Herbert George Wells Was Born This Day 150 Years Ago
“Wells occupies an honoured place in science fiction. Without him, indeed, I can’t see how many of it could have happened” – Kingsley Amis.
As I sit down to write here amidst the shadows of vine-leaves under the blue sky of southern England it comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my appreciation of these amazing adventures of Mr. Wells was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident. It might have been anyone. I fell into these things at a time when I thought myself removed from the slightest possibility of disturbing experiences.
Herbert George Wells: prolific and extraordinary science fiction imagineer, visionary, author of histories and polemics, and a noted public figure of his day, is best remembered nowadays for the series of scientific romances published at the beginning of his long and successful career.
Born at Bromley in Kent, young Bertie spent much of his early years in Sussex, on the south coast of England. Following a two-year apprenticeship in a draper’s shop, in 1884 he got accepted at the Normal School of Science, South Kensington, London, where he was taught biology and zoology by T.H. Huxley, one of the foremost scientific thinkers of the Victorian era. He worked as a biology tutor before becoming a professional writer and journalist.
“Wells’ scientific romances were works of art with unique relevance for our times” – Arthur C. Clarke.
“It is obviously the work of an inexperienced writer,” wrote Wells in the 1931 Preface to his first published novel: The Time Machine (1895). This work began as a rough, intermittent draft entitled: The Chronic Argonauts during his student days.
This and the subsequent novels: The Island Of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War Of The Worlds (1898), When The Sleeper Wakes (1899) and The First Men In The Moon (1901), stand as a formidable set, not only as pioneering examples of early SF, but as pinnacles of English literature in general.
It seems ironic that as the only one of this set to cover space travel, and be published in the 20th century, The First Men In The Moon is regarded as the most old-fashioned. The discovery of an anti-gravity metal: Cavorite to spark an elevation to our nearest neighbour sounds quintessentially Victorian.
His first four scientific romances, however, have endured largely because they each tap into fantasies and fears that will forever dominate the human psyche.
There is a very charming theory that the spindly, tripod war-machines that march across the Thames in The War Of The Worlds were inspired by the newly opened Daddy-Long-Legs railway at Brighton, East Sussex – the city in which this very Post has been researched, written and published. This latter novel still stands as the definitive alien-invasion-of-Earth thriller – oft-imitated, but never equalled; and it can certainly never be bettered…
His brand of science fiction did “not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good dream,” Wells wrote in 1934. “They have to hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof and argument.”
“There is no need to make allowances for the age of these novels; the science may be proto-steam punk, but Wells’ imagination was lively, vivid and timeless” – Lisa Tuttle.
“Her stews were marvellously honest,” Wells recalled. After years of malnourishment and student poverty, the meals prepared by his landlady in Midhurst, West Sussex, provided his first taste of good and proper grub. “And she was great at junket, custard and whortleberry and blackberry jam.”
They certainly helped enrich his creative powers. “An important liberator of thought and action,” according to Bertrand Russell, his educational works extended to The Outline Of History (1920) and The Science of Life (1930).
It is difficult to believe now, but at the time, his sci-roms were not deemed “respectable,” so Wells had to develop more literary works; later novels such as Kipps (1905) and Tono-Bungay (1909) are notable, but they do not exude the same power to enthral.
What is particularly striking about these sci-roms is the flourish of imagination – and a highly original one at that. While contemporaries such as Poe, James and Lovecraft accentuated the fear behind the unknown, Wells not only directly confronted the seemingly unknowable, but gave the impression that it could be scientifically explicable.
And, by gad, all this ingenuity stemming from the mind of a former mere draper’s assistant…
“The Prospero of all the brave new worlds of the mind, and the Shakespeare of science fiction” – Brian W. Aldiss.
Futurology was “an intellectual game” to Wells. He had an uncanny ability to envisage many aspects of the 20th century. He cycled “all over the southern counties,” along roads where hardly any automobile could be seen, yet he foresaw a time when four-wheeled travel would take such precedence that suburbs would spread and the landscape be transformed at an exponential rate to accommodate its rapid expansion.
Among other things, he anticipated the sexual revolution, and a phenomenon he called the “world brain” – what we would identify as a sort of proto-Wikipedia. As well as tanks, he described The War In The Air (1908), almost a decade before aerial dogfights would break out above the Western Front. In 1913, one year before the outbreak of the Great War, his novel: The World Set Free, imagined an “atomic bomb” that could be dropped from planes…
His 1933 future novel: The Shape Of Things To Come – made into a movie in 1936 – predicted the Second World War. And its catastrophic consequences…
In a letter to a friend, he described “Anticipations,” his 1902 collection of futurological essays, as: “designed to undermine and destroy the monarch, monogamy, faith in God and respectability – and the British Empire, all under the guise of a speculation about motor cars and electric heating.”
As 2016 also marks seven decades since his passing, it is fascinating to conclude that Mr. Wells’ scientific romances continue to be regarded as essential reading, and his prescient visions of the future remain unsurpassed.
Herbert George Wells: “A man ahead of his time”
21 September 1866 – 13 August 1946.