Balancing the Scientific and the Fantastic

H.G. Wells balances the scientific and fantastic in The Time Machine by invoking suspension of disbelief, tempered with logic and humanity.  Suspension of disbelief is a term coined by the poet Samuel Coleridge.  For it to occur in the reader, “a human interest and a semblance of truth [is] sufficient to procure…willing suspension of disbelief”.  While it is ultimately the reader’s responsibility to accept the story as truth, the author of any fantastic story must make the reader’s job easier by appealing to these interests of emotion and logic.  Wells continually makes these appeals throughout the novel.

Before any flight of fancy takes place, Wells establishes familiar settings to any contemporary Victorian reader: the dining room and the smoking room.  However, before the reader can take comfort in these scenes, Wells engages the reader’s cognitive muscle immediately.  The Time Traveler presents a well-reasoned idea of Time as a fourth dimension.  This concept “is only another way of looking at Time.  There is no difference between Time and the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it” (Wells 6).  Without this science, time travel might be viewed as a transgression of nature’s laws and shock the reader out of the story. 

Fantasy is gently introduced as the Traveler furnishes the model of the Time Machine to the gentlemen.  At the demonstration’s conclusion, the gentlemen are understandably skeptical and sarcastic.  The scientist’s feat “‘sounds plausible enough to-night,’ said the Medical Man; ‘but wait until to-morrow.  Wait for the common-sense of the morning’” (Wells 11).  This remark reassures the reader that these are men feeling reasonable emotions.  Luckily, Wells has presented the scientific background necessary to make time travel easier to swallow.  The gentlemen’s various conjectures are in vain but they illustrate the Scientific Method in action, again reassuring the reader that every page will be seeped in science.

Now that the novel is firmly grounded in science, Wells can begin to take flights of fancy.  Upon arrival in 802,701 A.D., the Traveler sees a Sphinx.  It is an ancient symbol but now it’s in the future.  This familiarity yet strangeness is only a prelude to the increasing estrangement.  Yet suspension of disbelief still stands because the Traveler is just as new to this setting as the reader.  The Traveler explores the environment and learns about the Eloi and their utopian way of life.  Confronted with such a peaceful yet indolent race, the Traveler formulates a hypothesis that they have reached the pinnacle of communism.  The Traveler, in hindsight, admits that a communist society “was [his] speculation at the time.  Later, [the Traveler] was to appreciate how far it fell short of reality” (Wells 26). This is a subtle implementation of the Scientific Method by Wells.  The essence of the method is that as new evidence comes to light, the hypothesis changes to accommodate these facts.  At every appearance of fantasy, Wells modulates it by reminding the reader that the Scientific Method is still the best lens through which to understand this strange world.

Indeed, as the Traveler encounters the even more fantastic monster-like Morlocks, his hypothesis must be changed.  He now sees the Eloi as “a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of today” (Wells 41).  His new hypothesis is informed by Marxism, a philosophy in vogue in Wells’ time.  The Eloi are the Haves and the Morlocks are the Have-Nots.  Later in the story, as the Traveler contemplates the meat found underground, he is forced to come up with a theory at last – that the Eloi are cattle for the Morlocks.  This new perspective would have been too difficult to believe if presented immediately on arrival in 802,701 A.D., but since Wells has been continually grounding the novel in scientific thought; it is much easier to swallow.

When the story reaches the beach of the far future, the setting becomes even more fantastic.  Crabs roam the shoreline and odd lichens are everywhere.  A planet, not the Moon, eclipses the aging sun.  The reader completely accepts this setting as plausible because it is merely evolution extrapolated over a very long time.  When the Traveler returns to his home and to the incredulous gentlemen, they call it among other things a “gaudy lie” (Wells 69).  The men’s disbelief reminds that the reader’s disbelief had been suspended all along.  Indeed, the Traveler undercuts the veracity of these adventures by asking the gentlemen to see it as a tale instead of a first-hand account.  With that, suspension of disbelief is no longer needed.  Wells brings the fact that it is a story into sharp relief.  Wells knows he has pioneered a new type of story if not named yet: science fiction.

Suspension of disbelief only works when it is applied to plot and setting.  Plots can go anywhere, from the center of the Earth to a galaxy far, far away.  However, in the realm of human emotion and behavior, plots are carefully controlled in order not to shock the reader into disbelief.  Wells accomplishes this by striking a balance between the scientific and fantastic, the strange and familiar, logic and emotion.  Perhaps as a lesson in suspension of disbelief to future science fiction writers, Wells teaches that it is important for the reader “to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man” (Wells 71).