The Use of Cognitive Estrangement in HG Wells’ The Time Machine

How does Darko Suvin’s cognitive estrangement relate to HG Wells The Time Machine?

Science fiction began in the late nineteenth century with the emergences of H.G Wells and Jules Verne who are often referred to as the fathers of science fiction. The novels written were based on scientific fact. Authors saw science as an integral part of science fiction and used it in order to educate their audiences. However Verne and Wells each saw that their writing was different to each other. Verne sees Wells work as invention.

‘I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a material which does away with the laws of gravitation. Ca c’est très joli [that’s all very well]…but show me this metal. Let him produce it.’ (Verne, quoted in Parrinder 1980:7)

Wells is often referred to as the English Verne, a reference that he did not appreciate. He retaliated by stating that Verne wrote about accurate science which was slightly extrapolated. He referred to his own works as fantasy, scientific romances, and that he did not pretend to deal with real, possible things.

‘His work dealt almost always with actual possibilities of invention and discovery and he made some remarkable forecasts…Most of his inventions have ‘come true.’ But these stories of mine…do not pretend to deal with possible things, they are exercises of the imagination in a quite different field.’

Darko Suvin later talked about knowledge and cognition minimizing the science in science fiction in his book Metamorphis of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of A Literary Genre (1979). This text influenced everybody who studied science fiction later on. Suvin referred to Science Fiction as the ‘literature of Cognitive Estrangement.’ (Suvin: Pg 4) The idea of estrangement refers to the element of science fiction that the reader recognizes as strange and unfamiliar. The world that is presented in forms of science fiction is alternate. It is different to the world as the reader knows it. There are other forms such as myth and fantasy, these are also alternate but what makes these forms different to science fiction is the idea of cognition. Cognition is similar to and related to but it is not the same as science. It refers to the idea that knowledge is acting and thinking of reality. Therefore, for Suvin, the world of science fiction must be a plausible world because it reflects the knowledge of our own world. The idea of faster than light travel, an idea that seems to be a staple one in science fiction, is not science fiction as it has been scientifically assured as impossible. For Suvin, science fiction is important because it asks the reader to look back on their own world and reflect.

Suvin defines science fiction as ‘a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.’ (Suvin: 7-8) He feels that, unlike fantasy, science fiction should be set in a realistic world, but one which is strange and alien. However, there are limits on how strange and alien that this world can be, and it is the difference between these two worlds which gives science fiction its power, by making the reader look back at themselves from its twisted point of view.

            Wells referred to The Time Machine as a scientific romance. Verne said that his inventions could not be produced. According to Suvin, Verne is correct in his statement. It has been scientifically guaranteed that time travel cannot happen. Therefore it cannot be classed as a science fiction novel. However, when the time traveler reaches his destination, 802,701 AD, it can be said that his adventures in the seemingly utopian world could be classed as science fiction. The time traveler travels 30 million years into the future to the year 802,701 AD in order to find that the human race as he knows it is extinct. It could be reasoned that this could possibly happen in the future, it could possibly be an acceptable, imagined truth.

One of the major social theories available to Wells at the time of writing The Time Machine was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Darwin, in ‘Origin of the Species’, argued that different environments suited different species and each species used the environment in order for them to survive. Their offspring would be better suited to that environment as would their offspring and so on. He argued that this idea of natural selection would not create the prefect species but would increase their adaptability and the complexity of the species. This theory of evolution was also applied to the social environment. It was believed that those who succeeded were biologically destined to do so and would continue in their march to human perfection.

Wells sees that the Eloi are perfect inhabitants of the new human race that he finds. However, as the time traveler continues his adventure in the world of the Eloi he discovers that things are not quite as perfect as he originally thought. They had become lazy, weak and stupid. He first discovers this in the language they use. ‘Either I missed some subtle point, or their language was excessively simple…Their sentences were usually simple and of two words, and I failed to convey or understand any but the simplest propositions.’ (Wells: Pg 39) Basically, the idea that the change in the social environment would produce species of perfection is not valid. The traveler thinks that the race should be incredibly in front of him in knowledge and realizes that they aren’t. ‘Then one of them suddenly asked me a question that showed him to be on the intellectual level of one of our five – year – old children – asked me, in fact, if I had come from the sun in a thunderstorm!’ (Wells: Pg 25) These dwellers of paradise are however, food for the lower –world class of the Morlocks who lurk beneath the earth tending to massive machinery. The Morlocks were of a completely different appearance to the Eloi in their wonderfully coloured clothes.

The idea of cognitive estrangement asks the reader to reflect back on their own world. Perhaps the idea of The Time Machine is to show how the world will become if capitalism continues to exploit workers for the benefit of the rich. Industrialization is at its height during the Victorian era and it can be seen that the nocturnal dwellings of the Morlocks are in fact descendants of the working class, which has evolved like this because it has been pushed underground for so long. The upper class world of the Eloi has since become ‘mere fatted cattle’ (Wells: Pg 62) and food for the Morlocks. This was seen as merely an act of survival. However, the time traveler seems quite disgusted still as tries to place it within a scientific context ‘His prejudice against human flesh is no deep seated instinct. And so these inhuman sons of men —! I tried to look at the thing in a scientific spirit.’ (Wells: Pg 62)

Although the survival of the fittest is a theory that has evolved and is taken for granted, for Wells the idea of the new human species consuming another in an act of cannibalism could be seen as the working class of his time becoming conscious of its state. Is this a prediction that the working class will club together to overthrow their oppressors? Perhaps not, as this does seen rather far fetched for the time. However Wells is asking his readers to reflect back and consider the possibility if capitalism is to continue as it is doing. It is the time traveler himself who spots this relationship. ‘The Upperworld people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants; but that had long since passed away. The two species that had resulted from the evolution of man were sliding towards, or had already arrived at, an altogether new relationship.’ (Wells: Pg 57)

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