Monday, June 27, 2005


The English novel arose in the 18th century as variations on other sorts of books that people were used to reading: collections of letters or sermons, and diaries or journals or narrative accounts of explorations. The first novelists used these forms and made up the content.

One effect was similar to Star Trek's use of the "Captain's Log": to put the adventure in the past, make it seem real, and provide the reader with the voice of the protagonist (or sometimes, a less major character) to narrate the action. So from the beginning, narrator and story were intertwined and mutually dependent. Experiencing the story as the narrator experiences it and drives it forward with his thoughts and observations, is one of the chief advantages of print that film is seldom able to duplicate. (So in Star Trek, the Captain's Log is useful mostly to recapitulate story elements, add exposition and sometimes to drive the story forward by voicing the Captain's questions about what happens next.)

H.G. Wells was one of the first novelists to tell a story from the point of view of a scientist, and '>The Time Machine is probably the first novel in which the scientist-narrator is the hero. But Wells also adapts the first-person narrative technique to structure his story by means of the scientific method.

The basic scientific method is simple: observation, forming a hypothesis or theory, testing the theory with experiment and further observation. It bears certain resemblances to the three-act structure of drama.

HG's scientist-hero in The Time Machine, known only as the time traveller, makes a series of hypotheses about the Eloi and the Morlocks and the situation he finds in the far future. Each is the result of information he narrates to that point, so we see the justification for his conclusion. But there are still unanswered questions. As he learns more (and as we do) he sees his theory is mistaken or incomplete, and he forms a new theory. This is the basic movement that organizes the events in the novel. It appears in later Wells' novels as well.

This novel also seems to be the first to be consciously based on a scientific theory: Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, proposed decades before but close enough to Wells' time that he learned it from a Darwin contemporary, Thomas H. Huxley. Only in the 19th century, thanks to geology and the study of fossils as well as evolution, could anyone conceive of the vast stretches of the past. But contemplating this, they could begin to imagine vast stretches of the future. If humanity had changed over time, how would it change over time in the future---especially when everything was changing so much faster in the present?

Wells uses other science of his time to drive his story (though some of it was soon disproved), but aside from the fictional territory opened up by the idea of evolution, this book began modern science fiction by sending the hero through time in a machine. Time travel had appeared in stories before, but accomplished by magic, divine intervention, or simply without explanation. New technologies were appearing every day in the late 1800s, and so Wells most exciting and attractive idea was to suggest that a machine could carry a person through time as well as space.

Wells' spent more time on the writing of this relatively short novel than any of his other fictions; even after initial publication, he revised it again for its 1899 American edition, which is the version we know now. So within the structure of this story is a deceptively simple narrative that uses the medium of words for many complex effects.

The first level of the story---the folk tale, or scary story level---is the Traveller's unraveling of the mystery of the Morlocks and Eloi, and the physical threat he must end, as he struggles to return to his own time. This of course is the easiest level to film and the most attractive to filmmakers, along with the fascination with depicting the mechanics of time travel itself.

But humanity divided into two lesser species is also a political allegory, though it is not so simple as usually summarized. Wells was clearly warning against the effects of the "two nations" Disraeli identified, the blithe rich and the suppressed workers. (Considering the "two Americas" vice-presidential candidate John Edwards talked about in the last campaign, we seem to be repeating this situation in a different way.)

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