The Time Machine is the big bang origin of the science fiction universe. I’ve read The Time Machine a couple times before in my life, but I never noticed that it was the origin of all science fiction, but then I haven’t spent the last decade rereading the classics of science fiction before either. On this third reading, this time via audio book, it seemed quite obvious that The Time Machine is the first science fiction novel.
Now a lot of people are going to argue with my revelation, by bringing up Jules Verne, or Mary Shelley, or many other stories that have fantastic elements in them. And I completely understand because those stories are a kind of science fiction too. No, I’ve come to the conclusion there are two types of stories labeled science fiction. There’s the all-purpose label that imprecisely gets slapped onto almost any kind of far-out tale, and a second type, that’s very rare, that’s illustrated by what H. G. Wells wrote with The Time Machine.
This truer version of science fiction was created by Wells as a method to use science to speculate about the future. Many writers have written stories that extrapolated the future from present trends, but Wells uses what he learned from the sciences, evolution and cosmology, to write what is essentially the matching bookend to the biblical book of Genesis.
The Time Machine comes after Charles Darwin, but before Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble, but it’s message is just as thrilling and full of sense of wonder being read in 2009 as it was in 1895. If you read this story as an adventure using a time machine, then you are seeing the book as generic science fiction. If you read this book and realize that H. G. Wells is using his current day science to speculate about the evolution of man as a species, and the death of the Earth, then the term science fiction means something different.
H. G. Wells actually present three major speculative ideas for the readers of The Time Machine:
- Time travel is the obvious idea that everyone talks about, but few people analyzes Wells theory for time travel.
- Just a few decades after Darwin’s famous book, Wells suggests that mankind could branch into new species, and even species that aren’t as intelligent as home sapiens.
- Finally, Wells paints a picture of the end of Earth after mankind is long gone.
H. G. Wells produces the essential elements of the science fiction novel out of these efforts. Most people think inventing the concept of a time machine is the main science fiction element, but it’s not. If the unnamed hero of this novel had traveled backwards in time, the time machine would only be a gimmick for writing historical fiction with a modern protagonist. An absolute essential element of science fiction is its speculation about the future.
Many writers have suggested that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel, but I don’t think that’s true, because the story wasn’t about the future. It’s a horror novel. A novel about a monster. After reading The War of the Worlds immediately after The Time Machine and I’m struck by the immense difference between the two. The War of the Worlds is an exciting novel, with far out aspects, and even sense of wonder, but it doesn’t feel like The Time Machine, it doesn’t feel like a science fiction novel that The Time Machine was. It’s not about the future. It’s about monsters from space. It’s another horror novel.
Now I understand why I never felt H. P. Lovecraft was a science fiction writer even when he wrote about invaders from space. I don’t know why movies like The Thing, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them and all those other monster stories from the 1950s were considered classic science fiction films, putting them into same the genre as Forbidden Planet and 2001, A Space Odyssey.
When I start to think about this I see the term science fiction as a box for throwing all kinds of odds and ends into that are hard to classify. Most people throw UFO or X-Files type stories into the science fiction box and I think that’s totally unfair. Space travel doesn’t equal science fiction. Aliens arriving in flying saucers is not science fiction, but just monsters from outer space. ESP and all of that are just more monster stories. The human race has a long list of monster stories, in fact most of the oldest stories, Gilgamesh, Ulysses, Beowulf, are about monsters.
The Time Machine gives us many clues to what real science fiction is about. Another essential element is it’s speculation about seeing reality through scientific ideas. When the Time Traveler visits the year 802,701 and our pinnacle of culture is forgotten, we are like Dorothy realizing we’re no longer in Kansas. The difference between L. Frank Baum and H. G. Wells, is Wells uses scientific ideas in a different way than they were ever used before. Instead of using science to understand the present and the past, he uses it to understand the future.
We will never know the future. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future. Wells invented a kind of literature that tries to grok the future through scientific speculation. By this measure Star Wars is not science fiction, but Star Trek sometimes is. The War of the Worlds is science fiction, but not as much as The Time Machine. Both novels are mostly fiction, but Wells weaves in concepts and speculation from the knowledge of 1895 science that he knew. For instance, I’m trying to track down when astronomers first suggested the idea of the sun turning into a red giant. It must be before 1895.
The odd thing about science fiction is you can’t learn science from science fiction. You have to already know science to spot the science in science fiction. It’s like jazz. You can love jazz without understanding the concepts of music, but if you want to know what a jazz musician is doing, you have to understand music theory, even at a simple level. Reading The Time Machine for me, was watching H. G. Wells take the science of 1895 and improvise speculative pictures of the future.
Most modern science fiction never even tries to do this. Most science fiction is escapist adventure fiction. Wells is working as a philosopher, using fiction with the lens of science, making science fiction a scientific instrument like the telescope, to show his readers something about the nature of reality and possible futures. He’s pointing his finger at something, whereas most adventure science fiction doesn’t. Real science fiction, as Wells invented it, points to a speculative concept. It has something to say about reality, usually about the future.
But doesn’t all great literature point to something about reality? The difference between fiction and science fiction is the science. Most people study literary reality through lenses provided by culture, customs, upbringing, religion, and philosophy. You have to study science to appreciate real science fiction, and few SF fans study scientific subjects. Wells invented a kind of literature that many writers tried to copy, but few got it right.
And again, it’s not about predicting the future. Time machines are extremely doubtful, and so are the Eloi and Morlocks. Charles Darwin looks at nature and fossils and says, “Hey, there were probably other species of humans before us.” Wells, takes that idea, and says, “Hey, maybe there will be others species of humans after us.” That sounds very simple now, but try to do it yourself. If you can, then you can write the kind of fiction I want to label science fiction. If you take someone else’s speculative idea and turn it into fiction, for instance Star Wars, something I don’t want to call science fiction, then you aren’t doing what H. G. Wells did.
Yes, yes, I know I’m being very picky and splitting hairs, and probably sounding pretentious like those wine tasters who claim they detect all kinds of rare flavors when you can only taste alcohol. Let me give you another analogy. Watch the History Channel. Can you tell when they are showing real history from made-up crap? Many scholars would say The History Channel should be called the Science Fiction Channel. I’m making two points here. First, anything labeled History should be considered truly educational, and second, they are slamming The History Channel’s crap shows by using the label science fiction.
Can you see why I want to make a precise definition of science fiction? One that will represent the best creative intentions of H. G. Wells, and not the one-size-fits-all box for weirdo ideas?
JWH – 6/24/9