The author is a writer whose first novel will be published next year
Around the time of the Fall — “9/11” as we have come to call it — Hollywood was in the process of making a $ 70-million film-version of The Time Machine, H.G. Wells’s early novel of 1895. It was directed, interestingly enough, by his great-grandson, Simon Wells.
H.G. Wells’s original story is narrated by a member of the London bourgeoisie who assembles in the evenings with stock-figure bourgeois friends (“the Lawyer”, “the Psychologist”, “the Editor”, “the Doctor”; he is referred to only as “the Time Traveller”) to hear these incredible stories of the future. Having discovered that time is only another dimension within which movement is as possible as in the first three, the Time Traveller tells of his journey to the world of 800,000 years in the future where the human species has split into two: the bourgeoisie has become a race of effete aesthetes (Eloi) who are preyed upon by the Morlocks, a hideously transformed working class, entirely dehumanized by underground toil. After his own narrow escape from the Morlocks, the hero embarks on a meditative exploration of the even more distant future — ending up thirty million years away — where the simultaneously enfeebling and brutalizing forces of capitalism have finally destroyed humanity.
What is interesting about this is the extraordinary periodicity of a story which, after all, is about the very contemporary issues of Wells’s class-based society. So eternal is the system of industrial capitalism that its effects are still dominating nature itself thirty million years into the future. While the story speaks of the threat to humanity that the class system represented, readers at the time cannot have felt that the dangers he was describing were exactly imminent; and indeed the triumph of bourgeois science and the magnitude of the capitalist project seem far more impressive in his story than their eventual decline.
A number of changes, apparently minor, in Simon Wells’s scenario transform the vision of the novel utterly. In fact, Wells junior was adamant that the demands of film and of our more relaxed times necessitated a new vision: “The problem with adapting The Time Machine from the book is that it was written much more as an essay about the grand scheme of time and is less of a personal adventure story. To be honest, I’d feel rather cheated if the movie were a word-for-word version of the book.” Despite his family ties, Wells chose to eliminate most of the class issues from the film because “a hundred years on from when the book was published, I’m not sure the class-struggle is all that relevant”.
Alexander Hartdagen, his (no longer anonymous) hero, now based in New York, is not the disinterested scientist of the earlier plot, but a crisis-ridden young man desperate to solve his own romantic problems. He undertakes his experiments in time-travel in order to try and undo the murder of his fiancée; when his successful arrival in the past does not avert her death a second time, he decides to travel in the opposite direction to see if future humankind has discovered why the past cannot be changed. He lands in 2037, where a space exploration catastrophe has caused the moon to rain down on the earth, destroying capitalist society utterly. He only just manages to escape from the disaster zone, and collapses, stunned, over the controls of his machine as it careers 800,000 years hence. There is of course now no historical continuity between the world he discovers and our own, since the technological disaster has created a tabula rasa; and yet the pastoral community of the future has made a little place of contemplation out of stone fragments from the past (“Brooklyn Bridge” and “New York Public Library”) from which, amazingly enough, some of them have been able to learn English.
Hartdagen saves the people of the future, falls in love with the most buxom and beautiful of them and decides to stay, teach them all English and describe for them the wonders of American civilization — 8,000 centuries after its destruction. His destiny is tragic: once he finds out that he is living at the end of capitalist time, he can do nothing but settle down with ignorant people and teach them to join him in mourning it.
The shift from a 19th-century vision of capitalism, in which it sets the terms of the world for thirty million years to come, to this one in which it destroys itself through technological hubris a little more than 30 years from now, is dramatic. Of course, the 20th century was full of voices, often dissenting ones, predicting technological calamity; but what is remarkable is that this has, increasingly over the last 20 years, become the orthodox vision of the future in that crucible of capitalist fantasy, Hollywood: from Bladerunner, Aliens and Brazil to Gattaca, Dark City, Twelve Monkeys, The Matrix and the recent Minority Report, the idea that technological and corporate excesses will destroy us over an ever-shrinking time-frame has become the received wisdom of cinema.
How are we to understand this apocalyptic bent' Should we take such stories as objective “histories” of the future, and accept that our world will shortly be destroyed by unconstrained technological excess'
Perhaps there are good reasons to do so; but I think there are more interesting, and less fatalistic, ways to respond to these visions. Just as the 19th-century bourgeois’ confident and epic relationship with time in Wells’s novel must be understood, not in terms of how events were actually to unfold, but in terms of how a specific set of circumstances contributed to a certain confident relationship with the course of history, so we must see Hollywood’s “precipice of time” not as an objective narrative of impending apocalypse, but as a sign that the framework within which we recognize ourselves as “our selves” is in crisis, and that we are thus unable to project these “selves” confidently into the future.
More precisely, I choose to see in this a lurking sense that the structures (political, social, legal and so on) through which we have constructed ourselves as agents of history, in control of our future, have become inadequate in the face of the seemingly more mighty, and historically more consequential, forces of technology and capitalism. The cessation of “our” time in these films is about the imagined expiry of these structures, and this expiry is seen as apocalyptic because whatever framework will supersede our current thinking and allow human time to continue is currently difficult to imagine. In short, the end of capitalist time in such movies is a brick wall at the end of our own imagination.
This “brick wall” has not gone unnoticed. The last five years have seen the emergence of a now-well-established genre of more-or-less apocalyptic writing by dissenting economists and scientists who see the twin juggernauts of freewheeling capitalism and new technologies sweeping away everything that we know and value. In most cases, such accounts are unable to point towards convincing solutions, and end on a grave and somewhat mystical note: if we are to avoid the foregoing terrible scenarios we had better sit up and think very hard about ourselves. The debate leaves behind, in other words, the specific areas of the International Monetary Fund’s policy or the declining power of national governments or the threat of genetically modified foods, and gestures despairingly towards a different territory: the realm of ethics.
This is the realm that challenges us today. Previous ethical frameworks seem to have little fit with current systems of technological innovation, new concentrations of knowledge, expertise and power, the changing role of national governments in a “global” system, and the relative diminishment of individual agency in the face of all the above. It is only when new ethical visions emerge that can bring a sense of the human to all these monumental processes that we will be able to imagine for ourselves a long future.
But this process is in its infancy. Ethical debates usually get hung up either on “regulation”, as if it were enough simply to try and keep reining everything in, or on a supposed “moral decline” of the individual, as if the ethical vacuum we face were simply a matter of people not being “good” enough. Such responses underestimate the scale of the task that we face, and ignore the fact that it is precisely in the gap between the realms of individual, informal action and the formalized systems of today’s global economy that the building projects of the new ethics must begin. Perhaps we need to start by imagining new kinds of community that will engender new ethical imaginations of their own, broadening our moral agency beyond its confinement in the realm of the domestic, and providing ethical momenta that can seep into the impersonal channels of the market society.