Humanity had been strong, energetic, and intelligent, and had used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. And now came the reaction of the altered condition. ~The Time Traveler
Wrapped in corny science fiction and over-the-top flourishes, H.G. Wells’ colorful stories offer modern-day readers something to ponder when it comes to humanity’s future. In The Time Machine, we find the protagonist, known simply as the Time Traveler, propelled hundreds of thousands of years into the future. Understandably, he expects to find an advanced civilization. After all, if it’s the future, then it has to be Utopia, right? Not so fast.
Instead of a world populated by, Erasmuses, da Vincis and Einsteins, the Time Traveler finds a bifurcated species. One branch is the Eloi and the other is the Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground and are a petite, childlike race, helpless, frail and, to round it off, dumber than a doorpost. They evolved, rather devolved, after centuries of living in total comfort and self-indulgence. Describing the daily routine of these creatures, the Time Traveler notes, “They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping. I could not see how things were kept going.”
So flighty and intellectually stilted are the Eloi that they are barely able to communicate with the Time Traveler. Even more bizarre, after only a few moments of curiosity at the novelty of this visitor from the distant past, they quickly lose interest and return to their games and lethargic lifestyle. The Time Traveler makes only one friend, Weena, after rescuing her from drowning in a river. Astonishingly, while Weena is floundering on the verge of death, the nearby Eloi could care less about her predicament. They don’t lift a finger to offer assistance. The Time Traveler concludes that the Eloi are the pathetic evolutionary result of a human race that has given up fighting for, or caring about, anything. “The too-perfect security of the Upper-worlders had led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength and intelligence.”
Intellectual curiosity and any interest in their own past are nowhere to be found, as evinced by the decaying, abandoned museum the Time Traveler later explores. But what about the other half of future humanity? Are things any better with the Molocks? No. They are a ghastly, savage race of underground monsters. Like the Eloi, they are also intellectually barren (although somewhat cunning) but they are as deadly as the Eloi are helpless. Fed up with living underground for thousands of years, and growing more emboldened by the day, the Morlocks venture above ground to capture the defenseless Eloi and eat them. Between the Morlocks and Eloi, the future of humanity doesn’t look very promising.
Pretty wild stuff. But what, if anything, can such a colorful story teach us in 2016?
As I observe many disturbing trends in contemporary society, I can’t help asking tongue-in-cheek, “Am I witnessing the early stages of the Eloi?” Seeing hordes of impressionable teenagers, self-absorbed millennials and yes, even adults, absorbed in their mobile devices while sitting together at the dinner table or outside on a beautiful day is depressing. How much more introverted can we become? Many people in their 30s and 40s are still living off the fumes of a “party hard” clubbing culture and refuse to grow up. Thanks to apps like Tinder, the hook-up culture is expanding. Obesity rates among kids and adults are at record levels. A recent report noted that a growing number of college students are finding it difficult to read a book cover-to-cover. General knowledge of even the most basic events of history is embarrassingly low. Narcissism is on the rise and people’s attention spans are becoming shorter by the day.
Notice a Wellsian trend?
Taking stock of the future world, the Time Traveler observes, “Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness.” It’s hard to read this and not see a red flag for us today. Hardships and trials, while not a walk in the park, make us stronger and more resilient. Through them our bodies and minds are kept strong and sharp. The old saying that a particular task, however arduous, “builds character” is true. Virtue, and the formation of genuine friendships require time, patience and a desire to encounter the other and grow as a result of that encounter. But we’ve eliminated the need for patience. “It takes time” is now an obstacle, an inconvenience to be conquered with the assistance of technology. “Friends” are now something you amass (not form) with a quick click. How convenient! How simple!
Addressing young people, Pope Benedict XVI once said, “You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” There certainly was a lot of comfort among the Eloi. But there was no greatness. They didn’t care about that, or about anyone. Our increasingly self-indulgent society places instant gratification and the easy road as the highest good. But where will that lead? Is perfection to be found merely in the elimination of trials and the widest diffusion of comfort? Or is it to be found in the attainment of virtue? H.G. Wells, with a bit of flair, shows and warns us.
. . . And now came the reaction of the altered condition.