Preface to The Time Machine

By Evan Miller

March 12, 2019

Science fiction is the literature of escape: escape from familiar country, and familiar laws, into distant, fantastical, and previously unimagined provinces, eerie lands and planets somehow slipped loose, like a Dalí painting, from the usual physical constraints.

Why do we want to escape? Why does anyone read science fiction?

Well, why does anyone read any fiction?

We all inhabit prisons — some better-upholstered than others — and it’s human nature to imagine what’s on the other side of the wall, outside this skin, this Earth, this life. In the age of Kindle and Project Gutenberg, a good book happens to ring up a bit cheaper than any bottle of booze. Certainly cheaper than any boy-billionaire’s rocket ship to Mars.

H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine is a rare sherry, vintage 1895, now barrel-aged some century and a quarter, and eminently quaffable by any reader of English. This startling debut novel is the definition of a classic: nothing in the language or story, except for a scientific detail or two, feels dated. The imagery, the ideas, the relationships, the social criticism, the subtle humor, all remain fresher than any film, television, or book published in the present century. It is truly that good.

What sets The Time Machine apart? What sticks with me the most, after clapping the last chapter shut, is the visual imagery. With one part language and two parts imagination, Wells transports the reader from the coziest of lounges, where the narrator introduces us to the protagonist (The fire burnt brightly, and the soft radiance of the incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses) to the strangest and blackest of future beaches (Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennae, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front?).

Good science fiction, as with a well-written sentence, starts with something familiar in order to take you somewhere unfamiliar. It lets the reader triangulate from recognizable reference points. Did you notice yonder table, and the Victorian carters’ whips, in the quoted sentence above? This dictum is sometimes called Wells’s Law, for a reason you can probably surmise.

I’m a bit jealous of the journey you’re about to take. You’ll soon enough glimpse those bubbles flashing, and smell the wood-fire burning, and feel those stalked eyes gleaming as you play tourist in Wells’s weird and wonderful (and harrowing) vision of futurity.

So get comfortable in your favorite reading chair. Switch on a light bulb, one of the warm-colored ones, and pour yourself a few fingers of your finest amber. As you turn the first page on this exceptional, and seminal, work of science fiction, I will repeat the advice of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the greatest lover of sherris-sack in all of literature. This gentleman-jester, a kind of time-traveler himself from the expiring culture of Merrie England, spoke thus to his imagined future sons on the unsurpassed virtues of his chosen libation:

Forswear thin potations (Falstaff said). Addict yourself, instead, to this.

The Time Machine: Penguin Classics (Amazon)

The Time Machine: full text (Project Gutenberg)

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