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Wells, H G

Entry updated 3 June 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1866-1946) UK journalist, social critic and author, Rebecca West's partner 1913-1923; the most important of all nineteenth-century sf writers in the UK and in America as well, where his early work beginning with The Time Machine (1895) was widely published in contemporary editions. These novels and stories were particularly important in the evolution of Genre SF in America, through the purchase in the 1920s of several tales by Hugo Gernsback for republication in Amazing and elsewhere, where they were promoted as models for what would soon be called science fiction (a term Wells did not apply to his own work). Throughout his UK career, from before the outbreak of World War One until at least 1940, he remained central to the evolution of the Scientific Romance (a term he was also leery of, but recognized), his influence on Neil Bell, J D Beresford, S Fowler Wright, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C Clarke and later authors being unmistakable, though an author like Stephen Baxter may trace the primary line of influence through Stapledon. Within the genre as it developed, Wells was frequently described, beside or instead of Jules Verne, as the Father of what came subsequently to be known as Science Fiction. Neither author accepted the accolade, which they both treated as a poison chalice [for details of this, and of their relationship, see entry on Verne].

To the world at large, in any case, Wells soon became as famous for nonfantastic novels like Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909) or Ann Veronica (1909) [see below for discussion] or The History of Mr Polly (1910); and for his nonfiction – amounting to nearly 2000 pieces in periodicals between 1886 and 1946, plus dozens of books, much of this output consisting of prescriptive outlines of the rational world order he thought history made indispensable. For the latter in particular, he gained worldwide fame from early in his career; after considerable journalism, his first book-length efforts in Futures Studies – like Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (coll of linked essays April-December 1901 Fortnightly Review; dated 1902 but 1901) and Mankind in the Making (coll of linked essays: early version September 1902-September 1903 Fortnightly Review; rev 1903) – became enormously influential in the decade before the world-shattering debacle of World War One, from which he emerged as a sexagenarian never again as fully in touch with the Zeitgeist: much of his later work, decreasingly in tune with the bruised, aftermath temper of the era, comprised huger and huger attempts – like The Outline of History (1920 2vols) [for more details see below], The Science of Life (1930 3vols) with Julian Huxley and G P Wells or, lightly fictionalized, The Shape of Things to Come (1933) – to synthesize the enormous range of his reasoning about the world and about its necessary future. This later work, though widely respected, was often treated as having been obsoleted by the augurs of World War Two to come, a conflict he anticipated, but until his last years treated as transitional between the muddle of the past and the World State to come.

At the time of Wells's birth his father was a shopkeeper – having earlier been a gardener and cricketer – but the business failed and Wells's mother was forced to go back into domestic service as a housekeeper. Her desire to consolidate the family's social status resulted in "Bertie"'s being apprenticed to a draper, like his brothers before him; but in 1883 he become a teacher/pupil at Midhurst Grammar School. He obtained a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London and studied biology there under T H Huxley (1825-1895), a vociferous proponent of Darwin's theory of Evolution and an outspoken scientific humanist, who made a deep impression on him. As early as 1896 – in "Human Evolution, An Artificial Process" (October 1896 Fortnightly Review) – he repudiated Social Darwinism, which had been espoused by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), though his interest in Eugenics – which began early and obdurately resurfaced for decades – made it unduly easy to justify the hierarchical social structures and culture heroes (see Superman) conspicuous in some of his earlier Utopian works, like A Modern Utopia (1905).

After taking his degree externally, Wells wrote two textbooks, Text-Book of Biology (dated 1893 but 1892 2vols), and Honours Physiography (dated 1893 but 1892) with R A Gregory, while working for the University Correspondence College. He had already begun to publish scientific journalism, including the essay "The Rediscovery of the Unique" (July 1891 Fortnightly Review) and was selling articles and short stories in large numbers by 1893. The most ambitious and important of his early articles was "The Man of the Year Million" (6 November 1893 Pall Mall Gazette), which boldly describes the titular man as Wells thought natural selection would ultimately reshape him: a creature with a huge head and eyes, delicate hands and a much reduced body, permanently immersed in nutrient fluids almost like a Brain in a Box, having been forced to retreat Underground after the cooling of the Sun. Other articles include "The Advent of the Flying Man" (8 December 1893 Pall Mall Gazette) (see Flying); and "The Extinction of Man" (25 September 1894 Pall Mall Gazette). Wells's authorship of two unsigned reviews of interest has not yet been fully established; they are "An Excursion to the Sun" (6 January 1894 Pall Mall Gazette), a poetic cosmic vision of solar storms and electromagnetic tides couched as a book review, and "The Living Things that May Be" (12 June 1894 Pall Mall Gazette), which discusses the possibility of silicon-based life. A good deal of this speculative nonfiction, including the two unsigned reviews here cited, is reprinted in H.G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction (coll 1975) edited by Robert M Philmus and David Y Hughes; it is, in general, more relaxed, more intellectually joyous, than much of his later work.

While still attending classes, Wells had also begun as noted to publish fiction, beginning with the lightly fictionalized sermon, "A Talk with Gryllotalpa" (February 1887 The Science Schools Journal) as by Septimus Browne. His early professionally published short stories tended to be less adventurous than his nonfiction, mostly featuring encounters between men and strange lifeforms, as in "The Stolen Bacillus" (21 June 1894 Pall Mall Budget), "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid" (2 August 1894 Pall Mall Budget; vt "The Strange Orchid" in Thirty Strange Stories, coll 1897), "In the Avu Observatory" (9 August 1894 Pall Mall Budget) and "Æpyornis Island" (13 December 1894 Pall Mall Budget) (see Islands). Though they would never have the transforming effect of his novels, his short work did soon grow bolder in conception, as exemplified by the visionary fantasy "Under the Knife" (January 1896 The New Review as "Slip Under the Knife"; vt in The Plattner Story and Others, coll 1897), the cosmic-Disaster story "The Star" (December 1897 The Graphic); "A Story of the Stone Age" (May-November 1897 The Idler), which is a notable attempt to imagine the circumstances which allowed Man to evolve from bestial ancestors (see Prehistoric SF); and the cautionary parable "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" (June 1898 Illustrated London News), later filmed [see below].

Later stories include three of his most famous: "The Land Ironclads" (December 1903 Strand), in which he anticipates the devastating effect of tanks (Weapons), the story first being published in book form as a contribution to The Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Gift Book (anth 1915) edited by George Goodchild; The Country of the Blind (April 1904 Strand; 1915 chap; exp of original story plus 1939 reworking, vt as coll The Country of the Blind 1939 1939 chap), a tale whose bleakness becomes exceptionally severe in the less-read 1939 revision; and "The Door in the Wall" (7 July 1906 Daily Chronicle), a tale of the longing to escape the muddle of the world. Even later, "The Lost Last Trump" (July 1915 Century Magazine), assembled, vt "The Story of the Last Trump", in Boon, The Mind of the Race, The Wild Asses of the Devil, and the Last Trump: Being a First Selection from the Literary Remains of George Boon, Appropriate to the Times (coll of linked stories and essays 1915) as by Reginald Bliss, is of interest, perhaps mainly for its premonitory (though jokingly expressed) pessimism, as the accidentally blowing of the last trump is essentially ignored by humanity, which no longer cares about the Kingdom of Heaven. In the extremely late Prehistoric SF story/essay "The Grisly Folk and their War With Men" (12 March 1921 The Saturday Evening Post), the grisly folk are Neanderthals, here unpleasantly depicted as grotesque nonhuman cannibals. Wells wrote no further short fiction of any interest.

Most of Wells's short stories were initially reprinted in five collections: The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents (coll 1895), The Plattner Story and Others (coll 1897), Tales of Space and Time (coll dated 1900 but 1899), Twelve Stories and a Dream (coll 1903) and The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories (coll 1911), the last being designed by the author as an omnibus, reprinting almost everything from earlier volumes, except two novellas. The contents of these were again reprinted, along with three tales from Thirty Strange Stories (coll 1897), in The Short Stories of H.G. Wells (coll 1927; vt The Famous Short Stories of H.G. Wells 1938; vt The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells 1965). The short stories not included in this omnibus were reprinted in The Man with a Nose and Other Uncollected Short Stories (coll 1984) along with the script for an unmade film, and are included in The Complete Stories of H G Wells (coll 1998).

There is one significant exception to Wells's seeming lack of ambition in his early stories: "The Chronic Argonauts" (April-June 1888 The Science Schools Journal; vt The Chronic Argonauts: A Precursor to The Time Machine 2012), an incomplete serial that soon went through several significantly different iterations of the basic idea, including a related series of essays – "Time Travelling: Possibility or Paradox?" (17 March 1894 National Observer), "The Time Machine" (24 March 1894 National Observer), "A.D. 12,203: A Glimpse of the Future" (31 April 1894 National Observer), "The Refinement of Humanity: A.D. 12,203" (21 April 1894 National Observer), "The Sunset of Mankind" (28 March 1894 National Observer), "In the Underworld" (19 May 1894 National Observer) and "The Time Traveller Returns" (23 June 1894 National Observer). After further revisions, this narrative ultimately became The Time Machine: An Invention (January-May 1895 The New Review; rev 1895; further rev 1895), Wells's first major work of fiction, and still his most famous, with the possible exception of The War of the Worlds (1898) [see below]. Though Enrique Gaspar's "El anachronópete" (in Novelas, coll 1887; trans Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell as The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey 2012) may be the first tale to incorporate a Time Machine, Wells's far more plausible and fully-imagined device properly established his tale of Time Travel as the default version, which it remains.

Like Joseph Conrad's similarly ominous Heart of Darkness (February-April 1899 Blackwood's Magazine as "The Heart of Darkness"; in Youth (coll 1902); 1925), The Time Machine is told as a Club Story, and dramatically prefigures the profound anxieties and dislocations about to afflict the Western World (see Decadence; Horror in SF; Imperialism; World War One). Though each tale inescapably conveys a profound unease about the future, The Time Machine, unlike Conrad's novella, is pure sf, or rather pure Scientific Romance. The protagonist, who tells his story to a group of friends, has invented a Time Machine which allows him to travel both forward and backward in time. Told in a style more evocative than the polished but stripped-down idiom Wells would soon establish, his narrative foretells without evasions the Evolution of Homo sapiens as seen through a sequence of exemplary moments. The first lesson is the most famous. The traveller has come to an initial halt 802,701 years hence, hiding his machine in a statue of the White Sphinx, whose eternally-reiterated riddle about of the nature of humanity reawakens the deep past in the very heart of the deep future (see Ruins and Futurity). He then discovers that humanity has divided into two species: the gentle but spineless Eloi, who inhabit an apparent Eden above the ground (based for Satirical reasons on the middle-class London suburb of Bedford Park); and the bestial Morlocks who labour Underground, in a powerful rendering of the implications of Social Darwinism that can be understood as a harsh corrective to the effortlessly Edenic Utopia promulgated in William Morris's Lamarckian News from Nowhere (1890), a text Wells knew well. The Time Traveller eventually escapes this era and the bitterness of its answer to the Sphinx's riddle, only to find, at last, 30,000,000 years hence, in the distant Far Future, that higher forms of life have perished, and that the Sun has cooled to a ghastly giant red orb hovering unmoving over the dead world: for the planet has ceased to rotate. It is the End of the World.

Wells's next novel is a throwback, The Wonderful Visit (1895), in which an angel displaced from the Land of Dreams casts a mildly critical eye upon late-Victorian mores and folkways; the relative inattention paid to this tale, and to The Sea Lady [see below], may be primarily due to twentieth-century critical attempts by figures like Darko Suvin to strictly circumscribe "science fiction" as a strictly cognitive literature extrapolating from the properly knowable. Wells was not perhaps, in any case, entirely comfortable with the "wilder" reaches of Fantastika, and followed The Wonderful Visit with three radically more powerful novels that have remained famous and copiously discussed in the critical literature on Wells [see about the author below].

The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896; vt [with textual omissions] The Island of Dr Moreau: A Possibility 1896) incorporates ideas from an essay, "The Limits of Individual Plasticity" (19 January 1895 Saturday Review), into the story of a hubristic Scientist populating a remote Island with a Zoo containing beasts (including a Dog) which have been surgically reshaped as men and whose veneer of civilization – exemplified by their "Big Thinks" and chanted "Laws" – proves thin (see Apes as Human; Imperial Gothic); Wells's tone, the location of his tale, and the savage scientism of its protagonist, clearly occupy the same region of thought as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Ebb-Tide (1894), a text with which he was manifestly familiar, and whose revulsion against Imperialism he shared. The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (12 June-7 August 1897 Pearson's Weekly; 1897) is a second classic study of scientific hubris brought to destruction, in this case through his criminal misuse of the Invention of a device that gives him the power of Invisibility, his incursions into a small village terrorizing its residents (see Mysterious Stranger). In the third of these famous tales, The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's Magazine; 1898; with epilogue cut 1898), Wells introduced Aliens from Mars in a role which had not yet become a Cliché: as totally unhuman monstrous invaders of Earth (see Invasion), competitors in a cosmic struggle for existence [see War of the Worlds for radio, film and television versions]; it is clear throughout that Western Imperialism is being anatomized, with the Martians being equated with white Europeans, and white Europeans with Breeds Without the Law, a telling reversal of the Imperial Gothic nightmare in which Europe must defend her virtue from barbarians. The Martian tripod fighting machines later shaped the Japanese Anime tradition of Mecha.

Perhaps relatively neglected because of its unarousing title, though it is two-thirds the length of The Time Machine (1895), A Story of the Days to Come (June-October 1899 Pall Mall Magazine; part one as "A Cure for Love: Anno Domini, 1996: A Story of the Days to Come", each of the five instalments being separately titled; 1976) comes close to Future History in its elaborate study of the world circa 2090-3000 through the lives of an exemplary young couple. Huge high-Technology Cities dominate, described in the kind of detail – Food Pills; moving walkways and other changes in Transportation including personalized "aëropiles"; most children raised in crèches; hyperbolic omnipresent Advertising – that does not often appear in Wells's work. The effect is of slightly ill-at-ease Dystopia, with hints of the more positive Wells of later years, though the description of brutish workers Underground clearly evokes Morlocks-in-embryo, just as the frivolousness of the life of the rich above evokes the Eloi. When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) is frequently anticipated, as is A Modern Utopia (1904) [for both see below] when Social Darwinism is evoked; the doctrine of Creative Evolution [see below] is also hinted at. The open spaces of the world are factory-farmed.

Marginally less grippingly told than the previous novels, When the Sleeper Wakes (7 January 1899-6 May 1899 The Graphic: 1899; rev vt The Sleeper Awakes 1910) is prophetic not only of the future in general, but of Wells's own shift away from intensely imagined fiction whose lessons (if any) well up as though unbidden from context; it is a robust romance of socialist revolution, whose hero awakes 200 years hence from Suspended Animation (see Sleeper Awakes) to play a quasi-messianic (see Messiahs) role in the Utopia/Dystopia to which he has fallen heir, a cityscape characterized by a metaphorical and political distinction between the upper reaches, where the elite lives, and the Underground, where the exploited masses sleep. Until the very different Men Like Gods (November 1922-June 1923 Hearst's International; 1923) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), it is only here, in The Time Machine, and in A Story of the Days to Come, that Wells moves much beyond the very Near Future.

In The First Men in the Moon (November 1900-April 1901 Cosmopolitan; 1901), the last of what are generally thought of as his greatest Scientific Romances, he carried forward the great tradition of Fantastic Voyages to the Moon – via a Spaceship using the Antigravity metal Cavorite (see Elements) – and described the hyperorganized Dystopian society of the Selenites, who have suffered a process of Evolution that has swelled their brains and atrophied the rest. All five book-length romances have been extensively and intensively analyzed ever since their first publication. Only slightly less powerful, The Food of the Gods, and How it Came to Earth (December 1903-June 1904 Pearson's Magazine; 1904) features a new race of giant Supermen produced by the super-nutrient Herakleophorbia which somewhat nudzhingly enlarges both body and mind (see Great and Small); at the climax of the tale, forty-foot tall giants, oppressed by the little people, declare a state of war, with the future at stake. But after these great tales the lessons begin.

In the Days of the Comet (19 February-28 March 1906 Daily Chronicle; 1906) describes the wondrous change in human personality brought about by the gases in a Comet's tail, which arrives in the nick of time, with Germany's Invasion of England threatening to succeed; magically cleansed of muddle and sexual jealousy, the protagonists (and everyone else) begin to tear down the old England and build a sane sanitary Utopia. In this tale, didactic imperatives begin to trump novelistic pleasures, in a narrative voice not free from impatience at the need to narrate. From a relatively early point, reviewers and critics were beginning to define these seven or eight early titles as exemplary instances of the Scientific Romance, and Wells spoke of them as such in early interviews, perhaps reluctantly. He later described them, along with tales like the uneasy Mysterious Stranger fantasy The Sea Lady: A Tissue of Moonshine (July-December 1901 Pearson's Magazine; 1902), as "fantastic and imaginative romances", though he excluded the latter title from The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells (omni 1933; cut vt with new preface Seven Famous Novels 1934).

Also excluded were two further titles published before World War One. In The War in the Air, and Particularly How Mr Bert Smallways Fared while It Lasted (January-December 1908 Pall Mall Magazine; 1908) Wells massively expands the Invasion topoi mainly associated at this point with Battle of Dorking tales, envisaging a Future War waged by Germany against America, with colossal destruction wrought on New York by aerial bombing, whose success is apocalyptic. Readers of the tale would be in no doubt – certainly after an equally savage destruction of London is depicted – that any New Battle of Dorking would involve bombing by Airship. The evidence that Germany had been developing Zeppelins for this purpose is in fact clear; but is also clear is that in the event, despite hundreds of civilian deaths, the German bombing of London was far less destructive than (the next war on) it would become. Indeed, the War in the Air tale leaves some hope at the end for a Pax Aeronautica to follow. A little later, in The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind (December 1913-May 1914 English Review; 1914) Wells presciently updated his choice of weapon of destruction, depending in his depiction of the havoc wrought in the world war of 1958 on the development of Nuclear Energy, of atomic bombs whose "chain reactions" cause them to explode repeatedly. The end-story extensively describes the World State that has developed, more or less inevitably, from the purgative near-death of civilization, a progression frequently asserted in Wells's later fiction and nonfiction.

In the meantime, while he was writing his great romances, Wells also began to publish realistic novels that drew heavily upon his own experiences to deal with the pretensions and predicaments of the aspiring lower-middle class. The Wheels of Chance A Holiday Adventure (9 May-19 September 1896 To-day; 1896; vt The Wings of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll 1896) is light comedy in a vein carried forward and deepened in much more powerful (and successful) tales like Love and Mr Lewisham: The Story of a Very Young Couple (10 November 1899-9 February 1900 Times Weekly Edition; 1899; vt Love and Mr Lewisham 1900), Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul (January-December 1905 Pall Mall Magazine; 1905) and The History of Mr Polly (October 1909-March 1910 State Magazine; 1910). But these tales lacked the cognitive seriousness Wells thought necessary to make his name as a serious novelist. He became an ardent champion of the novel of ideas versus the novel of character, in which it would be possible to articulate large themes and to attack issues of contemporary social concern. His most successful effort along these lines was probably Tono-Bungay (September 1908-January 1909 Popular Magazine; 1909), a sustained and engaging state-of-the-nation tale about the rise and fall of a business empire based on the titular quack remedy; an attempt to rescue this empire, by importing a quasi-magical new Element called quap, founders; as the novel ends, a destroyer designed by the protagonist steams down the Thames into the heart of darkness of the night-shrouded North Sea. Ann Veronica: A Modern Love Story (1909) is a roman à clef polemic on the situation of women in society (see Feminism); the political novel, The New Machiavelli (May-October 1910 English Review; 1910) – which was savagely guyed by Ford Madox Ford in The New Humpty-Dumpty (1912) – initiated a succession of what became known as Prig Novels, the longest and most unrelenting of these mouthpiece narratives being The World of William Clissold: A Novel at a New Angle (1926 3vols), where chapter-long seemingly interminable Infodumps, designed to present Wells's well-argued economic and political convictions, mock any pretext to storytelling, a absence mocked lightly but tellingly in A A M Thomson's The World of Billiam Wissold (1928) [see Picture Gallery under links in entry on Thomson]; except for The New Machiavelli, they have weathered ill.

From the beginning of his career [see above], Wells had directed much of his extraordinary energy to nonfiction with titles like Anticipations [cited above in full] (1901), the introduction to the 1914 reissue of which contains his first use of the term "open conspiracy", a modestly sloganish phrase used in conjunction with his anti-democratic arguments about the need for a ruling class of elite intellectual shapers and doers. The earliest dramatic presentation of this elite seems to occur in A Modern Utopia (October 1904-April 1905 Fortnightly Review; 1905), a quasi-novel whose discursive protagonists, translated mysteriously to a Utopian planet, describe while experiencing it. It is a world whose wholesome sanity and dynamic solutions to the universal problems are enabled in part by the fact that in the Alternate History suggested in this text Rome did not collapse into a Dark Age; a ruling Samurai class (perhaps distastefully to twenty-first century readers) engages in an open conspiracy (in all but name) to rule the world and its lower orders, the Poietic, the Kinetic, the Dull and the Base, a stratified population created through the application of Eugenic principles; everything the protagonists see is presented on a basis incorporating the need and likelihood of endless change. This text was followed by the entirely nonfictional First & Last Things: A Confession of Faith and Rule of Life (1908); and others.

Wells's futurological essays had early brought him to the attention of Sidney Webb (1859-1947) and Beatrice Webb (1858-1943), and he joined the Fabian Society in 1903. His subsequent career as a social crusader went through many phases. He tried to assume command of the Fabian Society in 1906, but failed and withdrew in 1908. In none of this work did he, any more than his contemporaries, rightly anticipate the disaster of World War One, whose horrors he did not anticipate in Little Wars [for subtitle see Checklist] (graph 1913), the first commercially published Wargame; or in his first utopian response to the holocaust, The War That Will End War (1914 chap), a title which soon became too famous to forget; or in what remained for some time, remarkably, his most famous novel, Mr Britling Sees it Through (20 May-21 October 1916 The Nation; 1916), where he dramatized what continued (until around this point) to seem to him the perfectly rational conviction that the Western world was going through a learning experience (see Optimism and Pessimism).

In the immediate aftermath of the War, though deeply shaken by the prescient planet-wide terror it caused, Wells continued to argue, nevertheless, that out of this conflict would come a sane solution to humanity's problems, as he sought to demonstrate in the hugely ambitious and popular The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (twenty-four magazine-like parts, 21 November 1919-7 October 1920 George Newnes Limited; 1920 2vols; with subsequent revisions), where he presented a defiantly Whig interpretation of history according to which the War opened the way to a better future under the guidance of what he would soon be calling (caps now supplied) an Open Conspiracy [see comments on Anticipations and A Modern Utopia above]. Wells first actually uses the term as a formal descriptor in The World of William Clissold (1926 3vols), expanding upon its significance in the nonfiction The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (7 April-7 July 1928 T.P.'s Weekly; coll of linked essays 1928), which argues the imperative need for the establishment of a samurai-manned revolution to establish a nondemocratic World State before the post-War chaos prove fatally interbellum. During these years of aftermath distress, Wells was a central advocate of the need for a rational governing elite whose control of those under their dispassionate sway would include "world biological controls ... of population and disease", which is to say enforced Eugenics. A consequence of the rise of Hitler – and the 1930s Nazi campaign to euthanize those deemed unfit – was, certainly on Wells's part, a much more careful advocacy of suggested routes toward world peace and plenty.

Another vast presentation of the Economic and political arguments underlying his evolving counsels, The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931 2vols), directly prefigured the last and most comprehensive of his exercises in Future History, The Shape of Things to Come (portions only 25 June-11 September 1933 Sunday Express; 1933), presented as a history of the world written in the late twenty-second century whose transmission back to 1933 is explained through a direct reference to J W Dunne's time theories, which Wells had earlier described in "New Light on Mental Life: Mr J W Dunne's Experiments with Dreaming" (10 July 1927 New York Times Magazine), and later cited in "The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper" (February 1932 Ladies' Home Journal); they are likely also to have underpinned the narrative structure of The Croquet Player (1936 chap) [see below]. The Shape of Things to Come – with unusual accuracy for a 1933 text; but see [also below] a novel published slightly earlier, The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930) – describes a World War Two which begins in 1940 between Germany and Poland. After interminable conflicts, the West declines, leading to a savage interregnum set off by a zoonotic Pandemic which kills off 50% of the world's population, a period during which – minus the book's framing device and much of its argument – Wells's filmscript Things to Come (27 September-25 October 1935 This Week; 1935) is set. The film itself, Things to Come (1936) directed by William Cameron Menzies, is faithful to the filmscript, climaxing in Art Deco scenes that spectacularly ornament the proclamation of the founding of an Air Dictatorship. This Pax Aeronautica devolves pacifically into a World State, during which epoch the pre-urban-planning chaos of London is transformed gloatingly into serried ranks of Garden Cities, rather like the Eloi suburbs satirized by Wells forty years earlier. Finally, after the World State declares itself no longer needed by a fully mature human race, the true inevitable Utopia is born. During these years Wells visited many countries, addressing the Petrograd Soviet, the Sorbonne and the Reichstag. In 1934 he had discussions with both Stalin and Roosevelt, trying to recruit them to his conviction that the world could be saved. He was one of the two or three most widely known men in the world.

Wells's own growing internal distress and post-War disillusion – the latter normally fended off in his nonfiction – became increasingly overt in a tale like The Undying Fire (29 March-10 May 1919 New Republic; 1919), a fantasy which directly re-enacts the Book of Job in contemporary England; God again accepts the wager of Satan, who speeds off to Earth at Faster Than Light speeds, and inflicts upon Job Huss every kind of misfortune, including a series of conversations with friends and thinkers who lack the necessary defiant wisdom to transcend the old God and to understand the world in terms of Creative Evolution (see George Bernard Shaw); as with the original Job, Huss's sufferings are rendered with very much more conviction than his recovery from anaesthetic into the brave bright world Wells claimed to anticipate (Outline of History was being written simultaneously). The Undying Fire and other examples of his copious late fiction was given short shrift by most critics for many years; fortunately, the works of the years 1919-1942 are dealt with in very considerable detail by Adam Roberts in his deftly opinionated H G Wells: A Literary Life (2019).

In his next novel, The Secret Places of the Heart (1922), a close-to-roman à clef tale that predicts the end of his long relationship with Rebecca West, the protagonist is less lucky than Huss: for he dies in medias res, before gaining his goal: a thanatropic pattern that would be revealingly repeated more than once in Wells's late fiction: a pattern that suggests a near-to intolerable gap – deeper than the "muddle" he routinely abhorred – between the inner man and the public advocate. This pattern is missing from Men Like Gods (November 1922-June 1923 Hearst's International; 1923), which is a kind of dramatized continuation of the themes of A Modern Utopia. A group of Earthlings is accidentally transferred via something like Matter Transmission to the world of Utopia (there is some talk of dimensions and adjacent universes, suggesting a Parallel World). There they are welcomed by a race of near Supermen, immensely long-lived (see Immortality), with population growth controlled through Eugenics (Wells had not yet learned to be cautious about this increasingly toxic set of Scientific Errors); they are beneficiaries of high Technology solutions for other problems that may arise, and are constantly stimulated by a state which has withered into a solely educative role (see Education in SF). Most of the visitors (the Imperialist Secretary of State for War Rupert Catskill seems to be a portrait of Winston Churchill, and the bullying preacher resembles G K Chesterton) attempt to conquer this Utopia, though the protagonist demurs and is allowed to remain briefly after his companions are seemingly exterminated: he is then sent back home to enlighten the twentieth century (or attempt to). Wells included the tale in The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells [see above], though the American publishers left it out, perhaps unwisely, as Men Like Gods more than once eloquently escapes its didactic remit, certainly in the moving passage where a Utopian explains the origins of his world:

The jewel on the reptile's head that had brought Utopia out of the confusions of human life, was curiosity, the play impulse, prolonged and expanded in adult life into an insatiable appetite for knowledge and a habitual creative urgency. All Utopians had become as little children, learners and makers.

Thanatropsis returns in The Dream (October 1923-May 1924 Nash's and Pall Mall Magazine; 1924), which reverses without much joy the structure of its predecessor. In the year CE 4000, after excavating some ancient ruins (see Ruins and Futurity) clearly caused by something like World War One, Sarnac dreams in great detail the frustrated life (and early death) of a twentieth century Wellsian man of the people; the bulk of the text presents Sarnac's dream, whose detailed veracity is intensified through his recounting his vision within a Club Story frame to his companions, who speculate on the squalid Sex-obsessed darkness of the past. In the end, just as he is resolving his tangled life, the subject of the dream is killed.

In Wells's next tales, where the pieties of prognostication are usually subverted from the get-go by be framed as more or less delusional, death continues to hover. The eponymous "Sargon" in Christina Alberta's Father (21 February-23 May 1925 Collier's as "Sargon, King of Kings"; 1925) is a touchingly vulnerable self-portrait of a prophet without honour, or deserving same: until the end, when "Sargon" first realizes that he was mad but that his madness, in its simplicity was purposeful; and promptly dies. The eponymous protagonist of the nonfantastic The World of William Clissold (1926 3vols) dies in the midst of articulating the Open Conspiracy (see above). In Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island [for subtitle see Checklist below] (1928), a culpably naive businessman is shipwrecked, and is saved by the superstitious Yahoo-like inhabitants (see Jonathan Swift) of the eponymous Island, whom he tries to convert to the ways of common sense; but Blettsworthy cannot prevail against their cruel and stupid tribal customs, discovering in the end that he has been delirious, and that the surreal crystalline Rampole Island generated by his afflicted Perception of reality is in fact Manhattan (see New York): but he never fully shakes himself free of a sense that men and women are Yahoos within. The foolish thinker of inflated thoughts featured in The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930) is irradiated by a Martian (see Mars) with "the Master Spirit of Manhood and Dominion and Order", which inspires him to seek charismatic political power as "Lord Paramount", though his power begins to disintegrate with the outbreak of World War Two and the bombing of London, all described in terms as prescient as the better known Predictions about the conflict in The Shape of Things to Come (1933) [see above]. He then awakens: it has been a dream, though one he has shared with his companion. The cover illustration by David Low (1891-1963) shows Parham dealing regally with an unmistakable Mussolini.

Filmscripts during this troubled period include two – for The King Who Was a King (1929), and "The New Faust" (December 1936 Nash's Pall Mall Magazine) – that never reached the screen. But as well as Things to Come [see above], Man Who Could Work Miracles [for title details see Checklist below] (January 1936 Nash's and Pall Mall Magazine; 1936 chap) was filmed as The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936) directed by Alexander Korda and Lothar Mendes. Both were assembled as Two Film Stories: Things to Come; Man Who Could Work Miracles (omni 1940).

The last romances were various. In The Croquet Player: A Story (25 November-1 December 1936 Evening Standard; 1936 chap) a village is haunted by the brutal spectres of Man's evolutionary heritage (see Apes as Human; Origin of Man), from which "There has been no real change, no real escape". There is a sense here – seemingly derived again from J W Dunne– that time has been "broken" so that the uncanny monsters of the past and the uncanny future to come can break through. But the prelusory terror of these hauntings is dodged by the socialite of the book's title, who returns to his game. In the less conspicuously distressed Star Begotten: A Biological Fantasia (1937), cosmic Rays emanating from Mars may or may not be causing Mutations in the human spirit (see Evolution; Uplift), creating a version of humanity immune to the attractions of "Big Brother"; a quasi-Eugenic result comparable to but subtler than that wrought by the miraculous Comet of In the Days of the Comet. At the end, the protagonist and his wife realize they have both been uplifted. In The Camford Visitation (1937 chap) the routines of a university are upset by the interventions of a mocking disembodied Mysterious Stranger voice. The Brothers (9 January-13 February 1938 Sunday Referee; 1938) clearly depicts, though it is set in an imaginary country, the Spanish civil war.

The Holy Terror (1939) is a full-length, painstaking but uneasy study of the psychological development of a modern demagogue based on the careers of Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, beginning in the early twentieth century and moving through the increasingly desperate and Economically bankrupt 1930s into the Near Future where, after a devastating version of World War Two, which he helps to prolong in order better to gain control of over-extended hysterical Britain, the protagonist becomes "Master Director" of a World State, though only – perhaps inevitably – to become a narcissistic tyrant (see Politics), as paranoid as the real Stalin in his last years, before he is killed off. In All Aboard for Ararat (1940), which is a pendant to The Undying Fire [see above], God asks a new Noah to build a second Ark, which is agreeable to Noah, provided that this time God will be content to remain a passenger while Man takes charge of his own destiny (see Ship of Fools). You Can't Be Too Careful: A Sample of Life 1901-1951 (1941) is a dithery Prig Novel set in a vague Near Future venue, where the protagonists are taught lessons.

The later nonfiction – typical titles including The Fate of Homo Sapiens: An Unemotional Statement of the Things That Are Happening to Him Now, and of the Immediate Possibilities Confronting Him (1939), The New World Order: Whether It Is Attainable, How It Can Be Attained, and What Sort of a World at Peace Will Have To Be (1940) and Phoenix: A Summary of the Inescapable Conditions of World Reorganization (1942) – repeats with reluctant despair the clarion calls to the World State that Wells had been uttering for decades. But The Fate of Homo Sapiens (1939) gives little hope of its establishment; and in his last work of nonfiction, Mind at the End of its Tether (1945 chap), he allowed fully into the open the disillusion that had become apparent in his increasingly disregarded fiction, particularly The Holy Terror, making it clear his conviction that mankind may be doomed because people cannot and will not adapt themselves to a sustainable way of life. In retrospect, books like this, and some of that later fiction, allow readers now to come to better terms with the public H G Wells who is now essentially unread. The late work also works in consort with his remarkable though quirky Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866) (first version 17 September 1934-6 November 1934 Daily Herald; 1934 2vols), though even this memoir defaulted frequently to passages of abstract prognostication; its continuation, H.G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography (1984) – not published during his lifetime because of its sexual content, and because it mentioned living persons – did much to round out the picture.

That picture is of a colossus who could create unforgettable imagined worlds that remain alive today, and who could posthumously persuade the world that he may have been right about the future. He is less remembered for the vast enterprises of his middle years, whose brokenness he seemed to intuit through the underrated fiction he produced during the same decades, and which can still be read with profit; the proclamatory works did not weather the second War. All the same, though the World State remains a dream, the need for it is more urgent now than when the United Nations was created in 1945 according to precepts – eventually articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted 10 December 1948 by the General Assembly – that Wells had advocated for decades, in books like The Rights of Man; Or, What Are We Fighting For? (1940). Towards the end of his life Wells himself understandably allowed his darker instincts about the future full play, as in Mind at the End of its Tether, but his passion for the betterment of the human species has become only more poignant over the troubled decades since his death.

Further films based on Wells's work include Island of Lost Souls (1932) based on The Island of Doctor Moreau; The Invisible Man (1933); The War of the Worlds (1953 and 2005); Terror is a Man (1959; vt Blood Creature), based without credit on The Island of Doctor Moreau; The Time Machine (1960 and 2002); The First Men in the Moon (1964); The Island of Dr Moreau (1977 and 1996); and, very loosely, Food of the Gods (1976). Notable Recursive SF in which Wells is a character includes The Space Machine (1976) by Christopher Priest, Time After Time (1976) by Karl Alexander (filmed as Time After Time [1979]), and "The Inheritors of Earth" (in The Time-Lapsed Man, coll 1990) by Eric Brown.

Wells was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1997. [JC/BS]

see also: Anthropology; Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Automation; Biology; Colonization of Other Worlds; Comics; Computer Wargame; Cosmology; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Death Rays; Devolution; Dime-Novel SF; Dimensions; Edisonade; Entropy; ESP; Fermi Paradox; France; Genetic Engineering; Heroes; History of SF; Hive Minds; Humour; Icons; Identity Exchange; Imaginary Science; Life on Other Worlds; Machines; Mainstream Writers of SF; Mathematics; Medicine; Money; Monsters; Music; Mutants; The Night that Panicked America; Physics; Pollution; Power Sources; Proto SF; Pulp; Radio; Rats; Religion; Rockets; Russia; SF Music; Sociology; Theatre.

Herbert George Wells

born Bromley, Kent: 21 September 1866

died London: 13 August 1946


scientific romances and others

New and definitive editions of the most famous scientific romances were in active preparation from various houses before revision of international copyright conventions extended the period of protection beyond fifty years after the author's death; see below for such editions which have appeared. Wells revised many of his works for the Atlantic edition of The Works of H.G. Wells (New York: Macmillan Company, 1924-1927) [published in twenty-six volumes]; as none of these revisions proved of major interest, and most of the contents fall outside the central remit of this entry, we do not list individual volumes below.

non-fantastic novels (selected)

collections and stories

There are numerous posthumous collections; unless they contain new material or present previous material interestingly reconfigured, they are not listed below.

nonfiction (selected)

about the author

Selected titles from a very large critical literature:


previous versions of this entry

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