Fortean Times, March 2005
HG Wells: Traversing
W Warren Wagar
Wesleyan University Press, 2004
Hb, 352pp, illus, notes, bibl, index, ISBN 0 8195 6725 6
In the 60 years since his death, Herbert George Wells has been remembered mostly for his string of scientific romances. Written in the last years of the 19th century, these novels laid the foundations for much of 20th century science fiction, and are justly regarded as masterpieces in their own right.
But simply lauding Wells as the father of SF neglects the vast bulk of his work. This critical biography, written by a US professor of history, aims to reintroduce Wells' political and philosophical ideas to a world which perhaps needs them more than ever.
For Wagar, the core of Wells' work is concerned with the unfolding of human destiny, and the battle of reason, technology and humanism against nationalism, superstition and repression. Wells' thinking was clearly influenced by the events of his lifetime born a year after the end of America's civil war and dying a year after the end of World War II, his life spanned what Wagar calls perhaps the most eventful 80 years in human experience. And from his late 20s until his death, Wells produced at least one and often up to four books every year.
Even the best-known SF novels include often overlooked elements of social and political comment the contrasting races of Morlocks and Eloi in "The Time Machine", Wells' first novel, were the product of social division along class lines; while the genocidal actions of the invading Martians in "War of the Worlds" were compared to those of Europeans against the "inferior races" of Tasmania and elsewhere.
Wells didn't just react to the times, but helped shape them, albeit not in ways that he would necessarily have wanted. Like Jules Verne, Wells is sometimes lauded for forecasting some of the technological innovations of the 20th century but in some cases, including the military use of tanks ("The Land Ironclads") and the atomic bomb (in "The World Set Free"), Well's writings directly inspired the creation of the real-world versions.
This is a comprehensive if subjective overview of the great man's life and work. Wagar flies the banner for Wells' central belief, that the only hope for mankind lies with the creation of a secular, socialist world commonwealth, led by an "open conspiracy" of progressive thinkers in industry, science and finance. More conservative, or just plain sceptical, readers might not agree. Nonetheless, Wagar is admirably critical about many of Wells' weaker novels, as well as his lapses of judgment such as a dalliance with theism during the Great War and occasional (though for the times unremarkable) racism.
FT readers might also find parallels between Wells' writings and those of his contemporary, Charles Fort. Wells rejected "wholesale dicta" governing morality, religion and art, as nothing more than forms of self-expression with no claim on fact or truth - or as Fort had it, nothing more than the right thing to wear for a while. Wells also proclaimed, in "First and Last Things", his belief in the equal significance of every person and part of the great order of the cosmos: "... the wheel-smashed frog in the road and the fly drowning in the milk are important and correlated with me." It's always the frogs...