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How HG Wells invented the modern world

Wells was a prolific and visionary writer – but his major legacy is political.

Boon, HG Wells’s 24th novel, written and published in 1915 under the shadow of Ypres, the Dardanelles and the Lusitania, is a difficult book to enjoy. An apparently aimless melange of half-realised short stories, Platonic dialogues and sociological speculation, told to an authorial proxy by a modestly successful writer called George Boon, it was particularly disagreeable to one of its first readers.

Henry James, regarded by most of his peers as the greatest living writer in English, dropped in to the Reform Club in London on 5 July, where he collected a copy of the novel – a gift from its author, whom James had befriended in the 1890s. For James, a writer whose distinguishing feature was exceptional sensitivity to impressions, Boon’s fourth chapter, “Of Art, of Literature, of Mr Henry James” must have been a shock. It is a merciless attack on the Master, barbed with cruel similes: James’s writing is quintessentially superficial, like a “water-boatman as big as an elephant” that is “kept up by surface tension”; he populates his novels with “eviscerated people” like rabbits cleaned “for the table”, who “never make lusty love, never go to angry war, never shout at an election or perspire at poker”. His fiction, therefore, is much ado about nothing, like “a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost… upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den”.

Justifying his broadside in a subsequent letter to James, Wells set out their different programmes: “To you literature like painting is an end, to me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use.” James’s oft-cited response has had a longer and more potent afterlife than the messy work of fiction which occasioned it: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”

It is James who remains a canonical writer, and it was his philosophy – that fiction should be a morally serious representation of consciousness, privileging treatment and aesthetic form over theme and message, and making the reader work to access its subtleties – that shaped modernism, as well as the analytical methods of the emerging academic discipline of English literature. Wells, by contrast, is usually typecast as a pioneer of science fiction, neither more nor less.

However, as Adam Roberts shows in his engrossing study of Wells’s fiction and non-fiction, there are other sides to the story. Many critics have agreed with Wells’s own diagnosis that after his breach with James he became more of a journalist and teacher than a writer committed to the art of fiction. His fiction did become increasingly didactic and apparently hastily written (between 1895 and 1941 it was a thin year that did not see at least one new novel from Wells, often accompanied by one or more volumes of non-fiction). But Roberts warns us, wisely, not to take Wells’s rhetoric at face value: if we bother to read the novels that came after Boon and which have mostly been out of print, we can see he was more of a literary craftsman than even he cared to admit.

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To take perhaps the most difficult case, The World of William Clissold (1926) is a 900-page semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman that DH Lawrence dismissed as “simply not good enough to be called a novel”, but which shows Wells was highly attentive to aesthetics and structure. It is, Roberts says, “a whale of a novel: certainly impressive, surprisingly agile considering its bulk, but also containing a high proportion of blubber”. Yet on closer inspection he detects “a deliberate, quasi-crystalline design” that structures the narration of Clissold’s memories and his thoughts on social and political issues. As in the Jamesian novel that Wells claimed to reject, Clissold is preoccupied with the process of recollection and with how impressions, often formed in childhood, affect us in later life.

While taking a different approach to its great modernist predecessors, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27), it similarly shows Wells “self-consciously experimenting in the literary treatment of semi-autobiographical fiction”. In doing so, Wells produced some of his most vivid impressionistic prose, such as Clissold’s recollection of lying in a punt on a still, convex pool of “crystalline water” before wading in to pick some wild forget-me-nots, only to climb out and see his legs streaming in blood from cuts made by “the sharp blades of the sedge leaves”. Roberts comments that “this little memory establishes the paradigm for the whole of the novel”: safety lies in innocence and withdrawal, but decision and action lead to “laceration and trauma”.

Although he rejected and was rejected by modernism, Wells’s influence on the 20th-century novel was greater than is often assumed. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), for example, is deeply indebted to Wells’s science fiction, while The Secret Agent (1907) was dedicated to Wells and drew inspiration from his short story, “The Stolen Bacillus”. But, as in the cases of EM Forster’s Howards End (1910), Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Wells’s contemporaries often wrote in contradiction or exasperation rather than admiration.

Wells was born in 1866 to a humble, shopkeeping family (his mother was a former maid). His major legacy was political rather than fictional. George Orwell, whose novel Coming Up for Air (1939) bears the imprint of Wells on nearly every page, wrote in a classic essay in 1941 that, “Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells’s own creation… The minds of all of us, and therefore the physical world, would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed.”

Wells not only foresaw the tank, but claimed credit for inspiring its development. The Outline of History (1920) was one of the decade’s bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic. He interviewed Lenin and Stalin (as republished in the new book Statesmanship: The Best of the New Statesman, 1913-2019). He spent time with several US presidents and he influenced most of them from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. Winston Churchill once said that he knew Wells’s works so well he could pass an examination in them, and some of his most famous wartime phrases – “gathering storm”, “sunlit uplands” – derive from Wells. Wells coined the term “atom bomb” 30 years before one was actually constructed, and the League of Nations took from him its name as well as some of its visionary inspiration (expressed in another Wellsian coinage, “the war to end war”). In the 1940s, Wells became an early advocate of human rights, and drafted the Sankey Declaration, a precursor to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was a prophet in a double sense: he anticipated change, and created it.

But Wells also got many things wrong. In 1901 he predicted that the next major conflict would be fought on bicycles. His atom bombs in The World Set Free (1914) are nothing like the ones that were developed. He subscribed to a similar kind of techno-utopianism that afflicts today’s Silicon Valley innovators, arguing that more information (he foresaw an analogue version of Wikipedia, to be distributed by microfilm and aircraft) and more connectivity would mean a better society. Most importantly, his major political obsession did not come to pass. As Orwell observed, in nearly every Wells volume “one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past… On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses.”

Wells seems to have alternated between believing that the World State would emerge from an inevitable historical process, or that it could only come about from his writing and activism. But although the World State becomes something of a tedious ideé fixe in Wells’s writing, he also seems to have become aware that what he embraced as hygienic efficiency would, for most people, feel like tyranny. One of his final novels, The Holy Terror (1939), is, like Coming Up for Air, full of foreboding at the coming conflict. But where Orwell expects aerial bombardment and anti-fascists “smashing people’s faces in with a spanner”, Wells seems to be propagandising yet again for another war to end war, the necessary prelude to the sanity of global governance. However, Wells goes beyond his usual facile assumption that the World State would simply spring up when everyone got tired of fighting, and shows in detail how it might come about.

Rud Whitlow, the holy terror of the title, is a nasty boy who seizes the opportunities of populism and technological disruption to become world king. On one level he is the hideous means to a beneficial end, a sort of political Satan who is really part of a larger design. But Whitlow shows us that a draconian utopia is impossible without political murders, carpet-bombing and a secret police to suppress unorthodoxies such as ethnic nationalism and religion. The elderly Wells seems finally to have contemplated the reality of what he had urged for nearly four decades, and realised that the sunlit uplands were not as they appeared from a distance.


War of the Worlds: the recent BBC adaptation speaks to Wells’s reputation as a science fiction pioneer

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Another Wellsian coinage was “time machine”, and Roberts – a prolific author of science fiction, as well as a professor of Victorian literature – is good on Wells’s science fiction and utopian writing, although curiously A Modern Utopia (1905), one of the most important examples of his speculative fiction, is not discussed. It is impossible now to imagine science fiction without Wells, whose genius was to show that by shifting position in time or space familiar things look very different.

Roberts applies this principle to give us some brilliantly original rereadings of familiar works, showing for example that the unnamed narrator of The Time Machine (1895) may not be as reliable as is often assumed – in which case the interpretation of the Morlocks and the Eloi as representing labour and capital respectively may actually be the wrong way round. He justly hails The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) as the first great novel of the Darwinian “revolution in thought”, and one which has much to tell us today about the ethics of biotechnology. Roberts argues that the novel’s preoccupation with pain (Moreau chooses not to use anaesthetics) is there to show “that violence is simple where civilisation (negotiation, compromise, repression) is complicated”.

The value of Roberts’s book is not biographical, despite its position in Palgrave’s venerable Literary Lives series: he is happy to follow earlier biographers, especially Wells himself, rather than contribute original research. Instead, Roberts makes a compelling case for Wells’s continuing importance by reading him. Even the later fiction is often “fascinating and brilliant”, like his novella The Croquet Player (1936), which fashions a psychological East Anglian ghost story from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. And, to his credit, Roberts argues for Wells’s pre-eminence while being clear-eyed about the counter-argument.

Despite his support for votes for women and his candour about sex and suffragism in Ann Veronica (1909), which led to the novel’s ferocious reception – the Spectator judged it “capable of poisoning the minds of those who read it” – Wells can be accused of sexism in his writing and exploitation in his private sexual life. Roberts also sees homophobia in his portrait of Henry James in Boon. But it is Wells’s views on race that are most unsavoury. Readers today might be surprised to find a self-declared socialist and one-time member of the Fabians espousing scientific racism built on eugenics. In a notorious passage in Anticipations (1901), Wells contemplated the fate of “those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency”. His conclusion? “Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go… it is their portion to die out and disappear.”

Roberts quotes this and similar passages at length to convict Wells in his own words, and shows that it is no defence to claim (as some have) that he was merely anticipating a dark future: “What is unmistakable about this book, and immanent in every chapter of it, is the way it not only looks forward to, but actually yearns for, the supersession of one mode of political authority.”

What Roberts calls Wells’s “flirtations” with anti-Semitism are more complex. Wells was particularly troubled by the morality of capitalism but, as was depressingly common on the left in the years after the Second Boer War, he associated its extreme form, “Plutocracy”, with Jews. “It is said that the Jew is incurably a parasite on the apparatus of credit,” he wrote in Anticipations, and his portraits of capitalists in Tono-Bungay (1909) and The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman (1914) are casually anti-Semitic. As Roberts argues, the casualness is part of the problem: this kind of anti-Semitism is so habitual it does not need to be argued or explained.

It is something of a relief, then, to find Wells in the 1930s understanding, earlier than most, that such habits of thought are likely to have genocidal consequences. Within months of Hitler becoming German chancellor, Wells wrote in The Shape of Things to Come (1933) that his programme would be, “Massacre Jews, expel foreigners, arm and get more arms, be German, utterly German, and increase and multiply.”

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Do Wells’s unsavoury views justify the relative neglect of much of his work? Should he, in effect, be “no-platformed” for racism and other intellectual vices? As Roberts shows, to do so would be to miss a great deal of extraordinarily powerful writing in several genres. Wells is worth reading when he was wrong as well as when he was right. He should remind us that people who claim to represent progress can have distinctly regressive views. But his reputation as a prophet is, in many respects, justified. He saw his own time as one of technological disruption, populism and perilous financial complexity – but also of tremendous political and social opportunities that came from scientific discovery and the collapse of old orders. Roberts is an expert guide to the long literary career of this remarkable and strangely contemporary writer. l

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing