HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race

We can all agree on the classics, right? The classics are great pieces of literature that show us the true nature of the human condition. The classics are classics because their content stand the test of time. Right? Well, actually it’s not that easy.

Many of the classic literary works of our canon were written during time periods when the ethics, morals and values differed from ours. For example, the sexism of classic literature has been discussed on numerous occasions. But what about race?

Over at Book Riot, Amanda Nelson analyzed the issue of racism in classic literature, using the example of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Nelson points out that Gone with the Wind is a novel which portrays slavery as a non-problematic institution and the KKK as an organization valiantly defending the values of the South, something that is rarely mentioned when discussing the novel.

Nelson’s post falls in line with the thoughts I’ve had since I read the science fiction classic The Time Machine by HG Wells (1866–1946). The Time Machine (1895) is a story about a man simply called The Time Traveler, who has built a time machine. He arrives back from an adventure where he has visited the far future just in time to sit down and tell his friends about it over dinner at his house.

HG Wells (1890)
Source: Fredrick Hollyer/Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

The Time Traveler tells his friends that he visited a future where a peaceful, docile people, called the Eloi, lived above ground, and a brutish, carniverous people, called the Morlocks, lived under ground. The Eloi lived in fear of the Morlocks who after dark would arrive on the surface to capture Eloi individuals, bring them down and devour them.

In his foreword to the Signet Classic edition of The Time Machine, Greg Bear chooses to interpret the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks as an expression of the Victorian class struggle:

For Victorian England, the picture of humanity divided into the diminutive, weak, and sun-dwelling Eloi and those technological dwellers in underground darkness, the Morlocks, must have seemed particularly grotesque— mirroring as it did the tottering class system: quite literally, Upstairs and Downstairs. (p. viii)

In one way, I agree with Bear that the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks can be interpreted as a class struggle. The idea of the time was that if the working classes are not kept in check they will rise to devour the middle and upper classes. Wells himself touches upon this theme when he lets The Time Traveler say out loud to himself that the future world he sees looks like Communism (p. 32).

Upstairs Downstairs (BBC, 1971–1975)

However, the way Wells describes the two groups makes it evident that the relationship between them is just as much about race, as it is about class. When The Time Traveler for the first time meets an Eloi, he describes the individual as follows.

He was a slight creature—perhaps four feet high […]. He struck me as being a very beautiful and graceful creature, but indescribably frail. His flushed face reminded me of the more beautiful kind of consumptive—that hectic beauty of which we used to hear so much. (p. 25)

Meanwhile, the Morlocks are described as dull-white monsters with greyish-red eyes that either runs on all fours or with their forearms very low. The Time Traveler describes them as something between a monkey and a human spider (p. 53) and later refers to the first Morlock he spotted as a Lemur (p. 54).

Just as well as the relationship between Eloi and Morlocks can be described as a class struggle, the relationship can also be described as the fear of the inferior creature rising to take revenge on the superior creature, an idea that is ingrained in racism as an ideology as well as in slavery as an institution. Whether we’re discussing class warfare or racial warfare, the only thing that prevents it from happening according to this way of thinking is the strength of the resolute white man. What Wells lets The Time Traveler see in the future is what will happen if that strength wavers.

So what do we do with The Time Machine? Do we throw it to the side because it is archaic and racist? No, I don’t think so. The Time Machine was first published in 1895, when Imperialism was at its peak. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and the agreement at Fashoda between France and Great Britian where the two nations divided Africa between them was only three years in the future.

In my opinion, The Time Machine by HG Wells can be called a classic for two reasons. First, the book is a groundbreaking work of science fiction that  in the twenty-first century still appeals to readers of the genre. Second, it is a document of the frame of mind of the Victorian Age at its height. It provides us with an opportunity to try and understand the world view of the citizens of the British Empire, a worldview that still to this day shapes the world we live in.

A Brief Explanation of the British Empire

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

HG Wells The Time Machine (Signet Classic, 2002)
Encyclopedia Britannica United Kingdom Late Victorian Britain
Book Riot Amanda Nelson Let’s Talk About Racism in the Classics

This post is featured at Suvudu Universe.

John Steinbeck’s Chinese Housekeeper

Previously on The Boomerang I have written about John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. I decided to read the novel because, many years ago, I saw the movie, starring James Dean as the emotionally conflicted Cal. I have now read the novel and absolutely agree with those who say it is an American literary masterpiece. However, after finishing the book, I began comparing it to the movie. Something was not right. And then I realized what bothered me. The most important character in the book had not made it into the movie. That character is the Trask family’s Chinese housekeeper, Lee.

James Dean as Caleb in East of Eden (1955)
Source: Trailer screenshot

East of Eden is a novel about Adam Trask and his family. Adam marries Cathy and moves to California with her. After the birth of their twin boys – Caleb and Aaron – she abandons Adam and her children, leaving him to raise the twins. Adam, however, distraught by Cathy leaving him (and shooting him in the shoulder when he refuses to let her go), totally neglects his children. Instead, they are taken care of by Lee, who develops such a close relationship with the boys that Cantonese, instead of English, nearly becomes their first language.

Lee becomes a member of the Trask household when Adam is looking to hire a cook. Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants. His mother died when he was born. In the book, Lee is the only character with a college education (University of California) but when we are first introduced to him, he speaks broken English as a strategy not to intimidate people around him. He translates Chinese poetry into English as a pastime and he is rarely seen without a book.

John Steinbeck and President Lyndon B Johnson, 1966
Source: LBJ Library and Museum

As the story progresses, Lee becomes the anchor in the Trask household. The boys grow older and Adam continues to have problems connecting with them emotionally. When there is a conflict in the household, communication between father and sons go through Lee. Lee is the only person who can speak the truth to both Adam and Aaron and Caleb. Lee is the first person to see Aaron’s girlfriend, Abra, for who she truly is. When the relationship with her own father crumbles, Lee develops into a father figure for Abra.

Lee is also responsible for the Biblical theme that runs through a substantial part of the book. When Lee and Adam, with their mutual friend Samuel, discuss what to name the boys, they base their discussion on Genesis and the rivalry between Cain and Abel. The one to push the discussion forward and make it more complex and analytical is Lee. Later on, Lee again brings up the subject of Cain and Abel. He has discovered discrepancies in the English translation of different Bible editions. Because of this he asked his family elders for help. They, in turn, began to study Hebrew and consulted a rabbi. The result of this exegetic exercise forms the backbone of the final section of the novel and even becomes the last spoken line in the entire story.

All of this has been removed from the movie adaptation because of the exclusion of Lee. The movie is a good work of art in and of itself, but, as I suspected when I first saw it, much has been left out from the original story. Instead of being a family chronicle steeped in the multicultural society of early Californian settlement, rife with religious symbolism, East of Eden the movie is a melodrama centered around an all-white cast where the anchor has been lost at sea.

Perhaps it is time for a remake.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

John Steinbeck East of Eden (Penguin, 2002)
East of Eden

The images of James Dean and John Steinbeck were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Update: From Bruce Lee to John Cho

When writing, especially fiction, the subconscious has a tendency to play tricks on you. You have an idea that you wish to convey and you have created a setting that will help you in this endeavor. But once the story begins to take shape it is as if you are channeling a part of you that somehow functions independently from you. That is how I ended up with a love story where the male protagonist is Korean.

What is surprising to me in this development is that I have no connection whatsoever to anything Korean. After wracking my brain, trying to figure out how my male protagonist could come to life in this way, I have begun to suspect that it could come from three Korean-American actors whose work I appreciate, namely Daniel Dae Kim, Steven Yeun and John Cho.

Daniel Dae Kim at 2008 Emmy Awards.
Source: Greg Hernandez, Flickr

I know Daniel Dae Kim (b.1968) mostly from his work on the TV-show Lost (2004-2010) where he played the Korean businessman Jin Kwon, who is married to Sun Kwon, played by Yunjin Kim. Throughout the seasons of Lost, Kim portrayed Jin Kwon in a great display of his skills as an actor. Unfortunately Kim has not been granted this opportunity to the same extent on the show where he currently can be seen, Hawaii 5-0, which in many ways is a show inferior to Lost. What Lost and Hawaii 5-0 do have in common is that in both shows Kim is a member of an ensemble cast led by Matthew Fox and Alex O’Loughlin, respectively.

Steven Yeun at the Detroit Fanfare 2011
Source: Tony Shek

Steven Yeun (b. 1983) portrays one of my favorite characters in the on-going TV-series The Walking Dead, Glenn Rhee. Just as with Kim’s portrayal of Jin Kwon, Glenn’s story arch is a formidable one, where his relationship to Maggie Greene, played by Lauren Cohan, gives added depths to the character. Unfortunately, we don’t know that much about Glenn’s background. In Lost, the characters’ lives before the plane crash are shown through flashbacks. This narrative strategy is not implemented in The Walking Dead. After three action-packed seasons we still watch the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of the show’s lead character, Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln.

John Cho at TV Guide panel, San Diego Comic-Con 2009
Source: Melody J Sandoval, Flickr

John Cho (b. 1972) is probably best known for his work as Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek franchise. I first became familiar with his work through the cult classic Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). Unlike the characters portrayed by Kim and Yeun, Cho’s character Harold Lee does not experience a dramatic story arc. That privilege is given to Kal Penn’s character Kumar, although most of this development takes place in the second movie, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008). What sets Harold Lee apart from Jin Kwon and Gleen Rhee, is that Harold is in fact a romantic leading man. Harold has a crush on Maria (played by Paula Garcés), who lives in the same building as him and Kumar, and in the end Harold actually gets the girl.

Bruce Lee wall painting, Tbilisi, Georgia
Source: Giga Paitchadze, Flickr

In the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000) it is stated that after Bruce Lee (1940–1973) there has not been an Asian actor cast as a romantic leading man in a major motion picture. The same year as the documentary came out, one such film did hit the screens, namely Romeo Must Die starring Jet Li and Aaliyah (1979–2001). Therefore, the statement about Bruce Lee can be modified, but only slightly. Since Bruce Lee, there have been two Asian actors cast in romantic leading roles: Jet Li and John Cho. However, neither of these movies are what you can call mainstream. Romeo Must Die is a martial art movie where certain fight scenes are still branded into my brain, although I haven’t seen the film again since it came out. Harold and Kumar are more in the line of Cheech and Chong and Pineapple Express than anything else.

If there are any other major motion pictures, or TV-shows for that matter, starring an Asian leading man in a romantic role, I would be interested to know. To my, admittedly limited, knowledge, there are only those I have discussed above.

http://www.imdb.com Daniel Dae Kim
http://www.imdb.com Steven Yeun
http://www.imdb.com John Cho
Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (Directed by: John Little, 2000) http://www.danieldaekim.com

Images of Daniel Dae Kim, Steven Yeun, John Cho and Bruce Lee have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

After publishing this blog post, the following blog has come to my notice: http://asianvibe.blogspot.se/2013/04/why-hollywood-wont-cast-asian-actors-to.html
Thank you, Sara Ellis Nilsson, for the tip. The views of the blog are not mine but they point towards the argument made in this post.
Furthermore, I would like to clarify that when I talk about “major motion pictures” I am referring to mainstream films produced for an American audience.