The theme for my book club in May was "Classics," so I decided to knock out a book that's been on my shelves at home for quite a while -- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.
The definition of a "classic" can be a hotly debated topic. So at our meeting we spent quite a bit of time discussing the question: What is a "classic" in the context of books and literature? Research and discussion dictated that:
- A classic usually expresses some artistic quality -- an expression of life, truth, and beauty.
- A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written, and the work merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic.
- A classic has certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch our very core beings -- partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses.
- A classic makes connections. You can study a classic and discover influences from other writers and other great works of literature. Of course, this is partly related to the universal appeal of a classic. But, the classic also is informed by the history of ideas and literature -- whether unconsciously or specifically worked into the plot of the text.
So, now that we have some background as to how a classic is defined, does The Time Machine fall correctly into this category?
The Time Machine is a science fiction novel published in 1895. Wells is generally credited with the popularization of the concept of time travel by using a vehicle, and he coined the term "time machine."
An English scientist, aka "the Time Traveler," travels to A.D. 802,701 where he meets the Eloi, a society of small, elegant, childlike adults. They live in small communities within large, futuristic, but slowly decaying cities. They are lazy but happy, and the Time Traveler speculates that they are the result of humanity conquering nature with technology, and subsequently evolving to adapt to an environment in which strength and intellect are no longer advantageous to survival.
In search of his time machine (which has gone missing), he also encounters the Morlocks, an ape-like ancestral subspecies who live underground in darkness. Their machinery and industry make the above-ground paradise of the Eloi possible.
The Time Traveler speculates that the human race has evolved into two species: The leisured classes have become the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes have become the brutish, light-fearing Morlocks. He is subsequently horrified to discover that the Morlocks actually feed on the Eloi -- This is not a world of lords and servants, but livestock and ranchers.
The Time Traveler's adventures continue as he explores the world of the future. I actually enjoyed this book far more than I expected to. If I hadn't known that it was published in the late 1800s, I probably would have assumed it to be a modern novel. The book is short enough to read in one sitting and it's really a page turner until the end, and it really leaves the reader pondering our current society and the potential future of humanity.
The Time Machine is an early example of the "Dying Earth" subgenre. It reflects Wells' own socialist political views, his view on life and abundance, and the contemporary angst about industrial relations. Significant scholarly commentary on the book began in the 1960s related to studies of utopias/dystopias in science fiction. A study guide for advanced academics at Masters and PhD level was published in 2004. Considering these factors, I can definitely see why The Time Machine is considered a classic.
I thought it was fantastic!