HG Wells: The man who domesticated the impossible (and also ‘invented’ the time machine)

Gautham Shenoy September 23, 2017

When Christopher Wren, the architect of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, died twelve years after its construction, in 1723, he was entombed inside it, with a dedication containing an epitaph that reads, ‘Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice’, Latin for ‘Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you’.

H. G. Wells – born 151 years and two days ago on 21 September 1866 – has neither a monument in his name or an epitaph, but if there was one, the one above would suit his legacy very well, “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you”. The monument could be anywhere in the world – wherever fantastic tales and science fiction is written and read, and sci-fi movies made and enjoyed – and this statement will hold true, for it is a monument of ideas. Testifying to this would be countless sci-fi books, movies and ideas – not to mention innumerable authors and artists – that draw their inspiration from Wells and/or his books. It isn’t for nothing that Wells is widely, and rightly so, considered to be one of the Fathers of Science Fiction.

When Wells wrote his first ‘scientific romance’ – as he called his stories – The Time Machine in 1895, he didn’t just coin the term ‘time machine’, but inaugurated a whole new genre, that of time-travel literature. Before Wells, there was no physical time travel in fiction, and since then every tale that has used a physical machine to travel through time – be it any object, even a car – can be said to draw not just its inspiration, but many of its ideas from this story of a time traveller (another term coined by Wells) who goes forth into the far futures of humanity.

The SF Masterworks editions of three H.G. Wells masterpieces – The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War of the Worlds (the blurb of which reads ‘The novel which created modern science fiction’)

In the scientific romances, he was to write very soon after, Wells brought forth from his fertile imagination more inventive, ingenious themes and tropes that were to become a staple of fantastic literature and science fiction, and still continue to be drawn upon or shamelessly plagiarised, as the case may be.

From a scientist playing god with vivisection and genetic engineering in 1896’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, and the tale of a man who makes himself unseen in 1897’s The Invisible Man to having alien Martians invade Earth in 1987 with War of the Worlds. Wells was the first to truly exploit these ideas, if not the first to birth them and anchor them strongly in public imagination, where they have stayed ever since. And the abovementioned tales are just four of his more popular works, all of which have never been out of print now for over a century and a half – a testament to their timeless and enduring appeal.

Even some of H.G. Wells’ lesser-known stories like The New Accelerator – to name just one – about an elixir that accelerates a person’s physical and mental abilities by orders of magnitude, can be seen clearly being invoked and its ideas drawn upon, in a movie like Limitless, in itself an adaptation of The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn.

SF Masterworks editions of three more H.G. Wells classics – The Shape of Things to Come, The Food of the Gods, and The Invisible Man, which carries a blurb from acclaimed SF author Thomas M. Disch calling H.G. Wells, ‘The greatest science fiction writer of them all’.

It wouldn’t be misplaced at all to consider Wells ‘the first genius of science fiction’, as one of the finest modern SF authors – who is writing Wells’ literary biography – Adam Roberts called him. While Wells’ themes were large and expansive, the hopes and fears that he played upon were basic. While his stories contain within them his ideas for the world and its future, observations on class, socialism, of science being both a blessing and a curse, his utopian ideals – none of them distract from the story being told or get so overbearing so as to get in way of their enjoyment as a fantastic adventure that a reader is swept along in. His descriptions focus on the normal, everyday and ordinary things that we can all relate to, which only serves to highlight and amplify the extraordinary. “I had realised that the more impossible the story I had to tell, the more ordinary must be the setting.”, said Wells of his writing. Offering a tip or two for writers to come, he said, “For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader to play the game properly, he must help him in every possible unobtrusive way to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. He must trick him into an unwary concession to some plausible assumption and get on with his story while the illusion holds.” No wonder H. G. Wells’ are so enjoyable, helped in no small measure by his simple, yet elegant, prose.

Little wonder that Brian Aldiss, a Grand Master of SF, who would in 1980 write Moreau’s Other Island, an ‘updated’ version of Wells’ classic, said of him, ‘H.G. Wells is the Prospero of all the brave new worlds of the mind, and the Shakespeare of science fiction’. Aldiss is not alone in being a writer who Wells influenced and inspired, the full list reads like a who’s who of literature, from Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Yevgeny Zamyantin and Jorge Luis Borges to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin right down to countless contemporary authors, SF or otherwise.

Wells did more than just write gripping yarns, he was also unusually prescient in his prediction of things and technology to come. Heat rays and directed energy weapons in The War of the Worlds, genetic engineering, automatic doors in When the Sleeper Awakes, tanks in 1903’s The Land Ironclads years before they made an appearance in the real world, same with atomic bombs and mushroom clouds in 1913’s The World Set Free, and even a wireless communication device, and a form of internet, email and voicemail in The Shape of Things to Come and Men Like Gods respectively and more including mass surveillance and cosmetic surgery. Wells was a futurist at heart, calling for the establishment of the study of futures science as early as the late 1920s and the establishment of Departments of Foresight (as he called it) decades before future studies was formally and academically studied. For this and more, H.G. Wells is also regarded by many as the ‘Father of Futurism’.

It wasn’t just science fiction that Wells wrote. He also published works of history – The Outline of History which brought history writing into the popular mainstream – and non-fiction, not least his highly influential manifesto in the form of a 1940 book called The Rights of Man. Thoughtful of the working of power, and a utopian dreamer, Wells who’d met and advised both Stalin and Roosevelt spoke of “a profound reconstruction of the methods of human living”, aspiring for guarantees of every person’s right to life, to freedom, education and work, and property for every man and woman on earth, right to privacy, and other fearlessly progressive ideas (for that time), which would ultimately contribute to and be instrumental in the creation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

H. G. Wells, however, would not be alive to see this. He’d passed away two years earlier, in 1946 to forever live among us with his ubiquitous stories, his unending influence on generations of writers to come and to whom we owe so many of the ideas that permeate SF stories today, and will surely continue to do so for as long as science fiction stories are written and told.

But if he was alive today, H. G. Wells – who wrote in his stories and books warnings of the loss of freedoms, about unbridled greed, about privacy and discrimination, about technology not properly harnessed to mention a few – would I think, surely tell us the exact same words that he’d wanted for his epitaph, but never got, “I told you so. You damned fools.”


Update (5.32 PM IST, 23 September 2017): Fixed a typo. Time Machine was published in 1895 and not 1985.