H G Wells, The Time Traveller

21 May

At the end of the 19th century people felt excited over the new discoveries of science, which seemed to promise so much for the future. No English writer expressed this feeling so well as Herbert George Wells (1866-1946). He was born at Bromley in Kent and grew up in poverty and hardship. He struggled to educate himself by winning scholarships, and studied biology under T H Huxley. He used his knowledge of science as the starting point for a series of exciting and fantastic stories, such as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. Some of their most startling ideas have since come true. As a novelist, he is best remembered for his science fiction novels, but his literary output was vast and extremely varied. Before he became a successful novelist, Wells worked as a draper’s apprentice, a chemist’s assistant and a teacher. He knew about the problems of ordinary people, and wrote about their ambitions and disappointments in novels such as Kipps and The History of Mr Polly, which are full of life and humour. Wells became a socialist and wrote many books about history and science so that people would be able to understand the important ideas of the modern world. These works include The Shape of Things to Come, The Science of Life and a popular history book, The Outline of History.

Wells’ career as a writer was marked by a provocative independence. The Time Machine (1895) is a social allegory set in the year 802701, describing a society divided into two classes, the subterranean workers, called Morlocks, and the decadent Eloi. This was followed by The Island of Doctor Moreau (1986), an evolutionary fantasy about a shipwrecked naturalist who becomes involved in an experiment to ‘humanize’ animals by surgery; The Invisible Man (1897), a science fiction romance about a scientist who fatally stumbles upon the secret of invisibility; and The War of the Worlds (1898), a powerful and apocalyptic vision of the world invaded by Martians. Much of this novel’s power depends on the contrast between the familiar stupid bourgeois complacent reactions of the humans and the terrifying destructive intelligence of the Martians, who devastate the country before eventually falling victims to terrestrial bacteria. A broadcast by Orson Welles of a dramatization of The War of the Worlds in the USA on 30 October 1938 caused a furore, many of its millions of listeners taking it for a factual report of the invasion by Martians of New Jersey!

The novels of H G Wells combined, in varying degrees, political satire, warnings about the dangerous new powers of science fiction, and a desire to foresee a possible future. Wells’ preoccupation with social as well as scientific progress distinguishes his works from the fantasies of Verne. Although his later years saw a decline in his creative power, Wells continued to reach a huge audience, notably with his massive The Outline of History (1920) and with many works of scientific and political speculation (including The Shape of Things to Come, 1933), which confirmed his position as one of the great popularisers and one of the most influential voices of his age. The dark pessimism of his last prediction, Mind at the End of its Tether (1945), may be seen in the context of his own ill health and the course of the Second World War. One of his last statements (made after Hiroshima) was an exhortation to humankind to confront its ‘grave and tragic’ destiny with dignity and without hysteria. Oddly, Wells died of unspecified causes on 13 August 1946, aged 79, at his home at 13 Hanover Terrace, Regent’s Park, London. Some reports also say he died of a heart attack at the flat of a friend in London. In his preface to the 1941 edition of The War in the Air, Wells had stated that his epitaph should be: “I told you so. You damned fools”. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 16 August 1946, with his ashes scattered at sea near Old Harry Rocks.

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