H.G. Wells is considered one of the fathers of science fiction, and if you look at a brief timeline you’ll see why he’s so extraordinary:
- 1895: The Time Machine
- 1896: The Island of Doctor Moreau
- 1897: The Invisible Man
- 1898: The War of the Worlds
- 1901: The First Men in the Moon
So basically for four consecutive years Wells got out of bed on New Year’s Day and said, “What ho! I think I’ll invent a new subgenre of scientific fiction!” And then he took a year off, only to return with a story about a moon landing. If it wasn’t for that gap in 1900, he probably would have invented cyberpunk, too.
To put this amazing streak in some perspective, Wells was born into a very poor family that fell into real poverty during his adolescence. He suffered through a series of Dickensian apprenticeships before he was able to basically study his way up Britain’s social caste system, working at several pupil-teacher positions before winning a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London and studying biology under Thomas Henry Huxley. After finally earning a B.S. in zoology he became a full-time teacher (A.A. Milne was one of his students) and then began writing the speculative fiction that made him famous. But even that wasn’t enough for him.
Take away H.G. Wells’ role as a founder of science fiction, and what’s left? Allow me to paraphrase Tony Stark: Feminist. Socialist. Pacifist. Non-Monogamist. Utopian. Campaigner against racism, anti-Semitism, and fascism. After World War I, he mostly abandoned writing science fiction in favor of realistic social critiques, and spent the last decades of his life as a lecturer and educator, trying to convince people, even as World War II was unfolding, that humanity deserved a better future.
Oh, and he popularized wargaming! He wrote a book called Floor Games in 1911, in which he developed a theory and methodology for playing children’s games with miniatures and props. Wells followed that up in 1913 with Little Wars, which was designed for “boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.” Why would a pacifist develop a wargame? He explains his reasoning in the rulebook, which was quoted at length in a recent New York Times article about gaming:
“You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be. Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion. Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but—the available heads we have for it, are too small. That, I think, is the most pacific realization conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.”
Little Wars popularized the idea of games based in miniatures and strategy with a non-military audience. It led in turn to the development of other role-playing games, and influenced Gary Gygax’s work on Chainmail as well as his later work with Dave Arneson on Dungeons & Dragons, as Gygax writes in the forward to the 2004 edition of the game.
So, having either invented or hugely influenced five different subgenres of science fiction, H.G. Wells also created the modern roleplaying game, and it’s safe to assume that he’s responsible for a huge amount of your cultural life! As an extra birthday tribute, we invite you to listen as H.G. Wells teases his “little namesake,” Orson Welles:
This article was originally published September 21, 2013.