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‘The Time Machine’ (1895): Myths, Man, Machines and Marx.

After a brief discussion with an assemblage of bourgeois characters about the fourth dimension
and the mathematics of time we find ourselves transported with the Time Traveller into the
future and crash-land in a verdant park landscape in the year 802,701 AD. The Time Traveller is
not named by the author for reasons I shall discuss later. As he climbs down from his machine,
towering above him, anachronistically, is the White Sphinx. This is at the very opening of the
narrative and must be seen as highly significant. Moreover, when the Time Traveller is in the
presence of the Sphinx throughout the book his psychic state changes from awe through dread
and despair to a final resolve to overcome his anxiety through reason alone, much like Oedipus
in his encounter with the Greek monster. 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 celebrated 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 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 means that The Time Machine can be read as a variation of Oedipus’s encounter
with the Sphinx on the road to Thebes as it is imagined by Sophocles in his tragedy. However,
the answer to the riddle that Wells provides us with is not ‘man’ but ‘mankind’. Remember that
Wells did not name his hero and the idea that he could stand for ‘everyman’ is highly plausible
and does fit well with the riddle being set by Wells. The Time Traveller wanders through the
vestiges and remnants of once great civilizations and we are witnesses to the rise and fall of
human society that ends in the complete devolution of man into a beast that consumes its own
kind. Homo sapiens have slowly, like a child progressed forward, then developed at its maturity
into a great world civilization but finally has succumbed to rottenness and decay through the
unremitting Laws of Evolution and Natural Selection.

The first beings he meets near this sinister colossus are the Eloi. Wells took their name from the
Archaic Greek which meant vain, worthless or useless. They live in a neo-Hellenic communist
paradise somewhat reminiscent of the Arcadia created by William Morris in his utopian
novel News from Nowhere (1890). Everything is provided for and they have no lack of food,
clothing or shelter yet they are obviously unable to provide these items for themselves which is
very perplexing to our Time Traveller until he meets the Morlocks. There is no doubt as to how
much the TT loathes these bestial creatures as the description excoriates them. When the TT
finally discovers that the Morlocks are cannibals and that they are preying upon the defenceless
Eloi, his anger and hatred overflows. To reach this stage of devolution Wells has applied
Darwinian theory (or neo-Darwinianism) to the Marxian dialectical materialism of industrial
proletariat and its antithesis the bourgeoisie. Conventional critical response has been to read the
Victorian aristocracy as the Eloi and the Moorlocks as the proletariat or underclass, with The
Time Machine being a Swiftian satire on the class relations of fin-de-siècle Britain, its inherently
violent nature and the interminable works of utopian fiction now being produced. This, at first
glance, Utopian community is nothing but a future dystopian stage in the devolution of the
human race into prey and predator. No society, Wells is warning, can escape the brutish aspects
of human nature defined by classical bourgeois rationalists such as Machiavelli and Hobbes.

The mirage of William Morris’s mellow and beautiful Arcadianism is not tenable once we see
the whole society together. Without biology or politics entering into the narrative any type of
Utopia arrived at will be nothing but pure fantasy. But this only raises more issues for Wells and
his attempts later in his life to create a Modern-day Utopia. What political system is best suited
to provide the framework for a 20th century Utopia? And how much social and biological
engineering of the human race (eugenics) will be needed to establish a peaceful and sustainable
outcome given the Darwinian nature of the evolutionary process?

However, this seemingly straightforward viewpoint and classification has been literally turned
upside down and reinterpreted in recent years to fit better with a more modern Marxist analysis.
So, the nature of class relations in 19th Century to a socialist like Wells was that the rich exploit
the poor by expropriating their labour and enriching themselves only. The poor are immiserated
and left to work themselves to death without any safety net or welfare provision. The situation in
802,701 is that the passive and powerless Eloi are preyed upon by the technologically superior
and more powerful Moorlocks. They own the means of production and use this industrial base to
provide everything for the Eloi. In return the Eloi provide the Moorlocks with every part of their
being, literally. They are consumed by the Moorlocks and the process continues ad infinitum and
will only end when the universe stops through entropy at Terminal Beach. There is nothing to
stop this process as the Eloi’s are in the throes of false consciousness which is suggested by the
Time Traveller believing himself to be in a Utopian paradise until he starts asking some very
simple questions. The answers to which reveal the true horror of this world. Automation, we
presume, having done away with the need to exploit the proletariat for their labour, what remains
is to literalize the predatory nature of all class exploitation by literally devouring the underclass.
It is the ultimate in class warfare.

That readers tend to agree with the Time 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. But on the former count there’s nothing stopping us reading this as a
commentary upon the exigencies of full machinic automation: a near-future society in which all
physical needs are supplied by technology. However, that society may well be closer than we
think and the Eloi and Moorlock dichotomy envisaged by Wells may now, today, present us with
a worrying third interpretation. We are all gradually becoming like the Eloi: reliant for
everything upon the machine and becoming unable to function without it. And if that machine
should also become aware? Will humanity become batteries for The Matrix? Will the machines
devour us?!

Even such a monstrous creature as the Sphinx does not eat her own but consumes human flesh.
The Morlocks have become the living embodiment of the Sphinx and they have set our Time
Traveller his very own riddle which he must solve to escape the fate of the Eloi. He will be
successful to a point, but he must change his mask to attain his freedom. The TT’s adventures are
undoubtedly reminiscent of the emergence, establishment and predicament of the scientist in the
modern world. As Dr Victor Frankenstein was once named ‘The Modern Prometheus’ by his
literary creator, Mary Shelley, so too can our TT, who has literally become a deus ex machina
who has brought the original Promethean gift of fire and its modern iteration, technology, once
again to the human race. The Promethean identification is sealed in the Palace of Green
Porcelain episode, when he steals a matchbox from the museum of earlier humanity, whose huge
architectural remnants might be those of the Titans. However, our Prometheus will not pass the
fire deliberately on, but can only this time use it for defence against the hunting Morlocks, in a
vain attempt to save Weena, the tiny Eloi he has fallen in love with. The fire he has started,
quickly becomes unstoppable and his love perishes (we are led to believe) in the resulting
conflagration. The Time Traveller cannot control the fire much like Victor Frankenstein cannot
control his fire once it is unleashed. Is this not the very essence of the Promethean myth?

At least he can take some comfort that Weena was not eaten by those living Sphinxes, but his
own safety and the recovery of his machine is now paramount. The answer to the riddle set for
him by the Moorlocks is that the machine has itself already been devoured by the very physical
manifestation of the God they worship and the last towering reminder of human civilisation-the
White Sphinx. His machine lies within the ‘belly of the beast’ and he will need to combine both
Oedipus and Prometheus to escape his fate. Our Time Traveller will combine both the answer
given by Oedipus in the original story told by Sophocles (man) with the modern iteration of
Prometheus first suggested by Mary Shelley (science) to realise himself as ‘the man of
science’ and to finally reveal the story of The Time Machine as an allegory of the nature of
knowledge and scientific knowledge in particular and yet another warning to those modern-day
Prometheans. Technology can both create life and it can destroy life.