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Herbert George Wells is best remembered today as an author of several enduring science fiction classics, among them The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon and The Island of Doctor Moreau. He was also a vocal advocate of socialism and wrote a large volume of political philosophy and history in addition to his ”science romances.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Early Love of Science
Born in Bromley, Kent, on September 21, 1866, Wells was the third son of Joseph Wells, a shopkeeper, and Sarah Wells. The family’s lower-middle-class status was not helped by the fact that Wells’s father preferred playing cricket to working as a shopkeeper. When he was injured in Wells’s childhood, Wells’s mother became the primary breadwinner, working as a housekeeper. While the young Wells inherited his mother’s capacity for hard work, he did not share her religious nature. Wells later commented that he found religion of little use during a period of painful convalescence after breaking his leg in 1874. What he did find useful, he said, was the opportunity to read voraciously at this time, particularly science books. Wells later identified his reading as a turning point in his life.
Wells struggled to gain an education and finally succeeded in studying the natural sciences under the well-known proponent of evolution T. H. Huxley. Wells also became associated with the Science Schools Journal as a writer and editor.
A Prolific Writer
In 1887 Wells and his cousin Isabel Mary Wells fell in love while he was living with her family as a student. They married in 1891, though the couple divorced by 1895 and Wells soon married another woman named Amy Catherine Robbins. Not content to write only for periodicals, Wells turned his attention to books, and a good indication of how prolific he was at this time can be seen in the fact that in 1895 he published four books, including The Time Machine.
Largely on the basis of The Time Machine, which was popular during its 1895 serialization in William Ernest Henley’s New Review and even more popular when published in book form, Wells became an overnight celebrity and was compared to a host of other writers. As he notes in his autobiography, he was variously called the next Jonathan Swift, the next Jules Verne, the next Robert Louis Stevenson, the next Rudyard Kipling, the next J. M. Barrie, and so on. While his next novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, was less well received than The Time Machine, Wells nonetheless was on his way up the literary ladder.
The year 1898 was a difficult one for Wells, as several years of overwork resulted in a serious breakdown of his health, with the problem variously diagnosed as tuberculosis and kidney trouble. To recuperate, he and his wife spent much of the year in different seaside resorts on the Kentish coast. Here he met and befriended both Henry James and Joseph Conrad, who lived nearby. This year also saw the publication of Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds, a story of the invasion of Earth by Martians.
Moving Away from Science Fiction
In 1900 Wells clearly saw the need to branch out from science fiction. That year he published Love and Mr. Lewisham, his first successful realistic novel, which deals with the conflicts between academic ambition and sexual desires in a protagonist much like Wells during his undergraduate years and early teaching career. Wells continued to be a prolific writer, producing science fiction such as The First Men in the Moon (1901) and increasingly writing about politics and science’s impact on society.
Prior to World War I, such works as A Modern Utopia (1905) and The New Machiavelli (1911) established Wells as a leading proponent of socialism, world government, and free thought. During the period of widespread disillusionment that followed World War I, Wells revised his essentially optimistic vision of the future. For example, his volume of essays The War That Will End War (1914), published shortly after the outbreak of World War I, inadvertently gave the world, through its title, a cynical catchphrase for obstinate naivete; in the face of widespread corruption. But throughout the 1920s and 1930s Wells wrote social and political criticism and prognostications about the future that were increasingly pessimistic. His last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), predicts the destruction of civilization and the degeneration of humanity. Wells died in 1946.
Works in Literary Context
Wells’s critical and popular reputation rests primarily on his early works of science fiction. Wells’s science fiction was profoundly influenced by his adaptation of Huxley’s philosophical interpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory, contending that the course of life on earth, like that of any organism, follows a pattern of quickening, maturation, and decadence. Writing at a time when the notion was seriously advanced that ”everything had been discovered”— that only refinements of existing scientific and technological advances remained to be made—Huxley’s ”cosmic pessimism” was deeply disturbing, implying that humankind faced inevitable decline. Wells adopted this chilling notion in the stories and novels that he wrote in the 1890s, such as The Time Machine (1895), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), and The First Men in the Moon (1901).
Wells’s first published novel presents some of the major themes that recurred throughout his works, fictional and nonfictional. The Time Machine,” said Frank McConnell and Samuel Hynes in their essay The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds: Parable and Possibility in H. G. Wells,” ”is a parable of [a] late-Victorian state of mind—a parable in which science is used as the vehicle for meanings that are profoundly anti-scientific.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the reviewers argued, industrialization and scientific advances had created as many, if not more, problems than they had solved. The ultimate expression of Wells’s despair of human progress can be found in the climactic scene of the distant future, after the Time Traveller has fled the Morlocks who have taken Weena.
Escaping on the recovered time machine into the infinite future,” explained fellow science fiction writer and critic Jack Williamson in H. G. Wells: Critic of Progress, he finds mankind extinct and the solar system itself near death, the earth spiraling inward toward the dying sun.”
By the time Wells published The War of the Worlds, dozens of future-war stories had been read by audiences at first as cautionary tales and later for their vivid scenes of mass destruction. The War of the Worlds is also a future-war novel with many scenes of mass destruction; Wells’s innovation here consisted of the fact that this was one of the first, if not the first, such works to describe an invasion by beings from another planet. Like The Time Machine with its suggestion that the extinction of the human race is possible if not in fact likely, the result is a questioning of humanity’s confidence in its supremacy. Wells reinforces this theme with the conclusion of the novel: While some people have fought valiantly against the Martian onslaught, it is not human ingenuity or power that defeats the aliens, but rather microbes.
Evolution and Devolution
In The Island of Doctor Moreau Wells presents a microcosm both of the dark side of scientific progress and the inherent savagery of evolution. If Moreau is a twisted God figure, the Beast Folk offer a savage satire of humanity and civilization similar to that found in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, one of Wells’s favorite authors. When he returns to Europe, much like Gulliver after his experience with the Houyhnhnms, the protagonist cannot help seeing his fellow human beings as essentially animals. Despite all our seeming civilization, The Island of Doctor Moreau tells readers that because of our evolutionary heritage we are more like the Beast Folk than we would care to admit.
The novel The Time Machine also explores the implications of human evolution over the long term. In it, society has divided cleanly between the privileged Eloi and the laboring Morlocks. With the elimination of basic societal ills, the Eloi are humans that have evolved but not progressed; along with eliminating disease, crime, and other types of conflict, they no longer have a need for art or science. The Morlocks, with no chance of achieving anything greater than serving the machinery that provides the Eloi their comfortable existence, have also reached an evolutionary dead end.
Works in Critical Context
In his lifetime Wells was frequently criticized not only by those who disagreed with his socialist and agnostic tendencies but by those—such as Virginia Woolf and Henry James—who focused instead on his work’s occasional lack of polish and its tendency to drift into propaganda. In some academic quarters, Wells, in many ways so much the antithesis of the widely admired Woolf and James, continues to be regarded with condescension. In his review of David Smith’s 1986 biography of Wells, Stanley Weintraub, for example, asserts that Wells was not a great artist, nor was he a major prophet. He was an undersized boy from the working class who, after a Dickensian childhood, heightened the imaginations of readers all over the world and in the process became rich, famous, self-indulgent, and sloppier as a writer.”
Those who admired Wells in his lifetime included Anatole France, who described Wells as ”the greatest force in the English speaking world.” Though he deplored the propagandistic streak in Wells’s later novels, H. L. Mencken greatly admired the strength and vigor of Wells’s mind, calling it ”one of the most extraordinary that England has produced in our time.” In 1941—five years before Wells’s death—Sinclair Lewis suggested that ”there is no greater novelist living than Mr. H. G. Wells.” More recent biographies and critical studies by Smith, Patrick Parrinder, John R. Reed, and John Batchelor reveal that a sympathetic interest in Wells and his work continues to grow. Wells,” Batchelor suggests, is a great artist, and those of us who enjoy his work need not feel ashamed of the pleasure we take in reading him.”
To the end of his life, Wells considered his scientific romances as inconsequential. Most contemporary critics agreed with him, including his distinguished colleague, the French science fiction writer Jules Verne. Verne told interviewer Gordon Jones in Temple Bar, The creations of Mr. Wells … belong unreservedly to an age and degree of scientific knowledge far removed from the present, though I will not say entirely beyond the limits of the possible.” Verne does state, however, I have the highest respect for his imaginative genius.”
The War of the Worlds
Many critics have interpreted The War of the Worlds as an assault on Victorian imperialism and complacency. Wells repeatedly compares the Martians’ brutal treatment of their victims to civilized man’s treatment of animals and supposedly inferior races,” declared Michael Draper. ”The overdeveloped brains, lack of emotions, and artificial bodies of the Martians parody the characteristics of modern man and suggest his evolutionary destiny.” The germs that kill the Martians appear at first glimpse to be coincidental, simply a convenient deus ex machina invented by the author to bring about a pleasing conclusion,” Jack Williamson said. A second glance, however, shows this solution arising logically from the theme that progress is controlled by biological laws—which bind Martians, no less than men. Meeting a competing species of life against which they have no biological defenses, the Martians are eliminated. Ironically, their lack of defenses is probably the result of their own past progress.”
- Batchelor, John. H. G. Wells. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Bloom, Robert. Anatomies of Egotism: A Reading of the Last Novels of H. G. Wells. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 34: British Novelists, 1890-1929: Traditionalists. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Thomas F. Staley, University of Tulsa. Detroit: Gale Group, 1984.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 70: British Mystery Writers, 1860-1919. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Eds. Bernard Benstock, University of Miami, and Thomas F. Staley, University of Tulsa. Detroit: Gale Group, 1988.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 156: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880-1914: The Romantic Tradition. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. William F. Naufftus, Winthrop University. Detroit: Gale Group, 1996.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 178: British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Before World War I. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Darren Harris-Fain, Shawnee State University. Detroit: Gale Group, 1997.
- Dilloway, James. Human Rights and World Order. London: H. G. Wells Society, 1983.
- Gill, Stephen. The Scientific Romances of H. G. Wells. Cornwall, Ont.: Vesta, 1975.
- Parrinder, Patrick. Shadows of the Future: H. G. Wells, Science Fiction, and Prophecy. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
- ”Study Questions for H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- ”The Time Machine.” Novels for Students. Ed. David A. Galens. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- ”The War of the Worlds.” Novels for Students. Eds. Ira Mark Milne and Timothy Sisler. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
- ”Wells, H(erbert) G(eorge) (1866-1946).” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- ”Wells, H(erbert) G(eorge) (1866-1946).” UXLJunior DIS Covering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: UXL, 2003.
- Wood, James Playsted. I Told You So! A Life of H. G. Wells. New York: Pantheon, 1969.
- Wykes, Alan. H. G. Wells in the Cinema. London: Jupiter, 1977.
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