Thursday, August 18, 2011

Essay #6...extinction [?] and Wells' "The Time Machine"

The following is the sixth installment of nine selected informative, thoughtful, and well-written essays regarding science, science fiction, technology, and literature from Science Fiction Studies .


The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901) are the best-known examples of Wells’s speculations on evolution, but some of his shorter works also reflect this concern. Robert Philmus has referred to "The Man of the Year Million" (essay, 1893) as "another version" of The Time Machine; and analogous to the Martians in War of the Worlds are the malignant cephalopods of "The Sea Raiders" (1896) and "The Extinction of Man" (essay, 1894), as well as the predatory specimen described in "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid" (1894). Wells’s vision of evolution was often expressed via a paradoxical emphasis on two primary functions of life: ingestion and cerebration. The ultimate survivor of The Time Machine is not a great brain but a ravening stomach—the Wellsian image of ultimate horror. Wells disapproved less, we may suppose, of the absolute intellect, reserving his greatest dread for the other, the mindless all-devouring. Yet there can be little doubt that he truly preferred neither, hoping (however faintly) for an ultimate balance between body and mind: his best wish was that human beings should master themselves without losing the essence of humanity. That evolution seemed unlikely to produce any such result led to his preoccupation late in his life with the idea that some ultra-human entity might arise from the impending decline of Homo sapiens.

"The Time Machine and the End of Man"


Alex Eisenstein

July 1976

Science Fiction Studies

As many critics have observed, H.G. Wells was preoccupied very early with speculations on evolution, in particular the evolution of Man and the prospects of intelligent life, whatever its origins. The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901) are the best known examples of his interest in such matters, but certain of his shorter works also reflect this concern. Frequently, Wells would recapitulate and refine his major ideas, mining old essays for new story material or refashioning the elements of one tale in the context of another; various scholars have explored the interpenetration of these works in some detail.

In "The Man of the Year Million" (essay, 1893)1 and The War of the Worlds, Wells outlined one model for the ultimate evolution of humankind. In both works, the culmination of higher intelligence is a globular entity, brought about by the influence of steadily advancing technology. In each case, it mainly consists of a great, bald head, supported on large hands or equivalent appendages, with thorax vestigial or entirely absent. The Martian is a direct analogue of the "Man of the Year Million", as Wells himself indicated by citing his own essay in the body of the novel (§2:2).2 The Selenite master-race of First Men is a kindred expression of this vision of enlarged intellect—especially the Grand Lunar, with its enormous cranium, diminutive face, and shriveled body. Of more special relevance to the Martians are the malignant cephalopods of "The Sea Raiders" (1896) and "The Extinction of Man" (essay, 1894), and as well the predatory specimen in "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid" (1894).

At least one scholar has referred to "The Man of the Year Million" as "another version" of The Time Machine, apparently because the domeheads take refuge underground from the increasing rigors of a cooling surface.3 This connection is rather tenuous, at best; by such criteria, First Men also might be deemed a variant of The Time Machine. In fact, the Further Vision of the latter constitutes a curious inversion of the above essay, but scholars and critics have failed to perceive this relation. Their failure depends on a more primary error, which is this—the notion that Man is extinct at the climax of the novel.

That the progeny of Man is not absent from the final moments of the Further Vision should be evident from a passage that appeared (until recently) only in the serial version. This deleted episode is a philosophic bridge, a key to what happens at world’s end. It introduces the successors of Eloi and Morlock: a hopping, kangaroo-like semblance of humanity and a monstrous, shambling centipede. According to Robert Philmus, "these two species must have descended in the course of time from the Eloi and the Morlocks; and again the ‘grey animal, or grey man, whichever it was’ is the victim of the carnivorous giant insects."4

Philmus accentuates the elements of degeneration and regression in Wells’s Darwinian conjectures; thus he asserts that The Time Machine embodies a vision of the hominid line "irrevocably on the downward path of devolution."5 The general validity of this viewpoint cannot be disputed; nevertheless, the extreme construction he places upon it leads him considerably astray. Though Wells used terms like "retrogression," "degradation," and "degeneration" in his essays, they were for him relative terms only. He would hardly have portrayed Man as reverting literally into so primitive a creature; such "devolution," I submit, is not in the Wellsian mode.

Philmus may have been encouraged in this faulty genealogy by the Traveler’s observations of the Elysian world of the Eloi, which seems devoid of animal life, excepting a few sparrows and butterflies (§4b/288; §5a/292).6 Of course, this stricture need not apply to the murky lower world, which could easily harbor all sorts of vermin. If butterflies prosper above, in a world of flowers, then centipedes should thrive below, in a realm of meaty table scraps and other waste. And at journey’s end, "a thing like a huge white butterfly" makes a brief display, as a demonstration of what has survived the English sparrow (§11/328).

The Morlocks of Millenium #803, moreover, are not a race destined for perpetual dominance. This much is made clear by numerous facets of their existence—their lack of light, the disrepair of much of their machinery, their crude and inefficient method of harvesting Eloi. Although the Time Traveler refers to the Eloi as "cattle" and supposes that they may even be bred by the Morlocks (§7/311), the rest of the book does not show the latter practicing much in the way of husbandry. Indeed the absence of other land animals in the lush upper world may well be the result of earlier predations by the Morlocks. So the best assumption is that the relationship between the two races is unstable—that the Morlocks are depleting their latest dietary resource, which must eventually go the way of its predecessors.

The kangaroo-beast, therefore, can only be a tribe descended from the Morlocks, now scavenging the surface in the long twilight. The irony of the new situation is evident, and quite typical of the many ironic aspects of the novel: the hound is now the hare, the erstwhile predator has become the current prey.

The ancestry of this pathetic creature is confirmed by its morphology. Consider the appearance of the Morlock: "a queer little ape-like figure," "dull white," with "flaxen hair on its head and down its back" (§5b/299), and a "chinless" face, with "great, lidless, pinkish-grey eyes" (§6/306). Compare that with the Traveler’s description of the later species: "It was ... covered with a straight greyish hair that thickened about the head into a Skye terrier’s mane.... It had, moreover, a rounded head, with a projecting forehead and forward-looking eyes, obscured by its lank hair" (325). The ape-like brow-ridge is a tell-tale vestige of the Morlocks, as well as the lank hair that now shields the creature’s eyes. The shaggy visage identifies the kangaroo-man as a once-nocturnal animal only recently emerged from darkness. Another indicative trait is its rabbit-like feet, which are compatible with the "queer narrow footprints" of the Morlocks (§5a/292).

From a close inspection the Traveler surmises, the nature of the beast: "A disagreeable apprehension flashed across my mind.... I knelt down and seized my capture, intending to examine its teeth and other anatomical points which might show human characteristics..." (326). He might also be looking for the signs of yesterday’s carnivore.

This Morlock offspring is no longer extant in the climactic scene of the Further Vision, but it is not the Last Man observed by the Traveler. He arrives in the era of the giant land-crabs, then passes on to the time of the great eclipse, where nothing seems to stir—at first:

I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained.... But I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime alone testified that life was not extinct.... I fancied I saw some black object flopping about...but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock.

A nearby planet encroaches on the bloated sun; the eclipse progresses, becomes total, and then the shadow of heaven recedes:

I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me.... I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal.... It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps...and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered into the saddle. (§11/329-30)

The kangaroo-men hop about on elongated feet; the men of the year million hop about on great soft hands; the thing on the shoal hops about on a trailing mass of tentacles. This similarity in modes of locomotion is hardly a literary accident. In contrast, the Sea-Raiders never hop, but creep along at a steady pace when traversing solid ground.

In general form the Last Creature resembles a large cephalopod. Is it a primitive survivor from the ocean deeps, like Haploteuthis in "The Sea Raiders," or is it a being like the Martians, the hypertrophic end-product of intelligent life? Most of the evidence points to the latter—a highly specialized and atrophied edition of genus Homo. Note particularly the size of the creature; it is about "the size of a football"—which is to say, about the size of a human head.

The Time Traveler contracts a "terrible dread of lying helpless" in the dying world soon after he becomes fully aware of the thing on the shoal. There seems to be a special revulsion attached to this monster, even though it can hardly pose a real threat to the Traveler. Before it commands his attention, he feels "incapable of facing the return journey"; afterward, the "dread of lying helpless" in its presence impels him to turn back forthwith. Consciously, the Traveler does not perceive the human ancestry of this apocalyptic organism, but apparently the unconscious realization of its true nature makes him flee the final wasteland. Not the oppressive conditions, nor the extinction of Man, nor even the approaching oblivion triggers his retreat; rather, he recoils from the knowledge, however submerged, of what Man has become.

And what has Man become? Certainly not the inflated intellect of a Martian, nor that of a Sea-Raider, despite the somatic affinities. In one important respect, the Last Man differs greatly from these other fantastic creations: it is a being without a face. Even Haploteuthis has a definite, mock-human visage—"a grotesque suggestion of a face." To be sure, the super-minds in the Wellsian canon—the million-year domeheads, the Martians, the Grand Lunar—all suffer from facial attrition, yet certain features, especially the eyes, always remain. Not so with the fitful creature on the beach; the swollen surface of its body seems utterly blank, devoid of perceptual apparatus, and its aimless, reflexive actions indicate that it is virtually mindless. In the end, then, Man has become little more than a giant polyp.

All these transmuted beings emphasize two primary functions of life: ingestion and cerebration. The intelligent Sea-Raiders, for example, come to earth in search of a better feed. Both the Martians and the domeheads have actually surrendered their alimentary canals to cortical advances, and the Martians, like the man-eating squids, also come to Earth for new sustenance. The mindless tropism of the Strange Orchid impels it to siphon off human blood, whereas the Martians strive for the same end with a ruthless deliberation.

The ultimate survivor of The Time Machine is not a great brain; as with a polyp, therefore, all that is left is a great ravening stomach. (For this, too, its size is appropriate.) Here, in counterpoint to the Martian terror, is the Wellsian image of ultimate horror.

And so we confront a symbolic paradox: the same emblem represents both the zenith and the nadir of mentality; the opposition of head and stomach, of mind and body, is fused in this one corporeal form. In Wells’s iconography, it stands for the ultimate degeneration, whether of body or mind. He disapproved less, we may suppose, of the absolute intellect, reserving his greatest dread for the other, the mindless all-devouring. Yet there can be little doubt that, despite sardonic ambiguities, as in "The Man of the Year Million" and The First Men in the Moon, he truly preferred neither; his best wish was that Man should master himself without ever losing the essence of humanity. To this end Wells devoted most of his long and active life, even unto Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), where a faint hope still lingers that some ultra-human entity will arise to survive the impending decline of Homo sapiens. This was Wells’s last desperate hope, and a very feeble one it was; nevertheless, near the end of his life, amid sickness and depression, that glimmer remained. As the nameless narrator of The Time Machine insists, when faced with the inevitable disintegration of Man: "If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so" (Epilogue/335).


1. First published in The Pall Mall Gazette, Nov 9, 1893, this essay, with title changed to "Of a Book Unwritten," appears in Certain Personal Matters (UK 1897), as does the other essay mentioned in this paragraph, "The Extinction of Man."

2. Another avatar appears in "The Plattner Story," against a setting remarkably suggestive of the Further Vision. Plattner, who is blown through a fourth spatial dimension, finds himself on a barren landscape of dark red shadows, backed by a green sky-glow. He watches the rise of a giant green sun, which reveals a deep cleft nearby. A multitude of bulbous creatures float upward, like so many bubbles, from this chasm. These are the "Watchers of the Living," literally the souls of the dead: "they were indeed limbless; and they had the appearance of human heads beneath which a tadpole-like body swung" (para. 26). Significantly, Wells had referred to his Men of the Year Million as "human tadpoles."

In many respects, this realm of the afterlife is a striking reversal of The Time Machine’s terminal wasteland, yet quite recognizably akin to it.

3. Gordon S. Haight, "H.G. Welles ‘The Man of the Year Million’," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 12(1958):323-26.

4. Robert M. Philmus, Into the Unknown (US 1970), pp 70-71.

5. Ibid., p. 75.

6. §7/311 = Chapter 7 in the standard form of the text (i.e., as published in the Atlantic Edition, the Complete Short Stories, and almost all editions since 1924), or Page 311 of Three Prophetic Novels of H.G. Wells (Dover Publications, 1960). The chapterings of the standard and Dover forms (with "a" and "b" added for convenience) collate as follows: la = 1; lb = 2; 2 = 3; 3 = 4; 4a = 5; 4b = 6; 5a = 7; 5b = 8; 6 = 9; 7 = 10; 8 = 11; 9 = 12; 10 = 13; 11 = 14; 12a = 15; 12b = 16; Epilogue = Epilogue. The deleted passage, pages 325-27 of the Dover text, would appear between the first and second paragraphs of Chapter 11 in the standard text.

The Time Machine [book]

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