Authors: H.G. Wells
Table of Contents
Orson Scott Card
Why are the writings of H. G. Wells still in print, still important, still worth reading today?
H. G. Wells was an important literary figure during his lifetime. But so, in their day, were Edmund Spenser and Thomas Gray. Edmund Spenser’s
The Faerie Queene
was considered, in its time, to be the finest achievement of English literature. Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard was one of the most memorized, most quoted poems in public life for at least a century, with tag lines like “mute inglorious Miltons” and “far from the madding crowd” that showed up in so many other people’s writing and speaking that we can only conclude that every educated speaker of the English language was expected to have read it.
And yet today it is rare for either work to find readers outside the college classroom. H. G. Wells, on the other hand, published his first short novel,
The Time Machine,
more than a century ago, but it is still read, not just by students required to study it, but also by volunteers—readers who pick it up, not because they will have to write an essay about it, but because they hope to derive pleasure from the reading.
represented two genres of writing that are both dead as far as the reading public is concerned. It was an allegory, in which the characters and objects and events did not so much represent themselves in the fictional story as they did ideas and events in the outside world; and it was an epic poem, meant to explain the heritage of a nation. Once these genres ceased to have a public following,
faded along with them.
Gray’s Elegy was in the vigorous category of essays in verse, in which a poet has an experience that prompts him to think various deep thoughts, all of which are presented in rhythm and rhyme so that the sheer sound of the language is a pleasure, along with the images and ideas. How could such a vibrant genre ever die?
And yet die it did, at least as a part of the public life of educated people. I know a good many poets who would argue passionately that I am wrong, but one has only to look at what is published in those journals that still persist in publishing poetry. How many poems are longer than twenty lines? Forty? Sixty? It is possible to argue that Gray opened the great day of this genre, and T. S. Eliot closed it; but wherever the honor or blame might be bestowed, it cannot be credibly argued that the genre is not, effectively, dead.
Nobody comes out of a movie or puts down a novel and says, “Oh, if only they could adapt this story into an epic poem!” Nor does anyone emerge from the theater or the book and immediately record his experience and thoughts in a hundred-line essay in verse. Or if someone does, it is without the faintest hope that it will find an audience larger than the number of the poet’s most patient friends.
H. G. Wells’s work remains alive because the genre that he created—science fiction—remains alive, and its readers and writers remember Wells as one of the fathers of their field. More importantly, his novels remain within the mainstream of contemporary science fiction. It is not such a far leap to go from the work of Bruce Sterling or Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein to the work of H. G. Wells.
A genre of literature remains alive as long as there is an audience that persists in seeking it out and reading it for the pleasure of it. It can also have a kind of secondary life, a bit like a suit of armor in a museum, as long as teachers make it the awful duty of students to “know” works in that genre that they would never have chosen for themselves. But the preservation and admiration of an artifact does not mean that it is not dead. Few choose to churn butter when they can buy it by the pound in the grocery store, or spend their days spinning thread so they can weave the cloth to make their own clothing.
I believe that storytelling is as vital to human life as butter churning or spindle and distaff or suits of armor ever were. There is no human society that does not devote some part of their lives to hearing tales and songs that give voice to their own experience and provide them with memories of experiences they have never had.
But the means of storytelling changes, and so does the audience.
For many centuries—from Roman times through the Middle Ages—the preferred storytelling genre was the romance. (Not the love story that we associate with that word today, but any kind of tale of the lives of heroes that includes their love affairs along with their heroic deeds.)
Romances could deal with terrible crimes and the vengeance that ensued, or with adultery leading to war, or any number of extravagant events. There was often magic and sometimes religion (less often than you might expect), but one thing was certain: Romance rarely bore much relation to the ordinary life of the members of the audience.
The fashion of jousting long outlasted its utility as training for battle—because romances made it seem wonderful and, of course, romantic to dress up in armor and try to knock someone off his horse. But as the printing press spread literacy to an ever-increasing number of people and to social classes that previously got their stories from mummers and players, some writers began to seek to write about lives of real people. And so the novel was born—the
the “new romance” that did away with the deeds of great heroes and instead told of the sorts of people readers might expect to actually meet in real life.
considered by many to be the first commercially successful novel, might seem to be pretty extravagant, but think again. The novel concerns itself with something that was not that uncommon in Defoe’s day—shipwreck. And when the book came out, much of the original audience was quite familiar with the true story of Alexander Selkirk, who was put ashore (at his own request) on a rarely visited island, where he survived for five years before being rescued.
The novel concerns itself not with heroic deeds, but with the practical problems of staying alive without technology. What the audience saw was not magic or battles or vengeance or thwarted love—they saw a man who had to swim out to a wrecked ship to retrieve supplies he’d need in order to survive. The readers in Defoe’s day knew that everything that happened in
might really happen.
And in short order other writers, liberated or motivated by the commercial success of Defoe’s novel, began their own stories of perfectly believable people dealing with difficult problems. When one reads
Pride and Prejudice
it might not come to mind that Austen owed any debt to
but she did. Because if there had been no audience for novels about real people leading seemingly ordinary lives, Austen would not have undertaken to write her books.
Which brings us, again, to the relationship between H. G. Wells and today’s literary genre of science fiction.
Wells did not invent science fiction. Jules Verne had already written his extraordinary series of novels (or, arguably, romances) in which lone scientists or adventurers achieve the technology to do previously impossible things. Like Wells’s, Verne’s works continue to be read by volunteers in the English-speaking world—and in translation, no less.
Yet, oddly enough,
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Around the World in Eighty Days,
while they continue to find new readers, did not give birth to a genre. Verne’s works remained
—instead of anyone saying, Do you read science fiction? they would say, Have you read Jules Verne?
Perhaps this is because Verne’s stories were centered on spectacle. You went along on the adventure just to see the sights. To people without television or movies, what Verne brought was a trip to the bottom of the sea, to the top of the sky, to the moon, a journey around the world. He was not exploring ideas so much as he was leading a tour.
H. G. Wells certainly gave his readers plenty to look at.
First Men in the Moon
has obvious echoes of Verne’s earlier journey there, and
The Time Machine
is as much a guided tour as
Around the World in Eighty Days
Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
But Wells did something more. The Time Machine’s time machine was like Captain Nemo’s underwater ship—a device to get us to the places Wells wanted us to see, along with some adventures involving the machine itself. Where, though, did Wells take us? Into a future that clearly developed from (and exaggerated) the ills he perceived in the society of his day. The class distinction between manual laborers operating great machines, and clerical and managerial workers whose clothing was never dirtied during the day’s work, was extrapolated into a future in which the one-time underclass has evolved into the dominant, underground-dwelling Morlocks, who keep the “white-collar” people who frolic in the sunshine as cattle, to be slaughtered and fed upon from time to time.
This was not just a guided tour. Like Jonathan Swift with
Wells took his readers to strange places in order to give them a clearer look at themselves.
The War of the Worlds
was an exciting adventure story about the effort to repel an invasion from a technologically superior race from Mars. But it also has a very clear message about the devastation caused when one group colonizes another. Written to an audience that lived in either the last throes or the heyday of the British Empire, this was a sobering idea to say, See what it’s like when an alien enemy descends upon you, and you have no power to resist them?
Still, the comparison to
is an apt one. Swift, in writing that wonderful satire, did not really spawn a genre— journeys to undiscovered lands had figured in satirical literature for generations. Whenever a writer wanted to call for the correction of ills in his own society, he could always write either a utopian novel, showing a land where they had solved all the problems and now lived idyllically, or a dystopian, cautionary one, showing a land where the problems of the writer’s own society had been taken to terrible extremes. (Indeed,
remained and remains a classic—but it did not create a genre of literature. People weren’t writing hundreds of “gullivers” a century after he wrote the first one.
Why, then, did Wells’s work leave a legacy achieved by neither Swift’s nor Verne’s?
By combining what Verne did—playing with new technologies in order to explore strange places in the real world—with what Swift did—taking readers to strange situations in order to point out problems in the real world—Wells’s fiction achieved a seriousness and urgency that Verne’s never had, and a plausibility (it could really happen!) that Swift never even attempted.
Most important, Wells wrote of a world that was being transformed, not by technology per se, but by the things human beings were choosing to do with that technology. He was no Luddite—he didn’t hate the machines. Instead he hated the way society was ordered, so that those who worked the machines were oppressed by those who merely owned them.
In fact, one can feel in Wells’s work an excitement for, a love of, the new machines. He—and his characters—embraced the new technologies, seeing in them the possibility of glorious improvements in human society, along with great dangers.
And because his readers had already seen and continued to see their world—their social patterns—radically changed by the introduction of new technology, they recognized that here at last was a writer who, instead of moaning about the lost past, was prepared to make wise guesses about where the next wave of invention might take human society, and how it might make the world better or worse.
In the lifetime of Wells’s earliest readers and their parents, England had changed from a land where every journey was a major undertaking to one where it was simply a matter of consulting the railway schedule; from a place where news of great and terrible events was transmitted by letter to a place where, if the need was great, everyone in England was a phone call or telegram away. Flickering, expensive candlelight had been replaced by gaslight and then the steady, cheap glow of the electric bulb.
These were not trivial changes, and by now everyone expected that there was more to come. They read about the attempts of various inventors to achieve heavier-than-air flight and self-propelled vehicles that didn’t have to run on tracks; they followed the news of the laying of transoceanic cables; their story of the origin of life was stretching from thousands to millions of years, from miracle to the plodding progress of evolution. Their sky was now populated not by tiny stars but by billions of suns, potentially surrounded by worlds like their own.
Wells found many readers eager to embrace his vision—or, at least, to take it seriously enough to argue with him about it.
So it was that as Wells achieved the peak of his popularity between the world wars, a Luxembourg-born American publisher named Hugo Gernsback decided to launch a cheap fiction magazine,
that offered stories “like H. G. Wells’s scientific romances.” He proposed to call this kind of story
—but the name never really caught on, in part, I think, because nobody knew whether to put the accent on
as in the word
Instead, these stories were soon called (by everyone but Gernsback),
To be honest, few of these stories were very much like Wells’s work, at least in quality. Often they were Verne-like adventure stories and guided tours. But enough of them offered the same kind of challenging visions and plausible science to keep open the possibilities Wells had first demonstrated.
Within a few years, another visionary editor, John W. Campbell, overseeing Amazing’s rival, Astounding Stories (now called Analog), transformed the genre again by insisting that his magazine’s writers make sure the science in their stories could really work—tying them, in other words, more closely to the real world, and forcing them to examine with greater rigor the difference between fantasy and what might really happen.