H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) imagines the environment and inhabitants of London some 800 millennia in the future. Wells’ science fiction writings asked burning questions about the human race and focused particularly on what the yawning gap between the rich and poor would mean for future generations. One way he thought about privileged classes was as beautiful celestial beings whose near-heavenly perfection made them of very little earthly use.
In The Time Machine, the Eloi are a friendly, childlike race that appears to enjoy a charmed existence, mostly playing, feasting and sleeping in their communal palaces and doing almost no work to ensure their survival. The book’s time travelling protagonist initially concludes that at some point in history, humans must have levelled on a form of “communism” on which to build their social economy that allowed production to meet the needs of all mankind.
The idea of communism in the late 19th century did not carry the same baggage that it does today - the great disasters of communist totalitarian systems would not occur until several decades later. Communism as a more speculative ideology was articulated by Karl Marx in his Das Kapital but also rang through the writings of British philosophers and economists. Wells appears to have been influenced by William Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890) about the idyllic agrarian world where there were no squabbles over resources. Such a utopian ideal bore resemblance to how Wells imagined the land of the angels. In his novel The Wonderful Visit (1895), an angel falls to a small English village. There, he befriends a local vicar but struggles to come to terms with the quirks and prejudices of English society. He is described as being beautiful, affable but ignorant. His own world is one of “beautiful dreams,” a rural paradise where angels don’t have to think or work very hard at all.
Wells saw his Eloi like a privileged class of angels. The word Eloi itself is the Aramaic term for "My God" that Jesus cries out as he dies on the cross in Matthew's New Testament gospel. It corresponds with the Hebrew word Elohim, used in the Old Testament to refer both to the monotheistic God of Israel and the plural concept of "gods" worshipped by other peoples of the Ancient Near East. The term Elohim also referred to agents of God, particularly angels. The 12th century Spanish Rabbi Moses Maimonedes listed the Elohim as the seventh in his ten ranks of angelic beings. Similarly, the traditions of the Greek gnostics describe Eloiein as one of the seven Archons (servant gods of one creator god).
Yet unlike the angels of Jewish lore, the Eloi’s earthly privilege did not extend to divine protection. Their state of aesthetic and economic perfection meant they’d become completely reliant on their systems of production. This had dulled their survival instincts and made them particularly vulnerable to predators, as the Time Traveller discovers.
Buy the illustrated and annotated Story Subway edition of The Time Machine here.