Science fiction would no doubt have remained a popular form of entertainment even if it had held to the course originally charted for it by Jules Verne.
But it would probably never have achieved any philosophical importance had it not been for H.G. Wells—a strange and ambiguous figure whose place in the history of literature and ideas has never been properly appreciated.
Forty years ago. Wells was a literary celebrity—so famous, and taken so seriously, that no one thought it out of place for him to drop in on Roosevelt or Stalin as if he were a roving ambassador. His brand of technocratic socialism was considered "advanced" and "progressive."
Today, he seems an anachronism. "Technocracy" is a dirty word, even among socialists—it seems to imply disregard for the environment—and certainly nothing to endear him to libertarians. His "Outline of History," once regarded as a masterpiece, seems windy and opinionated.
In fact, were it not for his science fiction—which continues to be reprinted, year after year—Wells today would be virtually unknown. His mainstream novels—KIPPS, A HISTORY OF MR. POLLY, and the like—are period pieces: inferior adaptations of what Dickens did decades earlier.
Born in 1866, Wells grew up in a restricted, lower-middle class environment that he quickly came to hate. An imaginative and rather introverted youth, he revolted against repeated attempts to apprentice him into dull trades (draper's assistant and the like). He had no idea what he was for, but all too clear a conception of what he was against.
When he got a chance to study science, it was like a breath of fresh air. One of his teachers was none other than T.H. Huxley, the champion of Darwin's theory of evolution against the Victorian religious establishment. To one formerly hemmed in by the trivialities of Victorian society, the vistas of science and evolution were heady stuff.
Wells trained to be a science teacher, but he didn't really have the patience for it. He seemed more interested in the revolution science was making in man's conception of space and time than in the practicalities of a scientific career. When he contributed a couple of abstruse essays to magazines, one of his editors suggested he try writing stories.
Already he had worked by fits and starts on something called THE CHRONIC ARGONAUTS, a time travel story in the style of Hawthorne that—had it been finished—would never have amounted to much. In the grip of his new thoughts on space and time, however, he completely rewrote the novel in 1895. The new version was called THE TIME MACHINE.
NEW LITERARY PERSPECTIVE
Despite its title, THE TIME MACHINE is more a philosophical fantasia than a "time travel" story in the commonly accepted sense (most modern examples are based on plot twists involving paradoxes like the time traveler killing one of his ancestors). It was the first literary expression of the new consciousness of space and time implicit in the Darwinian revolution.
Wells was obsessed with the complacency of Victorian society, which believed all its institutions to be ordained by God, and therefore eternally valid. Progress, to the Victorians, meant the apotheosis of Victorian moral and social values—and since this progress was divinely ordained, it would be automatic. No need to take thought for the future; that would take care of itself.
But where Victorian society saw God's plan being fulfilled, Wells could see only a great void. Samuel Butler had already condemned Darwin for "banishing mind from the universe," and so it seemed. Without a God, without a divine creation and plan for mankind, how could there be any purpose in existence? To the Victorians, Darwin might well be horrifying.
To most critics, THE TIME MACHINE is an imaginative tale that fortunately transcends the rather simple notion of the aristocracy and the proletariat evolving into separate species (the Elois and the Morlocks) living in a degenerate sort of symbiosis. But the most important thing about the story is that it looks at mankind from an entirely new perspective.
Seen from the perspective of millions of years, Victorian values seem trivial indeed. And whether anyone takes the details of Wells' social criticism seriously—they are from a socialist, though not a Marxist, viewpoint—is unimportant beside the interpretation of the Victorian world view as futile and transitory in light of this evolutionary perspective.
The Elois live for the moment, and take their lives completely for granted. It is no matter to them that they are doomed to extinction, or that their lives of leisure are paid for in cannibalism on the part of the Morlocks who feed and clothe them. They have no curiosity, no ambition, no imagination. They have committed what Wells calls the "suicide of the intellect," and can scarcely be regarded as more human than the Morlocks.
Not that traditional values had ever made men truly human to begin with. Wells thought. In THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1895), usually regarded merely as an allegory about the beast in man, he is really telling a parable about the failure of religion, at least the religion of arbitrary commandments imposed by force or fear.
Dr. Moreau, a renegade vivisectionist, has learned how to make beasts into men—physically. Spiritually, they are still beasts—but for a weird faith dinned into their minds by one of Moreau's assistants. Its commandments—"Not to go on all fours, that is the law, are we not men? Not to eat flesh or fish, that is the law, are we not men?" and so on—are effective as long as they are enforced by Moreau's "divine" power. But no sooner is that removed than the created "men" begin to revert to beasts.
Wells carried the Darwinian struggle for existence to an interplanetary scale with THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898). Man might be supreme on one planet, but that did not mean he should complacently assume his place in the universe is secure. If natural selection should choose some other species, it would be just too bad for mankind—unless some factor in the Earthly environment should work to his advantage.
The Martians in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS were imitated countless times in the BEM's (Bug-eyed monsters) of pulp science fiction. Too many writers overlooked Wells' real intention: to show that mankind could take space for granted no more than time, that Earth is a small planet and that if mankind is to "matter" at all in the universe, it will never be by cultivating his garden.
WHEN THE SLEEPER WAKES (1899) and its companion pieces, "A Story of the Days to Come" and "A Dream of Armageddon" are short-term (compared to THE TIME MACHINE) extrapolations of social trends, and a warning against the notion (popularized by Bellamy's LOOKING BACKWARD) that the natural course of events will lead to utopia. "We were making the future," exclaims the protagonist of WHEN THE SLEEPER WAKES when he finds himself in the grim world of 2100. "And hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making."
POTENTIAL OF EVOLUTION
Against the bleak forecasts of his early novels, what salvation could Wells offer? Only the power of the human imagination. If the vision of a vast and Godless universe revealed by data of evolution had destroyed all the old mythologies on which mankind had so long depended, perhaps some purpose could still be found by making evolution itself into a mythology.
After all, Wells reasoned, man has intelligence—and therefore immense potentialities—if only he would develop them. Evolution had equipped men—be it only accidentally—with a sense of purpose, with curiosity and imagination, with the desire for self-fulfillment. Perhaps these could be made the basis of a new "faith."
There were hints of this even in his "pessimistic" works, such as the narrator's intention to devote himself to the ethereal pursuit of astronomy at the end of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, and the protagonist's bitter assertion that, "We are not dumb atoms, we are part of it," towards conclusion of "A Story of the Days to Come." But the first direct expression of the new faith was in a nonfiction work, THE DISCOVERY OF THE FUTURE.
In this book, Wells issues an evangelical appeal to mankind to realize its evolutionary potential, and his pseudoBiblical language is certainly not accidental: "The past is but the beginning of the beginning, and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.…A day will come when beings who are not latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins shall stand upon this earth as one stands on a footstool, and shall laugh and reach out their hands among the stars."
Wells went on to write a visionary allegory of evolution, THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1903), in which the "food" that makes everything grow by leaps and bounds symbolizes the scientific knowledge that Wells hoped would liberate and enlarge human imagination and achievement.
This "imaginative megalomania," as Wells was wont to call it, was loosely tied to his utopian socialism, but in fact transcended it: in Wells' vision, even a utopia would be evil if it led to stagnation and complacency. Only by furthering his evolutionary possibilities could man find any ultimate purpose in existence. Twenty years before Julian Huxley coined the term "evolutionary humanism," THE FOOD OF THE GODS had created the mythology of a new religion.
VISIONARY, NOT THEORETICIAN
What Wells never realized was that he was a better visionary than a theoretician. When he tried to create a practical expression of his vision (A MODERN UTOPIA, 1905), he ended up with a strange amalgam of libertarian (a la William Morris) and authoritarian (a la Plato's REPUBLIC) ideas that, in the end, won adherents in neither camp.
When he stormed into the Fabian Society, urging its members to transform themselves into an Order of Samurai and reshape the world in the image of his utopia, Wells was laughed at as an impetuous upstart and eventually resigned in disgust. Soured by the reception to his call for an imaginative revolution, he became petulant—picking quarrels with people like Bernard Shaw and Henry James.
Wells even renounced "art," in favor of journalism, and looked for new saviors to implement utopia—internationalist statesmen in THE WORLD SET FREE (1913) and THE KING WHO WAS A KING (1929), technocratic airmen and engineers in THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (1933). The original vision became lost in attempts to devise an institutional—and usually hierarchic and authoritarian—answer to man's problems.
Only in the screenplay for THINGS TO COME (1935), in which Wells' own imagination was stimulated by his involvement with a new art form and its possibilities as a medium for expression of general ideas—rather than for conventional lectures or sermons—did the evolutionary vision of THE FOOD OF THE GODS return in Oswald Cabal's parting speech:
For man, no rest, and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet, with its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him; then the planets about him, and at last, outward across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.
Despite its technocratic trappings, THINGS TO COME is essentially a philosophical motion picture, with Cabal's ideas pitted against those of Theotocopulos ("How can we be happy when your science is continually changing life for us? When you are everlastingly contriving strange things? When you make what we think great seem small? When you make what we think strong seem feeble?") in the climactic struggle over the firing of the "space gun."
Wells' technocracy never took, but his philosophy became the basis of most modern science fiction—including works by writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Lester del Rey, Cordwainer Smith, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula LeGuin, who had little interest in, or were even violently opposed to, his political ideas. In science fiction, it has become commonplace to examine social, political and moral issues from a Wellsian evolutionary perspective, even though this may not always be obvious from superficial reading.
It is basically Wellsian philosophy, too, that gives science fiction its continuing values—a respect for intelligence, even a feeling for the brotherhood of intelligent species, no matter what their outward form, in sharing a common universe of evolutionary problems and challenges; and a sense that exploration, invention and discovery are the real concerns of mankind, rather than transitory cultural values.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Science Ficton in Perspective".