SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
Note: All page numbers refer to the following edition of the text: H.G. Wells, Four Complete Novels (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994).
Summary: The novel’s protagonist (ever only referred to as “the Time Traveller”) hosts a weekly dinner gathering of his friends, at which he puts forth his theory of time travel. He stages a demonstration that he claims verifies his theory, making a small model of his time machine vanish from sight, purportedly because it has traveled into the future. He shows his friends his full-scale machine and announces his intent “to explore time.”
Analysis: Verisimilitude—the quality, in literature, of fiction appearing to be real—is a key ingredient in science fiction. Not surprisingly, Wells, as one of the genre’s founders (along with French novelist Jules Verne), understood its importance. The opening chapter of The Time Machine attempts in several ways to persuade readers to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to accept the book’s fantastic premise. First, the chapter’s characters (save, of course, the Time Traveller himself) give voice to confusion and doubts that readers might have—particularly the character of “argumentative” Filby (p. 3; Filby is the only character in the two opening, framing chapters who is given a proper name): “Don’t follow you,” he says (p. 4); “You can show black is white by argument, but you will never convince me” (p. 6); and, “You mean to say that that machine has traveled into the future?” (p. 10). In having his characters express doubts about the Time Traveller’s claims, Wells can simultaneously dispense with those doubts; they have been acknowledged in the world of the text, and need concern readers no longer. Second, Wells has the Time Traveller advance a theory of time travel that sounds suggestively scientific: “Scientific people know very well that Time is only a kind of Space” (p. 5). The Traveller makes this assertion as though it has been settled by modern, scientific minds, thus legitimizing his claims for Wells’ readers. Wells further reinforces the “science” behind his story by invoking the name of Professor Simon Newcomb. Newcomb was a real person: founding member and first president of the American Astronomical Society, president of the American Mathematical Society (1897-1898), and, in his day “one of a very few American scientists with an international reputation” (College of Saint Benedict and John’s University, http://www.physics.csbsju.edu/astro/newcomb/SNewcomb.html.) Finally, the construction of both the model time machine and the machine itself reinforce verisimilitude by including references to specific construction materials and working parts. While in some regards the Traveller’s theory of time and space seem to anticipate Albert Einstein’s breakthrough insights into the relativistic nature of the time-space continuum, it is not necessary to dwell on the “details” of the theory as the Traveller presents them. They exist only to cultivate that verisimilitude—the sense that, “This could be real”—that distinguishes well-written science fiction. Wells arrests his readers’ attention with a novel idea, provides a scientifically sketchy but aesthetically satisfiying justification of it, and then, in the next chapter, proceeds as quickly as possible to the action of the plot.