Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A fascinating look at H.G. Wells

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When I read H.G. Wells in junior high, I was enthralled. Roger Luckhurst was interviewed by Five Books and has some interesting things to say:

Three of the books that you have selected to talk about today were written early in H G Wells’ career, in the 1890s. Do you think that his biggest contribution to literature has been those early scientific romances?

Yes, that’s probably right. There is a common critical line about Wells which is that he started off young and enthusiastic, writing lively, ambivalent and ambiguous works. He seemed to be delightedly thinking up new ways of destroying humanity over and over again, or perversely pointing out how we were all going to degenerate down the evolutionary scale, back into sea squids. His work of the 1890s is satirical and provocative.

Then, quite early in his career, he became a famous writer and personality very fast, and in a sense started to treat himself too seriously. He did a famous lecture in 1902 at the Royal Institution called The Discovery of the Future, where he essentially said: fiction is boring! We can scientifically predict the future! And that is what I am going to do in this lecture. Some critics of Wells say that that is what he did for the next 44 years of his life. He got increasingly didactic and uninteresting; literary people in the liberal establishment like Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster hated him; he became estranged from early fans like Henry James. After his early work, he only wrote didactic utopias and non-fiction about ‘world government’. He hectored.

I think this picture is way too simple, but it is the case that if you are interested in science fiction and popular culture, then those early works—The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau—are crucial. After that, he did write some interesting works in a bewilderingly diverse array of genres, including social realism and utopias. He even had a religious phase briefly during the First World War, but also wrote histories, textbooks, novels and endless utopias. It was a very diverse career, not easy to encapsulate.

What is the enduring appeal of his early scientific romances? Why do people still read them?

He is not the ‘father of science fiction’, as people sometimes say, but he was part of a generation that was beginning to think about science as a resource for literature. I think he was very lucky to be born when he was, in 1866. He got the benefit of the Education Act of 1870, which meant he could go to college and be among the first generation to be taught scientific subjects. Consequently when he became a journalist in the 1890s his frame of reference was no longer Greek and Roman and Classical literature, as it would have been if he had been to public school and university.

So he was a young upstart from the petit bourgeoisie, of a generation that was relying on new kinds of knowledge. His cleverness was in being able to put them into a new kind of the old romance form and produce the ‘scientific romance’. They are a deliberate mix of new and old: romances rather than novels. They can be utopian or dystopian, but not in the style of literary utopia, established by Thomas More, which is often quite static, descriptive and boring. Instead, Wells’ fictions are dynamic and melodramatic, full of wild, disordered emotions, sensations of sublime awe, and total horror. You’re never quite sure where the sympathies lie, and that ambiguity is why I think they endure.

Writing about The Time Machine, you have identified the ‘Further Vision’—which occurs towards the end of the book—as one of Wells’ most impressive literary passages. Could you talk us through this scene? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2016 at 4:01 pm

Posted in Books, Science fiction

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