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Beware perfect comfort and security, the Morlocks will have their hour

Neal Ascherson
Saturday 27 May 1995 23:02 BST

I AM reading HG Wells's The Time Machine to my 10-year-old son. When I first read it, I was his age. The second time was in my twenties, at university, and this is the third time, not counting many dippings- in. At each reading, it has seemed like a different book.

It is not a "great novel", but it is far more than entertainment. Its category is that of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a much more ambitious but less polished work. Both are fables that define the present by projecting its curve monstrously across the future.

Wells is not so much read by this generation, so I should summarise the story. The Time Traveller, a Vic- torian inventor, builds a machine on which he rides forward into the 8027th century. Here he finds that the human race has sub-divided itself into two species. Above ground, nibbling fruit in a parkland amid abandoned palaces, live tiny, exquisite beings in pretty robes. These "Eloi" no longer know how to read or write, to make things or to undertake any common activity beyond play and a gentle, unemphatic lovemaking. Below ground, in tunnels and darkness, live the Morlocks. They are a form of subterranean ape, equipped with huge night-vision eyes and a collective organisation that permits them to construct and maintain complex industrial machinery.

The Time Traveller realises that he is looking at the outcome of a class struggle. The Eloi are descended from a long-vanished leisure class. The Morlocks he presumes to be the successors of an industrial proletariat, driven underground by their employers and kept there so long they became a different species adapted to their environment. But then, in a sudden coup of Wellsian drama, the Traveller realises what the relationship between Eloi and Morlocks has become. The flow of power has reversed. The Eloi are not the masters. Instead, they are the prey of the Morlocks, who breed and clothe them in order to eat their flesh.

When I first read The Time Machine, it was the detail that stuck: the "twisted crystalline bars" of the Machine, the palaces decaying on grassy hills where London had once stood, the needle on the Machine's dial spinning off the millennia. Even now, the first thing I remember about it is the Traveller's arrival in the year 802701 - in the middle of a summer squall: "a pitiless hail was hissing round me, and I was sitting on soft turf ..."

When I read it the second time, in the 1950s, I was confident that I had grasped the point. If free capitalism were allowed its head (not that then I had the slightest experience of what free capitalism felt like), then the human race might well divide into two tribes. Already a huge cultural gap had been allowed to develop between the social classes in Britain: accent, dress, customs and so on. Luckily (I thought), we had seen the danger in time, and the welfare state was leading us all back towards a common, egalitarian culture.

Forty years later, so smug a reading is unthinkable. It is true that the cultural gap has narrowed, just as the 1950s predicted. The gap now seems to lie between the "natives" (most of whom talk the same glottal Estuary English, wear the same clothes and are ignorant about the same books) and the "immigrants". But the notion of a binary species, a creative fry-up of the English caste system with a Marxist sauce of prophecy about the progressive immiseration of the proletariat, no longer seems to be the main message of The Time Machine.

In 1995, exactly 100 years after the novel came out as a serial in the New Review, it seems a masterpiece of end-of-century cultural pessimism. The sinister final sections, which Wells thought hasty and unachieved, have gained more significance. Fleeing the Morlocks, the Traveller plunges forward in time to an era - infinitely far off, but inescapable - when the Earth has ceased to rotate, when the Sun has drawn closer, when the atmosphere has thinned and all that remains of life is a black something flopping on the shoal of a motionless sea. This is how it must end. The Eloi and the Morlocks are only stages on the way to that end.

Wells was a young man writing at a time when the ideas of Darwin and Marx were entering the zenith of their power. It was the time when their original thoughts were being popularised, revised and added to by a brilliant and excited new generation. The Time Machine is about negative evolution (which is better called "disevolution" than "devolution"!). It kicks contemptuously at the old Whig faith in general and inevitable upward progress, and suggests that there are circumstances in which technical advance can make people more primitive and less "civilised". This thought was much in the European air in the 1890s. Intellectuals were scared and yet fascinated by the approach of a "mass culture", by what looked like a virile new barbarism about to storm into the drawing-rooms of the 19th-century bourgeoisie.

We all know what that barbarism did in the next 50 years. But Wells is talking about a different sort of degeneration - the kind that follows success. The human race (according to the Traveller) had achieved complete mastery of the natural environment. Disease had been abolished; all noxious or useless plants had been replaced by selective breeding; even putrefactive bacteria had almost vanished. In consequence, humans began to lose all the attributes needed for survival in tougher conditions. The family, the wish for children, and even much of the physical difference between sexes had dissolved. "Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness ... Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness."

In other words, the stimulus of insecurity was gone. "After the battle comes Quiet." The survival struggle and its crude dialectic of progress had stopped for the Eloi and they began slowly to disevolve, socially and physically, until they became the helpless food-stock of the Morlocks.

I was reminded of The Time Machine when I lived in divided Berlin in the 1960s. On one side of the Wall, the sunny streets were crowded by pretty young people in robes and caftans, munching expensive tropical fruit and smoking expensive tropical weeds. Most were the despair of middle- class families. Few knew any skill beyond macrame and baking crumbly bread. But on the other side, as night fell, a grim-faced, short-haired sub-species would emerge from bunkers and abandoned railway tunnels to hunt and prowl with carbine, radio, truck and searchlight.

In Berlin, admittedly, the Volkspolizei did not actually eat the students. What troubled me was the vast cultural gap between the student population, thinking remarkable thoughts and marching for Utopian ends, and those who shared the city with them: not just eastern policemen but western workers who made the jeans and brewed the beer and installed the heating that made Eloi life possible.

Since then, these Eloi characteristics have deepened and spread. Britain in the centenary year of The Time Machine is a service and casino economy rather than an industrial one. Those who will turn into the Eloi, most of them enjoying "perfect comfort and security", retain only a narrowing range of low-grade secondary skills: driving a car, or operating and programming a computer. But they cannot fix a distributor cap or describe, let alone mend, the circuitry behind a screen.

Never in history have consumers known so little about producers and products - about who makes things and how. Those in Taipei, Karachi, Bogota or Wroclaw who make clothes, cars, dishwashers, laptops and medicines for the Eloi might as well live in underground caverns. But in time, without the stimulus of necessity, the Eloi will grow soft and defenceless and lose their memory of any skill but eating and giggling. Then, at last, begins the hour of the hungry Morlocks.

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