Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A future like ours

Don Marquis put forth the deprivation argument as reasoned opposition to the ethicality of abortion. Roughly, he argues that it is wrong to kill an unconscious embryo because it has a future that is valuable, a “future like ours.” Destroying the potential of that future (the embryo) is equivalent to killing the later-stage conscious being involved in it. Though this argument is ultimately very problematic, it speaks interestingly to the way in which we interact with the future to determine not only present worth, but also, as H.G. Wells addresses in The Time Machine and Marquis hits on in his statement, how we define ourselves, and our descendants, as beings over time, both within the span of a single lifetime and over history.

For the Time Traveler, the issue is inverted. He is presented with two peoples – the Eloi and the Morlocks – representing the bifurcated evolutionary path taken by divergent social categories which, for Wells, are a logical consequence of the physical division of populations based on economic class. Among these, he must choose that which is the rightful son of Man, which represents the future that is ours.

The world of the 8,000th century constitutes far more than a kind of recasting of Wells’ capitalist present in socialist terms (though it is indeed that). He has not produced a sympathetic laboring class which dotes faithfully on its ineffectual aristocratic charge. Rather, the conditions of labor have changed them into something altogether inhuman; unsympathetic even when the alternative is a kind of dumb petulant baby. The physical division, of decadent aristocracy increasingly buying up the Earth’s surface, while the laborer acclimates to the terms of his labor, eventuates a genetic bifurcation as the absence of class mobility and increasing cultural differences rarefy interbreeding among what become two species.

We find that the Time Traveler’s sympathies are with the dumb, child-like Eloi, while he describes the Morlocks consistently as nauseating, spidery and smelly. His actions reflect the adoption of a perspective from which only one descendant has any moral status as human. The Time Traveler saves Weena from drowning and days later begins smashing in the heads of the Morlocks, to which he is less sympathetic, but which he knows to be just as human, in a way, as the Eloi. His response to the Eloi is one of benign annoyance; for the Morlocks he has only contempt and anger.

What is ultimately at stake is which race we are going to claim as human. Wells’ future, unlike others which cast either “good” against “evil” (as are men and machines in The Terminator), is populated by human derivatives which are the decaying representations of a class system which, for Wells, discourages precisely those features (curiosity, intelligence, capacity for innovation and technology, compassion, etc.) which it, presently, purports to value above all else as human.

The Time Traveler chooses. He prefers to ally himself with the Eloi. He claims the future that is most like his as one of men turned fleshy and unthinking, but with some remnant of the aesthetic, and maybe the laughter. Perhaps it is the return of fear that he recognizes in them. He does not find his future in a brutish laboring class which has resorted to cannibalism.

The curiosity of this task of choosing is underscored by the book’s final line: “…even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.” “Gratitude” and “mutual tenderness” are not typically among the qualities which we (now or in Wells’ time), in a rational/empiricist age, list as quintessentially human. When confronted with the question of what qualities of man will survive into the future, we are forced to reevaluate what it means to be “like us,” or to have a future like ours. This obviously calls into question the futility of our own striving for knowledge/advancement, as the final chapters of the book address, while the Earth drifts into its eternal night. More importantly, though, it forces us to ask what it is about our fellow man that we find sufficiently like us for him to have moral status in our own lives, and, further, which criteria future man (or past man) must meet to warrant our present consideration. Would we make sacrifices for a future race which has fallen into decadence and decay, and which has forgotten us?

Interestingly, the first thing the Time Traveler does on his return is fill himself with mutton – finding inner carnivore unsated by the fruit diet of the Eloi. The polarized diets of the Eloi and Morlocks are symbolic of the degeneration that each race represents, an indication that it is the specialization, division, and pigeonholing of man that unravels him into separate beings which can, by present man, be either accepted and nurtured, or discarded. The reality, we find, is that the Time Traveler is related to both, though he readily discards one as insufficiently like himself and thus a kind of extra that can be killed off without moral repercussion.


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