No. 4 – H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and the Social Impacts of Science

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I suspect what most people remember most about H. G. Wells gets confused with Orson Welles, the actor. You know, that infamous radio announcement? When the radio started blaring out reports on Halloween, 1938, that New Jersey was being invaded by aliens from outer space, the resulting panic led to unofficial evacuations on a large scale. Nobody, at the time, believed the unintended consequences of the radio theatre broadcast were funny. At least, no public admissions that I’m aware of. Many writers have discussed the after effects of this event and concluded many things, including various government efforts at stonewalling the public on numerous issues to prevent widespread panic. Orson Welles was briefly confused with H.G. Wells as the author of The War of the Worlds. Well, perhaps for a short time.

Amazing Stories' 1927 September Issue with H G Wells
The Amazing Stories’ September 1927 issue hosting a story by H G Wells.

H. G. Wells started out a poor lad and did poorly at a variety of boring jobs. He managed to teach himself various subjects and was employed as a pupil-teacher, a senior student who taught the younger ones. He persevered in his education, however, and it’s likely that his early beginnings in near poverty are the well spring for his socialist leanings. As a political animal, his writing, in both fiction and non-fiction works, often critiqued contemporary social conditions. Wells was a Labour Party candidate in the early 1920s and he continued to critique the divisions between Capitalist and Labourer.

The Time Machine by HG Wells Tor Classics
The Time Machine by HG Wells Tor Classics

The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are very popular works that have both been adapted to movies more than once. A newcomer to SF will still find them interesting reads. The Time Machine emphasizes Well’s continuing interest in social relations.

I suspect most time travelers would go ahead to find out what the state lottery numbers will be so they can come back and get rich. Or maybe they want to go back a couple hundreds years to witness some event of great interest to them. But Wells, when he travels, goes forward over 800,000 years. He is looking for some ultimate answers in his time travel. He is searching for a definition of the human condition.

In The Time Machine, the protagonist befriends the Eloi, who serve the Moorlocks. It is a story with a message about the English social classes. Wells portrays the easy life for do-nothing masters, living in luxury, provided by a class of miserably poor subservients who are stuck in eternal labor. This was representative of Wells’ economic and social values. He was criticized for his public statements on both socialism and eugenics, another topic discussed within the pages of The Time Machine.

The Time Machine marks in interesting development in science fiction. This debut of “time travel,” based on revolutionary thinking in the science community about the structure of the universe, becomes part of the cultural milieu of the average woman on the street. We now have this very popular story introducing a science subject of high interest. Not just to accomplished scientists, but within society’s general population. It is a crucial development in SF’s march through time. 002A Time Machine

The War of the Worlds has several themes, not lost upon many are the dangers of total war involving large evacuations of civilians from populated areas. Another is the Darwinian struggle to survive–only the fittest are to remain after the conflict. And then we have the issue of imperialism, something that was an emerging issue with citizens of the British Empire.

Ultimately, science can explain why the attacking Martians are defeated. It is the tiny life forms invisible to the naked eye, the microbials, that infect the Martians. It is an enemy they cannot defeat. Humanity is saved from enslavement, or worse, and all the aggressors perish. From this point on, humanity will have to start making plans for the defense of Earth against invasion by extraterrestrials. At least in literature.

War of the Worlds by HG Wells 1953
Cover art of a 1953 edition of The War of the Worlds by HG Wells.

The cover art at right can be found at Pinterest, which I recommend you visit if you like cover art. The site has dozens of covers in several languages and the collection for The War of the Worlds is both fantastic and extensive.

Wells’ work, The World Set Free, is marginally science fiction in that radium plays such a critical role in the plot. Radium’s normal decay rate releases energy slowly, but in this plot its decay rate becomes accelerated, resulting in continuous explosions. This made quite an impression on Leo Szilard, the physicist who later experimented with nuclear chain reactions.

Wells wrote several utopian novels where people suddenly come to their senses, avert war or catastrophe, and act in the common interest. One of his more popular books, The Island of Doctor Moreau, is rather dark, however. It revolves around the creation of sentient beings from various combinations of animals. Call them hubridnoids, hybrid humans, or cruel creations, but don’t call them that to their face.

HGWells The Island of Doctor Moreau MacmillanUSA
The Island of Doctor Moreau – Tor Classics

Doctor Moreau’s disturbing experiments in biogenetics are hardly an endorsement for one of Wells’ favorite political arguments: eugenics. The novel exposes Doctor Moreau as morally bankrupt whose science experiments have run amuck. His tinkering with human evolution is a dangerous activity that threatens the social order and violates ethical standards. Doctor Moreau is an evil man with a deluded vision for the perfection of humanity through technical means. He is the role model for “the mad scientist.

This is a historic archetype, along the lines of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, which predates Doctor Moreau. The mad scientist is a central figure in so much SF literature to follow. After leaving Doctor Moreau’s island, you just cannot look at human beings the same way.

 Many writers just can’t separate their political selves from their fictional works. It somehow splits their personalities, I suppose, and Wells’ developed a reputation, even amongst his friends, of being politically cantankerous as he got older. Still, his insights on contemporary events gave his fictional works greater credence and seemingly more prophetic and plausible.

In The Shape of Things to Come (1933), he predicted the outbreak of World War II within four months. It was later adapted into the movie Things to Come (1936), painting an all too realistic picture of the coming world at war and the horrors of aerial bombardment.

What Wells introduced to the SF community of writers, publishers, critics, and fans was a moral imperative. Science fiction becomes more than entertainment, but an indictment of society’s ills. Wells establishes a theme of moral responsibility; science and technology, he argues, must be held accountable for the unintended consequences they impose upon not just our physical well being, but our social evolution.

Despite Wells’ personal disappointment in the political arena, his influence on one political figure was enormous. José Figueres Ferrer, revolutionary and president of Costa Rica, read Wells’ non-fiction book, The Outline of History, and permanently abolished his country’s military.

Wells was resilient, pursuing his interests to his end. His legacy continues and despite the serious opposition he faced from contemporaries, his impact on social science influenced writers, scientists, and the public to question technological progress.

You can find free H.G. Wells Ebooks at: The Univeristy of Adelaide Library; ManyBooks(dot)net, Read Central(dot)com, Google Ebooks, and The Project Gutenburg.

4 COMMENTS

  1. You make a very insightful observation. I guess when an author like Wells creates such groundbreaking work for the genre it makes it easier for the casual fan to compare or contrast all of those who follow. But for the modern writer, recognizing the social implications of political climate is not enough unless they utilize the power behind the forum of science fiction to its fullest potential as well.

    • I believe that's true. And that's never easy, is it?

      Wells, as a socialist, had tried to lead the pack in the struggle of Laborer with Capitalist during the 1920s and 1930s. Socialism had not yet taken on a dark shade. It was seen by many as a continuation of the labor movement, an extension of unionizing efforts which many experienced as a hard won fight.

      In considering modern politics, we are not just divisive and polarized, but ossified. That can make it difficult for a writer to find common ground in politically charged atmospheres. I sympathize with any writer addressing contemporary social impacts because they can inadvertently destroy their own career. To navigate a course with publishers, advocate socially responsible positions, and be financially successful requires a skillful social navigator with professional credibility and original thinking in their works. These are difficult criteria to master and exploit.

      Leadership in social responsibility exists in SF, but we don’t always recognize it immediately. And our writers and poets don’t always realize their leadership role. Maybe that’s what makes SF luminaries so interesting to read. Science fiction can really stir the pot for social change and Wells was one writer who tried to fully utilize the science fiction forum to its fullest extent. Maybe he didn’t always win, but I think that having a following, sometimes, is sufficient.

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