The Man Who Invented Tomorrow
The year was 1902. The occasion was a meeting of the Royal Institution. The speaker was a short, intense, thirty-six-year-old man who had attained considerable success already as an author of articles, stories, and novels. In his high-pitched voice, that has been described as something between a squeak and a falsetto, he was telling his audience about something new in human affairs: the future.
The speaker was H. G. Wells. For eight years he had been writing what he called "scientific romances" that later generations would call "science fiction." He had written his last true science-fiction novel and would write only a few more science-fiction short storieshe had turned to more direct and less entertaining forms of preachingbut in these few years he had established the ideas, the methods, and the theories that would shape the writing of science fiction after the creation of the science-fiction magazine in 1926. Jack Williamson, the science-fiction author (and scholar) whose work has been published in eight decades, has said that the most important aspect of Amazing Stories was that it brought back into the public awareness the science-fiction novels and short stories of Wells. Other writersMary Shelley, Poe, Vernepreceded Wells, but Wells was unique, and his unique views and methods made him, to Williamson and others, the father of modern science fiction.
Herbert George Wells was born in 1866 in Bromley, Kent, the fourth child of a gardener and a lady's maid who had met when both worked at an estate called Up Park. They had been married eleven years when Bertie was born and for those eleven years had tried to make a living out of a crockery shop named Atlas House. It was a living scarcely distinguishable from poverty; they were able to survive only because of Joseph Wells's career as a professional cricket play and the sale of cricket equipment in the shop. But it was the burial ground of their hopes.
In such dismal circumstances Bertie came along, unwanted, ignored by his father, who was away from home a great deal, and fussed over by his mother, whose fear of failure reflected the English apprehension that success was only a thin crust separating citizens from the volcano beneath. In Sarah Wells's early Victorian world the most important thing for her children was "getting on," and getting on meant having a solid trade to which one was apprenticed early.
Wells attributed his escape from this life and his mother's plans for him to two broken legs. The first happened to Bertie at the age of seven shortly after his mother proposed that he start helping out in Atlas House. Wells called it "one of the luckiest events of my life" and because of it, he wrote, "I am alive today and writing this autobiography instead of being a worn-out, dismissed and already dead shop assistant." During the weeks he was laid up on the parlor sofa, he was deluged by books brought home by his father and sent to him by neighbors.
The second broken leg, four years later, was his father's. Joe Wells broke his thigh falling off a ladder. The accident finished his career as a cricket player. Shortly afterwards, at the age of fifty-seven, Sarah Wells was given the opportunity to return as housekeeper to the estate at which she had worked before she was married. She left her husband in possession of Atlas House and her son Bertie apprenticed to a draper. His mother, Wells recollected, thought "that to wear a black coat and tie behind a counter was the best of all possible lots attainable by manat any rate by man at our social level." Within a month, however, he had proved unsuitable because of his carelessness and inattentiveness, and was let go.
Wells's mother made two more attempts to apprentice her reluctant son, once as a chemist and again as a draper, the latter for two years before he pleaded to be released from the last two years to become an assistant teacher in a middle-class school. In between his apprenticeships Bertie had proved a remarkable student, and he had spent a winter at Up Park coming into contact with such books as Gulliver's Travels and Plato's Republic, and learning an appreciation for wealth and leisure and gentility. Desperation, even thoughts of suicide, were behind his battle for freedom. Education was the only hope for a youngster of his class to rise in the world. The year was 1884, fourteen years after the passage of the Elementary Education Act of 1870 that began the education of working-class children, half of whom earlier had had no schooling at all. Wells, however, never attended the National Schools; his mother scrimped to send him to a series of private academies, village schools, and grammar schools, poorly taught though they were.
In his new position Wells taught during the day and studied in the evening, preparing himself to pass a series of examination in physiography, geology, physiology, chemistry, and mathematics. The government, in an effort to train more science teachers, had offered instructors four pounds for each student who achieved an advanced pass in a subject, and the young Wells earned his teacher more than Wells had been paid for his year's work.
In fact, Wells did so well that he was invited to apply for a scholarship at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington. At the age of eighteen, Wells began a formative period of college studies. For the first year he studied biology and zoology under Thomas H. Huxley, the champion of Darwinism in England, who had founded the Normal School only five years before as a center for science teaching.
In spite of his frequent defense of Darwin's theories, Huxley was not a blind believer in the blessings of natural selection. He gave a famous lecture at Oxford on "Evolution and Ethics" in which he said:
Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest . . . but of those who are ethically the best.
The conflict between these two processes lay at the heart of much that Wells was to write. Huxley was a great teacher, and for the rest of his life Wells carried that year with him as "a nucleus" around which he "arranged a spacious array of facts." The second year Wells studied physics under an indifferent professor named Guthrie, and Wells's interest faded. The third and final year he studied geology under a Professor Judd and failed his final.
Perhaps more important than his classwork to his later career were his extracurricular activities. He was a faithful member of the Debating Society, attended meetings of the Fabian Society and listened excitedly to the speeches and debates of some of the great men of his time, and, with some friends, founded the Science Schools Journal. He was the first editor and he wrote several pieces for it that evidenced an early interest and skill in speculation. One was an article on "The Past and Present of the Human Race" (which was revised and published in the Pall Mall Budget in 1893 as "The Man of the Year Million"); in it he imagined a time when distant descendants of mankind would be great brains floating in tubs of nutritive fluids, when humanity would live by chemicals and sunlight alone on a planet where it had destroyed all other plants and animals (cf. John W. Campbell's 1934 story "Twilight"); when humanity's heirs would be driven underground by the cooling of the sun and earth to live in galleries linked to the surface by ventilating shafts (cf. E. M. Forster's 1909 story "The Machine Stops"). He also wrote for the Journal some science-fiction stories, including one about time travel called "The Chronic Argonauts."
His failure in the third-year final had destroyed his hopes for a scientific career; instead he took a teaching job in Wales. He was rescued from that by a kidney injury in a game of English football and, while recovering from that, a diagnosis of tuberculosis. After an extended period of convalescence and a few odd jobs in London, Wells took on another teaching position at a private academy, got his bachelor of science degree by examination, and accepted a new position at University Correspondence College. There he wrote a textbook on biology and co-authored another on physiography.
This renewal of his interest in writing was given further impetus during a month's recuperation after a flare-up of his illness, and he wrote an article entitled "The Rediscovery of the Unique" that was accepted by the Fortnightly Review. A commitment to a career as an author, however, had to wait until after his marriage to his cousin Isabel (which was so disappointing that he was unfaithful with his wife's friend within a few weeks) and a recurrence of his tuberculosis that convinced him he would not be able to continue as a teacher.
A passage in a novel by J. M. Barrie entitled When a Man's Single gave him an idea about articles that brought him quick success as a freelance journalist; a character comments that saleable materials can be fashioned out of the ordinary things of life such as pipes, umbrellas, and flower-pots. In 1893 Wells sold at least thirty articles, primarily to the Pall Mall Gazette. Soon editors began to ask him to do book reviews and drama criticism.
By the end of the year, however, Wells had parted with his wife (whom he supported and remained on good terms with until her death at the age of 64) and had run off with a young student named Catherine Robbins, whom he came to call Jane. Within two years they were married, after his divorce from Isabel, and Jane remained his faithful wife for the rest of her life, forgiving his frequent infidelities, both the casual kind and those that lasted for years and were viewed by many as scandalous.
In 1894 Lewis Hind, the editor of the Pall Mall Budget suggested that Wells use his knowledge of science to write a series of stories for which he would be paid five guineas each (a guinea was a pound plus a shilling). "The Stolen Bacillus" soon was on the editor's desk and five more followed before the year was over. The big opportunity came, however, when William Ernest Henley, editor of the National Observer (and author of "Invictus"), asked Wells for a series of articles. Wells dug up what he called his "peculiar treasure," "The Chronic Argonauts," and revised it as seven articles that were published in 1894. But the National Observer was sold and Henley was fired; he immediately became editor of a new monthly, The New Review, and asked Wells to revise his "Time Traveller" articles as a serial. He also persuaded publisher William Heineman to take the story as a book.
The result was "The Time Machine." As Henley had suggested and Wells suspected, it was to make his reputation. While he was waiting for it to be published, he worked on The Wonderful Visit, a satirical book based on Ruskin's remark that if an angel were to appear on earth someone would be sure to shoot it; and he sketched out the first draft of The Island of Dr. Moreau. He was working rapidly, trying to support his parents and his ex-wife as well as his own household, and words flowed from his pen.
In March 1895 the Review of Reviews said, "H. G. Wells is a man of genius." Magazines pestered him for articles, reviews, and criticism. Soon, however, health forced him to move back to the country and depend on the writing of fiction rather than articles. But he was doing well financially and, as his mother had always wanted, "getting on."
In his new home, Woking, Wells took up cycling and, as he did with many of his interests, worked that into a picaresque novel called The Wheels of Chance. His early science-fiction stories were collected into another 1895 book entitled The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents. He continued to write short stories, many of them not science fiction, and another volume, The Plattner Story and Others, came out in 1897. More importantly for his career, The Island of Dr. Moreau was published in 1896, The Invisible Man in 1897, The War of the Worlds in 1898, When the Sleeper Wakes in 1899 (Tales of Space and Time was published the same year), and The First Men in the Moon in 1901.
In those half-dozen years he had moved twice, first to a rented villa in Worcester Park and then to a house, called "Spade House" because of the design worked into doors and windows, he had built for himself at Folkestone. In both locations he came into contact with other writers and was welcomed into the literary world. George Bernard Shaw became a lifelong friend, as did Arnold Bennett and Joseph Conrad. Friendships with George Gissing and Stephen Crane were cut off by their early deaths.
After reading The Invisible Man, Conrad wrote:
I am always powerfully impressed by your work. Impressed is the word, O Realist of the Fantastic! . . . If you want to know what impresses me it is to see how you contrive to give over humanity to the clutches of the Impossible and yet manage to keep it down (or up) to its humanity, to its flesh, blood, sorrow, folly. That is the achievement!
Ford Madox Ford, another friend though they later had serious disagreements, called Wells "The Dean of our Profession," and said, "It did not take us long to recognize that there was Genius. Authentic, real Genius. And delightful at that." The senior citizen of the group, Henry James, also was an admirer; he wrote of Tales of Space and Time that "you fill me with wonder and admiration. . . . Your spirit is huge, your fascination irresistible, your resources infinite." Eventually they would quarrel. Wells gave a talk in 1911 to The Times Book Club on "The Scope of the Novel" and James published two articles in 1914 in The Times Literary Supplement on "The Young Generation" of writers, including Wells. In 1915 Wells published Boon, a formless novel that contained a bitter satire of James. But earlier James could still speak of being filled with "wonder and admiration" for Wells's early stories and scientific romances, of reading The First Men in the Moon "à petite doses as one sips (I suppose) old Tokay," and of allowing Twelve Stories and a Dream "to melt, lollipopwise, upon my imaginative tongue."
Between When the Sleeper Wakes and The First Men in the Moon came a novel that would represent a significant change in Wells's work and aspirations. It was Love and Mr. Lewisham, published in 1900, and it was the first of a series of novels about contemporary life and manners that drew heavily upon Wells's own experiences. Arnold Bennett wrote to express his regret that Wells had abandoned imaginative romances, and Wells demanded, in return, "Why the hell have you joined the conspiracy to restrict me to one particular type of story? I want to write novels and before God I will write novels. They are the proper stuff for my everyday work, a methodical careful distillation of one's thoughts and sentiments and experiences and impressions." After 1901 Wells abandoned science fiction except for those stories collected in 1903 in Twelve Stories and a Dream and in 1911 in The Country of the Blind and Other Stories. The rest of his writing career would be devoted to his autobiographical novels, such as Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909), Ann Veronica (1909), The History of Mr. Polly (1910), The New Machiavelli (1911), and Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916); to propaganda pieces that often seemed like science fiction such as The Food of the Gods (1904), A Modern Utopia (1905), In the Days of the Comet (1906), The War in the Air (1908), The World Set Free (1914), Men Like Gods (1923), Star-Begotten (1937), and The Holy Terror (1939); and various kinds of discursive fiction and non-fiction, in particular his encyclopedic work that made him so much money, The Outline of History (1920), which was followed a decade later by The Science of Life (1930) and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1932).
Some critics have attributed the change in Well's writing to the turn of the century (and the end of Queen Victoria's long reign in 1901) and the casting away of the fin de siècle mood that had dominated the literature of the late 19th century. Bernard Bergonzi writes:
Wells, at the beginning of his career, was a genuine and original imaginative artist, who wrote several books of considerable literary importance, before dissipating his talents in directions which now seem more or less irrelevant. In considering these works, it will be necessary to modify the customary view of Wells as an optimist, a utopian and a passionate believer in human progress. The dominant note of his early years was rather a kind of fatalistic pessimism, combined with intellectual skepticism, and it is this which the early romances reflect. It is, one need hardly add, a typical fin de siècle note.
But there are other reasons for Well's change. The author of the scientific romances had written hard and fast for half-a-dozen years in order to make a name and some financial security for himself and for those who depended upon him; he may have written himself out in that direction. Moreover, he was moving in new circles, making hew friends, seeing the possibilities of affecting the direction of events in real life. In 1903 he joined the Fabian society and soon tried, unsuccessfully, to turn it into more than a genteel debating society. He became acquainted with politicians and newspaper publishers, even joining elite discussion groups that included future war ministers and Lord Chancellors, foreign secretaries, and directors of the London School of Economics, as well as Bertrand Russell and Sidney Webb.
He also made a celebrated renunciation of literary art. In his autobiography (1934), he pointed out what he saw as distinguishing his intentions from those of Conrad and James. They looked upon the novel as a form of art; Wells saw it as a means to an end. He wanted his writing to be appraised "as a system of ideas"; they wanted ideas to enter, if at all, only as an integral part of the artistic whole. He wanted to write about himself, his reactions to what had happened to him and what had happened and was happening in the world; they wanted the writer kept out of it.
The literary approach, Wells finally decided:
would have taken more time that I could afford. . . . I had a great many things to say and . . . if I could say one of them in such a way as to get my point over to the reader I did not worry much about finish. The fastidious critic might object, but the general reader to whom I addressed myself cared no more for finish and fundamental veracity about the secondary things of behavior than I. . . . I was disposed to regard the novel as about as much an art form as a market place or a boulevard.
Wells also may have realized that if he allowed himself to be compared to Conrad and Wells, or even Bennett and Galsworthy, by their standards, he would always be found wanting (science-fiction writers would have similar complaints in later years). In his 1911 lecture on "The Scope of the Novel," Wells tried to set up new standards. Fiction should not be trivially entertaining or, on the other hand, subject to "fierce pedantries" of technique. He called for "a laxer, more spacious form of novel-writing: that would be "irresponsible and free" and "aggressive." He insisted that the author should be allowed to "discuss, point out, plead and display" and to enter the novel himself if this would help the reader understand the ideas.
The novel is the only medium through which we can discuss the great majority of the problems which are being raised in such bristling multitude by our contemporary social development. . . . In this tremendous work of human reconciliation and elucidation, it seems to me it is the novel that must attempt most and achieve most. . . . Before we are done, we will have all life within the scope of the novel.
"In the end," Wells summed up in his autobiography, "I revolted altogether and refused to play their games. `I am a journalist,' I declared, `I refuse to play the artist! If sometimes I am an artist it is a freak of the gods. I am a journalist all the time and what I write goes notand will presently die.'"
Certainly what Wells wrote after 1901 had to go thenand most of it is dead, with the exceptions of The Outline of History, which still sells, and the social, autobiographical novels, Kipps and Tono-Bungay, with their vividly realized scenes of late Victorian England. Outside of those, only the science fiction continues to survive plus those propaganda novels that resemble science fiction.
What spark of vitality in Wells's science fiction has kept it alive while the rest of his fiction was dying, indeed while James and Conrad go unread except in classrooms, and while the science fiction of other authors of the 19th century, including Jules Verne, have faded from the public view? Part of the answer is that Well's science fiction, in spite of its Victorian furnishings, was timeless in other ways. The themes were large; the fears that he played upon were basic; and his approach was speculative rather that extrapolative. Extrapolation dates rapidly; speculation survives.
When, in The Time Machine, Wells imagines the troglodytic Morlocks as the degenerate descendants of the working class and the pretty but helpless Eloi as the devolved offspring of the leisure class, the political theory on which this outcome was based may seem antiquated but the irony of the situation and the horror of the imagery remain. The War of the Worlds, in various updatings and transplantings, has been kept continually in front of audiences because of the total savagery of the attack and the elemental terror of invasion by aliens. The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau are not quite as timeless in their appeals, though they, too, continue to be revived. When the Sleeper Wakes and The First Men in the Moon are one step farther down the ladder of universality.
Verne and other science-fiction writers of the period were clearly men of the 19th century, bound to it by idea, temperament, and style; Wells, who lived well into the 20th century, seems curiously modern in his subjects, attitudes, and prose. When Wells is adapted to other media, his stories are translated into contemporary situations; Verne cannot be updatedhe always is done as a period piece, as what might be called "historical science fiction."
Verne was concerned with the mechanics of getting there; he called his novels, appropriately, voyages extraordinaires. They were adventure stories built around an unusual journey, often by an unusual form of transportation: a balloon, a submarine, a cannon shell, a ship of the air, a comet. . . . Wells was not concerned with how the Martians travel but what they are going to do; and Wells took the anti-gravity with which Cavor and Bedford got to the moon no more seriously than Lucian took his typhoon. Verne was concerned with the practicability of his Nautilus and his Columbiad; Wells described his time machine in considerable detail but didn't think for a moment that it would work. In a celebrated exchange of views after Wells was called "the English Jules Verne," Verne commented:
I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. we do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on a very scientific basis. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an air-ship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ca, c'est tres joli, but show me this metal. Let him produce it.
And Wells said:
There's a quality in the worst of my so-called "pseudo-scientific" (imbecile adjective) stuff which differentiates it from Jules Verne, e.g., just as Swift is differentiated from Fantasiaisn't there? There is something other that either story writing or artistic merit which has emerged through the series of my books. Something one might regard as a new system of ideas"thought."
In 1902, when Arnold Bennett was writing a long article for Cosmopolitan about Wells as a serious writer, Wells expressed his hope that Bennett would stress his "new system of ideas." Wells developed a theory to justify the way he wrote (he was fond of theories), and these theories helped others write in similar ways. He wrote:
For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader to play the game properly, he must help him in every possible unobtrusive way to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. He must trick him into an unwary concession to some plausible assumption and get on with his story while the illusion holds.
The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. How would you feel and what might not happen to you, is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you? How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you were changed into an ass and couldn't tell anyone about it? Or if you suddenly became invisible? But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats, and dogs left and right, or if anyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting if anything can happen.
In contemporary usage, Verne was writing an "if-this-goes-on" kind of story and Wells, a "what-if" kind. This fact alone is not enough to distinguish them and what they wrote; for occasionally they would switch, with Verne writing a what-if novel in Hector Servadac, or Off on a Comet and Wells writing if-this-goes-on kinds of novels in When the Sleeper Wakes and The War in the Air. Even then, however, the differences are great; with Verne the adventure is everything; with Wells the idea is king. In his preface to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories, Wells wrote:
I found that, taking almost anything as a starting point and letting my thoughts play about with it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or vivid little nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower-beds of suburban gardens; I would discover I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity.
It may have been this floating of images and symbols out of his unconsciousness that gave them their power, their universality. Part of Wells's modern appeal, however, lies in the way in which he saw the world changing and make that perception of change a part of his fiction and non-fiction. In his autobiography he described the changes that were occurring in his mother's world:
Vast unsuspected forces beyond her ken were steadily destroying the social order, the horse and sailing ship transport, the handicrafts and the tenant-farming social order to which all her beliefs were attuned and on which all her confidence was based. To her these mighty changes in human life presented themselves as a series of perplexing frustration and undeserved misfortunes, for which nothing or nobody was clearly to blameunless it was my father. . . .
Wells, on the other hand, saw change as providing opportunity to improve humanity's condition:
Most individual creatures since life began have been "up against it" all the time, have been driven continually by fear and cravings, have had to respond to the unresting antagonisms of their surroundings, and they have found a sufficient and sustaining interest in the drama of immediate events provided for them by these demands. Essentially, their living was continuous adjustment to happenings. Good hap and ill hap filled it entirely. They hungered and ate and they desired and loved; they were amused and attracted, they pursued or escaped, they were overtaken and they died.
Of his own efforts, Wells said:
I have found the attempt to disentangle the possible drift of life in general and of human life in particular from the confused stream of events, and the means of controlling that drift, if such are to be found, more important and interesting by far than anything else. I have had, I believe, an aptitude for it. . . .
Wells's attempts to look into the "confused stream of events" and find "means of controlling the drift" found expression in 1901 with the publication of a series of articles in the Fortnightly Review, a series that appeared toward the end of the year as a book entitled Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought. It was more commonly called simply Anticipations. It was, as Wells wrote Arnold Bennett, a "rough sketch of the coming time, a prospectus as it were of the joint undertakings of mankind in facing these impending years."
Anticipations was filled with predictions; some were remarkable prescient, others were not. Wells saw how the automobile would change society, for instance, from freeways to traffic jams and the development of the suburbs, and he made a brilliant guess about the tank, but he didn't foresee the development of the airplane (he dated the first successful flight of a heavier-than air machine as "very probably before 1950"). Mostly, however, the book did not deal so much with predictions as the business of predicting. As he pointed out in his 1902 talk to the Royal Institution, "It is our ignorance of the future and our persuasion that this ignorance is incurable that alone has given the past its enormous predominance in our thoughts." He believed that it was possible, through the use of what he first called "inductive history" and later "Human Ecology" (defined as the working out of "biological, intellectual, and economic consequences"), to chart the possibilities of the future and to push people into making sensible use of those possibilities. He was the first futurologist, the man who invented tomorrow, and perhaps the first "psychohistorian," in its Asimovian sense. In 1936, at the age of seventy-one, he proposed to the Royal Institution the creation of a "world knowledge bank, a world brain: no less." He asked scientists to put together a World Encyclopedia, a repository for the mind and knowledge of the race. He saw it as "a world monopoly" and through it the encyclopedists would acquire wealth sufficient to finance their activities and to manipulate "everyone who controls administration, makes wars, directs mass behaviour, feeds, moves and starves populations. . . ." It was remarkably like Hari Seldon's vision of the Encyclopedia Galactica and the Foundation in the Foundation stories, another of the many curious resemblances between Wells and Asimov.
But it is clear from Well's 19th century science fiction that he was no simple believer in progress, even progress guided by such "innovative intellectual workers" as himself. Nor did he have an easy faith in the millennium he depicted in many of his propaganda novels, possibly arriving after some worldwide catastrophe like a world war, when a "new mass of capable men"mostly scientists and engineerswould impose "social order" on "the vast confusions of the coming time." In the science fiction that he had just left behind, Wells saw longer-reaching problems having to do with the fate of the human species and of Earth itself.
He had foreseen those concerns, too, in an articlehis non-fiction and his fiction were drawn from the same sourcepublished in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1894 entitled "The Extinction of Man":
What has usually happened in the past appears to be the emergence of some type of animal hitherto rare and unimportant, and the extinction, not simply of the previous ruling species, but of most of the forms that are at all closely related to it. Sometimes, indeed, as in the case of the extinct giants of South America, they vanished without any considerable rivals, victims of pestilence, famine, or, it may be, of that cumulative inefficiency that comes of a too undisputed life.
From these two polesthe hope for a better future and the fear that humanity may be extinguishedWells's science fiction drew its inspiration and its energy. And from Wells's science fiction the genre itself would later draw not only inspiration but ideas. His novels had the greatest impact on his readers, some of whom would turn into writers, but his short stories had the opportunity to explore more widely. He wrote only two novellas and five novels; he wrote some twenty science fiction stories. This is not to insist that any succeeding treatments of Wellsian themes necessarily were derived directly from Wells, though some of them may have been, simply that in many cases Wells provided the first or the definitive version.
The linear descendants of the novels are clear enough: The Time Machine has spawned the most. It was the first story to incorporate a mechanical means for traveling through time and returning. Every other time-travel story since Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" had used the mechanism that Wells re-used in When the Sleeper Wakesa long period of sleep or suspended animation. Returning was the important aspect: to be able to return is to be able to bring the future back to the present, with its cautions and correctives. What The Time Machine did not do as far as the story goes, is venture into the past, with all its possibilities for paradox and ambiguity, although its potential to do so was seized upon by a hundred later writers; nor did Wells's novella consider the possibility of a mutable future. The future, if it could be traveled to, was as fixed as the past. At the same time, a vision of the future could serve as a cautionary tale in the real world of the reader.
The Island of Dr. Moreau was less seminal. Later stories often have dealt with vivisection, but usually it was practiced on human beings in efforts to test the irreducible human elements or to improve human abilities, or even to produce the superman. Thus Wardon Allan Curtis's "The Monster of Lake LaMetrie" published in 1899 may have owed something to Dr. Moreau, as well as A. E. van Vogt's Slan and even Frederik Pohl's Man Plusalthough by the Seventies independent inputs from cyborg developments and other real-life events may make simple literary derivations meaningless. The idea of evolution speeded up, slowed down, or reversed, on the other hand, has frequently been used; one example is Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" (1931), which even mentions that neighbors suspect a scientist of vivisection. Wells also may have been the first to suggest that the ability to tolerate pain for future good separates the human from the animal, an idea that John Campbell, long-time editor of Astounding/Analog, toyed with in editorial and story; primitive rites of passage, he suggested, may have originated with the need to distinguish humans from reversions to the animal in the early days of humanity's evolution. One such story (though in Fantasy and Science Fiction) was Richard McKenna's "Mine Own Ways" (1960).
The Invisible Man has such fairy-tale resonances and wish-fulfillment appeal that the concept, rather than the fate of Griffin, has inspired writers to think of other possible usesor drawbacksof invisibility. There have been other film take-offs and even an ill-conceived and ill-fated television series called "The Invisible Man" but owing little else to the Wells novel.
The War of the Worlds was followed by hundreds of alien-invasion stories in which humanity is challenged by superior science, more advanced technical development, greater intelligence, a more warlike society, or a more subtle danger, Sometimes humanity beats back the attack and sometimes it is conquered. Examples range from Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Moon Maid (1926) through Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (1951) to Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953) and John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977). Christopher Anvil wrote a number of alien-invasion stories for Astounding in which the point usually was the difficulties of alien conquest.
When the Sleeper Wakes owes so much to the tradition described in the title that the mechanism becomes unimportant; it was a hoary convention even then. What Wells added was the concept that the Sleeper's fortune had grown over the centuries until he owned half the world; Trustees act in his name to oppress the workers into the Labour Company. Harry Stephen Keeler used a similar notion in a 1927 story, "John Jones' Dollar," in which a single dollar grows by compound interest over the centuries to exceed the value of the solar system. Wells also envisioned, as he did in "A Story of the Days to Come" and A Modern Utopia, cities grown into great centers of population, with the aid of machines, while the land outside is virtually deserted. This concept of the future metropolis influenced generations of science-fiction writers and film-makers, including, no doubt, Fritz Lang, whose film Metropolis came out in 1927, and Isaac Asimov in The Caves of Steel (1954).
The First Men in the Moon also was less influential in its mechanism than in its message: Verne's objections to its plausibility had a firm foundation, and few subsequent writers used antigravity as a means of flying through space, one exception being James Blish in his Cities in Flight series. Other writers would seek more convincing methods of spaceflight: Verne had his cannon but Gernsback's writers had their rockets. Wells's anti-utopian civilization on the Moon and the vision of workers so completely adapted for their tasks that they were little more than a giant hand to operate a machine contributed their share to the literature of humanity's subjugation to technology.
Not all of Wells's ideas were original with him. Some of them were in the air; others were inspired, in part or in whole, by other writings. The Time Machine, for instance, came out of a Debating Society talk given during Wells's college days by a fellow student named E. A. Hamilton-Gordon; it was about the theory that time was the fourth dimension, a notion that had been suggested in 1875 by Heinrich Czolbe, and C. H. Hinton included several essays about dimensions, including "What is the Fourth Dimension?" in Scientific Romances published in 1884. Wells biographers Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie noted:
The quickness with which Wells seized on the notion of travelling through time illustrates the way he worked on his later scientific romances. He heard of some new concept or invention. He next set the novel theory in a conventional background. Then, having made the incredible acceptable by his attention to detail, his imagination was free to make what fantasies it pleased out of the resulting conflict.
Wells picked up ideas from his fellow fiction writers, as well. Oscar Wilde preceded Wells in the use of the fourth dimension as a means of escape in his 1887 story "The Canterville Ghost." And Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871) and Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872) contain a number of points of similarity with The Time Machine, including the fact that the traveler in all of them meets a girl (in Erewhon her name is even "Arowhena") who becomes his companion and explains things to him, and takes him to a large public museum where a great deal of machinery is displayed.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is Wells's most Darwinian book and owes most of its inspiration to the theory of evolution. But there were other sources. Wells himself attributed the idea for Moreau to the downfall of a man of genius in the 1890s (Oscar Wilde). The mechanism and viewpoint of the novel owe much to Swift, particularly to Gulliver's Travels. Prendick, for instance, is castaway like Gulliver and rescued by Dr. Moreau; Prendick's first reaction to the Beast People is much like Gulliver's reaction to the Yahoos; and the final chapter, after Prendick's escape from the island and return to England, is virtually identical in impact to the conclusion of Gulliver's voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms: Just as Gulliver sees Yahoos everywhere, Prendick recoils from the evidence of the Beast People in everyone. There also is something of Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym in Prendick's rescue, and Wells's "The Sayers of the Law" obviously is an imitation of, if not a parody of, Kipling's "Law of the Jungle" in The Second Jungle Book.
The Invisible Man is one of Well's most original concepts. It was preceded, nevertheless, by Fitz-James O'Brien's "What Was it? A Mystery" in 1859, Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla" in 1887, and Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing" in 1893. The last two of these, to be sure, dealt with invisible creatures rather than men; the significant difference came from Wells's use of invisibility produced through scientific means while the others described strange (sometimes supernatural) natural phenomena. The basic idea Wells got, he said, from one of W. S. Gilbert's "Bab Ballads." Call "The Perils of Invisibility," it contains the lines:
Old Peter vanished like a shot.
The War of the Worlds was in the tradition of the future war novel pioneered by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George Tomkyns Chesney's "Battle of Dorking" published in 1871 and followed by many others, twenty-two of them in 1871 alone, as I. F. Clarke has pointed out in Voices Prophesying War. Novels about life on Mars and the moon had been published before: Marie Corelli's Romance of Two Worlds was published in 1886, Tremlett Carter's People of the Moon in 1895, George du Maurier's The Martian in 1896, and F. R. Stockton's The Great Stone of Sardis in 1897, as well as Kurd Lasswitz's Auf Zwei Planeten in 1897. The speculations of Percival Lowell about the construction of canals on Mars by intelligent beings were first published in 1896, though Wells had published similar speculations a month or so earlier in an article entitled "Intelligence on Mars." The idea for the Martian invasion came from Wells's brother Frank. As Wells described it later:
We were walking together through some particularly peaceful Surrey scenery. "Suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly," said he, "and begin laying about them here!" . . . That was the point of departure. . . .
Some of the physical descriptions of Mars may have been inspired by the work of a French writer of scientific and cosmic romances, Camille de Flammarion, particularly La Fin du Monde (1894) and La Planete Mars (1892). And the Martian Heat-Ray may owe something to Bulwer-Lytton's Vril, or perhaps to a description of John Hartman's electric gun published in London newspapers in the 1890s.
When the Sleeper Wakes was characterized by Wells as "a horoscope" and "a romance of the immediate future, somewhat on the lines of Mr. [Edward] Bellamy's Looking Backwards [sic]." Looking Backward was published in 1888, but the plot of someone falling to sleep and waking up in the future goes back at least to Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" (1819). In fact, one character in Wells's novel comments that Graham's sleep is "Rip Van Winkle come real" and another that "It's Bellamy." Some of his ideas about the world to come Wells derived from theorists such as William James, but the highly mechanized future civilization he depicted leaned upon Flammarion's La Fin du Monde, which also may have influenced Anticipations and In the Days of the Comet, and in particular, "The Star," in which the action of Flammarion's novel was condensed and refined into the artistry of the short story published four years later.
The First Men in the Moon is dependent on all the earlier moon voyages, particularly Edgar Allan Poe's "Hans Pfaal" (1835), in which a Dutch bankrupt ascends to the moon by balloon. Wells's descriptions of how the earth seems to diminish in diameter and the moon to increase during the flight is much like Poe's, as well as his description of the sunrise on the moon and the moon's atmospheric conditions. Wells followed Carter's People of the Moon in making his Selenites cave-dwellers and scientists. Wells also received help from a Normal school classmate, Richard Gregory, who sent him papers on moon craters and an article published in 1900 by Nature in which a Professor Poynting described experiments on the possibility of substances acting as a screen to gravity.
Similar materials from the real and fictional worlds found their way into his short stories. "The Diamond Maker" (1894), for instance, surely was inspired by the experience of James Hannay, who announced in an 1880 paper to the Royal Society of London that he had created artificial diamonds; Wells includes a description of a process for creating diamonds that is almost identical with Hannay's. Wells got a number of ideas from the inventor J. W. Dunne, including the basic notion of the tank that later was described in "The Land Ironclads." In a letter Dunne called them "big fat pedrail machines." Wells also used Dunne as a model for an aviator in several stories.
Well's acknowledged his indebtedness to a number of writers, including Hawthorne, Poe, Kipling, and others, particularly Sterne and Swift, although he rejected comparisons to Verne and never mentioned Flammarion. Ultimately all the material Wells touched, including his own life, became his subject, and he made it his own. His vision of humanity and its problems and its place in the universe sometimes transformed that material into art.
He ended his 1902 speech to the Royal Institution with a declaration of his faith in the power of the human mind to create a better future. There are two kinds of minds, he said. One, oriented to the past, regards the future "as sort of black nonexistence upon which the advancing present will presently write events." That is the legal mind, always referring to precedents. The second kind of mind, oriented to the future, is constructive, creative, organizing. "It sees the world as one great workshop, and the present as no more than material for the future, for the thing that is yet destined to be." Finally, he predicted what might be accomplished if the future-oriented mind were given freedom to express itself: All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool and shall laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars.
Clearly Wells was finished with the pessimism of his early science
fiction. But science fiction was not finished with him.
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