When he was an old man, guess what H.G. Wells told a friend what he wanted written on his tombstone?
"G-- d--- you all: I told you so."
That's one thing to keep in mind when reading The Time Machine, which was Wells's first novel. The Time Machine is partly a warning to his contemporaries in the 1890s.
Now, if you've seen any of the movie adaptations of this book, you might think that Wells is warning us that there are monsters underneath the ground, waiting until dark to come out and get us. Sure, this is part of Wells's story, but it's not really what he wants to warn us about. He wants to warn us not to get too comfortable – that just because things are pretty good now, we shouldn't expect them to remain that way forever. It's not monsters that are going to get us – it's time.
To really understand The Time Machine, you've got to know a bit about what was going on in the world when Wells wrote it (the first version was "The Chronic Argonauts," which he wrote for a student magazine in 1888). It was a time of great change. In the 19th century, a bunch of people moved from the country to the city, industry was booming, and new technologies were rapidly changing people's lives. (Check out the Shmoop Learning Guides to the 19th century for more on that, especially the guide on technology of the Gilded Age.)
For some people, these changes were working out pretty well, and they thought things were going to keep changing for the better, and that science on their side. After all, Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, which argued (or so they thought) that species evolved to get better all the time. Some even thought that the people at the top of the social ladder were clearly better than the poor and working class because of Darwin's theory of "survival of the fittest." (By the way, this idea is called "Social Darwinism.")
Wells grew up pretty poor, but he was good at science, so he knew that the people who believed in everlasting progress and survival of the fittest didn't have any clue what they were talking about. For one thing, Darwin's theory of evolution doesn't say that species get better – it says that species become more adapted to their environment. For another thing, Darwin never even used the phrase "survival of the fittest." (Wells knew Darwin's work pretty well; he studied science with T.H. Huxley, who was a big supporter of Darwin. Huxley's nickname was – get this – "Darwin's bulldog.")
In order to show people that their ideas about "survival of the fittest" and progress weren't scientifically accurate, Wells wrote a story about a scientist traveling into the future to discover that the pampered rich have degenerated into helpless idiots and the oppressed poor have degenerated into subterranean cannibals. Things don't always get better as time goes on – they just become different.
In some ways, The Time Machine is like the opposite of a fairy tale bedtime story. Instead of calming some childish fear to put us to sleep, it's like Wells is telling his contemporaries, "you jerks should be worried," and trying to wake us up.
Let's say your teacher has just assigned The Time Machine and is discussing why it's an important book. It's an early example of science fiction. It introduced the idea of using a machine for time travel. It's never been out of print since 1895. It deals with the hot-button issues from its day, like Social Darwinism and inequality.
That's the point where you should stop your teacher. We're not living in 1890s Britain, so why should we be interested in their issues?
The answer: because their issues are still our issues.
The Time Machine is interested in issues of social inequality and justice – in how to best organize our society so that we can live with each other without oppression. In Wells's time, there was worry that the split between the "haves" and the "have-nots" was going to lead to violence. Today, well, maybe we're not so worried about violence, but people still worry about the split between the rich and the poor. From the 1890s to our own time, people still work on the question that seems central to The Time Machine: What's the best, most just way for society to be?
The Time Machine hasn't stayed in print for over 100 years just because Wells invented the idea of a machine that would move through time. Rather, it seems that Wells's book has remained in print because, even though much of the world has changed, certain issues haven't. Wells would be amazed at our iPods, but he wouldn't be surprised that some people have them and others don't.