Fiction Reviews


The Time Machine

(1894-5/2010) H. G. Wells, Gollancz, hrdbk, £8.99, 125pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09517-5

 

A Victorian middle-class inventor invites a group of friends to dinner. As was the vogue of the time, many were interested in the sciences and some were scientists (including a mathematician) themselves. After dinner they settle for a post prandial conversation during which the inventor talks about the nature of time. He then reveals that he has managed to construct a time machine and proceeds to demonstrate with a small model. This vanishes, the inventor claims, into the future! Whilst the dinner guests are amazed at the disappearance but they thought it to be some trickery and not involve time travel. All well and good.

The following week the friends re-unite for another dinner. The inventor appears and insists on eating before he talks. Finally the inventor reveals that he has been travelling in time. His story is one of travelling to the distant future where humans have evolved (speciated) into a beautiful gentle folk called the Eloi who lived a seemingly care-free existence with food provided for them. However there was a horror underpinning this world…

H. G. Wells' The Time Machine is considered as the first major time travel story of modern SF and precedes his other story, The Sleeper Wakes by four years, albeit that in that story the time travel into the future is done the slow way through suspended animation and is, of course a one-way affair.   However The Time Machine is not the first SF novel to use the time travel trope – for example in Spain there was El Anacronopete [The Time Ship] – but Wells' The Time Machine was the first to have such a major impact on western SF and was originally published in a serial form in 1894-1895 in New Review magazine as well as in a rudimentary form a decade previously in The School Science Journal before being published as a novel by Heinemann in 1895.

I must warn readers who come to The Time Machine for the first time to skip Gwyneth Jones' introduction to the book and dive straight into the novel: this introduction comes perilously close to, if not actually contains, plot spoilers. (Remember everyone always has to read a novel for the first time.) So I must remind those who do write reviews and book introductions, as well as those who commission them (and those who provide back cover blurbs) not to ruin any surprises authors provide their readers in their carefully crafted plots. This 'introduction' to the book would actually be better placed at the novel's end as an afterward, and Gollancz may wish to seriously consider this point when commissioning future accompanying articles to the wonderfully worthy SF Masterwork series.

This brings me onto this particular 2010 edition of The Time Machine. It is, as said, part of the marvellous SF Masterwork series from Gollancz but more than that the recent hardback version of the Masterworks with a full colour cover printed directly on, as part of, the hardback (as opposed to a separate dust jacket). I have to say that I really like this particular hardback format of the Masterworks series. Not only do I like the format (though a laminate for protection would be a utilitarian cherry on the icing) but it is a very reasonably priced hardback costing as little as a paperback! (This may well be because Gollancz already has the editing paid for, the typeset and cover illustration done, as well as probably having the story be copyright free as it is so old.   Also, fortunately this new 2010 edition Gollancz SF Masterwork is unnumbered (hooray). 'Fortunately' because the previous SF Masterworks numbering was very confusing with different numbers being attributed to the same novel but varying due to exactly which Masterwork run. (This is something about which I used to complain: see my review of Ringworld and A Maze of Death.) So I am glad Gollancz made this change dropping the numbering.   Finally, the top half of this book's spine is yellow. This is an historic reference to Orion's SF hardbacks of the 1960s and 1970s that had yellow dust jackets. Those of us who grew up as teenagers in this time (who are now (2013) in their late 50s or 60s) may fondly remember that some of our early forays into SF came via these yellow hardbacks: Orion (Gollancz) has a solid SFnal heritage.

For completeness' sake it is worth mentioning that a century after The Time Machine came out Stephen Baxter wrote an authorised sequel, The Time Ships (1995) in which the time traveller ends up in an alternate parallel universe future but encounters elements from Wells' original novel.   It is also worth noting that there have been film adaptations of the original novel as well as spin-off films. The most famous film adaptation is arguably The Time Machine (1960) directed by George (War of the Worlds) Pal. In it Rod Taylor stars as the time traveller, George (or is it H. George Wells?), in the trimmed but reasonably faithful film adaptation. (Note: in the novel the time traveller has no name.) The film is largely carried by Wells' strong plot but unfortunately it also left out many of Wells’ images of the future. Principal cast: Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux, Sebastian Cabot, Tom Helmore, Whit Bissell and Doris Lloyd.   This 1960 film is not to be confused with the 2002 version, directed by Simon Wells (H. G. Wells’ grandson) starring Guy Pearce as (Alexander Hartdegen the Time Traveller), Samantha Mumba and Jeremy Irons. However this version is far less faithful to the novel even though it includes an interesting, but not an original, take on the nature of time travel. (It is hard if not impossible to change past events.)   And then there are the spin-off films of which perhaps the most germane isTime After Time (1979), directed by Nicholas (Star Trek II, Star Trek VI) Meyer, and based on Karl Alexander’s 1976 story. In it H G Wells invents a time machine which one of his 'friends' then steals. The thief turns out to be Jack the Ripper and though the time machine returns on automatic, the Ripper has been let loose somewhere in time. Wells finds out that the Ripper has travelled from Victorian England to modern day (late 70s) San Francisco. (Strangely the journey was in space as well as time due to the dubious premise that the period time travelling took several hours during which the Earth rotated: this was not Wells’ own portrayal of time travel.) Having to overcome culture shock, Wells befriends a banking clerk and sets out to track down his adversary while on the way dealing with a couple of time paradoxes. An amusing film portraying a fictional historic aspect of the genre as fact: one would like to think that Wells himself would have approved. Principal cast: Malcolm (A Clockwork Orange) McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, David Warner.

And so there you have it: a strong recommendation for both Wells' story and this particular edition of The Time Machine. A 'must buy' for any SF collector whose copy is battered and a great birthday/Christmas gift for tempting teenagers to dip a toe into SF.

Jonathan Cowie


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