#88: The Time Machine Manuscript
Can stories really be described as time machines?
I have just returned from a trip to the exhibition ‘Time Machines: The past, the future, and how stories take us there’ at Palace Green Library, Durham. Within the exhibition, untouchable in a glass case, were pages from the original manuscript of H G Wells’ The Time Machine.
The Time Machine was first published in 1895, but it is predominantly set in 802,701 AD, the time to which the protagonist travels through the titular time machine. Within the fictional narrative it is, of course, the invention of this machine that allows a Victorian scientist to travel to the future, but the exhibition suggested that stories themselves are a particular type of time machine.
Fictional narratives are free from the restrictions of linear time. They can take place in the past, the present, the future, or a mix of all three. A day can pass in three words, three lines, or, as is the case in James Joyces’ Ulysses, 672 pages.
Travelling through time aboard a story, however, is always a subjective transportation. Moving backwards, the author must choose whether to present a historically accurate past or whether to sacrifice authenticity for the enjoyment and understanding of the reader. Moving forwards, with the future being essentially unknown, there is even more room for the author to impose their own outlook.
The Time Machine complicates this medium of time travel even further. It was written over one hundred years ago, and therefore simply reading words written in the year 1895 is an act of time travel. We experience 802,701 AD as imagined from the Victorian era, a future mediated by the past.
Perhaps this means stories cannot be described as time machines. Though they show us visions of the past or the future, these are really hyperbolic projections of the novel’s present. The Time Machine is thus no time machine after all: it captures a particular present’s ideas about the future, without accurately presenting the year 802,701 AD. It preserves 1895 better than it travels away from it; it is not a time machine, but a time capsule.
For more information on the exhibition, click here.