A Reflection on H.G. Wells

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” – H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, 1898

H.G. Wells is renowned as one of the main driving forces behind what has come to be known as the modern science fiction genre. At the time of writing, I’ve only read two of Wells’ novellas, that being The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Having captured my interest greatly, it is my intention to track down every one of his stories that I can get my hands on and experience the full world of his genius. Due to this it is important to note that the following rough essay will deal only with The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. 

The story told by The War of the Worlds is one that I hold in preference above the narrative of The Time Machine but there’s something really quite eerie about the future society that the Time Traveller discovers within its pages. It reads almost as a critique on the British Empire, as do parts of The War of the Worlds, and in particular a critique on the stagnation of the upper and middle classes. The Eloi have become almost pathetic throughout years of devolution whilst the Morlocks are a working class that have gained the upper hand over their old masters. It is a depiction of the formerly oppressed proletariat against the declination of the once abundant bourgeois of the Eloi. In the years that have passed since Wells was writing, Britain has seen its class system become almost completely unravelled with only a tiny minority still retaining towards the upper class. It is a far more multi-cultural society that we live in now and one that has little need for antiquated ideals of proper class. 

Though I cannot say whether that was Wells’ intention, it is of particular fascination insofar that his writing seems almost prophetic at times. His use of poison gas in The War of the Worlds comes over a decade before its use in the First World War and is indicative of a biological warfare waged by the Martians. Furthermore the Heat Ray used to catastrophic affect upon the fleeing humans can be said to be an early idea of laser weaponry, a technology that would later come to be a reality. In addition the US military is said to have constructed a technology similar to that of the Heat Ray but far less devastating. 

“Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit, and the ghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it. Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.” 

I think, for me, what makes The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds such instant classics are how grounded they are in a basic reality. Wells makes careful use of setting and indeed the path of the Martians through Winchester and Woking towards London can be easily plotted on a map. It’s this reality that gives Wells’ sci-fi it’s edge and grittiness. Though it can be said that his protagonists lean towards a very Victorian standard of distance and aloofness, it is also clear that his journalistic background helped immensely in his description of events that occur within his stories. One scene in particular that stands out to me occurs in The War of the Worlds in which a mass of people are exterminated by the Martians in their onslaught.

“One may picture, too, the sudden shifting of the attention, the swiftly spreading coils and bellyings of that blackness advancing headlong, towering heavenward, turning the twilight to a palpable darkness, a strange and horrible antagonist of vapour striding upon its victims, men and horses near it seen dimly, running, shrieking, falling headlong, shouts of dismay, the guns suddenly abandoned, men choking and writhing on the ground, and the swift broadening-out of the opaque cone of smoke. And then night and extinction – nothing but a silent mass of impenetrable vapour hiding its dead.”

It’s told in a short snappy style almost reminiscent of headlines. It hits you: one, two, three and so forth and it’s this journalistic flair that adds to the power of Wells’ writing. Of particular strength, too, is Wells’ description of the Martians and of the Morlocks. The world in which The War of the Worlds is set is one devoid of much of the technology that today’s world enjoys. As such, I believe the setting of Wells’ story is one that makes the whole idea infinitely creepier. 

Wells was a writer of certain socialistic leanings and his view of Britain and the World is particularly central to the themes behind The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. As I have already touched upon, the future world depicted in The Time Machine owes much of its conception to Wells’ impression of a stagnated society and it is no surprise that this future is one of decadence and erosion. If Wells’ critique is of the society in which he resides, it is to point out the danger in remaining on a single path throughout time. As such The Time Machine serves as a warning to the reader – if we continue to be complacent and do not seek change, this is what humanity will become. 

The Time Machine was published in 1895. It is obviously the work of an inexperienced writer, but certain originalities in it saved it from extinction.” 

Here, H.G. Wells is looking back on the novella from an outside perspective gained throughout his impressive career as a novelist. This quote is taken from Wells’ preface to a 1931 edition and perhaps sums up The Time Machine quite succinctly. Although there is much to take from and enjoy throughout its short length, aspects of the earlier narrative are more heavily weighted than later ones. This, indeed, was something that Wells himself was critical of and it is hard to argue with his point of view. The tale remains a gripping one that can keep its reader adequately entertained but one cannot help be left with a desire for more that Wells does not provide. The abrupt conclusion to the narrative insofar that we do not learn of the Time Traveller’s fate is one that can be read in two distinct ways. First, it is arguable whether it is necessary for the Time Traveller’s fate to be revealed at all and indeed by leaving it ambiguous, Wells has left room for plenty of narrative discourse. Second, by not revealing his fate, Wells’ narrative feels as incomplete as a modern day television show does when cancelled on a cliffhanger. It is the originality of Wells’ work that preserves it as a forefather to modern science fiction. Without The Time Machine it is unlikely that the genre of time travel science fiction would have become a reality and shows such as Doctor Who owe their existence in part to Wells. 

Such is the everlasting impression left by The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds over the last century that both have been subject to parodies. One such parody, The Chrono Perambulator, draws upon both of these stories in its relatively brief running time. Within its narrative, the unfortunate Time Travellers are confined to an unbreakable time loop beginning with the discovery of the mysterious remains and ending with their deaths as the previously discovered skeletons. As they become part of events they are entangled within it. In 20th century cinema, Mars Attacks is a more overt parody of The War of the Worlds and depicts a world at war with Martian invaders. Whilst The War of the Worlds opts for realism and socialistic commentary, Mars Attacks is content with a humorous approach to the depicted events. In Wells’ story the Martians have come with the sole intention of conquest and subjugation and do not show any inclination to meet with a delegation of humanity whereas the Martians of Mars Attacks appear at first to misunderstand the meaning of a dove which causes them to unleash war on Earth. The comedic leanings of Mars Attacks are in direct parallel with the chilling narrative constructed by Wells and the way in which death is handled by the film bears little resemblance to the terror that Wells wished to invoke.  

Whilst The War of the Worlds contains a much clearer and concise narrative to that of The Time Machine, it is not without its faults. As with the former novella, Wells’ protagonist is distant and difficult to connect with and as such does not provide an easy way in for the modern reader although it would have not seemed out of place in its original publication. This is, of course, a minor critique of Wells’ writing and a more significant one would relate to the narrative of the protagonist’s brother which takes up a noticeable chunk of the first part. This altogether fascinating aside to the story ultimately leads to nowhere as Wells takes the decision to drop it completely and does not return to the brother’s part in the events. It is unfortunate that Wells did this as it detracts from an otherwise perfect example of science fiction, however it is not damaging enough as to severely impact upon the tale which is intense enough to survive such criticisms. 

The way in which the Martians are ultimately defeated can be seen as potentially anticlimactic inasmuch that the human characters have a very minor impact upon their salvation. It is a bold ending chosen by Wells and draws upon his limited understanding of the biology of the Earth and it’s perhaps fitting that this unstoppable extraterrestrial force are undone by something as mundane as bacteria. The realism of this only adds to the presentation of the narrative and in the full context it is certain that no other solution would have been as appropriate. 

“But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro.” 

It is a notable aspect of the realism of Wells’ narrative that the salvation comes from the organisms with which we co-inhabit our planet. Whilst humanity resigns itself to dominion and desecration, the bacteria are already at work, killing the Martians slowly but assuredly. Furthermore it is unusual to see bacteria portrayed in such a positive light by science fiction. Whilst other authors might choose to construct a narrative around diseases caused by some bacteria, Wells chooses to present them as not only our neighbour but also our ally in this interplanetary war. He sees them for what they are: an essentiality to our continued survival. 

Overall, it is abundantly clear that Wells could write a cracking science fiction tale in his sleep and it is a testament to his skill that they have stood the test of time. Modern science fiction owes as much to Wells’ imagination, adept research and perseverance in constructing his narratives as it does to the works of Verne and other authors of the period.

Although aspects of Wells’ narrative style have almost certainly aged in the passing years since their initial publications, I find that they do not detract in any meaningful way and the modern reader is as able to appreciate Wells for his sheer scope of imagination as his contemporary readers were terrified and awed by. Science fiction is one of many things for which Wells his duly praised for but it should be noted that Wells is not merely a writer of imaginative science fiction. His skill came in part from his ability to deftly blend the more futuristic aspects of science fiction, such as the Time Traveller’s Time Machine and the menacing Tripods that belonged to the Martians, with the tried and tested genre of horror.

Moreover it can be argued that Wells owes something of his narratives in part to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The blend of science fiction with horror is one that has stood strongest throughout the many iterations of the genres and indeed there have been a number of science fiction films in both the 20th and 21st centuries that have continued to draw upon this tried and tested idea.

The greatest science fiction is one that can successfully utilise reality and blend it with a hyperreality such as the invasion of an extraterrestrial force upon a terrestrial setting. The fundamental fear of the unknown is such that drives us towards understanding what we do not yet comprehend. This is what Wells is able to draw upon in The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds and it is a skill of which few have bettered. His works are not merely pieces of science fiction but social commentaries in their own right and the allegory of colonialism is particularly prevalent in the obliteration wreaked by the Tripods.

If Wells were to be writing in Modern Britain, I feel sure that he would take great inspiration in the Western eagerness to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the rest of the world and the ever increasing threat posed by religiously motivated terrorism. The advancements in medicine and technologies since Wells’ death in 1946 would certainly be of a great influence to him as a writer in shaping any narratives he could construct. In conclusion, Wells’ deserved reputation and legacy as a master of science fiction is one that continues to expand in the near 69 years that have passed since his death and it is my fervent hope that more will continue to discover him as I have done so. It is important not to be put off by the, at times, archaic presentation of his narratives and see beyond what is written on the page and moreover to critique where critique is necessary and to be lenient where lenience is required. In this age of ‘doorstopper’ books it is refreshing to pick up Wells’s altogether leaner novellas. 

“At the risk of disappointing Richardson I stayed on, waiting for The Time Traveller; waiting for the second, perhaps still stranger story, and the specimens and photographs he would bring with him. But I am beginning now to fear that I must wait a lifetime. The Time Traveller vanished three years ago. And, as everybody knows now, he has never returned.” – H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895.


One thought on “A Reflection on H.G. Wells

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