Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996


R.D. Mullen

Scholarship and the Riddle of the Sphinx

Leon Stover, ed. The Time Machine: An Invention: A Critical Text of the 1895 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. THE ANNOTATED WELLS, Vol. 1. 258pp. $45 ($48 pp.) McFarland & Co. Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640), 1986.

Leon Stover's purpose in this edition of The Time Machine is to make plain to present-day readers what was presumably plain to readers in England in 1895. To that end he has reproduced the text of the first London edition and provided it with an introduction and a number of appendices designed to put it into context and with 257 explanatory notes, some of considerable length. Others have glossed terms in The Time Machine, but none so many or in such great detail.

The introduction begins with an identification that was presumably obvious to turn-of-the-century readers but that has apparently escaped all the many critics that have written on the novel since the beginnings of the Wells revival: the Sphinx encountered by the Time Traveler in AD 802,701 represents the Sphinx of Carlyle's Past and Present. According to Stover, Carlyle posed the riddle of the Sphinx as "'the immense problem of Organizing Labour, first of all Managing the Working Classes'" and argued that the "'Organization of Labour must be taken out of the hands of absurdly windy persons [trade unionists] and put in the hands of Industrial Leaders,' those 'Commanders of Working Men' and 'Captains of Industry' who are needed as 'Fighters against Chaos'" (3).

Stover's derivation of morlock from mallock (9), while reasonable enough, is of less interest, unless one accepts his grand thesis: that the morlocks are descended from the unionized workers of the 19th century and that the moral of The Time Machine is that "the only hope" for avoiding a Marxist revolution that would lead eventually to a world of Eloi and Morlocks, is "to solve the Sphinx riddle here and now—crush the labor movement and install a working aristocracy of new-class intellectuals who understand their duty to save mankind from chaos and extinction" (107 n150).

Scholarship. By any standard of scholarship, Stover's work is sadly deficient. There are no page references for any of the quotations from Carlyle, and many of the references for the quotations from Wells are erroneous in one way or another; all the quotations from both Carlyle and Wells are wrenched out of context and many are doctored in ways that falsify the meanings they have in their proper context. Stover seldom quotes a full paragraph from Wells or Carlyle or even a full sentence. His usual practice is to insert an enquoted phrase into a sentence of his own, which can produce absurdities of various kinds.

The most absurd of such sentences is perhaps: "The Morlocks, heirs to the 'resentful slacker' (1944:74) of today, work only enough to maintain the cattle-like Eloi as a 'permanent edible class' (1928a: 179)." The source of the first insertion is a chapter title in '42 to '44; in that chapter the resentful slacker is a war-time bureaucrat who feels he should have a higher position in the bureaucracy and so does his job slackly and ill-humoredly. The second is from Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island: "A multitude of other traps awaited the unobservant, the unlucky or the recalcitrant, and secured a permanent edible class for the comfort and support of the higher ranks in the social pyramid" (ß3.3:151). So in Stover's hands Wellsian attacks on bureaucrats and the exploitation of the poor by the rich become attacks on unionized working men.

Stover's mishandling of Carlyle begins with slipshod bibliographical statements: "'The Sphinx' [is] the key essay of his most famous collection, Past and Present (1843). Required of school children to study for its ornate prose, this title was unavoidably familiar to Wells's readers..." (2). Past and Present is a unified work, not a collection; "The Sphinx" is not an essay but a chapter. Stover's bibliography lists for Carlyle only the Works of 1896-1901; that is, there is no entry for the putative essay nor for any schoolbook in which it might have been printed.

Stover writes that Carlyle "blamed trade unions for the labor unrest of his day" (8) and believed that in England "Labor is out of control, agitated by insurrectionary trade unions to breed a 'Human Chaos'" and "organiz[ing] itself with 'ape's freedom' in pursuit of sectarian class interests at the expense of social duty; with the 'liberty of apes,' Labor seeks its own greed" (3).

Carlyle does not blame trade unions for the social unrest of his day; instead he blames the indifference of the rich to the miseries of the poor. Trade unionism is never discussed in Past and Present; trade-union leaders are mentioned only in passing, only six times, and always alongside other nuisances. Carlyle does not think that "Labor is out of control"; instead, as we shall see, he is impressed by the meekness with which working men have accepted upper-class rule. The charge that Carlyle likens working men to apes (a charge later compounded with "Carlyle further harps on this imagery when he emphatically declares that only industrial discipline, under a working aristocracy, is all that distinguishes 'the Species Man from the Genus Ape!'") is simply false. The "liberty of apes" is dealt with, and Stover's species-genus quotation comes from, a passage in the chapter called "Permanence":

The 'tendency to persevere,' to persist in spite of hindrances, discouragement and 'impossibilities': it is this that in all things distinguished the strong soul from the weak: the civilized burgher from the nomadic savage—the Species Man from the Genus Ape!" (ß4.5:266; the edition cited here and below was published in 1947 in London and New York as Everyman's Library 608).

It is permanent employment that Carlyle argues for in "Permanence," and it is the liberty of the employer to dismiss his employees at any time for any reason that he would abolish.

Carlyle never characterizes working men as greedy:

these poor Manchester manual workers mean only, by day's-wages for day's-work, certain coins of money adequate to keep them living;—in return for their work, such modicum of food, clothes and fuel as will enable them to continue their work itself. (ß1.3:20)

Carlyle does not equate "absurdly windy persons" with "trade unionists" and does not advocate putting the organization of labor "into the hands of industrial leaders"; Stover's "The 'Organization of Labour' must be taken out of the hands of absurdly windy persons [trade unionists] and put into the hands of Industrial Leaders'" is a grossly doctored version of a passage in which Carlyle is satirizing certain proposals for reform:

Alas, what a business will this be, which our Continental friends, groping this long while somewhat absurdly about it and about it, call 'Organization of Labour'; —which must be taken out of the hands of absurd windy persons, and put into the hands of wise, laborious, modest and valiant men. (ß3.10:188)

Finally, Carlyle does not advocate turning everything over to industrialists. In the utopian fourth book of Past and Present, phrases like "Captains of Industry" express not present-day realities but hopes for the future: a captain of industry would be an industrialist who assumed for his employees the kind of responsibility that an army officer is ideally supposed to assume for his men. The fourth book is primarily addressed not to industrialists but to Parliament, which should enact laws providing educational and health services and requiring living wages, steady employment, and improved working conditions. In sum, what Past and Present advocates is not the suppression of labor but the creation of a welfare state.

According to Stover, Wells in 1893 was not only anti-Marxist but, it seems, hysterically class-conscious:

The class warfare predicted by Carlyle soon was energized by the Marxist-driven SDF. Its actions led to the Great London Dick Strike of 1889, which for the first time won the legal right of unskilled labor to unionize; and to the Coal War of 1893, which closed down every coal mine in Great Britain, and which further won the right of Labor to form its own political party. H.G. Wells, like all anti-Marxist intellectuals in England, was aghast at this latest outrage of proletarian arrogance. (8-9)

I do not believe that Stover can produce one scintilla of evidence for his assertion that Wells in 1893 was "outraged" by an instance of "proletarian arrogance" or for Wells's having been in 1893, or ever, anti-union or passionately anti-Marxist. Though Wells found no place for trade unions in his imagined classless utopias, he did see them as having a legitimate function in the present-day world: see ß7.6 of The Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind (NY 1931), especially page 286:

the worker is no longer an isolated individual or even a member of a helot class. He is a voter, a citizen with acknowledged rights.... He is also, if he is wise, a member of a respected and powerful union which guards his hours and wages and champions him in any case of ill-treatment or injustice.

And in Meanwhile (1927), a novel on the General Strike of 1924, the unions are much more sympathetically treated than the employers or the government.

For Wells in his student days and throughout his life, Marx was simply one of the many writers who had made contributions to socialist theory, his "main contribution" being a fairly convincing demonstration, that a system of competitive production for profit could not be a permanent system. Competition, he showed, argues the final victory of a dominating competitor (or group of competitors) which will own practically everything and attempt to hold all mankind in unendurable subjection. Unendurable—and hence, he argued, the revolution. (Experiment in Autobiography [NY 1934], 202).

If Wells in the years 1895-1899 was not in some respects himself a Marxist, he was at least ready to use Marxist theory as the basis for a future history that would lead to the world of 2100 as depicted in When the Sleeper Wakes:

And this spreading usurpation of the world was so dexterously performed...that it was already far advanced before common men suspected the tyranny that had come. The Council never hesitated, never faltered. Means of communication, land, buildings, governments, municipalities, the territorial companies of the tropics, every human enterprise, it gathered greedily. And it drilled and marshaled its men, its railway police, its roadway police, its house guards, and drain and cable guards, its hosts of land-workers. Their unions it did not fight, but it undermined and betrayed and bought them. It bought the world at last. (NY 1899, ß14:100)

It is typical of Stover's misreading of Wells that he should ignore such passages in When the Sleeper Wakes in favor of the compound-interest myth:

The comatose body of the title Sleeper, a democratic socialist named Graham, is maintained by a trust fund set up by his friends in 1897. When he wakes up 203 years later, he finds the accumulated interest amounts to half of the world's wealth, now held by a Council of Trustees whose twelve members ironically rule the planet in Graham's name. The trust at once recalls Bellamy's council of industrial officers and anticipates the World Council of Directors in Things to Come..., but in all cases the purpose is the same: to win at last for intellectuals "the whip hand" (1933b:315) over unionized labor in a decisive solution to the Sphinx problem. (36 n24).

And it is typical of Stover's scholarship that there is no mention of "the whip hand" on page 315 of "1933b" (i.e., The Shape of Things to Come), nor indeed of "intellectuals" or "unionized labor" on that page or in the chapter indicated (ß3.9:312-21).

There is a curious parallel between Stover's identification of Past and Present as a collection of essays rather than a unified work and his treatment in the following of Socialism and the Great State as if it were a book-length essay by Wells1:

The Prussian idea originated in 1831, "when the rage for Saint-Simonism swept through Germany" (Hayek 1979:303). This entailed the picture of a future society in which "the 'immoral' concepts of individual rights will disappear and there will be only duties" (353f). It is exactly the futuristic picture Wells offers in The Shape of Things to Come, in which those "impossible 'rights'" of the democratic order have been swept away (1933b:107). Then will come about "a general labour conscription together with a scientific organization of production," on the principle that "to organize for work [is] the primary duty of our modern civilizations, and organization for work is Socialism (1912a:46, 119)" (197).

Socialism and the Great State Socialism and the Great State is a collection of essays for which Wells was one of three editors. Although the words quoted from page 46 are from Wells's essay "The Past and the Great State," those quoted from page 119 are from an essay by one L.C. Chiozza Money, M.P.

But just as bad from the standpoint of interpretative scholarship is the quoting of the tail-end of a long sentence (i.e., "a general labour conscription together with a scientific organization of production" in the final block in the following diagram2) in a context which makes it seem to indicate that Wells advocates harsh repressive measures to get the work done, whereas in its proper context it sets forth a way of relieving the working class from such measures. Stover never mentions the fact that the "general labor conscription" proposed by Wells in "The Past and the Great State" is to be only for a year or so and never discusses Wells's argument that "a scientific organization of production" would relieve everyone for the rest of his or her life not only from toilsome labor but also from any necessity to work at all (ß4:37-39).

The words from The Shape of Things to Come are also wrenched out of their proper context:

A struggle for sanity had to take place in the racial brain, a great casting-out of false assumptions, conventional distortions, hitherto uncriticized maxims and impossible "rights," a great clearing up of ideas about moral, material, and biological relationships; it was a struggle that, as we shall see, involved the passing of three generations. (179, edition cited by Stover)

To call some of the rights claimed by various people impossible, is not to say that the rights "of the democratic order" are impossible, and victory in a conflict of propagandas after three generations is hardly a sweeping away. To read Stover is never to know that Wells devoted the last years of his life largely to writing and agitating for a declaration of the Rights of Man, which, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was adopted by the United Nations in 1957 (David Smith, H.G. Wells, Desperately Mortal: A Biography (New Haven: Yale UP, 1986), 428-49).

If the following means what by all standards of scholarly writing it should mean, Stover has Wells's own son as an authority for the idea that Wells's socialism was simply warmed-over Saint-Simonism:

Realizing that Old Testament socialism had been forgotten once the New Testament socialism of Karl Marx rose to ascendance in SDF, Wells appropriated Saint-Simonism for himself and personalized it as 'Wellsism' (G.P. Wells, 1984:172; see also Wells 1934:562, where he declares himself a disciple of Saint-Simon's number one disciple, Auguste Comte). (11).

But G.P. Wells, who merely edited the book referred to (H.G. Wells in Love), never himself has in it anything to say about Saint-Simonism or "Wellsism," not on page 172 or any other page. The word "Wellsism" does appear in the book, on page 73, where Wells is discussing his affair with Amber Reeves, in a context that makes it seem to have been coined by the young acolyte rather than by the master himself. If memory serves, the word appears nowhere else in any book or pamphlet by Wells. Saint-Simon is not listed in the index to Experiment in Autobiography; he is mentioned in New Worlds for Old (NY 1908, 207) and perhaps once or twice by Wells elsewhere, but, unlike Plato, More, Owen, George, Morris, or Marx, never as an influence on his thinking. Finally on this matter, Wells does not, on page 562 of Experiment or elsewhere, proclaim himself a disciple of Auguste Comte.

The Riddle of the Sphinx. Stover defines the riddle of the Sphinx as

nothing less than the "immense problem of Organizing Labour, first of all Managing the Working Classes, [which] will, it is very clear, have to be solved by those that stand practically in the middle of it; by those who themselves work and preside over work." This "'Organization of Labour' is, if well understood, the Problem of the whole Future, for all men who in future pretend to govern men." (3)

This would be fair enough if each of the two quotations were presented in its proper context: for the second, a call for the enactment of laws that would require industrialists to improve working conditions (ß4.3: 248); for the other, a discussion of what government can and cannot do (ß4.4: 259-60).

Though Stover's formulation of Carlyle's riddle of the Sphinx is approximately accurate, the riddle takes on a much different emphasis in Carlyle's own formulations. It is first defined simply as "What is Justice?" (ß1.2:13); It is next expressed as the "huge inarticulate question" put by the "million of hungry operative men" assembled in the streets of Manchester: "What do you mean to do with us?" (ß1.3:16-17), and finally in the following way:

And truly this first practical form of the Sphinx-question, inarticulately and so audibly put there, is one of the most impressive ever asked in the world. "Behold us here, so many thousands, millions, and increasing at the rate of fifty every hour. We are right willing to work; and on the planet Earth is plenty of work and wages for a million times as many. We ask, if you mean to lead us toward work; to try to lead us,—by ways new, never yet heard of till this new unheard-of Time? Or if you declare that you cannot lead us? And expect that we are to remain quietly unled, and in a composed manner perish of starvation? What is it you expect of us? What is it you mean to do with us?" This question, I say, has been put in the hearing of all Britain; and will again be put, and ever again, till some answer be given it. (ß1.3:17-18)

That Wells was aware of Carlyle's sphinx-question in 1901 and so most probably also in 1895 is evident from a locus overlooked by Stover: "'What are you going to do with us, we hundreds or millions, who cannot keep pace with you?' If the new republic emerges at all it will emerge by grappling with this riddle; it must come into existence by the passes this sphinx will guard" (Anticipations [NY 1902], ß9:394).

For the Time Traveler, however, the riddle of the sphinx is not what the upper classes are to do with the lower classes but instead how the Eloi and the Morlocks came into existence. He formulates, in his second hypothesis, a perfectly reasonable answer, one too well known to need full recapitulation here:

.... So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots; the Workers continually adapted to the conditions of their labour....

The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took on a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of to-day. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over nature, but a triumph over nature and the fellow-man. This, I must warn you, was my theory at the time. I had no convenient cicerone in the pattern of the utopian books. My explanation may be absolutely wrong. I still think it the most plausible one. (107-09; ß8 in reprints of the first London edition; ß5 in most modern editions)

According to Stover, the second hypothesis is rejected in favor of a third (note 153), but there is no way to escape the finality of "I still think it the most plausible one." The third hypothesis amends the second not on the origin of the Eloi and Morlocks but only on their relationship in AD 802,701.

The Time Traveler explains not only why humanity has divided into two species but also why the Morlocks not only work but also live underground. Stover never discusses this matter, beyond saying, "It was the coal miners of [the Coal War of 1893] that surely inspired Wells to his vision of subterranean Morlocks" (105-06 n148). But the miners did not live underground. Wells himself would four years later provide a basis for an answer.

In When the Sleeper Wakes, in the London of the year 2001 (and presumably in all the cities of the world) one third of the people live and work in underground warrens as clients of the Labour Company, which was once the Salvation Army but which was bought by the Council and turned into a commercial enterprise required by its charter to take in any applicant and give him or her a day's lodging for a day's work, which in effect means permanent subservience, for the applicants are penniless when they arrive and still penniless after a day's work.

Graham could note the pinched faces, the feeble muscles, and weary eyes of many of the latter-day workers. Such as he saw at work were noticeably inferior in physique to the few gaily dressed managers and forewomen who were directing their labours. The burly labourer of the old Victorian times had followed the dray horse and all such living force-producers, to extinction; the place of his costly muscles was taken by some dexterous machine.... In the young cities of Graham's former life, the newly aggregated labouring masses had been a diverse multitude, still stirred by the tradition of personal honour and a high morality; now it was differentiating into a distinct class, with a moral and physical difference of its own—even with a dialect of its own. (NY 1899, ß21:270-71)

In the Wellsian future, as conceived in 1895-1899, Stover's riddle of the Sphinx was solved in the 21st century: by 2100 the unions had long since been smashed, and, for that very reason, the unorganized slaves of the Labor Company, working and living underground, were already undergoing the evolutionary deterioration that would finally make them into Morlocks.

When not concerned with Wells's supposed dread of unionized labor, many of Stover's annotations are quite informative; e.g., note 4, which explains why the Time Traveler's house is lit by gas rather than electricity. But such information cannot compensate for the misinformation with which Stover seeks to establish an absurdly false view of Carlyle and Wells.


1. The book is listed in Stover's bibliography simply as by Wells, with no indication that it is a collection of essays by divers hands (253).

2. The last page of Wells's essay "The Past and Great State," Socialism and the Great State (UK title The Great State), ed. H.G. Wells, Frances Evelyn Warwick, and G.R.S. Taylor (NY and London: Harper, 1912), 1-46, which also appears as "The Great State" in Social Forces in England and America (NY: 1914), 112-154 (UK title An English Looks at the World, pagination differs), and The Works of H.G. Wells, Atlantic Edition, Vol. XVIII (NY & London, 1926), 405-444.

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