By Beth Clark • September 21, 2018
A hundred years ago, Herbert George Wells was the most influential writer of his day, in English, anyway. Among other ideals, he championed a "revolt of the competent" against what he believed to be the confines of conventional middle-class morality based on 19th-century utopian reform concepts, predicting that science would be "king of the world." (Titanic's Jack Dawson ultimately claimed that title, but hey, keep reading.)
Best remembered for being the author of late nineteenth-century sci-fi fantasies The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells was already a renowned writer and public figure when he published the nonfiction Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought in 1901.
The book's scientific solutions to alleviate social diseases turned him into a prophet in England and America, where Anticipations had already been serialized in the North American Review, but he was more than that. His political writing attained extraordinary influence, partially through his defense of liberal prerogatives like free speech, but more through his hostility toward population growth, capitalism, and democracy itself. He had opinions...and he voiced them loudly and for decades.
More than any other intellectual of the day, Wells spoke to the giant industry growth that undercut the established assumptions about the supremacy of individuals and Darwinism's compelling alignment of humanity with the natural world over the spiritual one. In addition to being one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time (along with Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs), H.G. Wells was also regarded as the spokesman of the liberal optimism that preceded World War I.
A century-plus before Instagram or Twitter, there were fewer influencers, but they were more potent, H.G. Wells in particular. George Orwell (author of 1984 and Animal Farm) accurately recognized the powerful impact of Wells by stating, "I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much. The minds of all of us…would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed."
As a confidant, friend, and adviser to Stalin (!) and three US presidents—Harding, Hoover, and FDR—H.G. Wells somehow made it respectable for idealists in England and America to advocate for an imagined antidemocratic World State. Ultimately, he taught upper-middle-class liberals that they were entitled to govern in the name of social evolution, significantly altering the course of daily life in America and Europe, which is as fascinating as it is disturbing considering he held no elected office or official position with any governing organization.
Wells' The Time Machine, published in 1895, is still one of the most thought-provoking science fiction works ever written. After inventing a machine that moves through time, the Traveler leaves Victorian London and goes 800,000 years into the future. At his first stop in time, the world he discovers seems peaceful and prosperous, but he soon realizes things are very different than they first appeared. Among other changes, humans have evolved into two races: the Eloi, who are stamina-deficient vegetarians, and the Morlocks, who are predatory carnivores (that nearly do in the Time Traveler). After escaping, he continues his sobering journey, but you'll have to read the book to see what else happens and how it all ends.
In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the father of science fiction brought inventiveness and an underlying social vision and moral concern to this bizarre tale of a mad surgeon-turned-vivisectionist who, in his laboratory on a remote island, performs ghoulish experiments in an attempt to transform animals into men, with monstrous results. It is one of Wells' most sinister personifications of the scientific quest to control and manipulate the natural world, and, ultimately, human nature itself. First published in 1896, The Island of Dr. Moreau has intrigued and horrified readers for generations (and ended up on more than one banned book list).
The War of the Worlds is a gripping, semi-documentary style sci-fi adventure made even more famous by Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast adaptation, which was so realistic that some people were convinced the earth was actually under alien attack. After a dramatic series of shooting stars streak across the sky one night, a gigantic cylinder descends from Mars and lands near London. Inquisitive locals gather around it, only to be obliterated by a murderous heat-ray. Huge machines then climb out of the crater formed by the cylinder, and commence on a merciless march towards London, destroying everything in their path. The War of the Worlds is about pride, fear, and the promise of recovery, and it's filled with scenes of flight, despair, and panic that leave you wondering if humanity can survive the onslaught.
When a mysterious stranger wrapped in bandages arrives at an inn in the English village of Iping, the lives of everyone change forever. Griffin is a young scientist who discovers the key to invisibility, then lives in his own personal hell, where every moment is another experiment, and every experiment a new failure as he tries to reverse the effects. As his failures mount, Griffin descends into madness, bringing death and destruction to the Iping. The Invisible Man is a classic study in psychological horror and chaos that will give you chills as it begs the question of whether you should do something...just because you can.
The New Machiavelli
The War in the Air
The History of Mr. Polly
Men Like Gods
The First Men in the Moon
When the Sleeper Wakes
A Modern Utopia
A Short History of the World
The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth
The Shape of Things to Come
Love and Mr. Lewisham
The Passionate Friends: A Novel
The Open Conspiracy: What Are We to Do with Our Lives?
The Undying Fire
Mr. Britling Sees it Through
That should keep you busy for a while! Oh, and #happybirthday to H.G. Wells, by the way.