In the most haunting section of the book, the Time Traveller does nothing but stand on the shore and look and ponder. Auden quarrels with the “Retort of all who love the Status Quo: / ‘You can’t change human nature, don’t you know.’” Auden’s point is that human nature does indeed change, as we continually discover more about the world and ourselves.
He has found the ideal prospect from which to mull over the end-stopped Story of Humankind. Consider two nineteenth-century Englishmen, each standing on a desolate shore: the poet Keats in his sonnet “When I have fears…” and Wells’s Time Traveller.
Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?
At the base of Wells’s great visionary exploit is this rational, ultimately scientific attempt to follow “the drift of the current in spite of the eddies,” to tease out the potential future consequences of present conditions—not as they might arise in a few years, or even decades, but millennia hence, epochs hence. Like no other fiction writer before him, he embraced “deep time.” It’s rare that one can say of any novel that its existence is inconceivable without a nonfiction precursor.
There is no such thing as progress, at least in the Victorian sense of the ongoing march of human betterment.
The Time Traveller surmises that it was progress—specifically, scientific advancement, the elimination of pests and disease—that removed productive struggle and led to the devolutions of the languid, layabout Eloi, who cannot muster the ardor for serious art or urgent carnal love.
As Wells surely was aware, the years before the appearance of “The Time Machine” marked the German mathematician Georg Cantor’s establishment of ascending orders of the infinite: the proof that some infinities are larger than others, with others larger still—infinities ad infinitum.
Wells embraced and embodied the arrival of new mathematical scales.
We’re all at home on the Time Traveller’s shore, the one where astronomical numbers beggar the imagination.
Of course the numbers have grown exponentially in the century and a quarter since “The Time Machine” appeared; we now live in a world where scientists make measurements in picometres and parsecs, and speak authoritatively of what may have happened in the first thousandth of a second after the Big Bang, thirteen-plus billion years ago.