The Time Machine opens with the Time Traveller explaining to his dinner guests the underlying scientific principles that make his invention, the time machine, possible. This immersion into mathematical concepts and scientific language is meant to give readers a taste of the intelligence, creativity, and ambition that fuel technological development. In contrast, the Eloi of the future lack language, technology, and even physical strength—they are presented as a lazy species that naps and frolics and eats copious amounts of fruit. The Eloi’s living conditions are so idyllic that they do not struggle to meet their basic needs, and the Time Traveller interprets this, at first, as a realization of technological utopia free from worry or deprivation. However, the presence of the Morlocks—who have resorted to cannibalism because their basic needs have not been met—makes it clear that technology has not been a liberating force for everyone.
While many works of science fiction revel in the complex and exciting technologies of the future, The Time Machine takes an opposite approach, positing that the Victorian era could be the technological pinnacle of humankind, followed by a deterioration of the technological and cultural progress that many people expect to continue indefinitely into the future. Writing on the heels of the industrial revolution, Wells was immersed in a society saturated by the promise and peril of new technology. Suddenly new goods were available, and once-arduous tasks were made easier, but there were also new dangers like rampant pollution and industrial accidents, not to mention exacerbations of social divisions based on new wealth and poor labor conditions. Interestingly, Wells does not imagine that this Victorian technological boom would continue indefinitely, nor does he imagine a world imperiled by a technology-related disaster. Instead, he imagines something more complex: that technological progress could create living conditions so idyllic that human progress and intelligence disappear, and so disastrous that humans could resort to cannibalism. Technology in The Time Machine is then directly linked to both progress and to intellectual decay and violence.
Wells is consistently ambivalent about the role of technology in human society; the differences between the lives of the Eloi and Morlocks are more broadly symbolic of the dueling promise and peril of technological innovation, and this directly reflects the social conditions of Victorian England in which technology created ease, wealth, and freedom for the upper class, and punishing working and living conditions for the lower classes. This duality is seen, too, in the time machine itself, which is both liberating (in that it makes time travel possible, which could before only be imagined) and perilous (for instance, the Time Traveller could materialize inside a solid object in the future, or he could be stranded in dangerous conditions).
Thus, Wells does not find an easy answer to whether technology is good or bad for humanity. On the one hand, technological progress can improve lives, but, on the other hand, technology can destroy the very conditions that make humans vibrant and capable, and it can exacerbate social divisions. The key to technology might, then, be found in the Time Traveller himself, who uses technology not to wield power over others, but to ask questions about the status quo and bring back knowledge that could help humanity. In other words, the Time Traveller can be seen as emblematic of science itself—he relentlessly forms hypotheses about the future and then readjusts them based on observation in order to generate knowledge, which mirrors the scientific method. If the Time Traveller represents science free of corrupting social forces, then Wells is suggesting that the Time Traveller’s tale, with all of its implications for social justice, is what technology can offer at its best.
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Technology and Progress Quotes in The Time Machine
What might appear when that hazy curtain was altogether withdrawn? What might not have happened to men? What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful? I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness—a foul creature to be incontinently slain.
Seeing the ease and security in which these people were living, I felt this close resemblance between the sexes was after all what one would expect; for the strength of a man and the softness of a woman, the institution of the family, and the differentiation of occupations are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force…
Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!
To sit among all these unknown things before a puzzle like that is hopeless. That way lies monomania. Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all.
But gradually the truth dawned on me: that Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper-world were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages.
Still, however helpless the little people in the presence of their mysterious Fear, I was differently constituted. I came out of this age of ours, this ripe prime of the human race, when Fear does not paralyse and mystery has lost its terrors.
And during these few revolutions all the activity, all the traditions, the complex organizations, the nations, languages, literatures, aspirations, even the mere memory of Man as I knew him, had been swept out of existence. Instead were these frail creatures who had forgotten their high ancestry, and the white Things of which I went in terror.
Then I tried to preserve myself from the horror that was coming upon me by regarding it as a rigorous punishment of human selfishness. Man had been content to live in ease and delight upon the labours of his fellow-man, had taken Necessity as his watchword and excuse, and in the fullness of time Necessity had come home to him. I even tried a Carlyle-like scorn of this wretched aristocracy in decay. But this attitude of mind was impossible. However great their intellectual degradation, the Eloi had kept too much of the human form not to claim my sympathy, and to make me perforce a sharer in their degradation and their Fear.
I saw an inscription in some unknown character. I thought, rather foolishly, that Weena might help me to interpret this, but I only learned that the bare idea of writing had never entered her head. She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human.
I understood now what the beauty of the Over-world people covered. Very pleasant was their day, as pleasant as the day of the cattle in the field. Like the cattle, they knew of no enemies and provided against no needs. And their end was the same.
It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers. So, as I see it, the Upper-world man had drifted towards his feeble prettiness, and the Under-world to mere mechanical industry.
So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth’s fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away.
Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved? Into the manhood of the race: for I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man’s culminating time!
And I have before me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.