The Time Machine

‘Scientific people know very well that Time is only a kind of Space’, says the Traveller in Wells's The Time Machine. That being so, of course, it is incumbent upon him to explore it. He mounts his chrono-cycle with only a few items in his pocket, and sets off into the future. I'm always reminded of pictures taken of Empire explorers and adventurers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Mallory-Irvine expedition to Mount Everest in 1924. In the photo here,
(from the Natural History Museum website), the expedition look as though they might be about to have a walk in slightly inclement weather somewhere on Hampstead Heath, rather than trying to ascend the highest mountain in the world. This is how I imagine the Traveller, somewhat unprepared, somewhat naive, about to trust to luck and his own wits.

The adventurer-hero of Imperial Romance is easiest identified with the figure of Allan Quartermain, protagonist of several books by H.Rider Haggard, and more recently re-booted as an opium-addicted time traveller of increased longevity in the Moore and O'Neill comic books The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (At the end of Volume 1 of the Collected versions of LoEG, Quartermain actually meets and has an adventure with Wells's Traveller.) Moore's ironic imagination of the Imperial adventurer pricks the balloon of his competence (if, unlike the Traveller, the advneturer had much to begin with); uptight, rather weak, his masculinist and Imperial ethos undone by encounters with Mina Harker and Captain Nemo, Quartermain is re-discovered as a rather more attractive figure for his all-too-human weaknesses.

In The Time Machine, Wells allows the Traveller to tell his own story (though the narration is framed and doubled with another narration, by a narrator not revealed to the reader); as in The Island of Doctor Moreau, narrated by the castaway Prendick, Wells allows a gap to open between the Traveller's experience of the world, his narration, and how we might process his words. For instance, the Traveller continually speculates about the nature and state of the world he finds himself in; continually, his hypotheses are proved wrong. A keen experimenter, of course, this does not put him off: he simply reformulates the evidence into new hypotheses. For the reader, however, the constant mis-apprehensions reveal to us the existence of partiality, of blind spots, of gaps in knowledge or understanding. Wells is a sophisticated enough writer (not always allowed in criticism of his work) to afford several of his scientific romances some linguistic or formal play, and first-person narration is one of those devices. Through this, Wells can expose some of the assumptions of the world of Victorian England that produces the Traveller and his science.

That is not to say that Wells does not have his own blind spots, his own ideological silences. If 'time is a kind of space' is an alibi or pretext for Imperial adventure, how might we process the evolutionary discourse (mapped onto class) that structures the visions of the future? Is class only a kind of species difference, in a Darwinian model of competition and selection? And how is it that agency is gendered?

However, the Traveller's machine is not a gunboat, a machine of war and domination; its nearest analogue is a bicycle. In a decade when cycling became all the rage (and Wells wrote his own bicycle-themed novel, The Wheels of Chance), the Time Machine itself seems best suited not for Empire, but a day-trip to the countryside.


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