Are we the Eloi?

Cover of "The Time Machine"
Cover of The Time Machine

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading the long-neglected novelette, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that you do. It will take one or two sittings to get through. I don’t recommend it so much for the story, which can border on the ridiculous, but for Wells’ use of language, especially in his melancholy descriptions of a dying Earth:

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. I moved on a hundred years, and there was the same red sun—a little larger, a little duller—the same dying sea, the same chill air, and the same crowd of earthy crustacea creeping in and out among the green weed and the red rocks. And in the westward sky, I saw a curved pale line like a vast new moon.

Before he gets to this point, however, the Time Traveler encounters people he calls the Eloi, who were apparently descended from humans. The Eloi are small, childlike, androgynous, untroubled by intellectual curiosity or a desire to do much of anything all day. He later learns that these passive Eloi are analogous to cattle; they are cared for by the other human descendants, the Morlocks, who live below-ground and only come out at night.

I’m currently reading Air by Geoff Ryman, set in the fictional country of Karzistan, located in the Western region of China. The Eloi are the ethnic minority of Karzistan, now oppressed and almost driven out of existence, confronting in the novel a far advanced technology that they can’t understand. I’d gotten almost halfway through the novel before I remembered where I heard the term Eloi before. The name is also used in two science fiction novels I haven’t read yet: Expendable by James Alan Gardner and Feed by M.T. Anderson.

Most interesting to me, though, is discovering that the cultural commentator Gordon P. Clarkson has referred to mass popular culture as “Eloi culture,” because he claims that it is creating a society of unthinking passive consumers of “meaningless trivia.” Such as the trivia found in this article, for example.

For more:

Here is my full review of The Time Machine:

A Victorian-era scientist invents a time machine and travels forward in time to learn of humanity’s outcome.

The Time Machine is not really a novel, or even a novella. It’s more like a pamphlet, as a vehicle for exploring Wells’ views on the future of humankind. There are no real characters; only one, the red-headed Filby, is even named, and he only appears in the first chapter for the purpose of arguing against time travel being possible.

Even if it is just a pamphlet, it is a beautifully written one, which is why I recommend reading it. The description of the process of time travel itself is wonderful, even if it disregards science altogether. I was captivated by the image of the time machine, with its levers and crystals, standing stationary in space while hurtling forward through time, so quickly that the sun rising and setting was a continuous streak in the sky.

Wells takes his time traveler an unimaginable distance into the future: 800,000 years. The world he describes is lush and beautiful, but also melancholy, like an endless Sunday afternoon. The two descendants of mankind — the child-like, passive, above-ground Eloi and the animal-like, cannibalistic, below-ground Morlocks — are just a shade too literal, if we are to accept them as the natural (d)evolution resulting from the widening gap between the wealthy, idle elite and the working classes. But that is incidental to his dying, depleted Earth, which of course poses the question of what exactly the point of everything is, if this is how we end up.

Wells takes us even further into the future, to Earth’s ultimate demise, where a bloated, red sun fills the sky over a lifeless beach. His descriptions are vivid enough to make the reader feel as if we have accompanied the Time Traveler to our planet’s inevitable end.

The Time Machine is generally credited with being the first time travel story and popularizing the science fiction trope of using a machine to travel through time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s