Wednesday, August 2, 2006

War in His World

The Artistic Legacy of H.G. Wells

Chris Moore’s stunning cover to Gollancz Press’ SF Masterworks 24, which collects Wells’ two most popular books – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.

NOVELIST, analyst of society, amateur of science and populariser of ideas, H.G. Wells’ astonishing literary career exhibits the guiding passion of a single-minded personality. He believed, above all, in shaping the progress of mankind, and in the destruction that awaited us in the absence of such control. The simple fact is that his mind and vision became so completely possessed by the sense of a crisis in human affairs, that Wells lost patience and more than once decided to give up writing fiction altogether. It was plain, he argued, that social planning on a planetary scale was essential, and that we needed to form a single world community and order. In support of that belief came a flow of words, a torrent of ideas, a mounting spate of enthusiasms from year to year that formed the mental climate of his times, and that made the word Wellsian almost a household term of criticism. Today we can realise how much more than mere fantasies his Scientific Romances were, and how his imagination was excited by the new vistas opened up by scientific conquest.

All too often, Science Fiction writers are misread as prophets, and are judged by predictive success or failure rather than literary accomplishment – yet Wells excelled in all. His first influence on SF literature was 1893's The Man of the Year Million, which introduced that potent image of a hyper-evolved man with overdeveloped head, eyes and brain, an impact famously echoed in Dan Dare’s The Mekon. In a technological sense The World Set Free imagines the use of atomic power in war and peace, but the most remarkable Wells prediction was of tank warfare, long before the outbreak of World War I, in The Land Ironclads. The Ironclads tracked each target in a camera obscura and fire with what we’d now call a joystick. Here the author anticipated not only today’s remote-controlled slaughter but also computer games.

A Dell edition of The First Men in the Moon, a novel first published in 1901. This work introduces the gravity-shielding material Cavorite, Wells’ most powerful influence on the fringes of science. This incidental device - which allows a low-budget Moon expedition in fiction – led to the establishment of an actual Gravity Research Foundation.

Wells’ great achievement was to use the apparatus of science to take a long view of the human condition, and to show how small we appear through the grandeur of the Universe. The real hero of The Time Machine is not the traveller or his device, but the concept itself – hundreds of thousands of years in which humanity is warped and divided by evolutionary pressures into a class system of effete Eloi and sinister Morlocks, and then billions of years more before that unforgettable vision of Earth’s last crab-like inhabitants on a barren shore under a blood-red dying Sun. The docile Eloi are prototype flower-children, forerunners of the hippie counterculture then seventy year distant, while the whip-wielding, ape-like Morlocks feed off the Eloi in the most literal way. This then-subversive notion that humanity is not the pinnacle of evolution but perhaps just another passing phase was more delicately finessed a year later in The Island of Doctor Moreau. Here, the Doctor’s experiments to “uplift” animals to human form and intelligence in The House of Pain is underpinned by a disquieting sense that the gulf between animal and man cannot be very great. Worshipped with extreme fear by his Manimal subjects, Moreau is the ultimate example of the mad scientist as self-appointed God, a malignant deity given to acts of Old Testament-style wrath and retribution. His relationship to the Beast Folk is a deliberate parody of the Christian conception of God; Moreau is capricious to the Manimals as, in Wells’ view, God is cruel to Man. The Doctor’s attempts to supersede evolution may be abhorrent, but Wells’ intended Moreau to be the hero of the novel, who constructs a rational code of morality to meet the complex requirements of life.

Our chronic delusions of superiority are satirised in Griffin, the megalomaniac antihero of The Invisible Man. Despite its paranoia and grotesquerie, the novel ultimately provides comfort by showing, in miniature, the fate of a would-be fascist dictator when common people unite against him. Wells then gave the British a contrasting shock in The War of the Worlds, in which the fondly cherished Victorian mandate to colonise and civilise the world is inverted. On the surface, The War of the Worlds is an invasion story, but the worries of the late Victorians are expressed through its symbolism and themes, concerns of an end to Empire and a weakening of the national will. His imperialist Martians – “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” – set about Earth without regard for its natives, debunking the complacency that assumed the superiority of British firepower, and demonstrating an exhilarating penchant for property damage (a metaphor for Wells’ ruthlessness toward humanity). Another potent Wellsian influence can be detected in these invaders, who are physically feeble and powerful only when linked, cyborg-fashion, with their war machines, thus anticipating DOCTOR WHO's Daleks.

A portrait of H. G. Wells. The author questioned society’s chances for survival in a world in which technological advances outpaced intellectual development.

The content of all great Science Fiction is partially eclipsed by the “fun stuff.” The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are magical works, and are as thrilling as anything in Haggard or Kipling. Wells wrote to warn and transform, and his spirit (evoked in such recursive fictions as Michael Moorcock’s The War Lord of the Air and Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships) remain an inspiring presence. But given that Wells touched on just about every major SF theme – with the exception of the alternate reality story – during his prolific career, its arguable that subsequent Science Fiction has simply followed in his wake, updating, reworking and subverting basic genres with varying degrees of accomplishment.