The Time Machine

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Do people still read HG Wells? I found a paperback copy of The Time Machine on a shelf in my grandmother’s house in Niagara Falls one summer evening in the early 1970s, and stayed up all night reading it in one gulp, too creeped-out to fall asleep. I still shudder with the memory of Wells’ vision of the last inheritor of life on earth: the giant carnivorous crab on a frigid beach under a dying red sun …..

The core of the story, the parable of the Eloi and the Morlocks, had however faded a little in my memory. And having spent so long on the three volumes of Shelby Foote, I had amassed a huge collection of credits in my account. I decided to buy a bunch of shorter works to burn through them before they expired. And so after a considerable interval of the only kind of time travel available to us outside books, I found myself back in Wells’ nightmare world.

Here’s the story, for those who don’t know it. The time traveler constructs a machine and hurtles forward 800,000 years to find humanity divided into two new species. The gentle half-witted Eloi inhabit the earth’s surface; the bestial, degraded Morlocks live underground amidst the machinery that sustains the Eloi’s pleasant life. Once the Eloi were the aristocrats, and the Morlocks did the work. But thousands of years of security and idleness have infantilized the Eloi into helplessness, and the half-starved Morlocks now prey upon them – literally: the Morlocks have turned cannibal. The former servants now tend the former masters the way a herdsman tends his cattle.

There is a lot to be said about the story. The terror of degeneration that inspired the story haunted many in the 1890s. (The Time Machine was first published in 1895.) Some cultural historians see this terror as an important background cause of the First World War: many Europeans persuaded themselves that war and conflict would bring out the best in humanity, while prolonged peace would dull human faculties.

Striking too is the weird role of technology in this classic work of science fiction. The Eloi and Morlocks are decayed species, living amidst the ruins of a higher civilization. Yet when Wells imagined the achievements of this high civilization, so far in the future, he imagined it still using paper backs (the Time Traveler comes across the ruins of a library), and displaying its museum collections in glass cases, and manufacturing its necessities with huge machinery built of iron and belching exhaust.

I’m not a reader who craves cool futuristic gadgets in his sci-fi. (I’m not a reader who craves sci-fi period.) And obviously the omission of these cool gadgets does not hurt the story – or anyway, the part of the story that matters. (Although it does lead to some absurdities at the end, when the Time Traveler fights off the Morlocks with old matches he found under airtight glass in the abandoned museum.)

What it suggests is something more surprising. Most of us tend to think of the 19th century as a time of incredibly rapid technological change. And yet the habit of assuming continued and accelerated change had clearly not caught on. If you or I were called on to imagine how human beings of the future will store and share information, we might or might not essay a guess – but we’d feel very strongly confident that they will not use books and ink.

But Wells is clearly much more impressed by the pace of the social changes of his time than the technical changes. He could envision a total transformation of humanity, but not of humanity’s tools. And I don’t think this is just a matter of artistic imperative, although surely that is at work. In 1895, it may have been more natural to think of the advent of industrialism as a one-time event, a shift from one phase of humanity’s existence to another, like the shift from the Classical to the Medieval, rather than as a permanent state of unceasing and accelerating change.

After finishing the audiobook, I went and looked up that amazing pamphlet by John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. I found the passage I was looking for in Chapter 2:

After 1870 there was developed on a large scale an unprecedented situation, and the economic condition of Europe became during the next fifty years unstable and peculiar. The pressure of population on food, which had already been balanced by the accessibility of supplies from America, became for the first time in recorded history definitely reversed. As numbers increased, food was actually easier to secure. Larger proportional returns from an increasing scale of production became true of agriculture as well as industry. With the growth of the European population there were more emigrants on the one hand to till the soil of the new countries and, on the other,more workmen were available in Europe to prepare the industrial products and capital goods which were to maintain the emigrant populations in their new homes, and to build the railways and ships which were to make accessible to Europe food and raw products from distant sources. Up to about 1900 a unit of labour applied to industry yielded year by year a purchasing power ove an increasing quantity of food. It is possible that about the year 1900 this process began to be reversed, and a diminishing yield of nature to man’s effort was beginning to reassert itself. But the tendency of cereals to rise in real cost was balanced by other improvements; and Ñ one of many novelties Ñ the resources of tropical Africa then for the first time came into large employ, and a great traffic in oilseeds began to bring to the table of Europe in a new and cheaper form one of the essential foodstuffs of mankind. In this economic Eldorado, in this economic Utopia, as the earlier economists would have deemed it, most of us were brought up. That happy age lost sight of a view of the world which filled with deep-seated melancholy the founders of our political economy. Before the eighteenth century mankind entertained no false hopes.

Even so great an economic mind as that of Keynes, writing so late as 1919, inwardly believed that the swift changes of the previous half-century were an aberration – that mankind was now bound to settle again into a stationary state, albeit one in which motorcars, radios, and transcontinental cables would be fixtures as, say, artillery, clocks, and navigational equipment had been fixtures in the steady-state economy of the 18th century.

It would be an interesting project to try to date the moment at which the idea that technological change was not going to stop really took hold in the western consciousness. 1950 maybe?

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