02/03/2011

HG Wells: Concerning the Origins of the Genre by Andrew Darlington

HG Wells is the Elvis Presley of Science Fiction.
As with Elvis, disconnected elements of the genre he’s most directly identified with had been around for some time. But like Elvis, Herbert George became the first creative genius to define the nature of the species. Speculative themes had already been fictionally raised and explored by Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne and other lesser-known pioneering names such as Bulwer Lytton and Colonel George Tomkyns Chesney, but it was Wells who set out and established all the major templates that SF was to follow through the twentieth-century, and beyond. Time-travel with ‘The Time Machine’ (1895). Vivisection in ‘The Island Of Doctor Moreau’ (1896). Invisibility with ‘The Invisible Man’ (1897). Invasion from another planet with ‘War Of The Worlds’ (1898). Travel to other worlds with ‘First Men In The Moon’ (1901).  Strange inventions with “The New Accelerator” (first in ‘The Strand Magazine’ December 1901). A parallel Earth in ‘A Modern Utopia’ (1905). Future war and the rise of scientific utopia with ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ (1933). And more. Each of which has spun off a cross-media industry of franchises in its own right. The patent on any one of these themes would guarantee him a place in literary history. The scattergun of ideas gives him even greater unique distinction.

For much of the early part of the twentieth-century Science Fiction was regarded as time-wasting trash-literature, in exactly the same way that fifties Rock ‘n’ Roll was condemned as bastard adolescent noise without redeeming musical content. Yet HG Wells ascended – as though powered by his own anti-gravity Cavorite, from his humble origins as a discontented apprentice draper and teacher, to become the leading light of popular intellectuals, and a national figure. Jules Verne felt himself challenged by, and maybe a little jealous of the sudden prominence of his younger cross-channel rival. He was quick to accuse Wells of violating scientific principles through the use of time-travel and anti-gravity. Of course, Verne was wrong, or at least out-moded. Wells was equally quick to disclaim any connection with the French writer, protesting that he was working more in the English tradition of satirist Jonathan Swift. It was in neither of their interests to admit a connection that was everywhere obvious to others. Yet, when Wells’ Cavor explains the air-lock principle of his lunar-bound sphere, Mr Bedford exclaims ‘like Jules Verne’s apparatus in ‘A Trip To The Moon’?’ Born in Bromley in 1866 to a domestic housekeeper mother and a gardener-cum-failed-shopkeeper-cum-pro.cricketer father, Wells’ dumpy avuncular figure and stubby moustache were as familiar in their time as any current celebrity, if with far greater justification.
Determinedly hunting respectability, he extended out from the ‘scientific romances’ that brought him early notoriety, into enduring fame. His non-SF novels, particularly the groundbreaking proto-Feminist ‘Ann Veronica’ (1909), and ‘The History Of Mr Polly’ (1910) which retains its humour and period charm, still stand up to TV-adaptation as perceptive insights into lower-middle-class Edwardian life and morés. And his epic three-volume ‘The Outline Of History’ (1920) is probably the first mass-popularisation of its kind to venture out beyond the then-accepted anglocentric syllabus to truly embrace post-imperial world culture. It was here I first learned, for example, the story of Ashoka, the enlightened Buddhist emperor of India, never mentioned throughout my State education. It sometimes seemed that Wells was an indulgent favourite uncle with a mischievous twinkle, even if he tended to over-lecture a bit in his later years, as a didactic proponent of Fabian Socialism and World Government. But by then, his name was household shorthand. Despite his persistent poor health he lived long enough for his high reedy voice to be heard broadcast on radio, and to appear in grainy newsreel film. Where many of his celebrated contemporaries, lauded as significant literary figures of their time, have since been forgotten and languish in neglect, his work still retains a resounding charge.
And it’s the tight nucleus of his genre work that forms his most vital legacy. Remade in new media, and republished in new editions, that’s where Wells retains his current relevance. To Sam Moskowitz writing clunkily mid-point through the century, Wells was already ‘a brilliant first-magnitude fixed star in the firmament of masters of the scientific fantasy’ (‘Science Fantasy no.37’, November 1959). Since then, his books have been critically re-evaluated, and deconstructed to prove that, for example, ‘War Of The Worlds’ carries a powerful anti-colonial moral. That the invading technically-invincible Martians represent rapacious western imperial expansion across the Third World. And even though Wells himself draws that exact parallel in ‘The Eve Of The War’ chapter, it’s not necessary to know that to get off on the adventure. Just as it’s by no means a prerequisite to enjoying ‘The Time Machine’ to know that the future splitting-off of the human race into Eloi and Morlock sub-species represents the class struggle between the idle social elite and the hidden toiling masses. These aspects may, or may not have been conscious ingredients of what he was writing, evolved from the issues that excited him and the political activisms he was caught up in. Or they may be embellishments amplified by enthusiasts and academics hunting mitigating social relevance. In the postmodern sense they can even be both. But ultimately, they’re not moral warning. Sometimes it’s essential to go back to the original tales without preconceptions. And just enjoy them.
In ‘The War Of The Worlds’ the invasion of Earth is seen through the familiar perspective of the complacent English Home Counties, specifically Woking, where Wells lived while writing the novel. On the eve of the war he strolls through the town with his wife. It was starlight, and he points out the signs of the zodiac to her. It’s a passage that seemed so impressively cool the first time I read it that I tried the same technique later with girlfriends, somewhat encumbered by the fact that Orion was the only constellation I could identify. Yet within the first twenty pages the gentle tone of the tale changes from carnival curiosity about the strange projectile on the heath, with press speculations about how visiting Martians would be incapacitated by Earth’s greater gravity and denser atmosphere, to sheer terror as the invaders deploy their lethal heat-ray. ‘Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of their appearance’ he narrates. During the earliest phase of the American pulp-magazine explosion, before the term Science Fiction had even been coined, Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering ‘Amazing Stories’ re-ran HG Wells tales as ‘scientifiction’, resulting in some gloriously garish exploitational 1927 covers of sinister Martian tripod war-machines death-raying blazing cities as terrified people flee. Certainly the geeky readers of such issues cared little for buried sub-textual patterns.
The perhaps over-celebrated notoriety of Orson Welles’ radiocast ‘War Of The Worlds’ (October 1938) which famously caused genuine panic among unsuspecting listeners in those more-gullible less media-literate days, suggests a degree of credibility our more cynical times can scarcely be accused of. Wells himself didn’t much care for what he called the ‘unwarranted liberties’ Welles had inflicted on his work. So perhaps it’s best not to speculate on what he’d have thought of the Jeff Wayne stage musical! Yet, with Wells safely dead, two movie adaptations – by George Pal (1952), and the hyper-kinetic Steven Spielberg reinvention (2005) with Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, renewed the franchise with lucrative box-office returns. Although the atmospheric use of Chesley Bonestell’s Martian landscape-artwork adds authenticity to the first, it also moves the invasion site from Woking to California. And the war-machines that menacingly rise from the projectile-crater are manta-ray shapes supported by invisible magnetic legs, updated with protective force-field domes that render them invulnerable even to a desperate A-bomb strike. Yet the unsettling electronic thrum they emit is genuinely spooky and there’s an escalating tension that survives repeated viewing.

The second film reinstates the tripods and the infestation of Red Weed from the source novel, takes in influences from Welles, and even from George Pal too with the questing Martian metallic tentacle tipped by its television-eye probe, while relocating the action yet again, to New York. Speilberg’s rehash even messes up the provenance. The aliens are no longer from Mars, but from some unidentified trans-solar world. Roland Emmerich’s visually spectacular ‘Independence Day’ (1983) adopts the same angle, yet neatly references Wells by switching his Martian-killing microbes into the computer-virus that exterminates the new alien invaders. But despite the superficial changes, they all rely on the rich imagery of the source text, a theme that has been recycled so many times since, in tedious repetition, by so many lesser hands, that the fact of Wells own originality is sometimes eclipsed. But Wells did it first. Before him, no-one had written about an invasion from space. No-one.
There were, incidentally, other Martians in Wells’ fiction. In “The Star” (1897), one of some seventy SF-themed short stories, Martian astronomers coolly and dispassionately observe planetary devastation inflicted upon Earth. At a time before the discovery of Pluto, and well before Pluto’s relegation to dwarf-planet status, a dark extra-solar wandering body explosively impacts with Neptune to create a strange new star, which plunges in towards the sun, disturbing the orbit of Jupiter and wreaking armageddon-style havoc on Earth. The 1933 novel ‘When Worlds Collide’ by SF writers Philip Wylie & Edwin Balmer (made into a 1951 film), owes an obvious debt to this casual throw-away tale. As do other subsequent global disaster films.
Within fiction itself, Wells’ texts draw a clear and direct line through the work of other writers, from John Wyndham, Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, and Stephen Baxter. The genetic link may be stylistic. But it can also be more direct. Aldiss wrote ‘Moreau’s Other Island’ (1980, Jonathan Cape) consciously utilising Wells’ literary-DNA. In Wells’ novel ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’ the shipwrecked Edward Prendick is rescued by a flaxen-haired man known only as Montgomery, who takes him to a remote Pacific island where Dr Moreau carves grotesque human-animal hybrids from living tissue. Moreau’s surgical modifications and glandular injections have populated the island with a bizarre menagerie of mutations ‘civilised’ by their chanted laws. In Wells bestiary it seems that Moreau’s creations are being forced towards the human state from which the Morlocks are descending. Eventually the Dr is ripped apart by the Puma Man, one of his own creations, after which a drunken Montgomery is also killed by the Beast-Folk. With Prendick stranded alone on the island, the Beast-Folk begin to devolve, reverting to their basic beast-natures. But although Prendick is rescued, his reintegration into society is flawed by his persistent vision of the people around him as ‘animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls’ who will, presently begin to revert, ‘to show this bestial mark, then that… I feel as though the animal was surging up through them, that presently the degradation of the islanders will be played over again on a larger scale.’ He even suspects himself. Is he really a reasoning human being, or just an animal tormented by some strange disorder of the brain? It’s an image, and a suspicion that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. Suddenly, there are Naked Apes in the shopping mall, the supermarket, the fast-food bar. All can be seen as ‘patient creatures waiting for prey’. To Brian Aldiss ‘this is the final triumph of ‘Moreau’… (that) the stubborn beast flesh, the beast mentality, is everywhere manifest’ (in ‘Billion Year Spree’, 1973). It’s as eloquently imagined an allegorical comment on the savagery lurking forever beneath the surface of civilisation as ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’ And a post-Darwinian forced-evolution take on the Frankenstein theme, as vitally current as today’s GM gene-manipulation hysteria.
Again, movies invested the theme with periodic updates. Philip Wylie also wrote the screenplay for the 1933 Wells-sourced ‘The Invisible Man’. He then adapted the first version of Moreau into ‘Island Of Lost Souls’ (1933). Charles Laughton was cast as a sadistic whip-wielding Moreau, ably supported by Bela Lugosi and Leila Hyams in a studio-set jungle island. Yet his ‘House of Pain’ is one of cine-world’s most unwholesome mad laboratories, where the Puma Man is transgendered into a sexed-up Panther-woman. Again, Wells was less than pleased with the result, and can’t have been too distressed when the British Board of Censorship refused to grant the film a certificate on the grounds of its sex, horror, and cruelty. Burt Lancaster next inherited the Moreau mantle for a 1977 version under the original Wells’ title, in a cast that included Richard Basehart, and the Beast-Folk upgraded as humanimals. More recently, Marlon Brando became Moreau in 1996, with Val Kilmer, an airplane crash and DNA injections replacing crude vivisection.
Meanwhile, Brian Aldiss is a superb writer with a particularly well-informed sense of genre history who has elsewhere integrated Mary Shelley and Dracula into his fiction. His ‘Moreau’s Other Island’ is more a parallel history, or a sequel, with Calvert Madle Roberts the sole survivor of Space-Shuttle ‘Leda’ returning from a Moon-base as global war breaks out. He reaches the island of Mortimer Dart, a deformed thalidomide victim who styles himself the ‘Einstein of revolutionary biology’. In this novel Moreau was a real person – in fact the genuine McMoreau even sued Wells for defamation! And Roberts finds himself trapped on the island where the descendents of his Beast-Folk still live, subservient to their new master. While closely tracking the contours of Wells tale, it assumes added dimensions of its own. A cunning elision of literary games and sharply original insight. Yet it also proves the remarkable durability of the original theme. Wells final ‘note’ that, ‘strange as it may seem to the unscientific reader, there can be no denying that, whatever amount of credibility attaches to the detail of this story, the manufacture of monsters – and perhaps even quasi-human monsters – is within the possibilities of vivisection’. A chilling possibility far closer now than it was then.
In his homage ‘The Space Machine’ (1976) Chris Priest attempts to fuse ‘The Time Machine’ with ‘War Of The Worlds’, so that his ‘chronic argonauts’ Amelia and Edward Turnbull’s temporal shift conforms to the movement of bodies within the solar system, something that most time-travel fiction ignores, so that they find himself on Mars in time to become involved in Wells’ 1893 invasion. More successfully Stephen Baxter’s wonderful ‘The Time Ships’ (1995), authorised by the Wells’ estate, takes the pulse of Wells brief novella and extends it across millennia, while staying true to the style and continuum of its progenitor. There have been two movies generated from ‘The Time Machine’, the first – again, from George Pal (1960) starred Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, the second – directed by Simon Wells in 2002, featured Guy Pearce and Samantha Mumba (as his Eloi companion Weena). The former, despite lacking access to CGI technology, conjures some brilliantly innovative speed-sequences of the accelerating centuries. Including the rapid-flick of changing fashions worn by the manikin in the store-front window. The Time Traveller also stops off to witness the outbreak of nuclear war in August 1966. The latter, despite its CGI, is a less credible attempt to reintegrate material from Wells’ seminal “The Chronic Argonauts” (in the April, May & June 1888 issues of ‘The Science Schools Journal’) with the novel that followed. This time he introduces the linking-motif of the holographic librarian, and stops off to witness the disintegration of the Moon.

Yet neither can capture the vivid scope of Wells’ fiction as his unnamed protagonist jaunts through time ‘still gaining velocity’ from his workshop in Richmond to the decadent and degenerating 802,701AD. Then, fleeing the Morlocks, he hurtles uncontrollably on to 30,000,000, to discover a world lit by a bloated motionless sun fixed upon the horizon beside a tideless sea in chill thinning air. He time-jumps further, ‘drawn on by the mystery of the Earth’s fate’, and a ‘sense of abominable desolation’ to the frigid beauty of an eclipse at the bleak end of time. These evocative passages filled me with awe and wonder when I first read them as a schoolboy, and they retain their jarring intensity through each subsequent reading across the years since. It remains one of the most powerfully affecting sequences in the entire history of SF. Theoretical Physics still argues the existence of tachyons that may reverse the flow of time. But although the novel uses what Verne dismissed as the pseudo-science device of time-travel, which ensures the events depicted could never be related in any other literary genre, it’s always the consummate word-mastery and skilful storytelling that comes first.
There’s an assumption that the futures Wells projects are pessimistic. That’s not how I read them. There’s certainly a corrosion of his energetic positivism in later life, assailed by advancing years, ill-health and his disappointment with the way the world was heading, culminating in ‘Mind At The End Of Its Tether’ (1945). But back in 1895 it’s his vibrant sense of the precarious nature of life that rings through most clearly, by reflecting the arbitrary and amoral forces that shape it. In ‘War Of The Worlds’ it was not human ingenuity or heroism that defeats the alien ‘intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic’, it was their incidental vulnerability to terrestrial microbes, to ‘the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water’, an idea Wells seeds in the novel’s first paragraph. The human race is entirely incidental to the outcome. The racial bifurcation in ‘The Time Machine’ reflects the same existential chance logic. It’s unreasonable to expect evolutionary changes not to occur over vast epochs of time. And these will be similarly random, determined by unpredictable factors, and not necessarily beneficial. There’s an argument that consciousness and science will ultimately exert their own control to edit blind evolutionary forces, but that could prove dangerously hubristic, with unexpected side-effects.

After Wells, Olaf Stapledon plotted an equally diverse future of extravagant bio-changes in ‘Last And First Men’ (1930), and Stephen Baxter’s ‘Evolution’ (2002) does the same by encompassing a vista of 565-million years. But again, Wells did it first. And his final vision of the dying Earth? Astronomers predict the cooling sun, and the heat-death of the universe. That’s not pessimism, it just is. It was Wells distinction to be the first with the imaginative courage to dare visualise it. The bottom line is, HG Wells wrote exhilarating adventure, addictive and intellectually energetic, full of unexpected turns and startling revelations. True now as it was then.
When it comes to future-war, Bert Smallways gets accidentally involved in Prince Karl Albert’s massive airship raid on New York, leading to global catastrophe in ‘War In The Air’ (1908). And at the dawn of SF-movies HG Wells adapted his own novel into a screenplay for the great British director Alexander Korda, to produce the uncompromisingly ambitious ‘Things To Come’ (1936). Projecting the future from 1936 to the year 2036, and set in ‘Everytown’, it shows an endless European war precipitating a collapse of civilisation, illuminated in then-big-budget black-&-white footage described by Frederik Pohl as ‘almost a documentary’. By 1970 impoverished dictators have carved out petty realms in the rubble, and tribal leader The Boss (Ralph Richardson) is amazed to witness the arrival of a futuristic armada of massive double-hulled propeller-powered aircraft. Led by John Cabal (Raymond Massey), they are representatives of the ‘Wings Over The World’ reconstruction organisation based in Basra, southern Iraq. With blunt symbolism, they initiate the rise of an idealistic new science-based culture, the triumph of World Government and the forces of progress as a controversial Moon-gun project launches a young couple into space in defiance of the protests of conservative opposition. Massey delivers a final idealistically inspiring speech posing a future that offers ‘all the universe, or nothing. Which shall it be?’ If it looks ‘pretty quaint now’ as Pohl points out, ‘so will ‘Star Wars’ in another forty years.’ But like others of his generation, Pohl admits that ‘every frame is engraved on my mind’ (in ‘The Way The Future Was’, 1979), and its vision of the soaring futuristic architecture of towering cities, of clothing and technology of imagined tomorrows cast a ubiquitous influence on the imaginings of fantasists and comic-book artists to come.
‘The First Men In The Moon’ has had a less distinguished history of transfer to other media. There have been ‘Classics Illustrated’ comic-book translations into picture-strip form. And a mildly entertaining, tongue-in-tongue big-budget movie (1964) which is largely judged a failure despite the talents of writer Nigel Kneale – who introduces ‘Katherine Callender’ (actress Martha Hyer) as love-interest, and genius stop-motion effects-animator Ray Harryhausen to visualise Moon Cows and the Prime Lunar. Although carrying a dedication to actor Lionel Jeffries – its ‘Professor Joseph Cavor’, the Mark Gatiss TV (2010) interpretation is an altogether more satisfying proposition. Yes, the pacing is leisurely, but within its ninety-minute duration it’s seething with incident. It is very much a dialogue between Professor Cavor (Mark Gatiss) and excitable businessman Mr Bedford (played by Rory Kinnear) who seizes upon the commercial potential of the invention of a gravity-opaque material. But it’s that quality that perfectly suits the introspective melancholy mood of the film, and marks it out as distinctive. Like the Time Traveller, Cavor is an eccentric back-room scientist who stumbles across his remarkable breakthrough using only the resources of his own intellect. Although this is a less fashionable approach to driving innovation than it is in today’s more massive corporate business environment, that surely does not entirely disqualify the concept of the lone pioneering genius? Verne had fired his lunar-nauts from a giant cannon, but would not allow his characters to land on the moon, because once there he couldn’t then contrive a way of getting them off and back home again. Wells quasi-scientific Cavorite might repeal the laws of physics, but it neatly gets around that problem.
Perhaps the major flaw in the novel’s filmability is that once on the moon the duo not only discover a tenuous, yet breathable atmosphere, but also a complex subterranean civilisation too. Neither of which, if scarcely feasible then, are feasible now. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his own fictions about a hidden lunar inner-world accessed by travelling through crater-openings in the moon’s surface, but, entrancing story-teller that he was, no-one ever suggested that ERB allowed science or rationality to limit his imagination. There was fiction clear into the fifties which conjectured some form of life on the Moon, although the passing of each year meant this was increasingly disreputable. Until the Moon landing in 1969 flipped decades of inaccurate speculation over onto the TV-news. The existence of life on Mars, once more-or-less taken for granted, went through its own long-drawn-out retraction in an exact ratio to the increasing sophistication of astronomical science. Researchers are now looking to find evidence of, less the lost civilisations of ERB’s Barsoom, and instead, just maybe, the brief existence of viral micro-organisms billions of years in the past. Yet there were still movies themed around native Martian life-forms into the nineties. Around the time Ben Bova’s novels were reinvestigating Mars, and finding dead Martians, however unlikely the possibility. But the Moon remains beyond the pale of serious speculations. After all, astronauts have been there. We know. Which presents a problem when dramatising the Wells novel.

The ingenious solution provided by Mark Gatiss in the BBC's 2010 version was to meet the conundrum head-on. To use Neil Armstrong’s ‘small step’ to kick off the narrative, with an ageing Bedford relating the story of his youthful exploit to a fascinated young boy in a tent-show. Yes, the Edwardian expedition had taken place according to Wells’ novel, clear down to their capture by the insectoid Selenites and their interrogation by the Grand Lunar. But in an inventive denouement it was Cavor himself, anticipating the terrible conflict ahead as the two races come into confrontation, who uses Cavorite to blast a puncture-hole in the lunar caverns and evacuate the sparse atmosphere into space. A possibility he’d already posited in an earlier sequence in his laboratory on Earth. The result is, there was an atmosphere and Selenites then, but there is no atmosphere or Selenites now because his actions have made it so. As a result, Wells’ fiction stands, with only marginal fine-tuning. Yet, cheekily, the closing footage of astronauts cavorting on the dusty surface of the Sea of Tranquillity, hints at a lone Selenite observing them from behind a rocky outcrop!
Much SF from earlier decades has since been superseded by events and scientific discovery. Yet it’s still read and enjoyed, even if it’s necessary to shunt the events portrayed off into some kind of parallel universe where things are different. Precisely because HG Wells preferred the ‘imaginative jump’ to a technical explanation, because he seldom relied upon pseudo-science-fictional gimmicks since tested and found wanting, and based his enduring appeal on story-telling skills, his tales remain immensely readable. Wells’ biographer Lovat Dickson praises ‘the sweep and force of (his) descriptive writing, which rises at points to wonderful heights. There are moments of unsurpassable majesty – the death of the world in ‘The Time Machine’, the howling in the twilight on Primrose Hill of the last Martian left alive in devastated London, the death of the Invisible Man, the lunar landscapes of ‘The First Men On The Moon’, the chanting of the beasts in ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’. Moments, in fact, when the language becomes an incantation, and one is aware of surrendering to some emotion not ordinarily felt in reading. Language alone could not do this, it is the accompaniment to the theme. But it lifts the imagination to a level at which the reader not only surrenders disbelief, but positively wills belief’ (‘HG Wells: His Turbulent Life And Times’, Penguin Books 1969).
HG Wells was the originator. To Brian Aldiss he was the ‘Shakespeare of Science Fiction’, the primal ignition-point from whom all else flows. When he died, in 1946 at the age of eighty, all of his major works were still in print, and would remain so, while his literary standing would only increase as SF became a respectable subject for academic study. It’s possible to argue his enduring significance purely from the point of view of his influence. How much media has been spun off, for example, from the single concept of invisibility? The Wells tale of the overreaching scientist who suffers from both the effects, and the side-effects of his discovery. There have been movies of the story. Then TV series. And movies developing the idea of induced-invisibility in a multitude of directions. But despite the deluge, it’s still more than possible to be drawn into Wells’ original novella and read it with a sense of suspenseful enjoyment. And that’s the real value of HG Wells’ legacy

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