Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Time Machine (1895)


Wells's Time Traveller mounts his machine and zooms into futurity:
I pressed the lever over to its extreme position. The night came like the turning out of a lamp, and in another moment came to-morrow. The laboratory grew faint and hazy, then fainter and ever fainter. To-morrow night came black, then day again, night again, day again, faster and faster still. An eddying murmur filled my ears, and a strange, dumb confusedness descended on my mind.

As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. I supposed the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air. I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things. The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous color like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.

The landscape was misty and vague. I was still on the hill-side upon which this house now stands, and the shoulder rose above me grey and dim. I saw trees growing and changing like puffs of vapour, now brown, now green; they grew, spread, shivered, and passed away. I saw huge buildings rise up faint and fair, and pass like dreams. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed—melting and flowing under my eyes. The little hands upon the dials that registered my speed raced round faster and faster. Presently I noted that the sun belt swayed up and down, from solstice to solstice, in a minute or less, and that consequently my pace was over a year a minute; and minute by minute the white snow flashed across the world, and vanished, and was followed by the bright, brief green of spring. [Time Machine, 19]
So: Wells has pondered what time-travel would look like from the point of view of the traveller and has concluded it would seem as things appear to us now (travelling as we are, one-second-per-second futurewards) except sped up, after the manner that ciné-film can be sped up. In effect he imagines the eye of the traveller as an aperture, like a camera, such that as information arrives more rapidly it creates the effect of film being run more rapidly through the projector gate. It ‘feels’ right, as description, but actually it is wrong, and for the following reason: light is both streams of particles and it is waves. Our eyes have evolved to interpret the wavelengths of light as particular colours, within a relatively small range. Light with shorter wavelengths appears bluer, light with longer wavelengths redder. Now, any wavelength is inversely proportional to frequency of the wave, such that waves with higher frequencies have shorter wavelengths, and lower frequencies have longer wavelengths. As the traveller speeds up in time, the frequency of the light waves striking his retina will increase, and accordingly things will appear blue to him. As he accelerates the familiar wavelengths of light will slip into ultraviolet, and he will stop seeing anything at all. So what the traveller should be seeing is: the visible world speeding and blue-ing for a while before vanishing altogether; and at the same time he should be seeing the world of objects that emit far infra-red, microwaves and radio-waves becoming increasingly visible, until these become the only things he can see at all. This would be a far weirder vision than the one Wells describes in the passage above.

The moral of this story is we need to come-at Wells twice. His account of how time-travel might appear to the traveller has a superficial plausibility: so much so, in fact, that I don't think anybody over the last twelve decades has challenged it. But if you think about it for a moment it's wrong. Nor is this a purely 21st-century perspective: late 19th-century science understood the wavelengths of light, and the way eyes perceived them, perfectly well. Still, I'm not trying to criticize Wells for writing what he did the way he did. The point I'm trying to make has to do with seeing. Things that strike us as plain-as-daylight common-sense may, with a little temporal motion, shift into the invisible, and things omnipresent but invisible may come looming up into view our of hitherto obscure depths. Who knows?


Wells published the first version of this story in the small-circulation Science School Journal as early as 1888, under the spectacularly ill-chosen title ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ (‘ ... but Doctor, help me Doctor, what is the matter with me?’ ‘I'm sorry to say you're suffering from chronic argonauts’). This narrative went through ‘no fewer than seven different versions’ [J R Hammond, An H G Wells Companion (London: Macmillan 1979), 79] before appearing in book form in 1895. Wells's first-born piece of fiction.

The ‘time traveller’ (we are never vouchsafed his name) has invented a machine that enables him to move backwards or forwards in time. He travels to the year 802,701 and discovers that mankind has evolved, or ‘devolved’, into two separate races: the beautiful but mindless Eloi who live hedonistic lives above ground, and the technologically-advanced but repulsively ugly Morlocks who live below the ground, and who (the tale reveals) come out at night to devour the Eloi. The traveller then travels even further into the future, and sees further ‘devolution’, with mankind becoming first rabbit-like creatures (an episode cut from the 1895 volume) and finally—in a scene of marvelously desolating vision—crab-like monsters scuttling about a terminal beach under a dying sun.

Returning to this novella, for the umpteenth time, has changed my view of it—either because these are interpretations that require the deeper knowledge and greater wisdom of age, or, more likely, because I'm just restless enough to want to try something, howsoever implausible, beyond the conventional critical responses. What those responses tend to do is see The Time Machine as a fabulation that satirically exaggerates the class structure of fin-de-siècle Britain. The Eloi live in a neo-Hellenic communistic paradise above ground—the Greek plural form of their name is the giveaway, even if their costume wasn't go obviously Greek ‘clad in a purple tunic, girdled at the waist with a leather belt. Sandals or buskins, legs bare to the knee’—the Eloi ‘carry,’ as Brian Aldiss puts it, ‘a flavour of the aesthete from the eighteen-seventies’. If they are the aristocrats, the Morlocks are identified in the tale as a Darwinian extension of the industrial proletariat: ‘even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?’ [Wells, 52].

Critics line-up to ‘read’ these cannibalistic Morlocks literally eating the imbecilic and beautiful Eloi as a Swiftian satire, or reverse-satire, on the inherent violence of class in late 19th-century Britain; and previously I have been part of that line. It has become almost axiomatic that, in Leon Stover's words, ‘Wells's hated Morlocks are those antisocial elements of the working poor organized for mischief by trade unionists of Marxist persuasion’ [Stover (ed), The Time Machine: A Critical Text of the 1895 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices (McFarland 1996)]. But think about this situation for a moment and you realise there's a misprison so fundamental in this allegory it's rather amazing nobody talks about it.

So: the nature of class relations in the 19th-century, to a Fabian like Wells (as to a 21st-century lefty like me) is that the rich feed on the poor. That is to say, the rich exploit the poor, expropriating their labour to their own enrichment and thereby immiserating them. This is exactly the situation in 802,701, except that it is the Eloi, wholly passive, who are exploited by the predatory Morlocks. These latter are clearly a technologically advanced population, and use their industry to supply the physical needs of the Eloi in terms of food, clothing, shelter and so on, something the Eloi are perfectly incapable of doing for themselves, as the Traveller realises early on:
The several big palaces I had explored were mere living places, great dining-halls and sleeping apartments. I could find no machinery, no appliances of any kind. Yet these people were clothed in pleasant fabrics that must at times need renewal, and their sandals, though undecorated, were fairly complex specimens of metalwork. Somehow such things must be made. And the little people displayed no vestige of a creative tendency. There were no shops, no workshops, no sign of importations among them. They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping. I could not see how things were kept going [Time Machine, 41]
The Morlocks are keeping the Eloi as something between pets and livestock. It is, and despite the so-often-mistaken Time Traveller's speculations to the contrary, the Morlocks who are the aristocrats, exploiting the proletarian Eloi as a resource. Automation, we presume, having done away with the need to exploit the proletariat for their labour, what remains is to literalise the predatory nature of all class exploitation by literally devouring their underclass.

That readers tend to agree with the Traveller, and think of the Eloi as the aristocrats, has to do with two features of the way Wells styles them: they are freed from the need to work; and they are beautiful (that is, sexually desirable). But on the former count there's nothing stopping us reading this as a commentary upon the exigencies of full machinic automation: a far-future society in which all physical needs are supplied by technology. And as for the latter: the person who assumes the vector of sexual desire inevitably runs from the working class to the aristocracy has presumably never heard of Arthur Munby, or indeed had much experience of life more generally. That the Morlocks devour the Eloi is represented in the novella as a disgusting thing; and the Morlocks themselves are physically repulsive: ‘pallid bodies ... just the half-bleached colour of the worms and things one sees preserved in spirit in a zoological museum ... filthily cold to the touch’ [51]; ‘You can scarce imagine how nauseatingly inhuman they looked—those pale, chinless faces and great, lidless, pinkish-grey eyes!’ [55] But we have little reason to trust the narrator's perspective on these beings (his descriptions, as he himself acknowledges, reflect an unconsidered revulsion: ‘instinctively I loathed them’). It wouldn't be hard to construct a more considered portrait of these technologically-advanced people: to imagine a world below characterised by advanced science, sophisticated culture and social richness. The whole novel then becomes a satire not on nineteenth-century class relations so much as on our habits of judging by appearances, our assumption that evil must coordinate with our sense of ugliness, and virtue with our apprehension of pulchritude.

I am not the first person to presume the Morlocks are more than mere monsters; in Steve Baxter's award-winning sequel, The Time Ships (1995) they achieve engineering prodigies, including constructing a Dyson Sphere around the sun (although Baxter's novel also implies that these are alternate-timeline Morlocks with greater intellectual capacity than the ones in Wells' novella). They eat people, true; and eating people is wrong. Then again, the comparative luxury in which the Eloi are kept reflect, if anything, rather more credit upon the Morlocks than the filthy confinement in which we 21st-century humans keep our livestock; and if we are disgusted at the Morlocks eating their cattle and not disgusted at our own carnivorous ways we lay ourselves open to the charge of hypocrisy. The book is quite clear that, however pretty the Eloi are, they are not fully intelligent or self-aware. And if we're going to apply a 21st-century ethical frame to the novel we should probably aim at consistency.

In other words: as our knee-jerk disgust at the Morlocks (because they are so physically unprepossessing; because they are dark-adapted; because they eat monkey-meat rather than cow- and pig-meat) disappears into the rapidly cycling ultraviolet of our ethical spectrum, a different frequency of ethical concern glooms into visibility from the infrared. Take, for example, the novella's representation of sex.

The Eloi live, as I say above, a pseudo-Hellenic lifestyle: throwbacks to the dawn of history (watched over by a classical sphinx), the childhood of mankind, something literalised in their childlike stature and very limited mental capacity. Wells takes their name from the Greek ἤλòς (ēlos; the plural form is ēloi), a word which originally (in Homer) meant ‘deranged’ or ‘insane’, but which came in later usage to mean: ‘vain, useless, worthless’. A very appropriate title for this decorative but useless people.

The first thing that strikes the Time Traveller is how very like children they are. They are ‘slight creatures—perhaps four feet high’. He calls them ‘exquisite creatures’, ‘a pretty little people that inspired confidence—a graceful gentleness, a certain childlike ease.’ After he rescues drowning Weena from the indifference of her fellow Eloi (I have to assume her name is Wells's best guess at the Greek word for ‘wine’, by way of gesturing at the intoxication of her beauty; conceivably Wells, who after all had received no formal education in Greek, wrongly assumed οἶνα to be the feminine form of οἶνος)—after he rescues Weena the Traveller records that her gratitude and friendliness ‘affected me exactly as a child's might have done’. But there's something precocious about this girl-child. A few lines later:
She was exactly like a child. She wanted to be with me always. She tried to follow me everywhere, and on my next journey out and about it went to my heart to tire her down, and leave her at last, exhausted and calling after me rather plaintively. ... I had not, I said to myself, come into the future to carry on a miniature flirtation. Yet her distress when I left her was very great, her expostulations at the parting were sometimes frantic, and I think, altogether, I had as much trouble as comfort from her devotion. Nevertheless she was, somehow, a very great comfort.
What kind of comfort might that be, you ask? Well, the text is as explicit about this as any mainstream Victorian fiction is likely to be: ‘in the end her odd affection for me triumphed, and for five of the nights of our acquaintance, including the last night of all, she slept with her head pillowed on my arm. But my story slips away from me as I speak of her.’

In short: the Time Traveller's impulse, on having travelled to 802,701 and discovered a species of intellectually vacuous, pretty-faced child-humans, is to fuck them. But where disgust at the Morlock's cannibalism seems baked into the way The Time Machine has been received by readers and critics, disgust at the Traveller's pedophilia seems wholly absent. There are myriad sequels by other hands, and in many of them the Traveller and Weena have children together (this one, for instance). That is to say: Wells's ‘love-story’ between a full-grown man and a fair-faced, 4ft, very-low-IQ child-girl has been unproblematically assimilated into the larger fan-reception of this novel. More, for this assimilation to happen, the original has to be reconfigured; for in that original Weena dies. The Traveller and Weena are pursued through the dark woods by the Morlocks, and the Traveller, trying to scare them off by throwing fiery lumps of camphor at them, inadvertently sets the trees alight. Weena faints and is snatched by the Morlocks, but is then presumably burned to death with them: ‘I searched again for traces of Weena, but there were none,’ says the Traveller, later. ‘It was plain that they had left her poor little body in the forest. I cannot describe how it relieved me to think that it had escaped the awful fate to which it seemed destined.’ Better burned alive than raped by Morlocks, it seems.

The Traveller repeatedly refers to the Eloi as children: ‘I felt like a schoolmaster amidst children ... like children, but like children they would soon stop examining me and wander away after some other toy’. Whose children are they? His of course (at once point he even calls them ‘my graceful children’). Like the Morlocks, the Eloi are his descendants. When he breaks-off a metal lever which which to defend himself and Weena against Morlock attack he notes:
I longed very much to kill a Morlock or so. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things.
In strict terms Morlocks and Eloi both can be male or female; but in terms of the symbolic logic of the story the Eloi are feminised and the Morlocks masculinized: the former share ‘the same soft hairless visage, and the same girlish rotundity of limb’; the latter though also diminutive, are more aggressive, physically stronger, more of a threat. The Traveller's adventure, in other words, is to hop over time, encounter his own children, sleep with his daughter and murder his sons. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! It's a deliberate, and deliberately unsettling, inversion of the myth of Oedipus. Not for nothing does a sphinx preside over the whole narrative: ‘Above me towered the sphinx, upon the bronze pedestal, white, shining, leprous, in the light of the rising moon. It seemed to smile in mockery of my dismay.’

[Sketch for the cover-art of Baxter's Time Ships (1995), by Les Edwards


Oedipus, in the myth, solves two riddles. Indeed, one of the striking things about him in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus is how self-confident he is of his ability to generate such solutions, and how unhappy this facility makes him in the end. First he meets the Sphinx, and solves her riddle: ‘What is that which in the morning goes upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the evening upon three?’ It's a very famous story, and a very famous riddle, although that very fame should give us pause: Oedipus's answer is ‘man’, who crawls on all fours in his infancy, strides on two legs in his maturity, and walks with a stick in his dotage. It is the trajectory as much as the actual answer here that is relevant to Wells's sphinxine novella: the passage from our collective infancy, through maturity, and into the decay of the species: Eloi and Morlocks, rabbits and crabs, into something even less definite and so to terminal nothingness. (It may not be too fanciful to see the pick-a-number,-drop-down,-come-back-up-to-one-less-than-the-original-number shape of this ‘4, 2, 3’ pattern in Wells's famous future-date, 802, 701.)

This riddle is also posed by The Time Machine in a more straightforward manner: in the original myth the sphinx describes a strange monster, but the answer reveals that this monster is not so strange; that, in fact, the monster is us. Wells, in effect, does the same, asking: what are these vacuous, diminutive infantile beings, unable to care for themselves? And what are these other monsters? These pale troglodytes that feed on human flesh? These gigantic crabs? This blob of darkness? And once again the solution to the riddle is: they are man. Which is to say: they are you, they are us. It is in this answer that inheres the buried force of the original oedipal riddle, the enduring power of that myth. The sphinx says: ‘I shall describe to you a bizarre-sounding monster. Can you say what it is?’ And Oedipus replies: ‘Le monstre, c'est moi.’ We can speculate that all the previous challengers to the sphinx's puzzle failed not because the riddle is hard, since (famously) it really isn't that hard, but rather because they were unwilling to take that last step, and accept that the terrible beast being described is they, themselves. Rather than accept their essential monstrosity, many people would rather die. That's one of the things this myth is saying, I think.

But there's a second riddle in the Oedipus story, and it is posed not by a sphinx but by the land itself. The fields sicken, the crops die, a curse is on Thebes. Oedipus sets out to solve this riddle too, unaware that it has the same answer as the first one. What is the source of the curse? Oedipus himself. This second riddle both reveals and embodies the short-circuit of existence: man comes from sex, from the mother, into selfhood and along that temporal trajectory sketched by the first riddle towards death, and the mirroring of these two riddles reveals a profound and upsetting truth that all these things are the same thing. Sex is incest, birth is death, existence is a curse, all is folded into all.

My personal reading, here, is that this was always the coded significance of all those legs in the original riddle. After all, we can only claim that a crawling baby ‘walks on four legs’ by confusing arms and legs, a very foolish sort of confusion. Arms are not legs. No: though the answer to the ‘four-legs’ portion of the sphinx's riddle is indeed ‘baby’—which is to say, the answer is the origin of human life, its starting point—the actual solution is more ribald. Just as Shakespeare describes a copulating couple as ‘the beast with two backs’, so the sphinx describes two people having sex as a four-legged beast, two lower-bodies tangled together. It is not until the second riddle, the one at the heart of Sophocles’ play, that we finally understand the two individuals are Oedipus and Jocasta. The remainder of the riddle also anticipates the events of the Oedipus Tyrannus, I think: Oedipus standing alone, after Jocasta's death, in the blazing noon-light of total comprehension; and then Oedipus seizing a ‘stick’, a new limb—the bronze pin from his wife-mother's dress—and blinding himself with it, bringing the darkness, the ‘evening’ which the sphinx promised.

Wells's Time Traveller, as we have seen, provides himself with a ‘stick’ when he wrenches off a metal bar to kill the Morlocks, which is to say, to visit death upon his own children. But there is an earlier ‘limb’ that may be more relevant here: the lever that operates the time machine itself, and which he detaches and puts in his pocket to prevent monkey-curious Eloi from accidentally steering the device into an irrecoverable othertime. This, I think, in turn speaks to the story-logic of this Oedipal riddle. We walk on the two legs of conventional one-second-per-second time travel, but Wells's ingenious device gives is a third option: to leap over time altogether. He would return to this bizarre world-leaping figure, the tripod, in The War of the Worlds a few years later. We could put it this way: conventional time is a single road, but Wells's machine gives us a new-branching path, a short-cut, and turns the road into a tripartite crossroad; and if that recalls us to the site of Oedipus's fatal encounter with the man he did not recognise as his own father, then maybe it is supposed to. Aeschylus wrote an Oedipus trilogy before Sophocles (Laius, Oedipus and Seven Against Thebes, of which only the last play survives; it ended with a satyr-play called Sphinx). From Aeschylus's Oedipus only this one fragmentary line survives, spoken by Oedipus himself: ‘We were coming on our journey to the place from which three highways part in the branching roads, where we crossed the junction of the triple roads at Potniae’ [this is Herbert Weir Smyth translation]. It's the sense of returning to the fatal, triadic primal-scene that is powerful; of time rolling back to reveal what nobody saw until now but which has always been true.

Now, all this may seem like an abstruse and rather remote way of engaging with Wells's novella, but I do think it touches on something central to the way that work disseminated itself, and continues to disseminate itself, into the world. Really, it's the stroke of intuitive genius that Wells's imparted to his story: he invents a machine that offers a kind of ultimate freedom, escape from the ‘now’, the whole of the past and the future our playground. It is, when you boil it down, the fantasy of escaping mortality as such—for what is death but the formal structure of our various individual timelines? Wells's skill was to realise that the escape-route from death leads directly back to death: the death of the individual becomes the death of the species. There's a reason Wells's terminal beach has proved so iconic for science fiction writers:

The ultimate destination of humankind's evolutionary journey through time, according to The Time Machine, is a strange globular creature, at first mistaken for inanimation, as black as blindness, round like one of Oedipus's plucked-out eyeballs, subsisting at the very end of time that is death.
A shallow sandbank had appeared in the sea and the water had receded from the beach. I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock. The stars in the sky were intensely bright and seemed to me to twinkle very little.

Suddenly I noticed that the circular westward outline of the sun had changed; that a concavity, a bay, had appeared in the curve. I saw this grow larger. For a minute perhaps I stared aghast at this blackness that was creeping over the day, and then I realized that an eclipse was beginning. Either the moon or the planet Mercury was passing across the sun's disk. Naturally, at first I took it to be the moon, but there is much to incline me to believe that what I really saw was the transit of an inner planet passing very near to the earth.

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.

A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.
The rayless obscurity of this eclipse is Oedipus's blindness; the black, flopping blobby sphere is all of humanity resolved into its ultimate form, death as such, mortality as such. And the only escape from this terminus is to return, to come back in time, to go back to where you originally came from. The secret Oedipus discovers is that sex does not lead into new life and new possibilities, as the conventional wisdom claims that it does, but rather reverts back upon itself, returns to its source, the mother, folding sex and incest and death into one monstrous taboo-violating unity.

The Time Machine is informed by Wells's understanding that the sphinxine riddle superposes sex and death. This is why it is worth recovering the original perversity and monstrous transgression of the ‘romance’ between the Traveller and Weena, though normalised by fans and by the book's reception. It is an incestuous mirror-image of Oedipus and Jocasta, and just like the original myth it leads into the auto-involutions of death. It is no coincidence that, having invented this extraordinary device, a machine for travelling in time, Wells never re-uses it in his very many subsequent fictions—a fact that stands in the starkest contrast with all the SF writers who followed him, who all used and re-used time machines in their work all the time, often (as we've seen) re-using Wells's actual machine. On the one hand, Wells's refusal simply to rehash his earlier ideas is a testament to his impressive ingenuity and innovation. But on the other it is a tacit acknowledgement that there's nowhere else for the machine to go but back to its own source, and death. We might think that this device, and science fiction itself, will speed us through possibilities in ways that make appear dazzling new wonders transforming the everyday into the rich and strange, as per the quotation with which this blogpost opens: the sun hopping swiftly across the sky; the palpitation of night and day merging and the sky taking on a wonderful deepness, a splendid luminous color of blue, the jerking sun becoming a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space. Wonderful! Indeed, sense-of-wondrous! But although this novel shows us these things, and the technicolour far-future, and the pretty-faced young elven descendants of humankind with whom we can eat and take our ease and with whom we can even have sex, it only gives us a surface glimpse of the colour and excitement. The longer we sit on the saddle, the more these superficial excitements blue-shift into invisibility; the more alarming and disgusting truths begin to emerge from the subterra, the infra-realms of reality; things that have always been true and always before us, but unnoticed, hidden in the lower-depths. Humans are monsters that devour themselves, literally as cannibals and erotically as oedipal figures transgressing the taboo on incest. Futurity and the past are the same, inescapable path, and it leads only to death and blindness. The curse cannot be escaped-from, because the curse is us, we are the monster. Wells's Time Traveller has no name in this story because what we are, as humans, is nameless. It's a wonderfully riddling text that invites us to try and unriddle it. And generations of SF fans and writers have accepted that invitation. We should be careful, though. We're no more likely than was Oedipus to like the answer it gives us.


  1. I'm going to have to read this in pieces. But the initial argument -- that a time traveller would observe a blue-shifting Doppler effect -- seems to me to be wrong or at least not quite right, in a kind of characteristic way.

    Basically, you can't introduce pseudoscience into science and then say that scientifically the effect is not right. *How* is the Time Traveller traveling forwards in time? If they were moving faster in space, then, sure, things would look blue-shifted ahead and red-shifted behind. But they aren't. As they move forwards in time, are the light waves that hit the traveller's retina light waves from a moment in time that they are passing through? Then what they see won't be Doppler shifted at all.

    But should there be some interaction between non-time-traveling light waves and a time traveling person that acknowledges this time difference? I don't know, because the traveling in time bit is fictional and has no physics or math behind it. So, basically, the only way to judge is by literary criteria.

    Literary criteria are notoriously difficult to codify, but in general, as an ex-scientist, I find explanations via pseudoscience to be worse than none. As above, I always begin to argue with them ("wait, moving through time wouldn't produce a blue shift unless it was like moving through space and it's not") and that's distracting.

    1. Hi Rich: there are two objections here to what I'm doing. One is, basically, 'it's a category error to treat pseudoscience in a faux-rigorous way', which is fair enough; and to which my only defense can be: but actually I'm using this as a metaphor for reading texts (so more pseudo-hermeneutics). The second is: 'a time traveller wouldn't see things blue-shifted because blueshift is a feature of moving through space and moving through time is not the same as moving through space'. On this one, though, I have to say I think you're wrong. Say Wells's Time Traveller observes all the information contained in an hour's light-cone, but that he sees it in one second rather than in one hour; then the waves of light entering his eye -- irrespective of him moving at all -- will be an hour's worth concertinaed into one second. Saying that the light waves increase in frequency as he 'travels' in time is just another way of saying that. And when the frequency of a wave goes up, its wavelength shrinks: that's just part of the physics of waves.

    2. I've now read the rest of the blog post, which is good: I see why the metaphor of blue/red shifting is apropos for what you want to bring out. But for the pseudoscience part: why should we say that Wells' Time Traveller observes all the information contained in an hour's light-cone in a second? He's not traveling in space at relativistic velocities. He's traveling in time, encountering light that is not traveling in time. He's not encountering more "light waves" from the same light, because he's moving past that light in time. Maybe he's encountering more light because he's encountering all the light from the times he moves through? Then it would just look brighter.

      Every Doppler shift is two-sided. Move at relativistic speeds and light sources ahead are blue-shifted, those behind are red-shifted. When a train goes by, its sound is higher frequency as it approaches, lower as it recedes. If we're treating time travel this way, where's the other half of the shift?

    3. I think things would appear brighter, yes; but they would also appear, and do appear in Wells's description (which is where we start from, after all) faster. So more information is getting through. This information can only be coming from the light waves, which must therefore be landing upon his retina with greater frequency. You're right about the two-sided nature of Doppler shift: I suppose that, if instead of accelerating relatively faster than one-second-per-second the Traveller were to decelerate relatively slower than one-second-per-second (say he slowed so that one hour of his subjective time passed for one second of ours) then the world would appear red-shifted. It's an intriguing possibility, actually, fiction-writing-wise. But it's not what Wells is writing about. And your first point remains perfectly valid: there are no such things as time machines, so it's all bollocks, and I'm a bit of a dope for treating it as anything else.

    4. If more information is getting through, then more light is hitting him, but the narrator isn't hitting more of any individual light wave, which is basically what's happening during blue-shifting. It would be like the difference between replacing a light bulb with a higher-watt light bulb, not like replacing a light bulb with a UV light.

      At any rate. I vaguely remember the sleeping-with-Weena scene, but when I read it I was perhaps 12 and had more reasons than unfamiliarity with Victoriana to be unsure of what was going on.

    5. Rich, you may be interested to know: I was having an email discussion with Steve Baxter about this post, and he agrees with your take on the alleged doppler shift. So maybe I am wrong! (A couple of people on Twitter have agreed with me, though, so maybe I'm right. That said, I would trust Steve's grasp of physics over mine any day). There's only one way to solve this: build an actual time machine, switch it on and see what happens. I'm curious, though, as to what you think the traveller would see ...

    6. If I have to pull out the argument from authority, then I do have an ABD in astrophysics. (I got out with a Masters when I decided to do environmental work). I've taught the doppler shift / redshift / etc. to undergrads. So I'm pretty sure that whatever happens when you turn on a time machine, a doppler shift isn't it.

      What would happen? Well, it depends on how the time traveller's eyes are interacting with light. Is the time traveller seeing light because he's encountering all of the light waves in his space in all of the times he's moving through? Then the light wouldn't be blue shifted, but as the time traveller moved through time faster (in terms of his local time) he'd encounter more and more light. If he travelled through time fast enough he'd be fried. Less than that and it would be like very bright sunlight. He couldn't close his eyes and block it out if the reason he was seeing it was that he was passing through it.

      But really this is kind of nonsensical. If he's encountering light, why isn't he encountering all the air he's time-passing through? Why is his time machine still on the ground when the ground would have risen or fell or been submerged? What happens when he passes through a solid object, like a building that's been built? Etc. Really the most physically believable pseudoscience would be that he doesn't come into contact with the intervening times at all.

    7. I didn't know that about you! Well clearly you know vastly more about this than I do, and equally clearly I'm wrong. Which is a little worrying (for me) because it suggests that my grasp of physics is askew in some fundamental way. You're sitting in a time machine (Wells is vague as to the precise layout): let's say, looking through a window at people walking up and down outside. The light carrying that information reaches your eye at X cycles per second. Then you go forward in time, such that an hour passes outside for every second inside the machine. You're saying that doesn't mean that the light now reaches your eye at 3600x cycles per second? Or that it does do that, but that this wouldn't translate into higher wave-frequencies, and therefore shorter wavelengths?

      Actually, don't feel you have to waste your time trying to school me on this. I accept I'm not grasping it correctly. And I do see, as you note, that in this situation he would encounter light at 3600 times the intensity of regular one-second-per-second radiation and that this would cook him. And I can certainly see that a neater solution to this impossible problem would be to seal the traveller entirely away, so he interacts with the intervening times not at all. Wells's says that the world he leaves behind becomes 'tenuous' to the traveller (so the opposite to what you say: less intense, not more so), his housekeeper looks passes through him like a ghost as she crosses the room and so on. But: as you say -- all nonsense.

    8. I'll try an analogy. Imagine light as sine wave passing by you, or a set of waves coming in to a beach. Each wave-crest hits you and transmits some energy to you. How many wave-crests you encounter within a period of time determines whether the light in infrared, visible, UV, X-ray, or whatever.

      If you travel, you encounter more wave-crests in the direction you are going within a period of time. So the light ahead of you has more wave-crests hitting you and transmits more energy to you per period of time. Light coming from behind you direction of travel has fewer wave-crests hitting you per period of time and transmits less energy: it is red-shifted.

      The problem with your time machine thought experiment is that you're imagining "the light" reaching your eye at X cycles per second, and then "the light" -- i.e. the same light -- reaching your eye at 3600x cycles per second. If that happened, the light would indeed be blue-shifted. But that isn't what's happening, because it's not the same light reaching you for that hour you're passing through. It's different light from all of the times you're passing through. So while you're encountering more light waves, you're not encountering more wave-crests from any individual time's light wave.

      When you encounter more light, but with the same number of wave-crests per second as the light you saw before, that's not a blue shift. That's simply the light getting brighter. If you have a light bulb on a dimmer switch and you turn it up, the bulb produces more light but with the same wavelength as before. That's what I think would happen if you travelled through time and encountered light from a lot of times that you passed through -- not more wave-crests from each time's light, but more light with the same number of wave-crests per second. This might cook the time traveller, but not in the same way as he'd be cooked by X-rays -- he'd be cooked by a whole lot of ordinary sunlight, just turned up very brightly.

      This isn't "good science" because it's pseudoscience. It just addresses how the doppler shift ordinarily works.

      In a literary sense, the important characteristic of the time travel is a combination of vulnerability and detachment. The time traveller passes through and loses all of the ordinary materiality of life. But his time machine is the most vulnerable time machine depicted -- he sits on a saddle, with no outer shell that I remember, so he has to see everything passing by. And when he stops, the machine seems to be some kind of prototype without a heavy outer case or anything like that, vulnerable to being broken, stolen and moved, etc. It's a vehicle for mortality.

    9. Rich: I am grateful for you taking the time to explain this to me, and indeed I feel a little inhibited from replying, in case it looks like I'm stubbornly holding out in my ignorance against your clearly superior knowledge in this field. If you throw up your hands and walk away I won't blame you. (And I absolutely agree with what you say in the last paragraph of your last comment).

      This is what I understand from your explanation: say I'm sitting on the saddle of my time machine, travelling with it and the whole word into the future and one-second-per-second, as we all are. I flick a switch and now I'm travelling (say) so that one hour of external time passes for every second of mine. This means that the light striking my eye is 3600 time more intense than before, but does not mean that it arrives in my eyeball 3600 times 'faster' than before (that is, lightwaves aren't arriving with 3600 times the frequency). Instead I get all the hour's light waves at once, superposed on one another.

      That does make sense, on its own terms. But it seems to me it doesn't correlate to what Wells describes. His time machine slowly builds temporal acceleration, such that to begin with a snail moves faster and faster until it is moving with unnatural rapidity across the floor, he can see the sun and moon move against the sky, and then move faster until they becomes a bright lines streaking overhead and so on.

      Now you might say: that's bollocks, he wouldn't see such things in a ‘real’ time machine, and I couldn't disagree. But to work with what the text gives us: I can only think of two ways he would see what he says he sees. One is that, as he travels, he sees a sequence of select instants, like stop-frame animation: a string of isolated moments temporally separated from one another but aggregated together to create the illusion of rapidity (the way cine film speeds its images), or else he’s seeing all the original light waves in the same sequence he would have seen in the original hour, but in the space of a second, which is to say, such that the waves arrives at his eyes with a much greater frequency. If I understand you correctly, the traveller shouldn’t see this—he should see either all the information in that hour’s light superposed into one second, and therefore a bright streak where the whole path of the snail has passed and so on—or else, perhaps, he shouldn’t see anything at all. But given that he sees the snail moving more and more rapidly until it races over the floor, then the light waves must be striking his eye with gradually increasing frequency.

      Rich, I really am anxious not to trespass on your goodwill (and you’ve been very patient with me), so I’ll finish by saying I can imagine you responding to this in two ways: (a) you might say: no Adam, you still haven’t grasped the point I’m making (in which case I’ll hang my head and stop); (b) or you might say, well in the hypothetical situation you describe there might be a quasi-Doppler shift, but such a situation couldn’t actually obtain, certainly not in real-life, probably not in this impossible thought-experiment.

    10. I think you've grasped the basic point. The word "faster" isn't quite right since light speed is light speed and infrared light moves as fast as X-rays, but yes, the time traveller wouldn't be getting any more energy from each individual light wave / photon than he would if he were just standing there normally. He just sees a superposition of light from different times. Critically, though, the light waves may be "striking his eye with gradually increasing frequency", but that's not the *same* frequency as people talk about when they talk about the frequency of a light wave (that determines whether it is radio, infrared, visible light etc.) One frequency is analogously how many times per second the "crests" from an individual photon / light wave hit you: the other is how many photons / light waves hit you per second.

      I could hand wave this into exactly what Wells depicts. He seems to be detached or immaterial in some way as soon as he begins time traveling (he can pass through objects presumably) so maybe only a small fraction of the light he's passing through leaks through whatever time travel field surrounds him. As he moves through time faster, the field gets more intense and less light leaks through, so he isn't fried. He sees a small random sample of photons so that when he's moving through time slowly he can see snails move. He doesn't see a whole hour averaged together in one second: he really sees things happen in order, just speeded up as if you sped up a film. At some point his eyes would presumably no longer be able to track motion as motion rather than random speckles, but that gets into biophysics or biology.

  2. For whatever reason, Adam, I've never read The Time Machine, but your account made me think of The Matrix, where humans are kept in vats on the surface of the earth to provide energy for the machines below. Rather similar set-up, no?

    1. There's a Zizek essay where he says that the machines can't be harvesting electricity from these humans, as the movies say they are (because we make such poor generators: cows would be better; fusion, which the machines also have, vastly more efficient), so what the machines are really doing is feeding, vampire-like, upon human jouissance. That's closer to the Morlock-Eloi dynamic, I agree. But you should totally read this one Bill: it's only 80 pages or so. And it's very good.

    2. BTW, I've been watching Torchwood. I've just been though a series of episodes where advanced creatures from another planet want 10% of the earth's population of children turned over to them. Why? Because they want use kids to produce pleasure chemicals.

  3. Has HGW ever been to Rotterdam in the Netherlands? The Main Street of that city is called Weena. The name comes from an old estate (Weena's Court) and was there before the Time Traveller was published.

    Weena is not a word with any meaning in contemporary Dutch and the street isn't in a science fiction themed area, there are no other streets named for Barbarella, Lt. Uhura, Princess Leia or Xena.

    1. I didn't know that! Very interesting. I don't think HG had visited the Netherlands at this point in his life, but it's possible he read about the street ...

  4. One theory is that the time traveller was modelled after Edison, and that Weena is named after Mina: