Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Biological Determinism Run Amok

Well, the Time Machine certainly was a big deal back in its time. Wells really makes you believe that time travel is plausible and possible. That whole bit about time travel being mere movement through another dimension, utter perfection. It was like reading Descartes ontological proof of God, you know its wrong but you can’t put your finger on it. It’s like some sort of logical magic trick. Yet, while Wells described some of the things in great depth, he suffered from a chronic lack of pages. The novel introduces all of these great new concepts. Morlocks, Eloi, cannibalism…awesome! He doesn’t examine these things enough. We are given this expansive view of future and we are left with a very shallow picture. We know nothing of the Morlocks except that they probably eat the Eloi and probably make things for them. Even with the Eloi we get a mild treatment. Oh yes, there are also giant crabs, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

As Rinske points out, Wells uses an itemistic projection into the future. He took the division of labor and class and shot it out eight hundred thousand years. However, one would think that by focusing only on one or two things, that the analysis therein would be detailed and very specific. Instead we’re given a weak and tangential discussion of this or that bit of evolution and class division. If Wells wanted to convincingly comment on the dangers of class exploitation and the horrid end result it could produce, then he should have spent more time examining things. 120 pages are not enough to indict industrial capitalism via allegory.

Despite its thinness I think that Wells provides two views that are worth further examination. First he intimates that the working class is stupid. They simply cannot realize that they can go beyond what technology it was bestowed prior to their owners going Pre-k. I’m sorry, but I find it rather silly to insulate that the Morlocks would just sit there and languish like a bunch of machine maintenance monkeys. You’d think that even as the Eloi descended into a Huxleyesc “Orgy Porgy” that the Morlocks would do something. These are the people that run the machines, know how to make stuff, understand basic scientific principles. Don’t tell me they wouldn’t build a technologically advanced, self managed worker’s society.

I think it has something to do with Well’s background. The man was a Fabian socialist, something of a social democrat in today’s standards. He was concerned about the toiling masses, but didn’t really understand them. He and his other Fabians felt that the working class needed the political leadership of an intellectual elite. Clearly they would never be able to do anything by themselves, because they were um…too drunk? It’s rather reminiscent of Metropolis where the workers forget their children.

I think this leads into Well’s other premise, that we are all victims of our own biology. In his social-darwinistic view we’re all doomed to follow the great clock of biological evolution. By achieving sentience we haven’t bootstrapped past the frivolity of evolutionary demands but merely forestalled an inevitable decline. Of course the workers will never do anything to move society forward. They have been biologically conditioned to do the same work and nothing else.

Thus whether we have perfect communism or perfect capitalism the end result is the same. So long as humanity has eliminated the material drive to solve problems we are doomed to fall into a flat malaise. I hope this is not the case, though I doubt it so. Even in an age of material abundance we are still faced with the myriad of problems associated with justifying our own existence. I think the Culture novels present a glimpse into this sort of world; a perfect utopia where the characters go to war with religious crusaders to justify their own hedonism. Wells simply ignores this existential drive to provide meaning. Instead he dwells endlessly on mere natural selection.


Kaitlin said...

Though Wells does limit his projections to the views of social classes he is familiar with and his work is insufficient in length to fully expound upon the ideas he presents, I think this is explained by how and why The Time Machine was produced. Wells wrote this not as a novel, but as a short story or piece in series for magazine print. Darwinism was also a major theme during Wells' time, explaining the prevalence of those theories cropping up in The Time Machine. I also don't think Wells intended this to be a social critique so much as simply an adventure in time travel which needed some sort of social issue to provide motivation for the Time Traveler.

Chris said...

I disagree with your statement, Kaitlin, that this is not meant to be, at least in part, a social critique.

Wells carefully chose the way in which he revealed the intervening years of human history to us. He presents a first distinct image, where communism and automation were perfected leading to humanity's loss of drive. Then he gives us a second clear image, where capitalism and the oppression of the worker were perfected, leading to the schism in the race.

Wells certainly did not pick these at random. That he himself was between these economic extremes, being a Fabian socialist, is significant when considering his view of the future. The message seems to be that both of the two prevailing schools of though of his time would result in long-term disaster for the human race. This is certainly a social critique.

Rinske said...

I would further say that Wells did tailor this story to a length of which his audience would actually read, especially since this was a new genre, but I would say that the only reason to have kept it so simplistic and broad would have been to highlight the social issue he cared about, as Chris said. However, the shortness is no excuse for a lack of depth and explanation. Many writers are able to set up and explain a world in even shorter texts. What excuses Wells and makes the Time Machine a good work is that he is exploring what this type of story telling can say about social issues.