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Gollancz 50th: The Time Machine

‘I seemed to see a ghostly, indistinct figure sitting in a whirling mass of black and brass for a moment – a figure so transparent that the bend behind with its sheets of drawings was absolutely distinct; but this phantasm vanished as I rubbed my eyes. The Time Machine had gone . . . The Time Traveller vanished three years ago. And, as everybody knows now, he has never returned.’

The Time Machine is a curious little novel. It’s an engaging, smart and thoughtful read which packs a tremendous number of ideas into a remarkably compact space, all the while offering us an engaging character to root for, and story to follow. Re-reading it, it’s little wonder that it has gone on to be so incredibly influential – without this slim 125 page novel there would be no Back to the Future, no Dr Who and (horrifyingly) no Star Trek reboot from J. J. Abrams.
So why do I describe it as a curious little novel? Because of the way Wells chose to write it.

In The Time Machine both our narrator and the reader are incidental to The Time Traveller’s story. Where another author might have chosen to write directly about the unnamed Time Traveller – how he came to invent and built the Time Machine, and how his adventures progress beyond his first escapade with the Morlocks and Eloi – Wells has taken another route entirely. Our narrator is an almost casual acquaintance of The Time Traveller’s, who visits for dinner one evening, and hears the most extraordinary story . . . after which both Time Traveller and Time Machine vanish, never to be seen again. It is as if, in The Time Machine, we have a single episode of Dr Who which is about a man who once had dinner with The Doctor – and once The Doctor leaves the dinner table, entirely unaffected and uninfluenced by his dinner companion, our tale is complete.

It is an unusual approach to a story.

But this approach is, I would suggest, the key to the novel’s enduring and remarkable influence. Because we do not see what adventures The Time Traveller goes on to have, there is no limit to the possibilities we can imagine for ourselves – and imagining what comes next is exactly what Wells encourages us to do. ‘One cannot choose but wonder’ our narrator tells us, ‘Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past . . . He may even now – if I may use the phrase – be wandering on some plesiosaururs-haunted Oolitic coral reef . . . Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men?’. Not only are we invited to imagine our own, continuing adventures in time, Wells’ Time Traveller leaves behind enough tools and clues that we can follow him. He has created a Time Machine, it’s not a magical or mystical ability possessed by a chosen few but something that anyone can create and use at the push of a button. More, in the final scene of the novel our narrator is left standing in a laboratory surrounded not just by the tools used to build the Time Machine, but even the plans for it. Far from being an ending, we are left with a beginning; and while our narrator does not take advantage of it, Wells has concluded his novel with an invitation to us, to begin our own adventures in time.

Ladies and Gentlemen, your Time Machine awaits . . .