamer and a man shaken by what he witnesses.” Indeed: curiosity and dread.


This piece was written by Stephen Baxter and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.

Stephen Baxter is the author of the epic Xeelee sequence and his forthcoming novel, Proxima, will be published on the 19th September in hardback, trade paperback and as an eBook. Stephen Baxter’s website is www.stephen-baxter.com, and you can find his books at his author page on the Orion website and read more about him in his entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.