Literature, the human condition and the time machine
I am a fiction junky, reading one or sometimes two novels a week. They have to be good novels, not plot-driven adventures with cardboard characters and clunky writing (yes, this means you, Dan Brown, though I know that you are rich enough not to be stung too badly by my scorn). Sadly, my local bookstore and library cannot keep up with my needs. But this turned out to be a good thing on a recent bookstore foray. None of my favorite authors had written anything new. No books by authors new to me called out. There were soppy romances, many-volumed fantasies set in alternate worlds, men with guns bent on revenge after their family was killed. There were serial killers, young women having madcap adventures and finding themselves, and the occasional pretentious, "serious" (very serious) book that was pleased with its own gravity and would have been no fun to read. Ho hum, not for me. This paucity led me to cruise the shelves of non-mainstream books, oddball rejects from the prominent displays. There I found the collected works of H.G. Wells, a massive tome almost too heavy to hold. I had seen the 1960 movie The Time Machine with Rod Taylor, but had never read Wells. My surprised hands (it took both of them) reached out and pulled the book from the shelf. Now I struggle to hold it upright while reading in bed.
Wells was a product of his Victorian times in his use of language and cultural references. He was also insightful about the human condition and astonishingly prescient as to where our behaviors may lead. Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) wrote, as well as more than fifty novels and dozens of short stories, works of satire, political commentary, popular science and history. He was known as a futurist, and his earliest writings predicted, among other things, the atomic bomb, the sexual revolution, airplanes and military tanks. He was a towering genius, admired by Winston Churchill, Thomas H. Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and the architects of the Bolshevik Revolution. Every science fiction writer since owes him a huge debt.
None of this is news. But new to me, having never read him, was the depth of his insight into the human condition. Do you know the story of the The Time Machine? In it, a scientist invents a time machine and travels 800,000 years into the future, where he finds that human beings have evolved into two races, the gentle, pleasure-loving, passive, fruit-eating Eloi, who live in the sunshine and lack any intellectual curiosity or creative ambition, and the Morlocks, rabid creatures who live underground in darkness, keeping the machinery of clothing production and other bare necessities running, and emerging at night to capture sleeping Eloi and take them below, where they eat them.
I want to share with you just one passage from The Time Machine. When the scientist emerges in the future he at first sees only the Eloi and their tranquil, sun-dappled life of pleasure and inactivity. Even as he admires their gentleness and beauty, he is disturbed:
"Diseases had been wiped out…social triumphs had been effected…there were no signs of struggle…It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise…The difficulty of increasing population had been met, and population had ceased to increase. But…what…is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium on the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience and decision. And the institution of the family, and the emotions that arise therein, the fierce jealousy, the tenderness for offspring, parental devotion…Now, where are these imminent dangers?"
The scientist reflects on the physical slightness of the Eloi, as well as
"their lack of intelligence. For after the battle comes Quiet. Humanity had been strong, energetic and intelligent…Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness…Even the artistic impulse would at last die away…We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity."
This does not mean, of course, that we should not seek happiness and strive for peace. But there is some deep insight in Wells' understanding that ongoing lack of challenge leads to a kind of degeneration. "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all," wrote Helen Keller, who certainly faced challenges. Our creativity is ignited by need, by passion, by the desire to express ideas to others, and sometimes by pain, not by indigence. The Western world's current apparent desire to destroy the family, understood rather astonishingly by Wells at least a century before it began to happen, will in time rob people of a great part of their reasons for living.
This is not a new insight, rather an insight repeatedly born, renewed by reading: literature has an enduring place and plays an important role in portraying, evaluating and anticipating the human condition.