Sunday, May 25, 2014

Recently Read: The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells, Norton Critical Edition

For the reader who wants the complete Time Machine, including earlier versions, alternate versions, contemporary criticism, later criticism, scientific texts which influenced H.G. Wells and much more, the Norton Critical Edition is the one to get.

No less than Jules Verne, and perhaps more so, it was Wells who put into motion the kind of science fiction which is still very relevant today to writer and readers; as you're reading this review, there are quite probably hundreds of authors writing novels, films or shows about time travel and less, but some, writing speculative treatises on how it could be possible. (The fact that it has already, to a certain extent, been proven possible by science since Wells wrote his novel, only verifies the validity of his art).

Having not read the novel before (only having seen two unfaithful film versions), I knew to expect some Swiftian class satire. I was unprepared, though, for the extent to which evolutionary theory weaves through the work. Although the book is largely known for its extrapolation on the possibility of time travel, it also draws its strength from another important sci-fi extrapolation, that of the antithesis of evolution: degradation or degeneration. (Reading both the novel and Wells' non-fiction theories on "de-evolution", it's easy to see the influence Wells' work had on the punk group Devo, who use the premise in their music; they also used similar ideas and phrases from Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau.)

Wells' extrapolations on evolutionary degeneration are especially effective in scenes taking place at the far flung end of Earth's capacity to nurture life, when disturbing creatures (some of which might have devolved from humans) are barely alive under a close, sweltering sun. Neither of the film adaptations dared to go there.

The Norton Edition includes extra and alternate scenes, some of which are so potently memorable, it's a shame they weren't included in the novel. This "remix" version of the novel should be read by all Wells fans.

The criticism included in the book ranges from stupefyingly jargonistic to enlightening. The gender politics of Kathryn Hume result in farfetched sentences like these: "The Morlocks, by virtue of living in the dark and underground, seem first of all sinister, but secondarily are marked with symbolism of the unconscious and hence the feminine. Their access to the innards of the Sphinx reinforces the latter." Paul A. Cantor and Peter Hufnagel, on the other hand, successfully explain how The Time Machine draws upon and has a place in the imperialistic British fiction of the time.

For extracurricular reading, I suggest a theory of film critic Glenn Erickson. He has some insights into the book which may be on target and which I haven't seen addressed elsewhere:
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