Sunday, May 12, 2019

H. G. Wells, The Time Machine; The War of the Worlds


Opening Passages: From The Time Machine:

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His pale grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated. The fire burnt brightly, and the soft radiance of the incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses. Our chairs, being his patents, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon, and there was that luxurious after-dinner atmosphere, when thought runs gracefully free of the trammels of precision. And he put it to us in this way—marking the points with a lean forefinger—as we sat and lazily admired his earnestness over this new paradox (as we thought it) and his fecundity.

From The War of the Worlds:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

Summary: H. G. Wells's first time travel story was "The Chronic Argonauts", a short story published seven years before The Time Machine. In it, one can see the germinal conceptions that would eventually give us the novel. The explanation for the machine is much the same, as is the mysterious description of the machine as consisting of a lot of parts consisting of materials difficult to obtain or use, like ivory, mahogany, and nickel. But we also see a significant improvement in the underlying craft. "The Chronic Argonauts" is an interesting piece, but it lacks the profundity that makes The Time Machine perhaps the greatest work of its kind. While the Welsh color of the former is striking, the more selective and careful description (and, often, nondescription) of the book greatly strengthens the impact of the story, and the quiet and understated Time Traveler of the latter is vastly more charismatic than the somewhat florid Dr. Nebogipfel.

One of the great aspects of The Time Machine is its ability to combine the sweeping and the personal; you feel how far in the past you are compared with the Eloi and the Morlocks, and the distantness of the slow eclipsing of life on earth beyond them, and yet the story even at its most speculative never gives the sense of abstractness. You are there with the Time Traveler, and with Weena. It is an advantage, I think, not to know how the bifurcation of the human race came about; the Time Traveler speculates, of course, but he does not know. This makes the contrast-with-recognizability especially effective: we can see in ourselves the Eloi-like and the Morlock-like, which intensifies the awfulness of getting the pure forms.

I listened to the Escape version of The Time Machine:

They make a decent effort to try to stay close to the spirit of the work. Among others, they make two very significant changes -- the Time Traveler has a companion, which is probably better for radio than just having the Time Traveler tell his tale as he does in the book (we need a way to retain the narrative distance), and they give the Time Traveler a name, which is probably a mistake. As adaptations go, however, it largely works.

The War of the Worlds sees the greatest empire on earth invaded by an irresistible power. One of the things I very much liked about the tale on re-reading it this past week was how Wells steadily builds it up from the first puzzled curiosity, to shock, to confusion, to animal terror, and finally, when the Martians fail (because they are not defeated) the countershock that jarringly begins the restoration of normal life, to the extent that it can be restored. Its characters are less striking than those of The Time Machine, but it makes skillful use of horror elements to capture the helplessness of the time.

It also does very well with the alien-ness of the Martians, who, unlike the Eloi and Morlocks, are very alien -- their almost baffling physiological structure, their bloodsucking ways, their extreme technical advancement combined with a broad incomprehension of the wheel and of bacteria, combined with our own inability to understand why they are even doing this. Some people don't like the sudden collapse of the Martian invasion, but Wells actually does quite a bit to prepare for it -- not only are the Martians clearly underestimating how disease-ridden we are, it seems clear from a number of things that Wells says that they may have had unexpected problems with the provisions they brought, and so were in an emergency state, on a clock to get more.

There's a sense in which The War of the Worlds is also a time travel story, except that instead of traveling into the future, the future comes to us. One of Wells's own essays is mentioned in passing in the book, "The Man of the Year Million", sometimes better known under the title "Of a Book Unwritten", which quite clearly anticipates some of the physiological features of the Martians by speculating about what human beings might be in a much later evolution. (The link to time travel is also underlined by the artilleryman's plans, which are eerily suggestive of something that could lead to the Eloi and Morlocks.) In another essay, "The Extinction of Man", he says, "It is part of the excessive egotism of the human animal that the bare idea of its extinction seems incredible to it"; but, as he notes, there is nothing strange from an evolutionary perspective about the idea that we might go extinct. It is, indeed, inevitable at some point. The Martians just bring us face to face with it.

But, of course, the Martians are not immune from it, either; for all their alien-ness, they are not so different from us in this respect. Perhaps, as the novel's reference to "The Man of the Year Million" might suggest, they are just what we will be, having only gotten there faster. People often dislike their downfall by bacteria, but, as the essay on human extinction, this could, for all we know, be our own end:

And, finally, there is always the prospect of a new disease. As yet science has scarcely touched more than the fringe of the probabilities associated with the minute fungi that constitute our zymotic diseases. But the bacilli have no more settled down into their final quiescence than have men; like ourselves, they are adapting themselves to new conditions and acquiring new powers. The plagues of the Middle Ages, for instance, seem to have been begotten of a strange bacillus engendered under conditions that sanitary science, in spite of its panacea of drainage, still admits are imperfectly understood, and for all we know even now we may be quite unwittingly evolving some new and more terrible plague—a plague that will not take ten or twenty or thirty per cent., as plagues have done in the past, but the entire hundred.

Favorite Passages: From The Time Machine:

'The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.'

From The War of the Worlds:

I followed them to my study, and found lying on my writing-table still, with the selenite paper weight upon it, the sheet of work I had left on the afternoon of the opening of the cylinder. For a space I stood reading over my abandoned arguments. It was a paper on the probable development of Moral Ideas with the development of the civilising process; and the last sentence was the opening of a prophecy: "In about two hundred years," I had written, "we may expect——" The sentence ended abruptly. I remembered my inability to fix my mind that morning, scarcely a month gone by, and how I had broken off to get my Daily Chronicle from the newsboy. I remembered how I went down to the garden gate as he came along, and how I had listened to his odd story of "Men from Mars."

Recommendation: Both Highly Recommended.

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