For the Weekend...

Weekend Reading: James Gunn and H.G. Wells on H.G. Wells

James Gunn: H.G. Wells: The Man Who Invented Tomorrow: "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 not—and will presently die.

Certainly what Wells wrote after 1901 had to go then—and 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 updated—he 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 Fantasia—isn'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 blame—unless 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.

But with the dawn of human foresight and with the appearance of a great surplus of energy in life such as the last century or so has revealed, there has been a progressive emancipation of the attention from everyday urgencies. What was once the whole of life, has become to an increasing extent, merely the background of life. People can ask now what would have been an extraordinary question five hundred years ago. They can say, 'Yes, you earn a living, you support a family, you love and hate, but—what do you do?...'

In studies and studios and laboratories, administrative bureaus and exploring expeditions, a new world is germinated and develops. It is not a repudiation of the old but a vast extension of it, in a racial synthesis into which individual aims will ultimately be absorbed. We originative intellectual workers are reconditioning human life.

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 engineers—would 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 article—his non-fiction and his fiction were drawn from the same source—published 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.

No; man's complacent assumption of the future is too confident. We think, because things have been easy for mankind as a whole for a generation or so, we are going on to perfect comfort and security in the future. We think that we shall always go to work at ten and leave off at four and have dinner at seven forever and ever.

But these four suggestions [the evolution of the ant and the cephalopod are two of them, foreshadowing two evolutionary competitors that Wells later would turn into fiction, 'The Empire of the Ants' and 'The Sea Raiders'] out of a host of others must surely do a little against this complacency. Even now, for all we can tell, the coming terror may be crouching for its spring and the fall of humanity be at hand. In the case of every predominant animal the world has seen, I repeat, the hour of its complete ascendancy has been the eve of its entire overthrow.

From these two poles—the hope for a better future and the fear that humanity may be extinguished—Wells'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 Wakes—a 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....

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.