Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

I forgot how to explain time

In his preface to a compendium of his novels, H.G. Wells calls his first, The Time Machine, “a bit stiff about the fourth dimension.” The abstract theoretical has central importance in the novel; yet it is indeed at odds with the narrative, which is essentially an adventure that could be transposed from the future onto some primitive island of the present (the present being 1895).

The future setting allows, however, for speculation and philosophizing that a contemporary savage land would not. For there in the distant time humanity’s body, mind and spirit have atrophied. The Time Traveller, at least as his hypothesis is presented in the novel, supposes this is the result of socioeconomic and scientific advancement up to a threshold, beyond which nothing more must needs be done, and an epoch of backsliding necessarily sets in.

Bear in mind, though: the reteller of the Time Traveller’s story is evidently preoccupied with communism, as we see in the two places where he quotes himself in conversation (6, 21), and we should wonder whether this affects how the Time Traveller's take on future humanity is reflected.

The Time Traveller opines:
It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.
(57)
But necessity is clearly not the mother of the Time Traveller’s invention, nor the goad of his intelligence. His discovery is, by this measure, a byproduct. The time machine serves no purpose toward preservation or advancement of the species (though conceivably it could, had not it and its creator disappeared).

Situating the Time Traveller in his own model of human progress is therefore difficult, complicated further by his own devolution at the climax of his story.

Surrounded by subhumans, the Time Traveller experiences savage impulses. He says he finds it nigh impossible to see humanity in his descendents the Morlocks, and yearns to kill them (49). Later, in combat with them, he grips an iron lever, a found weapon, a caveman’s implement. He seems to delight in the violence. “I could feel the succulent giving of flesh and bone under my blows, and for a moment I was free” (54).

The Time Traveller touches on the topic of future shock only briefly, but uses a very interesting analogy in doing so. “Conceive the tale of London which a Negro, fresh from Central Africa, would take back to his tribe! What would he know of railway companies, of social movements, of telephone and telegraph wires, of the Postal Delivery Company, and postal orders and the like?” (30). Although he considers himself more advance than the Eloi and the Morlocks, he nonetheless realizes he is at a disadvantage for understanding them and their societies. Here, if only for an instant, he others himself; he is in the position of the negro, the savage in a strange land, whose perceptions must be way off the mark.

(Pictured above, a papercraft TARDIS. It's a two-dimensional representation of a multi-dimensional time machine -- get it?!?! [link])

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