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Biography of H.G. Wells (September 21, 1866 - August 13, 1946)

H G Wells in approximately 1900

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 traveller 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 traveller 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 traveller 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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See also

Books

1898
Fighters From Mars

Fighters From Mars. Published only months after the release of Well's War of the Worlds, this unofficial version of the novel is set in and around Boston.

1898
Edison's Conquest Of Mars by Garrett P Serviss

Edison's Conquest Of Mars by Garrett P Serviss. The unofficial 1898 sequel to The War of the Worlds that sends the inventer Thomas Edison to Mars.

Comics

1955
Classics Illustrated 124

Classics Illustrated 124. The most famous and enduring comic book adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

1976
Marvel Classics: The War of the Worlds

Marvel Classic Comics: The War of the Worlds. The novel gets a more extreme and faithful comic book makeover from Marvel.

Film

1953
The War of the Worlds by George Pal

The War of the Worlds by George Pal. The action relocates to cold war America, with the Martian war machines re-invented as sinister flying machines.

2005
The War of the Worlds, Spielberg.

The War of the Worlds Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise get a huge bang for their bucks in this massive re-imagining of the story.

Radio

1938
The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles

The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles. The infamous radio broadcast that panicked America on Halloween night.

1950 / 1967
War of the Worlds Lux, The Lux Radio Theater

The War of the Worlds. The first BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds in 1950 was followed by another in 1967.

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