The Time Machine
In the past month or so, I've had trouble focusing. When I picked up the next book, I wanted something short and simple. This was it.
This was my first Wells book. He is credited with popularizing the concept of a time machine, where a traveller can control the when of his travels, rather than just randomly hopping about forward and backward. As common as this notion now is, it seems weird that it's only 120 years old.
In the story, a scientist known only as the Time Traveller builds a time machine and goes to the year 802,701. He finds himself in a temperate climate, where there are huge, impressive statues and buildings which are sinking into decay. He encounters small human-like beings who are simple and childlike. They spend their days eating fruit and playing, having no ambition and little curiosity. He speculates that man has evolved into these creatures after having conquered the dangers of nature. With survival being a matter of just sitting around and eating fruit, there is no need for intellect.
Later, he encounters another species, who are nocturnal and live underground. He first speculates that humanity evolved by class, and so the ruling elite were the happy and stupid fruit-eaters above, while the lower classes did the work below. Regardless of how the situation came about, he soon discovers that the current relationship is like the rancher to the cattle. The underground beings eat the helpless vegetarians above.
He finally hops back on his time machine and continues forward into the future to watch the earth die. The sun starts to burn out and signs of life decrease. He returns to England where none of his friends believe his story.
I think that we like to assume that man will only continue to become smarter and more advanced. The Time Traveller makes this assumption, not bothering to bring any supplies with him at all, as he assumes that whatever they have in the future will be way better. Wells seems to think that we may very well become so accomplished that our comfortable lives eliminate the need for education or culture. I don't necessarily ascribe to this vision, as it seems like our solutions to current problems create different problems. Fear not! We will probably not degenerate into helpless fruit-eaters. We may just drive ourselves to extinction instead.
The Heart of the Matter
My second Graham Greene book, which I probably bought because I liked the first one. That was a good move on my part, because this was also really good. The thing I like about Greene is that he's incredibly perceptive. He's moving along, describing the action and the character's thoughts, and then BAM! Something really poignant and true about human nature.
The story itself is about an English policeman working in West Africa during World War II. He's a straight-laced, upstanding guy, devout Catholic, but he gets himself embroiled in an affair and some diamond smuggling. How? One little step at a time, which is just the way it goes, innit? The book goes on to describe his increasingly terrible crimes and his building guilt and shame. He ascribes all his failures to pity - everything he does is out of responsibility to others, whereas he would like to just be left alone. I did not buy that. Sorry, dude, you cheated on your wife because you wanted to, not because you felt sorry for the poor young thing you cheated with.
This is also a very Catholic book - a lot of the language is religious, and the man's fall is seen as a sort of battle with God. Since he sees his sins as motivated by concern for fellow humans, he views it as a conflict between loving God vs loving His creatures. Again, this seems to be sort of a convenient glaze to put on his actual motivations and a way of avoiding doing the hard thing and 'fessing up. The Catholicism is sort of snobbish, in that he (and his devout wife) seem to feel that the only people who can feel guilt or understand the concept of good and evil at all are Catholics. The rest of us are just sort of pagan beasts. I don't know enough Catholics to know if this is a common attitude.
What struck me about this book is how alone everyone in it is. People have intimate relationships without really knowing each other at all. People do things, thinking they will be understood, but of course others interpret situations based on their own contexts. People hide other things, assuming they know how others will react, when in fact, everyone already knows about what was being hidden. I find this aloneness profoundly sad, but probably true. We can never know each other. Maybe if we did, nothing would ever get done because we'd be frozen by indecision or just plain bummed out all the time.
A note: The copy of the book that I had was heavily marked up by a previous reader. Seriously, half the lines on every page were underlined, with stars and double underlines to mark the really important stuff. Every once in a while, I would find the word "Pinkie" written in the margins, which I found mystifying. Turns out, that is a character in another Greene novel, Brighton Rock. Maybe I'll pick that up sometime.
I have not read a book since March. I had gobs of time to read while sitting on my fanny with a baby on my lap, but nothing I picked up held my attention. I think now I'm just out of the habit. Here's hoping that I get back to it.