H. G. Wells anticipated air and space travel, atomic bombs, bio-engineering, and even something resembling the internet. And he did it all during the Victorian age. As a futurist, his imaginative mind spun tales about time travel, invisibility, and alien invasion. Born in Kent, Britain, on the 21st of September in 1866, Herbert George Wells was brought up in a lower-middle-class family. He was forced to work boring jobs and he felt stuck between a claustrophobic present and an unyielding past. He saw the only avenue of freedom in dreaming and writing.
H. G. Wells and Science Fiction
H. G. Wells had a strong understanding of science due to his studies in biology, and this helped ground his stories in realistic detail. This instilling of realistic, commonplace details, alongside extraordinary assumptions and fantastic flights of imagination, led Joseph Conrad to call Wells the Realist of the Fantastic. During his stay in Woking, he achieved the pinnacle of success by completing The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898) in quick succession. This was by far the most creative and productive period of his entire writing career. Works that he called scientific romance show the extent of his genius and the wide-reaching impact of his revolutionary works.
1. The Time Machine (1895)
A post-apocalyptic novella, The Time Machine is a coinage and invention of H. G. Wells himself, denoting a vehicle/contraption that is able to selectively move forward and backward in time. Published in 1895 in The New Review, it was an instant success, hailed as something totally new. Influenced by William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), and based on his own short story The Chronic Argonauts (1888), the story follows the adventures of an anonymous time traveler into the future, and his frightening discoveries.
Wells plays with the notions of heavenly and hellish existences synonymous with societal class divides, by presenting futuristic humanoid species named after Old Testament Gods. The upper class has become intellectually degraded into childlike curious adults called the Eloi, who fear the dark, live in communal gardens, and survive on fruit alone. The lower working class has become apish cavemen called Morlocks, who run the machinery that sustains the paradise above; leading a slavish existence, fearful of light and brutally devouring hapless Elois.
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The work is a critique of capitalism and inequality. It is also an inquiry into the survival of power and how adversity is essential for progress. The time traveler progresses further to witness the end of the Earth, where gigantic crabs chase enormous butterflies on a blood-red beach in the light of the dying sun. Wells peppers his narrative with symbols, all of which serve as cautionary and political statements, conveying his bittersweet vision of a future that is still ravaged by present-day evils.
2. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
A mixture of science fiction and horror, The Island of Doctor Moreau abandons the subtlety of Wells’ other works in showing a terrifying vision of unprecedented scientific progress. Stemming from anxiety and opposition to vivisection, Wells magnifies the evils of humans interfering with nature to create Frankensteinian monsters. The story is a first-person narrative of the shipwrecked protagonist, Edward Pendrick. He is stranded at sea, rescued, and dumped on Dr. Moreau’s island, where he finds hybridized creatures who are half-animals and half-humans. Thoroughly scared, he believes that the mad scientist aims to turn humans into animals; however, it is revealed that he actually wants to turn animals into humans.
Wells describes Pendrick’s slow horror of being acquainted with the grotesque Beast Folk (Leopard-Man, Sloth-Man, Hyena-Swine), who have their own set of rules and creepy in-between mannerisms. Soon after, disaster follows with the inadvertent death of Dr. Moreau. The weaker beast folk are killed by the ones who return to their former animalistic stature. Catastrophe heightens when all means of leaving the island are destroyed and Pendrick is forced into a survival of the fittest.
His eventual rescue brings closure to the story, however, like in the minds of the reader, the impact of the experiments is left. It is a cautionary tale, showing the disasters scientific innovations can bring, in its journey towards advancement. The novel has been adapted into multiple forms of media, and inspired derivative works, focussing on body horror, like the works of Junji Ito.
3. The Invisible Man (1897)
Originally serialized in Pearson’s Weekly in 1897, The Invisible Man deals with the favorite dream of every child—invisibility. This is the novel that cemented Wells’ reputation as the father of science fiction. The story is a third-person narrative of a genius scientist, Griffin, who meddles with optics to change the refractive index of the human body versus the air, to render oneself invisible.
But, like any other scientific experiment that’s ahead of its time, it has its pitfalls. Invisibility is irreversible and Griffin is relegated to a life of loneliness, and his attempts at reversing the procedure only heighten his anarchist tendencies. Wells comments on the abuse of power and rule-breaking one resorts to when there are no consequences. Griffin wreaks havoc, terrorizing locals, robbing houses, and conspiring to rule the nation. His eventual demise at the hands of the authorities after several murders seems like justice, but his invention is lost to the world.
Whether it’s a loss or a disaster averted is for the readers to surmise. Wells shows both the benefits and perils of invisibility. The main message of the story is depressing—it seems that somehow humans ruin everything with their selfishness and lust for power.
Wells was influenced by W.S. Gilbert’s novella Perils of Invisibility and Plato’s Republic which posits that man’s invisibility would make him feel godlike and careless of consequences and immoral, leading to a breakdown of society. In turn, Wells’ Invisible Man has become a byword in gothic and science fiction.
4. The War of the Worlds (1898)
Serialized in Pearson’s Magazine in the United Kingdom and Cosmopolitan magazine in the United States in 1897, and later published as a book by William Heinemann, The War of the Worlds is about Martian aliens and their deadly fight with the inhabitants of Earth. The novel is a first-person narrative of an unnamed protagonist in two parts. It is one of the first works of invasion literature that highlights the intelligence of aliens, focussing on topics like Imperialism and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. For this work, Wells was inspired by the catastrophic effects of European colonization of the Aboriginal Tasmanians.
Anticipating space travel, the book begins with Martians landing out of a meteoric device and incinerating the curious humans while adjusting to the Earth’s atmosphere. They use chemical warfare like heat rays and poisonous black smoke from their fighting machines aka tripods to annihilate the human population. There are gory details of soldiers dying and Martians imprisoning humans to survive by drinking their blood in a most vampiric manner. The narrator is traumatized by life for what he has witnessed, even though the Martians succumb to earthly pathogens and die a slow death, with society returning to normal.
Wells tackles the theme of imperialism with British colonialism being akin to the Martian invasion. Showing the plight of those colonized he expresses an anti-colonial rhetoric. Wells also plays upon the common fear that the world would end apocalyptically at the turn of the century. The ending thus remains grim, with a question of what would happen if this occurred in reality.
5. The Valley of Spiders (1903)
First published in Pearson’s Magazine in March 1903, and later in Twelve Stories and A Dream (1903), Wells’ short story The Valley of Spiders is a third-person narrative about three mysterious men who are attacked by gigantic spiders on their pursuit of a fugitive girl. The story exploits the possibility of the form’s brevity to the full, starting in the middle of the action and ending abruptly, leaving interpretations open to the reader.
From the very start, pathetic fallacy is used to set the mood and atmosphere. Identity is absent, the men are known by Homeric epithets alone, like the man with the silver bridle and the gaunt man with scarred lips. Silence is pregnant with the internal dialogues of the men, and reaches the climax when an unearthly wind begins to blow, bringing with it a swarm of spider webs cocooning ginormous spiders.
Pandemonium reigns when the aerial jellyfish burst and spiders attack the hapless horses and their riders. With just the right amount of humor and satire, Wells deals with the themes of courage and cowardice, power, and rebellion. He provides a glimpse into the tyranny of men, their obsession, lust, and the human element of facing adversities unflinchingly. The story shows how humans inevitably trap themselves in their webs of actions.
6. The Country of the Blind (1904)
Dealing with mankind’s adjustment to blindness, the work was first published in The Strand Magazine in April 1904, and later in a collection of short stories titled The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911). The story envisages a bleak and dystopian future, where all residents of a Spanish community are blind due to a genetic disease. They are also stranded from civilization due to an earthquake landlocking them in a valley. Although described in Utopian terms of abundance, the presence of blindness shows how true utopia is but a myth.
By following the adventures of an outsider, Nunez, inside this community, the work shows how habits harden as generations follow generations. Of significant interest is the fact that Nunez views the community, as something to be colonized and ruled over by him. However, all that glitters is not gold, and soon escape becomes sweeter than power, or even love. The ending was revised by Wells later to make it more poignant and show the fallacy of rooted ideologies, which brings literal and metaphorical demise. Yet again, Wells displays his far-reaching vision, by using a simple disease to critique colonial intent, human power play, and fallacies of dominant ideologies.
The Enduring Legacy of H. G. Wells
According to John Higgs in The Guardian, even in the late 19th century, Wells saw the coming century clearer than anyone else. Therefore, his visions of the future remain unsurpassed by future authors who replicated and furthered the amazing annals of science fiction as a genre. Wells’ inventive, imaginative flair and unparalleled psychological nuances into the machinations of humankind and society truly make him the Father of Science Fiction.