Wells's First Utopia: Materiality and Portent

Dan Smith

Imagine yourself looking out onto a silent landscape of verdant hills and lush vegetation, punctuated by magnificent yet seemingly derelict palaces. After having embarked on a perilous journey and travelling far, perhaps further than anyone before, you have found yourself, as much by accident than design, in this uncharted place. You are effectively alone here, or at least the only one of your kind. This land is disturbingly strange and unfamiliar, its alterity emphasised by the great distance traversed. Yet although different, it still has some kind of vital connection to your point of origin, and forces you to think as much of home as of the scene before you.

This sketch relates to a particular form of narrative contrivance. It fits into the specific tradition of utopian fiction; not so much a loosely defined genre as it is a uncanny and recurring spectre. Alternatively it could be seen as a kind of chronic hunger that nags away from within the history of social reflection. Or maybe this type of persistent fantasy could be seen as a form of that universal peculiarity of human experience and desire - the overstepping of boundaries.1

The inventor of this particular fantasy was H. G. Wells (1866-1946). Consistently engaged in shaping ideas relating to modes of social reform, Wells's career was animated by the appearance of utopias.2 These both mirrored his idiosyncratic brand of socialism and stepped beyond it as his futuristic visions took their re-arrangement of society to severe extremes. Politically, he appears as a confused and confusing figure, but the sustained, urgent and ultimately hopeful presence of utopias suggests some consistency amongst contradictory elements.

To a degree, Wells's utopian thinking has been sullied irrevocably by his enthusiasm for eugenics as a solution to what he identified as degenerative forces at work amongst working class populations. He went even further with this disturbing tendency, targeting non-European races with the same disdain as he did the poor of London, and suggested that they too were in need of purification. Without specifying as much, the implication is inescapably a genocidal solution. As if such thinking wasn't controversial enough, Wells's thoughts on processes of genetic cleansing have been framed by their realisation in Nazi ideology and the atrocities of the Holocaust — the twentieth century's most appalling realisation of utopian thought.

Yet perhaps it is unfair to characterise Wells's legacy in terms of such an interpretation. He was a pacifist and an egalitarian socialist with a sense of social justice, albeit abiding by standards of his own definition. Eugenics was a minor facet within Wells's utopian discourse, which spanned the closing decades of the nineteenth century, and half of the twentieth. While his arcane solutions to the world's ills may have endorsed compulsory sterilisation amongst the masses, he also advocated games with toy soldiers. In Little Wars (1913), he set out a system of rules and conditions for adults to stage miniature battles on the living room floor. Written on the eve of the First World War, this wasn't just a guide for a recreational hobby, but actually a proposed means of ending hostilities between the nations of the world. His logic was that if generals and politicians were to play at war with toy soldiers, they would calculate the cost in life required for even the smallest manoeuvre. To see the price of war enacted in play, Wells argued, would eradicate its possible realisation in life. However trivial and ridiculous, viewed through the lens of the carnage that followed, his plea for peace through a diverting pastime stands out, bizarrely, in sharp clarity.

Patrick Parrinder provides a more generous account of Wells's sense of social responsibility and political engagement than I have so far suggested here:

By the 1920s, Wells was not only a famous author but a public figure whose name was rarely out of the newspapers. He briefly worked for the Ministry of Propaganda in 1918, producing a memorandum on war aims which anticipated the setting-up of the League of Nations. In 1922 and 1923 he stood for Parliament as a Labour candidate. He sought to influence world leaders, including two US Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. His meeting with Lenin in the Kremlin in 1920 and his interview in 1934 with Lenin's successor Josef Stalin were publicized all over the world. His high-pitched piping voice was often heard on BBC radio. In 1933 he was elected president of International PEN, the writers' organization campaigning for intellectual freedom. In the same year his books were publicly burnt by the Nazis in Berlin, and he was banned from visiting Fascist Italy. His ideas strongly influenced the Pan-European Union, the pressure group advocating European unity between the wars. ("Biographical Note" xii)

Parrinder usefully provides a counter-balance to those elements that seem indefensible by association in Wells's work. Perhaps more importantly here, Parrinder's emphasis on this period of Wells's life makes clear that his fantasy writing must always be read in relation to his engagement with social reality, and in particular, as engaged in a lifelong exploration of utopian impulses.

Between the chilling suggestions of genocide and the endearingly preposterous little wars, Wells takes a reader of his utopian thought across a range of emotional responses. Like the totality of his written output, Wells's utopian thought should be read as varied and complex, determined by a set of apparently contradictory impulses. These incongruous drives are, I would like to suggest, what is significant about the presence of utopian impulses within his writing. More than this, these impulses are characteristic of the contested and unstable nature of utopian thought itself, and possibly invest Wells's utopian thinking with a critical potential. And it is with this in mind that I will attend to an early crystallization of Wells's utopian thought, in the form of his first novel — The Time Machine (1895). It is from this that my introductory landscape-sketch is drawn, and in which rather than set out an idealised future, he sets out to consider the worst that can happen.3 However, I'd also like to suggest that Parrinder's account of Wells's prolonged effort to engage in political debate and change retrospectively transforms The Time Machine from a narrative of despair to a discourse of hope.

This short novel was the first of a sequence of books - The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr Moreau and The First Men in the Moon - written between 1895 and 1901, that he described as 'Scientific Romances'. As a formative work of modern science fiction, it has an originary resonance. It precedes the forms of codification that populate science fiction in its generic forms and signal its presence elsewhere. In particular, Wells's novel exploits that essential element that Darko Suvin argues make possible the "basis for a coherent poetics"(4) of science fiction: the aspect of strange newness, or novum. Suvin distinguishes science fiction from other forms of fiction "by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional "novum" (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic" (63). As I shall argue subsequently, Wells configured his fantasies according to a very particular arrangement of cognitive logic and fictional novum, and The Time Machine serves as a generative model for Suvin's influential work on science fiction (222-236).

However, while The Time Machine may hold some claim as a template for subsequent science fiction stories, it would be misleading to overly privilege its ontological status. Rather, it is worth recognising not only the quantity, variety and histories of fantastic and futuristic narratives, or early science fiction, that abounded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,4 but also as Suvin points out, that The Time Machine shares its status as a basic model for subsequent science fiction with Sir Thomas More's Utopia of 1516 (222).It is with this in mind that I intend to interpret Wells's first novel as a very specific kind of utopian form.

The discussion of Wells as a writer of utopias must recognise not only that his work has generated substantial amount of interpretation and reflection around the theme of utopia, but that it occupies a privileged position in the field of utopian studies, particularly as the field intersects with science fiction studies. As Tom Moylan proposes, the convergence of two concurrently emergent fields, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, was driven by a shared interest in the possibility of engaging with social reality through readings of narrative fiction. In particular, this was brought about by a resurgence of interest in utopian themes in much of the science fiction writing of the period:

The resurgence of utopian writing within the textual universe of sf guaranteed that many scholars, and some writers, chose to work at the intersection of utopian and sf studies, and the affiliation of the new utopian sf with the growing oppositional culture further ensured that these twinned intellectual projects would take up the challenges of an engaged political critique.(Moylan 70)

Moylan emphasises a link between emergent forms of science fiction (or 'sf') scholarship and utopian studies in the manner in which objects of study, whether they be text, community or theory, are addressed with a degree of specificity and were increasingly concerned with clarifying the formal operations by which a utopian form enters a historical moment.

I would like to briefly reconsider Moylan's framework for describing this moment in utopian studies, which through its relationship with forms of scholarship, privileges fiction from the last quarter of the twentieth century. The position of The Time Machine is as a distant predecessor of forms of critical utopian thought described as "more cunning as the century moved on"(Moylan 276). Both the forms and degrees of crises that shaped twentieth-century manifestations of the utopian imagination may be historically specific and bound to forms of neo-liberalist/conservative governments and configurations of global capitalism. However, the opening of a temporal frontier in Wells's novel might encourage some reflection on the role of the definitive construction of time in the formation of theoretical and epistemological models.

In his work The Life of Forms, art historian Henri Focillon argues that a quotidian normalisation of chronology has been habitually extended into historical organisations of time, as a necessary means of construction to secure the possibility of meaning. Stated intervals both classify objects and events and facilitate their interpretation. For Focillon, days, weeks and months offer the evidence of their own beginnings and endings, providing inalienable authenticity to reckonings of time:

We are exceedingly reluctant to surrender the isochronal concept of time, for we confer upon any such equal measurements not only a metrical value that is beyond dispute, but also a kind of organic authority. These measurements presently become frames, and the frames then become bodies. We personify them. Nothing, for instance, could be more curious in this respect than our concept of the century. (Focillon 138)

Focillon proposes that this model of time has the tendency of shaping centuries within the ages of a human life, parenthesized by birth and death. Time is organised according to a known architectural plan, allocated galleries and display cases as in a museum, and is moulded into discrete and efficient partitions.

While I enthusiastically acknowledge Moylan's history of critical utopian thought and fiction, I would like to suggest that it is useful to apply this suspicion of historical organisation. While I do not contest the conditions for such practices, models of history and their reflection in fiction should perhaps be defined less by convenient and normative temporal boundaries. For example, one could take conditions from the long and varied nineteenth century that are as much fuel for a critical and sustained engagement with utopian thought: the transformation of living conditions under rapidly developing forms of capitalist modernity, imperial and colonial expansion, war, and constitution of subjects according to ideological extremes of class, gender and race.5 It need not be stated that the nineteenth century was one that was as much characterised by utopian desire, thought and fiction.6 Rather I would like to detach Moylan's notion of a critical utopian imagination from its ontological bind with late twentieth century criticism, and reinvest it into the fiction of a more distant past.

Rather than a remote ancestor, The Time Machine is a more direct and immediate progenitor of a more recent body of work. Recent manifestations of a utopian imagination shared by science fiction and criticism both map the present and suggest or stimulate both psychic and social transformations. These characteristics, that have become expectations for critical utopian thought, are already present in a sophisticated and developed form in The Time Machine.7 Perhaps more significant is my claim that while Moylan's account is clearly of a convergence of theoretical or scholarly writing and science fiction, Wells had already sought to unify such concerns within an overall practice of writing. He was aware of traditions of utopian thought, which are engaged with throughout The Time Machine. More generally, his fiction was inseparable from an outlook defined by his sustained interest in politics, science and the possibilities of social transformation.

My approach to describing this utopian form is to interpret The Time Machine as a very specific kind of object. The novel is characterised — as, I would like to suggest, are all of Wells's Scientific Romances - by the articulation of, and dependence on, a peculiarly resonant sense of materiality. The presence of materiality and material culture in the novel could be addressed as a means of realising the imagined elsewhere, a mode of what Moylan describes as 'world-building'. This is a formal and logical characteristic of the mechanics of science fiction, an "ability to generate cognitively substantial yet estranged alternative worlds"(Moylan 5). For Moylan, this is the greatest pleasure to be found in science fiction. However, he also argues that it is the source of its subversive potential:

(...)for if a reader can manage to see the world differently (in that Brechtian sense of overcoming alienation by becoming critically estranged and engaged), she or he might just, especially in concert with friends or comrades and allies, do something to alter it. (Moylan 5)

Moylan's sense of world-building could be read as mutually constituted by author and reader. This mechanism of imagining an elsewhere at the same time as providing a cognitive map of contemporary actuality, goes some way towards envisioning the sense of materiality that is detectable in The Time Machine.

However, to better understand the quality I wish to evoke, it is necessary to trace Wells's attempts to differentiate the Scientific Romances from the work of Jules Verne. Wells objected being compared to Verne - an objection that was mutually upheld by Verne himself. The distinction Wells makes between their work is very specific. He says of his own early novels:

As a matter of fact there is no literary resemblance whatever between the anticipatory inventions of the great Frenchman and these fantasies. His work dealt almost always with actual possibilities of invention and discovery, and he made some remarkable forecasts. The interest he invoked was a practical one; he wrote and believed and told that this or that thing could be done, which was not at that time done. He helped his reader to imagine it done to realise what fun, excitement or mischief would ensue. Many of his inventions have 'come true'. ("Preface" 139)

In contrast, Wells describes the Scientific Romances as fantasies.

Rather than projecting a conceivable possibility, their conviction is analogous to that of an dream. After reading one of these novels, one wakes up to its impossibility. However, these are dreams that may not relate to technological possibility, but certainly relate to social possibility. The dream is one that takes place within a recognised and politicised configuration of social reality, which it offers a contrast to. Like that of William Guest, the protagonist and somnambulant time traveller in William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), the dream Wells describes is one of a possible future experienced from the present.

Wells describes the 'living interest' of these novels as lying in the non-fantastic elements: "(...) the fantastic element, the strange property or the strange world, is used only to throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear or perplexity" ("Preface" 140). The invention in itself is nothing, it is only the translation of a singular fantastic element into a commonplace world that invests the narrative with the values of literary interest and engagement that Wells describes as 'human'. It is essential to isolate the fantastic, to restrict it to a singular contrivance. Wells's logic is predicated on the possibility of identification, of the sense of readers projecting themselves into the fictional circumstance and asking what might happen to them if they were in this situation:

But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses also began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats and dogs left and right, or if everyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting where anything may happen. ("Preface" 140)

There is a correlation with Wells's rules for what constitutes the interest value in his scientific romances in Suvin's assertion that science fiction can be usefully thought of as the literature of cognitive estrangement.

This category is held up in contrast to narratives of pure fantasy, such as the folktale:

The stock folktale accessory, such as the flying carpet, evades the empirical law of physical gravity — as the hero evades social gravity — by imagining its opposite. This wish-fulfilling element is its strength and its weakness, for it never pretends that a carpet could be expected to fly — that a humble third son could be expected to become king — while there is a gravity. (Suvin 8)

In attempting a rigorous understanding of science fiction as a category of literature, Suvin's example binds a specificity of literary form to a particular relationship with materiality. I would like to read Suvins's emphasis on the conditions in which cognitive estrangement can usefully take place within literatures of the fantastic as a means of interpreting a connection between a crude sense of material possibility and social possibility, which seems latent in Wells's early utopia - A more believable constitution of materiality and its inherent potential for transformation in text suggests a more profound impulse for change in the mind of the reader.

In his own account of the scientific romances, Wells's own trick was to domesticate the impossible. A plausible illusion allows the story to play out, and science becomes a modern substitute for magic, which Wells thought had lost its narrative currency by the late nineteenth century: "I simply brought the fetish stuff up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible"("Preface" 140). Aside from the presence of such trickery, Wells sees the business of the fantasy writer as maintaining a sense of reality: "Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention"("Preface" 141). Used in this precise way, fantasy holds the potential, in Wells's argument, to provide a new and novel angle on telling stories which themselves might be discursively revealing. Wells admits the presence of his admiration for Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) throughout the Scientific Romances as a profound influence, 'and it is particularly evident in a predisposition to make the stories reflect upon contemporary political and social discussions" ("Preface" 141).

Writing soon after Wells's death, Jorge Luis Borges also set out to distinguish Wells from Verne. He writes that Wells "bestowed sociological parables with a lavish hand" (qtd. in "Critical Hertitage" 332). Yet it is Borges's own poem Things that might be equally appropriate in characterising the Scientific Romances:

My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,

The obedient lock, the belated notes,

The few days left to me will not find time

To read, the deck of cards, the table-top,

A book encrushed in its pages the withered

Violet, monument to an afternoon

Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,

the mirror in the west where a red sunrise

blazes its illusion. How many things,

files, doorsills, atlases, nails,

serve us like slaves who never say a word,

blind and so mysteriously reserved.

They will endure beyond our vanishing;

And they will never know that we have gone. (qtd. in Olsen and Hawkins xvii.)

Borges thematises a range and scope of material culture beyond any simplistic notions that artefacts carry semiotic meanings. Rather the poem suggests that notions of self are bound up with seemingly trivial, but invasively intimate, things. Similarly, I would like to suggest that while The Time Machine is a utopian discourse of social conflict and possibility, it also constitutes a sense of materiality to define not a relationship to things but, like the poem, it concerns the nature of people, rather than merely a static notion of objects.

The notions of material culture upon which I draw privilege an anthropological, archaeological and museological understanding of the term. The artefact of material culture is, as museologist Susan Pearce suggests, expandable to the extent that the whole of what might be called some form of cultural expression is drawn into the realm of material culture. A useful way to imagine this is through the potential scope of museums, and what might fall within their field of influence. To think of the world, as it is imagined as cultural, in terms of material culture, is to make the world itself potential material for inclusion in the museum, at least as much as any smaller-scaled 'thing' or 'specimen':

Strictly speaking, the lumps of the physical world to which cultural value is ascribed include not merely those discrete lumps capable of being moved from one place to another... but also the larger physical world of landscape with all the social structure that it carries, the animal and plant species which have been affected by humankind (and most have), the prepared meals which the animals have become, and even the manipulation of flesh and air which produces song and speech. (Pearce 9)

Material culture, then, need not be reduced to the study of forms of architecture, visual art, or moveable objects. An expanded understanding of material culture is required here, which does not rely on traditional statistical or artifactual analysis, and can also be usefully conceptualised through the psychoanalytical rethinking of selfhood and phenomenologically accessible, anatomical bodies. Bodies, in any sense, cannot be anterior to the realms of material culture and notions of selfhood cannot be critically sustained as purely reliant on biological, rather than cultural, determinisms. Reading Wells's novel as a material world has also initiated an engagement with some early positions set out by Jean Baudrillard. As a theorist of cultural forms, his work has helped both to establish a tradition of thinking about objects, and extending such practices away from the more orthodox disciplinary sites of material culture discourse. In particular, my argument will make use of the logical and interpretative tension present in his essay "The Ecstasy of Communication" (1987).

The novel itself is narrated from a point three years since the events described. Hillyer, the narrator, or more appropriately, the 'outer narrator', is a friend and regular guest of the central protagonist. Referred to only as 'the Time Traveller', he could be described as the 'inner narrator', whose account is contained within that of the 'outer narrator'. Hillyer's narration begins with a scene in the Time Traveller's home, where in front of an audience of guests, the Time Traveller attempts to describe time in terms of a speculative theory of four dimensionality. In proposing time as analogous to spatial, directional movement, he is able to introduce the notion of time travel. He then reveals a miniature time machine, which is actually a fully operational scale model of the full size version revealed subsequently. He performs a demonstration that has an air of a magician's spectacle. Before the assembled guests, the machine vanishes, to a suspicious and incredulous response. After stating his intention of travelling in time, he reveals the actual machine housed in his workshop, not yet complete.

The following week, another group of guests, which includes Hillyer, have assembled at the Time Traveller's house. They wait impatiently as their host has not yet arrived, and sit down to dinner without him. Suddenly, the Time Traveller makes a dramatic entrance, demanding food and drink, disturbingly haggard in appearance. He explains that he has been to the future and from this point, the 'inner narrator' takes over as he relates the events of his journey. That morning, he had tried out his machine in a reckless and unprepared leap into the future. As he travelled he had been able to see events take place before him at an accelerated pace. After panicking about the inherent dangers of time travelling and slamming the machine to an abrupt halt, he arrived violently in the year 802, 701.

The Time Traveller's impressions of this world and its inhabitants develop slowly, gradually deducing what he comes to believe is the correct analysis, but which he acknowledges is only his best speculation, as there is no contextual evidence to support the theory. The future world that he encounters is a landscape punctuated by ruined, palatial structures and populated by the descendants of late nineteenth-century humans.

After this huge period of time, humanity has evolved into two distinguishable species: The Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi are regarded by the Time Traveller as beautiful, androgynous, physically frail, and as intellectually regressive. They have no recorded knowledge, written language or awareness of technological processes. Their life is one of both leisure and fear. All their material needs are catered for by the subterranean, ape-like Morlocks. As the Time Traveller eventually deduces, the Eloi are essentially cattle, reared by the Morlocks as food. The described relationship between them is a conventional model of Marxist class distinction that has become grossly distorted along an evolutionary scale until the power relationships have been horrifyingly inverted. The Time Traveller discovers soon after his arrival that his machine has vanished, dragged inside the base of a statue by Morlocks, and its recovery becomes the focus of the Time Traveller's activities in the future.

He eventually succeeds in finding it and makes a frantic escape, accidentally hurtling even further into the future. As he travels through time, he witnesses the Earth's rotation slow down until it stops, one side of the planet continually facing a static red sun. He slows down, making stops to witness the changes taking place before him. He finds himself on the shore of a sea, watching the final generations of the last forms of life on earth and sees what might be the moon or possibly the planet Mercury eclipse the sun. This scene of a grotesque sunset populated by bizarre creatures is literally the twilight of the earth and its life. The Time Traveller then begins his return journey.

As he hurtles back in time, the Time Traveller can see the blurred forms of time moving in reverse gradually becoming more familiar, until he reaches the day that he left, in time to make his dramatic entrance and tell his story to the disbelieving audience. The voice of the novel then switches back to the 'outer narrator', Hillyer. After telling his story, the Time Traveller himself starts to doubt its veracity in the light of the hostile reception it receives from his guests, who, although entertained, see no truth in it. He takes them to see the machine in the workshop. The sight of the machine, which has sustained considerable damage, reassures the Time Traveller of his own memories, at which point he says goodnight to his unconvinced guests. The next day, Hillyer returns, unable to come to a conclusion as to whether or not the story was true. After finding the time machine in the laboratory, he meets the Time Traveller, with a camera and knapsack, apparently preparing for another journey. He asks Hillyer to wait for him in the smoking-room. When he remembers another appointment that he just has time to make, the narrator returns to the laboratory to tell the Time Traveller that he must leave. As he enters, he sees the faint image of the time machine disappearing, the Time Traveller an indistinct figure in a whirling mass as he disappears. Hillyer explains that he waited at the Time Traveller's house for his return but then feared that he would have to wait a lifetime, and that three years had now passed. As an epilogue, Hillyer imagines what could have become of his friend, comforted by two, shrivelled, white flowers of an unknown order, material evidence brought back from the future.

In considering The Time Machine as a utopian tale, it is perhaps appropriate to see a core narrative element articulated by the materialisation of the people of the future. I would argue that these bodies become like objects, part of a codified discourse of materiality, whose extremity of form helps to suggest the contingent, material and linguistic nature of bodies in general. These bodies are described according to grotesquely exaggerated physiognomic principles. Appearance and behaviour, biological and social, are bound and mutually constitutive. The Eloi are androgynous, effete, and described as possessing a Dresden China-like prettiness. The almost-animal Morlocks actually rear, slaughter and consume the Eloi, reducing their prey to a different register of animal-like existence.

Yet while their fate is no different from cattle, the Eloi strike the Time Traveller as the most human of the two species, at least the most able to inspire sympathy. Of the Morlocks, the Time Traveller says:

I felt a peculiar shrinking from those pallid bodies. They were just the half-bleached colour of the worms and things one see preserved in spirit in a zoological museum. And they were filthily cold to the touch. Probably my shrinking was largely due to the sympathetic influence of the Eloi, whose disgust of the Morlocks I now began to appreciate. ("Time Machine" 86)

That these two sub-species are so different must be the result of some form of evolutionary principle, but they have not been brought about by Darwinian selection and adaptation, but rather, as the Time Traveller eventually hypothesises, have been brought about by the perpetuation of social conditions that exist within his own epoch.

This discourse is solidified by the image of the sphinx that dominates the immediate landscape around the Time Traveller's point of arrival, and inside which his machine is later hidden by Morlocks.8 The statue alludes to an essay by Thomas Carlyle from his collection Past and Present (1843), which together with his Sartor Resartus (1838) — referred to by the Time Traveller - was ubiquitously familiar to Wells's late nineteenth-century audience. Carlyle's essay draws upon the allegory of the sphinx. This concerns the myth that certain death was promised to anyone that could not answer her riddle. The essay prophesised a similar fate if his own question, relating to the organisation of labour and management of the working classes, were to remain unanswered. For Carlyle, decadent generations of factory owners had allowed labour to organize itself with "'ape's freedom' in pursuit of sectarian class interests at the expense of social duty; with the 'liberty of apes,' Labour seeks its own greed no less than its nominal masters given only to profiteering" (Stover 3). Carlyle's solution to this unsustainable system was the militarising of Labour.

In Wells's future, this problem has been allowed to escalate, giving his fear of an organised working class bestial and predatory materiality. In recognising his own social context, "the Time Traveller realizes that he has never left home; that the future is but a mockery of his own time."(Stover 2) Through the characterisation of the Morlocks as ape-like beasts, the working classes have taken on this outward appearance. An equivalent physiognomy applies to the Eloi, whose name refers ironically to fallen gods from the Old Testament (Stover 7). The decadent ruling class is based upon Carlyle's notion of Dandies, a leisure class who allow the perpetuation of a volatile class situation:

In Sartor Resartus he speaks of the Dandies as a leisure class living for show on the surface of life. The Drudges dig and work in the earth, living there in dark dwellings where they seldom see the sky. "To the eye of the political Seer, their mutual relation, pregnant with the elements of discord and hostility, is far from consoling. (Stover 8)

The lack of any apparently Darwinian explanation for the physical differences between the Eloi and Morlocks seems explicit and deliberate, and seems to bear little correlation to any idea of adaptation that would appear obviously beneficial to reproduction and survival; why would ape-like features be better suited to an underground, industrial society? This is purely physiognomical, an embodiment of social discourse.9

However, while the embodied subjects of the future represent a significant set of thematic presences in The Time Machine, this is still a rich site of further investigation, and there are other manifestations of materiality and material culture that may shed some light on the presence of utopian themes. In particular, I would like to suggest that the Time Traveller is characterised by a sustained sense of immobility. Or put another way; he never really leaves home. This assertion is made possible by the nature of his journey and the instrumental device, and material artefact, after which the novel is named. Upon his machine, he moves in time, not space. It is therefore possible to read the novel in terms of a severe erosion of distinctions between interior and exterior, providing a unifying device with which to consider a speculative notion of material culture. The breadth of vision applied to the scope of museologically orientated material culture, applicable to entire landscapes, is fused with the sense of artefactually rendered domestic intimacy found in the Time Traveller's home.

Suvin has drawn attention to the contrast of spatial register in the novel, which he argues is a common structural element in the scientific romances, characterised by a destructive newness encroaching upon the tranquillity of the Victorian environment. The inner and outer framework of the narrative is also seen by Suvin as a means of establishing this collision: "The framework is set in surroundings as staid and familiarly Dickensian as possible, such as the cozy study of The Time Machine" (Suvin 208). However, I would like to read this interior space is a meticulously crafted environment in which the politicised tension that Wells depicts in the future is staged with equal, albeit codified, bluntness. The presence of incandescent gaslight is one element of this. By 1895, gaslight was an obsolete technology, and it was the lack of a unified system of modernisation to electricity that lurks behind its presence in the novel, as Richmond was under a set of different authorities to other parts of London. In this use of gaslight as a visual effect upon an interior, a system of lighting, a part of a distribution network connected to the organisation of capital and the efficiency of government, Wells thematises the past through a motif of obsolescence and incompetence.

What appears to be an environment of domestic refinement and comfort contains an explicit reference to the chairs upon which the guests in the Time Traveller's home sit: "Our chairs, being his patents, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon" ("Time Machine" 1). These chairs are a direct reference to William Morris, designer, craftsman, writer and utopian.10 For Morris, furniture was politics:

William Morris was to wage war on the factory-made ugliness of Victorian domestic interiors, and to expand, even more trenchantly than Ruskin himself, on the intimate connections between morality, as socially and privately understood, and design. (Wilson 164)

That these chairs are uncannily comfortable sets up the Time Traveller as an inventor in competition with Morris, who was in actuality the first to patent a cushioned chair with a backrest that could be inclined. This inexplicable quality suggests that Morris's patent has been surpassed.

Although not named in the text, a fictionalised Morris is also one of the guests of the Time Traveller on the night of his return from the future. He is described, in a manner that is designed to be insulting, as "a quiet, shy man with a beard — whom I didn't know, and who, as far as my observation went, never opened his mouth all the evening." ("Time Machine" 19) The sophistication of the chair design in relation to anything that Morris had been able to build indicates an assumed superiority of social theory articulated within the narrative. It sets up The Time Machine as a novel in a direct and adversarial relationship with Morris's News From Nowhere, published five years previously. In Morris's utopia, a socialist with a hatred of modernity awakens in, or rather dreams of, a medieval fantasy of the future in which capitalism and technology have been left behind by a society favouring an egalitarian and rural existence. Morris's utopian dream is swiftly dismissed, in codified form, through the chairs. They are contrasted with his medievalism, his looking backwards, his idea of the future as an imagined fantasy of the past. To imagine progress in the image of a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial arcadia suggested no answer for Wells, and failed to address the conditions of modernity as he saw them. And although his future is a nightmare, the momentum is still forward-looking in its call to arms. But Wells was also unlike Morris in how he constructed his utopias. Morris took the process literally, and saw himself as a purveyor of pure authorial intent. There was no subtlety in his fantastic worlds. They were meant to represent in a clear, unclouded manner, the views of the author.

Wells, on the other hand, constructs a narrative that is polemical, but utilises materiality as a set of raw materials for cognitive engagement, as well as estrangement. Rather than spell out a utopian fantasy, as a panorama of the present through a dream of what might be, The Time Machine explores aspects of utopian possibility. Wells's future, although addressed as a stark warning, is still a future, and therefore perhaps more utopian a discourse than Morris's nostalgic paradise. It is about resolving the problems of the now, of not getting stuck in fantasies of the past. The presence of gaslight hints at this, as an attack on the slowness and inefficiency of modernity to move in a smooth and organised action. Rather it seems to lurch forward in stops and starts, like the clumsy actions of the Time Traveller upon his machine. However, this reading of the chairs as a reference to Morris overlooks the very qualities that are supposed to indicate the politicisation of the chairs: their technological sophistication, the illusion of some form of agency as a result and the peculiar dissolution of a series of physical, psychic and technological boundaries. These chairs are prosthetic extensions that respond to a form of instrumental but unskilled control. The situation is described not in terms of a body in a chair, but as an amalgam of the two.

The chairs are useful in sustaining a general sense of erosion throughout the narrative, which is mirrored in a general absence of distinction between interior and exterior in the future landscape, as well as by the negation of spatial distance implicit in the operation of time travel. Like the time machine itself, the chairs hint at an unskilled instrumentality that Baudrillard describes in "The Ecstasy of Communication" as private telematics: "each person sees himself at the controls of a hypothetical machine, isolated in a position of perfect and remote sovereignty, at an infinite distance from his universe of origin" (Baudrillard 128). For Baudrillard, this is a model of the realisation of a living satellite within quotidian space. The notion of interior as discrete, with clear and impermeable boundaries, is radically destabilised here. This is to suggest interior as referring both to the interiority of a subject and architectural interior: private and domestic spaces, psychic and built, are no longer the sites where drama is played out in an engagement with objects and images.

Baudrillard counters the foundation of his earlier argument made in The System of Objects (1968), which relies on the meaningful opposition of subject/object (material artefact) and public/private, as well as the privileging of "a domestic scene, a scene of interiority, a private space-time" (Baudrillard 126). His position shifts from one of scene and mirror to screen and network, a non-reflecting surface of communication. The very space of habitation — both psychic and architectural — can be conceived of as a point of regulation and organisation within a series of multiple networks. Within this space of habitation, a sense of utopian discourse as a narrative of distance and alterity is collapsed within the present and the familiar. The telematic apparatus of the time machine allows the protagonist to travel without leaving his home. I'd like to suggest that his home, manifested through the articulation of materiality, is made into the site of the novel. As such, this site functions analogously to Baudrillard's hypothetical space, in which an anti-utopian nightmare is played out, a necessary evil before the fulfilment of any utopian dream.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. "The Ecstasy of Communication." Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. London: Pluto Press, 1987. 126-134.

Hawkins, Hildi and Olsen, Danielle. Eds. The Phantom Museum and Henry Wellcome's Collection of Medical Curiosities. London: Profile Books, 2003.

Parrinder, Patrick. Ed. H.G. Wells: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

Parrinder, Patrick. "Biographical Note." A Modern Utopia. H.G. Wells. London: Penguin, 2005. vii-xii.

Pearce, Susan M. Ed. Interpreting Objects and Collections. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Stover, Leon. ed. The Time Machine: An Invention: A Critical Text of the 1895 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. Jefferson and London: McFarland and Company, 1996.

Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Wells, H.G. The Time Machine: An Invention. London: Heinemann, 1895.

Wells, H.G. Little Wars. London: Palmer, 1913.

Wells, H.G. "Preface to The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells."

The Invisible Man. London: J. M. Dent, 2000. 139-143.

Wilson, A.N. The Victorians. London: Arrow Books, 2003.


  1. This is of course an acknowledgement of the work of Ernst Bloch and the debt owed to him by many current practitioners of critical utopian thought.

  2. Wells's engagement with utopian ideas has generated an immense amount of critical response and interpretation, of which I shall provide a very brief and selective list here: Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H.G. Wells. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961. Hillegas, Mark R. The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Booker, M. Keith. "H.G. Wells: A Modern Utopia." Dystopian Literature: A Theory Research Guide. Westport: Greenwood, 1994. 63-67. Ferns, Chris. Narrating Utopia: Ideology, Gender, Form in Utopian Literature Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999. Stover, Leon. The Shaving of Karl Marx: An Instant Novel of Ideas, After the Manner of Thomas Love Peacock, in Which Lenin and H. G. Wells Talk About the Political Meaning of the Scientific Romances. Lake Forest, Illinois: The Chinon Press, 1982. Parrinder, Patrick. "Utopia and Meta-Utopia in H.G.Wells." Utopian Studies _1 (1987)79-97, and "News from Nowhere, The Time Machine and the Break Up of Classical Realism." _Science Fiction Studies. (1976) 265-274.

  3. This is in contrast to Wells's A Modern Utopia which lacks the formal tightness that constitutes an intensively rendered material world in The Time Machine. Wells positions the later work as an articulation of his utopian desires, therefore I would argue that it lacks the complexity and critical potential that I would like to argue saturates that substance of his first novel.

  4. For example, see Brantlinger, Patrick. "Victorian Science Fiction." A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Brantlinger and W.B. Thesing. Eds. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 370.

  5. It is with such factors in mind that I would suggest not only including Conrad's Youth into the realm of utopian fiction — as in Carey, John. The Faber Book of Utopias. London: Faber and Faber, 1999. - but also including protagonist Charlie Marlow's more well known tale, Heart of Darkness. Written at the end of the nineteenth century, based on what Conrad had seen in 1890, but not published until 1902, this should be included in the moment of the late nineteenth-century critical utopian imagination. As A Modern Utopia - published in 1905 - makes clear, the tradition of late nineteenth-century utopian thought failed to respect precise divisions of the calendar.

  6. The writing of this period is granted the status constituting the roots of the latter century's forms of utopian thought by Moylan. However, as Francis Wheen points out, Wells's A Modern Utopia "is a creature of its time, and the fact that he wrote such a book at all shows how well attuned he was to the zeitgeist: almost a hundred Utopian fantasies were published between 1875 and 1905, an efflorescence unparalleled before or since" (Wheen xvi). Moylan, I'm sure, would beg to differ that such a prevalence of utopian fiction has remained unparalleled since the beginning of the twentieth century.

  7. As Moylan himself points out: "H.G. Wells's Time Traveller struggles to ground his vision and find his way, and by metaphoric extension the way of humanity, in a nasty future in which his own present, Wells's empirical moment and the Time Traveller's "Britain", is the terrifying past" (Moylan 3).

  8. The social point was reinforced by Wells's insistence that the cover of the first London edition of The Time Machine should represent an image of the sphinx.

  9. This conflation of the social and physiological is epitomised by an illustration of a gorilla which had served as an emblem of uncanny terror for Wells during childhood.

  10. The observation of this connection has been made by Leon Stover in his analysis of The Time Machine(Stover 23-24).