“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
HG Wells has been called “the first modern science fiction writer”. His stories combined an encyclopedic knowledge of science, a utopian political idealism, a visionary ability to extrapolate into the future, and a pessimistic view of human nature.
Herbert George Wells was born in 1866 in a small town near London. His family lived at the edge of poverty—a small inheritance enabled his parents to set up a small sporting goods shop, which was supplemented by his father’s sporadic work as a professional cricket player.
In 1874, the young Wells broke his leg in an accident and was confined to bed for several months. His father brought him books from the local library to spend the time, and it was then that Wells decided to be a writer. A short time later, he was sent to the Thomas Morley’s Commercial Academy, a private school.
In 1880, an injury ended his father’s career as a professional cricket player, and Wells and his brothers had to find jobs to support the family. Wells first became a draper, then apprenticed to a chemist. In between, he was a student at the Midhurst Grammar School. In 1863, he became an assistant tutor at Midhurst, and a year later, Wells won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science, where he got a degree in biology, studying under Thomas Huxley—the prominent scientist who had popularized and defended Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Wells also took an interest in politics and social reform, and joined the school Debating Club. He also joined the Fabian Society, a group of socialist reformers which included several leading English literary figures. In later years, Wells ran for office several times on the (then-radically-socialist) Labor Party ticket. He remained a socialist all his life.
Wells had an authoritarian and elitist streak in him, however, and his writings always presented a pessimistic view of humanity’s ability to save itself. On several occasions he suggested that most people were too ignorant and uneducated to run their own government, and opined that perhaps the vote should be restricted to highly educated scientists and other intelligentsia. Wells became involved with the “eugenics” movement which was then popular in Europe and the United States. The eugenicists argued that humanity could be “improved” if the “weak” were prevented from reproducing and passing on their “inferior genes”. The eugenics movement led to a number of programs in Europe and the US in which “mentally feeble” people or convicted criminals were forcibly sterilized—culminating later in the Nazi horrors of euthanasia and extermination.
While at the Normal School, Wells helped found the Science School Journal, and wrote a number of articles and stories. He also wrote a short story titled “The Chronic Argonauts”, his first science fiction story.
In 1895, Wells returned to the time-traveler theme of “The Chronic Argonauts” and wrote his first science fiction novel, The Time Machine. Although other writers had used time travel as a story element, Wells was the first to base his fiction on real scientific findings. As Wells was writing the book, physics was just undergoing the opening stages of the quantum revolution, and the idea of time as a fourth dimension was first being seriously discussed (within ten years Einstein would use his theory of relativity to unify these four dimensions into a single “spacetime”). In describing the future through which the time machine traveled, Wells also made use of an emerging understanding of astronomy, describing how the sun, in the far future, swelled in the sky as it became a red giant, and how the earth, gradually losing its rotational energy, becomes tidally locked in its orbit so the same side always faces the sun.
Wells’ understanding of biology, taught to him by Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) is also apparent in the novel, as he uses the principles of evolutionary biology to describe the future humans as two distinct species, each split off from the single parent.
The futuristic story of the Eloi and the Morlocks is based on Wells’ socialist view of classes and the hypocrisy of Victorian England. Like English capitalism, the future world was divided into two classes. One class did all the work and ran all the machinery, while the other class lived a life of indolent luxury. In Wells’ future world, one upper group literally lives in the light, while the other lower group literally lives in the darkness. In this future world, however, the Morlocks have overthrown the Victorian social order, and the lower-class inhabitants of the darkness, driven by starvation and poverty, have taken control and now feed on (literally) the upper class.
Central to this theme is Wells’ scathing criticism of the then-popular theory of “Social Darwinism”. Popularized by Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism claims to apply the scientific principles of evolution and natural selection to human society, and declares that the ruling elite in any human society (such as, for instance, English industrialists) got to be the rulers because they are the “most fit”, and thus they naturally rise to the top because of their inherent superiority. In Victorian England and particularly in the United States, with its rigid and stark class distinctions and its tiny elite of wealthy robber barons, this view was enthusiastically embraced as a “scientific” justification for capitalist society. Many Social Darwinists also preached eugenics, as a way to maintain the “purity” of those who were “fittest”.
While Wells was himself sympathetic to eugenics, he flatly rejected Social Darwinism and, as a trained biologist, saw a fatal flaw in its reasoning—perfect adaptation to the environment does not make a species stronger, it makes it evolutionarily weaker. Without the need for further adaptation and development, the species becomes stagnant and easily falls into extinction when its environment changes. In evolution, the most vigorous species are those which are constantly adapting to a diverse variety of habitats and challenges. Species which are comfortable and unable to adapt to challenges, fall victim to species which can. In The Time Machine, Wells points to the logical conclusion of the Social Darwinist theory.
Wells’ next book was The Island of Dr Moreau, published in 1896. Once again, Wells was able to combine a current social idea with a knowledge of science, into a penetrating social commentary. By the end of the 19th century, medical science was making enormous strides. Biological and anatomical studies, and the theory of evolution, had demonstrated the underlying unity of life, including the remarkable similarity between humans and other animals. It was even thought that the “spark of life” itself was beginning to be understood (an idea that had been explored in 1818 in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).
Wells drew from contemporary headlines in his book. Medical experiments, including vivisections on living animals (most often without any anesthesia) were a common practice at the time—and so were protests against it. In 1875, the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection was formed, the first animal rights group in England—which led in 1898 to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Today, in an era where genetic alterations and xenotransplants make it entirely possible to combine traits of different species, the social debate over medical experimentation has returned with a vengeance.
Wells used that current social debate as the framework within which to weave together a number of themes. The most immediately apparent theme, of course, is human cruelty. The character of Dr Moreau is depicted as arrogant, self-absorbed, and indifferent to all the pain and suffering he causes in the name of his idealistic goal. Nevertheless, real human doctors outdid even Moreau in cruelty—as the barbaric Dr Mengele in Auschwitz, and the horrifying “medical research” carried out in the United States on humans around syphilis, radiation and others, later demonstrated.
Also apparent is the theme of “science as god”. Moreau’s conceit is that he believes he not only has the right to intervene in the process of evolution and manipulate life at will, but that he can ultimately control that life to his own ends (a theme that was taken up 100 years later in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park).
Moreau is a godlike figure, literally, to his creations. And within this, we can see some of Wells’ own views on religion. Moreau is not really God—he does not create new life, he merely alters existing life. Moreau is therefore the Church, the representative of God who speaks with Holy Authority. In Moreau’s island, of course, there is no God—as the sole religious authority, Moreau simply makes up his own Law for his own purposes, indoctrinating the Beast Men and trusting that their simple-mindedness will keep them obedient and submissive. The rulers of Dr Moreau’s island do not depend solely upon brute force to maintain control (although they do use the constant threat of the House of Pain). Instead, Moreau uses his religious authority and The Law to prevent the Beast Men, who far outnumber the rulers, from uniting in common action. Similarly, as a socialist, Wells viewed Victorian England as an island where the ruling class used the Church’s religious authority (and the state’s law and jails) to uphold the existing order and to keep the lower classes obedient.
Just a year after The Island of Dr Moreau, Wells wrote the third of his classic science fiction novels –The Invisible Man. The central theme of this novel, like the earlier ones, revolves around science and scientists, and their attempts to control and manipulate nature. In The Invisible Man, Wells moves on to the topic of morality—what would a man do if he could get away with anything? Could scientists—who Wells himself had always viewed as the best of men--be safely trusted not to abuse the enormous powers they controlled?
There is also an underlying theme about individuality and social needs—the Invisible Man, unseen by everyone around him, nevertheless finds that he has an unstoppable need to be a part of society, to associate with those around him. He expends enormous effort to find a way to fit in and remain a functioning part of society, but when all these methods fail, he locks himself away from other humans, drives everyone out, and his forced solitude drives him insane.
The next year, Wells wrote his fourth book, which would become the most famous of his science fiction classics—The War of the Worlds. It contained the same themes of science, biology, and pessimism of humanity’s capacity to save itself.
After War of the Worlds, Wells’ novels took a more distinctly political and social aim. When the Sleeper Wakes, written in 1899, centers around a man who falls asleep for 200 years, awakens in a future society where the ruling elite have complete control, and ends up leading a revolution to topple the rulers. In 1905, he wrote A Modern Utopia, in which a futuristic socialist society is depicted. A year later, he published In the Days of the Comet, in which humans, preparing enthusiastically for a disastrous large-scale war, are affected by mysterious vapors from a passing comet, which clears their minds and turns them from their destructive course.
As the First World War approached, however, and tensions began to rise in Europe, Wells became darker and more pessimistic. His 1914 novel The World Set Free deals with a massive war in which “atomic bombs” explode for days at a time, wreaking widespread destruction. In 1933, as Hitler rose to power in Germany, Wells wrote The Shape of Things to Come, which featured the then-fantastic idea of entire cities being destroyed by massive airplane attacks, as well as submarine-launched missiles, during a world war. Wells later said that these novels were not “predictions”; they were “warnings”.
Wells died in London in August 1946. A few years before his death, in the preface to a reprint of one of his lesser-known works, The War in the Air, he had written that his epitaph should read: “I told you so, you damn fools.”