April 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

H. G. Wells

A little over a century ago, Herbert George Wells began the sort of literary career that just doesn’t exist today. Happily bouncing over modern genre boundaries, he produced a vast number of books: science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, "problem novels," feminist fiction, political credos, social comedies, war games -- even a satirical bicycling romance. Though his later books tended to be more didactic and less novelistic, the majority of his works still deserve to be read today. It is his role as the founding father of modern science-fiction for which he is perhaps best known, and it is a reputation well-deserved. In a staggering run of novels and stories, Wells was the first to properly explore the ideas and ramifications of most of SF’s preoccupations: alien invasion, journeys to other worlds, time travel, biological manipulation, nuclear war, bio-weapons, totalitarian states, and more. There is also an always interesting tension between his desire for and belief in attainable utopia and his equally strong (and increasingly pessimistic) belief in Darwinian survival of the fittest.

The Time Machine: An Invention (1895): Wells’s first novel is a classic story of ideas coupled with genuinely creepy adventure, setting the template for almost every time-travel narrative written since. Unfortunately it has been ill-served by a couple of cretinous movie adaptations (one by a descendent of Wells, who should have known better). He expanded it from a series of essays he had written for the Science Schools Journal in 1888. The nameless narrator develops the titular machine and travels into the distant future, where the human race has evolved into two distinct species, one of which uses the other as cattle. A further journey carries him to the far end of evolution, a few decaying life forms scrabbling pathetically under a dying sun. A clever exploration of Darwinism, a satire on the Victorian class system, and with many moments that inspire the sense of wonder which marks the best science-fiction, this would have been the crowning achievement in most writers’ careers. Wells, however, was just beginning.

The War of the Worlds (1898): Arguably his greatest book, this may also be the best book ever written about the invasion of Earth from space. Instead of the bland idealised humans that had been previous writers’ idea of life on other worlds, Wells created truly and horribly alien monsters that require huge war machines to travel around in Earth’s gravity. Armed with what are effectively lasers, and impossible to stop with anything humans can produce, these invaders calmly set about taking over the planet. The first-person narration, spectacular set-pieces and imaginative thoroughness make this a compelling and fresh novel still, so many years after its first appearance: genuinely thrilling stuff. Read it now before Spielberg and Tom Cruise wreck it.

Wheels of Chance (1896): This is the aforementioned satirical bicycling romance. It’s hard now to understand and take seriously just how threatened the bastions of Victorian England were by the invention of the bicycle. They saw people who they felt had no right to travel charging around on the roads at what seemed like dizzying speeds. Even worse, velocipedes were embraced by women, something which involved the exposure of feminine legs or even women wearing trousers. Surely society was about to collapse! Wells’s sweet novella follows the bicycling travels of the three members of a love triangle. It is one of his earliest and funniest looks at the aspirations and pretensions of the lower-middle class (a theme he’d return to in Kipps and The History of Mister Polly, among others).

The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (1897): A common SF theme that dates back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the scientist who dabbles with some strange new creation and is turned to evil and destroyed by it. Even Wells, avowedly on science’s side, could not pass up the opportunities offered by this classic plot. The tale of Griffin, who discovers how to make himself invisible, and so free from society’s restraints, and his resulting descent into crime and murder, makes for a sensational thriller. Once again, Wells wrote a story that was to be much imitated, but never bettered.

The Croquet Player (1936): A sample from the other end of Wells’s career, The Croquet Player is a disquieting and unusual ghost story. Narrated by a man whose interests have never risen beyond the social scene, it makes you wonder why nobody else ever had the idea of ghosts dating back to an era before modern human beings. After all, plenty of bloody acts must stain the stories of those who struggled to drag themselves to the top of the evolutionary ladder, becoming us in the process. A rare thing indeed, this novella manages a mix of scientific rationalism and the supernatural, all in the service of a haunting and powerful story.

An unduly complicated copyright history has meant that, the most famous books aside, many of Wells’s novels have often been hard to find. In recent years, things have improved enormously. The Modern Library in the US and Orion/Gollancz in the UK have done much good work in this direction, and the troubled House of Stratus released attractive hardcover versions of almost all of his books a couple of years ago. In 2005, things will improve again, with cascades of Wells’s books, including most of the above, being reissued as Penguin Classics in both the US and the Commonwealth.

If you like Wells, the writer with whom he is most often compared, Jules Verne, is in fact a very different sort of beast, more interested in fantastic travelogues than in mind-boggling ideas. Try Journey to the Centre of the Earth to start with, but make sure you get a modern translation, not one of the appalling, bowdlerised older versions that gave him an unfair reputation as an illiterate writer fit only for children. It is also worth reading the Professor Challenger novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World and The Poison Belt in particular. Wells’s social or problem novels could be fairly compared to those of George Gissing, Grant Allan or even Jerome K. Jerome. But in many ways, Wells has no peers. He did too much too well for any easy comparisons to be made.