The Time Machine
By H. G. Wells
While I think Frankenstein deserves its ranking as the first science fiction novel, I give H. G. Wells pride of place as the father of the genre. Not because Wells was always the first (though he often was), but because he established the great archetypes of so many stories. Every alien invasion harkens back to The War of the Worlds, and in The Time Machine he invented time travel, whose long history James Gleick recently explored so well.
It was always part political allegory, and it’s interesting how much of that has stayed with us. The ambiguous myth of the Morlocks still crops up everywhere in popular culture, which is perhaps not so surprising given rising rates of social and economic inequality in our own time. At the end of the nineteenth century progress was being called into question, and degeneration being posited as just as likely an evolutionary outcome. A similar sense of decline seemed to set in at the end of the twentieth century, and has carried over into our own “automatic civilization.” The Time Traveler brought a warning from a future we’re waking up to.