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Thursday 25 June 2015

The Time Machine, again (I)

Part One : Science Fiction

I first read The Time Machine when I was ten years old - it was probably one of the first grown-up pieces of science fiction I ever read. It's a classic not just because of its surprisingly good science, but because it looks in detail at the effects our scientific and technological discoveries may have on us. In most media sci-fi, the revolutionary breakthrough is kept secret - usually because the writers want to keep the story grounded in contemporary society, or are just too lazy to fully explore its effects. Not H. G. Wells. The whole point of The Time Machine is to see just how far our we might advance, and how our own discoveries may effect us both as individuals and in society.

With technology getting ever-more sophisticated at a faster pace, The Time Machine has never been more relevant. An ever-growing number of jobs are now directly threatened by technological advances. The Time Machine is essentially a Victorian's attempt to answer the question : if you teach a robot to fish, does everybody eat or everybody starve ?

However, it's pretty obvious that while the robot apocalypse may or may not be inevitable, it certainly isn't imminent.
In this first part, I look at the more straightforward scientific aspects of the book. In the second post I'll examine the far more interesting nature of its social fiction.

Time travel

1895. The British Empire is by far the world's largest superpower. Electric light bulbs have been around for about twenty years. Steam trains have been whisking people across the country for about seventy years. The first cinema is still in the future, as is the internet, though telephones have been around for twenty years. Fax machines, on the other hand, have been present, if not very common, for fifty years. Simple mechanical calculating devices were present, but not very sophisticated - though more complex, programmable devices were conceived of. The average life expectancy in Britain is 50, and the infant mortality rate something like 15%.

The theory of relativity is still a decade away, but much of the mathematics needed is already known. Science fiction authors have been exploring the prospect of time as a dimension for some years. But The Time Machine is by far the best known example.

The 2002 movie wasn't up to much, but it did have a very nice prop.
`Clearly,' the Time Traveller proceeded, `any real body must have extension in FOUR directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and--Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.'
Of course, Wells had no idea that relativity would show that time travel into the future was perfectly possible, while travel into the past was probably not. Strictly speaking it says that travel into the past is possible in certain special circumstances, but never to a point before the machine was created. Wells' machine is much more like a TARDIS, except it only moves in time, not space.
`And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.'
`My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present movement. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. '
It's worth noting that the Time Traveller also mentions the possibility of a fourth spacial dimension, but this isn't explored much. In the novel, this dimension is time : it is no different to the other dimensions, except for our perception of it. Other than this vague reference to consciousness, we're given no clue how the Time Machine works, because that's not the point of the story. Still, Wells' description of time travel is a classic, which deserves to be quoted at some length :
As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing... I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous colour like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.
 And so my mind came round to the business of stopping,
`The peculiar risk lay in the possibility of my finding some substance in the space which I, or the machine, occupied. So long as I travelled at a high velocity through time, this scarcely mattered; I was, so to speak, attenuated--was slipping like a vapour through the interstices of intervening substances! But to come to a stop involved the jamming of myself, molecule by molecule, into whatever lay in my way; meant bringing my atoms into such intimate contact with those of the obstacle that a profound chemical reaction--possibly a far-reaching explosion --would result, and blow myself and my apparatus out of all possible dimensions--into the Unknown.
Wells made a determined effort to think fourth-dimensionally. His mode of time travel isn't possible in conventional contemporary physics, but he tried to think through the consequences of moving through time at a different rate to everything else. In his model, conveniently, objects moving at different rates through time don't interact - at least not much. Just enough, one assumes, to allow gravity to fix the machine to the earth, and electrical forces to prevent it from falling through the floor or the air molecules from penetrating the Time Traveller's internal organs.

Wells at least was aware of the problem, though he had no idea about nuclear fusion or even basic atomic structure. When the Traveller brings the machine to a halt, the sudden resumption of normal molecular interactions throws him from the machine. It can't do much more than that otherwise the rest of the story wouldn't advance.

Deep Time

While the main story takes place a mere eight hundred thousand years in the future, Wells finishes the time travel sequence with a look much further ahead. Thirty million years is now known to be not so very much, but then radiometric dating was still ten years in the future. Still, Wells was entirely aware that vast geological processes would come into effect on such long timescales. With continental drift still seventeen years in the future - and not widely accepted for sixty years - Wells nonetheless has his machine end up somewhere quite different from central London :
The machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living. 
More than that, Wells considers what might happen on a planetary and even larger scale. Considering that the theory of nuclear fusion wasn't known at the time, he gets the description of what happens to the Sun remarkably correct :
At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat, and now and then suffering a momentary extinction.
 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. At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens.
Wells could not possibly have known that such events would take more like three billion years than thirty million. It's still remarkable that he got as much correct as he did. He also speculates that the Earth has become tidally locked to the Sun and that the orbits of the planets have shifted - hence, although the Sun has swollen into a red giant, the Earth is cold and barren.
I cannot convey the sense of abominable desolation that hung over the world. The red eastern sky, the northward blackness, the salt Dead Sea, the stony beach crawling with these foul, slow-stirring monsters, the uniform poisonous-looking green of the lichenous plants, the thin air that hurts one's lungs: all contributed to an appalling effect.
All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives--all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.
A poetic, if chilling, vision of things to come. All the more remarkable for being written 120 years ago. But it's in the social side of things that Wells is even more pertinent - and that takes place in a bright, warm, false Eden a mere eight hundred thousand years in the future.


Though not everything is stated directly, it's pretty clear than mankind has been engaged at remaking the planet for his own purposes. The whole Earth has become a garden :
I was on what seemed to be a little lawn in a garden, surrounded by rhododendron bushes, and I noticed that their mauve and purple blossoms were dropping in a shower under the beating of the hail-stones.
...   his legs were bare to the knees, and his head was bare. Noticing that, I noticed for the first time how warm the air was... My general impression of the world I saw over their heads was a tangled waste of beautiful bushes and flowers, a long neglected and yet weedless garden. 
But this warm, damp paradise is not the result of natural chance. It is the result of millennia of projects to improve the world for human habitation. Today, we worry about whether climate modification projects might do more harm than good. Wells was audacious enough to see the long-term trend and speculate on the ultimate result of modification of nature :
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 ! 
 After all, the sanitation and the agriculture of to-day are still in the rudimentary stage. The science of our time has attacked but a little department of the field of human disease, but even so, it spreads its operations very steadily and persistently. Our agriculture and horticulture destroy a weed just here and there and cultivate perhaps a score or so of wholesome plants, leaving the greater number to fight out a balance as they can. We improve our favourite plants and animals --and how few they are--gradually by selective breeding; now a new and better peach, now a seedless grape, now a sweeter and larger flower, now a more convenient breed of cattle. We improve them gradually, because our ideals are vague and tentative, and our knowledge is very limited; because Nature, too, is shy and slow in our clumsy hands. Some day all this will be better organized, and still better. That is the drift of the current in spite of the eddies. The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature. In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable me to suit our human needs.
The air was free from gnats, the earth from weeds or fungi; everywhere were fruits and sweet and delightful flowers; brilliant butterflies flew hither and thither. The ideal of preventive medicine was attained. 
No disease, no dangerous animals, no hunger, no cold, no drought, no floods -  no threats. Wells speculates that the Sun has become hotter to explain the change in climate, though if he were alive today he surely would have made this the handiwork of man as well. The point is that man has remade the world according to his own desires. A lot of animals have gone extinct along the way, but from the point of view of the human species, the world is now - apparently - perfect. This is a remarkable vision for a man of an age when people generally didn't live much past fifty.

Remember, this was age when steam power was still a pretty neat idea, the electron wasn't even known, compulsory education ended at age ten, and the workhouse was still a thing, Wells' genius was to be able to see through all the technical inadequacies of his own age and see the long-term trend. That's something people would do well to do more often. We sometimes forget just how much progress we've made. For all the social problems of the world - and there are many - the general standard of living in the Western hemisphere has never been higher. Oh, sure, if you think on timescales of a few years, this isn't necessarily true, but in the Western world it is (almost) possible to talk with a straight face about banning the word poverty and talking about inequality instead.

Yes, there are still people at the very bottom of the pile, in all countries, whose living conditions are squalid and miserable. That has been the case since the beginning of time. But the general standard of living for the majority of people near the bottom has risen immeasurably. Forgetting that, and failing to realise just how much worse things were in the pre-industrial era, is a major reason why technology hasn't made us any happier.

Undeniably the environment was in a better state in the pre-industrial era than it is now. But that does not mean things were better for people - quite the opposite. No central heating, no electricity, no disease prevention... food had to be obtained by either hunting or back-breaking manual labour, and childbirth was a dangerous time for both mother and baby. The key, of course, is to strike a balance between the left and right pictures. Wells' vision was something altogether different. The ultimate subjugation of nature he explores is, as we'll see, not such a utopian vision either.
But Wells wasn't content to stop there. What technology can do for us is all very well, and the technical details are interesting, but... that's not really the point. Wells' vision doesn't (exactly) have a world filled with robots catering to our every whim - it has the planet so carefully fine-tuned to our needs that technology is, apparently, unnecessary. But the essence of the thing is the same. The real point is : what happens to us when we achieve our ultimate dreams ? What do we do when we have all our desires fulfilled ? That's what we'll look at in part two.

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