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Herbert George Wells
1866 - 1946
 



The English author Herbert George Wells began his career as a novelist with a popular sequence of science fiction that remains the most familiar part of his work. He later wrote realistic novels and novels of ideas.
 

 

On Sept. 21, 1866, H. G. Wells was born in Bromley, Kent. His origins were lower middle class, his father being a semi-professional cricket player and his mother an intermittent housekeeper. At the age of 7 Wells entered Morley's School in Bromley, leaving at the age of 14, when he became apprenticed to a draper. He rebelled against this fate in 1883. After a year of teaching at a private school, he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science at South Kensington in 1884, where he studied under the biologist T. H. Huxley. Wells left Kensington without a degree in 1887, returning to teaching in private schools for three years. He received a degree in science from the University of London in 1890.

Wells began teaching at a correspondence college in London in 1891 after his marriage to his cousin Isabel. The marriage was both difficult and brief. In the same year he published his article "The Rediscovery of the Unique" in the Fortnightly Review. After three years of writing on educational topics, he published his first novel, The Time Machine. Divorcing his first wife, Wells remarried in 1895 and abandoned teaching. A series of scientific fantasies followed The Time Machine: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Awakes (1898), The First Men in the Moon (1901), and The War in the Air (1908). Wells's involvement with socialism and radicalism had begun in 1884 and continued for the remainder of his life.

Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900), Wells's first non-science fiction novel, concerned the relationship of men and women and introduced sex as an integral part of that relationship. His semiautobiographical novels continued with Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909), and The History of Mr. Polly (1910). These novels are considered his greatest achievement.

As his novels indicate, Wells was hostile to the Victorian social and moral orders. His criticism became explicit as his involvement with radical causes grew. Wells as prophet wrote Anticipations (1901), Mankind in the Making (1903), and A Modern Utopia (1905). He joined the Fabian Society, a socialist group that included George Bernard Shaw and Sydney Webb, in 1903; after an unsuccessful attempt four years later to turn Fabianism to mass propaganda and political action, Wells resigned. The New Machiavelli (1911), a novel, was a response to his experience in the society. After The New Machiavelli he began producing dialogue novels that expressed his current preoccupations. His Boon (1915) parodied the late style of Henry James.

Wells became during World War I an expert publicist, particularly in Mr. Britling Sees It Through. Initially believing that the war would end all war, he wrote that "my awakening to the realities of the pseudo-settlement of 1919 was fairly rapid." His solution was what he identified as world education. The intention of The Outline of History (1920) was to "show plainly to the general intelligence, how inevitable, if civilization was to continue, was the growth of political, social, and economic organizations into world federation." After the Outline's appearance, Wells led an increasingly public life, expressing his opinions through syndicated articles. The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (1928) urged the case for an integrated global civilization.

Experiment in Autobiography (1934) was "an enormous reel of self-justification." Wells continued to average two titles a year. Apropos of Delores (1938) was a hilarious tribute to a former mistress. Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), his last book, was a vision of the future as nightmare. He died on Aug. 13, 1946, in London.
 


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H. G. Wells (1866-1946), English author, futurist, essayist, historian, socialist, and teacher wrote The War of the Worlds (1898);

Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.—Ch. 1.

The invasion of earth by aliens from Mars, tripods attacking with Heat Rays and Black Smoke and the evacuation of London while people were terrorised in the surrounding countryside became one of the first internationally read modern science fiction stories. Wells is often credited, along with Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) and Jules Verne (1828-1905) as being one of the fathers of science fiction. Forty years after its publication, on the night of Halloween 1938, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on-air radio broadcast of the novel caused widespread panic in New York City. Wells’ masterpiece spawned more invasion literature and inspired numerous movie adaptations and print sequels.

The popular novel foreshadowed things to come for the human race: robotics, World Wars, warfare tactics including aerial bombing, use of tanks and chemical weapons, and nuclear power. Part prophet, part pessimist, Wells was a prolific author not just of science fiction but also fiction and non, utopian and dystopian short stories, travel sketches, histories, and socio-political commentary. While his most popular works tend to show a bleak future for humanity, he was not without his sardonic and wry wit; Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the human race.

Herbert George Wells was born on 21 September 1866 in Bromley, Kent County, England, son of Sarah Neal, maid to the upper classes, and Joseph Wells, shopkeeper and professional cricket player. The Wells were quite poor and it was not the happiest of marriages; they would soon live apart though neither re-married.

At an early age Herbert was an avid reader but it would be some years before his talents as a writer were realised. He attended Thomas Morley’s Academy for a few years before financial hardship forced him to leave and seek practical employment. His father had broken his leg and not being able to play cricket anymore or pay for Herbert’s school, Herbert became an apprentice to a draper at the age of fourteen. The experience provided much fodder for his future works including Kipps (1905) wherein orphan and draper’s apprentice Artie Kipps gains a large inheritance and quick education on the ways of upper-class society and The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (1896);

Thus even in a shop assistant does the warmth of manhood assert itself....against the counsels of prudence and the restrictions of his means, to seek the wholesome delights of exertion and danger and pain.—Ch. 1.

When Wells won a scholarship in 1883 to the Normal School of Science in London he realised another area of interest that would serve him well in his writing; he began studies in biology and Darwinism under Thomas Henry Huxley, Aldous Huxley’s grandfather. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), another of Wells’ many stories to inspire movie adaptations, deals with themes of eugenics, the ethics of scientific experimentation, Darwin’s theories, and religion. Wells was not able to complete the requirements for his degree and lost his scholarship, so, faced with financial hardship he moved to Fitzroy Road in London to live with his Aunt and Uncle Wells. He tutored part-time and studied part-time at his uncle’s school. His cousin Isabel Mary also lived with them and they were soon married, in 1891. It lasted only four years; Wells left her for one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins (Jane) whom he married in 1895 and had two sons with: George Philip (1901-1985) and Frank Richard (b.1903). Wells had liaisons with a number of other women, who became models for his characters, while married to Jane: writer Amber Reeves gave birth to their daughter Anna Jane in 1909 and in 1914 author and feminist Rebecca West gave birth to their son Anthony West.

For quite some time Wells had been writing stories and in 1895 he had several published; Select Conversations with an Uncle was his first, followed by The Time Machine (1895), The Wonderful Visit (1895), and The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents (1895). His collection of essays and stories, Certain Personal Matters (1896) was followed by The Invisible Man (1897);

The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow....He was wrapped up from head to foot, and the brim of his soft felt hat hid every inch of his face but the shiny tip of his nose; the snow had piled itself against his shoulders and chest, and added a white crest to the burden he carried. —Ch. 1.

When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) was followed by Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900), The First Men in the Moon (1901) and his first best-seller about what the world would be like in the year 2000, Anticipations (1901). A year after its publication Wells joined the socialist Fabian Society, although he left after a quarrelling with George Bernard Shaw. A Modern Utopia was published in 1905;

Man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him.—Ch. 5.

Wells continued his prodigious output of fiction and non-fiction essays and articles on politics, liberalism, democracy, and on society including Tono-Bungay (1909), Floor Games (1911), The Great State: Essays in Construction (1912), An Englishman Looks at the World (1914), The War That Will End War (1914), and Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916). After he published Outline of History (1920) he followed it up with A Short History of the World (1922) “to meet the needs of the busy general reader....who wishes to refresh and repair his faded or fragmentary conceptions of the great adventure of mankind.”

Wells collaborated with his son, zoologist and author George P. Wells and biologist Sir Julian Huxley (Aldous’ brother) for The Science of Life (1930), the same year Wells met Rabindranath Tagore in Geneva, Switzerland. They discussed issues of modern civilisation, government and education, comparing them in the East and West. Wells was fast becoming a celebrity and he travelled extensively, meeting with world leaders and fellow authors. The Shape of Things to Come (1933) was followed by Wells’ examination of fascist dictators in The Holy Terror (1939). The New World Order was published the same year, Mind at the End of Its Tether in 1945. It would be the last book published during his lifetime. H. G. Wells died on 13 August 1946 at his home in Regent’s Park, London. In the Preface to the 1941 edition of The War In The Air (first published in 1908, then in 1921) Wells wrote: “Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in that year, twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’ (The italics are mine.)”

“It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening”—24 January 1902, lecture given at the Royal Institute, London. “The Discovery of the Future”.
 


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Stories featuring time travel, space flight and alien invasion are all themes at the very heart of modern science fiction, yet without the influence of British writer Herbert George Wells, these staples of the genre might have evolved in a very different and far less entertaining fashion. That might seem like an awful lot of responsibility to load on the shoulders of one man, (and indeed other writers such as Jules Verne thoroughly deserve their place in history) but without a doubt, the present vitality of the genre is a lasting testament to the original scope and brilliance of Wells' vision.

The youngest of 4 children, Wells was born to parents who strived but failed to escape their working class roots. He had a frugal upbringing, and though never destitute, the threat of outright poverty always loomed. Prior to the birth of Herbert, his father Joseph had been a gardener and his mother Sarah a ladies maid, but subsequently a failed venture in a Bromley crockery shop (above which Wells was born) almost bankrupted the family. Only his fathers earnings as a professional cricketer kept the wolf from the door, but even this was curtailed when he was disabled in a fall. Under these circumstances, Herbert's mother was forced to return to domestic service, and the teenage Wells began a series of unsuccessful encounters with the world of work. Several attempts to follow in the footsteps of his brothers and become apprentice to a draper (which he hated) came to nothing, as also did an apprenticeship to a chemist. It was only by a combination of luck and his innate intelligence that allowed Wells the opportunity to escape from this intellectual cul-de-sac.

At the age of 18, after a period as a teacher/pupil at Midhurst Grammar School, Wells won a scholarship to the Royal College Of Science in Kennsington, (at the time known as The Normal School of Science). There he began a degree in Zoology. This was a period of his life that would have an extremely formative influence on his writing, specifically in the person of his biology teacher, T.H Huxley. Huxley was a noted scientific humanist and a great proponent of Darwin's theory of evolution, such that he styled himself "Darwin's Bulldog." Coincidentally, Huxleys' grandson Aldous was also destined to become a writer of note in the field of science fiction, penning one of the seminal novels of future dystopia, Brave New World.

An accident on the football field took a tragic turn, when at the age of 21, Wells lost a kidney. For a time he became a semi invalid and at roughly the same time his interest in his schooling faltered, though at the same time, these circumstances almost certainly influenced his determination to be a writer. In 1887 he left the Royal College without having achieved his degree and became a science teacher, marrying in 1891 his cousin Isabel Mary Wells. The previous year however, he resumed his education, and would go on to complete a BA from London University.

By 1893 Wells had made the transition to a full time writer and had penned his first book, the nonfiction "Textbook of Biology". However, this was not to be an entirely happy time, for his marriage was swiftly faltering and in 1894 Wells ran off with a former pupil named Amy Catherine Robbins. She was to become his second wife in 1895. That same year also saw the publication of his first science fiction novel, The Time Machine: An Invention, the genesis of which had actually been The Chronic Argonauts, a three part speculative series he had written in 1888 for the amateur publication, The Science Schools Journal. Three years later, a second version was published in the Fortnightly Review, where it was known as The Rediscovery Of The Unique. It was almost printed again in the same periodical as The Rigid Universe, but even though it was set in type, it was never actually published. However, parts were eventually serialized in issues of the New Review for 1894-95. Finally, after this long gestation, Wells sold the completed story for 100 pounds to the publisher W. E. Henley.

Though not the first writer to toy with the idea of a fourth dimension (Jean d'Alembert postulated one in his 1754 article "dimension"), the success of The Time Machine served to popularize the concept, with Wells sending his traveler on a fantastic voyage into the far future and landing him penultimately in the year 802701. Here the influence of Huxley and Darwin can be seen, as the traveler discovers that the human race has evolved into two distinct species, the brutal and animal-like Morlocks and the gentle but feeble Eloi. Most uniquely, the novel was the first to propose a mechanical method of time travel, a breathtaking leap of imagination that has served as a blueprint for hundreds of stories since.

Yet there is even more to the story than this, for Wells was also using his science fiction as a metaphorical device. The Eloi were essentially the degenerate ruling class, living a life of bucolic ignorance, while the Morlocks were the workers, condemned to live in stygian darkness. However, Wells cleverly turns the tables on the prevailing social order of his time, for the Morlocks are not the underclass they at first seem, but instead maintain the apathetic Eloi as their food stock. Escaping this nightmare scenario, the traveler eventually arrives in the year 30,000,000, where he finds the earth a cold and lifeless world; not the first, but certainly one of the earliest and most vivid accounts of an entropic end to all things.

The basic principles of a fourth dimension Wells laid out in The Time Machine would predate the work of Albert Einstein, but he was also a crusader against social injustice, using his fiction to mirror the inequities he saw about him, as well as to comment on the dangers of unchecked scientific process. Wells would expand on this latter theme graphically in The Island Of Dr. Moreau, (1896) telling as it does of a scientist who has surgically altered the jungle beasts of his isolated island into mockeries of the human form. This is principally a dissertation on the nature of man. Moreau is attempting to "humanize" the animals, but always the nature of the beast creeps back into his creations, frustrating his goal. Eventually they turn on their tormentor, and he is killed. Wells chose vivisection as the method Moreau employs to mould his creatures, but the novel is an obvious precursor to the concept of genetic engineering, and indeed successive movie versions of the story have updated the story to take into account these scientific advances.

In The Invisible Man, published the following year, Wells further examined what might happen to a man who is granted a power that sets him above other men and the moral corruption that ensues. Once again, it is a scientist who has stepped beyond the bounds, in this case inventing a process that turns his body invisible. As the novel opens, the scientist has already experimented on himself, and arrives in a small rural community, his head swathed in bandages to disguise his terrible secret. Rather than see his invention as a boon for all mankind, the scientist is swiftly descending into madness, and confides in a local doctor his plans for a reign of terror for his own personal gain. The Faustian warning is plain, that science is capable of infinitely more harm than good.

In 1898, the noted scientist Percival Lowell was observing what he took to be artificially created canals on the surface of Mars, a theory that quite captured the public imagination of the time. Perhaps influenced by these events, (and certainly because of German unification and rumblings of a pan-european war) Wells would that same year create one of the most powerful concepts in the field of science fiction. What if there were indeed life on Mars, in fact intelligent creatures technologically far in advance of our own world, and what if those creatures were hostile?

In The War Of The Worlds (1898), Wells conceived just such a species. Forced to flee their own dying world, his Martians attempt to make a home on earth by force of arms, landing in an ill-prepared Victorian England, where they begin a devastating reign of terror. Sweeping aside all resistance in their tripod legged war machines, the Martians lay waste to the snug Victorian way of life. It is in fact the way that Wells creates a feeling of the calm before the storm, describing an idyllic England in the opening chapter, that makes the subsequent carnage so arresting.

Like everything he wrote, there are some clear underlying themes, not least that Wells was dishing out a little of our own medicine, asking in effect, "how do you like to be at the receiving end of a very large stick, just as many real people had genuinely suffered under the British colonial yoke? In fact, it was a conversation with his brother Frank about the fate that had befell the Tasmanian peoples when they were discovered by the Europeans that Wells himself quoted as a spark for the novel. One can also see a stark message in the way the Martians are vanquished, suggesting as it does that science is not necessarily going to be the saviour of mankind and that in fact we would do well to remember that nature at the most microscopic level can be every bit as powerful.

One of the last major works of science fiction to be produced by Wells nevertheless introduced another seminal concept into science fiction, that of an alien species where cooperation and unity of purpose are the driving force of their society. The First Men On The Moon (1901) also saw Wells postulating, in essence, an antigravity drive, though the pseudo-science, while entertainingly presented, is secondary to the real message of the novel. A spaceship propelled by Cavorite, a material opaque to gravity is dispatched to the moon, and there the crew discover an extraordinary ant-like society, whose guiding principles might almost be said to be Socialist in nature.

Contrary to the nature of so many of his novels, Wells not only had obvious socialist leanings (clearly he detested social inequity), but he was also a vocal utopian, believing that man could achieve a blissful existence on earth. However, the lot of man did not improve in his lifetime and more and more he wrote despairingly of the dangerous use of science in warfare. For instance, The Land Ironclads (1903) again saw Wells in prophetic mood, predicting the coming of tank warfare, and in 1908 he wrote of a catastrophic aerial war in The War In the Air. He lived to see both of the above predictions come tragically true, but perhaps his greatest and saddest speculation concerned the use of Atomic weapons. In The World Set Free, he wrote, "Nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the early twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands." Those lines were written in 1914, and Wells lived just long enough to see their use in Japan, passing away on August 13. 1946.


 

 

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