H.G. Wells is widely regarded as one of the fathers of modern science-fiction, and for good reason. His novel War of the Worlds was the first popular story of alien contact and invasion. Similarly, The Time Machine catapulted the theme of time travel to the forefront of science-fiction. Wells seems to have captured the essence of a great many science-fiction tropes, and his novels and short stories are still regarded as some of the best in the field.
When we think of science-fiction as a genre, we tend to think of it as reflecting our anxieties about scientific and technological advancement. Which is absolutely true, it does in many cases. But there are also those stories where the science-fiction element is merely a tool for social commentary, and it’s here where Wells shows his strengths.
The Time Machine is a perfect example of this. While debates about the ethics and consequences of time travel do exist, I don’t think these are explored to the same extent as our fears of issues such as artificial intelligence or genetic engineering. Instead, Wells uses his time machine as a tool to literally see into the future, and to witness first-hand the consequences of a capitalist society that exploits workers for profit that benefits a select few.
In the distant future, our narrator observes that the human race has evolved into two new species: the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi have their genetic roots in the privileged class, those who had everything in exchange for very little – they are now weak, childlike creatures. Darwinist theory, popular at the time of publication, states that adversity and competition pave the way for strong genes and mutations. Without these, this group of humans gradually became the pathetic spectacle that they are.
“They wanted to make sure I was real. There was nothing in this at all alarming. Indeed, there was something in these pretty little people that inspired confidence–a graceful gentleness, a certain childlike ease. And besides, they looked so frail that I could fancy myself flinging the whole dozen of them about like nine-pins.”
– H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
The Morlocks however, descend from those workers who were forced underground into extreme poverty. Faced with tough times and a rough environment, their evolution seems to have bred out both weakness and compassion. Their new strength allowed them to dominate the Eloi, once their former masters, and our narrator discovers that they farm the Eloi for meat.
“But, clearly, the old order was already in part reversed. The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back changed!”
– H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
It becomes a clear message of foreboding at this point in the story: exploit your fellow man for long enough and you will reap what you sow.The irony isn’t lost on the reader when the narrator returns to the present and continues treating his servant rudely and voicing his views of his guests’ superior occupations among the masses.
While this is more a critique of a single economic system than of government powers, science-fiction seems to have become a representative of libertarian values, for a good many reasons. It’s not simply progress that we fear, it’s the way that the state uses it to further its interests against our own freedoms. Wells may have been one of the pioneers of this longstanding tradition, paving the way for the counter-culture that now dominates popular science-fiction.