H. G. Wells

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The English writer Herbert George Wells (September 21 1866 - August 13 1946)

Wells was born in Bromley, Kent. In his youth he was unhappily apprenticed as a draper--his years in this occupation, he later used as material for his novel Kipps: A Modern Utopia which also critiques the world's distribution of wealth.

In 1883, he became a teacher at Midhurst Grammar school, until he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London, studying biology under T. H. Huxley.

His early novels, called "scientific romances", invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds. In The War of the Worlds, alien creatures invaded Earth.

Other, non-fantastic novels were well received, like the satire on Edwardian advertising Tono-Bungay and Kipps.

From quite early in his career, he sought a better way to organize society, and wrote a number of Utopian novels. Usually starting with the world rushing to catastrophe, until people realize a better way of living: whether by mysterious gases from a comet causing people to behave rationally (In the Days of the Comet), or a world council of scientists taking over, as in The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which he later adapted for the 1938 Alexander Korda film, Things to Come. This depicted, all too accurately, the impending World War, with cities being destroyed by aerial bombs.

Wells contemplates the ideas of Nature vs Nurture and questions humanity in books like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Not all his scientific romances ended in a happy Utopia, as the dystopian When the Sleeper Awakes shows. The Island of Dr. Moreau is even darker. The narrator, having been trapped on an island of animals vivisected (unsuccessfully) into human beings, eventually returns to England; like Gulliver on his return from the Houyhnhms he finds himself unable to shake off the perceptions of his fellow humans as barely civilised beasts, slowly reverting back to their animal natures.

He called his political views socialist, and with his fondness for Utopias, he was at first quite sympathetic to Lenin's attempts at reconstructing the shattered Russian economy, as his account of a visit (Russia in the Shadows 1920) shows. But he grew disillusioned at the doctrinal rigidity of the Bolsheviks, and after meeting Stalin grew convinced the whole enterprise had gone horribly wrong. In this he was more clear-sighted than many intellectuals of his day. 1

In his later years, he grew increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for humanity, as the title of his last book, Mind at the End of its Tether suggests. His later books did more preaching than storytelling, and lacked the energy and invention of his earlier works. One critic aptly complained: "He sold his birthright for a pot of message" 2

A partial listing of his novels:

The Time Machine (1896)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)
The Invisible Man (1897)
The War of the Worlds (1898)
Love and Mr Lewisham (1900)
The Food of the Gods (1904)
Kipps (1905)
A Modern Utopia (1905)
In the Days of the Comet (1906)
Ann Veronica (1909)
Tono-Bungay (1909)
Ann Veronica (1909)
The History of Mr Polly (1910)
The New Machiavelli (1911)
Marriage (1912)
The World Set Free (1914)
Men Like Gods (1923)
The World of William Clissold (1926)
Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928)
The Shape of Things to Come (1933)


His autobiography was published in 1934, as An Experiment in Autobiography


1 For examples of his contemporaries' wilful disregard of the failings of the Soviet Union, see the book Political Pilgrims by Paul Hollander.

2 I thought Theodore Sturgeon had coined the "pot of message" remark, but on rereading the source (a Sturgeon short story from 1948 entitled Unite and Conquer) find that a character in the story was quoting a "Dr. Pierce" with that remark. Wherever it came from, it's a perfect description of why his later books weren't as good as the early ones..

This needs a lot more yet....


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