Herbert George Wells was born on September 21, 1866 in Bromley, England, the last of four children. His mother was a house cleaner and his father was a shopkeeper. When he was eight years old, he broke his leg, spent a lot of time reading, and discovered an intense interest in books. At the age of thirteen, his father was injured in an accident so Wells had to leave school and work for a draper. He hated this work and managed to change his employment by working for his uncle and becoming a part-time tutor. This gave him the opportunity to continue his studies in his free time. He finally won a scholarship to The Normal School of Science in London. He worked as a journalist while continuing his education.
In 1891, he married his cousin Isabel. In 1894, he and Isabel were divorced and he then married one of his pupils. In 1895, Wells’ first major work was published- Select Conversations with an Uncle. His next book, The Time Machine, also published in 1895, started Wells on his road to success. This book was followed by The Island of Doctor Moreau, in 1896, The Invisible Man, in 1897, and War of the Worlds, in 1898.1
H.G. Wells was one of the fathers of modern science fiction. He made his reputation as a writer through what he called “scientific romances”2, a comment he made about his own science fiction in the 1930’s. However, he himself said that there were radical differences between his science fiction and that of Jules Verne. Wells said that his own work was “an exercise of the imagination”,2 as in The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. In these books he was not suggesting a serious possibility, just trying to imagine what might happen in a given situation.2
Jules Verne, on the other hand, based his stories on scientific knowledge. He criticized Wells as basing his books on fantastic, not scientific, assumptions. Wells in some of his books, however, like The Island of Dr. Moreau, did deal with what he called “Fantasies of possibilities”.2
Wells also considered himself a philosophical writer and urged that some of his books be taken seriously. One of his great concerns was the fact that modern man had the capability of destroying civilization. Disturbed by the onset of the First World War, he hoped that at the end of the war, a better and safer world could be constructed. By 1933, he was convinced there would soon be another major conflict. For this reason he is also called a “prophetic” writer.2
In fiction, Wells had tried to warn his contemporaries of the destructive impulses that were part of life. He felt that a novelist could express these ideas in fiction and readers might accept them if the ideas were presented as fantasy, and that the novel was the best form of fiction to influence posterity. A journalist or a writer who bases his stories on fact, and fact alone, is writing for the present. Wells felt he was writing for posterity, which is why he spent so much of his time on “the fiction of prophecy”.2
During the half-century before 1914, formative for the young H.G. Wells, the British prided themselves on what they believed to be a reasonable system of government. They passed laws that recognized the legality of trade unions and provided elementary schooling for all children. Women’s suffrage was also a major issue. Revolutionary ideas, which came to be known as Marxism, created some domestic turmoil, but Britain thought at first it was safe from the conflicts in continental Europe because it was made up of islands separated by the English Chnnel. It was a great shock when Britain was faced with a major conflict in the form of World War I.
But even as a young man Wells felt that British isolationism was a myth. Britain was drawn into the war to help its ally France and by 1916, it was obvious that the war had extracted a fearful cost. In Russia, a revolution was taking place in amidst of the war, threatening the institution of royal privilege and monarchy. In periods of instability, readers often prefer books, which permit them to escape into fantasy. Much of the literature of the time reflected themes of frustration, cynicism, and disenchantment. Many writers, like Wells, chose to describe different worlds, improbable happenings, and wild flights of the imagination.3
The Invisible Man is based on two major themes; one is that of science experiments gone wrong, and the other the ignorance of society. When the experiment he was working on did not go as planned the main character, Griffin, made himself invisible because he was suspected to be a vivisectionist and he wanted to avoid punishment. After becoming invisible, he found out that there were many more disadvantages than he expected. If he had been more cautious he would have made some unimportant things invisible before he experimented on himself.
After he was invisible, Griffin found out that people knew he was around even though they could not se him. For example, they could see his footprints. He also found out he could not eat because people could see food in his stomach until it was fully absorbed in his body. The major problem with his invisibility was that Griffin was not able to keep or have any friends. Without any human contact, Griffin was destined to become crazy. By the end of the novel, he is angry because society has turned against him. He refuses to admit that this is his fault because he was the one who did the experiments. He decides that he should do some killing to prove the power of his invisibility.
The second theme of the novel is that society is afraid of things they do not understand or cannot explain. The reason people were afraid of the Invisible Man was the fact that nobody could explain why he was invisible. The people of the town did not give Griffin enough time to explain what had happened to him; everyone just started to chase him down. The people of the town of Iping did not really want an explanation; they wanted the invisible man dead. After the people chased him out of town, he became crazy enough to decide to kill.
The Invisible Man was the person most responsible for his fate because he did not think of the consequences of his actions. Society never gave him a chance because he was something they could not understand.
This novel stresses the theme we see throughout H.G. Wells: it is dangerous to be different, to experiment with things that other people do not understand and are therefore afraid of. If you are going to take risks Wells warns, be sure you think very carefully about the consequences, which may include being laughed at and possibly persecuted.
Reading H.G. Wells in the 21st century, it is important to remember that Wells was writing by lamp light in the beginning of the 20th century. Many of the things he himself considered fantasy and impossible, we now consider possible. In the war of the worlds he fantasizes about a form of life resembling human life existing on Mars and Venus. Today our space probes have been able to approach close enough to these planets to take photographs. Now we are seriously considering the possibility that life, as we know it, may once have existed on these planets and scientific research continues to explore these possibilities. What Wells considered fantasy we now consider possibility. Another theme in Wells’ writing is that we can never feel completely secure. We can never know whether good or evil may come upon us suddenly out of space. This is particularly true in the age of long-range missiles when a weapon launched from one country can destroy life in another. Medical scientists carefully examined the astronauts who walked on the moon to be sure they were not bringing deadly viruses back to earth.
This shows that Wells was a prophetic writer. Wells describes laboratories which analyze unknown elements in much the same way as the medical scientists today examine astronauts for the physical affects of space travel and analyze carefully the rocks and other specimens they bring back with them.
The War of the Worlds (1898) describes the invasion by the Martians, who arrived from their planet in ten cylinders at 20-4-hour intervals to devastate the whole country and destroy London. The War of the Worlds impressed its readers because England was constantly being scared by the thought of possible invasions by France or Germany. The English were becoming concerned about how prepared they were to resist attack from other powers.
The scientific background is plausible. People had long believed that Mars might be populated. Astronomers supported the theory that the planet was drawing farther away from the sun and therefore getting colder. Wells suggests in The War of the Worlds that the Martians would look for a warmer climate like that of the earth. He also assumed that its inhabitants were cleverer than men. Their weapons included heat rays that pulverized artillery and battleships. Today we have something similar in a laser beam. Naturally with such devices, the Martians quickly established a reign of terror. Humankind panicked. People were being trampled and crushing each other to death.
H.G. Wells published the first edition of The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1896. This was long before the world knew anything about DNA, cloning, or chromosomes. We worry now that experiments, particularly cloning, might lead to dangerous secret experiments on humans. Wells was warning society in his time about this same thing. He was afraid that science might lead to the control of evolutionary processes.
When The Island of Dr. Moreau was published, it got bad reviews for being too outlandish.4 Today a book about cloning would be considered scientific, not just science fiction. This book is not only a warning; it also says that experiments on humans and animals are unethical. The scientists who were experimenting on the animals and humans kept them in a locked room. This proves they wanted to keep what they were doing a secret. Dr. Moreau needed to find an island far away from the civilized world because he was afraid that people would not approve of his scientific studies or if they did, they would try to steal them.
Wells says the same thing about Dr. Moreau as he said about the Invisible Man. When you isolate your self from the public and experiment with things that may get beyond your control, the results are harmful to your own well-being and that of society.4 I find The Island of Dr. Moreau particularly interesting because one version was filmed on St. Croix. Some of the local people appeared in the film and experienced first-hand some of the experiments that Wells described. Of course, it was all acting, but many people learned about H.G. Wells, the writer, and his vivid imagination because they were involved in the film.
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is the most horrifying of Wells’ novels. It introduces into his fiction the mad or immoral scientist. The doctor is seeking to make animals half human by means of vivisectional surgery, the transplantation of organs and grafts; the pain is vividly described. In Moreau’s words, “the study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature”.4
Wells began to write fantasy fiction to make money. In the latter part of the 19th century, readers were interested in the spine-chillers and prophetic works that predicted the worst. One of the reasons for this interest was the invention of so many things that people did not really understand; the phonograph, the electric light bulb, motor cars with internal combustion engines, the telegraph and telephone. If these mysterious new inventions were possible, many other things could be imagined. There is no question that Wells had an extensive imagination that made this kind of writing natural for him. He himself said that all he had to do was “…let my thoughts play about,…and presently come out of the darkness,…remote and mysterious worlds by an order, logical indeed, but other than our common sanity.”5
He admits that his aim was to write a “rattling good yarn”. Critics have pointed out that his stories can be interpreted psychologically, symbolically, and moralistically. His descriptions are considered excellent, even poetical.5
In The Time Machine the Time Traveler travels to a location in the future resembling the Thames Valley to the year 8721 A.D. There he finds decaying homes and a small race of people called the Eloi, living on fruit happy by day but frightened at night. They fear the subterranean-dwelling, ape-like race called the Morlocks. The Time Traveler discovers that the Morlocks are still meat-eaters. They like human meat and come out at night to seize their prey, the Eloi.
The Time Traveler points out that the workers have become like beasts taking revenge on their former masters, who are incapable of defending themselves. This is what happens when the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots.
After the Time Traveler finds his machine, which was stolen, he moves further into the future where man has totally disappeared and the earth is populated by huge white butterflies and crabs as big as tables. He goes on and on for thirty million years to a dark cold world where the only moving thing is a large round object the size of a football with tentacles hanging down into blood red water.
When the Time Traveler has returned and told his story to his friends, he vanishes again, this time for good. The story of The Time Machine is often interpreted to mean that civilization will destroy its makers. Even if that is so, Wells said “…it remains for us to live as though it were not so.”6
Wells’ books were, in part, based on real life happenings. He coined the phrase “the shape of things to come”7. In The Time Machine, the Time Traveler has spent all his time making the time machine to see wonderful advances in technology, knowledge, and intellect in the future. Instead, he finds only decay and degeneration.
As this report is being written, a Summit of the Americas is being held in Quebec City, Canada to discuss the development of global trade. World leaders are inside a fortified section of the city to protect themselves from the thousands of protesters who have marched there to disrupt the meeting. The world leaders say that opening up the undeveloped world to industrialization will make it a better place for everyone. The protesters, made up of labor leaders and environmentalists, are saying that removing trade restrictions will exploit the workers and destroy the environment of the world. This is the kind of dilemma we see in Wells’ novels. He prophesized that technology can bring destruction as well as advancement.
Wells urges scrutiny of “…the inanimate vastness of sidereal space.”7 Today for example, we in America are very concerned with what happened in the airspace over the Chinese island of Hainan. This unexpected accident between Chinese and American aircraft may affect the future security of all of us. As Wells would say, destruction of the earth by humankind is always possible. He even suggests, in a book like War of the Worlds, that it maybe inevitable. Wells’ was closer to future reality then even he seemed to know.
The difference is that in our time the media has changed the situation dramatically. The scientists in Wells’ nnovel their experiments in secrecy and isolation. Today the whole world can find out what is going on, or even what being planned, by reading the newspapers or watching television. In other words, secrecy is very difficult when the media and computers make most knowledge accessible to interested people in the Western world. If we are going to be destroyed, it is not only because of the scientists but because we ourselves did not pay attention to what was going on.
2. Wells, H.G, H.G. Wells’s Literary Criticism, Edited by Patrick Parrinder and Robert
Philmus, Great Britain, 1980. On Science Fiction, Utopian Fiction, and Fantasy.
3. Marwick, Arthur, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War, Boston,