Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stranger in a Stranger Land... or Maybe Just a Displaced Human

The first thing that struck me about H. G. Wells' The Time Machine was its juxtaposition of the known and unknown. The story opens with a prim and proper dinner party, shifts to the Time Traveler's escapades in the year 802,701, then returns to the contemporary time of Victorian London. While the changes over the 800,000+ years between eras were obvious and described in detail in the novel, what fascinated me was H. G. Wells own daring in discussing the topic of true human variation. Most Science Fiction novels stick to the known or understandable future, better known as some variation of the utopian mixed with the Orwellian Earth populated by (with the exception of new fashions) rather normal humans. Wells pushed the envelope on the possibilities of the future populated by two "degenerate" branches of Homo Sapiens, the Eloi and the Morlocks. Most notably though, this future is not really a future at all but rather a status quo ad infinitum bereft of culture, curiosity, or compassion.

A version of the Time Machine

My inspiration for this post actually came from the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. As the film closes, David Philby runs back to the Time Traveler's laboratory only to find the scientist disappearing into Time. He concludes that the Time Traveler is returning to the future and has probably brought something of Victorian England back with him as a teaching aid. Searching his friend's study, Philby realizes that the only items the Time Traveller took were a trio of books from his library. This of course begs the question: "which books?" Were they books of knowledge such as an encyclopedia, of culture such as the Bible, or of art such as a collection of drawings? If put in this position, what would you take?

The scene in question is from about 0:30 to 1:32

I think it is the hallmark of good literature, especially for Science Fiction (a genre otherwise saturated with thriller novels), if the book's plot makes you consider your own views and actions. While I understand that only the movie specifically deals with this situation, the book does touch upon the basis of humanity and the Time Traveller's understandable exasperation with the apparent lack of it amongst the Eloi. Unlike other colonization metaphors in Science Fiction, the future described by Wells is fascinating in that the Eloi and Morlocks both lack culture, innovation, society, or even basic curiosity. Thus we return the theme of the known versus the unknown. Ironically in this case, the sword cuts both ways since just as we as contemporary humans fail to understand utopian anarchy, the Eloi have not concept of creativity, government, society, etc... Both parties are repulsed by the modus operandi of the other as the Eloi fear the occasional aggressiveness and frequent daring of the human while the Time Traveller in turn becomes increasing frustrated with the Eloi's lack of reaction or interest in him or his plight.

If this is only a small fraction of our knowledge and history,
what would you take with you to start a civilization?

There is of course, a second question here: if the Eloi and Murlocks live in harmony (as warped as predatory mutualism is), do you upset it by introducing a new set of beliefs? While only the film directly introduces the Time Traveller as a teacher, the novel still touches upon his effect on the Eloi. Weena obviously becomes quite attached to him and consequently appears to have regained some elements of her lost 'humanity' such as curiosity, compassion, and ability to overcome fear. Nonetheless, should the Time Traveller force a change in the name of his own beliefs, if those "benefitting" from his actions fail to acknowledge that fact or accept his teachings? Of course there is a clear parallel with A Rose for Ecclesiastes and other colonization-themed Sci Fi tales, but the very lack of culture amongst the Eloi makes The Time Machine a special case. Interfering with an existing culture is one thing, but crafting one from scratch is a completely different story. In the end, the question is: how do you and can you teach "humanness"?


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