The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
read by Paul Adams, Mike Pelton, Richard Kilmer, and James K. White
The dawn of the new millennium found my preteen self stunned by our fannish destiny, revealed in a screening of The Lord of the Rings. I’d been a speculative fiction fan since I was old enough to watch my brother play Warcraft II (“Where are all the female units?” I asked myself, squatting on a medicine ball), but being almost entirely cut off from television meant that I’d never seen the kind of things that I was into. Seeing speculative fiction on the big screen felt like validation, despite my total lack of knowledge about the genre, so I was a sucker for any speculative fiction film that came my way. (This is how the McBrides went to go see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen without anyone knowing who Alan Moore was.)
Enter Simon Wells’ The Time Machine. It may not have been a good adaptation of his great-grandfather’s H. G. Wells’ novella (or, looking at the contemporary critical reaction, that good as a film), but it was certainly there in 2002. I haven’t seen the film in a decade, but, somehow, it’s stuck with me just a little. I ended up tackling the novella soon after, but it soon faded, leaving behind a general idea of time travel, Victorian England, and how good Orlando Jones is.
And that’s the problem with being such a cornerstone of science fiction, isn’t it? The Time Machine literally gave us the time machine and popularized time travel as a narrative device, giving us a world where Doctor Who is one of the longest running television shows on the planet. (I will readily admit to, despite description, picturing the Time Traveller as the Eighth Doctor.) It’s one of those things that’s so monumental that, when it becomes commonplace, becomes utterly invisible, like the combustible engine. This is where ur-texting becomes a threat; if I’ve seen its successors succeed so well, am I going to be impressed by the original, even if I try to set that aside?
Luckily, The Time Machine remains a charming, strange, and deeply awestruck piece. It helps that the time machine isn’t the novel’s point; rather, it’s about the decline of man and the terrifying beauty of the natural world. (Wells got the novelty of the thing out of his system with the short story “The Chronic Argonauts.”) There’s something cozily charming about the frame story of the Time Traveller’s exceedingly British dinner companions (including its ending, which is either tragic or very Doctor Who), but the real moments of beauty occur when he’s simply sitting in his machine and watching the world progress around him. Civilizations rise and fall; years blink by in seconds; the Earth ceases to spin. There’s certainly nothing to remind you that you’re just a flicker in the life of the universe like watching the Sun die or wandering around a smashed up museum filled with destroyed discoveries you can only dream of.
It’s a pessimistic take on the future, undoubtedly. While we soon learn that the adorable, childlike Eloi are the descendants of the wealthy and the monstrous, ape-like Morlocks are the descendants of the working class, Wells presents them both as bad. (Of course, the Time Travellers’ sympathies lies with the Eloi, so it has some bias.) Upon meeting the Eloi, the Time Traveller determines that suffering is the source of all intelligence. His precocious Eloi friend Weena perishes during his attempts to gather resources in a fire that he starts. But it’s this darkness that gives The Time Machine its strange, alien beauty. While the class politics are very Victorian, the focus on the end of our world keeps it, appropriately, timeless.
This was my first experience with a LibriVox audiobook, and I quite enjoyed it! There’s no music, which I often despair of in professional audiobooks. I thought I’d picked up a solo performance, but this version (version 4) is actually a collaborative reading. I thought it would be really disjointed, but the four narrators all have very calming, steady voices. Paul Adams, however, is the best of the four, adding some character to the eccentric Time Traveller. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got the right accent for the part…
Bottom line: Despite its status as a foundational text of science fiction, The Time Machine remains, despite its class politics, pretty timeless with its strange, alien moments of beauty as the Earth gives out.
I downloaded this free audiobook from LibriVox.