The Time Machine and A Modern Utopia: The Static and Kinetic Utopias of the Early H.G. Wells *. (Essays)

By Partington, John S. | Utopian Studies, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Time Machine and A Modern Utopia: The Static and Kinetic Utopias of the Early H.G. Wells *. (Essays)


Partington, John S., Utopian Studies


IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH of Chapter I of A Modern Utopia, H.G. Wells attempts to differentiate between his model of utopia and all previous utopias. Thus, he declares,

 
   The Utopia of a modern dreamer must needs differ in one fundamental aspect 
   from the Nowheres and Utopias men planned before Darwin quickened the 
   thought of the world. Those were all perfect and static States, a balance 
   of happiness won for ever against the forces of unrest and disorder that 
   inhere in things. [...] But the Modern Utopia must be not static but 
   kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage, 
   leading to a long ascent of stages. (5) 

Whilst mocking his tranquil predecessors, such as Thomas More and the anachronistic William Morris, in this passage, Wells was also providing a reason for the failure of one of his own earlier utopias, The Time Machine. As will be demonstrated, the kinetic utopia of A Modern Utopia developed out of the static society of The Time Machine. From as early as 1895 Wells was critiquing the concept of static utopia and in doing so he was laying the foundations for the development of his own brand of utopianism. The purpose of this article will be to show how Wells mediates in A Modern Utopia on the failure of utopia in The Time Machine and how his addressing of that failure helps form his utopian philosophy.

Frank McConnell has declared that "Whatever else it is--and it is many things--The Time Machine is certainly an exercise in that curious literary subtype called utopian fiction" (71). However, the novella, written ten years before A Modern Utopia, did not, of course, end as a utopia (or rather, to use Lyman Tower Sargent's word, a "eutopia" [14 n. 1]), but only appears as a utopia to the Time Traveller when he first arrives in the year 802,701. Following the Time Traveller's early belief that he has arrived at a pastoral communism, his many discoveries about that future age reveal his initial supposition to be entirely wrong. In what follows I will explain how society in The Time Machine turned into a dystopian nightmare and how Wells believed his A Modern Utopia to contain a utopian methodology which would ensure that the society on "that parallel planet beyond Sirius" (16) would not end up the same way.

The first point to be made about The Time Machine is its contemporaneity. Krishan Kumar acknowledges as much when he writes that "Wells's The Time Machine [does] indeed have a considerable futuristic dimension, but the impress of the events and tendencies of [his] own time is unmistakable" (110). This "impress" is symbolically represented throughout the story by oblique references to a recent age strikingly similar to Wells's late-Victorian England. The architecture of the sleeping places used by the surface-dwelling Eloi show "`suggestions of old Phoenician decorations'" (66) akin to the neo-classicism of the Victorian period, while the great museum known as the Palace of Green Porcelain is described as a "`latter-day South Kensington'" (135). Once his story of the future is complete, the Time Traveller asks his audience to "`Consider I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race'" (167), and in the Epilogue to the book, the narrator suggests that long before the Time Traveller ventured upon his journey, "He [...] thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end" (172-73). The evidence of Victorian remains in the future and the Time Traveller's philosophical attitude about human destiny suggest his story to be more a warning to his listeners than an actual account of society in the year 802,701. (1) John Huntington demonstrates this well in his The Logic of Fantasy where he notes that the story "gives aesthetic form to the contradictions existing within our own civilization and its values" (143), while Kumar see The Time Machine as one of several examples of Wells warning his contemporaries through his early writings, noting as he does that "The science fantasies are offered as so many cautionary fables, so many dreadful warnings to humanity to look to itself, to take stock of its current sick condition and remedy it before it is too late" (181). …

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