Mon
Sep 21 2009 5:40pm

Happy Birthday H.G. Wells

It’s H.G. Wells’s one hundred and forty-third birthday, and Google has chosen to celebrate it with a lovely Google-Doodle. (I liked it so much I woke my husband to come and look at it.)

It’s no exaggeration to say that Wells invented English-language science fiction. More than that, there’s a sense in which Wells invented the future. Jules Verne had written science fiction in French earlier, but Verne was writing what we’d now call “hard” science fiction. All of his inventions were plausible and one step away from reality. He could have been published in Analog, if there had been an Analog. Wells was different. He wasn’t afraid to dream further. Verne’s system of propulsion for reaching the moon worked according to the best science of the day. Wells freely created anti-gravity cavorite for his. Wells didn’t just think up science fictional devices and put them into stories, he invented the whole genre and suite of techniques for writing about them. He achieved so many firsts—the first time machine, the first alien invasion, the first uplifted animals. But far more important than the specifics of his stories was the sweep of them. He didn’t just have a story with a time machine, he included Eloi and Morlocks and the ragged claws at the end of time. He didn’t just have Martians invade, he had an entire rationale for why they were the way they were. He wrote about characters the reader could identify with taking weird science or strange futures for granted with a breadth of vision that was amazing.

Wells was an immensely popular writer in his time. He didn’t just write science fiction—though it is his science fiction that’s remembered and his mainstream books that are hard to find. His science fiction can still be read today with enjoyment. It’s hard to picture how revolutionary he was as a Victorian writer. Orwell said he was telling truths nobody else would tell and making promises that there would be a future. The “truths” were partly because Wells was a Fabian socialist (though at the time Orwell was writing that he was deeply opposed to Wells’s current politics) but mostly it was because Wells had this belief in the future that blew people’s heads off. He knew we wouldn’t necessarily have tanks (“land ironclads”) and time machines and Martians, but he knew the future was there and everyone was heading towards it. He saw that science was important and change inevitable. And he told his readers that, not in prosy homilies but in exciting stories in prose both poetic and honed as sharp as a scalpel.

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

Everybody read him and talked about his work. He shaped everybody’s imagination. He didn’t so much invent science fiction as plant the seeds that science fiction could later reap.

If he’d been in cryogenic sleep (another of his imaginations) for the last sixty years and could be woken today he’d find a lot wrong with our society—in particular he’d be saddened by the social inequities that still persist. But he’d also find much to marvel at in the advance of technology, and in the advance of science fiction. I can picture Wells today lamenting the absence of flying cars as he’s downloading Greg Egan on his iPhone.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

16 comments
EmmaPease
1. EmmaPease
Nesbit does a homage to Wells in her children's book "The story of the amulet".
Geoffrey Dow
2. ed-rex
You make a very strong case, Ms Walton. I've got The Time Machine in a box somewhere and will make a point of re-reading it when I un-pack. And more, I'm going to make a further point of seeking out the Wells I don't yet know.

Thank you.
EmmaPease
3. Teka Lynn
Orwell on Wells:

"Back in the nineteen-hundreds it was a wonderful
experience for a boy to discover H.G. Wells. There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to 'get on or get out', your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags; and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined."

I had never particularly enjoyed Wells' writing before I read this, but this essay put a good deal into perspective for me. Wells must have been an absolute revelation in his day.
will shetterly
5. willshetterly
How awesome was Wells? He was on the Nazi list of people to kill after they conquered England. If Hitler wants you dead, odds are you're okay.
Clifton Royston
6. CliftonR
Wells strikes me as a vastly more modern writer than Verne; they seem to belong to entirely different eras. I'm not enough of a literary critic to put my finger on the details of their differences, but Wells' style of clear no-nonsense writing about the most fantastic events brings them seemingly closer to reality.

You can still pick up The Time Machine or The Empire of the Ants and find yourself lost in them instantly
Clifton Royston
7. CliftonR
Oh, and Wikipedia informs me that Wells was also the originator of a hobby dear to the hearts of many Tor readers:
Miniature war-gaming, which begat miniature medieval war-gaming, which begat Dungeons and Dragons.
Ken Walton
9. carandol
Tut tut! That quote's not Wells, that's Jeff Wayne! :-) It actually goes:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.


I do like the phrase "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic".
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Carandol: Yes, well, as you got to keep the copy when we divided our books I found the quote by Googling... or rather, didn't. Sorry. Will fix.
EmmaPease
11. Jim Henry III
sps49 @4: If I'm not mistaken, Wells wrote more mainstream novels than sf novels. I've been reading G.K. Chesterton's essays from the 1910s-30s and a fair number of them comment on Wells' mainstream novels and nonfiction -- he had mostly stopped writing sf by the time Chesterton wrote these essays.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
SPS49 -- If you look at the Wikipedia article that is my first link, there's a bibliography.
EmmaPease
13. Narmitaj
As well as sf and mainstream fiction - some of which has been often adapted for TV or film, such as Kipps and The History of Mr Polly - Wells wrote a lot of non-fiction, including essays such as Anticipations, The Rediscovery of the Unique, and, in the first weeks of The Great War, The War That Will End War (a title that people still quote when going on about WWI) and great tomes of didacticism such The Outline of History, and a slew of others (pretty much ending up with Mind At The End Of Its Tether).

His 1934 2-volume Experiment in Autobiography is interesting and well worth reading.
Luke M
14. lmelior
I just finished listening to The First Men in the Moon from librivox, and it was very enjoyable except for one glaring science-related error. I'm not talking about the obvious things like Selenites' presence on the moon or the weird plants that live out their lifetimes during the lunar day, or even that there is a breathable atmosphere on the moon. I can forgive all that since it was so long before we'd actually been there (though any large scale plant life would be visible from Earth).

It was that the cavorite plate at the beginning supposedly severed the gravitational connection of every particle above it in a straight line continuing up into space. That means he treated the Earth as a point mass, but he should have known better. At most, a few particles just above the very center of the cavorite would lose their weight, but any air above the plate that has line-of-sight with the ground would still be pulled towards it. If a particle can "see" 50% of the Earth, it will weigh 50% as much. In this way, Bedford's original plan to make very heavy transports lighter would have worked.

I just had to get that off my chest. Anyway, nobody has reason to skip out on Wells' work since they are freely available. I've also enjoyed the librivox recordings of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, and I've got a couple more waiting their turn.
Ken Walton
15. carandol
Carandol: Yes, well, as you got to keep the copy when we divided our books I found the quote by Googling... or rather, didn't. Sorry. Will fix.

I just assumed you were doing it from memory, but I suppose then it would have continued with "Rom pom pom, tiddle-om tiddle-om..."
EmmaPease
16. Samwise
Gutman stopped whispering. His sleek dark eyes examined Spade's face, which was placid. The fat man asked: "Well, sir, what do you think of that?"
"I don't know."
The fat man smiled complacently. "These are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells's history, but history nevertheless."
--Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
William S. Higgins
17. higgins
Google has chosen to celebrate it with a lovely Google-Doodle. (I liked it so much I woke my husband to come and look at it.)

Wells anticipated this-- When the Sleeper Wakes! Chalk up another amazing prediction!

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